The Pillars Part 2: The Squat
Powerlifting meets may, popularly, not start till the bar hits the floor. But if you want to deadlift… and you want to pull to win… everything starts with the squat. For any athlete who would train to dominate his sport and opposition, the lower body power and mass afforded an athlete by the squat is undeniable. And if the lifter desires mass and hugeness and general importance in society, the alternatives to squatting pale in comparison.
Have you ever been impressed with someone’s reason for why they can’t squat? Or more importantly, does anybody ever require an explanation for an amazing squat?!?!
Being generally alpha starts in the squat rack. Whether you look to win in the gym, at a meet, on the football field or in situations that don’t require pants, there is squatting… and then there is everything else.
Now, depending on your pursuits, different versions of the squat may be used. The bar may be placed high up on the traps, where the lifter may keep his torso erect, or the bar may be placed low on the rear delts, allowing the lifter to lean forward and utilize more the strength of his back and glutes. The lifter may wear flat shoes or heeled shoes, stand with a close or wide stance, and squat to just below parallel or all the way to the floor. But when the name of the game is powerlifting, the ONLY thing that matters is the weight on the bar. The weight you can lower yourself under, break parallel, and recover to a standing position with is the only thing that determines your worth and place among your competition. Where football players, Olympic weightlifters and athletes requiring lower body power use the squat as a means to an end, powerlifters must combine pure brute strength and power with the technique and leverage that will maximize the weight on the bar.
With that said, we can begin to examine how to get under the bar and start partying. Because as powerlifters, we can build the squat up with exercises that build the strength of the agonists—or the muscles that are the prime movers of the weight—and we can train the squat with squat variations that build up our technique and leverages. And often, as powerlifters know, the muscles that are generally “stabilizers” in the squat, can in fact contribute tremendously to the lifter’s overall weight moving capabilities. So let us now look at a few select squatting exercises, that, when trained individually and progressed significantly, will ultimately lead to a bigger powerlifting-style squat.
HIGH BAR SQUAT (OLYMPIC SQUAT)
Olympic-style weightlifters and athletes choose the high bar back squat because it is the single best exercise for building the strength of the quads and glutes. It is performed with the bar placed high up on the traps and with the torso in a generally upright position. The lifter should squat down, bending the knees maximally, until the lifter has descended to his maximum depth and then recover. By staying in an upright posture and squatting through the maximum range of motion, the lifter forces the legs to build up maximal strength, size and flexibility. These benefits are not only massive for the non-powerlifter, but can be utilized with extreme effectiveness for the powerlifter. A powerlifter can widen his stance to utilize the hips and control his range of motion, lower the bar to his rear delts as well as lean forward to better leverage the back, but if he adds more overall strength to his legs, he will aways have the capacity to squat more.
And it becomes important to think of it in terms of capacity. Every relevant squat the lifter trains and subsequently strengthens will raise that lifter’s CAPACITY to squat bigger in the powerlifting style.
Training the Olympic style back squat can be done in a few ways. First it can be trained after the lifter trains his competition style squat. This way he can use it to build power and mass in the legs if that is limiting his competition squat. Secondly, it can be trained in a non-competition phase or block of training as the main squat in the lifter’s training regimen. As stated before it’s the best for the overall development of the quads and glutes. This means the lifter can develop pure strength but also benefit by removing the competition style squat from their training for a while. The high bar squat can’t be performed as heavy as the low bar squat, so the lifter can lighten the loads he trains with while still benefiting from training with a high intensity as defined by the percentage of a one rep max a weight represents. This can refresh the lifter after a strenuous competition phase or essentially act as a deload if a lifter has been injured or otherwise held back from their training.
The front squat is a personal favorite of mine. It has the greatest carryover to athletic power, is a necessity for Olympic weightlifters, and can really allow a lifter to overload his quads. “Racking” a bar across the chest can be done with the weight resting in the lifter’s hands as an Olympic lifter would receive a clean, or it can be supported on the chest with the arms crossed and the fingers holding it in place. For the powerlifter’s purposes, it doesn’t matter, so the style which allows for easier execution of the rack position will let the lifter squat with the biggest poundages.
Properly done, squatting with the bar across the chest will provide tremendous loading of the quads, torso and upper back. Aside from dually carrying over strength to the competition squat AND the deadlift, the front squat can offer lifters with long legs--who may tend toward hip and lower back dominant squatting—the chance to strengthen the legs and not have the stronger muscle groups consistently take over when the weights are challenging.
I prefer to train the front squat on its own day of the week, as I consider it that important and fundamental of a lift. I like to train it for reps, generally about three sets of 5-8 reps. I’ll also add a heavy set to the end of most of these days, maybe for 2-3 reps.
LOW BAR SQUAT
The low bar squat is ideally the form of the squat that can allow the lifter to lift the largest weight in competition due to the leverage advantages that come from supporting the bar low on the rear delts and standing with a widened stance. Because in powerlifting the lifter only needs to hit parallel, these positions add leverage to the lower back and glutes, reduce the range of motion of the bar and allow the adductors and glutes to add additional strength. Now this is not to say that at any point in time a lifter will be strongest in this stance/setup. If they’ve not used it much then it’s not likely the muscles I just mentioned have been strengthened to truly realize the benefits afforded by this setup.
So to include the low bar stance in training is done first as the main squat because if trained consistently it uses the greatest bar weights. This is good for mass and strength gain especially if the lifter is coming from an Olympic style squat preference where the hips were not emphasized as much. Also, this is a necessity if the lifter plans to compete this way. So in the end, technique is paramount here, but strength is also trained by this stance.
Because the technique is so crucial to this lift, I like to keep the volume of heavy lifting in this stance limited to what can be done with minimal form breakdown. If I stop using my quads enough then I will rely on supplemental high bar squats and front squats to build that volume into my training after the low bar squats.
But if the execution seems out of balance and isn’t related to strength, then the next two exercises are the two I look to as more of technique building than any others…
The concept of the paused squat is simple. For a raw lifter, there is nothing to stop you and propel you upward at the bottom of the squat other than you and your own ass! So it’s crucial that you spend as much time down there as possible—that’s right: the more time you are in position at the bottom of the lift, the more comfortable you will be with maintaining proper squat mechanics through the lift and the more strength you’ll generally have at reversing yourself to begin the recovery from the squat position.
Now there are two ways to perform the paused squat. The first way is to build strength. Execute the lift with either a high or low bar position and either a wide or medium stance—whichever stance will address your weaknesses or needs best. Squat to proper depth, hold for 2-5 seconds and then blast up to the top. You should think of it as lowering yourself and coiling up until it’s time, then trying to accelerate the weight AlL THE WAY TO THE TOP as though you are trying to jump and the bar is just there in your way. It’s not as effective to simply recover past the sticking point and then cruise to the top. This tends to allow the lifter to rely on back strength instead of initiating with the hips and keeping the quads powering the lift all the way through.
The second way to implement the paused squats is as a drill. Whether you’re front squatting, low bar squatting or high bar squatting, pausing in the hole during your warmups is a great way to practice tightening up and getting a good feel for the position you will need to move into and out of athletically under strenuous loads later. Especially where the lifter is not mobile, pausing under a light weight lets them essentially stretch out and tighten the erectors and hip flexors against the weight. This is an excellent way to get better at the lifts. Use your warmups to drill technique—don’t just rush to get through them!
ONE AND A HALF REPS
A one and a half rep, as I call it, is a rep where you squat down, drive up explosively about 2/3 of the way, pause, squat down again, and then recover back to the standing position. So again this plays on the idea that with raw squats and lifts in general, the challenge of the lift is the bottom and then the middle, but the top is not usually the problem. So in this lift you benefit by practicing a strong initial acceleration first—so often a lifter will “wait to see how the rebound feels” before they then initiate their leg drive instead of assertively exploding straight out of the hole on a squat. But I would argue that if you do not generate maximum force during the first half of the squat that you will never lift to your true potential. A sprinter will only run his best sprint if the first 10 meters are the fastest. I’d argue that once you’ve begun to stand up you will never “forget” to try to stand up. But if you did not focus on getting your maximum hip and leg drive into the first half of the lift that once you do begin to strain as much as possible that it will be too late to go back and complete a perfect lift. So if the lift starts explosively you give yourself a chance to lift to your potential, but if you start out of position then you will NOT lift to your full potential.
The second benefit of the half rep is that when you pause at the half way up or two thirds of the way up point you will immediately feel if the position you are in is too bent over—you’ll feel too much weight in the back and when you descend into the second rep you’ll feel the weight as very heavy—or you will feel your thighs underneath you, in proper position to be the prime movers throughout the lift. So therefore the paused squat offers a tremendous benefit to the lifter as a technique drill. These should be utilized in the warmups as well. These will prepare you to be balanced and explosive with the real weights!
So in summary, the high bar squat and front squat build power in the legs, glutes and erectors—the agonists or powerhouses of the squat. The low bar wide stance squat allows for additional loading of the hips, adductors and low back and potentially offers the lifter with the greatest potential for big lifts. And the one and a half squat and paused squats primarily allow the lifter to strengthen the technique of the lift. If you use all these in your training and improve upon all of them, you will be consistently able to progress your competition squat!