You don’t know squat
I’m not a writer. I’m a gym owner with a passion for developing performance using strength and conditioning. I find this process painful, trying to put my thoughts into words; almost as painful as it is for Em to proofread, I’m sure. BUT, I know things, and I want to share this knowledge with the intention of improving your health and fitness using exercise and nutrition as my sword and shield (I don’t know), so here we go.
Squats. You’re doing them right.
My starting point for this post is that no two people are built the exact same way. Femur length, pelvis width and length, spinal extension range, and the obtainable angle at your ankle, knee and hip, will all vary from person to person (among other useless anatomical references that make it sound like I know what I’m talking about). Because of these fantastic (I love how everyone is so different) anomalies, no one squats the same, so to claim that there is a correct and an incorrect way to squat is difficult to justify.
Do you want to squat more?
Of course you do.
You’re an idiot if you don’t.
“But coach, you said we all squat differently, how are you going to fix us all?”
Now, although we’ve established that there is no one-size-fits-all squat, there are still a few simple and general rules that will help any body (femur quirks and all) on its squatting crusade.
It’s easy really; gradually increase your exposure to the movement (any movement!) in order to become stronger and more efficient at that movement. This does not mean start a Russian Squat cycle; this means, depending on your exercise experience, squat once or twice more in a week. Keep in mind that squat cycles are for giants who are trying to go from 750lb to 755lb. If you start a squat cycle, you’ll get really strong really quickly and then lose 90% of that progress immediately upon completion of the program (and that’s assuming that you haven’t broken both knees before this point). One additional, sub-maximal squat session a week is enough of an increase to spark some adaptation.
If you train them to be stronger individually, you’ll train them to be stronger together. Add in some single-leg strength work to build those suckers independently, and your squat will definitely thank you for it. Some of my favourites are:
- High-box step-ups: mimic a deep squat position and force each leg to work in isolation, preventing you from being able to bias your stronger leg. Great in a warm-up.
- Single-leg glute bridges: similar to step-ups, but a little easier to execute and control.
- Lunges & spilt squats: don’t do these all the time, but adding in some split stance squatting will definitely carry over in to squatting. Have a similar format to the above….why are they good?
Variance & being like the power lifter
Back squat, front squat, box squat, banded squat, pause squats, tempo squats, squatting 50% of your 1RM with a sandbag for 20 reps…..I could go on and on. But instead I’ll direct you to watch a Youtube squat session by the power lifters at Westside. These guys are, without a doubt, the best squatters in the game and they don’t even perform the typical full back squat that often. Instead, they vary the type of squat, stance, bar, and depth, and demonstrate that, by breaking the full movement down into partial lifts, your squat will not suffer (quite the opposite actually!) Now, assuming that you’re not a power lifter and that you don’t have the time to dedicate your training solely to squatting, swapping your regular back squat session for a different variety of squat will force you to recruit slightly different squat muscles. The more squat muscles you recruit and strengthen, the bigger your base and the better your squat.
A large part of what is being tested when you place a heavy load on your shoulders and try to move is your core. If you do not posses the central integrity to support your position under load, you’re seriously limiting how much weight you can move and you’re increasing your risk of injury. It’s important to learn how to brace the core, and this means tightening your abdominal muscles and maintaining this tension whilst moving and whilst breathing. Exercises like dead bugs are perfect for training and practicing this skill.
If you can’t comfortably sit at the bottom of a squat unloaded, it makes sense that you are going to struggle when you begin to add load, right? When a movement is hindered with a mobility issue, it automatically becomes more expensive. For example, if you have a mobility restriction of 10% on your squat, every rep you do is 10% more taxing than it should be. So, depending on your level of mobility, developing your efficiency of movement may be just as important as developing your strength of movement. I recommend multi-tasking and build some squat mobility exercises into your warm-up. After training or on a rest day, include rolling or stretching exercises aimed at developing squat range of motion (these aren’t ideal to do before training, as they promote relaxation and lengthening of muscle fiber and supporting structure).
Understanding movement & having kinetic awareness
Just because our bodies are constantly in motion, does not mean that we are good at moving (that is a whole new rabbit hole to dive down!) For a number of reasons, having kinetic awareness, or understanding the position of ones body in time and space, doesn’t come easily for every body, but is a skill that can and needs to be practiced and continually challenged (regardless of how good you think you are). Yes, this ties back into mobility a little, but it also includes accessory exercises, which help to support and increase the main lift or task at hand. For example, adductor and hip rocks help the squat by training the muscles supporting the hip to control the body at a particular point during the squat. Not only perform, but understand the smaller movements that are happening when you squat; spend time developing each one so that mind and body are on the same page, they know the task well, including the proper, strongest and safest execution. Again, perfect the building blocks to build a stronger base.
Although we are all very different in body and in squat, general squat rules will definitely help you to improve yours. However, to truly maximize your squatting output (or any other movement for that matter), find a good coach (cough cough) who can help you to identify your unique deficiency and can prescribe a fix. But beware – this is not for the faint-hearted. Acknowledging and addressing ones own weaknesses is usually quite unglamorous, tedious, and sometimes boring, BUT is extremely admirable and beneficial. I am telling you - this is the stuff that separates the men from the boys, the wonder women from the normal women without any super powers – and if you want to step up your game, holla at me.