Photo Credit: Gavin Simpson
There's nothing like a good challenge to increase your work capacity and let you know what you're made of. Of course, you don't want to crush yourself every time you hit the gym and it's certainly best to spend the majority of your training following a well thought-out, reasonable program. If all you do is random challenges where you're constantly beating the crap out of yourself, your training will quickly deteriorate into the dreaded "C" word, and by that I mean clusterfuck, not necessarily CrossFit.
But every now and again it's fun to ditch the script, put on your big-boy panties, and just unleash hell. After all, how do you know what your limits are if you never push them? That being said, gym challenges need rules because there's a very fine line between pushing yourself hard and being reckless. The former will teach you a lot about yourself; the latter will get you hurt. I'm all for hard training, but you still need to be smart about it.
With that in mind, it's best to choose self-limiting exercises whereby there's far less potential for form breakdown, so instead of testing yourself with things like Olympic lifts, barbell deadlifts, and back squats, think front squats, sleds, farmer's walks, etc.
I'm going to share four front-squat challenges in this article, and they aren't for the faint of heart. Before you begin, you'll want to start the workout off with a squat-specific warm-up to prepare yourself for what's to come. Get in the bottom position of the squat with your hands pressed together like you're praying and your elbows touching the inside of your knees so you can push your knees out and get a good stretch in your groin and hips. Now, while you're down there, cough five times. That should help get all the sand out of your you-know-what. Now you're ready to rock.
Dan John recently shared a "fun" challenge where you back squat your bodyweight 50 times in a single set without racking the bar. I used to do something similar back in college where I'd try and see how many times I could squat my bodyweight (at the time I was hell-bent on getting 100 reps but my best was 67 reps with 170 pounds). These days I tend to favor the front squat to the back squat, especially when I'm pushing myself to the brink because holding the bar in front helps keep form in check. Having the bar on your back allows you to grind out ugly rep after ugly rep, but with the front squat, you'll just end up dumping the bar if your form slips and you start to lean forward too much.
It'd be damn near impossible to hold the bar for a 50-rep front squat in one continuous set unless I used paltry weight. So to adapt the challenge to the front squat, I changed the rules and set off to complete 50 front squats in four minutes. You can break it up into as many sets as you want and you can choose your rest intervals. The clock starts when you unrack the bar for the first set and ends when you rack the bar after completing your 50th rep. If you're the type that enjoys watching other suffers, here's a video of me completing the challenge.
Start with a weight you could squat for about 25-30 reps (i.e. very light) with the ultimate goal of completing all 50 reps with your bodyweight on the bar. Once you achieve that, to step it up even further and eliminate the need to fuss around with a lot of small plates, use the following weight guidelines that I borrowed from Dan John's back squat challenge:
- Bodyweight 135 pounds and under: Use 135
- Bodyweight 136-185 pounds: Use 185
- Bodyweight 186-205 pounds: Use 205
- Bodyweight over 205: Use 225
The key is to work on your pacing so you don't blow your load too early. I originally set this as a 5-minute challenge and gradually worked down to 4 minutes, so it may be wise for you to do that too.
Do one set of squats on the minute for 10 minutes, for a total of 10 sets. Keep the weight constant and do the same amount of reps on each set. Set a timer and start each set promptly on the minute. Your rest after each set is however much time is left in the minute. How many reps you decide to do in each set is up to you. Low reps are easier than high reps in the sense that you get longer rest periods, but they're harder in the sense that you'll be using heavier weight. I personally do 5 reps per set because I find it's a happy medium.
Start by putting your bodyweight on the bar and trying to complete 5 reps in all 10 sets. If you don't get all 5 on every set, keep the weight the same until you can. From there, strive to complete all 50 reps with 1.25 times your bodyweight on the bar.
This one is simple, but it's anything but easy. You've surely done a wall sit before, right? Take that and multiply it by 1,000 and you've got a front squat iso hold. Get in the bottom position of a front squat just before the point where your hamstrings touch your calves and hold it for as long as possible. Be sure to do these in a power rack so you can dump the bar on the pins when you're done. Start with 95 pounds on the bar until you can hold it for at least 30 seconds, at which point you can move up to 135 pounds on the bar. From there, try to increase the duration of the holds. Anything over 30 seconds with 135 is damn respectable.
I'd recommend doing these at the end of your workout because your legs won't have much left afterwards. Interestingly, after doing these at the end of my lower body workouts twice a week for six weeks last summer, my front squat form felt much better and I felt a lot stronger coming out of the hole, so these have value beyond just as a challenge.
About ten years back Dan John shared the idea of Tabata front squats. I wish I'd never read that article because of course I tried it and I was hooked. The protocol calls for doing 20 seconds of front squats, resting 10 seconds, and repeating it 8 times, with the stipulation being that you can't drop below 8 reps on any of the sets. So in total you end up doing 70+ front squats. The whole thing lasts just 3 minutes and 50 seconds in theory, but it's really about a half-hour workout because you end up spending the other 26 minutes trying to catch your breath!
Dan John originally shared this as fat loss protocol, but I prefer to just use it occasionally as a good gut check with the goal being to see how heavy I can go and still complete the challenge.
Be strict with the rest intervals, which is much easier said than done when you're in the heat of it. Those 10-second rest intervals feel like a blink of the eye and it's almost like the clock is giving you the finger. Some people get all huffy when you refer to something as a Tabata that doesn't exactly replicate the original Tabata protocol. I couldn't care less about what something is called, but if that bothers you, feel free to call them 20:10 front squats, Dan John front squats, or just do what we've done with a bunch of other exercises and name it after some Eastern European country.