What's the ultimate test of overall strength?
Is it the bench press? Thousands of determined commercial gym warriors would certainly agree.
What about the deadlift? Many successful strength coaches argue it's the only true test of absolute strength.
I say, if you're going to crown a king of lifts, then the squat, in any form, reigns supreme.
Call me biased because it's my favorite lift, but there's just something wonderful about the squat. Maybe it's that rush of feared mixed with adrenaline you get as you grind out of the hole with what feels like a ton of iron on your back?
Or that indescribable feeling of internal pressure, where it seems like your eyes are going to pop out of their sockets like a scene from Total Recall as you struggle to stay tight and finish the lift?
Deadlifts are awesome, but if things go bad you can just drop the bar and be home in time for corn flakes. When you hit a sticking point in the squat it really is fight or flight.
Unfortunately, the squat is a complex lift and a lot can go wrong. Mess up and you can wreck you knees and fry your lower back.
While a little bit of form breakdown is par for the course at meets or during PR attempts, most of the time you need to abide by certain rules. This will ensure you get the most out of your squats while minimizing the chance of injury.
What Does a Good Squat Look Like?
While there are many forms of squatting, the best one for strength and size is a moderate to wide stance powerlifting squat. This recruits the most muscle mass and delivers the greatest gains.
Louie Simmons says there's virtually no difference in quad activity when comparing close and wide stance squats, but the hips, glutes, and hamstrings are worked much more in the wide stance.
The other matter is squat depth. You don't need to squat butt to calves to reap the benefits of size or strength. Go as low as you can while maintaining solid form. As your technique, mobility, and stability improves, feel free to squat down lower.
Here's a video from my personal squat training.
There are a few things I really try to focus on:
- Get my back extremely tight before the start of the lift, creating a shelf between the bar and back.
- Drive my elbows under the bar to activate the lats.
- Fill air into my lungs and push my belly out into my belt to stabilize the entire torso and create stability.
- Initiate the movement by unlocking the hips and sitting back to use the hips.
- Force the knees out aggressively by trying to spread the floor apart to keep the knees in good position.
- Keep the neck neutral, but eyes up.
- Get as deep as possible without losing low back position.
Note: If walking out a squat, make sure to take as few steps as possible; if using a mono lift get your stance first and then stand up with the weight.
If squatting with a close stance and the bar higher up on your back, the knees would come forward more and you'd have a more upright posture. In all variations you want to sit back, force the knees out, and keep the chest proud.
With that out of the way, here are my six secrets to develop a supreme squat!
1. Squat Deep
Squatting through a full range of motion is a great way to pack on size. The problem is, most people don't have the ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder mobility to maintain good position.
Here's a video of my favorite stretch to improve hip mobility and also teach people to force their knees out during a squat.
Use your elbows to pry open your thighs to get a real intense stretch in the adductors. Focus on forcing the chest up and keeping the spine in neutral. One common mistake is to sit up too straight. Try to mimic the same back angle as you would in a barbell squat. This can also be done on a box if you need help with balance.
Here's a quick video of one of my favorite warm up sequences that will help give you the necessary mobility to perform a deep squat. Do this as part of your pre-squat warm up to help open up the hips and activate the muscles in the hips and upper back.
Following are two drills that will improve shoulder mobility and activate the upper back muscles to aid in your squatting:
Prone Shoulder Series
I learned this series from Steve Maxwell and Jim "Smitty" Smith. Lifters that are tight might barely break their hands off the ground initially, but as the stabilizers in the shoulder get stronger and mobility improves, they should notice marked improvement. Keep the thumbs up to get more external rotation into the movement.
Floor Slides & Floor Angels
For tight lifters that can't get their hands down to the floor initially, you can stack warm-up mats on the floor and take them away as mobility improves. Try to press the elbows, hands, and wrists into the floor to open up the chest.
2. Force Your Knees Out
Forcing the knees out is a big part of performing a good squat. It's another way to get deeper since with the knees "out of the way" your body will have more room to drop down into the hole. It also keeps the knees in good position.
If you have trouble you may be squatting too wide for your current mobility; if using a close to moderate stance your external rotators and abductors might be weak.
Here are some of my favorite drills to teach the lifter to force the knees out as well as strengthen the glutes and hip musculature:
Low Box Squat Band Push outs
The band around the knees is a form of RNT (Reactive Neuromuscular Training). The band forces the knees into a valgus position, and the lifter must reactively force the knees out. If you don't have bands a coach can also provide manual resistance.
Lateral Band Monster Walks
This can be used as a warm up or during a recovery workout to help strengthen the muscles in the hips.
No bands? No problem. Try out the following hip series to strengthen the hip abductors, external rotators, and extensors. The goal is to keep as neutral a spine as possible.
Keep the core braced, breath through the belly, and squeeze the glutes. You can do this for reps or time. Try to perform 3-5 reps on each movement for 3-5 reps by your next squat workout. You'll feel your hips and glutes fire up immediately!
3. Develop Strength out of the Hole
The toughest part of the squat is coming out of the hole. This is the spot where it feels like the weight is going to push you forward and break you in half right before stapling what's left of your spine to the floor. This is also where it's most important to stay tight and be as explosive as possible.
A common mistake lifters make is bouncing out of the hole or off the box and relying on momentum to get them up instead of developing any true "out of the hole" strength. For that reason, it's important to perform bottom-strength assistance exercises that will kill any momentum.
I was introduced to pause squats by powerlifters Chris Taylor and John Bernor. Both these guys have squatted over 900 pounds in competition (John has done over 1,000 pounds) and this was their go-to supplemental lift after heavy squatting.
When John Bernor totaled 2,600 pounds in a meet he was doing pause squats for sets of five with 700 pounds, no belt or wraps. This gave him the starting strength out of the hole required to squat over a grand in a meet.
For pause squats, simply sit back into the hole and pause for 1 to 3 seconds before reversing the motion. This eliminates any bounces and forces the lifter to stay tight in the bottom and be explosive to finish the lift.
If training with a partner you can have them call your depth and count for you; if lifting alone I like to use a silent 3 count. By counting to three, no matter how fast you count, you usually end up pausing for at least one second.
This might not sound like a big difference, but an extra second in the hole can feel like an eternity when you have hundreds of pounds on your back!
Anderson squats are another great way to train power out of the hole. Since the weights are at a dead stop on the pins you must recruit a ton of muscle fibers just to get the bar moving. This is a great lift to develop insane starting strength while learning how to strain through sticking points in a lift. See video below.
This movement does wonders for developing starting power. Set up at normal squat height or slightly above parallel – going a touch higher makes it a lot easier to get into position and you still get a lot of carry over. Just don't get carried away and go too high!
Train your Quads
One often overlooked part of being strong out of the hole is strong quads. With all this talk about the posterior chain, let's not forget about the muscles in the front of your leg.
Knee extension is a vital part of squatting, so deep front squats and single-leg work can make a huge difference. Backwards sled dragging is another great option; if you don't have access to a sled, try backwards drags on a powered-off treadmill – a great way to smash your quads and get in some conditioning at the same time.
Here are some other great quad exercises that will assist your strength from the bottom: cross-arm or clean-grip front squats, goblet squats, and the log front squat (easy on the wrists since it requires a neutral grip). See video below.
Likewise, you can do Bulgarian split squats, and other single-leg movements such as the front loaded reverse lunge. See video below.
4. Get your Back Tight
Creating a shelf with the upper back is crucial for a strong squat, which starts with good shoulder mobility. The floor slides and shoulder series noted earlier offer a good foundation to start from, but if you're still having some problems remember to stay classy when you squat!
Keep your pinky out when you grab the bar – this will allow you to keep your wrists and shoulders in a better position. Wrap your thumb and grab the bar as normal and tuck your pinky under the bar. It takes a little getting used to, but this little tip can be a game changer for people with bad shoulders who want to squat with a straight bar.
Face pulls with external rotation is another great way to strengthen the upper back and rotator cuff while also training for more external rotation. I like to use a band for this as you can really "spread the band apart," working the rear delts as well. If you don't have bands a long triceps rope will do.
One piece of advice I learned from Mike Robertson is when performing face pulls with the triceps rope, grab the rope with the thumbs facing toward you. You'll be able to get into a better position with this grip.
It's also important to work the back isometrically to build the muscular endurance necessary for a heavy squat. Here are some of my favorite drills:
Snatch grip deadlift and Romanian deadlift variations, Zercher squats, and single-leg movements with a Zercher hold all work, as will any type of farmer's walk or heavy loaded carry.
Here's an example of a Zercher lift from suspension straps:
5. Push your Belly Out
Maintaining a rigid spine is of paramount importance once the bar gets heavy. A strong and stable core drastically reduces the risk of injury and allows for a better transfer of force into the ground, which means you're squatting more weight!
To effectively stabilize the core, the lifter must be able to breathe deep into their belly using their diaphragm. A good way to make sure you're breathing properly is to lie down on the ground and put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
When you take a deep breath, you should be able to push the hand on your belly up much higher than the one on your chest, and the front and sides of your stomach should expand along with your low back. This creates stiffness, like a natural weight lifting belt, which equates to more strength.
If you're still having trouble, try putting a weight plate on your stomach or wrap a band around your waist and try to get the object to rise up by breathing into your lower abs. See the video demonstration below.
6. Hit your Hamstrings Hard
For a big squat, it's important to train the hamstrings for both knee flexion and hip extension, which is why the glute ham raise is so popular among the Westside Barbell crowd.
Here are some of my favorite hamstring exercises to use with athletes:
Glute Ham Raise
Swiss Ball Leg Curls, Suspension Trainer Body Curls, and Slide Board Leg Curls versus Bands
These movements primarily work the knee flexion action of the hamstrings:
- Eccentric only natural GHR
- Band leg curls
- Dumbbell leg curls
- Partner-assisted manual leg curls
These movements primarily work the hip extension action of the hamstrings:
- 45-degree back extensions
- Back extensions
- Single-leg RDLs
- Rack pulls
Check out my Hardcore Hinge Movements article for more examples.
Let's recap the six secrets to a big squat:
- Squat as deep as you can without losing your arch.
- Sit back and force your knees out to maintain solid position and keep your knees healthy.
- Use special exercises and single-leg work to help your strength and power out of the hole.
- Get your back extremely tight.
- Push your belly out!
- Hit your hamstrings from different angles to aid in overall leg development and squat performance.
If you're trying to get bigger or stronger, incorporating a proper squat in your routine is a must. But understanding what constitutes "proper squats" and what's best described as "a gentle bending at the knees followed by a good morning" is step one. I hope this article has given you the tools to tweak your squat to perfection.