Your Squat Probably Sucks
Even if you can squat a lot of weight, you probably have technique issues. Most people have poor squat mechanics, often doing something that resembles a good morning more than a squat.
Their hips shoot up first out of the hole (from the bottom) making their torso bend forward, which overloads the back more than the legs. Some lifters also shift their bodyweight to one side or twist their hips. Then there's the problem of "squatting soft." Many lifters unrack the bar and then fail to create whole body tension.
Instead of chasing numbers, first optimize your squat mechanics and body rigidity. You can do that by learning the dead-start Frankenstein squat. It's a front squat where you don't use your hands, and you start the lift from the bottom position.
What's it good for? Several things:
- It drills perfect squatting form. It won't allow you to shoot your hips up. If you do, you'll drop the bar forward. You can't twist your way up or shift your weight to one side because the bar will roll off.
- It makes you super strong out of the hole. By starting from a dead-start (from pins), you're unable to rely on the stretch reflex or bounce, so you become better at producing force when starting your squat. Bonus benefit: It'll transfer well to the deadlift, too.
- It's the best way to develop your ability to create tension in your core when squatting. Most people can establish core tension at the top of the lift, but they tend to lose it when they reach the bottom. This squat variation programs your nervous system to tighten the core to start the squat because it's impossible to do a heavy dead-start Frankenstein squat with a soft core.
- It strengthens the catch position of a clean if you're an Olympic weightlifter. A lot of lifters miss heavy cleans because they lose tightness in the bottom position. This exercise is the best way to get stronger in that phase of the lift.
- It's the purest form of squat for the legs. It's especially effective for people with long limbs who get mostly glutes, hamstrings, and lower back development from regular squats.
- It increases flexibility. Over time it'll also help improve hip mobility, especially the capacity to reach a full range of motion under maximal tension.
- Set the bar on the safety pins in a power rack. The height of the pins should be such that you're in the full squat position or maybe 1 inch out of the hole.
- Get under the bar and set it on top of your collarbone. Extend your arms in front of you. The arms should be at a slight upward angle so the bar rests on your delts.
- Establish tension before initiating the rep. Screw your feet into the floor (try to rotate them externally), grab the floor with your toes, and tense your abs hard as if you're about to get punched in the stomach.
- Stand up. Keep the torso solid. Don't bend forward or shift your weight onto the toes. If it happens, you'll feel the bar rolling forward.
- Lower the bar slowly. This is important. Overemphasize the lowering portion.
- Don't rush your setup. It's not comfortable setting up under a low-positioned bar, but if you don't take the time to position yourself correctly you risk an injury and won't have good transfer to your other lifts.
- Don't neglect to create tension before lifting the weight. This is about the worst thing you can do on any form of squatting or deadlifting, but it's even worse on this lift since its main purpose is to train your capacity to produce tension in the bottom position.
- Don't shoot your hips out first. It'll be a natural tendency for those who can't (or don't) establish tension before lifting. The torso angle should stay the same throughout most of the lift. You can't bend forward much, but you can still get away with some bending. We don't want that. Initiate the squat by lifting your chest up.
- Come to a dead stop between reps. When doing multiple reps, going straight up into your next rep (or rebounding on the pins) defeats the purpose. The goal is to start every rep from a dead start. Lower the bar down to the pins, reset, establish tension, and lift.
Low reps are best. The two most effective methods are clusters and 3/2/1 waves.
Clusters are a perfect fit because they allow you to stand up between reps, reset properly, and start every rep from a good position. It also happens to be the most effective method to build strength in the intermediate and advanced lifter.
A cluster is a set in which all the reps are separated by a brief rest period. Normally we're talking about 10 to 20 seconds. This pause lets you to recover a bit between reps, allowing you to hit a few more reps with a specific weight. This causes greater fatigue in the muscle fibers, an important growth stimulus.
Clusters are also effective because they give you a lot of "first reps." When you do a big lift, the first rep is pretty much always harder than the second and even third rep (unless you're in the 92-100% range). A lot of people rely on the first rep to get everything right, but if you're a powerlifter or weightlifter you only have that first rep, so you want to be efficient. Clusters make every rep a "first rep" because you reset and set-up before every repetition.
Five or 6 reps work best. That would mean using a weight you could normally lift about 3 times in a regular set. Three to five sets of 5 to 6 reps works well.
This method builds limit strength and some size. It relies on 2-4 "waves" of 3 sets each. A set of 3 reps is followed by a heavier set of 2 reps and then by a final single rep.
If you successfully complete all reps in the wave, you start a new wave that's heavier. Normally the new wave's set of 3 uses the same weight you used for the previous wave's set of 2 reps. You stop when you can't complete a set, or know there's no way you'll get the next set completed.
Normally, the first wave is fairly conservative. The second wave is challenging but doable. Completing a third wave would have you lift a weight close to your 1RM. Completing 4 waves should be extremely rare and would lead you to a PR in the lift.
Here's an example of what a wave look like, assuming a 365-pound 1RM.
- 1 x 3, 285 pounds
- 1 x 2, 305 pounds
- 1 x 1, 325 pounds
- 1 x 3, 305 pounds
- 1 x 2, 325 pounds
- 1 x 1, 345 pounds
- 1 x 3, 325 pounds
- 1 x 2, 345 pounds
- 1 x 1, 365 pounds
- 1 x 3, 335 pounds
- 1 x 2, 355 pounds
- 1 x 1, 375 pounds
As soon as you fail to make a rep or have a significant technical breakdown, stop and move on to the next exercise.
It's best used as an assistance exercise for the front squat, back squat, or deadlift. It has a significant impact on all three of these lifts, so it could be done as a secondary movement right after finishing the main lift. For example:
- A – Deadlift: 5 sets of 3 at 87.5%
- B – Dead-Start Frankenstein Squat: 4 sets of 5-6 cluster reps
If you train your squat twice a week, it can also be used as your main lift in a workout. In that case, the actual squat would be trained in the first session and the Frankenstein would be your main lift in your second squat workout.
It can also be a great way to teach the squat to a beginner since most of them have a hard time staying upright and keeping the core tight. Doing 3 sets of 5 reps, 2-3 times a week with moderate weights, will greatly improve form.
Whether you're a beginner or veteran, be patient. It takes about three sessions to become comfortable with this lift.