You don't need a ton of different movements and techniques to improve your squat. Here are the most effective ways to do it.
1 – Back Squat, High Frequency
Your body adapts to the demands placed on it, so if you want to improve your squat you better be squatting. The back squat can actually be trained very frequently, almost daily, with two to three times a week being ideal for most people. Those who say you can't squat that frequently don't understand proper programming. Luckily for them, there's a sample training block below.
To improve strength and size you should use a variety of rep ranges. As for squat style, the low-bar squat gives you the best leverage to allow you to use the most weight and to recruit the most amount of muscle, so master it first.
2 – Reverse Band Squat
The reverse band squat provides an overload effect allowing you to get a feel for handling more weight. Basically, the bands assist you at the bottom of the squat but "it's all you, bro" as you near the top coming back up.
All you need is a set of bands and a power rack. Choose a band tension that'll allow you to handle around 15-20% over your max back squat at the top. If your max squat is 425, use a band tension that'll allow you to squat between 490 and 510. It doesn't have to be exact. Squats with reverse bands can be trained with a variety of reps, anywhere between 1-10 reps.
How you attach your bands to the rack will depend on how tall your rack is. If it's a short rack, use a doubled lighter band. Loop one end around the bar, then over the top of the rack and back to the bar:
If it's a taller rack, use a slightly heavier band, but one end will be choked around the top of the rack, the other will be looped around the bar:
The goal is to have the bands provide as little tension at the top as possible, but not be totally loose from the bar.
Chains provide the reverse effect: the squat gets harder as you come back up. It's another great option if you have access to the equipment. More info see Accommodating Resistance.
3 – Paused Squat
Take a full two-second pause, below parallel. There's nothing better for building strength in the hole. By pausing in the hole you take away the benefit of the stretch reflex at the bottom of the squat, making it much harder.
Pause squats are also great for building correct positions in the hole and they require you to control the weight much more on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift which contributes to overall strength and technique improvement. A set can get quite long so 1-5 reps for this variation is adequate.
4 – Pin Squat
Adjust the pins of the power rack so that when the bar is setting on the pins you're just below parallel. The goal during the eccentric portion is to control the weight so that the bar is set lightly on the pins at the bottom, no clanging or bouncing allowed.
This effort to set the bar on the pins lightly will help you build great control of the weight as well as increase time under tension, both of which develop strength. Once you get the bottom, deload the weight fully onto the pins, but don't allow the bar to come completely off of your back. After a quick pause on the pins, explode up.
Similar to the pause squat, a set of pin squats can get quite long because of the control required to set the weight on the pins lightly and the pause at the bottom, so 1-5 reps would suffice.
5 – No-Belt Squat
A belt helps you increase intra-abdominal pressure so that you can brace your core under heavy loads. But by training without a belt you have to learn how to brace your core on your own. When you put that belt back on, heavy loads will IMMEDIATELY feel lighter.
Training without a belt also prepares us for real life. When the zombie apocalypse comes and you have to put something heavy on your back and lift it, you're probably not going to have a squat belt with you.
Aim to leave at least 1-2 reps in the tank. Keep the reps between 3-10. Many lifters actually find it easier to perform higher rep squats without a belt because it's easier to breath between reps. You can perform any of the four exercises above without a belt.
Sets and Self-Regulation
Percentages and set volumes based off your PRs may be too heavy some days. Maybe you were up all night partying. Maybe your six-month old baby screamed all night long. If you train with percentages based on current PRs, it may create more fatigue than necessary and keep you from coming back to your next session fully recovered. Autoregulate instead.
Autoregulation means letting your body tell you if you need an easier training day or if it's a day to try for a PR. This takes some practice. You must listen to your body, not your brain that says, "I need to hit a PR today." There are two ways to autoregulate.
Autoregulation Method 1: Work up to a heavy set on a given exercise for a certain number of reps, always leaving one rep in the tank. Then do "down" sets (lighter sets) at a given percentage of your top set of the day. Let's say you're supposed to work to a heavy set of 5, then perform down sets. Here's what a workout might look like:
Example: Back Squat
- Bar x 10
- 135 x 5
- 185 x 3
- 225 x 2
- 275 x 1
- 295 x 5 (more than 1 rep in the tank)
- 315 x 5 (roughly 1 rep in the tank)
- 290 x 5 (around 92% of top set, more than 1 rep in the tank)
- 290 x 5 (still more than 1 rep in the tank)
- 290 x 5 (roughly 1 rep in the tank, workout ends)
Most lifters have a rough idea of what they can squat for a set of 5 reps. Don't go straight to that weight, but perform 1-2 feeler sets first. Use them to gauge what you're capable of on that day. It might be more than you think and it might be less. To determine how big of a drop you should take for your drop sets, use these guidelines:
- For sets in the 7 to 10 rep range, perform drop sets at 90-92% of top set.
- For sets in the 4 to 6 rep range, perform drop sets at 92-94% of top set.
- For sets in the 1 to 3 rep range, perform drop sets at 94-96% of top set.
Autoregulation Method 2: Work up to a weight where you think you could do 2-3 more reps. Perform sets with that weight until you feel like you only have one rep left in the tank. This is a great way to do squats without a belt. Here's an example:
Example: Pin Squats, No Belt
- Bar x 10
- 135 x 5
- 185 x 3
- 225 x 1
- 255 x 4 (probably more than 3 reps in the tank)
- 275 x 4 (feels like 2-3 reps in the tank, first work set)
- 275 x 4 (more than 1 rep left in the tank)
- 275 x 4 (more than 1 rep left in the tank)
- 275 x 4 (probably 1 rep left in the tank, workout ends)
Here's a four-week training block designed to increase size and strength. Squatting can be done with higher frequency, so for this program you'll squat three times per week using a different rep range and movement each day. The workouts should be performed on non-consecutive days, so Monday, Wednesday, Friday, etc.
- Day 1: Back Squat – Build to a heavy set of 8 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 90-92% of top set and perform sets of 8 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 2: Pin Squats, No Belt – Build to a set of 4 with 2-3 reps in the tank. Perform sets of 4 with same weight until 1 rep left in the tank.
- Day 3: Back Squat with Chains – Build to a heavy set of 2 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 94-96% of top set and perform sets of 2 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 1: Back Squat – Build to a heavy set of 5 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 92-94% of top set and perform sets of 5 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 2: Pause Squats, No Belt – Build to a set of 3 with 2-3 reps in the tank. Perform sets of 3 with same weight until 1 rep left in the tank.
- Day 3: Reverse Band Squat – Built to a heavy set of 7 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 90-92% of top set and perform sets of 7 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 1: Pause Squat – Build to a heavy set of 2 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 94-96% of top set and perform sets of 2 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 2: Back Squat, No Belt – Built a set of 8 with 2-3 reps left in the tank. Perform sets of 8 with same weight until 1 rep left in the tank.
- Day 3: Back Squat with Chains – Build to a heavy set of 4 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 92-94% of to set and perform sets of 4.
- Day 1: Back Squat – Build to a heavy set of 3 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 94-96% of top set and perform sets of 3 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 2: Pin Squat – Build to a heavy set of 5 with 1 rep in the tank. Drop to 92-94% of top set and perform sets of 3 until 1 rep in the tank.
- Day 3: Reverse Band Squat, No Belt – Build to a set of 7 with 2-3 reps in the tank. Perform sets of 7 with the same weight until 1 rep left in the tank.
Remember, to improve your squat, train the squat! You can't be wishy-washy about it. Train it often, but use autoregulation to keep you fresh, recovered, and consistent.