There’s a rivalry in the iron world between the Olympic lifters and the powerlifters as to who’s stronger. This argument has invariably led to the two camps debating which one squats more and who has the better style of squatting. The reality is this is like the old cliché of comparing apples to oranges.
A Little Background
First, Olympic lifters don’t compete in the squat. They use it as an assistance exercise to aid in their competition lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk.
While it’s true that certain lifters routinely “max out” on their squats, it’s done without emotional arousal and usually without assistive gear, with the exception of maybe a belt. Soviet weightlifters routinely used weights between 75-85% of their 1RM’s to improve their competition lifts.
Second, for the most part, Olympic squats and powerlifting squats are completely different animals from the ground up. We’ll start with the Olympic squat.
The Olympic Squat
The Olympic squat (or back squat as it’s known in Olympic lifting circles), is categorized as a high bar squat. The bar is placed on top of the traps, on the shelf created by retracting the shoulder blades between the upper trapezius and the middle trapezius. The torso is relatively upright during both the descent and the ascent of the lift.
The feet are positioned somewhere between straight ahead and externally rotated 15 degrees and set approximately shoulder-width apart. The hands are placed in the same position as in the clean; in the case of the heavyweights and superheavies, sometimes slightly wider.
Unlike the powerlifting squat, Olympic lifters stay relatively relaxed under the bar, preferring a “long spine” position where they lengthen from the crown of the head to the coccyx. They use high-tension techniques sparingly. These squats are performed relatively fast with a quick, yet controlled eccentric and an explosive concentric action.
This matches the sporting need of the lifter to pull himself under the bar and recover the lift quickly. Too much tension will slow him down and cause him to miss the lift.
The Powerlifting Squat
The powerlifting squat is about lifting more weight, not necessarily getting stronger. This may be a controversial statement, but most powerlifters will tell you that they don’t care if you’ve gotten stronger or not; they simply want to know how much you lifted in any given meet.
There are two current schools in powerlifting: “Assistive Gear” and “More Assistive Gear” (although raw federations and meets are starting to make a comeback). These two schools are exemplified by two major and distinct federations: the IPF and the WPO.
Broadly speaking, the IPF is dominated by the Eastern Europeans who use a hybrid type squat, which we’ll discuss shortly. The WPO lifters use a squat style designed to optimize the advantages of their assistive gear. Let’s discuss the WPO style of squat first because it best contrasts the idea of “lifting more” as opposed to getting stronger (although these lifters are obviously still verystrong!).
Jeff Lewis moving massive weights at the Arnold
This style of squat is characterized by a low bar placement across the rear deltoids with the shoulder blades retracted and with a very wide foot placement. It’s initiated with the hips; the shins stay perpendicular to the floor during the entire lift. This reduces the reliance on the quadriceps and maximizes the contribution of the hamstrings, gluteals, lower back, and the assistive gear.
There’s a forward torso displacement during the descent and ascent. The hands, although in theory are kept close to the torso, are usually placed almost collar-to-collar among the heavyweights and supers due to lack of shoulder flexibility from bench press specialization and torso girth. Because of the massive loads used in the upper weight categories and the bar positioning, high-tension techniques are practiced routinely on this style squat.
The IPF lifters use modified styles of the Olympic and WPO lifters: low bar placement, medium hand spacing, and a just-wider-than-shoulder-width foot position. Their assistive gear provides less support/enhancement when compared to the WPO. Some have argued that the wide stance squat of the WPO lifters has evolved to maximize the limits of the gear, and we’d tend to agree.
Now that we’ve looked at the differences between the two types of squats, let’s briefly examine why you should be squatting. Later on, we’ll figure out which method is best for you.
Why not? There are lots of myths regarding squatting: bad for the knees, bad for the back, etc. The reality is, whether or not a squat is bad for someone is dependent upon that individual, at that moment.
Many articles have been written on the merits and benefits of squatting, so let’s quickly review:
- The legs “feed the wolf” – the stronger the legs, the stronger the body
- Improved athletic performance
- Improved metabolism
- Improved body composition
- Improved sex hormone profiles/production (determined by load)
- Improved activities of daily living
Which style of squat is the best? Neither and both. The individual’s limitations usually dictate the style of squat he uses. Most individuals should learn how to box squat before any other squat. Why? Because most of the people we work with are office workers: everything’s tight that needs to be loose and everything that needs to be strong is weak.
Beyond that, sitting on a chair is an environment in which they feel “natural” (as sad as that may be!). Why not take them from a familiar environment where they can feel successful, and then move them to a less familiar environment once they have some success under their belt?
As their mobility improves throughout the body, they should be moved into an Olympic style squat. Why? Because this is a “natural” squat. If we watch children squat, this is how they do it – the body folds like an accordion with the joints stacked one on top of the other. This takes advantage of natural bone rhythms and allows all the muscles to work in harmony with each other. It also allows for the full development of the leg musculature.
Don’t believe us? Look at the leg and hip development of elite weightlifters and try to argue with us. Pyrros Dimas is a great example. However, if the mobility doesn’t suitably improve, they should stay with a hip initiated squat.
“Hey, nice teardrop! Do you do your leg extensions to failure with your toes turned in or out?”
The take-home point here is this: If you can safely Olympic squat, you should utilize it in your training. The Olympic squat helps to reinforce good mobility and postural alignment, and it’ll take your strength to the next level. When/if you need to specialize in a given squat for competitive purposes, it’s far easier to transition from an Olympic squat to a power squat than to do it the other way around.
Learning to Squat Properly
In a traditional team setting, Mike won’t coach the back squat as there are too many caveats. First, it’s hard to ensure that every athlete has adequate mobility, so it may not be a good exercise for everyone.
Second, when working with males, you’ll see the same pattern time and again – the second they start adding weight, their squat depth and performance goes down the tubes. A bench or box will eliminate this as they have a consistent “target” to shoot for. With almost every lifter, the box squat is an excellent starting point. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we’ll point you to Dave Tate’s excellent article, Squatting from Head to Toe.
But what if your goal is to learn to squat deep? Like ass-to-calves deep? Adequate mobility is imperative when we’re talking about going deep. You need the ability to extend the thoracic spine to stay tall. You need to be able to maintain a neutral spine/natural lordotic curve while going into deep hip/knee flexion. Finally, you need to have good dorsiflexion at the ankle as knee drifting is part of a full squat.
So how do we achieve this mobility? For instance, how do you take a 40+ year-old office worker and give him the mobility/flexibility of a ten year-old Russian kid practicing for weightlifting? Well, there’s not one “right” way to achieve it, but rather several different avenues you can follow.
Mike uses a three-phase program to begin re-grooving a deep squat motor pattern. He typically uses this with the person who can’t even box squat correctly, or who’s suffering from a myriad of injuries and needs a total body overhaul:
- Phase I: Tissue remodeling, daily mobility work, single leg drills, core stability work
- Phase II: Same as above; decrease in tissue/mobility work; begin front squatting
- Phase III: Same as above; begin full squatting
In Phase I, the primary goal is improving both movement quality and quantity. Your “leg” days would consist of single-leg drills exclusively. As well, you’d be foam rolling and performing an extensive mobility circuit (such as the one we’ve outlined below) daily.
A sample program for improving squatting mobility
|Foam Rolling/Soft Tissue Work||Mobility Work|
|Hip Flexors||Ankle Mobility Drills|
|Quads||Thoracic Extension on PVC Pipe|
|TFL/IT Band||Knee Hugs|
|Plantar Fascia||Pull Back Butt Kicks|
|Calves||Single Leg RDL|
So not only are we going to keep you from squatting, but all the mobility drills and tissue work are going to free up your body so when you do start squatting again, it’s going to look and feel considerably different.
In Phase II you can start reducing your tissue quality/quantity work to training days (e.g. 3-4x/week), and your goal is to start grooving a more efficient and natural squat pattern.
One of Mike’s personal favorites is the plate-loaded front squat, especially when starting out. This front squat variation forces you to stay upright, stay tall (via thoracic extension), and has a low enough load to really groove a nice motor pattern. Once this version is easy (or starts to become burdensome on the shoulders), you’re probably ready to front squat.
By the time you move to Phase III, you should be moving like a new person. Mobility and tissue work can be further reduced to maintenance levels, and you’re ready to start back squatting with a full range of motion.
In the beginning, be sure to start light and groove your new technique. It’s going to feel quite different from what you’re accustomed to! However, you should notice an immediate difference with regard to muscle activation, depth, and ease of performance.
Just to show you that this can be done, here’s Justin Ware front squatting in a recent training session. A few months ago, Justin couldn’t deadlift, squat, or even lunge without low back pain. Now, not only is he squatting deep, but he’s actually front squatting below parallel without any heels or blocks!
But let’s say you’re not as bad off as Justin was; you can box squat and your mobility isn’t all that bad. You don’t need to go back to square one. Rather, you simply need some re-tuning, and we can typically do that on the fly.
A Personal Story
When I (Geoff) taught myself how to Olympic squat, it was at a time when the shin was supposed to stay vertical, the knee never moved over the foot, and you never squatted below parallel, or in the words of Harold Ramis’s character in Ghostbusters, “Something very bad will happen.”
I’d just been diagnosed with bilateral patella alta, or lateral kneecap tracking, apparently brought about by powerlifting style squats – low bar, wide stance. Walking up and down the stairs was excruciating, let alone squatting.
About that time I’d become interested in Olympic lifting. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I did notice that weightlifters squatted below parallel and their knees moved over their feet, even sometimes over their toes! And you know what? They had huge, well-developed quads, even that hard-to-get tear drop thingy right above the knee that leg extensions were supposed to be for (the same ones the ortho gave me to “fix” my condition) but never seemed to really work.
The funny thing at the time was, everyone who’d told me that I shouldn’t squat rock-bottom couldn’t do it themselves and couldn’t justify why weightlifters could and how they achieved that spectacular leg development in spite of violating all the known “laws” of squatting.
Nobody told me how to make the transition from power to Olympic squats, so I just made some stuff up. It seemed reasonable to me that even though I couldn’t perform an Olympic squat, I should try to get my body used to that position.
So, I grabbed on to the power rack, placed my feet in the Olympic squat position and just tried to wiggle myself into a weightlifting squat position, sometimes spending 5-10 minutes just moving in and out of the hole, stretching the tight “squatting” muscles as I went along. The more I did, the greater my depth increased until eventually I added weight.
I just did what I thought made sense. And I did it all the time: in the gym, at home, whenever, wherever. I can’t remember how long the process took, but it wasn’t more than a few weeks.
Twelve years later while attending the RKC, I learned that Pavel calls this method prying. The gist is to “create space” in your joints in the specific weightlifting squat position. Here’s what it looks like:
Performing mobility work for the feet, ankles, knees, and hips at a bare minimum is necessary to speed up the process of transitioning from the box squat to the Olympic squat. Focus on performing slow, controlled movements through full ranges of motion.
Never fight your balance while trying to regain mobility, so hold on to the power rack or a wall. Use two hands if you must. After you have the movements down, only then should you consider “stand-alone” joint mobility.
For specific foot, ankle, knee, and hip mobility we like to use the R-Phase DVD from Z-Health. The prospect of explaining these drills here is too monumental to even begin, but if you want to explore additional mobility work–which we highly recommend–check out the R-Phase DVD.
Specific flexibility for the calves, quads, hip flexors, adductors, and gluteals is also necessary. Perform these drills after your joint mobility work, or pair them with the mobility work in a manner similar to the following: ankle/calf, knee/calf and quad, hip/quad, adductors, gluteals, and hip external rotators.
The flexibility work you perform should match your weaknesses in the squat. If you have tight adductors, spend extra time there.
- Calves: Standing gastroc and soleus stretch
- Quads: Standing quad stretch/kneeling quad stretch
- Hip Flexors: Standing/kneeling hip flexor stretch with and without psoas bias (lateral torso flexion away from the stretched side)
- Adductors: Standing adductor stretch, shifting in and out of lateral lunge position, keeping torso upright
- Gluteals/Deep 6: Seated spinal twist and standing/seated figure-4
If you’re going to pair mobility with flexibility, try the following:
- Foot, Ankle/Calf: Toe pulls, ankle circles, followed by gastroc and soleus stretches
- Knees/Quads: Toe pulls, close chain knee circles followed by gastroc and soleus stretches, standing/kneeling quad stretch
- Hip/Hip Flexors, Adductors, Gluteals, and Deep 6: Knee pendulums, 4 position hip circles and standing/kneeling quad stretch, adductor stretch, seated spinal twist, and figure-4
An “active negative” in the squat is performed by actively pulling yourself down into the squat with your hip flexors. Start this by holding on to your power rack. Imagine pulling your hips into your heels – literally imagine that your hip flexors are rubber bands and they’re attached to your heels.
As you squat, you’re shortening the rubber bands. This will do two things: 1) It will keep your torso upright. 2) It will engage the gluteals on the ascent.
Here’s a basic progression for you, assuming you’ve “mastered” the box squat:
- Isolated mobility and flexibility work ->
- Integrated mobility and flexibility work ->
- Prying ->
- Dan John’s “Goblet Squat” ->
- Front Squat (Plate Loaded ->Dumbbell ->Kettlebell ->Barbell)
- Back Squat
The Goblet Squat
There are no specific timelines on when to perform these exercises. Whether it takes you one week or ten, the point is to get there. This is results-based training at its finest; once you’ve achieved the desired results from one exercise, you move on to the next. This is far superior than simply changing exercises every four weeks “because you’re supposed to.”
Now that we’ve covered how to squat deep, let’s look at some other considerations with regard to both types of squats.
Assistive gear as extra connective tissue/muscle mass: As you hopefully know by now, assistive gear can dramatically impact the style and performance of the squat. However, you can’t immediately take what “geared” lifters use to improve their competitive performance and apply it to your training. Quite simply, this style may not be suitable for raw lifters.
The powerlifting box squat is a great example. For powerlifters, this is typically performed with an extra wide stance, with up to 48″ between the feet. When powerlifters train the box squat, they’ll typically use squat briefs to give the hips support and essentially work as extra connective tissue and muscle mass.
This extra wide position, coupled with deep hip flexion and appreciable poundages, can be very hard on the unequipped lifter. A more moderate foot position could be the difference between long-term, nagging hip pain and a 20 pound PR in your squat.
It should be noted we’re not telling you not to squat this way. All we’re doing is outlining the differences between how a competitive lifter may want to train and how the average Joe lifter should train to improve his performance and stay healthy over the long haul.
Q: What’s the payoff here? Why bother to learn how to full squat? I’m already lifting large amounts with a powerlifting style squat.
A: This is a great question. Greater range of motion about a joint increases stimulation of muscle fibers that connect to/cross that joint. Greater stimulation equals greater size and/or strength, depending on your priorities and loading parameters.
An Olympic style squat performed correctly aligns the joints on top of each other, creating greater neural drive and less strain on the connective tissues than its wide-stance counterpart. (Remember, lack of mobility in one joint of the kinetic chain, planned or not, leads to hyper-mobility in another joint. So if you’re “fixing” the ankle by keeping it perpendicular to the floor, then the hip will have to move more.)
Long term that means less likelihood of injury. Consider that super-heavyweight Olympic lifters, like Ronny Weller, squat in excess of 700 pounds wearing only a belt. (Is that strong enough for you?)
Q: What if I’m lifting for strength and/or muscular development? Which style is better and how do I make that determination?
A: Are you going to compete as a powerlifter? If so, which federation? That answer determines what type of gear you’re going to use and the style of squat that should be most conducive to heaving the big iron. If you’re competing in a WPO affiliate, than you may want to use a wide, hip-driven squat to take full advantage of the gear you’re using.
Are you training recreationally or athletically? Ethan Reeve, head strength and conditioning coach at Wake Forest University, said he noticed that the most athletic of his football players had the strongest Olympic squats. So again, greater ROM equals more muscle fibers recruited and therefore more strength and size potential.
Q: Okay, so is there a “better” style?
A: “Better than what?” is the real question. Again, everything depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re a recreational bodybuilder/strength athlete, then yes, learning to perform the Olympic squat will have a higher payoff in the long run than the way you’re currently squatting.
Does that mean you have to quit what you’re currently doing? Absolutely not. You can add in Olympic squats in your program at any point.
Q: How do I start incorporating full squats into my training?
A: As often as you can, as fresh as you can, with as much rest as you can (to paraphrase Zatsiorsky). Perform 3-5 reps 1-5 times per day of whichever activity you want. For example: 3 reps of prying squat holding onto something, three times per day – AM, lunch, PM.
Again, the key here is to “practice” the skill or skills you’re trying to develop, so no pumps, no “feeling the burn,” no sweating, and definitely no puking. Stay fresh. Once you’ve attained specific mobility and flexibility, using any of the aforementioned methods, slowly add weight. Two to three sessions per week should be adequate.
But remember, your connective tissues need to be trained as well as your muscles, so heavy loading should be ruled out for the first 90 days or so of training with external resistance. Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps stopping at a comfortable weight using perfect form. Only after that should you start performing more advanced training protocols.
The Bottom Line
If you’re struggling to gain muscle, chances are pretty good that you don’t know how to squat or aren’t squatting heavy enough. You may also not be eating enough. Remedy the first issue and the second issue will take care of itself.
The key to healthy, long-term training is knowing the pros and cons of training. Knowing why and how to squat is no different. High quality Olympic squatting will take your training to the next level. The only immediate downside is that you’ll have to take weight off the bar. In the long run though, you’ll have greater lower andupper body development – and we guarantee that’s worth spending time on.
Now get to the gym and squat!