So, you've been experimenting with your leg workouts by changing your rep schemes here and there and varying your exercise selection. Good to hear.
The good news? You've seen some results.
The bad news? You've seen some results.
They could be even better. You've done enough barbell front squats, box squats, and back squats to last you until 2020, and hell, you've even thrown the highly recommended split stance work into the mix.
But your results have plateaued because you can't challenge your legs with more time under tension through a greater range of motion. Soft tissue work and foam rolling can go a long way, but you're still barely breaking parallel in your squats without feeling your lower back start to curve.
Of course, knowing you'd frenetically log on to T NATION to seek a remedy, I came prepared. Here are two exercises that you've probably forgotten about, but can fix you up right quick.
1 – The Overhead Squat
Overhead squats are a phenomenal tool for correcting the imbalances that lie among the hips, glutes, and lower back.
They have a threefold benefit. First, the overhead position of the bar makes much of the stability work go to the core, most predominately the lower back. Since the bar is held overhead, for most lifters, it will severely limit the depth achieved in the reps, and rounding of the lumbar spine will happen earlier in the rep.
Having this weakness exposed can tell you just how much stiffening/strengthening the lower back may need, and on the other side of the body, it'll tell you how much blockage your tight hip flexors have over your hamstrings and glutes, limiting their flexibility.
To perform the overhead squat, hold a barbell overhead with your arms the same width as you'd keep them in your standard bench press. In other words, if you were to bend your elbows so that your upper arms were parallel to the floor, they'd make a 90-degree angle at the elbow joint. With the bar overhead, make sure the elbows are locked out. The last thing you want to happen is for the bar to collapse downwards as the body descends in the rep.
With the arms locked out, it's important to make sure that you stabilize your shoulder capsule. The best way to do this is to simply apply outward tension on the barbell while it's overhead. In other words, with tension outwards, try to pull the bar apart with your hands and maintain this isometric force throughout your entire set. Doing so will activate the mid traps and provide tightness and stability between your scapulae, putting you in a safer position to bear the load over your spine.
Attempt to follow the same body mechanics as you would in a back squat, initiating the movement from the hips being drawn back first, and make sure the bar stays over the ankles. Don't let it fall too far forward or backward. Press through the heel and middle of the foot, and be sure to squeeze the glutes on the way up.
Overcoming the Obstacles
The overhead squat is a lift that definitely can't be gone into cold. A proper warm-up and stretching of all major muscle groups is necessary, with emphasis towards the entire hip girdle and shoulder girdle, including the pecs.
This exercise above all provides great reason to make friends with a foam roller. So, give it a kiss, and then roll the crap out of your quads, hips, glute medius, tensor fascia latae (TFL), and lats.
As I noted above, one of the major demands the overhead squat has is that of requiring good shoulder health. If you've got that, the arms will have the range of motion behind the neck necessary for the bottom portion of the lift. The shoulder is responsible for circumduction, or a circular rotation, and no other joint in the body has as many degrees of potential movement.
It should be your aim to have your arms remain perpendicular to the ground through the squat, with no problem to the shoulder capsule. In other words, the bar should remain above the ankles at all times. If you find it difficult to achieve this position and the bar keeps falling forward, focus on more scapular stability work, paired with stretching of the pec muscles.
Doing shoulder "dislocates" with a standard five-foot cut of PVC piping (or broomstick, if it's long enough) is also a great way to develop range of motion. Don't worry, they're not as scary as they sound. You can find PVC piping at your local hardware store, and a five-foot cut is dirt-cheap. For a couple of bucks, you can't go wrong.
To do these, hold the PVC pipe at arm's length on both ends with an overhand grip and simply rotate your straight arms all the way overhead and behind the back. Don't bend your elbows. Your finish position should be with the bar behind you, with straight arms, resting on your butt. From there, rotate your straight arms back to their starting position the same way.
If your first position is easy, move your hands two-finger widths inwards and repeat. Do two to three reps in each direction, continuously moving inwards until you can no longer complete a rep without bending your elbows to compensate.
In Case You Forgot...
To sum up, key points to remember about the overhead squat:
- Elbows straight, outward tension on the bar when held overhead
- Bar stays directly over the ankle at all times
- Press through the heel and mid foot, squeeze glutes on the way up
- Stretch and foam roll as a prep
Remember not to go into overhead squatting with the intent to lift 315. You'll be humbled quickly. Keep in mind that it's a tool to get a healthy hip girdle, so focus on achieving greater and greater range of motion with the correct technique in the lift. Make noticeable progress this way before increasing the weight lifted.
2 – The Zercher Squat
Ed Zercher, a strongman from the 1930s, created one of my personal favorite lifts, the Zercher squat.
The Zercher squat is simple to execute and its major benefit is the lack of compressional force on the spine due to the fact that the bar isn't axially loaded. Combine this with the fact that the bar is still loaded on the front of the body, and it makes for a safe, deep squat – meaning tons of posterior chain activation.
A man's lift. 'Nuff said.
The Zercher squat is performed by setting up a bar in the power rack or squat cage at about waist level. At this point, you step in close and position the bar in the crook of your arms. Make sure the elbows are about shoulder width apart and your knuckles face the ceiling. Step back and stand tall, keeping the bar right in tight against your body.
As usual, the mechanics of the actual squat from the hip don't differ. Initiate the movement by bringing the hips back, and make sure that through the descent the knuckles stay pointed at the roof.
With your feet wider than shoulder width apart, maintain an arch in your lower back, and keep in mind that the further away you bring your elbows from your body as you descend, the more torque you'll place on your lower back (and the more abdominal activity you'll stimulate).
At the bottom position, your elbows should be in contact with your thighs, with your fists still pointing at the roof. Drive up by squeezing the glutes and pressing through the heels.
If you're a taller lifter like me, you likely understand just how much more work any squat, let alone a Zercher squat, takes because of our lever lengths. At 6'3", I'll be the first to say that it's a long way down to parallel, let alone below. With the Zercher, you'll be able to get to a much deeper hip flexion than you would in a standard back squat, and maintain a more upright torso position, meaning more time under tension through your set, and more glute and hamstring activity due to your depth.
Note: It would also be a good idea to foam roll the hips and TFL for this exercise, and be sure to point the toes out 20 to 30 degrees when performing the lift. This will open up the hip flexors and prevent them from cutting your hamstrings' range of motion short.
Don't Worry, There's a Sample Workout
This thing wouldn't be complete without a sample workout to show just where and when the hell to try out these lifts. So, without further adieu...
Sample Leg Workout
Warm-up: dynamic mobility drills, static stretch, foam rolling
- A. Overhead Squat 3 x 12
After a feel set with the empty bar, perform working sets with 40-50% of barbell shoulder press one-rep max. Remember to focus on quality of performance rather than weight lifted. Rest two minutes between sets. Static stretch quads and hips between sets.
- B. Bulgarian Split Squat 4 x 10 per leg
This exercise is the same as the standard Bulgarian split squat, but the front leg is also slightly elevated by a low step platform. This can allow the rear knee to still travel all the way to the floor and give the hips an even greater range of motion to travel through. If you don't have the hip flexor mobility to do this exercise, simply drop the front foot to the floor and perform a standard Bulgarian split squat. Rest two minutes between sets.
- C. Zercher Squats 4 x 10
Perform with 50 to 60% of deadlift one-rep max. Rest two minutes between sets.
- D. Eccentric Glute Hamstring Raise 3 x 5
Lower body to the floor as slowly as possible, with no change in angle to the hip joint. When you reach the floor, assume push up position and assist your body up to the starting point.
Adding a split stance exercise between the two squat exercises will help to open the hip flexors again, and create mobility at the joint capsule. It also works to diffuse any load placed upon the lower back, which is especially beneficial when following an overhead squat.
As you can see based on the percentages, this is by no means a bulking or size program. Its purpose is to increase the performance of your lifts within your size program. Taking a six-week stint to try this bad boy out to substitute your normal leg workouts can and will only lead to positive results when it's time to lift big again. You may be surprised at how sore you'll get, especially after the first week or two. And hey, you just might even put on some size having activated a greater percentage of your sleeping posterior chain muscle fibers again.
Taking the time to focus on mobility and flexibility of the lower body's joints and musculature will pay off. To hit 100% of a working muscle's fibers is a bodybuilder's goal in his workouts, so it's beneficial to check your ego at the door, and fess up to the imbalances that you may have been shying away from acknowledging for the last little while.
Sometimes less is more, and I'll be the first to bitchsmack any meatheads tryin' to diss.