I watched the guys squatting over in the corner of the gym and knew immediately the subject of my next article for T-mag. After a few warm-up sets and some instruction from the trainer, these guys began to perform some of the most interesting “squatting” I’ve ever seen. The verbal commands still echo in my head: “elbows back,” “head up,” “hips in,” “big chest air,” “down, down, down.” It went on and on and began to look like something from The Karate Kid.
I walked over to the group after their session and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, at least I thought so. I invited them all to attend the seminar I was conducting the following day at that particular gym. Two agreed to come. The trainer seemed insulted. Well, as Meatloaf says, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
That’s when it hit me. My Bench Press 600 Pounds article had been a hit, so why not do the same thing for the squat? You see, there’s a huge difference between squatting and squatting big. Let me explain very quickly. How much can you currently squat? If you answered 500 pounds, I’d reply, “How much more do you know about squatting now compared to when you could only squat 300 pounds? How much more will you have to learn to squat 700 pounds?”
This is what squatting big is all about. I spent many years knowing how to squat but it took the help of Westside Barbell to learn the art of squatting big. Squatting big is as much an art as it is a science. If you relied on just one aspect, either art (training) or science, you’d be able to squat, but not squat big. You have to rely on the combination of both to really increase your numbers. Squatting the big one requires figuring a lot of stuff out. Much of this stuff you’ve probably been exposed to but perhaps have forgotten or haven’t applied yet. But there are others items you may not know about that can really send your squat over the top.
Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference. Take for example, Matt Smith. Matt is Westside’s newest member of the 900 club. (By the way, that now makes nine in the 900s for Westside, seven of whom all train together. We also have one guy that squats over a grand.) Matt realized a few months back that he sucked at the glute ham raise. So realizing that his hamstrings were a weakness for him, he pushed them up. The net result was that he beat his old squat record by 30 pounds! That’s all it took, finding a weakness and bringing it up.
If Matt hadn’t found this weakness he could still be squatting in the 800s or worse yet, he could’ve been stuck there for several years. I know all about having my squat stuck. I once went five years without any progress. I tried many things and most didn’t work. Then I stumbled upon the chains. (See my article called Accommodating Resistance for details.) This broke my rut and started me on the way to squatting big. You see, both Matt and I knew how to squat, but we had to learn to squat big.
At Westside Barbell, we’ve figured out the secrets to squatting big weights and have been sharing these with other powerlifters for the past few years. I can think of eleven others outside of Westside who’ve also squatted over 900 by using these same secrets. How did we come up with these special secrets? It’s simple. We combined the art of training with science. Very few scientists can squat big and very few who do squat big can replicate the results in someone else. You must have a good understanding of both if you want to pile plates on the bar. So if you think you’re ready to load up the bar, then read on.
Secret #1: Get your stance out wide!
If you squat with a close stance, move your feet out. If you think you squat wide already, move your feet further out! We teach everyone at Westside to squat wide. We don’t believe in a close-stance squatter. When you squat wide you create better leverages for the squat. The distance between your knee and hip is greater with a close stance, thus a longer and more difficult squat.
By using a wide squat you cut this distance back as well as place the emphasis on the glutes, hamstrings and lower back. These are the muscles that squat big weights! While squatting wide, try to keep your toes straight ahead or slightly turned out. This will create a tremendous amount of tension in the hips and glutes and make it hard to squat down. This tension will create a great stretch reflex out of the bottom of the squat. This is vital to the development of barbell speed.
Secret #2: Get a tight arch!
You must learn to develop the strength to keep a tight arch in the lower back. This arch must be kept throughout the entire movement. The moment you begin to lose this arch, the bar will begin to drift forward and out of the natural barbell path. When the bar starts to drift toward the toes, you’ll lose the squat and end up stapled to the floor. The bar must stay close to the hip joint and away from the toes.
You must also keep the shoulder blades pulled together with your elbows pulled forward. This will create the much needed upper back tightness to keep the barbell in proper position. Remember, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so you must keep the barbell in the proper path.
When your elbows turn out toward the back, the bar will drift forward again and end up stapling you to the floor as well as ripping your head off. This is one common mistake I see in all my seminars. When I ask attendees who taught them to squat with their elbows back, nine out of ten times they say, “My coach.” This is another example of those who think they know how to squat not knowingsquat!
Secret #3: Spread the floor!
Spread the floor with your feet as you squat. Remember the wide stance? Well, you must also force your knees out hard during the entire motion and push out on the sides of your shoes while you squat. This keeps the tension in the hips where it should be. This is also why most squat shoes, tennis shoes, and cross trainers suck for squatting. The best shoes for squatting are Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. The soles are flat and the side construction is rugged enough to push out against without a blowout or rolling over the sole.
Secret #4: Drive your head into the bar!
This doesn’t mean look up toward the sky like your old high school coach told you to. You must look straight ahead and drive your head back into the traps. Your body will always follow the head so you want to make sure your head is driving back into the bar.
As a side note, what’s the last thing to move when you squat? It would be your head. So what should be the first thing to move when coming out of the hole? You got it, your head. This only makes perfect sense. You have to think about driving your back and head into the bar first during the assent. We tell our lifters the chest and head should always be first. You’re trying to raise the bar, so move it first! If the quads flex first, the hips will rise before the bar and force the barbell forward.
Here’s another coaching tool: watch the lifter’s quads. If they flex first get him to sit back more and force his knees out. The glutes should flex first.
Secret #5: The hips should move before the knees!
If your knees are the first to move while beginning a squat, then your path is going to be straight down. As discussed before, the tension must be on the glutes, hips and hamstrings. These are the muscles that squat big weights, not the quads.
Think about this: Why can’t a lifter with a 400-pound deep Olympic squat perform a 700-pound power squat? A powerlifter who can squat 700 can do an easy 400-pound Olympic squat. This is because the Olympic squatter doesn’t have the back, glutes or hamstring to support the 700 pounds! What’s that tell you about the quads and squatting big weights? (Hint: They just aren’t that important!)
Secret #6: Get on the box!
The greatest secret to our success at Westside is the use of the box squat. We don’t do any full squatting at all, except for in competition. We haven’t had any lifters over the past 15 years have any lower back or knee injuries, either. The only side effects we’ve seen with box squatting are big squats! The key is to do them properly. For more information on this, see my Squatting from Head to Toe article.
The benefits of the box are many. First, you can sit back further than you could without it. This places more stress on the posterior chain muscles. Second, you always know how low you’re going. If you want to squat two inches below parallel then set your box up at that height. This way your body will always sit as low as it’s conditioned. If you want to squat one inch high, then set the box higher. We suggest one inch below parallel since this is what’s needed to pass in a powerlifting competition.
Third, squatting on a box breaks the eccentric/concentric chain. This is one of the best ways to develop explosive strength. Fourth, the box is great for teaching proper squatting technique. Most athletes and lifters have very poor squat technique because of bad coaching, muscle imbalances and flexibility. The box can work as a great aid to teaching the proper way to sit back into a squat.
I’ll be the first to tell you that the competitive power squat isn’t an easy thing to master. It takes many years of work and technique is very important. The stronger you get, the more you need better technique. One inch in the wrong direction and you’ll miss the lift.
Secret #7: Learn to use your belly!
I’ve caught more **** over this than any other aspect of training. But the truth is that every big squatter I know has learned how to use his abdominals while squatting. You must learn how to breathe into your belly. You want to pull as much air as you can into your belly, then flex and force your abdominals out.
Walk over to a mirror. Take a look at your shoulders and take a deep breath. Did they rise? If they did, then you’re pulling all the air into your chest, not your belly. You need to learn how to breath into your belly. This is how we teach everyone to squat. For the squat, we advise the use of a weight belt worn one notch loose. This is to teach you to pull air into your belly then push out into the belt. The belt acts as a great training aid to push against.
As a side note, we use the same technique for all of our max-effort work, but don’t use the belt in that situation. This is one aspect of our training that has been misunderstood for too long. We use the belt to teach how to use the abdominals for the squat, bench, and deadlift, and do not advocate its use for anything else unless the lifter feels it’s needed. Many in the gym have worked up to 600 and 700 pound good mornings without any adverse effects and have been doing them this way for over ten years.
This brings me to the next point. We’ve been told breathing and using the abdominals this way will lead to back injuries. Louie Simmons has been coaching this for the past twenty years at Westside and hasn’t had any lifters with these problems. Learning to use the belly has made a profound difference in all of our squats, especially for those who’ve never tried it. I’ve seen squats increase by 25 to 50 pounds on this aspect alone. Now that’s what squatting big is all about.
Filling your belly with air will also create a larger torso and give you a bigger base of support from which to drive. Ever wonder why those with bigger waists squat so much? Think about it. We want as much tightness and support as we can get from the gross muscles of the spinal errectors, abdominals, and obliques.
Secret #8: Train for speed!
If you were to jump up on a table, how high would you get if you jumped slowly? How much force would you develop? Not much, huh? So why in the world would you want to train to be slow? Why not train to be faster? The faster you are, the greater the chance you’ll have of blasting through your sticking point.
This is what the dynamic training day is all about. If you’re a 500 pound squatter and are training with 250, then you must apply 500 pounds of force to the bar during the lift. Think blast! For most T-mag readers, I’d suggest a four week wave using the box squat. The percentages listed below would be of your best squat. For you competitive powerlifters out there, percentages would be lower since you may be using squat suits.
Week 1: 10 sets of 2 reps with 65%
Week 2: 10 sets of 2 reps with 70%
Week 3: 10 sets of 2 reps with 73%
Week 4: 10 sets of 2 reps with 75%
Only take 45 to 60 seconds rest between sets and use compensatory acceleration when performing all of your reps. That means you should really try to explode the weight up.
Secret #9: Train for chaos!
Chaos training is a system of training that will make or break your squat. A cardinal sin of squatting is falling forward during the lift or dumping the bar over your head. When this happens it means only one thing: You haven’t done the necessary work to squat big.
When a barbell falls forward it’s known as a chaotic event. You have to train to avoid these situations. This is why we have a max effort day. On this day you’ll perform a one rep max on some type of low box squat, deadlift or good morning. You’ll want to use some type of good morning seven out of ten workouts or 70% percent of all max effort days for the lower body. The low box squat should be used 20% of the time, the deadlift 10%. This would be a once a week workout.
The reason for so many good mornings is twofold. First we’ve found this type of movement to be the absolute best for the development of the squat and deadlift. Second, remember the cardinal sin of falling over? Well that’s exactly what happens with a good morning. If your good morning is strong enough you’ll be able to keep the arch and not fall forward. If you do begin to fall forward you’ll be able to arch the bar back into position without even thinking about it. You’ll have the strength and it’ll be automatic. We’ve found a minimum good morning of 60% of your max squat to be a very important element of squatting big.
Secret #10: Build the glutes and hamstrings!
As I’ve stated before, the quads aren’t an important element of a big squat. You have to have very strong hamstrings and glutes. You must prioritize your hamstring and hit them at least twice a week. The best movements we’ve found for training the hamstrings are glute ham raises, band leg curls, reverse hypers and pull throughs, and high-rep partial deadlifts. We’ve found that two heavy hamstring workouts a week to be fine for most lifters but many times we’ve prescribed up to six hamstring training sessions a week to bring them up to where they should be. This is all based on the situation, exercises, and lifter.
After my seminar was over I sat there watching an aerobics class. Remember, I train in a key club with 20 to 30 other powerlifters and haven’t trained in a gym like this for over 12 years. It was quite a sight. I haven’t missed training at a fitness club at all, and I still don’t.
As far as the two guys I’d invited to the seminar, they showed up. Their trainer didn’t. Now these two guys know how to squat big. When I go back next year, I’ll bet the trainer attends, too. That’s because his two former clients will soon be out-squatting him. You see, he may know how to squat and that’s fine, but they know how to squat big!