Strength training is a cornerstone of a well developed fitness program.   Many fitness tests are substantially, if not explicitly, tests of strength.   Even if you’re not competing, increased strength provides numerous long term health benefits.  Squat programs are a great addition to your training, but choosing a program can be tough.   How many training sessions per week?  How much volume?   What is the right kind of program for you?   Let’s see if we can sort this out. 

An effective squat program increases transferable strength: strength which positively impacts other activities, such as Olympic lifts or the barbell exercises in MetCons.   That’s more than just absolute strength.   Maximizing absolute strength is simple:  squat, deadlift, press, do carries, and eat.   Do all five of those as often as possible to the limits of your capacity and you are guaranteed to get crazy strong.  You’ll also probably get slower, and your body composition might not be what you like.   Our strength increases must integrate with our larger fitness goals.

 

A closer look

With a few months of practice, a diligent beginner will become familiar with squats and build some strength.  But while the squat is easy to learn, it is difficult to master. Coordinating multiple joints and large muscle groups presents opportunities for flaws, imbalances and compensatory movement patterns to arise, especially if you first learned the squat as an adult with a desk job.  While athletes are each built a little differently, and everyone has their own movement quirks, we observe the following flaws frequently:

  • Bar travels forward excessively on the descent or especially at the bottom (very common!)
  • Weight shifts forward, causing athlete to exert excessive pressure on balls of feet / heels come up
  • Inability to “stay tight” at the bottom of a squat, perhaps preventing a full depth squat or causing other dysfunction
  • Hips shoot back or up on the ascent

Squat imperfections manifest elsewhere.   If we shift forward at the bottom of a squat, then we probably come up on our toes too soon on a clean pull.   If you’re not “tight” at the bottom of a squat, your catch at the bottom of a snatch is unlikely to be reliable.  If your hips shoot up on the ascent during a back squat, what happens after you catch a heavy clean?   Or when you have to do 21 thrusters?  If you’re working on your Olympic lifts without addressing your squat, you’re running against the wind. 

 

The global fix

Most squat programs accomplish two goals:  They make you stronger, and they make your flaws harder to fix.   Doing hundreds of reps with movement issues only makes you more comfortable squatting incorrectly.  The deepening entrenchment of your flaws limits your strength gains.  Outstanding strength almost never occurs without outstanding technique.

Volume should only increase once proficiency has reached an appropriate level.   The super high volume programs should be left to the people with near-perfect technique.  Transferable strength is superb technique – virtuosity -  with some serious force behind it.   Correcting flaws in your squat requires a combination of accessory work, mobility, technique and position drills, as well as lots of light squats.   Divide a hypothetical training session as follows:

  1. Time actually squatting / resting between sets and
  2. Movement improvement: technique drills, accessory work, mobility, position holds so on.  

Unless you’re a very advanced lifter or have a serious weightlifting background, then at least half of your squat training time should be focused on movement improvement:

Stability: A combination of single leg work, tempo squats, stretching, and hip / ankle mobility will identify and resolve many stabilization issues (shifting forward, rotation, lack of range of motion) and optimize delivery of force into the ground.  This will also improve your bar path.

Core strength:  An athlete must be able to pull down and stabilize their rib cage to maintain position at the bottom of the squat (or snatch, clean, thruster).  Lack of abdominal and lower back strength can lead to excessive back extension, which causes butt wink and can diminish force out of the hole by reducing glute engagement.   Lack of abdominal strength can also contribute to pelvic tilt.  

Back strength:  The power for a squat may come from the legs and hips, but the bar rests several feet away, atop the shoulders.  A strong upper back maximizes force transfer and assists with sustaining good position throughout the lift.   

Position at end range of motion:   Athletes will often compromise their movement patterns at the bottom of a squat to get extra depth or to get out of the hole.   Every squat program should include drills and accessories to improve position and movement at and near the bottom of a squat.  

 

Implementation and Management

If your “squat program” is nothing more than a warmup, a little mobility and a collection of sets and reps, you’re making the flaws in all of your lifts harder to correct.   As these flaws become more ingrained, you’re creating a strength ceiling far below your natural limits, and the longer you wait to fix your flaws, the harder it will be to break through this ceiling. 

Our squat programs emphasize skill work, accessory work, mobility and technique drills.   We correct the flaws, fix the imbalances and train away the gaps.  And we squat.  A lot.  For most people, we start with sub-maximal reps and lots of volume so you’ll adopt the new, better movement patterns before we add weight.  Sets of 10, 12 or 15 at 50 – 60% make the new patterns permanent, then we pile on the weight.   

Before long, you should see these same improved movement patterns begin to positively impact your Olympic lifts and many other exercises.   To discuss this or other training related matters, reach us at coach@thegainslab.com.  Good luck and happy training.  

To accomplish big things, you must be willing to do the little things

The Gains Lab 2017