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Squat Development for Weightlifting

By Jacob Tsypkin | In Olympic Weightlifting, Squat | on January 23, 2013

Since the press was eliminated from competition in 1972, weightlifting has become a completely lower body dominant sport.  Yet – not surprisingly – there is much debate over the best methods by which to develop leg strength for weightlifters. Sometimes – very surprisingly – there is even debate over the need for weightlifters to have strong legs.  In this article I will attempt to dispel some common myths pertaining to the squat in weightlifting, and outline the methods I use to improve the squat in my weightlifters, with the goal of using the developed leg strength to improve results in the snatch and clean & jerk.

Sometimes, people are just wrong.

I would first like to clear up some misconceptions about the role of squatting and strength in weightlifting.  To be clear, most of these are held by people who are outside observers, perhaps participants in other strength sports but not competitors in weightlifting.  Still, let’s get these ideas out of the way so that the questions that may accompany them need not hinder us later on.

1.  Weightlifters Aren’t Strong

I really have no idea how this happened, but a surprising amount of people think that weightlifters aren’t strong.  Somehow, the fact that speed, position, rhythm, and timing are all just as crucial as strength in weightlifting, has led some to believe that people who put nearly 600lbs overhead aren’t strength athletes.

I’ll just leave this here for you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcEsmhVag1c

That is 75kg Idalberto Aranda of Cuba, back squatting a laughably easy 280kg.  Close to 4x bodyweight, no wraps, not even a belt, with such ease that he literally throws it over his head when he’s done.  He is rumored to have squatted 310.  Though he is perhaps an extreme example, it is probably safe to say that weightlifters train to be strong, and succeed at it.

Myth dispelled.  Moving on.

2. Reserve Strength

The concept of reserve strength works like this:  If a weightlifter has a 80kg clean & jerk, and a 100kg back squat, if he increases his back squat to 120kg, then 80kg will represent a relatively smaller percentage of his maximal strength, and the weightlifter can now make the 80kg clean & jerk even if the lift is mechanically suboptimal.  Because of the relative lightness of the load, the lifter can make small corrections to position during the lift which he would not be able to make if the load were heavier relative to his absolute strength.

While this concept seems sound on the surface, we must consider what those numbers represent.

A weightlifter who clean & jerks 80 and back squats 100 is clean & jerking 80% of his back squat.  Soviet manuals suggest that 80% is an ideal ratio.  If the weightlifter increases his back squat to 120, and his clean & jerk stays at 80, he is now only clean & jerking 66% of his back squat. If the lifter increases his C&J to 90, he is still only now clean & jerking 75% of his back squat.  He has become less efficient.   Perhaps he can make the lift with smaller variances in form, but that just means that his form has worsened.  Only if the lifter increases his clean & jerk to 96kg, has his efficiency remained optimal.  A 16kg improvement in the C&J is unlikely merely from increasing the back squat by 20kg, except in some very particular circumstances.  Over time, the back squat will increase to 120, and the clean & jerk to 96, but biasing training towards quickly increasing the back squat will likely reduce efficiency, and be detrimental to the lifters long term competition results.

There are obviously exceptions to this rule.  Aranda, in the video above, had a best C&J of 205.5kg, or 68% of his best back squat if the rumor of 310 is true.  Usually, larger lifters will tend to be less efficient relative to their max squat.  However, the vast majority of readers are not major exceptions, and almost none of you are Aranda.  If you have a 200kg back squat and a 120kg clean & jerk, you don’t have “reserve strength,” you have crappy technique.

3. All maxes, all the time

This one probably stems from the so-called “Bulgarian System” that no one really understands (myself included.)  A lot of folks seem to think that weightlifters just max their squat every single day (this applies to the snatch and clean & jerk as well.)

While this is certainly an approach used by some coaches and athletes, and one which I have used in certain circumstances, it is safe to say that the vast majority of lifters do simple volume work at some point in their training.  Volume forms the crux of the program which I utilize, and most of the coaches and lifters I work with use a lot of volume in their programming.

4. All front squats, all the time

Not completely certain where this one came from, but I suspect it may be also have risen from the “Bulgarian System” people.  While there are instances of weightlifters who do not back squat, or who predominantly front squat, most weightlifters should and do back squat.

The front squat is the variant which is most specific to the Olympic lifts, since it is the bottom position of the clean.  Note the full depth, very upright torso, and acute hip and knee angles.

The front squat is the variant which is most specific to the Olympic lifts, since it is the bottom position of the clean. Note the full depth, very upright torso, and acute hip and knee angles.

BS dealt with.  Let’s move on.

Rules of Squatting for Weightlifters

When developing the squat to improve the snatch and clean & jerk, there are some important keys to remember.  These should guide your technique, your programming, and the prevalence of the squat in your training.

1.  You are a weightlifter.  You compete in the snatch and the clean & jerk.  Neither the back nor the front squat are contested events in the sport of weightlifting.  While there may be times for some lifters when it is appropriate to prioritize squatting strength at the temporary expense of results in the competiton lifts, this is limited to particular individuals in particular circumstances.  If you show up at a meet, go 2/6, and finish last, no amount of “but I back squat 3x bodyweight!” is going to make you feel better about getting your ass kicked.  YOU ARE A WEIGHTLIFTER.  TRAIN THE SQUAT ACCORDINGLY.

The low bar back squat is the least specific squat variant for the Olympic lifts.  It is so far removed that I would strongly recommend against it's use at all for leg strength development in weightlifting.  Note the clear difference in torso, hip, and knee angles.  Training the low bar back squat will likely lead to poor receiving positions for both the snatch and clean.

The low bar back squat is the least specific squat variant for the Olympic lifts. It is so far removed that I would strongly recommend against it’s use at all for leg strength development in weightlifting. Note the clear difference in torso, hip, and knee angles. Training the low bar back squat will likely lead to poor receiving positions for both the snatch and clean.

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2. Grinders are okay.  Shitty squats are not.  Really this one applies to all strength athletes, but it’s of particular importance for weightlifters.  While a powerlifter may risk injury, either chronic or acute, by doing shitty squats all the time, he can still win a meet with a heavy below-parallel good morning.  Regularly squatting in this fashion is detrimental in a more direct way for the weightlifter, because it will influence the way he interacts with heavy loads in the snatch and clean & jerk.  Squatting with an inclined torso and rounded back will lead to these traits carrying over to the competition lifts, and that’s going to lead to misses.  An occasional ugly squat on a PR attempt is okay, and probably inevitable, but the majority of your squatting should be done with good positions which effectively approximate the positions of the snatch and clean & jerk.

3. High Bar Back Squats

I will make this clear now.  The low bar back squat does not carry over effectively to the lifts.  It leads to a less than ideal bottom position in the snatch.  IT MOST CERTAINLY DOES NOT MIMIC THE PULL FROM THE FLOOR.  Weightlifters high bar back squat.  This is only a debate amongst people who don’t actually know what they are talking about.  That is all.

The high bar back squat is less task-specific to weightlifting than the front squat is, but it is similar enough to carry over very well to the snatch and clean & jerk, while also allowing the lifter to train with heavier loads.  Note that the torso, hip, and knee angles are very similar to those of the front squat.

The high bar back squat is less task-specific to weightlifting than the front squat is, but it is similar enough to carry over very well to the snatch and clean & jerk, while also allowing the lifter to train with heavier loads. Note that the torso, hip, and knee angles are very similar to those of the front squat.

Now.  Let’s go to work.

Methods

The primary method I use is based on the same framework as the program Coach Pendlay uses at MDUSA.  It is a variation of the so-called Texas Method.

The setup is very simple.  On Monday, back squat for volume.  On Wednesday, front squat, usually heavy triples.  On Saturday, attempt to back squat some type of PR.  We typically push the set of 5 in the back squat more than any other rep range, something else I picked up from Coach Pendlay.  It seems to carry over to the clean & jerk better – probably because of the increased time under tension.  In my experience, lifters are also less likely to sacrifice form for a new PR set of 5 than they are for a new PR single.

Closer to a meet, we will lower the volume and increase the intensity, and do more front squatting than back squatting.

I generally don’t do much work with percentages, and I also don’t often dictate changes in rep ranges, but prefer to let them happen naturally.  When a lifter can no longer perform 3 sets of 5 on Monday, we’ll move to 4 sets of 4.  When he has failed a new 5RM attempt two weeks in a row, we’ll move to 3RM.  However, for the sake of having a concrete example of the program, the following is a depiction of how this may look over the course of 12 weeks, with a 13th taper week, at the end of which the lifter competes.

DISCLAIMER: This is an example of the basic framework I use to develop the squat.  The reality is that it is more fluid and variable, dependent on individual needs and circumstances.  As Coach Pendlay once told me, “Theory and practice are the same in theory, but not in practice.

Also, this program assumes that the lifter has already gone through and moved beyond a basic linear progression for developing the squat.  All of my lifters start their training with 3×5 back squat on Monday and Saturday and 5×3 front squat on Wednesday until they can no longer make improvements.  Then they switch to the program outlined here.

*All notation is Sets x Reps where load is NOT indicated, Load x Reps x Sets where load IS indicated.

Week 1

Monday         Back Squat 75%x5x3

Wednesday         Front Squat 75%x3x5

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM (I actually advocate starting somewhat conservatively, a very hard but not quite maximal set of 5)

Week 2

Monday         Back Squat 3×5, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 5×3, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM

Week 3

Monday         Back Squat 3×5, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 5×3, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM

Week 4

Monday         Back Squat 4×4, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 5×3, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM

Week 5

Monday         Back Squat 4×4, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 6×2, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM OR 3RM (*DO NOT move to 3RM unless you have missed your new 5RM attempt for two weeks straight)

Week 6

Monday         Back Squat 4×4, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front squat 6×2, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM or 3RM

Week 7

Monday         Back Squat 5×3, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 6×2, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM or 3RM

Week 8

Monday         Back Squat 5×3, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 6×2, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM or 3RM

Week 9

Monday         Back Squat 5×3, add load from previous Monday

Wednesday         Front Squat 6×2, add load from previous Wednesday

Saturday         Back Squat 5RM or 3RM

Use SMALL increases in weight, particularly on Mondays and Wednesdays.  You should not miss reps on Monday or Wednesday.  You are putting work in, not setting records.  If necessary, stay at the same load for a few weeks at a time.  Saturday is your day to make PRs.

Week 10

Monday         Front Squat heavy single (NOT maximal,) then 90%x2x2 *90% of today’s single

Wednesday         Front Squat heavy single (NOT maximal,) then 90%x2x2 *90% of today’s single

Saturday         Front Squat 1RM

Week 11

Monday         Front Squat 1RM

Wednesday         Front Squat heavy single (NOT maximal,) 90%x2x2 *90% of today’s single

Saturday         Front Squat 1RM

Week 12

Monday         Front Squat 1RM

Wednesday         Front Squat heavy single (NOT maximal)

Saturday         Front Squat 1RM

Week 13 (Taper and Competition)

Monday         Front Squat 85%x1x1

Wednesday         Front Squat C&J opener for single

Saturday         No squatting

Sunday         Compete

Breaking Plateaus

Like anything else, eventually this will stop working, and you will need to do something to move past your current limitations.

The program outlined above is a mix of intensity and volume work.  To break through plateaus, I typically just use a program which biases either volume, or intensity.  The methods I commonly use are presented here.

Volume: Smolov Junior

I have seen quite a few variants of Smolov Junior floating around the internet.  This one may or may not be the “correct” or “original” one.  I’m not sure.  Whatever it is, it seems to work pretty well.  Rather than the traditional 4 days/week that Smolov calls for, I stick to our normal Monday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule for this program.  It alternates between 4 rep schemes:

3×9

4×7

5×5

6×3

The first four workouts would look like this:

Monday         Back Squat 70%x9x3

Wednesday         Back Squat 75%x7x4

Saturday         Back Squat 80%x5x5

Monday         Back Squat 85%x3x6

For the next workout, go back to 3×9 and move up by 5%.  Do the same with each of the following workouts.  For the third cycle, increase by 2.5%.  After that, you can back off for a week, and retest your back squat, at which point you may choose to repeat Smolov Junior, or return to our regularly scheduled programming.  Though there is an intensification phase for Smolov, which I assume could be adapted for Smolov Junior, I have never tried to use it with my weightlifters.

Pros

1:  Lots of squatting.  If you need to gain size, this will likely help.  And it’s more than likely going to push your squat up, unless you are one of those fiew individuals whose strength endurance is good enough that high volume squatting doesn’t necessarily improve 1RMs.

2: Increased work capacity.  Squatting like this will help improve your tolerance to heavy lifting in general, which is definitely a good thing.

Cons

1: It is going to kick your ass.  Not as bad as the original Smolov, but bad enough that you can expect your snatch and clean & jerk to take a hit.  It’s also an absolutely terrible way to squat if you’re trying to lose weight, because you are going to need to eat your face off.

2: No front squats.  I suppose you could work in a heavy single front squat before your back squats once or twice a week, but beyond the first cycle, the last thing you’re going to want to do is more squatting.

Intensity: Daily Squatting

And here are the famed “daily maxes.”  But let’s clear a few things up about how this works.

1. A daily max is not a true max.  Don’t expect to hit a PR every day.  Set a minimum number that is a goal for you to work up to – probably around 80% or a little bit less of your PR.  Try to hit that every day, and gradually bring that number up to 90%.  Occasionally, when you feel great, go big.  You should almost never miss a rep.

2: Find the right balance between back and front squats. I think most lifters should do 2:1 back squat:front squat, but that may not be what works best for you, particularly if you are a weak front squatter.  This method is about functional, not structural adaptation.  It’s practice with heavy weights.  So if your front squat is what needs to come up most, that may be what you do more frequently.

3.  Daily squatting does NOT have to be a daily single. This is generally how I prescribe the program: Start by hitting 80% of your max in either the back or front squat at least 6 days/week.  Gradually increase that number over time.  Occasionally do a double with your daily weight or a little bit higher.  Occasionally do 2×2 with slightly below your daily weight.

4. Increase all weights gradually. When you go for a PR, it should be a SMALL PR.  If you make it, call it a day.  Bring up your daily weight gradually, a few workouts at a time.  Let yourself adapt.  If you don’t, this can end poorly.

Pros

1: Task specific.  Weightlifters train to do one rep, this method will get you good at doing one rep.

2: High frequency squatting, programmed intelligently, won’t have much of an effect on your snatch and clean & jerk.  It’s relatively easy most days and you can get through it in about 10 minutes.

3: Shockingly, this was a great way to deal with my knee pain.  My knees feel far better doing this than they did when I was squatting 3x/week, and I am squatting heavier than I have in close to a year.  I have heard similar reports from other lifters.

Cons

1: If you do not check yourself, you will wreck yourself.  Let your ego take control and you will pay the price.

2: To be done correctly, a lifter needs to know himself pretty well.  This is a very intuitive method and you need to be fairly experienced to employ it correctly.

Conclusion

It is clear to any critical observer that developing leg strength is crucial for the weightlifter.  It is also not as complicated as it may seem at first glance.  I hope that if you choose to try the outlined program, you find it beneficial.  However, of greater importance is understanding the foundations upon which this program is built, and those are what I hope you take away from this article.

“As to the methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Relevant Links

www.muscledriverusa.com, Coach Glenn Pendlay and Team Muscle Driver USA

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Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.
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