Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
Yeah yeah, I know it’s super lame to do one of these ‘5 tips to blah blah blah” articles. I might as well sell out completely and start spamming you guys with Facebook ads “1 weird trick that ZAPS belly fat,” or “10 celebrities that are actually Jiu Jitsu blackbelts.”
As trite as the format is, I still think these sorts of articles have some value. They are quick and easy to read, and they allow you to take away applicable lessons and try them in your own training. But before we get to the tips, here’s something in the way of added credibility. Yeah I’m a professor so I’ve seen a lot of studies and science and so forth. But before you just chalk this up as another article by a nerd who only knows lifting from his books, take a look at this video:
I know a little something about squatting from a long history of training, so feel free to take that into account. I think it is important. Yes, science is central, but if you’ve applied it yourself you have that much better of an understanding. Alright, onto the tips!
1.) Training the lower body 2-3 times per week is probably best.
While low-frequency (1x per week) programming can work, it’s probably not the best approach for everyone. Because muscle growth takes at most several (up to 5) days to go through its full course, and because technique practice is important to strength gains, very infrequent lower body work can leave something to be desired. Beginner lifters can benefit a lot from doing lower body work 3x per week, but the research (and the personal experience of many lifters) has shown that bigger, stronger people can better tolerate 2x per week work. How many working sets you do per session depends on a host of factors, mostly your personal ability to recover/adapt, but 6-8 working sets of squats or other quad work and 2-4 working sets for the posterior chain during each 2x weekly workout is probably a good start for most.
2.) Choose the Right Rep Ranges
In modern periodization, there are 3 distinct goals for squatting:
– Enlarging squatting musculature
Best done with sets of 6-10 reps for powerlifters
– Making the muscle you already have stronger
Best done with sets of 3-5 reps for powerlifters
– Teaching your body to exert itself under heavy (maximal) loads.
Best done with sets of 1-3 reps for powerlifters
Seems pretty straightforward, but people get this stuff mixed up all the time. You’ll see guys hitting 10RMs a couple weeks out from a meet, where they should be focusing only on maximal work, and on the other hand, you’ll see guys doing heavy triples in the middle of their offseason for no discernable reason. Take a look at your plan, choose your long and medium-term goals, and then train with the rep ranges you need to get there!
3.) What About Assistance work?
Squatting strength comes from two groups of muscles:
– The pushing muscles of the legs (quads, glutes, adductors)
– The posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, erectors)
In the quest for a big squat, it’s important to fill in all the gaps and make sure ALL of your squatting musculature is being trained to its adaptive potential. Now, the absolute best way to train the muscles of the squat is to squat! Squatting should be done as much as can be recovered from. But, since squatting hard all the time can be very taxing and can lead to staleness, other derivative moves come in very handy. For developing hypertrophy in the quads, front squats and deep leg presses can be very useful. For developing both hypertrophy and strength in the quads, high bar squats, front squats, and pause squats can be used with very good effect.
Wait, did I say leg press? I thought leg pressing automatically made you part of the DYEL crew? Well, it seems as if the guys from the 70’s and 80’s raw PL era didn’t get that memo, as they used the leg press often to… drumroll… make their quads bigger!!! Cause you know… all those guys with quads too big for the squat… you know them…right??? Yeah, me neither.
For the posterior chain, one of the best assistance moves to the squat is actually the deadlift! If you can pull a lot and not round over, your posterior chain should be able to handle almost anything the squat throws its way. In addition to deadlifting, variations of stiff-legged deadlifts and good-mornings (especially done deep with a super arched back) are quite helpful. If you can strict (and I mean deep and tight, no rack lockout crap) good-morning a ton of weight, you simply won’t get caved over by a big squat.
4.) Limited Focus at a Time
The body has a limited adaptive ability. Other than for beginners (who don’t need to read this and will get stronger doing anything anyway), trying to improve ALL systems and abilities at once tends to offer very diminishing returns and is a bit unrealistic. That is, the best way to train for the squat seems to be to focus on one or two problem areas at a time. For example, by making your posterior chain AND your leg pushing muscles stronger, your squat will go up. So will re-tooling your technique, as will practicing more low-bar work, and paused work, and getting tighter under the bar, and working on your front squats, all the way down the line. The right approach is NOT to try to do all of those things at once! The result will be a mishmash of confusion that may or may not actually improve your squat. Neither is the right approach to alter your focus once every week or several weeks. Yeah, you see that video where Jay Nera front squats a lot, and you think “man, I need to front squat more,” so you change your program to front-squat focus and abandon your previous technique work you started just a week earlier. But each method to improve your squat needs time to work, and meaningful, retainable gains usually take between one and two months of dedicated training.
The better approach is to pick two areas of focus, and work on those for one or two months. Catch the improvement, and then switch your focus to another set of factors. For example, you can work on quad size and front squat poundages for two months, and then transition to maintenance work for your quads as you work hard on your posterior chain and your low-bar setup over the next two months. This way, you keep your gains attained from one angle, and expand them further from other approaches, leading to long-term, steady improvements. Which brings us to the final point:
5.) Time, Work and Patience
At the risk of sounding cliché, one of the most important variables for improving your squat is just plain old time. And I don’t mean 2 hours in the gym, I mean 2 years. Once the basic technique of squatting is attained, there is no magic trick to putting a bunch of weight on the exercise quickly. Yeah, you can alter your bench setup and eek some pounds off of that, and you can definitely work with a good coach on deadlift technique and hit some massive meet-to-meet PR improvements, but with the squat, it’s not quite the same. After you’ve gotten the technique down, there are no tricks… you just have to make your quads, glutes, hams, adductors, and back bigger, stronger, and more capable of exerting under heavy loads… that takes months and years, and means squat PRs can be expected steadily, but slowly, over time. This is important to note, because you’ll hear lifters complaining about how their squats have only gone up by 10 or 15lbs from meet to meet… and my first thought is… so what?! So long as it’s a steady and continual gain, that’s a great pace. I’m not sure about you guys, but I prefer slow, almost predictable gains over sporadic, magical “meet PR moments.”
If you haven’t already, give some of these tips a try (and I mean several months of work, not one session or one week), and I think you’ll likely be satisfied with the results. If not, you can always try to search for that one weird trick that zaps belly fat! I know I’m looking for it!
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”