Powerlifting

Building A Useful Squat


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Amy likes to squat.

I know this, because when I texted her asking if we could discuss her squat for a JTS article, her exact response was “I like squats.”

Specifically, Amy likes to squat heavy and often, and it shows. She’s back squatted 305 and 290×4 (high bar, no belt, ass-to-grass) and front squatted 275. This as a 150lb CrossFitter. Here she is front squatting 250×3 and 265×1…

But Amy’s squat is different from a lot of big squats. Amy’s squat is useful. She gets more value out of her squat than almost anyone I know. It allows her to do silly shit like this (208):

And this (223):

(Author’s Note: Amy actually has very good form – these are atypical lifts for her. I’m just showing you the kind of silly shit she can pull because of her useful squat.)

Many, if not most, of the readers of JTS are after more than just numbers. Squatting strength that carries over into speed, power, capacity – in short, into being a better athlete – is huge. So I figured the best way to figure out how Amy got such a useful squat was to ask.

How does your squat contribute to your overall athleticism, capacity, and movement?

As cheesy as it sounds, because I think the phrase “core strength” is funny, I think having a pretty solid squat has contributed to my core strength, which in turn has carried over to all my other movements, from snatches to handstands to running.

In your opinion, what makes the difference between a big squat and a useful squat?

First off, I will stand by the claim that the high bar squat is much more useful a movement than low bar. Low bar may let you use more weight, but it encourages getting strong in a less useful, athletic position, and won’t carry over, or may even negatively effect, other movements.

Mobility is also key. This is true for the obvious reasons, of course: first off, a full depth, rock bottom squat is the most valuable squat you can do for general strength and athleticism. Good mobility is also necessary for keeping strong, safe positions in the hips, knees, and back. In addition to that, it’s rare that you see an immobile squatter who is fast and explosive. Develop mobility so that you can hit full depth comfortably and be powerful throughout the range of motion.

What are your “rules to squat by?”

No belt for back squats. When I started lifting, I never touched a belt. It wasn’t for any particular reason – we just didn’t use belts at the gym I trained at. I didn’t even know where to get a belt. Because of that, I learned how to stabilize under heavy loads, and I feel like that has made me able to stabilize doing pretty much any movement. When I miss a lift, it’s never because I just crumple. If you don’t know how to make your own belt, you have no business putting one on.

Squat heavy often. Being under heavy weight regularly is the key to developing that built-in belt. Unless you are a very advanced athlete, it’s unlikely that you need to be using bands, chains, boxes, or dynamic effort days. Put weight on the bar – a lot of weight – and squat, three times a week at least.

Don’t get caught up in your 1 rep max. In the last year, the thing I’ve pushed the most with my back squat is the 5RM. I believe this is the rep range that has contributed the most to my general strength, power, athleticism, and capacity. I feel like for most people, especially females, your 5RM will still be a pretty high percentage of what you can do for a single. But the increased time under tension, and the volume involved with working up to a top set of 5, seems to have carried over to the rest of my training better than focusing on my top single. Additionally, there is less mental stress involved with the 5RM, and over the course of a long training cycle it can be a lot easier to keep progress going. This isn’t to say that the 5RM should take the place of the 1RM as the singular focus of your squat training, but rather that you should avoid getting completely intent on building your top single and neglecting other rep ranges

How do you approach your squat sessions?

Firstly, I always start with a thorough warm-up and mobility session, particularly my hips.

As far as the squat itself, I always think about taking a huge belly breath. I’m definitely not looking sexy. As I begin the descent, I focus on creating a lot of tension in my hips, and really shove my knees out to initiate the movement. At the bottom, I get a sharp bounce but don’t think about it too much – I just let it happen. I push my chest up and keep my belly tight through the ascent – when I miss a squat, it’s usually because I get pushed forward, and that happens when I get loose and let my chest drop.

The mental aspect is important too. I think the best thing to do is just get in and get work done. I don’t really get amped up. I stay pretty neutral and just step under the bar and squat. If you’re squatting three days a week at least, like you should be, getting emotionally involved every time you do it is going to be very exhausting and leave you psychologically drained, especially when you don’t have a great session. The important thing is to get in and do the best squatting you can do, and not worry about the numbers from day-to-day.

In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake most people make with their squatting?

The biggest mistake is not squatting. Especially in CrossFit, there are so many people who just don’t understand that they need to get their squat up if they want to improve their performance. Even competitive CrossFitters neglect it too often.

Going back to what I said earlier, I think a lot of people put the belt on way, way too soon. You are denying yourself a lot of the carryover you can get out of heavy squatting when you don’t learn how to do it without any help.

Another one is foot placement. Many people never really play with this, and don’t find the best way to set their feet. They might be too wide or too narrow or have their toes too far out or too straight – it runs the gamut. In my experience, simple changes in foot placement can make a big difference to your range of motion, comfort, and timing in the squat.

Lastly, people need to remember that their movement will evolve over time. As you gain or lose flexibility, gain or lose size, develop musculature in certain areas, or even just get more technically adept at squatting, things may need to change. There is nothing wrong with this. Don’t get stale or stagnant. Always be willing to make changes to the way you move.

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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