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The Big 3: The Squat

Everyone has fun building up their deadlift or the bench but the squat is often overlooked. There are tons of reasons for this (limited mobility, weak core, imbalances, funky leg:hip ratios, etc…), each of which is an article in itself but the common truth I find in people that avoid squats is simple: they aren’t good at them.

Goblet Squat

Goblet Squat

If you’re new to the squat then check out our introductory article here. Before you get going on having a heavy barbell squat make sure that you have a solid goblet squat (pictured) and can keep your back flat throughout the movement.  

Squats are a technical lift and there is a large difference between performing a decent squat and a great squat. If you want to get to the point that you have a great squat then you need to do a lot squats. With this in mind the program we are going to use to bring up our squat poundage will necessitate squatting twice per week. Additionally the legs respond very well to high volume work and some of these days will have you working in a variety of rep ranges.

Your new Squat Program

To start off we need to calculate your bench press 1 rep max (1RM), this is the maximal amount you can lift for one rep. You can test for your 1RM directly but I only recommend this if you have at least 8 months of experience and a training partner. Alternatively you can use a weight you are more comfortable with and perform reps until failure and estimate your 1RM with a calculator.

Each legs day you will perform:

  • 3 Warm up sets of Squats
  • Assigned Working Sets of Squats
  • 3 Sets of Lunges (Optional)

While this may not sound like a lot of volume we are actually going to be performing two leg days per week.  Space them out however works best for you but I suggest putting at least 72 hours between sessions (e.g. Monday and Thursday).

One total cycle of this program will take 7 weeks in total. It breaks down like this:

Note: Layout is “(Weight as a % of 1RM) x # of Sets x # of Reps per set”

Microcycle 1 (2 weeks)

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 (70%) x 4 x 9 (75%) x 5 x 7
Week 2 (80%) x 7 x 5 (85%) x 9 x 3

Microcycle 2 (2 weeks)

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 (72.5%) x 4 x 9 (77.5%) x 5 x 7
Week 2 (82.5%) x 7 x 5 (87.5%) x 9 x 3

Microcycle 3 (2 weeks)

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 (75%) x 4 x 9 (80%) x 5 x 7
Week 2 (85%) x 7 x 5 (90%) x 9 x 3

Deload (1 week)

Week 1 (50%) x 4 x 7 (40%) x 5 x 9

Optional Sets: Lunges

Lunges are an excellent isolate real exercise to perform after squats. They can really highlight imbalances between the left and right sides. The reason they are optional is because the amount of working sets for squats regularly varies and there may be instances in which lunges as the end of your workout will not be feasible.

Lunges (4-6 Reps each side)

Start with a weight that you are certain you can perform for 8 reps on each side.  Aim for performing 4-6 reps. If you can perform 6 reps for 2 consecutive sets then increase the weight for the next set by 10 lbs.  If you cannot perform at least 4 reps for a single set them drop the weight to 80% for the next set.  This will be your new starting point for the next legs day.  Rest 2.5 minutes between sets

If you’re new to performing lunges start by using dumbbells to add resistance, this is less likely to offset your balance.  Advanced trainees should use a barbell loaded on their back, similar to a squat set up.

Photos courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Putting it to use

What I like about this set up is the freedom it gives. At the end of 7 weeks you’re free to try another program, give this one another go, or even modify it for your purposes. I’ve completed a number of rounds of this program and each time my squat has gotten deeper, cleaner, and stronger. And that’s why I am sharing it with you.

Tell me your thoughts on this squat program on Facebook (www.facebook.com/brawnforbrains), Instagram, and Twitter (@brawnforbrains).

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Getting Started: The Squat

The squat is without a doubt one of the most effective exercises you can ever do. It’s evident by the fact that it is literally everywhere in the fitness world:

  • Bodyweight training? Air squat
  • Weight Training? Weighted Squats
  • Kettlebell? Goblet Squat
  • Crossfit? All the squats!

The squat has innumerable iterations each with it’s own particular areas of effectiveness and doing some form of squatting is sure to strengthen your legs, protect your knees, and make you feel all around more powerful in everyday life.

Despite it’s stellar reputation in fitness circles the squat has a less-than-great reputation in the normal world. People are underneath impression that squatting is bad for your knees, back, and hips. And this is sort of true. Squatting badly can lead to some problems but squatting well can prevent those problems. And before you think you can just avoid squats altogether and be fine you may want to think of how many times you sit down in a day. Every time you lower yourself into a seat you are squatting, it’s seriously unavoidable so you may as well learn to do it correctly and effectively.

Getting your bearings

Go ahead and sink into a deep squat and hold it for 30 seconds, I’ll wait here.

How’d you do?

Most people have some general immobility that prevents their hips from sinking deeper than the level of their knees or makes them fall backward if they do sink below comfort. This instability is a result of a poorly controlled center of gravity. You’re inability to control your center of gravity may arise from various sources but the end result is the same.

Simply put, if your center of gravity is near the center of your body you can maintain stability throughout the movement and if it drifts backward then the rest of you will follow.

Taking control of your center of gravity has two requirements; ample mobility to perform the squat, and the ability to sense & manipulate the location of your center of gravity. To achieve both of these goals we are going to go through a short series of mobilization drills and introduce the goblet squat.

Mobilizations

Some people can sink into a perfect squat easily without any tissues feeling tight. I am not one of those people and I’ve yet to have a client that is, however I have been assured they exist… somewhere in the universe. In reality you’re probably like the rest of us and spend enough time in a seated position that you’re adapted for that position.

Being adapted to sitting all the time means shorter hamstrings, and chronically tight hips, among other problems. The good news is that we can restore our tissues to their optimal state using mobilization drills.

There are a lot of different mobilizations, or “mobs,” that people use to loosen up their stiff tissues. I’m going to share my staple mobilizations I use to keep me squatting with ease.

Banded Hamstring StretchIMG_2437

 

Assume a split legged stage with your banded leg forward. Keeping your back flat hinge towards your toes. When you reach the end of your comfortable range of motion pulse back up and repeat.

You can do this without a band but it will be less effective for hip mobilization.

Forward Lunge

The forward lunge allows us to simulate the bottom position of a deep squat one leg at a time while simultaneous stretching our hip flexors in the opposite leg.

Once you are comfortable in a normal forward lunge you can start opening up your hip by driving your hand against the inside of your forward knee.

Side Lunge & Twist Up

IMG_2436Start this one by sinking into a moderately deep squat. Next place a hand on the inside of the same-side knee and drive your shoulder against your knee. Now twist such that your free hand is reaching upwards. Hold for 10-20 seconds and switch sides. Continue switching sides as needed to comfortably sink into a deep squat, I usually do 3 rounds per side.

The Goblet Squat

Trying to master control over your center of gravity using an air squat has one major issue: it’s very difficult to find the mechanism(s) responsible for this shift. Using the goblet squat we are literally placing a manipulandum for controlling your center of gravity in the palms of your hands. In general when I have people start squatting with a goblet squat they have to hold the weight out very far in front of them to offset the shift towards their backside. Over time and with a few simple drills that weight comes closer and closer to their chest demonstrating an emerging control over their weight distribution.

To get the most out of doing the goblet squat we are going to squat a lot.  Start with a light weight.  Despite what you may think it doesn’t take much weight to counterbalance yourself, in the above picture I am using a 15lb kettlebell to offset my shift in balance and I’m 220lbs!  Aim for a handful of sets, 3 to 6, in which you will perform in the upper rep range of your ability, 12 to 18 reps.  As you perform each rep be mindful of where you hold the weight and try to hold it a little closer to your chest than before.  Before long you should be squatting like Victoria here:

IMG_2441

Right here she is using a 20lb dumbbell for 15 reps but do not let the light weight fool you. This girl is not afraid of putting heavy plates on the barbell and lifting heavy.

 

Barbell Back Squat

img_1401

This is the archetypal variation of the squat that typically comes to mind when people think of the exercise. The barbell back squat is exactly what it sounds like; you place a loaded barbell into your back and squat. Sounds simple but this exercise is deceivingly technical. Ideally you should be familiar with the handful of mobility drills we introduced earlier and can perform a solid goblet squat with the weight firmly pressed to your chest before you tackle this exercise.

Unlike for the goblet squat I’m not going to write in detail about how to best execute a barbell back squat. There’s a lot of nuances in this exercise that will just be missed in writing. In this case I believe video to be the appropriate media for instruction. Below are the two most helpful squat instructional videos I have used personally and have my clients watch regularly.

High bar and low bar back squat – TechniqueWOD

 How to squat with Dr. Layne Norton

 

Putting it all together

As we said before, you should start with using the goblet squat and bringing the weight closer and closer to your chest.  Aim for completing 3-6 sets of 12-18 reps.  The goal with this high volume protocol is to get you used to the movement pattern of a good squat.  Take each rep slow and controlled, don’t butt dip your way through each set.  When you’re regularly performing the goblet squat with the weight against your chest you should start doing some barbell back squats.

Ease into the barbell squats.  Work in some goblet squats in-between sets of barbell back squats to keep the movement pattern fresh in your mind.  Once you’re confident in your ability to perform a goblet squat and a barbell back squat you’re ready to start a traditional squat program. Depending on your experience with weightlifting there’s a few options you can consider:

  1. If you’re really really new to all of this I’d suggest starting out with squatting 1-2 times per week and performing 3 working sets on each of those days (working sets come after warm up sets).  Aim on completing 9-12 reps, if you can easily do 12+ reps the weight is too light and if you can’t do 9 reps then it’s too heavy.  I find this works best when people are new to squat training because they are likely to make huge leaps in the amount of weight they can move much faster than people with training experience.  Do this for a few months and when you finally seem to hit a ceiling in your squat progress then you should start considering a more traditionally structured program.
  2. If you have some experience with resistance training then there are tons of programs you should look into to get stronger.  I’d suggest looking into our “Big 3: The Squat” program.