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If I were King for a day, I’d alleviate so many issues, fears and apprehensions about training by simply replacing the word ‘exercise’ with the word ‘movement.’ The squat, feared, revered and misunderstood, might then be seen as an essential part of life instead of some evil force that causes bad backs, bad knees and destroyed egos. Whether intimidating or simply technically challenging, the squat is too often ignored, abused or badmouthed by folks who should consider them something special and essential for anyone’s toolbox. But let’s rethink the squat as a movement, not just a massive intimidating exercise. And we should never fear moving the body, right?
As a movement, the squat is simply bending at the knees and the hips simultaneously, and then standing back up, something we do all the time. As a training tool, the focus will be loading the body with extra force and performing the movement in the most effective way possible.
Effective for what? Since the chains of muscles involved in a squat are the same as so many sporting and daily movements, the squat becomes the kiss of death to any weakness within these chains, helping create maximum strength and power for sporting endeavors or simple overall body function.
The Squat is also a competitive life in the sport of Powerlifting (and sometimes Strongman competitions). The importance of this isn’t limited to the subculture of powerlifters. The benefit of maximum force development that powerlifters strive for will help any of us with just about any other physical endeavor you might think of (yes, probably even the naughty stuff).
Now here’s the super bonus that so many people flock to the gym for:
Squats make your legs look better too. Yep. It is true. Since so many muscles work in unison, nothing beats the basic squat for leg development of the aesthetic kind as well.
From the basic body squat to overhead squats or the classic Jefferson Squat (a technique that would concern the average man), the list of possible squat variations is only limited to the imagination and the tools available. This program will cycle through a few of the better known varieties, with a large emphasis on box squats, which is discussed below:
Now thats a deep squat!
The box can be a great learning tool for all levels of lifters. Why? Well, in trainer-speak, sitting into the box breaks the concentric/eccentric chain. In English, the box forces you to start from a ‘stopped’ position, making the lift harder and more focused. It also trains you to hit a consistent depth, which is key for competitors, and very helpful for non-competitors who are unsure about how low their butt is.
Powerlifting squat (notice the constant angle of the shins) on a box
In the above visual, notice that the stance is wide, the arch is tight, the belly is full of air and the hips are way back, so far that the toes curl up. Yes, I often lift barefoot!
Powerlifting squat (notice the constant angle of the shins) on a box. The stance is wide, the arch is tight, the belly is full of air and the hips are way back, so far that the toes curl up. Yes, I often lift barefoot!
The trick with the box is to avoid the ‘tappy-tappy.’ SIT ON IT! Don’t tap the box and then pop up liked it goosed you. A cue that may help is to ‘crush’ the box or to sit through the box, like you’re trying to squat deeper but that darn thing is in your way.
But by no means relax on it. Here’s a quick quiz:
Exhaling, rolling the hips under or rounding the back while on the box will:
a) Create a great opportunity to bounce up, executing an explosive and powerful squat by springing on a flexed spine.
b) Ruin most of the spinal stability you had and make getting up not only harder, but potentially dangerous to your spine
c) Get the chicks to notice you
If you answered A, spin around in a circle until you’re dizzy and then practice yoga until you can kiss your own ass goodbye. If you answered C, you may not be wrong, but you won’t get a date. B, of course, says it all. You are crushing the box with perfect squat form, not relaxing on it, and then, from that stopped but tight position, exploding off the box.
Powerlifters like to talk about ‘building the squat,’ meaning that they use other movements and workouts to help their bodies be able to squat better. Make the spine, hips and legs stronger and there will be an increase in the squat numbers. The end product is a monster squat.
Bodybuilders are the opposite. They ‘squat to build.’ their legs. Strength isn’t as relevant as much as aesthetic development. The end product being bigger, more developed, legs.
The philosophy at my training center, Bodytribe, is ‘let’s build the squat to build us.’ Even though many of us are competitive powerlifters, and our squat total is an indicator of our ability to generate maximum force, we aim to be well-rounded athletes and humans, so it doesn’t end at our squat total.
The total is just one of many indicators we have as to the overall performance progress of our machines. If our maximum force development goes up (along with our other indicators), we realize we are simply able to DO more as human beings (which, to again bring it full circle, would include squatting).
Our efforts are rarely specifically for aesthetic development, because we know what happens as a required byproduct of hard work. We like the legs looking better, but we don’t fret about it, because the simple equation of Lift Hard = Better Muscles is something even my small brain can understand and has been proven and tested with outstanding results. Our focus, therefore, becomes strength. All different types of strength. Strength for the purpose of DOING stuff. And, due to the magical equation above, our legs also look better. Cool, huh? Living for ability instead of aesthetics makes training much more fun.
The Spectrum of Strength
If we define strength in the physical world as ‘force development’ and acknowledge all the different degrees of force development, then we have a giant spectrum of strength, from the archetypical Absolute Maximal Force Development (the legendary world where grandmothers lift cars off babies and what all ‘strength’ athletes are striving for) to extreme endurance events like century runs and multi-day challenges, and everything in between. It is all force development, from the body generating as much force as possible at once (powerlifting, Olympic lifting, throwing cars off pinned loved ones, etc.), to low-level force development over a long duration (what is called ‘endurance,’ and often treated as something different from ‘strength.’).
The Spectrum of Strength
With such a spectrum of possibility, why is it that the average weight trainer works within the very limited prison of 6-10, or 8-12 reps with moderate speed and weight? Training further in both directions will create a more capable, ‘stronger’ human. Thinking beyond ‘reps’ and ‘sets’ and ‘weight’ is the key to using the entire spectrum. What about speed? Duration? Distance? All of these are malleable factors that we can be creative with.
From the strict number crunching of athletic periodization, which often looks like someone threw a bunch of numbers into a computer to generate their strict workout (and they probably did) for the next 6 months, to the complete opposite world of random GPP workouts that seem to throw a bunch of ideas into a blender and try something different almost every day, there are some options out there.
Since most of what is seen in gyms is very limited in scope, not addressing the many possibilities of strength, we’re going to use several modalities at once to hit a wide section of the Spectrum. Having a greater ability on more levels of the spectrum will lead to greater potential to increase specific parts of the spectrum. For example, if your body has a higher level of general physical preparedness (GPP), you can handle a greater workload to train heavier for maximum strength. And a greater level of maximum strength will teach the body to push beyond obstacles that could hinder endurance activities.
But instead of increasing our workouts to undesirable lengths, we can consolidate them into mini-bombs of intensity.
Our template here is of absolute clay. Get your inner artist on and take this in new directions. This template addresses a much broader range on the spectrum of strength than most programs out there, and lets you manipulate variables to not only keep the body in a constant state of progress, but to also keep it interesting.
We’re building our squat (to ultimately build ourselves), so this workout will cover all aspects of the Spectrum using movements that create more ability through our hips, legs and spine.
The Basic Template Concepts:
These are the three main concepts the template design will consist of:
Max Force Development Lift
The MFD lift will be the centerpiece of a workout. The max force lift will either be a one-rep max or a speed lift (think max effort day versus dynamic effort day, if you’re familiar with Westside methods), since force development can come through either load or speed. And the squat can be of any nature and with any tool; front, back, overhead, Zercher, with chains, bands, box, kettlebell, one leg, whatever. Heck, other powerful hip movements, like good mornings, Olympic lifts, lunges, and plyometric work can all be utilized.
To build the squat we must build ability in other movements. To build a powerful squat, we also need support from other parts of the spectrum beyond just maximum force development. This range of the spectrum will increase skill, hypertrophy and joint integrity. The repetition exercise can be ANY supportive exercise. Another squat, glute/ham developers, reverse-hyper, pistol squats, farmer’s walk, even esoteric lifts like the hand and thigh lift or bent press.
General Physical Preparedness (GPP)
The term GPP has been used for years, and although convenient, it is also sounds very boring. But GPP training is both extremely important and often ignored, so avoiding it creates specialty athletes who have bodies that are very limited in ability. GPP has been shown repeatedly, without contention, to improve all levels of athletes, and it also builds some seriously conditioned muscles. Even bodybuilders could learn a thing or two from GPP training.
GPP training has the biggest possibility for artistic freedom. Take any malleable factor (distance, time, reps, sets, load, or exercise selection) and build something challenging. The exercises don’t all have to directly relate to the squat, so feel free to press, pull or even run. One recommended tip would be to always include some serious spine work, which we’ll talk about below.
For more information on GPP, see the article - Are You Down With GPP?
The Squat Workout
Here’s an example of a workout using the template concepts above.
Max effort squat
- 8-10 sets of between 1-3 reps working up to a one-rep max - basic powerlifting protocol.
Good Mornings for reps
- 2-4 sets of 6-20 reps. Yes, 6-20. Anyone who says reps higher then 10 build ‘endurance,’ not muscle, either have a very bad idea of what ‘endurance’ actually is (endure 100 reps, that’s more like it), or just don’t feel like working outside their comfortable rep range.
Lunges / Farmer’s Walks / Barbell Rollouts
- Weighted lunges for 50-100 feet
- Heavy farmer’s walks 100-200 feet
- Barbell Rollouts for 1 minute
Complete the above workout as described below:
- Easier: 2 times through
- Harder 3 times through
- Champion: 3 times through, no rest periods.
Customizing this Template
This limited description isn’t meant to leave you stuck, it is meant to make you think. There will be more examples below, but don’t hesitate to create your own. Disregard all ‘rules,’ as they are usually crap.
Challenge your creativity. Just see the Spectrum of Strength as an open door to possibilities that involves more than just sets and reps. Above all, have fun.
The Maximum Strength and Ability Program
This is a 9-week program using 3-week cycles. There will be two ‘squat days’ a week through the cycles, one day focused on heavy weight for the MFD, the other on speed, with at least 2 days between the two workouts. This is, of course, very similar to modern powerlifting protocols, but this template covers more range of the Spectrum while utilizing movements that haven’t had much fame since the Physical Culture era. If some of these movements seem too foreign, replace them with something more familiar.
- MFD: Squat (see protocol in example above)
- Repetition: Good Mornings
- GPP: Lunges/farmer’s walks/rollouts
- MFD: Box squats with bands (10-12 sets, 55%-65% of 1RM, 30-second rest)
- Repetition: Cleans (2-4 sets, 4-10 reps)
- GPP: Bueler’s / Saxon bends / burpees (5 sets of 5 reps each, per side on the Bueler’s and Saxon bends)
Easier: short rest between each combo
Harder: Go for time, and see how fast you can blast through all five sets
- MFD: Box squats with bands
- Repetition: Overhead squats (2-4 sets, 4-8 reps)
- Repetition: Stiff Leg Deadlifts (1-2 sets, try for 20 reps)
- GPP: Turkish get-up/swing/windmill
- Back to back. At the top of the t-get-up, swing the weight. At the top of the swing, do a windmill. Switch sides when you want as long as you balance out, but see how long it takes to do 20 each side.
- MFD: Cleans
- Repetition: Farmer’s walk (go heavy and for distance. 2-3 sets)
- GPP: Burpees / plank
- 30 seconds of burpees followed by a 30 second plank for 5-10 minutes straight, non-stop)
- MFD: Front squats
- Repetition: Heavy walkouts/partials
- Set the bar up as if you’re going to attempt to back squat 50-100 pounds more than you usually squat. Unrack, walkout, do 3-10 partials, barely breaking at the hips. Rack it and see if you can go heavier. Setting the pins in the squat rack really high is a good idea.
- Repetition: Sandbag/barbell/dumbbell lunges
- Lunge with something heavy in your hands or on your back. Go for distance, between 50-100 feet, if not more.
- GPP: Hang clean / push press / good morning
- With one bar, clean it, push press it, and lower it for a good morning. Use 3 sets, 5-10 reps.
- MFD: Deadlifts
- GPP: Db/kb front squats/40-yard dash/swings/40-yard dash
- This one works best outside. Front squat with a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells for 6-10 reps, then drop then and sprint as fast as you can for 40 yards. Then immediately grab a conveniently located DB or kettlebell at the end of the 40 yards, which you will now swing for 10-20 reps before sprinting back to the starting. 2-3 sets.
- Repetition: Ball slams
What happens next?
After 9 weeks of this sort of intensity, we’d often cycle in two 3-week cycles focused more on Repetition lifts, less on the Maximum Force Development, with only one day a week dedicated to squatting. Another option would be to back off on the intensity of the GPP. For example:
- Squats 5 sets of 5 reps
- Good mornings 6-15 reps, 3 sets
- Swings / farmer’s walk 10-20 reps / 100 foot walk
- Saxon bends 2-3 sets, 10 reps.
And then, for your own good, take a week off. Use short, light workouts, where the intensity is almost insulting. You’ll come back stronger when it is time to cycle through the madness again.
Some important points
You’ll notice that sometimes there are deviations from the original template, using either more exercises or changing the order. The MFD might serve well as the first lift, but even that is just a suggestion. Also, the days can be swapped, like a more traditional Westside Barbell program, where the speed day always comes before the heavy day.
Notice something important here: No machines. This is simple preference (I hate machines), but by no means law. It does simplify things and make you able to workout anywhere that has something heavy to lift.
Single leg movements
As great as squatting is, like any movement done exclusively, it can lead to imbalances. Use single leg movements often to keep the hips and legs balanced.
The spine is considerably more complex than ‘abs.’ Spend as little time on the floor as possible. Use big movements, weighted movements, fast movement, and HARD movements to strengthen the spine.
Like Bruce Lee wrote, “Use no way as way; use no limitation as limitation.”
Written by Chip Conrad
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - Squatology discussion thread.