The Squat, the first lift in a powerlifting competition. In my mind it is what sets the men from the boys, sure it can be argued that the deadlift is the king of the powerlifts, but in my own opinion and from competitive experience nothing is more psychologically and physically demanding than the squat!
Being perhaps my favourite lift just above the deadlift, here are 5 assistance exercises anyone can incorporate, to propel their max squat, whether you are a raw lifter, equipped lifter, or just train for personal bests and your own self satisfaction. These 5 exercises can help you power through the sticking points that you may find yourself currently with the squat.
Okay I am going to be completely honest here, box squats SUCK to do, why? Because they introduced me to a whole new understanding of the word pain! However, these are one of those exercises I genuinely 100% feel. You feel like utter crap doing them but the pros heavily outweigh the cons, with the only con being the possibility of stumbling out of the gym door and throwing up!
The weight used when box squatting will be less than your regular squat. This is due to the fact that there is no stretch reflex action to help you power out the hole as your pausing each rep on the box, hence why this is PERFECT for strengthening your power out the hole. It forces you to drive in a dead position whilst still keeping tight and not relaxing, so come competition time, once depth has been hit you should be propelling like a rocket!
There is only one way to do a box squat properly, I know many famous powerlifting gyms like to use a high box for overload, but where I train its always depth height, why? Because you’re going to have to squat to depth in a competition, so why do it any higher on an exercise that is aimed to improve your competition squat? You want this to be hard, not easy, so make sure your box is low enough that you’re below parallel!
The box squat is also a safe and effective way to learn how to squat with correct technique, as it allows novice lifters to perform with less weight and focus on the technical aspects of the lift. Also it is a great movement to do coming from a competition for the experienced lifters, decreasing the load, and focusing on dynamic effort and technique for a few weeks before hitting the heavier percentages again.
It also helps you learn to “sit back” and activate the posterior chain strengthening hips, glutes, lower back and hamstrings all within one movement.
Learning to sit back will especially help the equipped lifters where sitting back to get the most out of their equipment becomes vital.
Finally, explosive power, as you pause on the box there is no stretch reflex thus causing you to be in a dead position. So for you to get out the hole, you have to unflex and then flex again teaching you to become explosive in a dead position, which will carry over greatly once back to regular squatting as the stretch reflex will become even greater as a result.
It is important to always stay tight, even when you’re at the unflexed position on the box. Keeping tight is essential, not only will you learn how to activate your core and upper body muscles during the squat, it will also allow you to handle the heavier weights with confidence.
If there is one thing we can learn from our Olympic Weightlifting counter parts, they damn sure know how to squat!
Front squats are a very quad dominant exercise which helps strengthen and build up the quads, the fact that you are holding it in front of you, means that if you go forward, you will lose the bar. So it allows the lifter to learn to keep upright, keep their core tight which is why they can be a good tool to teach lifters to squat with an erect torso which can only improve their back squat technique even more!
The amount of core stabilisation required in this life means that there is a great transfer or carry over to your regular squat, like my coach and world champion powerlifter Dave “Bulldog” Beattie once told me “A front squat can always improve your back squat, but a back squat can’t improve your front squat” and coming from someone who holds a world record squat of 467.5kg...I think he knows what he is talking about!
There are variations in terms of grip. You can do an Olympic grip like you see during the clean and jerk, which I prefer myself, or how bodybuilders tend to squat with crossed arms, it doesn’t make a difference which grip you go for, as long as you’re comfortable both will yield the same results. If you have difficulties using equipment pads such as a stingray may help with holding the weight in front of you.
Not only are good mornings an excellent assistance exercise to help bring your deadlift up, but they are also great to strengthen the posterior chain for squatting.
The good morning is an excellent exercise of choice as it targets all the muscles a lifter will utilise during the squat within a single movement, targeting the hamstring, glutes, erector spinae etc.
The issue with this particular exercise that a lot of lifters are apprehensive about is the potential for injury when form is incorrect or simply too much weight is being used. This is especially the case when failing a rep becomes an issue when pushing heavier percentage loads on this exercise for low repetitions.
This issue can be rectified by doing the following:
1) Leave your ego at the door- It is as simple as that, use less weight, focus on form and hit a higher number of reps instead.
2) If you do wish to go heavier for a low rep scheme, make sure you are doing this in a power cage and set the pins high enough that if failing a rep occurs, you can dump the bar without suffering a spinal injury.
Treat this exercise as you would do with stiff legged deadlifts, keep the form tight, nice and controlled, slow and focus on the contraction of the glutes, hamstrings and lower back. Work up slowly in weight and never attempt more weight than you can clearly handle. A stronger lower back and posterior chain can propel your squat to no end; however an injured lower back will halt your progress for a long period of time, so treat this exercise with the respect it deserves!
Leg press/ Hack squats:
The leg press and hack squat are both machine movements used primarily by bodybuilders however they have their place as an assistance exercise to help improve your squat. They target the quadriceps but changing the floor placements can allow the hamstrings to be targeted as well.
The beauty of these two exercises and why I would recommend them to anyone as a good choice of assistance exercise on their squat days is that they are easy to do, every gym has at least one of these machines, and you can mess around with the loads and rep schemes to your advantage. So more weight less reps or less weight more reps depending what you aimed to accomplish from this assistance exercise.
Although there may not be an obvious biomechanical carry over to your squat, what it does do is target the muscles in the lower body used in the squat. In a simple machine based exercise that has little learning curve when compared to box squats and good mornings, whilst I would always opt for box squats, front squats and good mornings over these two, adding them alongside them wouldn’t hurt when trying to improve your squat!
Glute ham raise (Machine and non-machine variation)
Easily one of the best exercises aside from box squats anyone can do to increase their max squat. Now this article is aimed at individuals who may not have access to a glute ham raise machine, me being one of them, so here is a variation you can use using a lat pulldown machine, and your own hands, if you have access to a glute ham raise machine, great go ahead and use it NOW!
Facing away from the latt pulldown machine hook your feet underneath the pad slowly descending down whilst keeping the hamstring tight in a controlled fashion. Once you reach the floor use your hands to push off from the floor and contracting the hamstring almost like a leg curl.
Here is a video to make it more simple to understand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNaqjlxJF_0
The best thing about this exercise is that it hits your glutes and hamstrings in a way a lot of exercises can’t, it highlights the weaknesses you may have, and getting strong at this exercise can only increase the rate of acceleration you can produce via the glutes and hamstring when driving out the hole of the squat. Once you can do the video above for reps, start to do it without the aid of your hands, and then when that becomes comfortable, add resistance such as a dumbbell, plate, resistance band or even a weighted plate. Always find ways to make exercises harder that is how you improve as a lifter, the harder it is in the gym, the easier it is on the platform. It does say a lot in itself that this exercise is a main staple of the best squatters in the world!
So that is my personal top 5 choices to increase your max squat, give them a go, and I hope the next time you get under that bar on a max effort day you’ll hit a PB thanks to one of these exercises I have highlighted.
Thank you to Fitmag again for the opportunity to write for them, PhD Nutrition for their constant support, Dave “Bulldog” Beattie for being a great coach and my training partners at Genesis Gym for being like a second family to me!