3 Steps To A Bigger Back Squat
There are many different variations of the back squat squat and within these, everyone has their own specifics such as preferred grip, stance, bar positioning, so on so forth. What type of back squat you use, and what type of technique you adopt will depend largely on your goals. Building maximal strength for powerlifting, strength for sprinting, strength and size for the rugby pitch or even strength and size just for your own personal satisfaction will all warrant the use of different variations of back squats at different points throughout your training year. Other factors such as previous or current injuries, mobility restrictions, individual anthropometry and muscular imbalances or weakness may also have a bearing on back squat choice and technique. So, which is the best? Below, I will outline 3 steps you can take to squat the most weight possible.
- SQUAT LOW BAR AND PERFECT AND UNDERSTAND THE TECHNIQUE
With the goal to purely increase the amount of weight you can squat, the low bar squat is the best. Using a low bar position turns the back squat into a hip dominant rather than a quad dominant movement which is of big significance. The quads will still be used because they are the only muscles that extend the knee joint however, the hip extensors consist of 3 separate muscle groups (the hamstrings, glutes and adductors). They therefore, comprise more potential muscle mass to spread the work across during the movement so it makes a lot of sense to squat in a way which maximises all the muscles that can potentially be brought in to it. The problem is, squatting in such a way requires a complex coordination of a range of joints, muscles and ligaments which calls them to all work in synergy. I have found not only learning and perfecting the technique, but also taking the time to understand it to be greatly valuable in improving my numbers as well as my clients. Here are a few key pointers:
- Tight Low Back – Keeping tight throughout the squat is essential if you don’t want your lower back to be thrown into flexion (aka the butt wink) and your spine to resemble a coke can that’s just been stamped on. Starting your squat with an anterior tilt of the hips or a slightly arched lower back will help to keep your lower back tight and maintain a strong neutral position at the bottom of the lift.
- Back Angle – To ensure you utilise the hip muscles you will want to adopt a more horizontal back angle, which will lead to a smaller hip joint angle, larger knee joint angle and greater activation of the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and adductors). The optimal angle for your back will be about 45°. Much more than this will shift the bar out of line with your centre of mass (the mid foot) and therefore, increase the moment arm, making the lift much harder than it needs to be whilst risking missing the lift and in the worst case suffering an injury. Much less than this back angle will result in your torso being too upright, cause a forward shift of the knees which will effectively “shut down” the hamstrings and adductors and make the lift too quad dominant. To help create this back angle, it helps to think about “breaking at the hip”. Try to visualise pushing your hips back upon initiation of the movement at the same time as bending your knees.
- Tight Upper Back and Hip Drive – Providing you do the first two pointers well, you will have set yourself up for a strong and powerful drive out of the hole. Upon initiation of the accent, focus on keeping your upper back nice and tight by pulling your shoulder blades back as hard as possible and driving your upper back up into the bar. This will help to maintain a constant back angle and prevent the torso from rocking forward. Secondly, drive up from the hips whilst pushing the knees out which helps activate the hip muscles and keeps the thigh bone, knee and ankle in proper alignment.
These technique pointers are not a comprehensive, but there’s certainly enough here for you to focus on to begin with.
- SQUAT MORE OFTEN (2-3 TIMES PER WEEK)
Unless you are an extremely experienced and extremely strong lifter, squatting once a week will not be enough to stimulate adaptation and your strength gains will be left wanting. Novice lifters will benefit a whole lot more from squatting three times per week, whilst bigger, stronger intermediate and even some advanced lifters may be better off from squatting twice per week. Even for myself (who I’d like to think off as an advanced lifter!) squatting once a week is not enough volume nor technique practice to drive optimal adaptation. Personal ability to recover/adapt and training phase, amongst other variables, will determine exactly how much volume and at what intensity you squat each week. However, for the majority, once a week will not bring you the best results.
- CHOOSE THE RIGHT REP RANGES
There are three sub goals or aims to achieve the biggest squat possible:
- Muscular hypertrophy of the muscles involved in the squat;
A rep range of 6 to 12 is most effective for stimulating new muscle growth.
- Increasing the actual strength of the muscles involved in the squat that you already have;
A rep range of 3 to 5 is typical of a strength phase and presents the optimal stimulus for making muscle stronger.
- Teaching your body to cope with and adapt under maximal loads;
A rep range of 1 to 3 allows you to handle weights from 90 to 100% + of your 1RM. This kind of weight and rep scheme subjects the tendons, bones and ligaments to force with which they must manage, tolerate and adapt to. This rep range also tests and prepares you psychologically for handling weights that are close to and above that which you have ever lifted before.
To use these rep ranges to full effect, you cannot just chop and change them “willy nilly”. To make the best use of them and stimulate the right adaptations at the right time, you will need to look at your training diary and organise your training phases in accordance with your goals, events, competitions or holidays you may have coming up. A good coach should take care of all of this when designing your training programme.
If you haven’t already, give these three tips a try. You will never develop strength over-night and there is no quick fix. Often you will find you have to reduce your current squat weight significantly to learn great technique and maintain this for every rep of every set. However, stick with it for several months and I’m confident you will be happy with the progress.