Since squats have served me well over the years as a means of developing overall mass and power in the thighs, it irritates me when guys with big upper bodies and small legs claim that squats do nothing for them. That's nearly impossible. Squatting is such a basic and natural movement that hard work on squats virtually guarantees results. If you haven't been getting the most out of squats, here are some suggestions that could instantly turn the situation around.
1) Do not use a spotter. You read that correctly. I was like many other lifters for many years, relying heavily on spotters when I attempted a challenging weight. Looking back, I am ashamed at how much I relied on them'needing a bear hug from behind with the spotter's arms under my armpits to help lift me up, even at one point asking spotters to set their thighs under mine! Without a spotter you'll find out what you can actually do on your own. Let me tell you, there's a world of difference between getting good reps with 405 on your own and depending on the generous assistance of a spotter. Not only will you feel a much deeper sense of pride and achievement, but your quads, hams and glutes will receive far more growth stimulation.
2) Squat in a power cage. I'm sure that the first suggestion elicited panic in some of you, as taking away a spotter would be tantamount to removing all sense of safety. How can you put a heavy weight on your back without fear of getting stuck at the bottom? Enter the power cage. IRON MAN writers like Curtis Schultz and Bill Starr laud the virtues of that simple steel apparatus, and with good reason. All you need to do is set the safety pins just under the point where the bar will descend, and there's nothing to worry about. If you can't get up from your last rep, sit down a little deeper and rest the bar on the pins.
3) Perform full squats, not half-assed half reps. Every gym I've ever been to had at least a few guys who could squat four or five plates on each side of the bar. In most cases, though, they weren't full reps, not even approaching parallel. While those who don't know any better look on in awe at that kind of display, I'm a lot harder to impress. Unless you're going down to at least parallel, I wouldn't count a single rep. I believe full squats are the most beneficial. In fact, I've tried a few times to squat just to parallel, and I couldn't even do it. It didn't feel right. At rock bottom it's your hamstrings and glutes that reverse the movement of the bar, while at parallel or above it's the tendons and ligaments around the knee. So when people say that squats are bad for the knees, they're partly right. Go all the way down, or don't bother squatting.
4) Do not use knee wraps. Another practice that takes away from the effectiveness of squatting is the use of knee wraps. My feeling is that unless you're a competitive powerlifter, you have no business even owning a pair of knee wraps. They enable you to lift more weight, but that's not what bodybuilding is about. Bodybuilding is about working the muscles as hard as you can and stimulating growth. I like Dorian Yates' remark about knee wraps, explaining why he didn't see the point: 'I could put a giant spring under my ass too, but what good would that do my quads?' Knee wraps can compress the patella and make it more susceptible to injury. Besides, they take a long time to put on and take off and draw out your workout. It shouldn't take you 40 minutes to do four sets of squats.
5) Use a belt only for your heaviest sets. A lifting belt is a worthy accessory for squatting but only for your heaviest sets. Until you're using weights that limit you to less than 10 reps, you should leave the belt off. Once you get to your top weights, cinch it on for that extra bit of support and blast out some killer reps. By saving it for when you really need it, you'll make the belt a far more effective tool.
6) Wear very sturdy shoes or boots. Years ago I couldn't understand why some of the big guys liked to squat in work boots or army boots. It looked so uncomfortable, and I assumed they were just trying to look tough or something. When I started squatting heavier, I understood. Those types of shoes were perfectly suited to the lift. The soles are sturdy, and there's support all the way up the ankle. In contrast, running shoes or even high-top basketball shoes are too springy (especially since they all have some sort of air bubble in the heel these days) and don't keep the ankle stable enough for heavy weights. On squat day you're better off with boots. Any Army-Navy surplus store will sell the version used by SWAT teams all over America. They're what big Ronnie Coleman, a man who can squat 800 and leg-press a full ton, wears on leg day, so that should tell you something. IM
Editor's note: Check out Ron Harris' Web site, www.ronharrismuscle.com.