I get a lot of questions from strength athletes regarding squatting. Some say they’re stale after doing the same squat routine for a number of years. Others relate that they’re unable to do conventional squats due to an injury or shoulder surgery. Still others want to know how they can build more variety into their squat routines.
While some authorities believe that there’s but one way to perform full squats, they’re wrong. This basic, core exercise has many variations’many more than most imagine. When I list them all, athletes are often amazed, but they’re also happy because it means they have lots of choices. Building variety into your program is always a plus. Doing any new exercise boosts motivation, since the gains come faster, and even changing the way you perform an exercise helps to strengthen some neglected groups.
Here’s my list of ways to do squats: Olympic-style, where the bar rests high on your traps; powerlifting-style, where the bar rests much lower on your back; front squats; Smith-machine squats; wide- and narrow-stance squats; jump squats; pause squat; squats performed inside a power rack; and dumbbell squats. They all serve different functions, and anyone seeking a new approach can benefit from using them.
There’s one requirement: In all the styles listed, you must squat to below parallel to the ground. That’s critical to building balanced strength in your back, hips and legs, and it’s also much less stressful to your knees.
High-bar, or Olympic, squats are, in my opinion, the best of the lot because they work the muscles of the hips, legs and back more directly’and therefore more completely’than any other version. If you want to do full cleans or compete in Olympic weightlifting, it’s imperative that you do this exercise.
High-bar squats are so named for the simple reason that you place the bar high on your traps, which helps to keep you from leaning forward and so forces the powerful muscles in your hips and legs to provide the power. You move up and down like a piston, and the strict upright stance carries over to racking cleans and recovering from the deep position.
Even so, many strength athletes aren’t interested in doing full cleans and find that they can move more weight on squats if they lower the bar down their backs a bit. I’ve also had cases where athletes were unable to go deep enough with high-bar squats but didn’t have that problem when they lowered the bar. How low? It depends on your structure, flexibility and ability to fix the bar firmly in place when you do the lift. You must not let the bar move at all. This powerlifting-style squat places a huge amount of stress on the shoulders, and if you set the bar excessively low and it slips further down, you can be injured in a heartbeat.
When you want to try moving the bar lower on your back, lower it only an inch or two and stay with that position for a couple of months. In other words, be cautious.
The first time you squat with the bar lower than usual, stay with a moderate weight to see how the new stress affects your shoulders. You won’t learn that until the next morning’or later’so don’t go for a personal record in your first session with the newer style, even if the weights feel really light.
When you position the bar low on your back, you lean forward out of necessity. Some lifters even try to place their chests on their thighs. That’s fine, just as long as your lower- and middle-back areas are prepared for the more intense direct work. If you’re planning on using the low-bar style, you must spend lots of time strengthening your lumbars and middle back. Otherwise, when the weights get heavy, you’ll keep on going forward, and the bar will tumble over your head.
So a low-bar squatter’s routine must include plenty of good mornings, almost-straight-legged deadlifts and bent-over rows. What I said above about going low applies here. It’s much easier to cut these off than it is the high-bar version, but if you squat deep from the very beginning, you won’t have any trouble doing it when the weights get heavy.
If you use this style of squatting, you must make sure your shoulder girdle is thoroughly warmed up before you do your first set. I’ve had athletes who were using the low-bar style complain of severe shoulder pain during or after their squat workouts. Sure enough, they weren’t doing anything to warm up their shoulders before squatting. Once they started spending five to 10 minutes on light presses and dumbbell front and lateral raises, the problem went away.
After you warm up your shoulders, take a moment to stretch them well, and continue to stretch them between sets. I believe it’s a good idea for trainees who prefer the low-bar style to do some Olympic-style sets periodically. They hit the squatting muscles differently and have a very positive effect on your low-bar squats as well.
Front squats are the purest form of the exercise. When European Olympic weightlifters want to know someone’s leg strength, they always ask, ‘How much can you front squat?’ Back-squat numbers are inconsequential. Front squats are pure hip and leg strength, and there’s no way to alter the form to make them easier. Anyone interested in doing full cleans or competing in Olympic contests must do them. Your ability to recover from a heavy clean is directly dependent on your front-squatting prowess.
The key to performing front squats is in the rack. The bar must be fixed tightly across your front deltoids, not your clavicles, and it has to remain in that position throughout the movement. You must set your elbows high, with your triceps parallel to the floor. You cannot allow them to dip during the lift.
Your initial move out of the deep bottom on a front squat is different from the move out of a back squat. On a back squat you focus on driving your hips upward and leaning into the bar. But on a front squat you have to focus on driving your elbows up before you involve your hips. That helps stabilize the bar directly over the power base and keeps it from traveling forward. If your elbows dip too much and the bar runs way out from your body, it will end up crashing to the floor. Plus, it places a tremendous stress on your wrists.
You must put in some time preparing for front squats. Except for youngsters, nearly everyone who does front squats for the first time discovers that he or she lacks the shoulder flexibility to rack the bar correctly. That’s especially true for people whose programs have included lots of bench-pressing. So you need to stretch your shoulders, elbows and wrists before doing any squats, even when you use light weights.
The best way to warm up is to lock a bar inside a power rack so that it cannot move. If you don’t have a power rack, just load up a bar on a squat rack with so much weight that you can’t budge it. Grip the bar with one hand, push your elbow up as high as you can without moving your torso, hold it for five or six seconds, then do the other hand. Now grip the bar with both hands and have a training mate push your elbows up and hold them for a long count of 10 to 12. Do it several times if you need to. I also highly recommend taping your wrists when you do front squats. It relieves some of the stress and cuts down on the risk of injuring them. You don’t want to ding your wrists, since it takes forever to rehab them.
Front squats require low reps. That’s because the rack is the critical part of the exercise, and it always tends to slip a bit no matter how firmly you try to lock it into place. If it slides too much, you’re inviting injury to your wrists. It’s all right to do fives or sixes for the light warmup sets, but once you start loading up the bar, stick with threes; and in the event your rack moves too much on the second rep, make it doubles, and add a few extra sets to up your workload.
Whenever athletes want to add inches to their leaping ability’usually basketball or volleyball players’I put jump squats in their routines. Used in conjunction with regular heavy squats, jump squats can be productive, but you have to do them correctly. To begin with, you go very low, just as you do on Olympic-style squats. In a jump squat, though, you don’t recoil out of the bottom. Rather, you pause for a half second before starting your recovery. That keeps you from rebounding out of the hold, which can be harmful to your knees. Instead, if you hesitate and make sure that all your muscles are rigid, from your feet to your traps, all will be fine.
Your next thought should be of exploding upward, leaping as high as possible. All lifters learn quickly to lock the bar snugly to their traps or it will pop off at the top. Some get the form down so well, their feet actually leave the floor. Reset, making sure the bar is in the correct position, go to the bottom, hesitate and then jump, climbing on your toes.
Since you can’t use much weight on these, I put them on the light day. A lifter using 350 for five on regular back squats can benefit by doing 225 for five on the jump squat. I generally start people with five sets of five, but often in the learning stage, when the weights are very light, I have them do five sets of 10. If I see someone’s form getting sloppy with the higher reps, however, I drop it back to fives.
Squatting inside the power rack is an effective way to gain strength, especially for advanced strength athletes. I realize that box squats are much in vogue, but I prefer the rack. Regardless of what proponents contend about the value of box squats, they exert tremendous pressure on the lower spine. That may not be a critical factor for heavyweights or those using steroids, but it most certainly is for the average strength athlete. Also, spotting for box squats is a nightmare, and anyone who trains alone cannot consider doing them with any amount of weight.
Squatting inside the rack is safer, doesn’t place undue pressure on the lower spine and is as effective. The question always arises: What position should you start from? My answer: the sticking point, which is usually in the middle or slightly above the middle. Set the pins at the spot that’s giving you the most trouble in your recovery from the squat position. Start at that low position, which will make it much more difficult, but that’s the point. Stand up and lower the bar back to the pins in a smooth, controlled fashion. Don’t let the bar crash into the pins, and don’t try to rebound it off them to help you with the start. That defeats the purpose of the exercise. Reset at the bottom and do the next rep.
Do five reps on the warmup sets, but once the weights become demanding, lower the reps to three or two and conclude with a max single. Each time you do these, increase the weight on the single, and the new strength will carry over directly to your regular squats.
Squatting in the Smith machine ranks low on my list, but it’s useful for athletes who are unable to rest the bar firmly on their backs for whatever reason. Bodybuilders like Smith-machine squats because they force them to maintain a strict, upright stance, and they often use the machine to isolate their quads by squatting with a close stance.
The main thing to keep in mind when you squat in the Smith machine is that you want to do the exercise exactly as you do regular squats. You go low, with no rebounding at the bottom. Just because you’re working with a machine doesn’t mean you can’t traumatize your knees by using faulty form. Because the machine takes most of the balance factor out of the equation, you can concentrate completely on applying perfect technique to each rep. I suggest doing 10 reps for five to six sets on these, since they’re much less demanding than regular squats.
Wide-stance squats have a place in every routine. Whenever I see athletes’ knees turning inward during a heavy squat or max pull off the floor, I know they have a relative weakness in their adductors. The adductor machine is an excellent tool for remedying that, but many weight rooms and home gyms don’t have one available. In those situations wide-stance squats fill the bill.
How wide? As wide as you can set your feet and still maintain your balance while going below parallel. In order to strengthen your adductors, you absolutely must go below parallel, and the lower you go, the more you bring them into play.
When the weakness is minor, I recommend wide-stance squats as a back-off set, followed by your regular squat session: one set of eight to 10 with a weight that’s taxing. If, however, the weakness is severe, I prescribe doing all your squats with a wide stance until you bring your adductors up to par.
I include wide-stance squats in all my advanced lifters’ programs, regardless of whether they display an adductor weakness. On their light day they do two sets of five as warmups, then three sets of five with a work weight. They do the first work set with a normal stance and the second with a wide stance. On the third they use a very narrow stance. Changing the stances helps build balance in the hips and legs and also adds some variety to an otherwise ho-hum squat workout. And since it’s the light day, you can handle the weights without difficulty.
Narrow-stance squats aren’t used as much as wide-stances because the quads get plenty of work with the other styles, but they do make a nice change every so often. They’re very useful for shaping the quads, and because you can go so low, they hit the glutes really well.
Trainees who have trouble coming out of the hole or aren’t going deep enough will find pause squats helpful. You lower into the deep bottom and, staying tight, remain there for a four-to-five-second count. Someone gives a signal, usually a clap, and you drive upward. Pause squats teach you to squeeze out of the bottom and make you use the groups that are responsible for recovery. Also, by forcing you to go lower than usual, they call on new muscles, and that’s good.
These are brutal, so place them at the end of the workout as a back-off set of eight to 10 reps. That’s unless the problem is glaring, in which case you do the full squat workout with pauses until the weakness is remedied.
Finally, for those who cannot fix the bar on their backs due to shoulder surgery or an old injury, you can still squat. Some trainees can hold the bar over their head and do overhead squats. Even if you don’t have a problem with regular squats, these provide valuable help in training for snatches. The weight will be relatively light, so higher reps, 10s and 12s, are in order; however, if your form wavers, drop the reps to five and add a few extra sets.
Squatting with dumbbells is often the last resort for trainees who have chronic shoulder problems, but it’s better than not squatting at all. To get enough work, you need to do high reps’very high, such as 75 or 100 per set with a pair of 20-pounders. Not right away, but that should be your eventual goal. If you have heavier dumbbells at your disposal, then lower reps will work. Try to get in a total of 250 to 300 reps.
The full squat is the keystone exercise in strength training, so regardless of your limitations, be sure to make it an integral part of your program.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity available at Home-Gym.com. IM