The squat is the king of leg development and power, used by bodybuilders, powerlifters, and a myriad of athletes and gym rats. Every visit to a different gym will bring a new and slightly different view of the squat with countless variations as lifters of all types adapt the movement to fit their goals.
Regardless of the end goal, whether it’s bigger, better-looking quads or a stronger, more powerful lift, the piston squat is an excellent accessory movement to build the upper leg and overall lower-body strength. Performed much like a traditional back squat, the piston squat uses a slightly shortened range of motion to keep the stress in the leg muscles and away from the joints. The movement is cut short, stopping just above parallel and not quite locked out at the top. This is not a competition movement; squatting deep is not the focus here.
performed in a quick but controlled manner. The main objective is to work the quads, with longer time under tension and strong muscle contractions. The amount of weight used is not important, but most lifters will find that somewhere between 45 and 60 percent of their one-repetition maximum will be appropriate. Excessive fatigue will almost always lead to technical breakdowns in barbell movements, potentially placing the spine at risk. To avoid a form malfunction, keep the piston squat in the five- to eight-rep range. This is enough volume to put plenty of work into the quads but not so much that you end up with a rounded back and turn this lift into some kind of ugly variation of a good morning.
The piston squat can be implemented in a variety of ways into one’s training program. You can use it as a main movement and push the volume and intensity a bit to get a good start to leg day, or you can use it as an assistance lift for extra quad work. Some athletes do the piston squat at the end of their leg training as an exhausting but effective finishing movement. However you choose to use it, remember these cues to get through the exercise both safely and efficiently:
1. As with any squat, the most important cue is to get into the “lifter’s wedge.” Keep your head and chest up and your lats tight, retracted and pulled down. Your trunk should be braced hard before ever unracking the weight.
3. Unrack the weight with both feet firmly under the bar. Try to keep the walk-out as simple as possible by taking only two or three steps back to get set.
4. Take a moderate to narrow stance with the feet set about shoulder-width apart. The toes should be pointing almost straight forward.
5. Initiate the piston squat by performing a hip hinge. The first movement should be to push the hips backward. The knees should not break first, and they should not travel forward over the toes.
6. Squat back and down until you are slightly above the parallel squat position. Then drive through the heels, leading with your chest and shoulders until you’re standing almost completely erect.
7. Remember, don’t fully lock out each rep at the top and don’t quite squat to parallel or below. Move at a quick but controlled pace.
8. Keep the elbows pulled down and close to under the bar throughout the lift. This will help keep the chest up and the spine in a proper arched position.
9. This squat variation can be performed with or without a belt. If a belt is to be used, brace the belly hard against the belt.
10. Keep the number of reps low enough so that your technique remains perfect and you do not lose the lifter’s wedge positioning. Again, this will likely be in the five- to eight-rep range.