5 ways to improve squat strength

Is squatting so hard? 

If there was ever an exercise that created a divide between coach and athlete, it would have to be the squat!

From a mechanic point of view, it involves every joint in the body in either “creating movement” or “stabilising movement” context.  It does not let you hide any injury, or any concern or fear you have of your body not holding up.

So, how do we improve someone’s squat, especially where there is fear or injury as a concern?

As a coach, confidence, and especially competency in technique is critical to success when trying to increase strength in a squat.  If you are a powerlifter, there is the depth of the squat to think about, as this is a competitive requirement.

SUMMARY OF 5 Ways to Improve your Squat Strength:

  1. Improve your bodyweight squat pattern in barefeet – get to below parallel with neutral spine, feet flat on ground, with your chest between your ankles at the bottom position, knees where they need to be to maintain neutral spine, head position and chest position.  No valgus present of knees in any stage of the squat pattern.
  2. Improve your weighted prone brace position on elbows and on hands. Be able to tolerate more weight for more time in a good position that preserves your spinal integrity.
  3. Learn how to front squat either with bar, dumbbell or kettlebell and use these in your programs to work on your position and control in the bottom of the squat position.
  4. When using leg press – remember that it is an exercise to build muscle, not an exercise of maximal strength proportions.  It may not necessarily translate into extra squat strength, but increased muscle mass will.
  5. Build more muscle in phases during the year. More muscle utilised well, so with the better movement and better core stability you have from points above you will be able to use muscle you have gained to squat more.

 

Key foundations of a good squat:

  1. Good Movement
  2. Core Stability (trunk stability)
  3. Strength in balance

 

Good Movement

There are some athletes who struggle to get into position in a bodyweight squat position, where this can improve once load is added to their frame.  Usually these athletes are bigger athletes where load helps balance their body in the bottom and mid-squat position though, and this, to me is rare, NOT the norm.  One of the predictive factors that we uses is based on the Australian Strength and Conditioning guidelines for developing athletes, which states that someone should be able to do the following prior to a loaded barbell squat:

  • 30 bodyweight squats to at least parallel depth in 1 minute
  • One leg squat variations – to a full range of knee and hip movement (flexion and extension) 5 times without any valgus action of knee, heels lifting or excessive trunk rotation.  (Some people if they have knee injuries in the past will struggle with the one leg squats, but be able to technically squat well in other different squat patterns)
  • Lunges in multi-directional format – 10 times each leg comfortably
  • Demonstrate ankle mobility in a knee to wall test of between 14-18cm dependent upon leg length.

This needs to be done COMFORTABLY – for me to have confidence in prescribing barbell squats to someone.

Some other exercises we will discuss later also that I utilise as starters and auxiliary work for squatting are:

–          Goblet Squats

–          Box Squats or sit to stand squats

The reason that movement is SO important to teach from a young age, is that the movement issues that someone has when they are 20, 25, 30, 35 and older come from habits usually formed in teenage years, or sometimes due to an injury suffered earlier in life.  Movement issues usually happen due to sustained postures, genetic influences or injury so this is why I advocate strongly for young people to be in the gym as early as 8 years of age, just to learn how to move, and how to move well before they turn to strength or resistance training as a model of self-improvement.  Too often we see high level athletes who have poor movement patterns, who cannot realise their athletic potential on a sporting field because they do not have the movement quality required to run fast, to jump higher or to contest with stronger players.

 

Core Stability

Important to define between strength and stability of the Core or Trunk stabiliser muscles.  The key in a squat is to be able to stabilise the spine in the best position possible to avoid short and long-term injury concerns.

This translates to foot stability, and knee and hip stability as well in a squat pattern.

So, the key points first is to be able to stabilise in a prone and a side bridge position, with a focus on being still, holding good position and then once demonstrated, adding load to this position to increase the difficulty of the exercise to simulate squat, deadlift and then contest positions in sport.

I see people doing all sorts of fancy core exercises but they cannot master the basics first!  Be able to hold a plank in a number of directions. Be able to hold the equivalent of your bodyweight on your back and all of a sudden, your squat and deadlift strength will most likely be better!  Its about confidence and about knowing you are strong with core stability and strength work as well as the physiological and biomechanical advantages sometimes.

The basics that I stick to, in core strength to improve squat are: In stability contexts

  • Core Strength: 1 minute plank of bodyweight – and then load this progressively to equivalent to bodyweight if you can. You only need to do this for 30 seconds as most of the high intensity  patterns in sport last for no longer than 30seconds.
  • Side bridge for 1 minutes on bodyweight, then changing hand to elbow positions and changing feet position to feet upon bench, then adding load to your hand, or a sandbag or weight on your hip.  Again, weighted we work between 20-30 seconds in duration.
  • Paloff Press – working on anti rotation – in a range of patterns so standing, quarter and half squat, half kneeling and kneeling positions. Keep reps short in sets so 6-8 reps only and work on the long-lever holds.

Stuart McGill, one of the worlds’ best experts in lower back injury – uses the following tools for lower back injury prevention:

  • Bird Dog holds – easiest level but make sure you do them properly! 10 seconds per side hold for 3-6 times.
  • Curl Up – to activate and strengthen rectus abdominus without putting your spine in flexion.
  • Side bridge that is already covered above.

Strength in Balance

So, make sure you do work on both sides of the body.  You need to work on the main muscle groups of your legs with an emphasis on developing all of them to squat big and keep improving.

I see people who are doing massive volumes of work with lower body push work, but then when it comes to lower body pull work, the volume is very minimal, and it shows in their squat failures much of the time.

So, some of the key parts of squatting is to make sure that you have a good balance of strength between the back (posterior) of the body and the front (anterior) of the body.  So, some of the exercises we use to target squat improvements are:

  1. Romanian deadlifts – to improve spinal errector, trunk stabilisers, Glutes and Hamstring strength.  They work on position and control – key is to keep trunk neutral in these, and drive your hips through the bar in lock out.  One of the harder exercises to master but one well worth doing.
  2. Step Ups with dumbell or barbell.  These are to improve leg drive, you can use a deep knee and hip flexion position to start or a moderate one.  Great to improve stability of knee and hip in a squat position too.
  3. Front Squat – Barbell and Goblet Squats with Dumbbell or Kettlebell.  Some love and hate front squats for different reasons.  They are great because they make you work really hard to hold a good torso position in a squat pattern. You can do them to natural depth or you can do them to a box, or use a squat rack to do pin-rack front squats, great if you have a sumo deadlift to work on positional control.  For some, front squats do not work because of poorer ankle mobility, or knee problems.  But, overall, in general, they are a great exercise to improve strength in your Quads and Glutes for squatting.

  1. Leg Press – I would say that there are studies showing that by improving your leg press, you will improve your squat. Others will say that it does nothing for a maximal squat.  From experience, the lesser experienced lifters will get more out of leg press than a more experienced lifter.  The reason for this though is that you can give a lesser experienced lifter almost any leg pushing exercise and you will see benefit in a squat pattern.  Personally I use leg press to add volume to a leg push program, to build or maintain muscle mass when squat volume is reduced.  So, I use tempo, and foot position on the press to focus the athlete on where to work hardest.  I focus on keeping your spine in a good position and not taking the leg press down so far that your spine has extra stress placed upon it.  I use higher reps than some people purely due to the fact that I am after more time under tension, and more set volume so that I can achieve more muscle damage to grow muscle.

  1. Barbell Hip Drive (Thruster) – This exercise has been shown to improve squat strength.  Its a bent leg hip extension exercise which correlates well to the position that your body gets into in a squat so it mimics the Glute activation well out of the bottom of a squat, without the vertical spinal load in a squat.  They are a fantastic exercise to build Glutes and unlike Romanian Deadlifts they are somewhat less technical, you can overload on these in a safer fashion than you can on a nordic hamstring curl or a romanian deadlift.  Reps of these generally tend to vary depending on the athlete from 8 to 25 and even greater to build muscle.  Time under tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage!

  1. Box Squats or Sit to stand Squats – We use this especially with new starters to help them find a consistent depth to hit in a squat pattern and also to improve the mid squat position or drive with advanced athletes.  In a box squat you can either touch the box and go immediately, or pause on the box.  Why? Because when we pause someone on the box, you lose some of the reflex contractile element so you are literally pushing from the “start” rather than out of reflex, making it tougher.  For athletes who need starting strength, or for powerlifters who need that mid squat drive or sticking point fixed, these can be a great asset in a preparation phase to work on this.  Starting strength for athletes is about accelerating from a dead stop, and pause squatting can help significantly with this.

What is the best exercise to improve squat?

This seems to be a simple question.  You are right it is, and the answer is simple.  Squat.  In exactly the way you want to improve yourself.  If you are a powerlifter and you are starting your career, you need to ingrain the squat pattern you or your coach wants to create by doing repetition after repetition in the pattern you need to create.

The same if you are an athlete. If you want power, learn how to control the squat pattern, then slowly bring the speed of your squat up, so that you are being aggressive in your mindset.  If you hear the term the “hole” in a squat, this is the deepest point of a squat. You want to think of “punching out” of the bottom of the squat.  You do this by creating a rapid stretch and reflex response of the main muscles involved in squatting by increasing speed just as you are about to hit the bottom so you can drive hard out of the deepest point in the squat.  For an athlete, this is critical to developing power and speed.  There is no point squatting slow if you want to run fast.  BUT you have to be able to squat slow FIRST to demonstrate control. No Point squatting fast and falling over because you cannot control the end position!  So, take your time, and develop control and stability before strength and power.

How can I contact Glenn to help with my squat?

Glenn Hansen, Owner Vector Health and Performance, and Harry Gambling, Strength and Conditioning Coach are the two coaches who focus their time and energy upon strength, power and speed improvements in athletes.  To have us review your squat, whether it be face-to-face or online, please send us a message at glenn@vectorhealth.com.au or call 4927 8190 to book a time with Glenn or Harry to get started.

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