Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Improving Squat Depth

Squats are the single best exercise for improving leg strength, burning calories, and achieving overall fitness. Most people who do squats, however, don't go deep enough to get the full benefit of this exercise. Why? Because it's hard. Damn hard.

Full-range squats work every muscle in the leg -- the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Not to mention the adductors, abductors, spinal erectors, abdominals, and obliques. For a discussion on high bar or low bar placement on the traps, check out this post. I prefer a medium position, not fully on top of the traps, but not too low on the back. I let my traps and rear delts support the bar.

Check this out. The workout starts with heavy power cleans, then hand clap pull ups, then 20 squats @ 407 lbs . . . deep squats.

That's what good squats look like.

Part of the problem, especially for guys, is ego. They like to load up the bar with more weight than they can handle, but in doing so they sacrifice good form and function. I can count the number of people I see doing squats correctly on one hand. Most guys are doing 1/4 squats, and they think this is good form. Their range of motion is only a few inches, and most don't even get near having the tops of their quads parallel to the floor. Getting to parallel is the bare minimum for getting the benefits of squats -- and for those with knee problems, this is the target.

If your knees are healthy, though, you should be aiming for ass to the floor. You know you're going deep enough when your hamstrings hit your calves, as in the video above.

The first key to getting the full benefit from squats is to check your ego at the door. Ego has no place in weight training. Allowing ego to dictate the weights you use is a good way to get hurt. It's also a good way to waste your time.

The second key to doing full-range squats is to start light and make sure your form is good. Don't round your back; don't come up on your toes; don't rock back on your heals. If you can't keep your feet flat on the floor you either have tight Achilles tendons (heals up) or weak calves (toes up). Either way, fix the weak spot first then come back to squats.

If your knees move together when you squat, you need to strengthen your adductors and abductors. It might challenge your ego to use the inner and outer thigh machines, since you'll generally only see women on these machines, but they can really help your squats (often after only a couple of weeks).

If you have tight Achilles tendons, don't use the old trick of placing a ten pound plate under each heal. This merely reinforces bad form and doesn't solve the problem. Stretch them each day instead, until they loosen up a bit.

The final key to good squat form is to train the form with other exercises, such as lunges and pistols. Everyone knows what a lunge is, and no one likes to do them. But they work. And yes, they are hard.

Pistols, however, are an exercise few people know about. I am always asked questions when I do these at the gym. They look easy, but give them a try and you'll find out just how weak your legs are.

Here's what they look like (hat tip to Josh Hillis for posting this):

If when you first try these you find that you can't do them, don't be discouraged. Go as deep as you can and keep working at them. If you need to, use a pole or a bench to maintain balance.

Pistols are the single best supplementary exercise that I have come across for improving squat depth.

Another exercise for training squat depth is jump squats with dumbbells. Make sure you go all the way down, then explode as high as you can get. Envision trying to hit your head on the ceiling. This guy is using a barbell, but it's easier to start with dumbbells.

The final exercise for improving squat depth is the 1 and 1/4 squat. If you can wade through this incredibly informative video from Dan John, you can learn a lot about squatting, including the painfully useful 1 and 1/4 squat.

If you can't sit through the 50 minute video, the 1 and 1/4 squat is done like this (start with just the bar on your back then add weight):

* Slowly lower your body as if you were sitting into a chair, keeping your back in its natural alignment and your lower butt nearly to the floor.
* When your thighs are touching your calves, pause, then push your body about one-fourth of the distance back to the starting position (until your thighs are parallel to the floor).
* At this point, pause again before lowering your body back down until your thighs are touching your calves.
* Pause one more time, then return to the starting position.
That's one rep.

Do this for three sets of six to ten reps and within a couple of weeks you'll be able to squat much deeper and with better form.

If you follow these instructions, you'll get much more out of squatting, and you'll be able to help the other guys in the gym get their act together. Plus, you'll have one hell of a set of strong legs and a nice round ass.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pistols are a great exercise I think people are more willing to go ATG when they think it's a balance exercise rather than a display of strength. It's also something that you can work up to a progression with a chair or a door frame. I think I'll do a few.