You can’t move on this blog for articles about how awesome squats are. If you haven’t got the message at this point then I’m not sure we can help you any more, join my wife ( bless her ) on her knitting forums and accept that being fit and strong is not meant for you. Of course I don’t need to convince you about the wonder of squatting, you’re smart, you get it. So this post isn’t about how important squatting is ( but it is, it really is – if you want stronger better looking arms, or any other body part you care to mention, then squat), but about what you can do to improve squatting depth. For it is in squatting deep where the magic lies. The trouble is that to get the best out of squatting you need great flexibility, amazing joint mobility, astounding lower back strength, incredible upper back strength and the core of a concrete tiger. Fortunately to acquire these admirable traits all you need to do is . . .wait for it . . . SQUAT!
Concrete tigers. They’re real and have excellent cores.
The problem is that, in my almost pointless opinion, there are 2 kinds of squats. There is the exercise kind that you do, week in week out, with a heavy bar digging into your upper back and your knees and hips doing the up and down thing. This type of squatting is the one that makes you all strong and gnarly, with legs like obsidian pillars and the ability to move like an atomic kangaroo. The other type makes you more flexible, better at squatting, more explosive and, here’s the downside, hurts like being broken on the wheel.
The Catherine Wheel. Not as nice as the sparkly firework.
There is a conspiracy about stretching, shadowy underworld figures would have us believe that by doing this:
for 10 seconds at the end of a workout that we can magically lengthen our muscles. Let me say that again – lengthen our muscles. To, somehow, cause the very fabric of our being to stretch and distort and all by holding a static stretch, with no load, for a few seconds. The same muscles that managed not to be torn asunder while doing romanian deadlifts, or whatever, can now be gifted with greater flexibility by bending down and touching your toes. I think not. You don’t get practical flexibility by performing static stretches, you get it by moving. Even something like yoga is about moving from 1 position to another and uses your own body weight as resistance to force a deeper stretch.
Lets get back onto the subject of squats for a moment. If you can squat, let’s say, 140kg ( 308lbs ) but you’re not getting down to parallel ,or below, because of flexibility issues (as opposed to being bone bloody idle), then it seems obvious to me that a simple stretch is not going to manage what 140kg + body weight + gravity failed to do. A squat, when performed correctly, is a sequence of movements. Having any range of movement (ROM) issues at any point during that sequence will interrupt the flow of the movement and cause problems. What problems? Well, at best, you won’t be able to squat deep enough. At worst you’ll be putting undue pressure, shearing forces or strain on parts of your body. The problem is that the squat involves so much of the bodies muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints working as one that it can be difficult to identify the guilty party. Here is a, not definitive, list of potential problems.
Tight hip flexors
Lower back problems
Tight psoas ( a muscle that runs from your lower back, across your hip and to your femur)
Tight piriformis ( a muscle that is deep, deep in your arse and goes from the bottom of your spine to the top of your femur)
This is what I try to do before actually doing a set of squats, be warned it’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s what I do on a training day and a squat improver day. The difference is that on training days the only exercise I do for legs is squatting. I might do various types of squats, but it’s the only exercise I do, with the possible exception of some jumps and lunges between sets, just for added misery.
5 mins of cardio – anything to get your heart rate up.
Body weight squats and lunges – 10 reps on each going deeper and faster with each of the 3-5 sets.
Ankle and hip mobility drills –
Barbell sequence – grab an olympic bar and do 10 reps of the following; front squat, split squat, back squat, lunge, overhead squat, overhead backwards lunge, sott press.
Kettlebell complex – 1 or 2 bells, depending how brave your feeling, then do this; swing, squat, swing, squat and hold, swing, squat and hold for longer, repeat until you can’t take it anymore.
I try do this on my deadlift day as well, it’s basically the same muscles used in a similar way, although I might throw in some romanians as well. Live on the edge, that’s my motto.
Now, I’m prepared to concede that’s quite a list to get through, but it has made real improvements in my technique, recovery, conditioning, etc. Also, as I previously mentioned, after that ALL I do is squat. No leg press/extensions/curls. Nothing. Zip. Nada. If you wished to be more conventional you could ditch the kettlebell stuff for some leg exts/curl. But why would you?
Squat improver day
There is no fixed time to do this little program. You could do it every week or just slot it in when you feel your technique needs a kick up the arse. What is vitally important to understand is that, on this day, the weight you use is not important – perfect form is. Also you may want to cancel any plans you had, for a few days, as your legs will be utterly useless.
Do the reps slow, smooth and controlled – don’t forget the object of this session is stretching, stretching, stretching.
Do the same warm up drills as listed above.
Box squats – probably the greatest squat therapy tool in the world. Stay tight through your upper back and push your hips back as far as you can reach. Sit gently but totally on the box/bench, keep your knees pushed out and drive up like a demon. Work up to a weight that allows you to keep perfect form but has you questioning your sanity.
Sumo squat holds – wide stance, sink down, push out with the knees, go as low as you can, hold, go a bit lower, hold, swear, come back up, repeat. Go up in weight until you look at the bar and feel that the world has turned to Evil and the squat rack is the Duke of Hell.
Elevated backwards lunges – have you ever imagined what it would be like to be the skinny guy in a prison shower scene. This will take you closer to understanding. Length and depth of lunge is more important then weight. But still . . .
The Eagle – credit for this unspeakable horror goes to the fiendish Dan John from T-nation. Hell of a way to finish a leg session, damn him and his sadistic ways.
Take 2 kettle bells and do 8 squats, then farmer’s walk them about 40m, then do it all over again. Dan suggests that 8 rotations is something to aim for. Sigh.
May the force be with you,