In many fitness communities there is one exercise that should be a staple in training programs: the squat. By the way if this exercise is not in your training program you need to slap yourself and start squatting. Whether you are a bodybuilder repping out the back squats for the definition desired in your quads, or a weightlifter hitting front squats to build tree trunks for legs, this exercise is the king of exercises and should not be taken lightly.
This exercise is great for quad, hamstring, hip, and glute development and can allow for some serious mass to be put on in these areas. But doing normal back squats can only take you so far. Like any other muscle, your legs will adapt to the stresses of back squats and your progress can be slowed or halted altogether. In this article I will go over variations you can add to your training program that will allow you to continue to see the gains needed in the back squat. It should also be noted that there are MANY variations for this lift but I am going over some of the main ones that are the easiest to implement.
Box Squats are your normal back squats done with you guessed it…a box. For me the most important use of the box is to teach proper technique when squatting. The heavier the weight gets for you, the more important it is to have solid technique. The purpose of the box squat is to pause at the bottom of the lift and recruit for muscle fibers to get out of the hole (the hole refers to the lowest point of the lift right before you start to come back up). This will benefit you most when the box is removed and you must fire out of the hole and accelerate the weight back up.
Another benefit of using a box is it allows you to sit back further that you normally would with a regular squat. By being able to sit back further you are able to use those powerful hamstrings and glutes, which are prime movers in the lift, instead of relying mostly on the quads. Lastly, you can also have complete control in how low you go in your descent, which is another plus in this type of training. For people with flexibility issues or knee problems, going low may be a problem so using a box and progressively lowering it over time is a great way to increase range of motion.
Squatting with Bands
Now another way to squat that I have found to be just as useful as box squats is to include bands with your squats. Bands can be bought from a number of different suppliers (Muscledriver, Elite FTS, Ironwood, etc.) and come in all colors, sizes and strengths. A word to the wise if you are a beginner: Don’t buy the strongest band you can find; it won’t end well. Vice versa goes for if you are a more advanced lifter: Don’t get light bands because you are just wasting your money.
There are two ways to set up bands on your squats for opposite results. Bands that are anchored to the bar and then anchored on the floor (either by pegs on the squat rack or looping them through a dumbbell or brace on the rack) are known as the traditional way to squat with bands. Squatting with bands can be done with either a box or without, depending on the lifter’s experience. In the traditional setup. the weight is at its lightest when the lifter is in the hole. As you accelerate up, the weight gets heavier the closer you get to the top. At the top of the lift the weight is at its heaviest. The purpose of this is to progressively increase the load as you move. The progressive loading of weight as you accelerate up increases your power and reflects a better resemblance to a squat performed on the athletic field.
Another setup for the bands is known as a reverse band squat. This is exactly as its name refers to. Instead of anchoring the bands to the floor they are anchored to the top of the squat rack. Now performing the exercise in this fashion has the opposite effect. In the lowest point the weight is at its heaviest and gets lighter as you accelerate up. This method is used for learning how to fire out of the hole and work on speed throughout the lift. Both of these methods are a great use of bands, but which way you use them depends on what your issues with the squat are. The biggest benefit to squatting with bands is to increase speed in the squat. Bands are the best way to improve your speed and once the bands are removed, the carryover to a normal back squat will be noticeable.
Various Bars and Holds
The safety squat bar is a special bar with a padded yoke and handles that extend out in front of the lifter, and the weights sit about 3″ in front of the bar itself. This creates a feeling like you’re going to be pushed over, which forces the middle and upper back to work harder to stay upright and is great for when a lifter tends to fail in a conventional squat by falling forward during the lift. In addition, because the handles sit out in front of the bar it’s an ideal alternative for those with bad shoulders or poor flexibility.
The buffalo or cambered squat is another special bar that looks like too much weight has been left on it. The bar is shaped in a shallow arc and is used to give the shoulders a rest from the straight bar. This takes a lot of pressure off of the shoulders, elbows and wrists and still allows for the individual to handle high loads and take stress off the upper body joints.
Like the safety bar squat, the Zercher squat is an excellent option for those with shoulder or flexibility issues, but it requires no special bar. The bar is placed in the crook of the elbows and then held tightly against the abdomen, placing additional stress on the core and mid-back muscles. One downside is that the bar position can become uncomfortable with heavy loads, but in my experience it’s better to suck it up and get used to it than to use padding such as a squat pad or towels, as it tends to make it harder to keep the bar in a consistent position throughout the execution of the squat.
The front squat is one of the most common variations of the back squat in my opinion. This lift should be done by all weightlifters and athletes at some point in their training. The main plus for this lift is the weight is not placed on the back hence saving it and placing most of the stress on the legs and abdominals. The bar is racked across the front of the shoulders with either a clean grip or arms crossed with the elbows held high to keep the bar from rolling down the arms. Many lifters find that they can squat significantly deeper with the front squat than with the back squat. Lower back and hamstring involvement is also significantly reduced, with more stress placed upon the abdominals and the quads due to the more upright positioning. Please note that the weight you can front squat will be lower than what you back squat.
All of these variations are great changes of pace to implement in any training program if you want to bust through plateaus with your squat. Both methods are rather inexpensive (bands are cheap and you could use a bench at the gym as your box) and the setup required does not take long at all. If your normal squat progress is not moving in the right direction, give one of these variations a shot. World class powerlifters and professional athletes have implemented these methods with great success and the average person can experience the same results using these variations. I have seen great results with both methods and have even combined both methods for tremendous results as well. Next time you are in the gym on squat day give them a shot and see how you like them.