When I first began toying with the barbell squat way back in 1986 I knew nothing about the lift. Bodybuilding magazines featured pictures of Tom Platz squatting, and because he had monster wheels, I decided to give them a try.
28 years later they are still one of my favorite lifts. Squats never get easier, always pay off and help to build just as much mental strength as they do physical strength and size.
There are no easy squat sets, or squat workouts. 5x5 sessions are brutal man-makers. Heavy daily singles, which I used to build my squat close to a 700 pound raw max, are like jumping out of a plane into a war zone. They require an insane focus on form, a controlled rage that no squat avoider will ever understand, and a do or die mentality. You can't be second guessing yourself with heavy weight on your back.
And 20 rep squats... where to begin? Somewhere around rep 13 you start to have an out of body experience. Time slows down, the walls begin to melt, and you question your sanity. Why did I decide to try these? Why? Can I do this? Can I do this?
Thousands and thousands of squat reps have taught me a few things over the years. I certainly don't consider myself an expert, but I would like to share some tips and advice for the young trainee who is just starting his long journey with this potent compound exercise.
Here are 20 things to know before you begin squatting.
#1 - Lockout the squat with your hips
This was the first squat tip I ever received. I was struggling to complete reps and my mentor told me to concentrate on driving my hips forward to lock out the squat. It worked.
The hips are a powerful muscle group. Use them to your advantage.
#2 - Aim for 400, hope for 500
If you are a natural trainee looking to build as much leg muscle as possible, set a goal to hit (at minimum) a 400 pound squat. This will bring your quad size up nicely, and is also a level very few gym rats obtain.
It's easy to see these mammoth squats on YouTube and think 400 is "nothing." This is far from the truth. I built some incredible quad size during my first 2 years of squatting simply by getting my squats up to 365 for reps.
If you are looking for an ultimate goal, aim for a 500 pound raw squat. Very few natural lifters reach this level, especially at a body weight under 240 pounds.
#3 - Wear knee wraps
I was on the fence about knee wrap use for a very long time. I simply didn't think they were needed, and wanted to go the "tough" route and "be a man."
Between 2007 and 2011 I battled frequent hamstring strains. They weren't severe, but they were regular. These strains were enough to slow progress 25-30% because of all the recovery workouts I was forced to perform.
In 2011 I gave knee wraps a try. Since that time I have had exactly zero hamstring strains. Let me repeat that number...zero.
While I can't say that knee wraps will be a game changer for everyone, I am certain that the added stability can only help. If you love lifting, and see yourself training well into your 50s, 60s and beyond, take care and give knee wraps a try. That extra little support may go a long way.
#4 - There is no need to get ATG obsessed
This statement might bring me some heat, but I'm a big boy and I can take it. Squatting is not as ass to grass contest. You get no bonus points for trying to touch your backside to the ground.
Stop obsessing about ATG squats and start focusing on progression. Get your depth slightly below parallel, and get stronger. This is how muscle and strength is built.
Some lifting circles turn squatting into a depth contest. Gotta be ass to grass bro. No you don't. Keep your eyes on the prize. Don't sacrifice weight for depth. If you want to really increase intensity on squats, try paused squats.
#5 - Bolster your squats with additional quad work
Squats are king. There is no doubt. They are great for overall quad size and strength. With that said, I still recommend trying to strengthen them with other potent exercises such as leg presses, hack squats, front squats, etc.
The more quad strength you can develop, the better. You can never have enough overall leg strength. This will only help your squatting prowess, and may also work to develop additional leg size.
Build a big base, any and every way possible.
#6 - Ignore the YouTube videos and start conventional
Wide stance squats are a more technical squat variation. Over the years I've seen far too many weak beginning lifters botch them and end up with knee and/or hips strains, wondering what they were doing so wrong.
Watching the big squatters on YouTube, novice lifters often believe that wide stance squats are the norm. They're not. A solid percentage of wide stance squatters moving monster numbers are wearing squat suits. These suits are extremely beneficial for the wide stance powerlifter.
On the other hand, when you attend a powerlifting meet you will notice that probably 80% or more of the raw squatters are using a conventional stance. Most of us can learn to squat conventionally to depth with just a few short minutes of coaching. More than this, even if your form is off by just a little but, conventional stance squats are typically more forgiving. I see far more strains and pains from sub-par wide stance squats than I do from conventional stance squats.
Does this mean conventional squats are inherently better for all raw lifters? No, I don't like generalizations. Even so, I still recommend mastering conventional stance squats and building a strength and size base before making the switch over to wide stance squats.
#7 - The bar should be over the center of your toes
This is a tip that isn't discussed much, but it is an important one. When the bar doesn't stay over the center of your foot during the course of a squat rep, something needs to be fixed.
It's quite common to see the bar move slightly forward from center during either the concentric or eccentric portion of a squat. This forward lean reduces leverage and places more strain upon your lower back.
To check if you are experiencing this issue, video your squats from a side angle so that you can see both the barbell and your foot. Watch the path of the barbell, looking to see if it stays over the center of your foot. If not, seek out the advice of a seasoned powerlifter who can help point out any squatting form flaws you might have.
#8 - Despite what you think, more powerlifters are high bar squatters
I know there is a lot of chatter about low bar squatting on the net, but please don't discount high bar squats. Most raw squatters I know that move 450-500 plus pounds are high bar squatters.
Understand I am not telling you that you must high bar squat. My only point is to encourage you to try high bar squats for yourself to see how they feel. If they feel natural, stick with them.
#9 - Open your knees/pick up the quarter
One of the most common form issues is "knees in" squatting. Many lifters feel like they are squatting with their knees out, but are actually descending in a very tentative manner and not flowering their knees enough. When I see lifters squatting with this issue I recommend a drill called "pick up the quarter."
Stand with your feet in a conventional stance. Next, place a quarter on the ground 6 inches in front of your toes. Now squat down to pick up the quarter, reaching between your legs with both of your arms at the same time. When you do this your knees will naturally open up, allowing you to pick up the quarter.
This is a natural movement; one you didn't have to think much about. Your knees just open naturally.
Now head to the gym and try to barbell squat like this.
#10 - It's ok to squat more frequently
You don't need to stick to a body part split, only squatting once each week. Plenty of novice strength and muscle building programs feature 2-3 squat sessions per week.
The key to surviving these sessions is to limit squat volume per training day. You don't want to destroy your legs each day with a ton of assistance work. Get in, squat 3-5 sets per day, and get out. Don't add in any more leg work beyond barbell squats.
#11 - Keep your arms and back tight/avoid flying elbows
This is a very common form issue. Most trainees are not told to grab the bar with a death grip, and to keep their upper back tight. As the reps mount, and because of this upper body looseness, a lifter's elbows start to creep up and up. The result? A squatter begins to lean slightly forward.
This tiny amount of forward lean is generally enough to reduce leverage and slightly fold a squatter over in the hole - or fold them when coming up from the hole. Not only will this reduce the amount a trainee is able to squat, but it also places a greater strain on the lower back.
#12 - Progress naturally instead of in a linear fashion
Linear progression works. With that said, I am not a fan of forcing progression along some pre-determined path. I prefer to see lifters pushing sets for as many sensible reps as possible, and adding weight when they can, rather than sticking to some random "add X weight every week" protocol.
I advise lifters to try and push each set for as many reps as possible, stopping that set when either form starts to deteriorate, or when they may fail on the next rep. This allows a trainee to maximize every set, and progress as quickly and safely as possible.
This natural form of progression (auto-regulated progression) will get you to the same spot as linear progression; maybe even allow you to progress slightly faster. That depends on the lifter.
Auto-regulated progression allows you to maximize form on as many reps as possible. You will also learn your body and limits better, and add reps and weight as they come to you. Some weeks and months this rate of progression will be faster than others, and some months slower. In the long run though you will make solid progress.
Linear progression works. I just don't think it's the best or safest overall system for the lifter learning their body and limits. If you are working hard and eating right the weigh additions will come to you. It's ok to allow this to happen naturally.
#13 - Stop trying to max out every week
Trying to hit a new squat max every week is not the best way to build squat strength. Far from it. You need to get your reps in. This will allow you to build a monster squat in the long run, and help you to improve form.
Focus on progressing in the 5-12 rep range, adding reps and weight as you can. This will push your squat max up and up while decreasing risk of injury. Save the heavy, low rep work after you have built a 400 pound squat.
#14 - Not all experienced lifters have great squat form
You might find this point hard to believe, but it's true. This is especially true for experienced muscle builders. Do not assume that just because a lifter is squatting 400 pounds for reps on YouTube that they have a good grasp of squat form.
Point here is simple...do not try to emulated the squat form of others. Take time and learn squat form from the big names in the powerlifter community. These guys know squatting and will help you to get on track.
Just because an experienced lifter stresses squat form doesn't automatically mean they understand proper squat form. I see dozens and dozens of big squatters on YouTube each year who don't understand squatting 101. They have noticeable form issues, and could benefit from some instruction.
#15 - We all start weak - be patient
If you are feeling frustrated that your squats are weak, it's time to take a look at the bigger picture and focus upon what is important - weekly improvement. We all start weak. Where you start doesn't matter. Pushing for progress matters.
Leg muscle and squat strength takes time to build. Keep your focus on trying to improve each set by at least one rep per week. Over time this will get you to your goals. It works every time.
Don't think you can force progress. You can't. Let it come to you. Keep a pinpoint focus on trying to make small steps each week. Lifters who do this always succeed.
#16 - Think "stand up"; drive your shoulders into the bar
One of the best ways to improve your power out of the hole, and to help you remain more upright, is to try and drive your shoulders into the bar as you complete each rep. It always helps to think about "standing up." These 2 mental cues should be practiced on every rep until they become second nature.
A lot of times you will see the hips of a squatter fly up fast while their head barely moves. This squat rep quickly turns into an inefficient and back-pounding good morning. By trying to stand up while driving your shoulders into the bar, you will be helping your body maximize natural leverages.
#17 - Warm up your CNS, not just your muscles
When warming up you need to prep more than your muscles. Stretching and mild cardio can get your blood flowing and body temperature up, but warm up sets need to be structured to prime your central nervous system as well as your muscles.
Once you start using more than 60% of your one rep max, don't make jumps in weight greater than 10% of your max. This allows you to gradually "wake up" your central nervous system, and to help recruit as many muscle fibers as possible.
Maximal muscle fiber recruitment helps a weight feel lighter, and will work to reduce the risk of injury.
#18 - Save your shoulders, widen your grip
I learned this tip the hard way. For nearly 2 years my shoulders killed me while squatting. Folks recommended every possible solution under the sun, from stretching to decreasing my squatting frequency. I tried each of these, but nothing helped.
Eventually I discovered that my sheer bulk and shoulder size simply made squatting with a narrow hand spacing foolish. As soon as I took my grip on the bar wide - and I mean WIDE - my shoulders felt better.
If you are a bigger or older trainee, or if your shoulders simply bother you while squatting, it's ok to make the switch to a wider grip. I was able to hit my biggest competition squats this way.
#19 - Nothing is better than squats for leg development
Yes, leg presses can help build your legs. Yes, hack squats and lunges can also help build good leg size. But they are not a replacement for the barbell squat.
If you choose to avoid squats you can still build quality leg size, but other exercises are no replacement for the barbell squat. Squat, squat and squat some more.
#20 - Your quads might never get sore
Squats never made my quads sore. Ever. They killed my hamstrings though. Despite this seemingly confusing juxtaposition, my quads are now huge but my hamstrings remain as one of my weakest and smallest body parts.
Don't worry if squats don't make your quads sore. That doesn't mean they aren't growing.