The squat is one of the big 3 powerlifting measures in competition and the standard by which all lower body strength training programs are measured. In other words, if you can’t squat, you’re not strong. While that statement may or may not necessarily be true as injury, mobility, or some other dysfunction can play a role in it’s performance, it is nonetheless a staple exercise and should be included in some for in everyone’s program. So how do you build a bigger squat?
- (RE-) DISCOVER THE MOST OPTIMAL STANCE FOR YOU.
For starters, you need to determine a couple things in regards to your stance width and the depth to which you plan to descend your hips. There are plenty of cookie-cutter methods to use to help you find the ideal placement of your feet. However, because of how unique each lifters hip structure is going to be, your foot placement will be relatively unique to you. At the end of the day, to get to a femur-parallel depth, you should be able to keep the knees relatively close to over the foot. (There are exceptions to this, but they usually come into play when attempting depths below femur-parallel). Keep in mind though that a narrower stance will place a greater tax on the quadriceps and require greater range of motion (ROM) in the ankles during the eccentric phase of the lift but allow you to clear the hips a little better. A wider stance will help you feel a little more strength during the first part of the eccentric phase due to a greater recruitment of the hamstrings and glutes but produce some ROM problems in the hips toward the bottom of the lift. Regardless of the width, turning your toes out roughly 15-40 degrees will assist you in producing force without sacrificing stability or mobility. The rest of the tips past this point will assume a solid technical base with the squat and will be geared toward building dense muscle key to competitive and athletic performance.
- GET EXPLOSIVE & POWERFUL.
While squatting is primarily a slow strength exercise, performing ballistic and explosive movements will aid in developing those coveted Type-IIx muscle fibers key to adding plates onto the end of your bar. This can be as simple as taking some weight off the bar and exploding upward as fast as possible in your squat once a week or adding low-volume plyometric training into your workout. Both are excellent tools to enhance the contractile speed of your muscle fibers.
- USE CORRECTIVE MOBILITY EXERCISES SPARINGLY AND EFFECTIVELY.
A lot of coaches are firmly for or against corrective exercise. i’m going to take a middle-of-the-road approach. While I agree that corrective exercise specialists have created a generation of lifters who are afraid to add weight to the bar for fear of hurting themselves, corrective exercises can also aid in enhancing your training when applied properly. If ROM is keeping you from squatting to your desired depth, take action to fix the problem. If you’re having trouble maintaining your center of gravity of the back half of the feet, it’s likely you have a hip mobility problem. If your knees don’t come forward at all during the eccentric phase, you might be having trouble dorsiflexing at the ankle. There’s a host of other things and I could go into detail for days. The takeaway: know your weaknesses and take action to correct them. That said, don’t be afraid to continue squatting in the meantime as most of these exercises can be done with little energy expenditure during your rest periods.
- ALTER YOUR SQUAT VARIATION REGULARLY
I don’t mean randomly programming variations willy nilly. Build toward your goal. If you’re trying to build a bigger back squat, try the front squat for a month. The front squat will focus on heavier recruitment of the quadriceps because of the more upraight torso angle in the loaded position. The added bonus is that the front squat requires precise technique in order to perform the lift at all. You can get away with poor and sometimes dangerous form in the back squat. If your technique falters in a front squat, the bar will simply fall off the shoulders. Other than a startling noise in the gym, no harm, no foul.
- TAKE TIME TO DEADLIFT.
While this seems like a no-brainer to a lot of folks, it’s a must-have if you’re trying to squat heavy. Deadlifting decent weight requires heavy recruitment of the glutes, hamstrings, spinal extensors, and core stabilizers… all of which will provide your squat a huge boost once the load is transferred back onto your shoulders.
- ADD THE BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT INTO YOUR PROGRAM.
Otherwise know as the Rear-Foot-Elevated (RFE) Split Squat. The quads are a big part of any variation of the squat and are heavily involved when this lift is done properly. Additionally, you get the benefit of being able to safely improve ROM at the hips and knees and some knee stabilization work because you have to maintain center of gravity over one leg. The Bulgarian Split Squat is almost one-stop shopping for squat enhancement.
- DON’T FORGET THE GLUTES (And Hamstrings).
The glutes and hamstrings will be heavily involved while initiating the concentric phase of the squat at the bottom of the lift and should not be left out of your accessory exercises. Weighted hip raises are a fantastic exercise for isolated glute development and need to be a part of balanced program. If you’re simultaneously trying to improve your deadlift, The Romanian Deadlift is another great exercise and will assist you in building a bulletproof back as well and some sizable hamstrings.
- BUILD FROM THE CORE OUT.
I’m not talking about 6-pack abs. If you can’t properly brace the core during the squat, it doesn’t matter how much weight your legs can move. Having a loose and inefficient core while squatting is like to trying to play hockey with a pool noodle. Nevermind that it is incredibly inefficient due to all the energy leaks that come from being loose, the biggest problem will come from an increased risk of injury. Because the spine is top-loaded during the squat, it puts a lot of compressive force on your intervertebral discs as well as other passive structures like ligaments. Work on weighted planks, lateral planks, and Good Mornings to build a solid 360-degree core capable of plugging all those old energy leaks you’ve been dealing with.
Is there more to squatting? Of course. The squat is a complicated movement pattern involving multiple joints and muscle groups and requiring precise timing and sequencing. However, this should be more than enough to get you to burst through the occasional plateau. As long as you’re in a balanced strength training program, most of the other variables will fall into place. Now go and start squatting.