Ah leg day, you know you should do it yet the temptation to skip it is so great.
What is it that causes this phenomenon?
Is it because your legs are hidden behind trousers for most of the year and even when you do hit the beach you can strategically stand waist deep in the sea to only showcase you perfectly sculpted upper body?
You know, a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
You’d think the shame of having to sprint from the sea to the safety of the towel or just looking like you might topple over from being too top heavy would be enough to get you firmly in the squat rack.
I know, I know, I can’t judge I used to avoid leg day at any cost too. I’d use excuses ranging from “my legs get enough work from cardio” to “I’ve still got that niggling knee or ankle injury” when I knew that if it was a shoulder or elbow injury I’d still be hitting chest and back.
Maybe it’s just because leg days can be so brutal or that the gym has too many stairs to get to the exit. Whatever your reason, it’s time for shift in mentality as training the legs brings a host of benefits:
- Better aesthetics – look better naked
- Improved athletic performance – run faster, jump higher
- Injury prevention – improved stability, flexibility and strength
When I did finally get my shit together and start training my legs I went through that phase of fighting the embarrassment of lifting miniscule amounts in the squat rack but I kept at it and here I am able to squat more than my bodyweight on my shoulders for reps, getting ever closer to an impressive squat and a great set of legs.
On my journey to improve my squat and add weight to the bar I realise that I needed an array of tactics to help me make continuous progression. With the 16 tips laid out below I guarantee you’ll also be able to add weight to your squat starting in your very next session.
It should be pretty clear to all that to add weight to the bar you need to get stronger and to get stronger you need to train for strength.
A research study (1) set out to see what number of repetitions would result in the fastest improvement in strength.
They took 199 male college students and split them into 9 groups. Each group trained with different repetitions per set from the following set of repetitions; 2RM, 4RM, 6RM, 8RM, 10RM & 12RM.
They were tested before and after completing a 12-week progressive programme and researchers concluded that the optimum number of repetitions for strength was between 3 and 9 reps.
What does this mean?
Train with the heaviest weight you can whilst maintaining good form and aim to increase this using progressive overload continually over time. It’s as simple as that.
Go deeper even if it means going lighter
I don’t know about you but the whole reason I squat is to build a powerful set of bad-ass legs that can run fast, jump high and kick hard.
To do this you need to break parallel (hips below the knees) when you squat, if not you won’t just miss out a host of benefits, namely increase strength, power and size but you’ll also increase the stress placed on your knees and quads (front of the thigh muscle) by not engaging your hamstrings (back of the thigh muscle) which can lead to pain and injury.
Nobody wants that.
So, if you’re currently pushing out shitty half reps because the weight is too heavy or your form isn’t there yet, it’s time to scale it back, reduce the weight and focus on proper range of movement and adequate depth to break parallel.
Squat more often
Weightlifting is a skill and like any skill it needs to be practiced regularly for you to improve.
By increasing the number of times per week that you squat or increasing the sets and reps you perform to boost your weekly squat volume you’ll see your form and technique improve.
As your proficiency improves so will your ability to hand heavier and heavier loads.
Additionally, by squatting for often you’ll be able to invest time in fixing any flaws in your form which will also contribute to being able to add weight to the bar.
It’s true, not everyone can walk up to the squat rack and knock out a solid set of squats, in fact, most people are hindered by their lack of mobility and flexibility in the lower body.
If you’re anything like me then you are or were the product of years of playing sports without any sort of proper warm up, cool down or stretch which has left you with tight muscles and poor mobility.
Don’t go dismissing squats just yet as you can improve both your flexibility and mobility in order to improve you squat, you just have to work at it.
When it comes to squatting the most common problems are lack of hip and ankle flexibility and mobility.
To address hip mobility, you can use the following stretches:
And for ankle mobility I recommend the strategies and exercises laid out in the following article:
By addressing any issues with both hip and ankle mobility you should soon find yourself squatting better and progressing faster.
Use optimal footwear
When I first started training I didn’t put much stock in the difference the type of footwear I used could have and maybe you’re the same way.
I mean a shoe is a shoe right, what difference does it make…well actually quite a lot.
Wearing the wrong footwear can decrease your stability, balance and power, thus increasing your risk of injury, but wearing the correct footwear can have the opposite effect and actually increase your performance by providing a secure and stable base for you to generate power and balance.
Use a belt
Belts aren’t for everyone and truth be told it’s not too often that you see your regular gym goer wearing one but there is research to support the consensus that wearing one will improve your stability and reduce spinal loading which can in turn increase your performance.
One study (2) showed that “wearing abdominal belts may contribute to the stabilization during lifting exertions.” Whilst another study (3) found that “wearing a tight and stiff back belt while inhaling before lifting reduces spine loading.”
Ultimately whether you wear one or not is a matter of personal choice but it’s safe to say if you are performing near maximal reps then a belt could be a great help.
Common advice is to breathe in either before you start your decent or during the decent and then to exhale as you drive out of the hole, back to the starting position.
This advice isn’t wrong per se but it is only truly effective when using lighter weights and higher reps, think sets of 10+ with 60% of your 1RM.
When it comes to lifting heavy weight, you want to use a different breathing technique to help increase stability when lifting. When squatting with 80%+ of your 1RM you should be taking a big breath prior to starting the lift and then holding it for the full repetition.
This method of breathing is called the Valsalva manoeuver and when used properly is an effect method for increasing abdominal and spinal stability to improve performance when squatting. However, to be used safely you must not hold the breathe for more than few seconds, if you’re finding your reps are taking a longer time or you are incorporating paused rep training then this technique is not for you.
How to use the Valsalva manoeuver:
- Take a deep breath and focus on allowing your diaphragm and abdomen expanding and not the chest
- Brace your core as if you’re expecting to get hit by a punch
- Hold this position during the descent of your squat, begin forcibly exhaling on the final third of your squat movement, full exhaling as you reach the standing position
- Repeat as necessary
Please note: the Valsalva manoeuvre can increase blood pressure, if you are at all in doubt please consult a medical professional before incorporating it in your training.
Use a spotter or self-spotting mechanism
Often the reason you avoid squats is because heavy squats are hard and scary.
You find yourself with the bar on your shoulders sure that it’ll crush you at any minute, you psyche yourself out by think about it too much and end up bottling the lift.
How do you remove some of this fear and squat to the best of your ability?
Set up in a squat rack with safety bars or if this isn’t possible then get yourself a competent spotter who can help you if you need it. By setting up in a rack with safety bars you give yourself the confidence that if for whatever reason you miss the lift you won’t be crush by the bar like a coke can in a strong man’s hand.
Spread the floor
If you want to avoid knee injury when squatting then you need to make sure your knees do not collapse inwards as you squat.
In order to help you do this, think of trying to ‘spread the floor’ with your feet as you descent into your squat. Try to imagine you’re trying to spread the floor with your feet whilst simultaneously pushing the knees out to prevent them from collapsing inwards and ensuring they continue to track in line with your feet.
This is a fantastic coaching cue to help prevent your knees from caving in and causing injury.
Used paused rep training
A common sticking point for most people in the squat is the ‘hole’. The hole is the common name for the bottom of the movement, the point where you’ve reached your maximum depth and want to reverse the motion to come out of the squat.
This movement requires you to produce a lot of force between many coordinated parts of the body and as such can be difficult for many people to perform as the weight begins to get heavy. However, this doesn’t have to spell the end of your squatting days, instead you can train to specifically improve this aspect of your lift by doing something called “paused rep training”.
Pause rep training is performed by squatting normally except when you reach the bottom of your squat, at which point you will hold that position for 5 seconds whilst taking full deep breaths before coming out of the squat like normal.
To get the most out of this type of training you should lower the weight you usually squat with to 50 – 60% of your 1RM. This is because squatting with a pause will make the movement more challenging than normal. You can then work on building the weight back up from there.
To add ‘pause reps’ into your routine try adding a couple of sets after your normal squat routine.
Squeeze the bar
Squeezing the bar serves a particular purpose when it comes to squatting, it helps to tighten the lats and keep your chest high, which prevents you from leaning too far forwards as you descend into your squat.
By squeezing and pull the bar down a bit you help to keep your body upright and the weight correctly distributed. A better body position means a better technique and an improve capacity to handle greater loads.
It also serves to stop the bar from jumping around when performing explosive reps, reducing your risk of injury and improving the quality of your reps.
Rack the bar at the right height
Don’t make the rookie mistake of racking the bar so low that you have to squat bottom up just to get it out the rack or so high that you need to calf raise and tippy toe under the bar to even reach it.
Both these scenarios are asking for trouble and likely to result you in crumpled on the floor either crushed by the bar or by your embarrassment as the bar comes clattering down onto the safety bars as you go sprawling on your ass.
Set the bar up right and avoid any potential injury to your body or your pride.
Aim to have the bar at shoulder height or slightly below if that isn’t possible, from this position you should be able to comfortable duck under the bar to get into position before straightening the legs to walk out of the rack with either going excessively low or onto your tip toes.
Avoid the smith machine
The smith machine locks you into an unnatural movement pattern as the bar travels along a fixed path that only allows you to move up and down, this can put additional pressure on your back and knees, increasing your risk of injury.
In addition, research (4) shows a greater 1RM squat rack when using free weights compared to the smith machine for men.
Another study (5) comparing muscle activation in the free weight barbell back squat and smith machine squat found that muscle activation was higher in the free weight squat.
The bottom line is; avoid the smith machine where possible for better strength, muscle development and a decreased risk of injury.
Experiment with high and low bar positions
When squatting you can use 2 different bar positions.
- The high bar position – here the bar rests on the shelf created by your traps and becomes a knee dominant exercise
- The low bar position – here the bar rests in the mid-back between the upper traps and rear delts and becomes hip dominant
The difference the bar makes is in regard to your body position, a high bar position generally causes you to maintain a more upright position whereas the low bar position causes the body to hinge further forwards at the hips.
Both positions are correct and can be used however people generally find themselves stronger using the low bar position but more comfortable in the high bar position.
I would recommend you experiment and find what works best for you, you could also alternate between the two as improvements with one bar position will likely carry over and improve performance with the other.
Use micro-loading to continue applying progressive overload
There’s nothing better than that strength curve you get at the beginning of a new training programme where you can increase the weight on the bar by 2.5kg every session without fail.
You feel strong and unbeatable but it doesn’t last and slowly but surely it becomes harder to continue adding weight.
What once seemed easy begins to feel out of reach, it takes more time to add the same weight to the bar and as the weight gets heavier it becomes difficult to replicate your earlier success.
What do you do when this happens?
Use micro loading!
This means instead of aiming for a 2.5kg increase session on session you start looking for the 1.5kg, 1.25kg or even 1kg increase instead. You look to make small but steady progress to keep you on track to greater strength and muscle gains.
If you do this you will continue to make steady gains and regularly add weight to the bar.
Warm up properly
Gone are the days of warming up on the treadmill and in are the days of warming up with movements specific to the exercise you’re performing. So instead of heading to the cardio zone for a casual jog, head into the weights room instead and warm up using the bench press instead.
Not only does this warm up the specific muscles you’ll be training but by using a progressive warm up you prep the body for the movement and the weight you’ll be using.
Here’s how to do it:
8 reps with the bar
1 min rest
5 reps with 50% working weight
1 min rest
3 reps with 70% working weight
1 min rest
1 rep with 90% working weight
1 min rest
That’s it. If after the squatting, you’re moving onto another lower body exercise there is no need to warm up as you’ll be plenty warm by that point. However, if you’re moving onto another body part then run through the warm up for that body part before jumping right in.
There you have it 20 ways to get a bigger, better, stronger squat and build yourself a bad-ass set of legs. You now have a choice, to take action or to do nothing…
For those of you looking to make noticeable improvements in your squat, this article was written as a resource, something you can print out, refer to and use to make progress as soon as your next session.
REMEMBER: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day!