Building the Raw Squat

TAGS: weak out of the hole, knees caving, upper back rounding, hamstring development, raw squatter, equipped squatter, geared squats, building the squat, improve your squat, quad development, track progress, raw squat, coaching cues, weak point, Brandon Smitley, accessory work, bodybuilding, muscle mass

ATHLETE

If you’ve been an avid reader of elitefts.com for any length of time, you can likely find an incredible amount of resources and tips to helping improve your squat. Whether it be technical, mental, or physical, Dave has taken the time to ensure that no stone is left unturned.

So why am I writing this article, and sharing my thoughts and viewpoints?

Everyone has different approaches, ideas, methods, and ways of communicating. Not one way of delivery is right or wrong, but it also means that not everything will sink in. This article is designed for me to share with you some of the things that I have learned over the years on what has worked best for myself and clients in building the squat.

What this article will not do is dissect technique. Why? There are dozens of ways you can get technical help, via the Q&A, our seminars, the coaching provided by athletes and coaches, Twitter chats, articles and videos, and even the training logs. I just feel like I would be repeating what the greats before me have for decades.

First Things First

I want to get this out of the way as soon as possible. Squatting in gear vs squatting raw really isn’t all that different. Yes, there ARE differences, but the major take home points remain the same.

  • Big air into the belly
  • Tight lats/back
  • Hips break first
  • Spread the floor/hip external rotation
  • Drive the head/back/traps up into the bar first out of the hole

The major differences are going to be how far one sits back and the feedback loops from the gear. Yes, an equipped squatter is likely to have a wider stance, but you can still see those in gear squatting rather narrow and those that are raw squatting rather wide. So this is a personal factor, not a “must” like the points above.


WATCH: Spotting 101 — The Squat


Raw lifters are going to see a bit more forward knee travel, and rely on the stretch reflex a bit more. Otherwise, the squats are utilizing the same principles and can be approached similarly. The differences I’ll discuss below.

Needs Analysis

One thing we need to do before ever addressing the squat is to look at the needs of the raw squatter. We know that they do not have the support from gear in the hole, and that there will be more forward knee travel than their equipped counterparts. This can help us decide what we need to focus on to improve the lift.

box squat

The Hole

Without the support of the equipment, we need to build the bottom end strength of the lift. This can be done via a variety of training approaches, but this will likely be where most lifters fail (very rarely do you see a lifter miss a squat at the top unless they stumble or lose balance). Even if they are missing about 3-4 inches out of the bottom, this can be attributed to not having enough speed from the bottom.

The Quads

Without a doubt, this is probably the biggest change one will need to make to their training from the equipped lifters. With the forward knee travel, the range of motion and stress placed on the knee and quads increases. Building this strength is going to be vital to getting out of the hole, but also continuing the acceleration of the lift through the sticking point. The quads are huge muscles, and I challenge you to find a raw lifter with big quads that isn’t squatting some impressive numbers.

But What About the Hamstrings?

The hamstrings are still very important for the raw squatter. After all, the descent of the lift is loading them eccentrically, and they are going to provide a good stretch reflex from coming out of the bottom. However, they are not nearly as important to the equipped lifter who will be sitting back more into the gear and have a drastically more posterior chain dominant squat.

Now, before you have my head on a stake, hear me out. If your hamstrings are incredibly weak, then yes, you do need to do hamstring work! There is no such thing has having hamstrings that are too strong. But, relying on your hamstrings to be the dominant mover of your squat is incorrect.


WATCH: Best Secondary Movement for the Squat


The stronger your hamstrings, the stronger your quads can get. Your hamstrings are going to help stabilize the tibia while it transfers the force from the floor, into the legs, up through the torso, and into the bar. So the better you can stabilize the tibia, the more the quads can do their job and the healthier your knees will be.

So your take home point here: Train your hamstrings to be strong enough to handle the strength your quads want to display. For some, this might mean you need a ton of hamstring work (beginners). For others, it might just be whatever you need to keep the balance between your quads and hamstrings.

Programming Considerations

Now for the juicy stuff you’ve probably been waiting for: something you can actually use.

I’m going to cover a plethora of methods, ideas, and exercise approaches so just understand that based upon how you train, how long you’ve been training, and where you classify as a lifter (beginner, elite, etc.) can all dictate how you implement these.

Specificity

To be good at squatting, you have to actually practice the lift. Even as someone that is in favor of a concurrent training methodology with conjugating lifts, I still believe specificity to be at the forefront. You’ve got to do the movement to train the muscles the way they are planning to be used on the platform. So my first recommendation is to get good technically at the lift. Once you do this, then you can really begin to have some fun with bands, chains, specialty bars, and other variations of the movement to help address specific weak areas of your squat.

Needs Analysis Weak Point Index

Assuming you’ve got your technique dialed in, it’s time to see what happens when your technique breaks down under maximal loads. This can give you an idea of where you need to focus your supplemental and accessory work (and even your max effort or main movement).

Below are some tables giving you some ideas of certain movements, accessory work, and set/rep ranges that can help you:

hole

caving

hips rising

instability

upper back rounding

While these tables are not all-inclusive, these are things that I program and see results with on a regular basis. You might have access to some other options and special equipment, but for most people these are things that can be done on a regular basis.

Regardless of what your programming philosophy is, these can be implemented into any program and with some major success. The most important part is to make sure that you are addressing the proper areas for you. If you need help with some video critique, the Q&A is a great place to post a video and get some help for free!

Frequency

While this part can be highly individualized, I think that it’s best that the majority of people are squatting about twice per week on average. You might be able to handle more or less, but generally speaking two squatting sessions per week is a good place to start. One will likely be a heavier or emphasized squat day, and the other will be lighter or more of a supplemental day. One could use a specialty bar, while the other is the competition movement, or you could have none that use the competition movement for an entire block of training, and the next could be nothing but the competition movement. The possibilities are endless in how you truly set this up with all the programming options available, but finding a structure and template that works best for you and your lifestyle is what is most important.

Understanding Carryover

Now, if you’re one that is opting to use specialty bars, bands, chains, and various movement variations, you really need to keep track of PR’s for each one. This might seem like common sense, but having this tracked is going to let you see if you have direct carryover.

Having different variations is great, but if it’s not going to have carryover (or serve an underlying purpose of just keeping you healthy), you need to know so you can ditch it and find something else that works. For many, this might be using a specialty bar or variation after a meet for an off-season block of training.

You need to have some kind of assessment protocol in your training that lets you know whether your efforts are paying off. I personally like to throw in competition style squats every couple weeks and test some rep PR’s (10, 8, or 6-rep is the norm for me). If these are improving and looking better, then I know I can proceed. If things looks off or worse, I can reevaluate my approach and change things up.

I’m not saying my way is the best, it’s just what I’ve found that lets me track progress without having to actually take a max single in training.

Bodybuilding

I saved this part for last, as I know it will be something that can be highly debated, but that I think is well worth the investment for the long haul.

As a raw lifter, one of your most valuable assets to increasing your squat is just building more muscle mass. Muscle moves weight, improves leverages, and helps keep joints healthier. It seems like a no-brainer, but with powerlifting being all about being the strongest, some seem to get too specific for too long. Getting some time away from the barbell, and taking the needed down time to put on some quality muscle mass and utilize different loading schemes, intensity techniques, and extended time under tension will help build your foundation for when you do get back to a strength block of training.

You need to have some type of hypertrophy training year round, but know that the amount and focus of where will vary based upon the competitive season. After a meet you might hit nothing but hypertrophy training with various machines and movements you never do, while leading into a meet, your hypertrophy work will only be designated towards your specific weak points to help your squat continue to climb leading into a meet. Anything else is just going to be a waste of recovery capacity when intensities are at their highest. So don’t be afraid to really push your volume in the off-season and really try to build some muscle. Your strength will take a minor hit in the beginning, but when you come back to building that strength, you’re going to be able to display it better via more muscle mass contracting from the increased motor unit recruitment.

Bridging the Gap

While the squat is still the most technical lift we see in powerlifting, the gear whores and raw zealots have much more in common than we think. I grew up reading and learning all my powerlifting knowledge from the likes of Dave Tate, Louie Simmons, Matt Wenning, JL Holdsworth, and other various equipped lifters, but still learned how to take my squat from shit to good. After some tweaks and speaking with other great minds over the course of my training, I’ve arrived at my own philosophies in building what I feel is the best approach to the raw squat. Whether that is truly the case or not does not concern me; what does concern me is that my squat keeps climbing, and so does yours.

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