5 Squat Tips for Immediate Improvement

The following article is a quick five tips to help you with your squat. The squat is a tough exercise to master for most people and I was no exception. To help qualify things if you don’t know me, I have squatted over a 1000 pounds in multi-ply gear 13 times and over 1100 pounds four times with a best in competition of 1124 lpounds. Double or triple those numbers if you count training. My point in telling you this is to plant the seed that BIG squatting can be accomplished if you set your mind to it. These five tips will help you on your way to reaching that goal.

It took me six years of training to get my first 1008 pound squat, which came at the APF Senior Nationals in Baton Rouge, LA, in 2004. When I started powerlifting, a 1000 pound squat was just a day dream, but once I hit it good and fast, all I thought about was 1100 pounds and the ultimate 1200 pound squat. I did not get the 1200 pound squat I wanted. It actually got me with a serious quad tendon tear in 2007. I started out squatting in the low 500′s with poor form and at the time thought that high 500’s and 600’s were wonderful.  I am proof that you can double your squat with proper training, technique and focus.

Over the years, I picked up a few things that have helped me train my squat and perfect my form.

Know this: without the form and technique you’ll never maximize your potential.

Even modest adjustments in form and skill will improve your performance. Most from adjustments can give you a 50 to 100 pound jump.

Here are five squat tips to start doing NOW!!!!

1. Learn how to arch your lower back with the PAD TEST

Arching your lower back continuously from pick up (set up if you walk out) to the finish of the squat is not a new concept, but most lifters have no idea what it means. In order to increase your squat, your lower back has to be united with your hips, legs and upper body from the start of your squat to the end. Here’s an easy way to “get it.”

Get a box that’s parallel or slightly higher. Make sure you have a one inch pad or a one inch anything that can be slid under your tail while you sit on the box. First, squat onto the box in the stance you use in competition using what you think is a good arch. Once on the box, have a buddy slide the pad up to your bottom as it’s seated on the box. Now, the important part, arch your lower back even harder now. Your tail will lift up and off the box where the pad is if you do it right. Tell the person to slide the pad until it hits your bottom again. Normally the pad will move two to three inches if you arch really hard. Pay attention and hold this arch. Within 5 to 10 seconds, you’ll feel your glutes, hips and lower back lock TOGETHER. This is what it’s supposed to feel like for the entire rep of your squat when you are under load.

2. Use your hips to pick up the bar.

This is another very simple sounding one, but pretty much at every meet and at the gym I see it without fail – a guy or girl who doesn’t use their hips and legs to pick up the bar. Often they pick up the bar with what I call a “trap pickup” and lower back. All this means is that they shrug the bar out of the rack mostly with the brunt force in their traps and lower back instead of using their legs from the very start.

What’s wrong with this? Very simply, shrugging the bar out of the rack separates and disconnects your upper back from your erectors and lower body briefly as you start your squat attempt. Because of this disconnect, your body has to try and reset itself once you get the weight out of the rack. This is a waste of time and energy and it doesn’t allow your central nervous system to fire everything simultaneously. So essentially, you don’t begin your heavy squat using all the muscle you could have.

How to fix it? This is an easy one but you’ll have to consciously do it each time you pick up the bar to squat. Grab the bar with your thumbs wrapped around the bar and pull your grip of the bar in just a little. This will force your shoulder blades together and fire up your upper back and erectors. Now, think about nothing but your hips picking up the bar, some say arch the bar out of the rack, this is the same thing essentially. If you walk it out of the rack setting up this way will be a little more difficult but try your best to drive your feet into the ground as you pick up the bar. If you arch and just use your legs and hips, the top portion of your glutes will fire immediately once you have it up to lock you in place. This is also an activation signal for your central nervous system to light up every muscle it can to help you with the lift.

3. Head up and slightly above parallel and knowing how to keep your arch.

I know…you know this one. Nah, I doubt it. What I’m talking about here is the tendency of guys and gals to either look down at their feet or up so hard that they look like they are trying to look up someone’s nose. Focusing your eyes in either direction is a disconnection for your body. This goes right back to not fully involving all of your muscles, joints and leverage points that you have available at any given point in the squat.

Ok, the fixers. You will need an empty bar or one with just a little bit of weight on it. Set up like you’re going to squat. First, keep your head slightly above parallel like you’re looking off at something in the distance. Your shoulder blades should be pulled in tight and your lower back should be arched. Squat to parallel or slightly below and pause at the bottom. Next, drop your head down as far as it will go. You’ll feel your lower back “drop out” or lose most of its arch. This is the disconnect that I’m talking about. You’re literally disconnecting your body and losing all of your squatting potential right now. Then pick your head back up to slightly above parallel again and you will feel your lower back reengage again. When it reengages and locks back in with the rest of your body this is how it’s supposed to feel the ENTIRE time you’re squatting until you finish the repetition. Practice this several times to really get the feel for it and to really understand it.

4. Drive your upper back into the bar.

What the heck does this mean? This is a little trick I caught onto while watching one of my old training partners squat one night. He really had no idea until I pointed it out to him. But this is a very simple one to implement when you need it most. The “most” is that sticking point in your squat where you have the most trouble and the point where you fail. This is one that saved me in a competition when I froze half way up on a 1058 pound squat. Had I not used this simple technique, I wouldn’t have gotten the lift, or even had the chance to keep pushing on it.

Ok, here it is. I just told you to keep your head up and slightly above parallel during the entire lift. However, there are times when you screw the pooch and mess your form up or don’t reverse your squat in the hole fast enough and you hit your sticking point. Normally, you push and push, but you’ve changed your leverage and can no longer use your strongest muscles in that particular form. Your lift is done here unless you blow a gasket as you keep pushing against it.

What you can do when you hit this point, is immediately drive your head up and back. This will make you arch more with your lower back and, more importantly, force the upper back to drive into the bar even harder. This is sort of a realignment technique to get the bar back over your hips where your squat is the strongest. Once the bar starts moving again, just bring your head back to parallel immediately. If you don’t, the bar will go past your hips and may pop off your back, or the weight will literally feel like its all on your lower back and you may get hurt. Either way it won’t be good. So, to repeat, as you hit the sticking point drive your head up and back till the bar starts moving again, then before you finish bring your head back to parallel and look straight ahead.

5. Hold the bar for time before you start to squat and when you finish the last rep of a set of squats

This one is easy and won’t take long to explain, I hope. Once you get your traps, head and arch situations down, then you can start working on holding the bar for time. The time won’t be long in reality, but if it’s a heavy weight, it will feel like forever. The most important point is to do this on every set of squats you do, even the warm ups, until you get it down. If you do it each time, it will be an automatic response.

Why would I want you to do something that would FREAK you out? Holding the bar for three to five seconds before you start the first squat rep and three to five seconds at the end of the last rep of a squat set will do a couple things:

  1. The time under the bar will increase CNS firing and overall engagement of your entire body, thus making you stronger and able to lift more weight immediately – at least physically. If you’re a mental case, this may not help that much. This is also called the law of irradiation which means the longer you’re under tension, the more your body will call upon unused muscle (and you have lots of it all the time) to aid in holding the weight up or performing the work placed upon it. So essentially, it’s a reinforcement for your army – the body.
  2. This one is just as good, because it helps with the mental aspect of lifting which is the biggest part of the battle anyhow. This will slow you down some doing the actual set, but it will teach you to take your time to allow the most tension and power to build up in your body. It goes back to firing the CNS adequately. To give you a visual, think about your iPod, car stereo or anything with a volume control, the time you hold the bar enables you to turn up the volume (power and strength) levels. So you can start your squat at the loudest (most powerful level) or you can start earlier and not reach full volume control by going too fast. This also forces you to think about all your squatting cues (arch, sit back, drive the upper back, etc) and you’ll miss less of them each time you squat.

There you have it, five things you can do on your next squat day to make immediate improvement. Practice one each time you squat and there’s no doubt your skill will get better and your poundage lifted will go up. Happy squatting!!!

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About the Author

Marc is one of the premier 275lbs. lifters in the world. He is a WPO competitor and at the 2005 Arnold Classic he squatted a huge 1058. Marc has been competing in powerlifting for 6 years and has used the IPA, APF, USAPL and the WPO to showcase his strength. He currently owns Total Gym in South Carolina. Despite his appearance, Marc is a very well educated man as he holds two degrees from the University of South Carolina; one in finance and one in economics. His best lifts include a 1058 squat, 700lbs bench press and a 722 deadlift. His best total to date is 2463. SouthCarolinaBarbell.com View Marc’s Training Log HERE