Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT
Squatting is one of the main accessory exercises for Olympic lifters to build general leg strength. The front squat in particular specifically builds posture strength that carries over well to the Clean and Jerk. It would be impossible to find a great lifter that didn’t have an equally impressive squat. Not having enough leg strength could be the reason why an athlete struggles with things such as accelerating the bar off the floor during the pull, standing up from a clean, or having enough drive during the Jerk. Athletes should aim to have a front squat that is 128-137% of their max Clean and Jerk. Lifters that have better technique can get away with keeping their squat on the lower end of the range, but on average, most lifters should be closer to the upper end since it is difficult to maintain perfect technique at maximal weights. If an athlete is struggling with their squat, here are some quick tips that can help improve it.
Pause squats – The pause(s) can be placed at any point the during the lift. This helps to increase the time-under tension, to build explosive strength out of certain positions, and help build familiarity around hard portions of the lift. The pause(s) will also help to condition the connective tissue to be more stiff over time to transfer forces more efficiently. No more than 2 pauses should be used per rep in either the ascending or descending phases of the lift, and with each pause being only 2-3 seconds in duration. This is not an exercise where maximal weight is recommended as this can easily cause too much stress on the joints or cause more fatigue than it’s worth.
For lifters that have never done pause squats before, pausing at the bottom of the squat and right above parallel (the thigh hits 30 degrees measured in reference to the knee) are two areas that most lifters struggle with. These positions are where the hip and knee extensors work the hardest while at the greatest mechanical disadvantage. Learning to produce force through these positions can greatly improve a lifter’s results.
Incorporating Clusters or Drop sets - Some lifters struggle to generate enough force quickly to successfully complete a max effort lift. While these lifters can generally grind out a slow rep at maximal weight, they will ultimately hit a wall since it takes too long for them to reach peak contraction to overcome the weight. Cluster sets of 2-3 reps at a submaximal weight done with maximal intent to move quickly can be very effective for improving rate of force production. The goal is to perform each set with some measure of speed. Some coaches get very specific and use devices to measure the speed of the squat but subjective observation from the coach is generally good enough to spur progress with this method.
Drop sets are also very effective for making sure that the athlete is moving with maximal intent. After performing a heavy set of squats, drop the weight by 10-20% and perform another 2-3 reps. The heavy squat has a priming effect on the body and subsequent submaximal squats will move much faster. Make sure with both methods that there is adequate rest between sets as fatigue can greatly impact the amount of force generated. I recommend 45-50seconds for cluster sets and 1 minute of rest for drop sets (the priming effect seems to diminish after about 1 minute).
Belt squats - This a great exercise for adding additional volume for the legs while minimizing the axial loading of the spine. This would be an appropriate accessory exercise for lifters unable to hold their back position out of the bottom of the squat. Weak leg extensors cause the body to shift most of the work onto the back, causing the squat to looking like a good morning than an actual squat. While this strategy can lead to some big lifts the sustainability of such a technique is low as the lower back can easily be injured under such high stress. In this case the coach should strengthen the leg extensors to match the strength of the back so that they can push together optimally and distribute the work over more major muscles. The Belt Squat can be done for between 6-12 reps with varying intensity following the main squat or pulling variation for additional work on the legs.
Good Morning and Hip Thrusters - While not squat variations, good mornings and hip thrusters are tremendous exercises for developing the hip musculature, lower back, and trunk. The hips act as the fulcrum where the weight of the bar and the force of leg extension effort are both passing through. Weak hips can be like pushing into a sponge where the lifter loses force through deformation and failure to hold optimal positions. Having a weak link along the kinetic chain can also inhibit force production as the body struggles to support the weight in an upright posture. It can be difficult to execute the movement correctly when the body is focused on not folding over or avoiding injury. Sets of 6-8 reps are recommended for these exercises. The weights should not be maximal as both exercises are very stressful on the spinal erectors. Theses muscles generally take longer to become overloaded but for that reason they also take longer to recover as well.