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How to Build a Squat

March 17, 2008 04:23 PM

The squat has been my favorite lift since as long as I can remember. After I tore up my knee the consensus was to build up the muscles of my leg to take the slack off my injured joint. Bodybuilders and powerlifters alike agreed that the squat was the lift to build both size and strength in the lower body as well as arguably the King of All Lifts.

Since bodybuilders are more concerned with size than strength the form they tend to use is not one designed to move large amounts of weight but instead for transferring the most tension and work into the quads. It's powerlifters that have figured out the strongest and most efficient form for creating the leverage needed to move the most weight in this lift. But, as we know, just trying to lift max weights all the time goes nowhere fast. And numerous programs abound as to how to build the best squat number you are capable of. Russian Smolov, Westside Barbell, Classic Coan/Karwoski linear periodization. Which one is best and how to pick it?

How does one successfully cycle the weights and what programs should one choose? And what about gear? If one incorporates squat suits, knees wraps and belts into the mix how do you use that?

Although I had used pure WSB training for years and loved the logic and physics based approach of Louie and Co. I had to answer those questions differently when I began coaching my student Nick Bruckner. Nick did not have the time nor the inclination to use the full gamut of WSB techniques and methods. Although he had made great gains (from never having squatted to a 480 pound competition squat in 4 years) using a basic WSB percentage approach I knew we needed a more complete approach to get him past 500 and onto the 600 that he wanted.

This is what I came up with and the result was a 601 lb competition squat at APC Nationals in 2006 after one year of this type of cycling. This macro cycle contains 4 micro cycles that incorporate all the various squatting cycles I have had success with as well as a smooth incorporation of both raw and geared squatting. These micro cycles can, and should, be run in succession in order to gain the best results. It's a long cycle but you can be assured of solid gains at the end as well as really increasing your basic total body strength from the inside out.

Stage One: Raw Squats 5x5 (4 weeks)
This can be done totally raw or with a power belt. This is done after a competition or after a max weight has been taken in the gym with gear. Ideally you know what your raw 5x5 pr is from the last cycle and you bump the weights up a small amount over that. If this is your first time just add weight slowly each week to establish your base PR. All five sets are done with the same weight. Rest periods between sets should be 4-5 minutes. An example:
Wk 1 5x5 with 225 (after warmup to that weight)
Wk 2 5x5 with 245
Wk 3 5x5 with 255 (old PR)
Wk 4 5x5 with 265 (new PR)

Assistance work should be one or two exercises that address a known muscular weakness. KB swings could, and should, imo, be one of the exercises. Back extensions, glute ham raises or sled dragging are other good choices. This part of the cycle is about build basic raw strength, honing your natural squat form and discerning your basic weak points in the lift. Nothing like raw squats to show you where your real leverage is. Or isn't. You can go right into the next stage the next squat day.

Stage two: Box squat, percentages (5 weeks)
Again, if you don't have a previous box squat PR you need to tread lightly the first time you go through this cycle. Remember, Rome, and a big squat, were not built in a day. Base your percentages off a current box squat number (the last cycle preferably), NOT your free squat number. If you don't keep a training log- START. Jack Reape has stated the most important training book one owns is his or her training log. I agree. One must go through these cycles many times to really grow the big squat and the big squat muscles necessary to support the big weights. Have patience. Make sure the box is EXACTLY where you need to go to break parallel in your federation. When in doubt go lower. ALL these reps should be done with good speed. If the weight moves slowly it's a good chance the weight is too heavy for you. This part of the cycle is about building maximum velocity throughout the lift with perfect form. You should feel like you can jump of the ground at the top of the lift (don't however).If you don't feel this way you might not be in the right position in your squat. You should wear your belt and loose suit bottom or groove briefs but NO wraps. You can also do this with no support gear but the belt. You should use the belt to learn how to use it properly to activate the abs out of the bottom. This is a tricky skill and needs to be practiced to be learned to be done automatically. Using the belt will also be a form of overload on the all-important abs.

Wk5 70 % 8sets of 3 1 min rest/sets
Wk6 75% 8 sets of 3 1 min rest/sets
Wk7 80 % 6 sets of 2 1.5 min rests/set
Wk8 85% 4 sets of 2 2 min rests/sets
WK9 90% 1-2 sets of 2 2-3 min rest/sets

Nick Bruckner under the bar.

Box squats build explosive speed by breaking up the eccentric/concentric chain. This means you take OUT the stretch reflex of the big muscles of the glutes, hamstrings and back and have to use pure flexion of those muscles to"restart" out of the hole. This is not fun nor is it easy but it is crucial for learning how to really accelerate out of the bottom of the squat and which muscles to use to do that. Great squat form relies on a good stretch reflex to 'pop' one out of the hole. Many pounds can be added to your squat if you know how to utilize this 'touch and go ' method of squatting. The box takes all that away and forces you to create all the upper force from zero. Pause squats are NOT the same as they do not break up the eccentric/concentric chain. You have to sit back on the box and release the hip flexors to get the benefits. Read more about how to box squat correctly here: Top Ten/PDF.Files/04PDF/Box Squatting.pdf

You should also use compensatory acceleration when coming off the box. What this means is that you should try to stand up as strongly as possible the entire way up to the lockout. Draping heavy chains off the ends of the bar is a great way to accommodate resistance and make sure you don't slack off near the top of the lift. If you use chains just add them on but don't change the bar weight because of them. They should only add resistance at the top of the lift. Here's a great article on how to use chains correctly: Top Ten/PDF.Files/03PDF/Chain Reaction.pdf

Stage Three: Belt and wraps (3 weeks), the Peaking begins.
Start off this stage with an easy week. Work up to a set of five reps over five sets with a weight that you deem "light"(60-70% of raw best). That's it. This is a backoff week and you've earned it. The next week use belt and wraps and loose suit bottom(if peaking in gear). This part of the cycle is 3 sets of 3 reps and ideally you know your top end weight. You are shooting for a 10-20 pound increase over your last PR triple. If this is your first time go easy and be conservative. If your meet gear includes a squat suit I would encourage you to wear suit bottoms or briefs. This changes the groove considerably and needs to be learned and practiced. Make SURE you are going deep enough on ALL reps. You compete how you practice so make sure practice is perfect. Rest as much as you like between sets. Competition squat attempts in many meets are usually separated by long waiting periods. Get used to it.

Week 11: warmup then workup up to 3x3 with the same weight 90% of your best 3x3. All sets are done with the same weight.
Week 12: workup to 3x3 with 92- 95% of your best 3x3
Week 13: workup to 3x3 with 98-101% of your best 3x3
Walkouts: After all sets are done. Load the bar to 50-100 lbs over the work weight and walkout to the start of the squat position. Walkout, setup and hold the position for 3-4 seconds and then walk back in. You can do this 1-3 times This will prepare you for the overload that will come with the extra gear and competition weights. If you use a monolift just unrack the bar and hold it.

Stage Four: Peaking 2-3 weeks, full gear
Week 14: 3 sets of 1 rep with the same weight full gear straps up, approx 85- 90 % of contest max in gear
Week 15: 3 sets of 1 rep with the same weight, approx90- 95% of contest max in gear
Week 16: back off week prior to meet. Work up to opener for 1 rep. Go home.
walkouts: As in the last phase, use 50-100 pounds over the top weight. Be cautious this close to the meet. Just one top set.

Week 17: Competition or Max in the gym!
You may find you need another low key week before the competition. If you do, take it. When in doubt do less rather than more.

This is the trickiest part of the cycle and you MUST make accommodations for how well you have or have NOT recovered, as well as any tweaks or injuries you may have. The goal is three sets of singles with the same weight to acclimate you to taking three tough singles in the meet, but you might find you do better working up over three sets to just ONE single. Play it by ear and as a rule do less rather than more when in doubt. Leave something for the platform.
You can still continue with your assistance work in the peaking phases but make sure they do not tear you down too much. Again, KB swings keep up your GPP conditioning without breaking you down too hard or loading connective tissue negatively, especially as volume decreases in the peaking phase.

After you finish this macrocycle take a week off (as well as your gear) and restart the raw cycle again, doing just a bit more than last time. This is the real key to building your squat. It's not any one cycle that makes you into a squat master but repeating the loading over and over, always adding more weights and being vicious and relentless in your attempts to make your form perfect. Reevaluate your weak points from your competition efforts and choose different special assistance exercises to improve them.

Nick hasn't competed in awhile but I would say he could easily squat 625 right now and perhaps as much as 640! This is based on the increases he has made to his raw and box squat numbers in the early parts of the cycle. You can do this too; go through the phases and just restart the cycle if you are not going to a comp or want to fully max out in the gym with all the gear. When weights that previously were a struggle, are now being crushed you can be sure you are squat is up!

I like this approach because it incorporates ALL the methods to squatting that has been proven over many years: raw squats, 5x5, box squatting for speed and acceleration and full gear low rep triples and singles. Hope this works as well for you as it has for us!

May all your squats feel light and all your lights be white!

Mark Reifkind, Sr. RKC has been a competitive athlete, coach and student of physical culture for the last 35 years. A former national level gymnast, Mark spent 15 years training, competing in powerlifting, achieving a Masters Rating and a Top 100 ranked bench press. Mark was also Head Coach for Team USA at the IPF World Championship in 1995 as well as the 2000 IPF Pan Am Championships.

A writer for Milo, Ironman, Muscle Mag International as well as a published book author, Mark now owns Girya Kettlebell Training in Palo Alto, Ca. Girya was one of the first studios in the country devoted solely to kettlebell training. Mark works one on one with clients at Girya as well as online; offering instruction for powerlifters,mixed martial artists and kettlebell enthusiasts of all ages. Visit