So far, the Unf*ck Your Program course and blog has focused only on the “big picture” of programming: how the many different variables that go into training relate to each other, and how you can use them to make continued to progress. Most of the movement-specific content I’ve shared is about technique or variation. Both are extremely important pieces of the puzzle, but they’re not the whole story.
Today, we’re going to head into new territory: specific ways to strengthen specific lifts. While you’ll still need to figure out how to fit these strategies into the framework of your training, I hope that they will give you some new ideas to play with.
Basically, we’re going to follow three steps to strengthen the squat. These steps are pretty transferable; you could use them equally well for the bench press and deadlift. However, they will obviously look really different in different contexts. For example, you’re not going to use a front squat to improve your bench press! We’ll get into those contexts in more detail in the “sample methods” section, so don’t worry if this article seems a little general at first. It will all make sense at the end.
Step 1: Identify Your Current Strengths and Weaknesses
I write about balance all the time, but it really is that important. A balanced body lifts more efficiently, gets injured less, and progresses more quickly than one with many standout strengths and weaknesses. In real life, though, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and the best you can do is learn to work with those individual nuances.
Identifying your own strengths and weaknesses can be difficult, and honestly, this is one area where a knowledgeable coach can be an invaluable asset. If you don’t have that luxury, I suggest that you start with a high-level view and then try to zoom in a bit. So, where do you fail on your heaviest reps? For most people, in the squat, it’ll be in the hole, but maybe you miss most of your reps just out of the hole, or maybe you even miss at the top. Don’t worry about it for right now – just identify your sticking point.
Then, zoom in a bit and try to identify why you miss at that point. For example, maybe your knees shoot in as you start to come out of the hole, or maybe your butt shoots up. It’s very important that you don’t jump to conclusions at this step. So many “gurus” are quick to do exactly that: they’ll claim that when your hips rise faster than your shoulders, and that’s a sign of a weak posterior chain; or that knee valgus is a sure indicator of quad weakness. As Greg Nuckols explains, that's not always the case.
The truth is — and now I’m repeating myself again — everyone is different, and all that matters is why your knees cave, or why your hips shoot up. Everyone’s form breaks down for different reasons. At this stage, all you know is that you have a weakness. Forget the movement for a second, and honestly assess your muscular strengths and weaknesses. If you’re in touch with your body, this will be easy; if you’re not, it’ll be very difficult. Sticking with our example, maybe you ask yourself whether you’re sore for days after a couple sets of hamstring curls; or maybe you know that trying to stretch your quads is excruciating.
Finally, try to make a connection between your muscular weaknesses and your sticking points. If your butt keeps shooting up, maybe you do have weak hamstrings or glutes, but maybe you’re not activating your quads properly during that part of the movement. If your knees shoot in, maybe your quads are weak, but maybe your adductors are. This step is the most important. If you misidentify the connection between your muscular weaknesses and your sticking points, you won’t be able to complete the next two steps effectively.
Identifying your strengths tends to be a bit easier. The question I go to here is simple: what are your favorite movements to do in the gym? Those will usually be your strengths, and you’ll probably be able to draw some connections among them. For example, if you enjoy deadlifts, cheat rows, and push pressing, you probably have a really strong lower back, because the lower back takes a lot of hammering in all three movements.
Step 2: Set Your Priorities
This step is easy to skip over, but it’s extremely important, because — as I’ll explain in more detail in the next section — if you try to fix everything at once, you’re just going to fuck yourself up even more. Setting priorities allows you to choose what to focus on, and when, so that you can better stay on track and hold yourself for making incremental improvements over the long term.
Still, it’s not easy to set priorities, especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re a beginner, you probably have a lot of weaknesses to work on, and it might seem impossible to single one weakness out as the most important. If that’s the case, I have two recommendations:
- Start with technique. It’s much easier to develop good technique and maintain that while getting stronger than it is to get really strong and then try to refine your technique and undo any bad habits you learned along the way.
- Don’t worry about the rest. Just follow a good, basic program and don’t even attempt to specialize on individual lifts or muscle groups until you have some very obvious, specific weaknesses that are holding you back.
Once you’re at the intermediate level or beyond, you probably do have some standout weaknesses. The trick at this point is to determine which ones to address first. As always, there’s no one right way to do that, but here’s what I do:
- Technique comes first until you can confidently say that yours is both safe and consistent. Safe is obvious: if you’re constantly getting hurt on a particular lift, you need to change your technique until that stops happening, or you’ll never be able to train progressively. Consistent means that you can keep the same technique even at high percentages of your 1RM. One-hundred-percent optimal technique should not be a priority at this stage. Far too many intermediates get mired down in trying to find optimal technique and forget about actually getting stronger.
- Muscular weaknesses should be addressed from an absolute standpoint, not by the degree to which they affect your lifts. For example, let’s say that your quads are pretty weak — you struggle doing front squats with even 50% of your best back squat, and you can only perform leg extensions with a fraction of the weight you use on leg curls. Your glutes are just a little bit weak: you can move some decent weight on hip thrusts, but you notice that you still shoot your hips up a bit on squats and pulls. Even if you’re very posterior-chain dominant on those lifts, I recommend still focusing on getting your quads up to speed before you prioritize the glutes. That’s because strengthening your quads may very well influence your technique to the point where the minor glute weakness is no longer as relevant. Furthermore, reducing major weaknesses will help to prevent injury.
It should come as no surprise that as you become more advanced, identifying and prioritizing strengths and weaknesses becomes more difficult and more complicated.That’s one of the biggest reasons why I recommend not even considering strengthening your strengths until you’re at the advanced level. When you do get to that level, however, you might seriously consider prioritizing your strengths. At that level, it’s unlikely that you’re going to dramatically change your technique, so it’s more likely that doing so will prove beneficial.
Step 3: Build Your Strategy
Finally, you’re ready to start planning. This isn’t easy, but if you’re confident that you correctly identified your strengths and weaknesses in step 1, you’ll do just fine.
The first thing to remember: make small changes. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to try and fix everything all at once, and that never works. You might fix virtually everything, but one little aspect goes wrong — maybe you adjust your stance too much, or maybe you forget a cue in your long list of new ones — and your squat turns into a muddled mess. You were that close, but you won’t know that, and won’t know how to fix it, because you won’t be able to determine what went wrong without going through the entire process again.
This is where your list of priorities comes in. Obviously, you’re going to start with your top priority, and work your way down. The secret involves choosing the right methods to address your priorities properly. For example, if you decide the first thing that you need to improve is technique (and that’s usually the case), it might be smart to increase your squatting volume and frequency and decrease your intensity, so that you can get more practice performing perfect reps. If your top priority involves your lack of quad strength, maybe you experiment with squat variations that really smash the quads, like front squats or narrow-stance pause squats.
There’s a nearly infinite number of ways to build this strategy, and again, this is where a knowledgeable coach can be a huge asset. A large part of determining what works and what doesn’t involves experience — and lots of trial and error. For that reason, a little expert guidance can go a long way, and save you a lot of time and frustration. But ultimately, experience is something you have to earn, so don’t be afraid to try new things and get your feet wet on your own. The next section should help to give you some ideas on how to do that.
Alternate Squats in Sleeves and Wraps
Regardless of whether you squat with wraps or sleeves in competition, using the other variation in your training can be a big help. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages:
- If you’re a sleeved squatter, using wraps for overload can help you strengthen your core and feel more comfortable with heavy weights.
- If you use wraps in competition, squatting in sleeves can help strengthen your position in the hole and give your body a break from the pain and increased loads of the wraps.
When use you sleeves and wraps depends on the strengths and weaknesses you identified in step 1. If you’re struggling with aching joints from heavy loads, you probably want to do more work in sleeves; if you’re struggling with confidence, you might want to make sure to do some heavy wrapped work fairly frequently. There are dozens of other circumstances where you might prefer one method over the other, so I won’t discuss them all in detail.
I will mention that overload can be a useful method of progression for the bench and deadlift, too. You’re probably familiar with benching in a Slingshot or pulling from blocks: both are examples of overload training that you might consider incorporating into your training if you’re struggling with those lifts.
Push Front Squats or Good Mornings
This one gets at both your muscular weaknesses and most technique issues. As I mentioned above, balancing the posterior chain, quads, and abs is crucial to building a big squat. Most lifters will favor either the posterior chain or the quads; the former will tend to shoot their hips up out of the hole, and the latter will feel uncomfortable using the leverage that a low bar position provides. Obviously, neither of those situations is ideal, but by training either front squats or good mornings, you can bring your weaker muscle groups up to par, thereby allowing you to use more efficient technique.
You want to use whichever movement you struggle with. If you’re already turning your squats into bastardized good mornings, doing more good mornings is a terrible idea. It’s just going to reinforce bad habits without addressing any of the factors limiting your current squat. Same thing goes if you hate or “can’t” squat low bar — you’ll probably be able to move some serious weight in the front squat, but the only thing that will help is your ego.
Now, when I say “push,” I just mean “train hard." You don’t need to use insanely heavy weights on assistance exercises, and, in fact, I recommend that you avoid doing so. Good mornings can easily turn nasty or even dangerous if you let your lower back round when using heavy weights, and holding a heavy weight in the front squat is very uncomfortable for most people. No big deal — just keep the weights light and use multiple sets of various rep schemes to provide plenty of ways to progress while keeping perfect form.
Try Some Bodybuilding Movements
I enjoy bodybuilding, so I’m a little biased here, but I do believe that bodybuilding-style training is extremely effective for strengthening the squat — moreso than for the bench press or deadlift. I’d guess that’s because, ultimately, the squat is a leg exercise, and the legs can handle a lot of volume, more than can be reasonably achieved using only compound movements.
Now, when I say bodybuilding, I’m not talking about some bullshit quarter-ROM leg presses or hack squats. I’m talking about high-rep (15-20+) sets of movements that directly target the quads and hamstrings, performed at or near muscular failure and with picture-perfect form and a controlled tempo. As long as you’re training in that manner, I really don’t think it matters too much whether you using compound movements like hack squats and leg presses, or isolation ones like leg curls and extensions.
Remember: even when you’re training like a bodybuilder, you still must train progressively to see any significant carryover to your competition squat. Whether it’s adding more reps, more sets, or more weight, you have to push yourself to new levels if you want to improve. You can’t just go through the motions. At the same time, remember that hard, high-rep leg training is pretty demanding. Don’t forget to account for overall recovery in your programming.
This was a longer article, but I think it's important to understand all the nuances that go into strengthening a movement. If nothing else, that should drive home the importance of making small changes.
And, speaking of small changes, if some of this article didn't make sense to you, it might be helpful to enroll in the full Unf*ck Your Program course. That will explain, step-by-step, how to incorporate these suggestions into your training routine.
No matter what, remember to Think Strong and train hard!