By Jim Wendler
How things have changed. Five years ago, all you ever read were articles on how to use your gear, how to use your bench shirt, squat suit, knee wraps, etc. Now people want articles on how to train without gear. Very strange. But since I?m a whore to the masses, I?ve decided to give some of our readers exactly what they want. Since many articles that are on EliteFTS are based for powerlifting (and thus wearing a suit), I decided to take a look at raw squatting and how things should be altered. So here?s my article on squatting without gear.
To prep myself for this article, the first thing that I did was look at how a squat suit helped a lifter and how this altered the technique and prep of the lift. I came up with the following:
A squat suit is designed so that as a lifter sits back into the lift, he increases the rebound of the suit. I like to use the term, ?loading the suit.? Think of the straps and the hips of a suit as being attached by a rubber band. The further you can push your hips back, the tighter the straps of the suit. While this makes it very difficult to go down, it makes for a tremendous rebound. I was thinking of a way to make myself appear smarter by using some fancy physics and other terms. I was thinking of the Pythagorean Theorem or something like that. The bottom line is that a suit lends itself to sitting back into a squat.
A suit will provide a feeling of tightness and strength in the abs and low back. I?m not going to start preaching the importance of abdominal and low back strength. We all know how important it is.
Wearing suit and briefs do prevent injuries. I know that gear is really designed for one thing: lift more weight. But you do have quite a bit of injury prevention when using gear. All you have to do is look at how many older lifters still remain competitive and many of them will credit the advances in gear that have prolonged their career.
A suit will give a tremendous rebound out of the hole. Much like a bench shirt, the squat suit will aid in the bottom of the lift. This is similar to my first point, but this isn?t as much form related. A squat suit can somewhat mask a weaker starting point.
So now that we have analyzed the basics of how a squat suit can help you, let?s see how we can alter squat training to better help the lifter that doesn?t use gear. Before I begin, I should first define what I consider a raw squat. A raw squat is one done without the help of briefs, wraps or a suit. I believe that when attempting maximal or near maximal weights, one should use a belt. There are many people that may disagree with me, but a device that could help prevent a serious injury to the lower back should be used. This does not mean that you should not train your lower back and abdominals, but I don?t see the point, or the ego gratification, of training in such a way that could sideline you from lifting in the future or even day-to-day life.
Now what I am about to say may go against what you have previously read or experienced, but I believe it to be true. Remember what I said about a squat suit helping a lifter to sit back into a squat? Most squat suits are designed for a lifter to sit back into a squat. Sitting back is still recommended, but you MUST squat down at some point. This will take advantage of your quads. So the first movement of your squat should always be back ? your hips should shift to the rear much like the start of a good morning or a Romanian deadlift. Beginning a squat by breaking at the knees is a great way to injure yourself, develop some serious knee problems and limit the amount of weight that can be used. This is fine if you believe that a 225lbs squat is OK and you think tendonitis and other sordid maladies are signs of being a man.
Once you have reached about halfway, open up your hips (push your knees out or ?open your groin?) and squat DOWN. This will ensure that your knees are still safely inline with your ankles or the midpoint of your foot while still maximizing the strength in your quads.
Once you?ve reached parallel or slightly below (I?m not even going to approach the subject of squat depth; that?s what forums are for), maintain the same knee alignment, and begin your ascent by thinking of two things: leading with your head and chest and driving your elbows forward. It should be like a violent explosion, but not so much that you fall out of the groove.
There are many powerlifters that still squat like this and some of the best examples are Ed Coan, Travis Mash and Brent Mikesell. All three of these guys are tremendous squatters and it would behoove you to check out any kind of video to see how these guys squat.
I should point out how critical it is to begin your descent properly, whether you use gear or not. If you start wrong, there is a good chance you will miss the lift; especially when handling maximal weights.
Another point that I would like to make is that when box squatting, your form should be exactly as if you were free squatting. Squatting on a box does not give you the right to do the following:
Bounce onto the box
Sit too far back
Excessive rocking (some will rock a little bit)
Groove bouncing to get the weight up (I am not going to get into this, but those that do this, know what I mean)
Box squatting is the most effective way to squat. I firmly believe this. It teaches you to sit back, keeps the stress off of the knees, you cannot bounce in the bottom position (saving your knees), very easy to teach and because you generally can?t use as much weight as a regular squat, is easier on your lower back. Why more performance coaches don?t use the box squat is beyond me.
Back and Abdominals
I mentioned how a squat suit gives you the feeling of tightness. Anyone that has lifted weights for any period of time has heard the term, ?Stay Tight!? Since you are sans gear, developing a very strong back and abs is crucial.
Notice that I did not say ?low back?. When squatting raw, your entire back, from your traps to your low back are being taxed. Many times a properly worn/fitted suit will help you lock everything into a strong position. But since you don?t have that option, you have to make up for it. In order to maintain proper position (and prevent injury) your entire back must be strong. There is a simple, but not easy, solution. Train your back from several different angles. For your traps/upper back, shrugs, high pulls and various deadlifting (pin pulls, snatch deadlifts, deadlifts, deadlifts off platform, etc.) are great choices. For your mid back, any kind of row done to the stomach (db rows, bent over rows, chest supported rows w/ various grips) are good choices. For overall back strength, the chin-up/pull-up can?t be beaten.
For your lower back, back raises, 45 degree back raises, good mornings and Reverse Hyperextensions will certainly fit the bill.
I should point out that deadlifts pretty much work every part of your back, so this is a great choice for everyone, especially beginners. The only problem with deadlifts, and this is especially true for a more experienced lifter, is that it can be very taxing on the body. So while this exercise, in my estimation, is probably the best overall strength and muscle building lift, it needs to be used with a little bit of caution.
I?ve given a huge list of exercises, but in reality, you only need to do the ones that are the most cost effective for you. For me, chin-ups, chest supported rows and dumbbell rows are great for my lats. Shrugs are always great, but since I?ve done a lot of Olympic lifting during my years playing football, this area has always been fairly strong. For lower back, the 45 degree back raise is one of the best ways to do a strict good morning, limit the load on your spine and still reap the benefits.
I have always done two lat exercises per week (one exercise per upper body day) and 1 lower back exercise per week. Lats and lower back are usually trained with the repetition method ? 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps. I do not like to train these to failure or too heavy, but I wouldn?t fart around, either.
For your abs, I would stick with a variety of exercises to prevent boredom. But the important thing is to have exercises that you can load. For example, side bends and sit ups are easy to add weight to. Although I never loaded hanging leg raises, I still feel that this is a good exercise. Again, the repetition method is used. I usually train my abs 2 times per week.
Remember that your abs and back are held statically when you squat so this is no time to be Bobby Ballistic when training. This doesn?t mean you have to hold every rep of every set. This just means that you should concentrate on holding proper position when you perform your exercises. Just don?t do something to do it; do it with purpose.
The main way a suit and/or briefs can help prevent injury is by keeping your hips healthy. Anyone that has used these can attest to this fact. The best way to keep your hips healthy is by altering your stance and my performing mobility work for your hips, dynamic stretching for your entire body and static stretching. The foam roller for your IT band is also a great thing. Mobility work and dynamic stretching should be done before you lift and you should never get under a bar until you feel like your body is ready. For older lifters, this may take 20 minutes of warming up. For younger lifters, you may not need much at all. Also, never add weight to the bar unless you are ready. Just because you do a set at 135 doesn?t make you legally obligated to go to 225 or 185. It?s ok to take it again. Don?t worry; no one will make fun of you. Remember that in order to maximize your training session you must be optimally ready for your training lifts. If you are still getting warmed up on your first set, you are just wasting time. There are many days where I can walk in, do 10 leg swings and start my sets. Other days, it may take me a half-hour. This half-hour is NOT a waste.
I think a lot of people have been misguided, and part of it is my fault, on the width of a squat stance. If you are looking to be a wide stance squatter, this doesn?t automatically mean that you squat with your feet almost touching the sides of the Monolift. I think people have automatically assumed that everyone squats as wide as Chuck Vogelpohl. This is definitely not the case. To maximize your hips AND your legs, your stance needs to be adjusted accordingly. A wide stance is usually defined as being slightly wider than shoulder width or wider. The key is that your stance needs to be wide enough so that you can sit back into a squat but not so wide that you can?t bring your quads into a squat. Everyone is going to be different but generally people will take the stance that makes them feel more powerful once there is a significant weight on the bar. From there, you can tweak your stance. Because you are not wearing gear, your hips must be taken into account.
Now if you are training athletes and I hope they are not wearing squat briefs, you need to bring your stance in to an ?athletic? stance. What is an athletic stance? Get into any position that mimics an athlete: a linebacker, a volleyball player, a shortstop, etc. They all have the same basic stance. It is slightly wider than shoulder width. If it?s not, then you need to talk to the sport coaches and see what the hell they are teaching their athletes.
A quick note about the angle of your feet; 99% of people cannot squat with their toes pointed forward. The only ones that I?ve seen do this are very light lifters. Most people will point their toes out slightly. This makes for an easier descent and a more comfortable position. This will also allow them to open up their hips as they approach parallel. Most people will settle into their stance with their toes pointed exactly where they are comfortable. Unless they are at a 45 degree angle or wider, I wouldn?t worry too much. Just so you know, the angles and their degrees that I talk about are not measured; they are eyeballed. So don?t get out your compass and protractor. If you do, then there is a good chance that you have dice that is 12 sided.
Now for the final installment; what we have all been waiting for. How will the standard template change if you are a raw squatter? First let?s look at the basic template that Dave Tate wrote about in his article, Periodization Bible, Part I.
Max Effort Exercise
Possible upper back work
Dynamic effort lower body (squat, dead lift)
Possible upper back work
Here is how I would change it:
Max Effort lift
Dynamic Effort Squat
I?m not going to go into max effort lifts and dynamic squat cycles. This has been talked about endlessly. I am going to go over the assistance lifts and how to choose them. The first thing that you should do is take a look at the above template and write down the exercises that YOU feel are the most important for the quads, hamstrings, low back and abs. This may take awhile due to the overwhelming amount of exercises out there. Plus, many of us like certain exercises more than others and feel we get more out of them. So using myself as an example, here is what I would choose:
45 Degree Back Raises
Glute Ham Raises
I picked these exercises because they give me more bang-for-buck than most other exercises. Plus, these exercises have proven to me that they work. Here are a couple of things that I would like to point out.
I would NOT do RDL?s and speed pulls on the same day. If you were going to speed pulls, stick to the glute ham raises. If you were to RDL?s, I would skip the speed pulls.
If I was using a squat variation on Monday for max effort work, I would not do the Power Squat.
Do your lats and upper back exercises on your upper body days.
Remember ? when you squat, your entire body squats. Not just your posterior chain. You have to have strong legs (front to back) and a strong torso (front to back). There has been so much emphasis on the posterior chain and rightfully so. But understand that many people have more than hamstring and low back deficiencies. The ?rally-around-the-p-chain? movement is widespread but don?t ever limit yourself to training just one area. Train everything. The Core movement and now (regrettably) the Posterior Chain movement is getting to the point that people believe that these areas are the only muscles on your body. Remember that many people are giving advice when dealing with athletes with overdeveloped quads. Not everyone fits this description. This is usually the case of lifters doing all of one thing (usually leg pressing and ? squats) for the quads and nothing for the hamstrings. Sound familiar? The pendulum of training will always swing back and forth. I?m just trying to neutralize the swing. For awhile, anyway.
Chains and bands ? if you are into hitting it raw dog, then I would limit the amount of chains and bands. Why? Because these will limit the amount of bar weight and thus limit the amount of weight at the BOTTOM of the lift. Remember how I mentioned that a squat suit gives you a boost out of the hole? Well, this is not going to happen if you are wearing your Nike Dri-Fit shorts. So you need to make sure that you have an appropriate load at the bottom of the lift to make up for your insufficient clothing. This doesn?t mean that you should NEVER use a lot of bands. Use them as a tool but not as a regular part of your training.
Now here?s a spin on squatting with bands that no one has mentioned and I am going to take full credit for. Everyone talks about the role of accelerated eccentrics when using bands and then as soon as they do that, they will put on their lab coat and smile. Once again, I am going to try to bring the pendulum back to the center. One of the best things that I ever did when squatting with bands is slowing my eccentric phase. WHAT!? Beard of Zeus! By the Nectar of Lactating Women! Jim has lost his mind! Here?s why ? The bands pulled me down so hard that it was EASY to drop fast. By slowing myself down and teaching myself to hold my upper back/low back tight this helped me strengthen the muscles of my back and helped me learn where to position my body DURING the squat. The bands felt as if they were crushing me and it took quite a bit of strength to slow down. But by doing so, I got stronger and my squat increased. And I did not lose any speed. Now I know that goes against conventional wisdom and it may not work for everyone but give it a shot sometime.
To sum it all up here are some main points you need to look at:
Don?t just sit back; sit back and down.
Train your quads.
Limit bands and chains, but don?t eliminate them.
Make your torso as strong as a squat suit.
Act, don?t react, to injuries.
Now go buy a squat suit.