5 Top Tips for Improving your Squat – by Adam Bishop CSCS

Following on form my previous article on tips to improve your deadlift, this article will focus on simple ways to improve your squat. While mainly focusing on the back squat, the advice below can be applied to squats of all varieties. Once again this is aimed at intermediate to advanced athletes looking to bust though plateaus and keep the squat numbers on the rise. Hopefully everyone reading this will be able to apply at least one of the tips below into their training in order to progress.

Tip 1 – SQUAT you idiot!

Gym idiot 1 – “I just don’t understand it I can leg press big man weights but when I occasionally decide to squat I really struggle.” No shit Sherlock. The leg press or any other machine or leverage based implement is NOT a replacement for the squat in the long term. In other words, if you want to increase your squat loading you need to be squatting regularly. The squat should be the first exercise you think of when you plan a lower body resistance session. Squatting with proper from and to good depth (parallel or below) is the best way to progress.

Gym idiot 2 – “But I heard that squatting to parallel or below is bad for your knees!” Horseshit. If you perform the squat with proper form; i.e. sit back into the squat so that you backside movers first ensuring your knees never go further forward than your toes, knee injuries are VERY unlikely and in fact the risk of injury will decrease through the strengthening of the knee joint itself.

Tip 2 – Speed is what we need…

Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell brought the “dynamic method” to the masses with his training techniques featuring “dynamic” squat days alongside separate “max effort” sessions. After extensive study of Dr Y. V. Verkhoshansky’s training techniques in the field of weightlifting, Louie decided to implement Verkhoshansky’s expertises in power production to suit the sport of Powerlifting. Dynamic, or speed squats can be implemented into an athletes program in an attempt to increase their rate of force development (RFD) in order to teach the athlete to accelerate the bar through the movement.

Now, before you run out and buy some jump-stretch bands, lace up your Chuck Taylors and pull on your Westside Barbell T-shirt I’m going to burst your bubble and say the likelihood is you’re not ready to be performing the Westside Barbell method. The athletes at Westside are elite and have trained their bodies to deal with performing a max and a sub-max squat session in the same week in addition to the use of both bands and chains. You must ask yourself, “Have I ever used simple plyometric or power movements for a prolonged (8weeks+) period of time”. If the answer is no then you are not ready for Westside.

However, you can experience great gains in squat strength through including jumps or other power exercises preceding your squat workout, through complex training, or as part of a separate dynamic day. What I’m suggesting is simple jumping movements in order to increase your RFD and ultimately your squat. It is IMPOSSIBLE to jump non-explosively. Simple movements such as vertical counter movement jumps or box jumps combined with a solid squat program will bring great gains.

Box Jump:

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Vertical Jump: 

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Tip 3 – Know the muscles that are used for squatting!  

So when you squat your quads do all the work right? WRONG. A squat performed with good form will recruit the quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes and other muscles, such as the spinal erectors, isometrically. This is why the squat is regarded as a whole body exercise as it recruits muscles throughout the body in order to maintain a co-ordinated movement.

So if you are only targeting your quads through assistance exercises, such as leg extensions, you are severely limiting your squat progression. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body (lets void the poor jokes here) and produces a huge amount of force during a squat. Weak glutes will result in a weak squat and potentially bum knees as your leg internally rotates and the knee goes into valgus.

In the same way the hamstrings work eccentrically during the downward phase, as the knee is anchored and the hips are ‘pushed back’. On the up phase they contribute to hip extension.

The spinal erectors work isometrically aiming to maintain body posture and an upright position allowing for force to be transferred through the posterior chain and through the bar.

Weak glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors or quads will result in limitations in the mass lifted by the squat. This brings me nicely onto my next point…

4 – Smart assistance exercises.

Assistance exercise selection is the key to strengthening weak points in the squat. If your form is correct and your gains are stagnating then good assistance exercises is paramount to progression. Once again, as with the deadlift, we are talking about posterior chain development and thus the same exercises apply. GHR, good mornings and reverse hypers are a great what to strengthen the posterior chain.

I am a firm believer in the use of unilateral (single leg) movements when it comes to the squat. Unilateral movements force the lifter to focus on the movement and work the muscle involved to a greater extent than bi-lateral movements. Exercise such as the Bulgarian split squat and single leg sit backs emphasise keeping the knee joint in line with the foot (via proper glute activation) and overloads the muscles involved.  The often forgotten benefit of single leg work is that as you are mechanically weaker it takes less absolute load to achieve a training effect in the target muscles and thus you can spare the CNS via reduced spinal loading. In case you need spoon feeding this is a great way to get in volume and increase frequency without over training.

Bulgarian Split Squat:

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Single leg sit back:

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The box squat, when done correctly, is another great way to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings while still working on squat technique.

The box squat, for those of you who are unaware, involves squatting down to a box or bench. Now, there are those who believe the box squat is reserved for those who compete in equipped powerlifting, but I am not one of them. When performed correctly this movement aids in glute and hamstring recruitment as well as teaching the lifter to sit back into the squat and load the posterior chain.

When performing box squats ensure that you sit back slowly onto the box allowing for a second’s pause on the box before driving back up. The box should be of a height that allows the lifter to achieve a squat to parallel; high box squats are for egos. Touch and go is also a no no. In addition to this it is important that you maintain your form and do not rest, causing thoracic and lumbar rounding, while on the box, STAY TIGHT.

Box Squat:

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Tip 5 – Stay tight and the importance breathing.

Too many people fail squats due to not maintaining total body tightness. What I mean by that is they fail to realise that keeping their core and upperbody tight aids ensuring that the force generated by the lowerbody reaches the bar on the shoulders and keeps the body upright.

A key factor in maintaining this tightness is breathing. Through proper breathing technique the athlete can utilise the Valsalva maneuver which involves a deep breath in followed by the closing of the glottis (i.e. holding your breathe) whilst  attempting to expire.  As the air in the lungs, is prevented from escaping, a fluid ball is created, aiding in the maintenance of a rigid upper body making it easier to support heavier loads.

This technique increases intra-abdominal pressure in much the same way as a lifting belt. There is the risk of blackout during the Valsava manoeuvre as this method drastically increases blood pressure. It is advised therefore that the breath be exhaled during the upward or concentric phase of the lift in order to avoid this.

Those worried about the risk of blacking out can create intra-abdominal pressure though contracting the diaphragm and abdominal muscles (by forcing them out) while leaving the glottis open. This creates a liquid fluid ball in the lower torso. Both techniques make it easier to squat with heavier loads.

Wrap up

However simple some of the above may seem, ask yourself are you really practising what I have just preached? If you are unsure, go away and implement the above into your training with a conscious effort…you should see an increase in your squat numbers. Remember to always use trusted spotters when squatting with maximal weights to avoid injury.

Stay tuned as next time I’ll be giving you my 5 top tips for increasing the most popular of the power lifts: the bench press.

5 Top Tips for Increasing your Deadlift – by Adam Bishop CSCS

As I hope we are all aware by now the Deadlift is the king of lifts. Anyone who argues it isn’t is probably a poor deadlifter. The Deadlift taxes the body in a way no other core lift does, putting stress on the grip, quads, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and pretty much every muscle in the upper back and trap region.

This article is aimed at intermediate to advanced lifters who find their deadlift numbers reluctant to increase and are sat scratching their heads on a plateau. I stress this as if you are a beginner and new to deadlifting the best way for you to gain pulling strength is to simply Deadlift regularly with proper form.

It doesn’t need to be said but I’ll say it anyway – muscle building aside, regular deadlifting with correct form will groove the motor pattern, potentiating the CNS, which is essential for the  mastery of any new lift.

So what do you do if you are an intermediate to advances lifter experiencing a slump in gains in the king of lifts? Well try implementing one or more of these 5 tips to get the extra pounds on the bar.

Tip 1 – Strengthen your Posterior Chain.

When I talk about the posterior chain I refer to the entire musculature that runs the length of posterior of the body, making up the posterior kinetic chain. Muscles in the posterior chain include the trapezius group, the erector spinae group, the glutes, the hamstrings and even the calves. I also include the upper back muscles as part of the kinetic chain as they play a key role in thoracic spine and scapulae stability, and the lats, due to their attachments along the length of the lumber spine, act as a stabiliser for the low back. I will speak further on them later.

It is strikingly obvious that strengthening these muscles will strengthen your Deadlift. Including assistance exercises such as the Glute Ham Raise (GHR) and Good Mornings will increase glute, hamstring, calve and, the Good Mornings especially, will strengthen the erector spinae.  These exercises will massively aid lifters in the early portion of the lift and by including reverse hyperextensions and 45degree back extensions in your programme lifters can strengthen their Erector Spinae and Glutes further, aiding in the lock out portion of the lift. By strengthening these muscles you are not only increasing the poundage lifted but more importantly decreasing the risk of injury. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Reverse Hyper

Good Mornings

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45 Degree Back Extension

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To progress your posterior chain even further, you can modify the GHR by simply raising the back of the GHR station. This can be done by placing 20kg plates under it. This serves to alter the force curve of the motion.  In effect, by raising the back of the GHR  your posterior chain is under tension for the duration of the movement, and this is especially noticed at full extension of the hip. On a regular GHR set up, when full hip extension is achieved your torso is perpendicular to the ground and so your bodyweight is going straight down through your femur, making the lock out at the hip relatively easier as there is no turning moment at this point. In contrast at  full hip extension on the modified GHR, your torso is not perpendicular to the ground…its forward of being perpendicular to the ground, meaning that your glute ham tie in is going to take a pounding as it is taking more of your bodyweight at full hip extension as there is still a significant turning moment about the hip! Throw in some added resistance or bands to the mix and your deadlift numbers will soar.

Modified Glute Ham Raise


Tip 2 – Pull from Different Heights

Deadlifting off of different height blocks or rack pulls from various heights allows for the lifter to focus on overloading a certain section of the lift, such as the lock out or the transition over the knee. Generally pulls from mid shin or just below the knee are best utilized for overloading the lock out as they allow for a greater weight to be lifted. Avoid Pulling from heights above the knee. While many elite deadlifters use them to work the grip, they can be over-used and can become an “ego” lift, moreover the actual carry over to a regular deadlift is minimal as soon as  you pull from too high above the knee.

In addition to pulling off blocks be sure to perform deficit deadlifts. The Deficit Deadlift is a conventional Deadlift performed while standing on a small block or a couple of plates. Its’ purpose is the increase the range of motion (ROM) making the lift much harder from the pick up, through the transition and all the way up to the lock out. By doing this the body is overloaded and forced to adapt to this new, tougher height, increasing strength and making standard Deadlifts feel much easier.

The increased ROM puts the body in a poor position to pull from thus increasing strength. Running deficit deadlifts instead of standard deadlifts for a few weeks will make the weight feel more manageable when the return to standard deadlifts is made.

Tip 3 – Change your Stance and Grip

There are 2 different stances used for the Deadlift; Conventional (narrow stance, grip just outside knees) and Sumo (wide stance, narrow grip). The number of times I see guys in the gym pulling between these two styles is unbelievable.

Both stances attempt to shorten the distance the bar has to travel thus allowing for a greater weight to be lifted and increasing the efficiency of the lift.

For the conventional Deadlift the feet should be inside shoulder-width with the grip taken very slightly outside the knees. This allows for the hips to be slightly higher and the range of motion decreased.

The sumo stance with put more emphasise on developing your hips whilst the conventional deadlift, whilst still developing the hips greatly, places more stress on the low back.

By placing your hands outside your knees while in a wider than shoulder width stance, the body is forced  into a poor pulling position and the distance the bar has to travel increases.

Of course your stance should be comfortable to you so find a foot placement and grip width that feels comfortable but don’t be scared to try new things and experiment with different stances and grips.

Tip 4 – Increase Upper Back Strength

The deadlift, as with any anatomical movement, is all about the transfer of forces using kinetic chains. In the case of the deadlift, force generated in the legs travels up and along the back and is transfered across the scapulae, down the arms and eventually to the bar. If there is a weak link in that chain then the force dissipates, and it is prevented from being applied to the bar.

In many cases this weakness occurs in the upper back of lifters. Here, the force travels up all the way as far as the upper back, but the musculature there is not sufficiently developed to continue the transfer of that force to the scapulae. As a result, the force and energy is lost at this area and the lift is unsuccessful.

Commonly the thoracic spine is horribly rounded at this point and aside from failing the lift, the inability to maintain correct posture give rise to increase injury risk.

The best way to strengthen these muscles is to focus on barbell and dumbbell rows in addition to variations of chin ups. Bent over and T-bar rows with various grips are all you need with the barbell. Again various grip pull/chin ups, working up to sets with additional resistance are the way to go in that department. With dumbbells,  high rep, heavy weight dumbbell rows (a.k.a. Kroc Rows) are a tried, tested and proven method to strengthen the upper back amongst strongmen and powerlifters and are a favourite of mine.

Note these exercises are also fantastic at strengthening the grip (another important aspect of the Deadlift) if you perform them without the use of lifting straps.

Tip 5 – Train Smart to Ensure Progression

Far too many lifters attempt to go into the gym and pull a 1 rep max every week expecting gains! These guys are living in the dream world. Avoid over-reaching syndrome and ensure progress. Simple linear progression involving 3 weeks progression followed by 1 week deload is a great way to keep the weights going up and avoid any neural distress as a result of maxing out week in week out.

Below is a simple outline of this process:

Week 1: Work up to 4×3 @ 85% 3RM

Week 2: Work up to 3×3 @ 90% 3RM

Week 3: Work up to 2×3 @ 95% 3RM

Week 4: DELOAD – 5×3 @ 70% 3RM

Week 5: Work up to 4×3 @ 90% 3RM

Week 6: Work up to 3×3 @ 95% 3RM

Week 7: Work up to 2×3 @100% 3RM

Week 8: DELOAD – 5×3 @70% 3RM

Week 9: Attempt new 1RM

The deload weeks are important in order to avoid any over-reaching and allows the body to recover from the ever increasing load being place on it.

Wrap up

If you find you Deadlift gains stagnating, implement one or more of the simple techniques listed above into you own training program and get ready to see your Deadlift regain its crown as KING OF LIFTS.

About the Author

Adam Bishop BSc holds a sports science degree from Loughborough University and is currently working as a strength and conditioning coach with Harlequins RFC.

Formerly a professional rugby player with Saracens, Adam is now a competitive Strongman in the under 105kg class and currently holds the title of UKs Strongest Man u105.

Interview with Adam Bishop – Midland’s Strongest Man 2010

Adam Bishop is an up and coming strongman and powerlifter. Amongst a strong and accomplished sporting history he recently obtained the title of MIDLANDS STRONGEST MAN U105 2010 and came in 5TH in the UK’S STRONGEST MAN U105 2010.


EK: Thanks for joining us today Adam. Can you give our readers a little background on yourself?
Adam: I’m a former professional rugby player (winger), and have been lifting weights for six years. I entered my first Open Strongman Competition in 2010 and came 10th out of 20 despite being the lightest.

EK: That’s pretty impressive. What made you want to get into Strongman?
Adam: I always watched Worlds Strongest Man (WSM) and other strongman competitions on the tv ever since I was young and wanted to have a go at it one day. I started posting on a strongman/powerlifting website called Sugden Barbell and ended up going over to a facility called the Container near Melton Mowbray. I found I was pretty good at a few events and it kinda snowballed from there to be honest.

EK: How do you get access to the specific training implements you need to train for strongman?
Adam: The facility at Melton Mowbray has equipment specially made for me and the guys I train with by Jason Talbot, owner of www.atlasstones.co.uk . He can make any weird implement we need to lift with.  I also personally own a small collection of implements which I train with.

EK: What kind of training split do you use when preparing for strongman events?
Adam: I train 4 times a week in the gym following Westside Barbell principles at the moment, which looks like this:
Monday – Max effort upperbody (log, axle, circus DB etc)
Tuesday – Max effort Lower body (Including Deadlift and squats)
Wednesday – AM Repetition upperbody PM Atlas stone lifting
Thursday – Dynamic effort Lowerbody (including speed squats and speed pulls)
Friday – REST
Saturday – Events training
Sunday – REST
It’s a pretty heavy schedule and I wouldn’t recommend it to others but my body seems to recover well so it works!

EK: That’s definitely intense, you must be having to get in some serious food to fuel all of that? How do you tailor it in the run up to an event?
Adam: Off season its calories calories calories for me as I find it very hard to put on weight otherwise. Obviously as I compete in the u105kg category I need to diet back down to around that weight. In the run up to a competition I’ll keep an eye on what I eat and just pretty much clean up my diet. I’m pretty simple when it comes to food.

EK: It’s nice to see someone who isn’t afraid to eat big! Do you put this together yourself or do you turn to a nutritionist?
Adam: I’m on my own with this really. I mean I have a relatively good understanding of nutrition from my rugby days so don’t seek any help from nutritionists.

EK: That’s good to hear. Moving on to competition day, how do you approach it?
Adam: It depends on the event really. Some events require relative calmness and concentration such as keg throwing or most overhead pressing where a lot of skill and technique is required. In other events, such as deadlifts, stone lifting and car flipping I tend to go a bit ape-sh** and get really worked up about the lift, I mean no sane human being would do that stuff would they!?

EK :  What do you do when something doesn’t quite run to plan?
Adam: I just try and stay calm. In one competition I dropped a railway sleeper on my head. Hardly ideal but you gotta just keep going in order to win.

EK: Ouch that’s got to hurt! What’s your favourite event?
Adam: Probably the Atlas stones with the Deadlift a close 2nd. I think atlas stones are the defining event in strongman, it’s always usually the last and most exciting.

EK: We’re sure everybody wants to know what they are, so could you rattle off your most impressive PBs for us
Adam: On the powerlifting movements I’ve deadlifted 320kg from the floor on a normal bar and pulled 360kg on the silver dollar Deadlift. Squatted 270kg in a belt and knee wraps. On strongman, I’ve pressed a 140kg axle overhead and lifted a 175kg atlas stone onto a platform.

EK: Impressive. What does the future hold for you?
Adam: The short term goal is to defend my Midlands Strongest Man u105 title this year and gain qualification for the UK’s Strongest Man where to be honest, I want to win. I came 5th last year in my first year in the sport, so now I want to take the title and go to the World’s! After achieving this I think I’ll try and gain some weight and look to compete more in the open weight category.

EK: Fantastic stuff. Thanks again for joining us and all the best for the upcoming contests!

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