How to Ramp Up Your Squat Strength AND Improve Knee Mobility
We all know that the squat is the king of mass builders, and that to fully benefit from them, you’ve got to squat heavy and squat often. To really get the most out of your time under the heavy iron, you’ve also got to go ‘ass to grass’ on your squat depth.
For a lot of guys, especially taller, skinny guys that fall into the “ectomorph” category, that presents a problem. Squatting when you’re tall or if you just have longer femur bones relative to your torso can make squatting a real pain, literally and figuratively speaking. The bros at Natty or Not have broken down why squats suck for people with long legs with quite a bit of cheeky humor.
Knee pain, mobility limitations and structural issues has made squatting a real challenge for them. In this article, we’ll uncover the secret to optimum squatting, learn how to ramp up squatting poundage and discover what can be done to enhance mobility and protect the knees while squatting.
Perfect Your Positioning
Getting Under the Bar
When you position yourself under the bar, your head should remain neutral. Do not look either up or down. With a tight neck, looking straight ahead, you are in the most powerful position to perform.
Place your feet about shoulder width apart and slightly turned out. The bar should be positioned across your mid trapezius area.
Because your muscles are never completely relaxed, when you are descending into the squat, you need to be controlling your actions. You should be pulling yourself down and attempting to contract your legs as you go down in the squat. Rather than just falling into the squat position, pull yourself down into position. As you pull yourself down, you should torque your knees and your feet out. This will load the hips in preparation for the heavy lift soon to come.
When going down (and back up) in the squat, you want your body to be as upright as possible. Of course, taller people with longer limbs are going to end up with their torso more angled than others. However, your goal should be to squat straight up and down as much as possible. When you go down, break at the hips first, allowing your butt to go back slightly. However, your intent will still be to stay as upright as you can. Imagine that you are squatting back into a low chair.
In order to get stronger in the squat, and minimize collateral damage to the lower back and knee, you have got to practice your positioning in the extreme position of the movement – the bottom of the squat. Once you get this position right, 90% of your squatting issues will be solved. You will also get stronger faster.
It is best to practice your bottom squat position without any weight on your back. Simply go down to a full squat position and place your hands in front of your chest, fists together. Your upper body should be relatively upright, with your torso position matching your tibia (lower leg) position. Your chest should be up, with your lumbar spine pulled in slightly.
Flatten out your foot so that it covers the entire floor area. You want to create as much tension with the floor as possible. To do that, you need to flatten your foot out on the floor and push into it through your heels.
Practice this positioning without weight, lifting out of the bottom position and coming up to a three quarter position and then moving into your next rep. Do 3 sets of 15 reps. Once you have that positioning and foot placement / pressure down, place an empty Olympic bar across your shoulders and continue practicing sets of 15 reps. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. By driving your feet into the floor, you will create a constant tempo throughout the entire movement.
A Cool Hack to Instantly Up Your Squatting Poundage
When squatting heavy, thinking about your abs is a key to pushing up more weight. That’s because your abs are the key to the stabilization of your whole body. If you don’t have a good, stable core, you are going to lose a lot of the force that you are trying to exert on the weight.
A lot of guys have been taught to breathe in when they perform the eccentric part of an exercise and breathe out during the concentric portion. As a result, they breathe in when they descend into the squat and out when they push out of the hole. That is not a good idea if you are trying to push max weight. That’s because when you breathe in while descending you feel very unstable. As a result you actually lose strength.
What you should be doing is breathing out before you descend, tightening down on your abs. Forcefully contract them to create intra abdominal pressure. In the bottom position, you’ll now feel much more stable and the weight will actually feel lighter.
Adding Adductor Power
The adductors are the muscles that run along the insides of your legs. They are responsible for the hidden secret in squatting power. Yet, they are probably the most overlooked muscle when it comes to squatting for power.
The adductors attach from the inside of the pelvis down to the inside of the leg near the knee. As you squat down your knees will travel out, stretching out the adductors. Flexibility in your adductors will create a stretch reflex in the bottom of the squat that will help to power you out of the hole.
Here is a move you can perform to enhance your adductor strength and flexibility in order to improve your squat strength . . .
Stand on a hardwood floor in your socks. Without bending your knees, slide your feet apart as far as possible. Pull them back together by consciously tensing your adductors.
Once you’ve gotten used to this move, you can take it to the next level by dropping down into a mini squat as you slide your feet apart. Then squeeze your legs to bring them back together. This move will give you practice in simultaneously contracting your quads, glutes and adductors to power you out of the squat hole.
Giving Your Knees Some Love
Knee pain is by far the most common squatting complaint. In fact, many guys have stopped squatting altogether due to patellar pain. Here are 5 things you can do to avoid knee pain when squatting . . .
**Skinny Yoked highly advocates supplementing with some form of potent Glucosamine plus MSM, as while it hasn’t been shown to actually rebuild damaged tissue, it does seem to help protect it. Including a glucosamine supplement in your stack with protein and multivitamins is just plain logical, as we explained in our “Best Lean Mass Building Supplement Stack” post.The fine folks at Examine.com summarized it best by saying:
We’re pretty damn sure it (glucosamine) does something, we’re not so sure on how much it does; regardless of how much it does, taking glucosamine for a longer period of time and using sulfate is better than short periods of time and taking hydrochloride.
Warm up the Tendons
Do 10 reps of mini squats before your start your weighted squat workout. Simply do partial reps with no weight where you descend only about 6 inches, moving in a ballistic motion. Then add in mini side lunges, again in a quick ballistic manner. Your goal is to loosen up the tendons to allow them to work through the heavy lifts to come.
Warming up can be the key between a stellar leg workout where you feel comfortable pushing it 110% and failing with a strain early on. Bradley Martyn, one of our favorite power/bodybuilding hybrid athletes, has a great video on how he warms up for squats (and he squats A LOT).
After 10 reps of the side mini lunge, go back into the transverse plane by taking a step back as you perform each lunge, taking a quarter turn and allowing the hips to open up. Do another 10 reps with this variation, remembering to perform the move quickly and ballistically.
Move Your Feet Wider Apart
By taking your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, your pelvis has somewhere to go, which makes it easier on the knees. Shifting your weight from your toes to your heels will also take a lot of pressure away from the knee.
Squat Below Parallel
Despite what many people believe, squatting deep is advantageous to the knees. When you take your hips down below the level of your knees, you are engaging the hamstrings and the glutes. These muscles are now able to work with the quads to get you out of the hole, taking the pressure away from the knee.
Knee wraps will support you while doing your heaviest lifts, rather than every time you squat. They will provide compression of the patellar, keep the synovial liquid in the joint lubricated and add a tight support to the knee joint. They are very durable and strong.
Knees wraps do more than protect your knees when you’re squatting. They actually help you to lift more weight. That’s because the wrap stores elastic energy in the bottom squat position, ready to be released when you push up. This is a real phenomenon that can add significant poundage to your max squat.
Unlike wraps, knee sleeves are very easy to put on and are comfortable to wear. They give you great compressive support and can be worn every time you squat. The compression increases blood flow, leading to faster recovery. Sleeves will also help in the mechanical performance of the lift by limiting the sideways movement of the patellar and adding lateral stability.
If you’re not using knee sleeves on squat day, then you are not giving your knees the respect they deserve. Check out this comprehensive review of the market to find the best sleeves for you.
3 Things to Never Do When You’re Squatting
#1. Squat to a Bench
Some people like squatting to a bench which is placed behind their butt because it lets them know that they’ve gone down far enough. However, when your butt hits the bench it causes slight spinal compression, which can lead to vertebral damage.
Also, squatting to a bench means that you will probably not be going low enough – remember you want to be going ALL the way down.
#2. Let your Knees Travel Over the Toes
Your lower legs need to remain as close to vertical as possible during the exercise, as this will place a lot less pressure on your knees.
#3. Putting a Block Under your Heels
This will increase the stress on your knees, again increasing the chance of injury.
Squats and bad knees do not go hand in hand – they don’t have to, anyway. By following the form guidelines outlined here, making sure that your abs are fully braced for the descent, and increasing the mobility and flexibility of your adductors and tendons, you will be able to max out your squatting strength while protecting your knees. Throw in a quality pair of sleeves – and wraps when doing your max lifts – and you’ll be able to make maximum squat gains without the knee pain.
Thank you to Jim Roose from Garagebuilder.com for contributing this article. Jim is a long time fitness enthusiast and former powerlifting coach and gym owner. He recently retired and now blogs and writes about fitness tips and tricks that are based on over 35 years of industry experience.
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