10 surefire ways to help you squat BIG
by Superman Dave Tate
Sure, you squat, but do you squat BIG?
I watched the guys squatting over in the corner of the gym and knew
immediately the subject of my next article for T-mag. After a few warm-up
sets and some instruction from the trainer, these guys began to perform some
of the most interesting "squatting" I've ever seen. The verbal
commands still echo in my head: "elbows back," "head
up," "hips in," "big chest air," "down, down,
down." It went on and on and began to look like something from The
I walked over to the group after their session and made them an offer they
couldn't refuse, at least I thought so. I invited them all to attend the
seminar I was conducting the following day at that particular gym. Two
agreed to come. The trainer seemed insulted. Well, as Meatloaf says,
"Two out of three ain't bad."
That's when it hit me. My Bench Press 600 Pounds article had been a hit, so
why not do the same thing for the squat? You see, there's a huge difference
between squatting and squatting big. Let me explain very quickly. How much
can you currently squat? If you answered 500 pounds, I'd reply, "How
much more do you know about squatting now compared to when you could only
squat 300 pounds? How much more will you have to learn to squat 700
This is what squatting big is all about. I spent many years knowing how to
squat but it took the help of Westside Barbell to learn the art of squatting
big. Squatting big is as much an art as it is a science. If you relied on
just one aspect, either art (training) or science, you'd be able to squat,
but not squat big. You have to rely on the combination of both to really
increase your numbers. Squatting the big one requires figuring a lot of
stuff out. Much of this stuff you've probably been exposed to but perhaps
have forgotten or haven't applied yet. But there are others items you may
not know about that can really send your squat over the top.
Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference. Take for
example, Matt Smith. Matt is Westside's newest member of the 900 club. (By
the way, that now makes nine in the 900s for Westside, seven of whom all
train together. We also have one guy that squats over a grand.) Matt
realized a few months back that he sucked at the glute ham raise. So
realizing that his hamstrings were a weakness for him, he pushed them up.
The net result was that he beat his old squat record by 30 pounds! That's
all it took, finding a weakness and bringing it up.
If Matt hadn't found this weakness he could still be squatting in the 800s
or worse yet, he could've been stuck there for several years. I know all
about having my squat stuck. I once went five years without any progress. I
tried many things and most didn't work. Then I stumbled upon the chains.
(See my article called Accommodating Resistance for details.) This broke my
rut and started me on the way to squatting big. You see, both Matt and I
knew how to squat, but we had to learn to squat big.
At Westside Barbell, we've figured out the secrets to squatting big weights
and have been sharing these with other powerlifters for the past few years.
I can think of eleven others outside of Westside who've also squatted over
900 by using these same secrets. How did we come up with these special
secrets? It's simple. We combined the art of training with science. Very few
scientists can squat big and very few who do squat big can replicate the
results in someone else. You must have a good understanding of both if you
want to pile plates on the bar. So if you think you're ready to load up the
bar, then read on.
Secret #1: Get your stance out
If you squat with a close stance, move your feet out. If you think you squat
wide already, move your feet further out! We teach everyone at Westside to
squat wide. We don't believe in a close-stance squatter. When you squat wide
you create better leverages for the squat. The distance between your knee
and hip is greater with a close stance, thus a longer and more difficult
By using a wide squat you cut this distance back as well as place the
emphasis on the glutes, hamstrings and lower back. These are the muscles
that squat big weights! While squatting wide, try to keep your toes straight
ahead or slightly turned out. This will create a tremendous amount of
tension in the hips and glutes and make it hard to squat down. This tension
will create a great stretch reflex out of the bottom of the squat. This is
vital to the development of barbell speed.
Secret #2: Get a tight arch!
You must learn to develop the strength to keep a tight arch in the lower
back. This arch must be kept throughout the entire movement. The moment you
begin to lose this arch, the bar will begin to drift forward and out of the
natural barbell path. When the bar starts to drift toward the toes, you'll
lose the squat and end up stapled to the floor. The bar must stay close to
the hip joint and away from the toes.
You must also keep the shoulder blades pulled together with your elbows
pulled forward. This will create the much needed upper back tightness to
keep the barbell in proper position. Remember, the shortest distance between
two points is a straight line, so you must keep the barbell in the proper
When your elbows turn out toward the back, the bar will drift forward again
and end up stapling you to the floor as well as ripping your head off. This
is one common mistake I see in all my seminars. When I ask attendees who
taught them to squat with their elbows back, nine out of ten times they say,
"My coach." This is another example of those who think they know
how to squat not knowingsquat!
Secret #3: Spread the floor!
Spread the floor with your feet as you squat. Remember the wide stance?
Well, you must also force your knees out hard during the entire motion and
push out on the sides of your shoes while you squat. This keeps the tension
in the hips where it should be. This is also why most squat shoes, tennis
shoes, and cross trainers suck for squatting. The best shoes for squatting
are Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. The soles are flat and the side
construction is rugged enough to push out against without a blowout or
rolling over the sole.
Secret #4: Drive your head into the
This doesn't mean look up toward the sky like your old high school coach
told you to. You must look straight ahead and drive your head back into the
traps. Your body will always follow the head so you want to make sure your
head is driving back into the bar.
As a side note, what's the last thing to move when you squat? It would be
your head. So what should be the first thing to move when coming out of the
hole? You got it, your head. This only makes perfect sense. You have to
think about driving your back and head into the bar first during the assent.
We tell our lifters the chest and head should always be first. You're trying
to raise the bar, so move it first! If the quads flex first, the hips will
rise before the bar and force the barbell forward.
Here's another coaching tool: watch the lifter's quads. If they flex first
get him to sit back more and force his knees out. The glutes should flex
Secret #5: The hips should move
before the knees!
If your knees are the first to move while beginning a squat, then your path
is going to be straight down. As discussed before, the tension must be on
the glutes, hips and hamstrings. These are the muscles that squat big
weights, not the quads.
Think about this: Why can't a lifter with a 400-pound deep Olympic squat
perform a 700-pound power squat? A powerlifter who can squat 700 can do an
easy 400-pound Olympic squat. This is because the Olympic squatter doesn't
have the back, glutes or hamstring to support the 700 pounds! What's that
tell you about the quads and squatting big weights? (Hint: They just aren't
Secret #6: Get on the box!
The greatest secret to our success at Westside is the use of the box squat.
We don't do any full squatting at all, except for in competition. We haven't
had any lifters over the past 15 years have any lower back or knee injuries,
either. The only side effects we've seen with box squatting are big squats!
The key is to do them properly. For more information on this, see my
Squatting from Head to Toe article.
The benefits of the box are many. First, you can sit back further than you
could without it. This places more stress on the posterior chain muscles.
Second, you always know how low you're going. If you want to squat two
inches below parallel then set your box up at that height. This way your
body will always sit as low as it's conditioned. If you want to squat one
inch high, then set the box higher. We suggest one inch below parallel since
this is what's needed to pass in a powerlifting competition.
Third, squatting on a box breaks the eccentric/concentric chain. This is one
of the best ways to develop explosive strength. Fourth, the box is great for
teaching proper squatting technique. Most athletes and lifters have very
poor squat technique because of bad coaching, muscle imbalances and
flexibility. The box can work as a great aid to teaching the proper way to
sit back into a squat.
I'll be the first to tell you that the competitive power squat isn't an easy
thing to master. It takes many years of work and technique is very
important. The stronger you get, the more you need better technique. One
inch in the wrong direction and you'll miss the lift.
Secret #7: Learn to use your belly!
I've caught more shit over this than any other aspect of training. But the
truth is that every big squatter I know has learned how to use his
abdominals while squatting. You must learn how to breathe into your belly.
You want to pull as much air as you can into your belly, then flex and force
your abdominals out.
Walk over to a mirror. Take a look at your shoulders and take a deep breath.
Did they rise? If they did, then you're pulling all the air into your chest,
not your belly. You need to learn how to breath into your belly. This is how
we teach everyone to squat. For the squat, we advise the use of a weight
belt worn one notch loose. This is to teach you to pull air into your belly
then push out into the belt. The belt acts as a great training aid to push
As a side note, we use the same technique for all of our max-effort work,
but don't use the belt in that situation. This is one aspect of our training
that has been misunderstood for too long. We use the belt to teach how to
use the abdominals for the squat, bench, and deadlift, and do not advocate
its use for anything else unless the lifter feels it's needed. Many in the
gym have worked up to 600 and 700 pound good mornings without any adverse
effects and have been doing them this way for over ten years.
This brings me to the next point. We've been told breathing and using the
abdominals this way will lead to back injuries. Louie Simmons has been
coaching this for the past twenty years at Westside and hasn't had any
lifters with these problems. Learning to use the belly has made a profound
difference in all of our squats, especially for those who've never tried it.
I've seen squats increase by 25 to 50 pounds on this aspect alone. Now
that's what squatting big is all about.
Filling your belly with air will also create a larger torso and give you a
bigger base of support from which to drive. Ever wonder why those with
bigger waists squat so much? Think about it. We want as much tightness and
support as we can get from the gross muscles of the spinal errectors,
abdominals, and obliques.
Secret #8: Train for speed!
If you were to jump up on a table, how high would you get if you jumped
slowly? How much force would you develop? Not much, huh? So why in the world
would you want to train to be slow? Why not train to be faster? The faster
you are, the greater the chance you'll have of blasting through your
This is what the dynamic training day is all about. If you're a 500 pound
squatter and are training with 250, then you must apply 500 pounds of force
to the bar during the lift. Think blast! For most T-mag readers, I'd suggest
a four week wave using the box squat. The percentages listed below would be
of your best squat. For you competitive powerlifters out there, percentages
would be lower since you may be using squat suits.
Week 1: 10 sets of 2 reps with 65%
Week 2: 10 sets of 2 reps with 70%
Week 3: 10 sets of 2 reps with 73%
Week 4: 10 sets of 2 reps with 75%
Only take 45 to 60 seconds rest between sets and use compensatory
acceleration when performing all of your reps. That means you should really
try to explode the weight up.
Secret #9: Train for chaos!
Chaos training is a system of training that will make or break your squat. A
cardinal sin of squatting is falling forward during the lift or dumping the
bar over your head. When this happens it means only one thing: You haven't
done the necessary work to squat big.
When a barbell falls forward it's known as a chaotic event. You have to
train to avoid these situations. This is why we have a max effort day. On
this day you'll perform a one rep max on some type of low box squat,
deadlift or good morning. You'll want to use some type of good morning seven
out of ten workouts or 70% percent of all max effort days for the lower
body. The low box squat should be used 20% of the time, the deadlift 10%.
This would be a once a week workout.
The reason for so many good mornings is twofold. First we've found this type
of movement to be the absolute best for the development of the squat and
deadlift. Second, remember the cardinal sin of falling over? Well that's
exactly what happens with a good morning. If your good morning is strong
enough you'll be able to keep the arch and not fall forward. If you do begin
to fall forward you'll be able to arch the bar back into position without
even thinking about it. You'll have the strength and it'll be automatic.
We've found a minimum good morning of 60% of your max squat to be a very
important element of squatting big.
Secret #10: Build the glutes and
As I've stated before, the quads aren't an important element of a big squat.
You have to have very strong hamstrings and glutes. You must prioritize your
hamstring and hit them at least twice a week. The best movements we've found
for training the hamstrings are glute ham raises, band leg curls, reverse
hypers and pull throughs, and high-rep partial deadlifts. We've found that
two heavy hamstring workouts a week to be fine for most lifters but many
times we've prescribed up to six hamstring training sessions a week to bring
them up to where they should be. This is all based on the situation,
exercises, and lifter.
After my seminar was over I sat there watching an aerobics class. Remember,
I train in a key club with 20 to 30 other powerlifters and haven't trained
in a gym like this for over 12 years. It was quite a sight. I haven't missed
training at a fitness club at all, and I still don't.
As far as the two guys I'd invited to the seminar, they showed up. Their
trainer didn't. Now these two guys know how to squat big. When I go back
next year, I'll bet the trainer attends, too. That's because his two former
clients will soon be out-squatting him. You see, he may know how to squat
and that's fine, but they know how to squat big!
If you'd like to get more info from Dave Tate about consultations or
products, you can contact him at Elite Fitness Systems at 888-854-8806 or EliteFTS@email.msn.com