The barbell squat, the backbone of many training programs, and the bane of many others, is a critical move for one to master if they want to develop strong legs and a killer backside. It is an exercise done religiously by many, and skipped by others filled with similiar devout conviction to skip training legs.
No matter your personal stance on the lift, it may be in a first place tie with the deadlift as the most important exercise in a training program. Like the deadlift, which mimics picking stuff up off the ground in proper spinal alignment, the squat is a practice in sitting down and standing back up effectively for our body's design.
Everyone needs to train the squat - even if they never use a barbell.
Dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, and good ol' fashioned bodyweight are perfect modalities to properly train the pattern.
For others though - there is a need for more than just efficiency in the squat pattern. It is about far more than just being able to get off the toilet without knee pain. Although, those who train the barbell back squat may find it impossible to get off the toilet regardless...but that's another story about Uncle DOMS.
To the point - the barbell back squat is an excellent display of one's strength capability. It is a move, although butchered by most, that is used as a challenge flag between lifters.
It is the more sophisticated and useful older brother to the "what do you bench" that most encounter.
Simply put, being strong is the squat is cool. Seeing someone throw on three or four plates and start dropping it down low and picking it back up is really cool.
You know what is even cooler?
Doing it yourself.
There are a lot of things you can do to boost your squat strength.
First of which is finding your optimal foot, hand, and hip position that suits your body. Not everyone is designed the same, and a result we all have different levers (limb lengths) and leverages. If you want to squat for strength, then you need to locate your best possible position.
Secondly, you'll want to improve the flaws in your movement pattern.
Do your knees adduct and present valgus collapse?
Does your core drop forward at the bottom and force you to Good Morning the weight back up? Do you find yourself squatting from your toes instead of driving through your heels?
All of these questions are common issues that present themselves during a barbell back squat under load. Time, proper exercise programming, and constant reassessment can help eliminate a lot of these problems. There are well thought out answers to all of these issues and you can be well on your way to fixing them if you look!
For those reading that may do one of the above here are three super short answers to answer the three questions above!
For those who present valgus collapse - Train your ability to abduct the knees, strengthen the glutes, and think about ripping the floor apart as you squat.
For those who collapse forward under load - Train to strengthen your core and lower back extensors, as well as your glutes. Work on taking a deeper breathe into your stomach and keeping your chest up. You'll probably want to play with the position of the bar on your back. I personally like to pull on the bar with my hands and drive my elbows into my ribs.
For those who toe the weight - This is neurological. Keep training to shift your weight back by using a support and learning to fall into your hips and heels. You too may want to look at bar position.
Back to the point -
Lastly, you'll need to spend time under the bar. Just like you can't buy a new skateboard as a kid and expect to become Tony Hawk overnight - you can't expect to squat three plates quickly if you haven't earned that right yet.
Time under tension is often looked at as an intra-workout variable. Essentially asking - how long were your muscles contracting against force?
Yet, it is also a variable when looking at training from a long game perspective too. How long have you been squatting? How many sets, reps, and pounds have been done by your body? Has your body come to know the ask, meet the challenge, and in conclusion - know itself?
If you haven't spent a signficant amount of training time squatting heavy perfectly, then chances are many "advanced" tricks aren't what you need yet, although it never hurts to know them.
If, however, you are in need of something to boost your squat strength, then here it is. It only took about eight hundred words to finally give you the content that was promised in the title.
What is the one exercise to boost your squat strength?
The Toes Elevated - Barbell Romanian Deadlift
The romanian deadlift has long been looked at as an excellent builder of the legs, more specifically, a hip dominant movement that targets the hamstrings. It is commonplace to see it as a primary accessory lift to the squat or other deadlift patterns.
The hamstrings are critical force producers in all lower body lifts, running, and even walking. Thus, training them with appropriate intensity is critical for long term success.
Why the toe elevated RDL though, and why does it help your squat strength?
One of the primary benefits of the romanian deadlift is it's ability to target the stretch reflex in the hamstring by emphasizing the eccentric loading pattern. Eccentric loading is the lengthening portion of any lift that occurs prior to the concentric, or squeezing, portion.
Most deadlifts start from a dead stop, AKA the floor, which requires someone to mimic tension prior to performing the lift - which is the hardest mechanical position one will find themselves in a gym.
The RDL, however, trains the stretch reflex, which is that space in between the two contraction types (eccentric and concentric) that exists soley to yell at the body and tell it to stop stretching a given muscle. You feel the same reflex when you sit down and pop too deep into your standard figure 4 stretch too.
Training this reflex can aid in strengthening one's muscle tissue in a region in which they do not normally hold such strength. This can greatly increase amortization velocity (the speed at which your body changes gears between contractions), which in turn becomes great force output - greater strength.
Furthermore, the longer eccentric phase of the RDL ensures that the hamstrings are sufficiently broken down by the workload, which over time will lead to increased hypertrophy (muscle growth) in said hamstrings. This girth is critical for strength, power, and even speed output.
Yup! Speed too! Find me a great sprinter who doesn't have monster hamstrings!
All of this is beneficial in terms of the squat because these factors all play a role in being able to get out of the bottom of a squat. Here is how:
1. Having larger, more developed hamstrings will lead to them being better suited to aid in controlling the squat through it's eccentric phase (going down).
2. Training the stretch reflex with the RDL will translate into being able to better initiate the changeover in the hamstring into a force-driver as you concentrically contract!
3. This stretch reflex training will also protect the quadriceps from overworking, aid in keeping the spine upright and core tight - as the body will need to compensate less for force production.
4. The development of the hamstrings, in partnership with the glutes and quadriceps will result in greater force being pushed into the floor, which leads to increased bar velocity during the upward phase.
5. That is strength.
So, there you have it. That is why the RDL is a killer move to boost your squat. Oh, yeah - you might want to know why I want you to elevate your toes too!
You need to master the ability to dorsiflex appropriately. For those who aren't scientifically inclined - dorsiflexion is the ability to draw the toes towards the knees either by flexing an unanchored foot towards the knee, or actively moving the entire body towards the ankle, which simulates the same need for mobility at the ankle.
During a squat, with weight or without, your knees will gradly change angle in reference to your toes. This requires quality mobility of the lower leg and ankles in order to accomodate the lowering load of the core, trunk, and upper body without allowing the knee to shift far forward and risk safety.
I'm going to avoid turning this into a full fledged science lesson, so we'll stop there. Just know you need to have good dorsiflexion to squat, and jump, and run your best!
I remember doing a clinic with Dean Somerset and Tony Gentilcore in which they pointed out that my squat pattern failed at the bottom (butt-wink) because my ankles sucked. I couldn't dorsiflex. So...I trained the hell out of that dorsiflexion.
Now, many fitness professionals will elevate someone's heels in an effort to get them to dorsiflex better and better accomodate their hips in the squat. For many this works.
However, many will intepret this implement as a means towards plantar flexion (the opposite movement - toes away from the knee) . Many of squats have gone out on someone's toes because they didn't have a good relationship with the five pound plates under their heels.
Furthermore, even if weight is shifted into the heels - the toes have a tendency to float, thus causing instability and loss of balance. No one wants that.
Thus, we place them under the toes.
By lifting the toes we are quite literally forcing the foot into dorsiflexion. Now, I wouldn't want to squat like this due to similar balance and placement issues as mentioned above. However, in the RDL - emphasizing this dorsiflexion will only lead to better hamstring recruitment, increased heel drive, and the ability to create a deeper stretch reflex throughout the entire posterior chain.
I'd recommend nothing higher than a five pound plate though, as you aren't trying to make your toes literally touch your knee.
Squatting for strength is an excellent training goal. Even if one does everything right it often takes time to develop superior strength output. However, by adding simple exercise tweaks at appropriate intensities, like the toe-elevated RDL, then one can expect to see a rapid increase in their progress!