Initial trepidation aside, fear is not an emotion often faced in the friendly confines of the gym. Sure, a room packed with burly dudes and an array of gleaming metal may be intimidating for a rookie, but after a few workouts, a seated press or barbell curl won’t scare you.
All bets are off, however, when it comes to the squat. Doubt me? Next time you’re there, keep an eye on the squat rack. You’ll likely see a parade of people who cut their squat short well before their thighs go parallel with the floor.
No one wants to get caught “in the hole” — the area in which a squat descends down to parallel or (gulp) past it into “ass to grass” territory. Yet, those last few frightening inches are where the real growth and development lie. Try it once and you’ll discover the sweet pain of complete quadriceps, hamstring and glute engagement … the kind that leaves you limping the next day thanks to a job well done.
How can you build your confidence and get deep every single leg day? We asked Michael Wolf, member of the Platform Staff at Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Seminars, head strength coach at CrossFit Solace (solacenewyork.com) in New York City, and a former collegiate strength-and-conditioning coach, for his advice. Incorporate these three tips into to your regular routine, and you’ll soon be accelerating out of the hole with authority.
1. Give your squats a bounce.
“I’m a big fan of specificity, and I think you can get the most bang for the buck by doing below-parallel squats with an emphasis on using the bounce at the bottom,” Wolf explains. “I see a lot of people slow down as they get into the hole, feeling and reaching for the bottom. You have to have the bottom position memorized so you can be tight but aggressive in hitting it and bouncing out, rather than tentatively slowing down and easing out of the hole.”
2. Stop, then go.
Wolf suggests using pauses during the lowering phase of your reps, before you get to the bottommost position. “You can try a shorter or longer stop, like a one-count, a two-count, a three-count, etc.,” he says. “These help you learn to stay tight going into the hole. Imagine if a trampoline just sagged down with no recoil when you jumped on it — you can only bounce off of tightness, and the same holds true for bouncing out of the bottom of a squat.”
Pause squats also help your body memorize that all-important “bottom-but-still tight position” so it can be repeated reliably when doing regular squats, Wolf adds. “During a pause squat you’re forced to explode out of the hole with no bounce at all, so with these you’re training that volitional explosion. That will only enhance your ability to generate a powerful bounce when doing regular squats.”
3. Use deadlifts strategically.
“It seems counterintuitive that a lift that involves less range of motion and begins with a bar in your hands from a dead stop would help the bounce in the squat,” Wolf admits. “But both lifts essentially start with a knee extension, wherein the back angle is held constant and rigidly anchored by the erectors and hamstrings. The deadlift trains this musculature very well, and often with a heavier load than can be used to squat deep. Obviously, the stretch reflex isn’t present, but the force production requirements in the deadlift are high, and so these muscles will be ready to go when called upon to stay tight and bounce in the squat.”
In addition to the regular deadlift, Wolf recommends a “halting deadlift,” in which the rep stops right above the knee. “Unlike the regular deadlift, the lifter maintains a more horizontal back angle even longer, so the back and hamstrings really have to work hard to maintain the back angle and stay rigid,” he says.