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Squat Assistance Exercises
by Gary F. Zeolla
See Powerlift Assistance Exercises: Background Info for a discussion on how to best incorporate assistance exercises into ones powerlifting routine. See also Squat Assistance Exercises Videos.
These exercises are divided by which part of the squat they most benefit. Those who compete "raw" (without wraps and a suit) need to focus on strengthening the bottom part of the lift while full gear lifters need to focus more on the top part of the lift. But there is overlap here. So if you are a raw lifter but are missing near the top of the lift, then one or more of the "Helps the top half of the squat" exercises might be helpful, and vice-a-versa.
Helps all aspects of the squat
Front Squats* - These are done by holding the bar on the top of the chest. The bar can be held by crossing the arms across the bar and holding it with the palms facing the body. Or the bar can be held with the palms facing away from the body, using the same grip one would have if you had had just done the "clean" part of a clean and jerk. Either way, when you squat down, be sure to break parallel.
Front squats are a very effective exercise for working the quads. They force you to stay in an upright position, strengthening the core and helping to perfect form on regular squats/
But, unfortunately, holding the bar is very awkward, no matter how one holds it. The cross-over grip is not very stable, and the "clean" type of grip puts great strain on the wrists. Wrist wraps might help in this regard. But the best way to do these would be with a "Sting Ray." It is pictured at Setting Up a Home Gym: Pictures - Part Two. For a video of its use, click here. The Sting Ray is are available from APT Inc..
Olympic Squats* - These are done with the bar high on the back (on the top of the traps) and the feet close together (heals about 6-10" apart). Again, be sure to break parallel. As with front squats, Olympic squats focus more on the quads than regular power squats and are a very effective assistance exercise. The best way to do these would be with a "Manta Ray." This is pictured at Setting Up a Home Gym: Pictures - Part Two and is available from APT. Inc.
Wide Stance Squats* - These are basically the opposite of the above. The feet are placed several inches wider than one's normal stance. This places more emphasis on the hips. The bar should be held in the lower, power squat position.
Helps the bottom part of the squat
Low Squats* - These are done in the power rack. You insert two sets of safety bars in the rack, one set of bars so you're below parallel and the other set a few inches below lockout. You then place the bar on the bottom set of bars, squeeze down under it, then squat rapidly up and down tapping each set of bars, pausing but not resting between reps.
The idea of using the top set of bars is so the lifter can keep moving rapidly without locking out the knees. This exercise helps one get out of the bottom on the squat and can even help with a sticking point near the middle of the lift. It also really pumps up the legs and glutes.
Dead Stop Squats* - These are basically deadlifts, but with the bar on the back rather than in the hands. The set-up is similar to that as for low squats, sans the second set of safety bars. Set the safety bars so that with the bar placed on them you'll be 2-3" below parallel. Squeeze underneath, and starting from this dead stop, squat all the way up. Then come back down and rest the bar fully on the safeties. And then start again from the dead stop. This exercise helps one get out of the bottom on the squat.
Pause Squats* - You do a regular squat, but at the bottom you pause for a three count before coming back up. But unlike the above exercise, for these be sure that you do not relax your muscles while holding the pause. Keep your muscles tight at all times. This exercise helps one get out of the bottom on the squat and also really pumps up the quads.
Box Squats* - Use a sturdy wooden or metal box. You squat down and sit on the box. The box should be at the height of your bottom position or maybe a little lower. Pause on the box and then come back up. Like pause squats, don't relax completely at the bottom (e.g. do not put all of the weight on the box). Stay tight and hold the weight. This is yet another exercise that helps one get out of the bottom.
For a video of box squats, click here.
Helps the top half of the squat
Chain Squats* - See the Bands and Chains page for details on the use of chains.
Band Squats* - See Bands and Chains for details on the use of bands.
Reverse Band Squats*- See Bands and Chains for details on the use of reverse bands. For a video of reverse band squats, click here.
Partial Squats* - The idea here is to start from just below your sticking point and work from there. So exactly how far to go down will depend on the lifter's particular sticking point. Working from just below this point will help the lifter to overcome the sticking point.
Since you can handle more weight than for regular squats, this exercise will also will get your body used to handling heavy weights. But the problem is, given the heavy weights utilized, partial squats can be very tasking on the lower back. So one has to be very careful when doing this exercise. It might also be prudent to wear a belt and wraps when performing this exercise. For safety reasons, I would recommend doing these in a power rack with the safety bars set at the appropriate height.
Bench Squats* - This is a form of partial but almost full squats. You squat until you butt touches a free bench. They should be done in a touch and go fashion of touching one's butt on the bench. The height of the bench should be such that at the bottom you're a few inches above parallel. This will help those whose sticking point is just above parallel. But be careful that you don't get in the "habit" of squatting high and get called for depth come contest time!
Walkouts - You load about 5-10% more than your best single rep max on the bar. You then lift the weight, step back, and set as if you were going to squat the weight, but don't bend your knees. Just get set, then return the weight to the racks. This again will get your body used to handling heavier weights. This exercise should also be done in a power rack for safety reasons. Set the safety bars high up in a power rack just below where the bar will be once you are set.
Walkouts should only be done occasionally, namely in the last couple of workouts pre-contest, not as a regular part of one's routine. Given the heavy weights utilized, it would also be prudent to wear a belt and wraps when performing this exercise.
Rack Lift Ups - These are the same idea as walkouts, except they are for those who will be competing using a monolift. You won't need to walk out with a monolift, so instead, put the safety bars high up in a power rack and practice lifting the bar up off of the bars in your squat stance. Load on 5-10% more than your contest attempts so the weight will feel "light" at the meet. Again, these should only be done pre-contest, and given the heavy weights utilized, it would be prudent to wear a belt and wraps.
Lunges - You either hold a barbell on your shoulders as if doing squats or a dumbbell in each hand. You then step forward with one leg, bending it until your knee almost touches the ground. Then step back and repeat with the other leg. Alternatively, after stepping forward with one leg, you then step forward with the other leg and keep "walking" in this fashion across the floor.
However one does them, these do really pump up the quads. But note that only very light weights can be used. So it is probably best to start with light dumbbells before even trying the 45 pounds of an unloaded Olympic bar.
Step Ups - As with lunges, one places a bar on the shoulders or holds a dumbbell in each hand. You then step up onto some kind of step, and then step down, and repeat with the other leg. Ideally, the step should be high enough that your thighs are parallel to the ground in the stepping up position. But even a lower step would be effective. Just be sure the step is very stable so you don't fall! These are similar to lunges in their effectiveness in pumping up the quads.
Hack Squats/ Leg Presses - These are done on the respective machines. And they are good exercises for working the legs, but they are not as effective as free weight exercises. And the carry-over to regular squats would not be as great as with the above major exercises.
Leg Extensions - These are a favorite exercise of many, but why is beyond me. I can only guess that they are "easy" to do as compared to real size and strength builders like squats. Moreover, personally I find leg extensions to be more taxing on the knees than squats. But I guess leg extensions might have a place to help pump the quads up after doing one or more of the better quad exercises above. But their main value would be in rehabbing a knee injury (under the direction of a qualified physical therapist).
Calf Raises - The calves help to stabilize the lifter during the walk out, set up, and walk in for squats, and they help some in the actual performance of squats and deadlifts. So calf raises are helpful. They can be done with a barbell if one has the balance to do so. Otherwise, they can also be done one leg at a time, holding a dumbbell in one hand (on the same side as the leg being worked) and holding onto a support with the other hand for balance. Also, various kinds of calf machines are generally found in most gyms. For videos of different calves exercise, see Calves Exercises Videos.
Ab Exercises - The abdominal and oblique muscles are very important in stabilizing the trunk of the body when doing squats and deadlifts. And they get quite a bit of work when doing these lifts, especially if they're done without a belt or suit. However, some direct ab and oblique work would be prudent as well.
For each training routine, I would recommend doing at least one ab exercise where the chest is moved towards the hips (for the upper abs, e.g. crunches), one where the hips are moved towards the chest (for the lower abs, e.g. reverse crunches), and one twisting motion (for the obliques, e.g. twisting crunches). Side bends are also a very good exercise for working the obliques, but since they are basically a "pull" exercise, they would best be done as a deadlift assistance exercise.
There are many good ab exercises, and some not so good. Probably the best are crunches, reverse crunches, and hanging (or captain's chair) leg raises, along with twisting variations of these exercises.
See also Abs Exercises Videos and .Proper Performance of Ab Exercises.
Squat Assistance Exercises. Copyright © 2001-2007 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above exercise descriptions were posted on this site November 28,
and last updated January 18, 2007.
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