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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. The links are to where the piece of gym equipment can be purchased from Amazon.

Bottom-end Exercises

(Helps the bottom part of squats)

Raw Squats without wraps* - For those who compete equipped or even raw with wraps, doing raw squats without wraps or with sleeves would probably be the best assistance exercise for bottom-end work or even as an all-aspects exercise. It would have the most carryover to equipped or raw with wraps squats of any assistance exercise.

Video of Squats with Sleeves

Extra Low Squats (a.k.a. ATG Squats)* - This is probably the best assistance exercise for raw lifters and for bottom-end work in general. The idea is simple: do squats as usual except go down lower than normal. Rather than just breaking parallel, go down about 2-3” below that. This exercise is probably the most effective exercise there is in helping to get out of the hole, and they will make just below parallel squats seem easy. For further details, see Extra Low Foam Squat Box.

Low Squats* - This is an exercise that I invented in my college lifting days, so you probably never heard of them, but they are very effective. They are done in a power rack. You insert two sets of safety bars in the rack, one set of bars so you're about 2-3" below parallel and the other set about 2/3s of the way up. 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. 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 you 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.

The most difficult part of this exercise is getting into position. Stand in front of the bar, with your butt pressed against the bar. Angle your legs back and under the bar, with your feet set where they will need to be for the lift. Then squat down and back, grabbing the bar and getting your regular grip; then pull yourself under and back, getting the bar into correct placement on your back. Be sure to keep your back as upright as possible throughout the movement. In the second pic below, I am actually leaning forward a bit too much, so I am not far enough below parallel as needs to be for this exercise to be effective. For a video of low squats, click here.


Dead Stop Squats* - 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. Squat down slowly. At the bottom, rest the bar on the safeties, but stay tight. Do not relax your muscles. Pause until the bar stops bouncing; as soon as it does, squat back up from this dead stop. If there is excessive bounce, then you are coming down too quickly.

But a word of caution, be very careful when trying the above three exercises as they require a lot of flexibility, and you could strain a leg muscle if you are not flexible enough. Only go down as low as is comfortable. You might have to gradually increase the depth over several workouts. But 2-3” lower than normal is probably about the right depth to work towards for most people. And as always when trying a new exercise, start with light weights and gradually increase.

3 Count Pause Squats* - You do a regular squat, but at the bottom you pause for a three count before coming back up. Count the reps while holding the pause: "1001, 1001, 1001 - 1002, 1002, 1002 etc." This exercise helps one get out of the hole 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.

Top-end Exercises

(Helps the top part of squats)

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* - These should be done in a power rack. Set the safety bars about 1/2" of the way down, with the racks in the normal place. Take the bar off of the racks and get set as normal. Squat down slowly. At the bottom, touch the bar to the safeties, but stay tight. Do not relax your muscles. Pause until the bar just stops bouncing, then squat back up from this almost dead stop. If there is excessive bounce, then you are coming down too quickly.

Alternatively, squat down and just tap the safety bars and come back up, but do not bounce the bar off of the safeties. Or do them from a full dead stop off of the safeties. But if you will need to walk out the weight at a contest, then walk it out first to condition yourselves to walking out heavy weights. Experiment with the three forms to see which works best for you.

Since you can handle more weight than for regular squats, this exercise will also 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 you have to be very careful when doing this exercise. It would be prudent to wear a belt and wraps when performing this exercise.

It is very effective to combine low squats and partial squats. The former works the bottom 2/3s of the lift, and the latter the top 1/2. Thus together they work the full range of the squat, as there should be an overlap of several inches between them. This combo can be done on the same day on a day opposite regular squats, or do one of each after a full range squat exercise on two opposite days.

Bench Squats* - This is another form of partial squats. You squat until you butt touches a free bench. These 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 about halfway up when sitting on the bench. These should also be done in a power rack, with the safeties set so that the bar just does not touch the safeties when sitting on the bench. Or use a couple of reliable spotters. As with partial squats, walk the weight out if you will need to do so at a contest.

Video of Bench Squats

All-aspects Exercises

(Helps all aspects of squats)

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. They can be done with your regular squat stance or with a close stance. The latter puts an even greater emphasis on the quads. It might also help to do them to an extra low depth, as with a close stance for greater quad work.

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 will help in this regard. But the best way to do these is 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 available from Amazon.

Close Stance Squats* - These are done with the bar high on the back (on the top of the traps) and with a closer stance than for power squats, as close as can be done comfortably. Again, be sure to break parallel. As with front squats, close stance squats focus more on the quads than regular power squats and are a very effective assistance exercise. But be careful as using a close stance can strain the knees. If undo comfort results, use knee sleeves or stop them.

The best way to do these is with a "Manta Ray." This is pictured at Setting Up a Home Gym: Pictures - Part Two. The Manta Ray elevates the bar, thus putting even more emphasis on the quads. It also forces you to stay in an upright position, as if you tilt forward it will jiggle around. It is available from Amazon. Amazon has available a Manta Ray and Sting Ray, Combination Pack. Also available are less expensive Manta Ray knock offs from AbraFit and EZ Shop, but I am not sure if they are as good as the original.

Olympic Squats* - These are a combination of close stance and extra low squats. You squat down with a close stance as low as possible. They are so named as this is how Olympic lifters do squats, as it mimics the form used for cleans. They are very effective for training all aspects of the squats. A Manta Ray can be used to put even more emphasis on the quads.

Note that I have found close stance work is very effective for overcoming a sticking point in the middle of the lift. I was really struggling in that regard, until I incorporated both Sting Ray and Manta Ray squats into my routine, doing both to an extra low depth.

Video of Olympic Squats

Wide Stance Squats* - These are 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. But be careful as these can strain the hips and adductors (inner thigh muscles). If undo comfort results, stop them.

Miscellaneous Exercises

Walkouts - You load about 10% more than your best 1RM (one 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 will get your body used to handling heavier weights and should 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. But some like to do these before their regular squat workout work sets to make those sets feel light. Given the heavy weights utilized, it would also be prudent to wear a belt and wraps when performing this exercise. However, personally, I think it is best to work the walkout with the top end movements detailed above, assuming of course, you are walking the weight out for them.

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 10% more than your contest attempts so the weight will feel "light" at the meet. They are especially important for those who do not have access to a monolift in training but will be using one in competition. You need to get used to setting up a bit farther back than if you would be walking the weight out. But frankly, if you are not used to using a monolift, you would be best off just walking the weight out as usual at a contest.

That said, again, these should only be done pre-contest, and given the heavy weights utilized, it would be prudent to wear a belt and wraps. Of course, if you have access to a monolift, then simply do the lift ups from the racks in the monolift, set to the height you will be using at the contest.

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, you place a bar on the shoulders or hold 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.

Step ups should be performed as as follows: Step up with the right leg. Step up with the left leg. Step down down with the left leg. Step down with the right leg. Step up with the left leg. Step up with the right leg. Step down with the right leg. Step down with the left leg. That is all one rep, as each stepping up and down is different. Given all of these steps, these can be rather tiring, almost a cardio workout. As such, it is recommend to do just 4-8 reps for each set and no more than 3 work sets. But do a warm-up set with just bodyweight and maybe a second warm-up set or two with weights before the work sets so as not to hurt yourself.

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 look-alike exercises. Also, with the legs not having free movement, they can strain the knees or hips. If undo comfort results, stop them.

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).

Calves Raises - The calves help to stabilize the lifter during the walk out, set up, and walk in for squats, and they help in the actual performance of squats and deadlifts. Therefore, calves raises are helpful. They can be done with a barbell if one has the balance to do so. But they are best 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. I never thought the sitting calves raises were important for powerlifters, but I’ve been noticing my calves are sorer after squat and deadlifts workouts with my legs bent than straight, so the soleus must be involved in those lifts somehow, so both standing and sitting calves raises would be beneficial. Here is a good article in this regard: A Unique Look at Building Calves.

Video of DB Calves

Adductors/ Abductors Exercises - The adductors are the inner thigh muscles; the abductors are the outer thigh muscles. A therapist told me to remember which is which is by thinking that to "abduct" someone is to take him away, so the abductors move the limb away from the body. The adductors then move a limb towards the body. In any case, these muscles are used in both squats and deadlifts, especially in the hole on raw squats. That is where I injured my right adductor, when trying a heavy raw squats and why I will never go heavy on completely raw squats again. To directly work or to rehab these muscles requires either special machines or ankle weights, preferably adjustable. I use the latter. The video shows the method.

Video Adductors/ Abductors exercise (alternate legs)

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. 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. sit-ups or crunches), one where the hips are moved towards the chest (for the lower abs, e.g. leg raises or 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.

See also Abs Exercises Videos and Proper Performance of Ab Exercises.

Video of Sit-ups

Squat Assistance Exercises. Copyright 2001-07, 2014-17 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above exercise descriptions were posted on this site November 28, 2001
They were last updated June 12, 2017.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Powerlift Assistance Exercises

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