In the gym, few exercises can rival the squat for its ability to produce gains in size and strength. But one mistake many lifters make is going heavy all the time. While it has been proven that lower reps with heavier weight produces the best gain in strength, the body eventually adapts and plateaus in strength. So what can be done? In this article, we will discuss several techniques for developing the explosive power necessary to bust through your strength plateaus.
As a personal trainer, I consider the squat an essential exercise for any goal. Why? In addition to every leg muscle, squatting builds the abs, back, traps and shoulders all at the same time! And by working all of these muscles together, squatting adds strength in virtually every other exercise. But even if you know squat about squatting, this article will equip you with the tools and technique to squat like a pro.
Going Light to Lift Heavy
An old saying amongst Olympic lifters is “train slow, to be slow”. A combination of ‘fast’ and “slow” workouts ensures the muscles are trained for strength and power.
Researchers at Boston University found that isometric exercises (such as a maximum effort deadlift) performed at a slower pace only activate a limited number of motor units (a neuron that stimulates muscle fibers). According to researcher Carlos DeLuca, exercises that produce faster muscle contractions recruit a greater number of muscle fibers. In the gym, this means that lifting lighter weights at a higher tempo recruits a greater number of muscle fibers than going heavy alone. When lifting heavy weight, this will allow you to perform your first repetition faster in order to generate maximum force. This type of explosive movement may be the key to breaking strength plateaus.
Rather than training with only heavy weight, many athletes that need to develop performance focus on exercises for developing slow strength, and fast strength. Vasily Alexiev, the first Olympic weight lifter to clean-and-jerk 500 lbs, limited the lifting of competitive loads in practice. Instead, he practiced lifts at great speed and with impeccable form.
A fast, explosive start to lifting activates the speed of the muscular contraction necessary to propel the barbell up as quickly as possible. But for optimum explosive power, the nervous system must be trained– for both muscular contraction, and relaxation— in the motion of the movement. Lifting lighter weight with higher speed and proper form simulates the movement necessary for ‘exploding’ with heavier weight.
Developing a Cue
One technique to developing maximum explosive strength is developing a cue to control the transition between muscular relaxation to muscle stiffness. Consider the example of a world class sprinter. In the starting blocks, they are relaxed because any tension would slow down their movement. Once the whistle blows, their muscles rapidly activate to generate speed. But then an equally rapid deactivation occurs to maintain speed. The athlete is simply reacting to a cue—whether visual, auditory, or tactile, which stimulates the muscles to produce explosive speed.
The defensive football lineman, on the other hand, reacts to visual motions of other players. This cue can be signaled by hand motions from the coach. For Soviet Olympic weightlifters, trainers would combine auditory and tactile stimulation—whacking them on the shoulder and screaming out “VEEECH” to stimulate the lift.
But whatever technique you prefer, developing a cue trains the nervous system to activate your muscles at a faster rate.
Getting the Form Down
Without the proper form, the opportunity for injury while squatting is much greater than that of stimulating your muscle.
To understand proper form, it is important to look at the body as a collective chain of tissue (muscle, nerves, tendons), which reacts collectively to the motion of your exercise. When a muscle or nerve is malfunctioning during exercise, the entire chain must compensate. This can create muscular imbalances, and dysfunction which are responsible for pain. Squatting, for example, is an ‘open’ kinetic chain exercise, which uses a free range of motion. In open kinetic chain exercises, proper form and positioning is essential in determining where the emphasis of the weight is placed.
During a squat, the opportunity for injury lessens when power (force and velocity) comes from the hips – while the risk of injury rises when power comes from the spine. A study of Canadian power lifters showed that those with lower levels of back movement, but higher hip movement, lifted closer to the world record.
Russian power lifters are taught to visualize the movement before lifting and believe this is this is key to learning proper squat technique. The athlete is told to stand in proper squatting position – with feet planted on the floor, with the knees turned slightly outward away from the body – and to imagine squatting to the floor.
Spreading your legs will also determine how deep you can squat – generally the wider your legs are, the deeper you will be able to squat. For optimum results, your feet should be twice hip-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. This will allow you to squat farther to the floor, and work a greater amount of muscle. But while depth is important, only go down as far as you can without leaning forward or your feet coming off the floor. Proper hip motion can be reinforced by placing an elastic band around the knees and pushing against the bands as you squat. Pushing your legs and hips apart helps to simulate the proper squatting movement.
Building Squatting Power
Once proper form is achieved, squatting power is largely determined by the hips. Training this area two to three days per week helps to reinforce proper form and add strength to your squat. To achieve this task, here are a few exercises to train for explosive power:
Cable pulls: Cable pulls between the legs emphasis the proper hip motion for squatting. Standing upright with your legs shoulder length apart, hold the cable handle between your legs, and bend over while pushing your hips back. Now, continuing to grip the cable, push your hips forward and rise until you are standing upright in your original position. Go for two to three sets of 8-12 reps.
Back bridges: One legged bridges help to strength the glutes—which are crucial for squatting performance. Lie on the floor with your knees bent. Squeeze your glutes (butt) and hold one leg off the floor, while using the other to push your hips up towards the ceiling. Hold this position for 15-25 seconds and repeat for 5-7 times. In total, perform two to three sets of 5-7 reps.
Box squatting: Box squatting helps to build explosive power. Squeeze your shoulders together while holding the bar. Now, push the hips back and squat down until you are sitting on the box. It is important to stay relaxed, because once you are in position, you want to explode up as quickly as possible. Box squatting should only be performed with light weight in the beginning to get used to sitting down and to build explosive speed. Begin with three sets of 12-20 reps.
With a focus on human movement and performance enhancement, Chris specializes in training programs for power athletes, bodybuilders and fitness buffs alike. He is available for one to one personal training and offers custom, online coaching.