7 squat variations to try
Bored of regular squats (shame on you) or just feel you need some variation to help them progress? I’m here to help. In this article we take a look at some squat variations I make use of for athletes and lifters.
Being a former Olympic weightlifter and trained in Bulgaria on top of that I’ve made my fair share of front squats but they’re not only for weightlifters. The front squat is a tremendous exercise for, well, just about anyone. I prefer people do it with a clean grip but there are some who just don’t have the mobility for it and in that case you can do it with arms crossed (like you will see most bodybuilders do) or with straps.
The benefit of the front squat is it teaches you to keep your torso upright otherwise you will drop the bar forward. It’s also a safe squat to fail in. You don’t want to get pinned at the bottom in a regular squat but if you can’t get up in the front squat you simply drop the bar.
When performing the front squat with a clean grip you should always aim to keep the elbows high. By far the most common mistake in non-weightlifters (and beginning weightlifters for that matter) is that they let the elbows come down and round the upper back. That puts all the strain in all the wrong places. You want to always keep your elbows high and to begin with you probably need to cue it every set until it becomes automatic. Coming out of the hole you want to focus on driving your chest upwards, this will help keeping an upright torso.
Is your mobility lacking? You can read all you want about if it’s your lats, wrists or something else. Since I can’t see what your issue is I will give you a few exercises to deal with it. The first is to assume the clean rack position but not actually lifting the bar from the stand. Instead have someone hold the bar down on the rack and come up with their shoulders under your elbows, pushing them up. It will not be comfortable but it will help. The next step is to do front squats with straps like you would use straps in deadlifts or any other exercises. Do not do this in your top sets, only for warmup.
Low box squat
The box squat is a tremendous exercise to further strengthen your hips. Note that when I’m talking about the box squat I’m not talking about the following two exercises:
- The one where you squat down, touch a box and stand up. I’d refer to that as “squat to box” and rarely if ever prescribe it.
- The one where you ram your ass down to the box and bounce up. I’d refer to that as the “stupid as hell squat”.
The second point is of major importance, it will absolutely wreck your spine so don’t do it! You must pay the utmost attention to sitting on the box with control. Indeed, you must fully sit on the box, keep your abdominals and upper back tight but sit completely on the box. Another common mistake I see is people leaning forward and pushing their knees forward when coming up, this must be avoided. You want to focus on standing straight up with the bar almost traveling in a straight line. It will not happen that way but have that intention and you will be on the right path.
A lot has been said about the box squat due in large to the way Westside Barbell use it. Some claim it only works for geared powerlifters, some are under the impression that you must sit far back and have an ultra-wide stance. Neither is true. The box squat has been around for a long time, way before Westside Barbell and powerlifting gear so rest assured that it will make you stronger.
“Low box squat” is what I write in my programs when the box is to be below parallel. In this case I will almost always suggest using the athletes regular squat stance.
High box squat
The high box squat is another exercise I use frequently. At the present time I typically prescribe them in the same workout as the low box squat, starting with the high box. The high box squat is simply “above parallel”. Incidentally it often works out to be around the height of a regular powerlifting bench so it’s no surprise that an alternative word for the box squat back in the day was “bench squat”.
“But Stefan, in competition I squat lower” I can already hear you say and I say… So? The purpose of the high box squat is to overload and strengthen certain muscle. You don’t do rows in competition either but I certainly hope you do them in training! For athletes I also frequently use high box squats as it builds tremendous hip strength.
When prescribing high box squats I usually suggest a wider stance than normal as it puts even more stress on the hips. Unsurprisingly I have noticed a high carryover to sumo pullers with this exercise but at the present time even my conventional pullers do it on a fairly regular basis.
No no no squat
Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter this exercise might very well be what you simply refer to as a squat. The no no no squat name comes from an IronMind video of the Bulgarian weightlifter Ivan Chakarov. I will embed the video so you can see what it is.
Of course Ivan Chakarov always squatted like that. As you can see it stands for “no belt, no wraps, no spotters” but the way I mean it is simply don’t use gear. With gear I’m not talking about a squat suit, I’m talking about belt and sleeves. I first started using it when I saw that one of my raw powerlifters was very weak without her raw gear, not even being able to handle 80% of her maxes with belt and sleeves. To me this was unacceptable so I immediately put her on a high dose no no no squats and guess what, her squat improved.
This is among the most common variations I use for powerlifters, especially if they’re weak in it. It will have a tremendous effect if you’re weak in the bottom as the knee sleeves let you bounce of them. I will add that I don’t care if they use spotters or not, the point is getting rid of the gear.
In my programs the belt squat is typically done as an accessory after the main squats but you could put it anywhere you want in the program. With this exercise you need speciality equipment, either a belt squat machine or a belt you can attach weight to. A regular chinning belt works ok but the ones I have tried have been very uncomfortable when loading with significant weight. The belt and loading pin from IronMind is by far the best solution I’ve tried but it will cost you a few bucks. When using a belt and not a machine you will have to stand on two blocks in order to let the weight drop down between them to achieve full range of motion.
The above picture shows a basic setup with a loading pin with plates, two boxes to stand on and boxes in front in order to easier get up on the blocks. The loading pin attaches to a belt so you don’t have to take the belt off and on between sets.
In this exercise I prefer high reps, between 10-20. It also lends itself to highish frequency, you can easily do it three times per week and watch your legs grow from week to week. A final note, if you have back problems I strongly suggest you give it a go.
Here’s a fairly uncommon exercise these days. In the pin squat you start with the bar on safety pins, stand up with the weight, go down (carefully) and let the bar rest briefly on the pins before standing up again for the next repetition. You want to make sure that you let the bar come to a dead stop between repetitions instead of “bouncing” it off the pins.
This is not a variation I prescribe commonly but you can do it both above and below parallel just as with the box squat. It’s a safe way to squat as the pins will save you if you can’t get up. You can also really overload it if you start above parallel. When you start low you will notice that some sets you might not be able to budge the bar off the pins only to rep out with the same weight the next set. This can happen if the setup under the bar isn’t correct. In certain positions you will be a lot weaker than in others. Let that be a lesson to your regular squatting – always strive for perfect position! Speaking of lessons, the pin squat is certainly a lesson in tension, you really want to stay tight before initiating the lift.
Bands and chains
You can obviously apply bands and chains to any type of squat. In my programs I mainy use them in the regular squat but they’re certainly not a mainstay. While the idea behind both bands and chains is to change the strength curve and make the lift harder in the strongest position (at the top) the two are actually quite different. The bands pull you down in a way you can’t really understand before you try them while the chains are mostly just there.
When setting up chains you want to assure that at least one or two links touch the ground even at the top position. This ensure that it doesn’t abruptly change the strength curve and that you won’t have too much balance issues.
With bands you want to ensure that you have at least a little tension even at the bottom position for the same reason, you want a smooth increase in resistance.
That’s it for now
These are my most commonly prescribed squat variations for powerlifters, athletes or just people who want to get stronger. Try them out and see which works well for you.