Boris Bachmann: Deadlift Stud, Squat Dud

As the Squat RX guy, I get a lot of questions from people struggling to bring their squat up to the level of their deadlifts. Many of them are pretty strong, yet perpetually frustrated at their relatively paltry squat numbers.

Understandably, they have a tough time stomaching the idea that squatting half of their deadlift is a herculean effort.

I have no secret technique or protocol that will magically transform your squat numbers, but I do have some observations that may put you on the path to some degree of parity for your squat and deadlift.

If you’re finding yourself frustrated, perhaps one of the following tips help you.

#1) You may be built to deadlift
Do you have long arms and a relatively short torso? You’re probably built to deadlift. Your deadlift is always going to run ahead of your squat. This is not something to get upset about . . . when you come from behind to destroy the competition in a powerlifting event with your stellar deadlift, you’ll be glad you have the build you have.

Nature just doesn’t deal us the hand (or arms, or torso) we want sometimes. Tall and lanky might not be ideal for squatting, but take it from someone who’s short and stocky: Long arms are nice when you are lifting big and heavy things off the floor.

Okay. Great. That’s constructive: your build is great for deadlifting, but are you stuck with a bad squat? No, of course not, but there’s no sense in losing sleep over something that can be looked at as a positive.

#2) You haven’t given the squat enough time to develop
Beginners typically have much better deadlift numbers compared to their squat.

The extreme hip angle the squat puts you in is a position most people aren’t used to loading. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a beginner’s squat to lag behind his deadlift by one hundred or two hundred pounds. With time, the numbers tend to even themselves out. If you haven’t been training consistently for a couple of years, give your squat time and effort to catch up. If you are a powerlifter and use supportive equipment such as wraps and a squat suit, which assist the lifter in those extreme positions, it is very likely your squat numbers will soon far exceed your deadlift.

#3) You need to prioritize your squat
Almost every time someone asks me how to bring up their squat, there’s surprise when I suggest they aren’t squatting often enough.

If squatting is a skill that has not been developed, practice is what is needed.

Every training session does not have to be a high-intensity, high-volume Smolov hell, but more frequent sessions with greater focus on technique and tension can’t hurt.

For most beginner and intermediate lifters, it is a truism that squat training will help their deadlift numbers. The converse of this is not true, however: most people will NOT experience a commensurate rise in their squat numbers as their deadlift improves. I’m not saying anyone should slack in their deadlift training, but you have to work your weaknesses harder than your strengths if you want your weaknesses to become strengths.

If you are doing both the squat and deadlift in the same session, do your squats first. If you are doing both squat and deadlift work during the week, make sure squats come early in the week and before deadlifts. Prioritize your squat by doing squats and assistance exercises and drills early in the week. I call this front-loading your work week. By putting your “money sets” in early and getting them over with, you avoid the tendency to slack off as the week marches on.

#4) You may need to work on your set-up
Except for lining up too far away from the bar, most people know how to set up for a deadlift. “Grip and Rip” seems to be almost instinctual. Setting up for a heavy squat requires more direct instruction for many, and if there was one secret to squatting that seems to be lost on most lifters, it is that without a superb set-up, you are leaving a lot of potential pounds in the squat rack.

A good set-up means:
Setting the starting bar height in the racks appropriately,
Taking as few steps as possible out of the rack and
Being as tight as possible before initiating the descent.

Proper bar positioning is essential to a strong squat. If the bar is not securely anchored to your back, injury to yourself and others is a very real possibility. As you position yourself under the bar, drive the head backward and stick the chest out — be proud. The Bigger, Faster, Stronger program uses the cue spread the chest, and it’s a good one — a sunken chest will quickly put you into a compromised position.

At the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) instructor certification, there was a short discussion about neural potentiators — key areas that, when active, serve to rev up the central nervous system. The grip is one of these neural potentiators.

My father was always fond of talking about research showing high correlation between an Olympic weightlifter’s grip strength shown on a dynamometer and his success or failure on the platform a short time later. When the grip is weak or inactive, performance can suffer.

With deadlifts, the grip is active . . . with squatting, not so much. So, what can a squatter do to maximize this?

Grip the bar tightly.

Even though it is not directly applying force to the bar in a way that seems meaningful, it is priming the central nervous system for heavy lifting and activating synergists to stabilize and assist the prime movers.

#5) You may need to learn how to build tension as you descend into the hole
When I was much younger, I believed that a full range of motion was advantageous, even when it came at the expense of muscle tension. I relaxed at extreme positions, placing loads squarely on the joints and connective tissues. It’s a wonder I didn’t suffer greater injuries than I did, but as you might expect, I suffered from more than a few lumbar and shoulder issues from my squat and bench press training.

A common cause of injuries and unnecessary aches and pains associated with squatting is failure to maintain proper tension as you descend into and rise out of the hole. I see kids all the time squatting who go loosey-goosey at the bottom of their squat to get another inch or two of depth. This is probably because they were told squatting ass-to-grass was the only way to squat, or some such nonsense.

In this photo, notice how the entire structure is leaking power through the lumbar, knees, and ankles.

The bottom line (pun intended) is this: If you are sacrificing tension for depth, you are asking for trouble.

Conduct the following experiment: With no weight, relax into as deep a bodyweight squat as you can manage and use a dowel or pvc pipe to mimic a barbell back squat. While in the bottom position, shift gravity to your heels, tighten up your upper back and abs, externally rotate the legs at the hip by shoving the knees outward and engage the glutes and hamstrings. If you do this properly, you should involuntarily rise out of your deepest position by an inch or two. 

This is the depth you should strive for with your squats, and no deeper.

Notice how tension has spread the load, shifting stress away from the lumbar, knees, and ankles to the musculature of the hips, hamstrings, and the entire posterior chain and synergists.

There should be no loss of tension as a competent squatter descends into the hole. In fact, tension should be building throughout the torso and posterior chain. Dan John uses the bow analogy and I think it is very appropriate for squatters. Visualize your body as a bow, with the string being pulled back to fire an arrow as you descend into the bottom of your squat. When you reach depth, release the string and fire booster rockets to escape gravity’s pull and don’t let up until the bar is securely back in the racks.

Boris Bachmann is a high school teacher, RKC, and occasional strength and conditioning coach. He has coached at the age-group, masters, high school and D3 levels and has worked with variety of athletes, teams, and gyms as a strength and conditioning consultant. His Squat Rx videos can be found on YouTube and he can be contacted at [email protected] or on his blog at http://squatrx.blogspot.com.

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