I, like you, have always thought the back squat to be one of those slutty attention whore lifts that needs you to train it constantly to stay with you.
Pretty much all the big three powerlifter lifts are thought to be the same; the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.
With gyms now open on UK shores the gym fanboys and girls have been buzzing to get back underneath some heavy iron again. Bodyweight and home training was ‘limiting the damage’ and now it’s time to return to the real shit……….the betterment, the gains and the #gymlife.
See, for me the whole ‘lockdown’/no gym access was a wonderful opportunity to conduct a series of experiments. One of which was to see what kind of strength I could maintain while ONLY training outdoors and with limited equipment options/access – and by limited I mean the exception of gymnastics rings, the odd pull up bar and some weight plates I could bring along and the occasional use of ankle weights.
For upper body it’s a no-brainer, you can build strength 110% without weights as the calisthenics/gymnastic strength training world has proved over and over………and over……..
But for lower body it’s a hotter debate. Throughout the years as a fitness author I’ve always supported unweighted leg training for its effectiveness, for those who don’t have equipment access and/or just don’t want to do back squats and deadlifts. The case I’ve always made was they can still build a good set of functional ‘wheels’ and not only that, but they develop good mobility as a by product, simply because many of them require some standard of mobility to begin with.
The nuts & bolts of my experiment
In February this year, courtesy of my ‘hardcore leg days’, I built up to a 120 kg back squat to below parallel for 3 sets of 6 reps with about 3 mins rest between sets. The RPE was about 8/9 I’d say. No I’ve actually never squatted above 120 kg as I really don’t care for testing my max on the squat. Testing your 1RM on the squat is pretty dumb unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, in my opinion.
But when the gyms closed I thought it would be nice to cycle away from the heavy lifting and get back into the bodyweight moves – pistol squats (weighted), shrimp squats, nordic curls, cossack squats and the array of mobility drills out there. I’d lost my splits somewhat as they’re just not as fun to train indoors; they’re more of a park and sun type of move!
So since mid March I worked on my weighted paused pistol squat and got it up to 10 reps per leg with 20kg added. This was a goal of mine from last summer that fell by the wayside so it was great to finally tick it off. For the posterior chain we used trusty old nordic hamstring curls with the shortened leverage shown below, as well as some single leg box jumps for explosive power and single leg calf work purely for ankle function.
A few weeks in we began adding in mobility work for all the advanced positions – namely the pancake, the middle splits, front splits & butterfly. This was a mix between passive (tension release) and active (strength & range building) work.
This was done at a frequency of every 5th day. We stuck to this like the earth sticks to turning round the sun every 365 days. I think once or twice we were forced to go 6 days between sessions for the lower body.
Of course progressive overload was applied as much as possible and this was done in the form of adding weight gradually to the pistol squats each time I’d hit the high end of my rep brackets. Some times when I knew the reps per set were going nowhere I’d up sets and cap the reps per set.
The jumps were progressed by increasing height where we could get access to higher benches or platforms and/or adding bottom pauses and again, sometimes adding an extra set here or there. There were also times I threw in jumping pistol squats if I felt strong enough.
With the nordics it was a much slower and steady process. I would throw in full eccentrics (open/extended hips) for the first rep of my sets and then carry on with the flexed hip version for the desired reps. Or I would add a slow eccentric and forceful concentric tempo to the mix, or even add extra sets on good days. These are a long haul exercise that takes years to get to where you can do them with open hips for reps, unless you’ve naturally got hamstrings from the gods, of course………
The first back squat in 6 months!
Apparently a friend of a friend, who is a recreational bodybuilder, went from a 100kg + squat to now struggling with 60 kg! He’d halfheartedly tried to train legs at home with bodyweight exercises and bands but pretty much resigned himself to not training at all, sadly.
This sparked massive intrigue for me to see how I would fare under a bar after all the time away from it. I’d often pondered the potential carryover from the minimal equipment training to the back squat but now I was so up for trying it. Knowing I’d had a solid 5 months of alternate work under my belt made it a really fair trial, too. That way if the result was negative, it wouldn’t be down to a lack of consistency within the other method.
A week or so ago I gave 120 kg a go to see how I’d fare and it was surprisingly manageable. I hit 5 reps on an RPE of about 7 or so.
BUT, the bottom position felt much nicer and stronger than ever before; no lumbar stress/stiffness and keeping the knees out was easier on the ascent as well as in the squat position itself.
I attribute this to the diligent mobility work I’ve done over the last 5/6 months. My hips function far better than ever before and as a result, my glutes and hamstrings not only work better but fire in the right patterns now too. The glutes and hamstrings actually work as hip extensors instead of the lumbar spine doing all the work. The calves are looser and stronger at length, too, which makes the deep squat position feel easier without all the excessive forward lean.
Conclusion: The back squat can be maintained or even developed without back squatting!
On the morning I did the 120 kg x 5, the only warming up I did was a few cossack squats, a set of 5 with 82.5 kg paused, 100 kg x 5 and then I went straight into the 120kg. I had to crush the ego and voices in my head telling me 130 kg x 5 would make an awesome video. I knew I could do it but why did I need to? My original aim was to prove my squat strength hadn’t gone anywhere. Strength gains were a bonus!
It’s a shame to see so many people lose hope just because they don’t have access to a barbell. Granted, you only know what you know and I honestly think it’s a mix of lacking knowledge and not actually believing it’s possible.
The problem with the world of fitness is the mass amounts of false dogma and stupid stereotypes. We can now add the idea that you have to squat with a barbell to stay strong with a barbell to the list.
Thanks for all these experiments, lockdown!
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