Squats and Deadlifts: Tips and Tricks

A SS&S follower asked for advice on how to increase weight/range of motion for squats and deadlifts.  Legday is my absolute favorite, so I’m happy to share my advice for maintaining form while building strength for these staple movements.

First, 5 tips that generally apply to lifting:

(1) Patience – as with most things in life, practice (in the squat rack) makes perfect.

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When you first start lifting, it may seem easy to add 5 or 10 lbs to your squat or deadlift every week.  But as you inch closer to your body weight (or double+ your body weight!), you have to fight for each extra pound you add to the bar.  Don’t expect to increase your weight every time you get into the gym.  But, the more total reps you do over weeks or months at 95lbs or 135lbs or 185lbs, the easier that weight will feel.

My best advice is to develop a month-long program that includes two sessions for legs each week (one focused on quads and one on glutes/hamstrings).  By the third or fourth workout, it will seem easier to add weight because your body knows what to expect.  Make it your goal to throw an extra 2.5 or 5 lb plate by the end of the month.  Then change up your routine — switching things up will be more challenging, more interesting, and will prevent plateauing.  Also, by repeating a workout, you can get a better sense mentally of how heavy you can go.  If you finish a workout and your legs aren’t burning/dying, you can probably increase the weight.  Half the battle is wrapping your brain around lifting a weight that sounds too heavy.  I’ve had mornings where I accidentally load the bar with more weight than I meant to, and I almost always find a way to finish the reps I planned.  (Other people agree with me that trickery and deceit may be just what you need to go heavier).

A non-squat example of how this works.  One of my most effective running workouts involves picking a speed that you think is too fast and seeing how long you can last at that speed for sprint repeats.  It is based on an elite running workout, where runners go out at the speed of a faster pro and see how long they can hang on before dropping out.  This is one of my FAVORITE runs, and it kills every time.  But it consistently shaves seconds off my mile time because I realize I can run faster than I thought I could for longer than I want to.  Mentally grueling workouts like these have helped me to go from 12.0mph for 200m sprints a year ago to 14.0mph sprints today.

(2) Have a program:  A corollary to that first piece of advice is that you need a plan.  Going into the gym and doing a random number of deadlifts, for a random number of sets, with a varied amount of rest, will make it hard to get the most out of your workout.  You can get more fancy and complicated as you get comfortable designing workouts, but the key to getting stronger is muscle fatigue, which you can achieve with basic movements and any number of different rep/set/tempo combinations.

  • Some people (ahem, me) are slow-twitch muscle dominant, which means you are more geared toward endurance workouts and can find huge strength gains by trying a 3 X 15-20 rep program.  In fact, some people think that legs can handle more reps than other body parts (as many as 40+ reps).
  • That doesn’t mean that a 5×5 program or one with explosive plyometric movements (favored by fast-twitch dominant lifters) will be ineffective for a slow-twitch person.
  • I believe all people can benefit from using different types of workouts.  In other words, breathe into the discomfort.  Everyone has both slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers, and you need to train to activate both, even if you are more inclined toward one type of workout.
The takeaway: do one month where you focus on heavy, slower-tempo, longer-rest sets.  The next month, try explosive, fast-paced plyometric or jumping movements combined with medium weight/rep sets.  Then try low weight/higher rep sets for a month.  Then re-test your strength.  Without testing different programs, it is hard to know what will lead to the best results for you.
When developing a program for your fitness level, the next three pieces of advice can be very helpful.
(3) Variety is the spice of (gym)life.  Your body gets complacent when you do the same workout over and over.  Relying on one squat/deadlift variation also puts all the work on the same part of your muscle every time you lift.  This type of repetitive (and, frankly, boring) training might lead to weaknesses and imbalances in the stabilizing muscles you use to perform a lift.To use the squat as an example, you can use a wide/regular/narrow stance, plie toes, front/back bar placement, or high/low-back bar placement, which all affect the amount of your quad v. hamstring activation as well as which other muscles your bring into the movement.
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The same is true for lots of movements — think rows for your back.  You can use narrow, wide, or normal grips, or you can grab the bar with wrists forward or palms forward.  Each variation will target slightly different parts of the muscle groups you are working.
(4) Isolate: Make sure to add in other isolation movements and stretches to your program.  Compound movements require core, back, hip, glute, quad and hamstring strength, and weakness in any one of these areas will hamper your results.  I like this advice from Erin Stern – start with 20-30 minutes of compound movements (squat, deadlift, and lunge variations), and then, as you fatigue, transition into 20-30 minutes of smaller, isolated movements (for legs, think leg press, butt blaster, step ups, glute bridge, hamstring curls) to maximize your gains.
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Low weight, high rep workouts are great for smaller muscles (if you’re a crazy like me, these are a perfect way to justify watching an hour of tv at night!), but you can also go heavier.  Just make sure to hit all of the major muscle groups.
  • For hips, try clams, side leg raises, and bridges.
  • For glutes, hip thrusts/glute bridges are a MUST.  Also use lunge variations (curtsy, box, and Bulgarians) and step ups/box jumps.  I also love (somewhat ridiculous but super effective) movements on all fours — straight and bent raises (both back and to the side), rainbows, and other similar movements. Throw on ankle weights and go for sets of 30-50.
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  • For core, I generally avoid crunches and favor other stabilizing movements – planks, mountain climbers, decline leg raises, ball knee-ins, etc.  These are much more effective – I’ve stopped doing most “ab work” but my abs look way better than they used to (to be honest, diet is a major part of the aesthetics of your abs, but you need the muscles to BE strong, not just to look strong!)IMG_0352
  • Back strength is also key to holding your core tight — think rows, lat pull-downs, hyperextensions, and Good Mornings.

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Finally, whether right after your workout or separately, it is CRUCIAL to maintain flexibility.  If you are an instagram follower (shameless plug for you to follow me @mtroiano31), you know I am a yoga fanatic.
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After a hip issue in law school that hampered my relationship with my first love (running), I reluctantly started yoga.  Begin another love affair.  Not only can yoga be very athletic and challenging, but it helped me to focus on alignment and stability, which immeasurably helped my lifting.  I went from having a sad, shortened, tight psoas and sartorius to having a much broader range of motion and no hip pain with any movements.

Soooo, if you want to be able to drop it down into an ATG squat, you need the hip mobility to get there.

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If you can’t incorporate yoga into your routine, try holding a low squat (either with or without a bar/wall for support) for at least 3 minutes a day.  Also try warming up and cooling down with knee circles, leg swings, and high knees.

(5) Rest.  This one is the hardest piece of advice for me to implement, but remember when you design your program to space out leg workouts with enough time for recovery.  If it were up to me, I would do legs 7 days a week.  But, because I prioritize getting strong, I only train legs twice a week so my legs always have 2-3 days to repair and rebuild after a hard workout.  I also notice a huge difference using tart cherry, BCAAs, L-tyrosine, L-glutamine, and ShroomTech.  The recovery happens MUCH quicker, which allows me to put 100% into each workout.

 
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Now, some specific tips for form/strength building for squats and deadlifts. Remember: Form is key to increasing weight.  I am constantly looking at photos we take for the blog and trying to correct large and small problems to improve the effectiveness of my workouts.

Squats:  You get almost no benefit from increasing weight if you’re doing a quarter rep, overarching your back, or letting your knees cave in excessively.  The one caveat — occasionally, to mentally prepare yourself for heavier weight, it can be useful to use a smaller range of motion with a new, heavier weight.  I like to go below parallel for my squats, but when I try for 210-5 (just out of reach still!), I keep the range right at (or right above) a 90 degree angle and focus on other elements of form.

Talk yourself through the movement to make sure you don’t let your form slide.  Better form means better muscle engagement (and a greater likelihood of muscle fatigue), which means a better chance of actually getting stronger.
  • Look up at the start of (and during) the movement, pull in and engage your core, and make sure your ribs are relaxed.  Relaxing the ribs will help keep your lower back in alignment.  Over-extension in your back can lead to lower back issues and hip misalignment that ultimately will compromise your strength.  A slightly upward gaze will help keep your back over your hips, instead of hinging at the hips and letting your upper body come too far forward.

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  • You can put the bar on your traps or the top of your back, depending on what’s comfortable for you.  A new tip that I have found crucial is to keep your elbows pointed down — this will keep your back straight and over your hips.  If your elbows start to point behind you, it becomes much easier to hinge at the hips and allow your upper body to pass your toes.  The transition in my elbow placement over the past year has wildly improved, but still needs work.  See here versus here.
  • As you lower, focus on putting weight throughout your foot.  You should actively press with your big toe and heel.  When you are starting out, if may be useful to take shoes off so that you don’t have cushioning impeding your ability to put your weight on the right parts of your foot (or, get better shoes.  I love these and these for lifting and they still work well for sprints/stairs).  Proper stance should help you to get more stability, which eventually will allow you to lift more weight.
  • Focus on pushing your knees out and keeping them out.  This will keep your hips in the proper alignment.  This is true as you lift up as well.  If your knees are caving in, the weight is too heavy for you, and you are likely to put too much stress on your IT bands, piriformis, etc.
  • At the bottom, be careful not to let your butt drop.  For me, this is the hardest part — it is much easier to lift a heavy weight by starting the ascent with your butt instead of your legs.  It is also easy to let your spine curve at the bottom to reach a deeper range of motion.  This is where is important to remember that your range of motion can vary based on what variation and what weight range you are using.  My narrow squat comes just to parallel, while I can almost get my butt to ground with a normal or wide squat.  The point is, by maintaining proper form and range, I FEEL IT in my legs with both movements, more so than I do when I let my ego get in the way and start to lift with my butt instead of the hamstrings to get a bigger weight.IMG_7649 20140226-210304.jpg
  • And finally, put your hips into it. 🙂  One of the best ways to get more power is to pop your hips forward at the top.  Still working on getting better at this.  The best cross-trainer for this == kettlebell swings.  Learn to use your hips and glutes to give you that extra bit of power with heavy weight.
DeadliftsGrip and forearm strength may be hampering your deadlift progress.  I am definitely limited by these weakness.  Three tips:
  • If you don’t care about having huge forearms (or if you are like me and aesthetically don’t want bigger forearms), use straps and/or alternating grips.  Some people frown upon relying on these techniques or think of them as cheating, but your hamstrings don’t care how strong your forearms are.  If you want to build the booty, go ahead and do whatever you need to do to lift the heavier weight.
  • Reset the bar after each deadlift.  It allows you to get a better handle on the bar if your fingers are slipping, and it actually cuts down on the momentum you use to lift the bar up.  (Think about the effort to lift the bar off the ground for the first rep v. every subsequent rep).  The result is that you might actually work the hamstrings harder and can add on a few plates.  As the weight gets easier you can do 1-2 unbroken reps, then reset, etc.
  • Give in and work on your grip by hanging from pullup or chin up bars and switching your grips. 🙂

Form: Again, keeping a straight back/strong core is crucial to lifting more weight for deadlifts.

  • Start with the bar over your feet.  Keeping the weight as close to your body as possible throughout the entire movement will give you more power and will prevent lower back problems.  If you are using a kettlebell, I like to place it even farther back, near my heels.  You can test the placement – the farther back the weight, the more hamstring activation.
  • Grip the bar tightly – I like to use an alternating grip, but you can use whatever grip works for you.  But the harder you grip, the less likely you’ll lose the rep based on forearm/grip weakness.
  • Pull your shoulders back slightly .  I like to think about straightening my collarbone to be parallel with the floor at the bottom and perpendicular to the floor at the top.  This will keep your upper body flat and help engage the lats.

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  • This is a new one for me after having some neck issues over the summer.  Keep your gaze about 5-7 feet in front of you (I’m 5’2″, so this could be 10+ ft if you’re taller).  This will help you keep your neck long and your back straight.  I have always worked on keeping my back straight, but as you can tell from my old pictures, my gaze, and therefore my neck, was often overly curved and pulled too far upward. (See below).
  • Your leg position will depend upon the variation of the deadlift you are doing – stiff-legged, Romanian, bent-leg, sumo, deficit.  Regardless, remember to hinge at the hips.  In other words, butt back, not up or down.  When your hips are in the right place, your back will be flat and your chest will be right over the bar.

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  • As with the squat, you should actively press with your big toe and heel to engage the glutes and hamstrings.  Try it without shoes or with an appropriately flat shoe.  With lighter weights, I actually lift my toes and keep all the weight in the heel to target the hamstrings more.
  • Keeping your arms locked and straight, pull upward.  Think about using a hip thrust right after the bar passes your knees – the work is coming from your hips, glutes, and hamstrings, not your back and arms.  The more you pop the hips, the more power.
  • At the top, your shoulders and lats should be firing so that you don’t have any rounding forward in the shoulders or the back.

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  • To bring the weight back down, think about sliding the bar down your thighs while pushing the hips back.  Practice with a lighter weight so you can see what it feels like to have the bar almost graze your thighs on the descent.

FOR BOTH SQUATS AND DEADLIFTS:  If you train with a partner, have the tape you.  Mentally, you may feel like you’ve nailed each of these steps, but the tape doesn’t lie.  (I remember watching the first video of my swim stroke when I was just learning freestyle as an adult.  Mind:  Michael Phelps.  Video: Trashing, inefficient, fish out of water.  I was able to significantly improve my technique by watching the mistakes).

If you’re alone, get in front of a mirror and try to watch your form as much as possible.  Also, set up the pins at the bottom of the rack at a height where you can drop the weight if necessary, so you never get caught with too much weight.

And finally, a few specific workout ideas:  These are a few combos I’ve used that have helped me to build strength quickly.

  • 10+10 sets (can also be done as 5+5 sets):  Pick a weight that feels heavy for 10 reps.  Perform 2-4 sets of 10 with that weight, and rest 2-3 minutes.  Finish with a final set where you perform 10 reps at your regular tempo.  Pause, without re-racking the weight.  Take a few deep breaths and keep knocking out additional reps until you hit 20 total reps, resting as necessary between reps but without re-racking the weight until you finish.
  • Slow Tempo Sets (can be done with any number of reps, but gets more brutal the more reps): I’ll use 5 reps as an example.  Use your normal weight (or 5-10lbs less than normal) but use a 2-1-4 tempo count for squats and a 1-1-4 tempo count for deadlifts.  In other words, for squats, take two counts to lower the weight, hold for a beat, and then lift up at half the speed of the descent.  For deadlifts, pull up explosively, hold for a second, and then lower extremely slowly.
  • Heavy + Plyo Sets: Use a 5 x 5+10 program.  Perform 5 heavy reps of a squat or deadlift, and immediately move into 10 reps of a jumping squat, jumping lunge, box jump, etc.
  • Dropsets: Dropsets can be brutal.  Try 5-10-failure sets.  Start with the weight you would normally use for 5-7 reps (for me, 165-175lbs) but perform only 5 reps.  Immediately drop the weight by 10-20% and perform 10 reps.  Again with no rest, drop by 10-20% and perform as many reps as you can.  I also like reverse dropsets – starting with 20 reps at a light weight, 10 at a medium weight, and finishing with 5 heavy reps, all with no rest.
  • Alternating Weight Sets: Try doing 5-10-5-10-5 rep combos.  After warming up, start with a heavy weight and perform 5 reps.  Rest 1 minute, then perform 10 reps @60-70%.  Rest 1 1/2 minutes, then repeat.  Finish with 5 heavy reps.

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