By: Jason Burnell

How I Do The Squat.
(or how to build a big squat for the average guy with no genetics)

         Ok, let's get the first thing out of the way. Many of you reading this must be asking yourselves, "who the heck is Jason Burnell and why should I listen to him telling me how to squat?" Excellent question. After all, I am by no means a big name lifter and chances are that you have never heard of me. I'm pretty much an average guy with a pretty good squat. For the record, in the 220 lbs class I squatted 700 or more 3 times in 2000  (699.75 in March, 705 in June and 710 in October). Ok, 699.75 isn't exactly 700 but it's pretty darn close.  700 is the mark of being a pretty good squatter at 220. 750-800 and you are awesome. I'm not there yet. A glance at the top 100 list will show that quite a few guys in my class squatted 700 or more last year. When you consider how many of that number did it in single ply gear the number goes down. Factor in the number that did it without steroids and it goes down even farther. I'm not knocking the choices other people make or denigrating their hard work.  I do, however, recognize a difference between the lifts made in different fashions.  I am merely explaining why I may have something worthwhile to offer. 

         Second, I am not going to make the claim that what I'm about to tell you is the "only" way to build a good squat. There are as many different training plans as there are good lifters. However, I 'm pretty sure that most good squatters will agree with 90% or more of what I'm going to say. In fact, what I'm going to present to you isn't even MY theory. Almost everything I've learned, I've learned from OTHER really good (better than me) squatters. I have been very fortunate in that over the past few years I've been able to talk to some of the best squatters of all time. Kirk Karwoski, Rickey Dale Crain, Louie Simmons, Dave Tate and the Great One himself, Eddy Coan, have all been very gracious with their time and have spoken to me on occasion and passed on tidbits that have helped me. This is the essence of what I pass on to you. In the tradition of our sport, I have been helped and I offer my help to you. I hope you find it useful. 

         With that out of the way, let's get right to it. You are in the gym getting ready for your first warm-up set. Let's just crank out a few reps really fast and get to the heavy stuff.  WRONG! Many people that I've spoken with do their warm ups haphazardly and don't get serious until the weight is heavy. That is a big mistake. One thing that almost every good squatter I've spoken with agrees on is that you must perfect your form on the light weights in order to perform well on the heavy weights. A good saying is, "treat the light weights like the heavy weights and then the heavy weights will go up like the light weights." That means focusing on the details from the very first rep of the very first set.  Coan stresses this as being a key point. You should try to make every rep the same in terms of set up foot position, bar placement, descent etc. 

         In reality, the set begins before I touch the bar.  As I approach the bar, I go through a set of mental checkpoints. These checkpoints are reminders to get all the things right as I approach the bar. I'll list them now and then go into a bit of detail on each one.  That list is the beginning of my set up. The set up is the most critical part of a squat. When I look back on missed attempts, I can almost always point to a problem with my set up. Conversely, attempts that I've made usually have a solid setup.  Here is the list:

  • Hands  - I grab the bar, always left hand first in the same spot. The key here is to make sure that you are grasping the bar evenly. That is just one step in making sure that you set up in the center of the bar. 
  • Shoulders - I dip under the bar and slide up high, then lower down and wiggle in until the bar is n the precise spot where I want it. I take the bar fairly low in the notch between the lateral and posterior delts. There is a spot that just feels 'right' and each set that is where I make sure the bar lies. 
    • Rob Wagner  (definitely a World Class Squatter) wrote a very good 2- part article in PLUSA about a year ago that went over bar placement in detail in terms of leverages and torso lengths, etc. I'd suggest this to anyone that is  not sure where they should place the bar for maximum effect.
    • The second part of this is that I squeeze my shoulders and upper back together and rotate my elbows down and forward. This is the base for the arch in my back.
  • Feet - Next up is foot placement for taking the bar from the racks.  This isn't the same as the squat stance. I place my feet about the width of my hips right under me. I'm not saying that you should use the exact same placement as I do but two things are important. Too narrow a stance and you will be out of balance and too wide a stance and you may end up leaning over when you walk out. Find the spot that you feel comfortable and make sure you hit that same spot each time.
  • Hips - I then get my hips directly under me. You don't want to lean over too far to take the bar from the racks. It's surprising but I see quite a few guys almost do a good morning just to take the bar out of the racks at meets.  Just get your hips under you find the spot where you feel tight and powerful.
  • Air - At this point, I take a medium sized breath and push my abs against my belt while tightening my back to prepare for taking the bar from the racks. 
  • Head - Here I focus on a spot on the wall or ceiling. This focus is a key. If you can train yourself to find that spot and focus on it, you will keep your head up. If your head stays up, your chest will stay up and the lift just became a lot easier! This means that you don't take your eyes off that spot, EVER. Do not look down while you walk out with the bar. That takes practice. Most people watch their feet as they walk out with the bar. It is very possible to do that with 70-80% of your max and still get your head and more importantly your chest back up, however when you attempt to do that with a PR weight, it is really hard to get your torso back in position. Practice setting up without looking down. Have your training partners tell you when you get it right and try to repeat that over and over. 
  • Up - This is simply when I take the bar from the racks. An important part of this is that I stop for just a second. This is a tip that Captain Kirk taught me after watching my aborted set up at the 98 USAPL Nationals. Take the bar from the racks and just stop for a second to let the bar and plates settle. This will become very important as you get to heavier weights and the bar tends to whip a bit more. The key that he stressed to me was that you must control the bar at all times.  Don't be in such a hurry to back up that you go too fast and let a whippy bar throw you off.  We've all seen people take a bar from the racks and immediately step back fast and proceed to lose their balance. The recovery from that takes up far too much energy and ruins your confidence for the actual squat.

  • Note: I'm not saying you should stand there for a long period of time; just enough to allow the bar and plates to stop moving around. 
  • 1,2,3 - This is the maximum number of steps to take. I squat with a wide stance and 3 steps are about right. If you use a narrow stance you can do it in 2 steps. I don't know how many times I've seen people wasting a ton of energy taking 5-10 steps, walking all over the platform trying to set up the squat. You have a limited amount of energy, don't waste too much of it on walking around with the bar on your back. 
    • The first step is a SMALL step back. Just step back enough to clear the racks. You don't have to walk back a mile. Then I take one step to the left and one to the right. Boom I'm done. 
    • Following the third step I again stop to let the bar settle. You don't have to squat as soon as the head ref says, "squat." Make sure you are ready again. 
  • Big Air - Prior to the descent, I take another breath. This is hard to explain…. I never fully let the air out that I took just before I took the bar from the racks. Some air does escape while I set up, though. I try to keep as much in as possible to maintain tightness. Anyway, I take a big breath to get as tight as possible and to get as much air in as I can. This is another key to keeping your head and chest up and your back tight.
  • Butt back, knees out - As I start the descent, I want to sit back. I'm thinking about pushing back with my butt while keeping my knees out.  Eddy Coan calls this opening up your groin. At the bottom, my torso is inside or between my legs.
    • This could go with number 8 also but I'll put it here. If you use a wide stance like mine, you probably want to remember to push off your heels and not wind up on your toes. I actually lift my toes toward the ceiling just before I start the descent to remind myself. This also helps as a physical reminder of how I want the weight to be balanced. 
    • A big key here is to keep your focus on your spot on the descent. DO NOT drop your head or look down. That almost always leads to dropping your chest and rounding forward. I've done this several times. It sucks every time.
    •  Scott Waits - (a lifter from my area in my weight class who out squats me consistently) pointed out in a discussion we had that it is also important not to let the elbows move up and rearward on the ascent. This also can lead to rounding and leaning forward. 
  • Drive back - I think more of driving back against the bar than I do of pushing up. This comes directly from Louie Simmons. Louie's idea is that you have to drive your head back and drive your back against the bar. Where the head goes the body follows. It has worked for me.

Those are the basic points that I try to focus on. These alone can make big difference in your performance. The setup is probably the most critical part of the squat for most of the people I know. If you get these things down pat, you will feel more confident every time you set up. There is a bit more however….

Gear - Shoes, wraps and suits can all have an effect on your squat. (No kidding)

· Shoes - For a narrow to medium stance squatter, it seems that a show with a heel is preferred. Some people prefer work boots or combat boots. Others prefer Olympic lifting shoes with the wedge heel. I've never worn those but when I did squat with a narrower stance, I tried the shoes made by Safe USA. They offered a wide base which was very stiff and made for a solid platform. For that stance, I liked them a lot. 
When I widened my stance out, my knees started to hurt when I used the shoes with the heel. I followed Louie Simmons advice and used the Converse All-Stars. They had a flexible sole, which allowed me to feel the floor while I pushed out to the sides. The only complaint I had was that I ripped through the side of one pair. They started to separate between the sole and the upper. At $30 bucks a pair though, replacing them wasn't painful. In fact, they were my shoes of choice until I got a pair of the Inzer Power Shoes. The Power Shoes have a similar sole to the Cons, in that I can still feel the floor when I push out. They have a leather upper that goes up much higher than the Cons though. That gives me more support in the ankle area, which is important with a wide stance. 

· The first thing about suits and wraps that I'd like to mention is the fit of the suit.  As far as I'm concerned, a good squat suit is tight in the hips and thighs. The straps should be slightly snug but not so tight that they pull you forward. You should also be able to breathe at the top. Most everyone I know that is into squatting has had some modifications done to their squat suit. Just as bench pressers dial in their shirts, so must a squatter dial in his suit for maximum performance. My first suits were all off the rack and they worked fine. As I got more into the sport, I started to experiment. My favorite suit used to be a stock size 34 Z-suit. Then John Inzer made one that was about an inch tighter in the hips and with a little more room in the legs. Tight? Yes. Locked in. Yes but more COMFORT. Little adjustments can make a big difference. Ahhhh. Now, I'm dialing in a Hard Core suit. I'll be blasting off in July on that one. 
· The second thing about a suit and wraps is that you must spend some time in them. Obviously, you don't train in them year round but you must spend enough time in them to get used to them. Just putting them on the day of the meet isn't going to work. Your groove will be off. I personally use a suit and wraps for my last six workouts. Generally three with the straps down and three with the straps up. Knee wraps are worn each time. I start out with them loose and tighten up a bit each week. The last two workouts I wear them just like I do at a meet. I want everything to feel just like it will on meet day. 
· Knee wraps were hard for me to get used to at first. A tight wrap just didn't feel right. To get over that, I actually started wrapping my knees at home. If I were watching TV, I'd grab my knee wraps and wrap up. Then I'd sit there and just wear them as long as I could. 
· At first, I couldn't take more than a minute. Within a short time, however, I became more acclimated to them. After a few weeks of doing this several times a week, I was cured. After I did that, I wound up at a meet and the guy in front of me had a misload or dumped the bar or something. Normally, when you are standing there in the wraps, you get all antsy and someone says, "hey, we gotta guy wrapped here, etc" This time I was fine. 

Another important aspect of building a squat is to find a mentor. It's much easier to follow the path of someone that has already been where you want to go.  That person has probably made most of the mistakes you are making and can help you reduce the time it takes to achieve your goals. 
 Read every book and article on squatting you can find.  Buy videos of meets as well as training tapes. I like to listen to the tapes a few times and then turn the sound off and just watch. You'd be amazed at what you can learn just by watching. Sometimes there are small keys that the lifter on the tape may not mention because it's second nature to him BUT if you watch and pay attention you can pick up pointers. 
Well, I suppose it's almost obligatory that I write up a sample of my current routine. Every training article has a routine with it. Before I do that, let me say that if you are following a system and/or working with a mentor, don't just copy my plan and junk what you're using. The tips about will fit into any training plan and I really think that form, technique and above all consistency are more important than a specific plan. 
Think about it. Ed Coan uses a different training plan than Kirk Karwoski , who uses a different plan than Rickey Crain who uses a different plan than did Matt Dimel and so on, They have all taken different paths to become squatting legends. The key is to find a plan that works for you and then tweak it to make minor variations while maintaining the general outline. When Louie Simmons has a bad meet, he doesn't junk the Westside system, he makes some changes but keeps the basic framework. I think we, as lifters, spend too much time looking for the magic routine. 

Having said that, here is the basic plan I follow right now. When I don't have a meet for a while (months) I train with no gear at all. - No belt, no wraps, no suit. I work up to a heavy set of 8 like that over a period of time. Each time I will try to set a new 8-rep max. As the meet approaches I'll add in my gear and of course, drop the reps. Here is the exact routine I used last June to hit 705. Oddly enough, I'd been trying to hit 700 for over a year. I kept coming close but missing for one reason or another. I trained a bit lighter during my pre-contest peak than I normally did and wound up feeling fresher and more solid on meet day. I'm not going to guarantee that you will put 30 lbs on your squat with this as I often see people write. Heck, most of us would be happy to just hit a PR at the next meet. SO far, I've used it three times and hit three PRs. I recently gave a copy to another guy I train with from time to time and he used it to hit a PR. It may work for you. Keep in mind that this is the final part of the Pre-meet cycle and all the off-season work is higher reps and without my gear. Good luck.

Squats - Monday workout
Week 1 -  530*5 for 2 sets
              belt and wraps

Week 2  - 545* 5 reps for 2 sets
             belt and wraps

Week 3 - 565*3 reps for 2 sets
             Straps down, belt and wraps.

Week 4 -   580*3 reps for 2 sets
             Straps down, belt and wraps.

Week 5 -  595*3 reps for 2sets
              Straps down, belt and wraps tight.

Week 6 -  625*2 reps and 655*1 rep
              Straps up, belt and wraps tight.

Week 7 - 630*2 reps PLUS one walkout and hold (3 count) with 725
             Straps up, belt and wraps tight.

Week 8  - 415*3 reps for 2 sets - belt only - only calves and abs for assistance
Note: This is the Monday before the meet. I just go in and get a little blood flowing. This is also the last workout of any kind, before the meet. So, I will have a full 4-5 days rest before the meet. 

For assistance for squat do:
Hi bar squats 2 sets of 5 -8 with a medium close stance adding weight each week - no gear
Leg extensions - 2 sets of 8-10
Leg Curls - 3 sets of 8-10
Seated Calf 3 sets of 10-12
Abs - heavy

Good mornings are optional also as are pause squats in place of the high bar squats. 
In the off-season, I don't do the leg extensions and I'm currently doing more glute ham raises and front squats.. 

Psych up vs Psych out - I've seen a bunch of people (too many, actually) yelling and screaming, slapping each other, sniffing ammonia, banging their heads on the bar and basically making a lot of noise before a lift. One guy even circled the bar , screaming at it like he was hunting it.  I've never actually counted but for every 10 people I see go through these antics it seems like about 2 actually make the lift. Some people can use the fight or flight response and get that adrenaline rush and channel that energy into the lift. It seems like most people I've seen try it though, just get too tired to make the lift The histrionics that go on forever just wear them out. Look at it this way, if a bad walkout can throw you off and cause you to miss a lift, why would you have your partner beat the tar out of you before a lift? I'm firmly convinced that most people would be better off just focusing on the task at hand and getting ready to execute a perfect lift. On the other hand, if you just want to be remembered, that guy that stalked the bar is burned in my memory forever. Of course, I also remember him missing the lift and almost bombing out of the meet.  I'll leave it at that. Your mileage may vary on this one.

Hope this helps.

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without written consent. Copyright 2003 Jason Burnell.