Intensive squatting provides many benefits for athletes and serves as a foundational movement for athletic performance. Increased cross‐sectional muscle area and changes in neural drive will not come from a diet of goblet squats and Bulgarian split squats. In a previous article, I argued that heavy single-leg work offers tissue adaptations, but there is something about bilateral work that offers greater neurological stimulus. This may be because bilateral velocities overall seem to be faster than unilateral velocities, especially from deep positions with high loads.
The Return of Intensive Squatting
To clarify, we’ll regard the definition of intensive squatting as anything over 90% of an athlete’s 1RM. This can be a contentious issue, and some coaches avoid intensive bilateral loading; heavy bilateral work can be challenging. Much of our approach and orthodoxy is borrowed from lifting sports where the specific expression of strength lives at 90%-100% loading and the athletes involved have anthropometries suited to lifting.
Often, athletes who possess leverage great for sport have poor leverage for lifting. And under high training loads, they exhibit high peripheral and central nervous system fatigue. Both of these will impact heavy squatting. Another oft-repeated concern is lumbar stress which may be a problem if lumbar flexion and/or excessive forward leaning occurs with high loads. However, lifting 90%+ has too many benefits to ignore and should be integrated into physical preparation where applicable.
Video 1. Intensive training at near maximal thresholds creates unique adaptations to the nervous system. The brain is challenged just as much as the muscular system, so proper loading is essential to stimulate growth and recovery.
Heavy squatting has several systemic benefits that are hard to achieve with lighter loads. We see improved recruitment of muscle fibers–in particular, heavy squats recruit and activate the maximum number and the fastest motor units. Improvements in the underlying neurology of strength expression such as rate coding/firing rate or discharge frequency are long-term adaptations caused by heavy strength training.
We also see improved intramuscular coordination and muscle fiber synchronization relating to the pattern by which fibers are recruited. The greater expression of intramuscular coordination improves muscular synergism. Finally, this type of training boosts serum testosterone levels.
Reconciling these benefits with an athlete who may have a busy schedule and high training volumes can be tricky for coaches. We can, however, manipulate things a little to provide intensity, keep volumes appropriate, and make changes to minimize technical aberrations. The key is to apply stress in a fashion that yields benefits and mitigates drawbacks. If this has to bend orthodoxy slightly, then so be it. We can provide this in the form of derivatives, clever rep schemes, and load manipulation.
How to Insert Clusters into Training
Clusters, which seem to fall in and out of popularity, make for a safe and effective way to integrate volumes with high load levels. Tufano et al., 2017 established that a large body of evidence supports using cluster sets to maintain or increase acute power-related variables, such as jump height.
By using clusters, we can sustain higher velocities in our final sets than we can with tradition set and rep schemes. The method simply calls for short inter-rep rest periods between sets. For example, perform one rep at 90% of 1RM, rerack, rest 15 seconds, and perform another single rep.
With cluster sets, we can focus on form while maintaining velocity and power output (Nicholson et al., 2016c; Tufano et al., 2017). This, in turn, allows for a greater volume of work at higher intensities. We can moderate the volume with a velocity-based drop-off between reps to keep quality as high as possible. We use a 5-10% drop-off.
Clusters at 90% of 1RM are best employed as doubles and triples–while remaining cognizant of quality at all times. There are numerous ways to sub-set rest periods for cluster work, including straight reps with a single cluster. For example, perform two conventional reps, rest 15 seconds, and perform a final rep.Clusters moderate poor final reps due to fatigue, especially for high-load front squats. Click To Tweet
Fatigue causes a lot of poor final reps, and clusters are one way to moderate its effects. From a personal coaching standpoint, clusters are particularly beneficial for front squats at high loads where fatigue can compromise the rack position.
Implementing Death-Ground Squats
Effectively a cluster variant, our death-ground squat parameters are:
- Squat at 90%+ load every minute on the minute (EMOM) until we see a degradation in rep speed and movement quality.
- Across an array of athletes, most can achieve 5-8 reps with 1:00-1:15 rest between reps.
Why perform repeated singles? With high reps and high loads, the neuromuscular system fatigues to the point where a second set will not resemble the first.
Why rest 1:00? It’s enough time for the CP system to recover while keeping the nervous system in an excited state without the energetic cost of multiple reps with only limited rest between clusters. It’s a very time-efficient way to develop skill and capacity. You have about six seconds of quality, very high-intensity work available. Go beyond that, and we start using energy pathways we should avoid and see a speed and nervous system degradation.
Video 2. Low reps are great for athletes, but we must manage them carefully as they are exhausting to the nervous system. Avoiding intensive training will only dig an athlete’s grave later in the year; sufficient maximal strength drives the lower body’s power.
By hitting regular singles much like the cluster sets, we can achieve a higher volume of high-quality work at a high intensity. I find that attempting 90%+ lifts using 3 x 3 leads to an awful looking third set, despite Zatsiorsky suggesting this is the best place to acquire strength in the classic Science and Practice of Strength Training. While this might be fine for Soviet-era weightlifters practically, applying it to sports athletes is a tricky proposition. I’m sure any strength coach would rather have nine high-quality reps than three good ones followed by six ugly ones.
To dictate the amount of volume achieved, we use a timed drop-off, a velocity measurement, or a coach-determined drop in rep speed. There are plenty of inexpensive velocity measurement tools, some of which offer percentage drop-off alarms. We usually look for a 10% drop-off in speed or power.
We often find that the first rep is slow and subsequent sets are faster until, on average, reps 6-8 unless the athlete is having a really bad day and achieves only 3-4 reps. Load and the athlete’s activation/arousal matter.
We can also apply this in an EDT fashion, setting 15-20 minutes aside to perform as many singles within the prescribed time or until a velocity drop-off occurs within the time limit. The athlete’s goal is to increase the total number of reps performed within the time limit.
This works well with high-functioning athletes who can perform 90%+ squats for numerous reps. Most athletes don’t have time to perform at least 20 reps of squats because it would leave little room within their training session for anything else.
Hand-Supported Squats: From Basics to Mastery
Recently I explored heavy Hatfield or hand-supported squatting. I discussed implementing this method in a previous post as a hand-supported split squat. High loads are quite achievable with this method. Adding hand support increases stabilization, allowing an athlete to provide a maximum effort through their legs.
Increased intensity and decreased risk while moving very high loads at high velocities make this appealing, and it can do much for building confidence under big weights. It gets a lot of traction particularly with my tallest and heaviest athletes who seem to get much more out of hand-supported squats than my shorter athletes.Hand-supported squat increases intensity, decreases risk while moving very high loads at high velocities. Click To Tweet
We must not, however, use it as a crutch for squatting. It’s best used with athletes who have well-established competence and strength in the squat pattern. I’ve had to chide assistant coaches at my own facility for being keen to get clients lifting with hand supports before establishing a strong conventional squat.
- Encourage an athlete to stay tall and use the handles for support.
- Staying tall minimizes forward lean and lumber stress, and the safety bar takes out the more problematic elements of heavy axial loads.
- The athlete should push-off only when using eccentrics or isometric methods.
This method is also useful for contact athletes who have elbow, wrist, or shoulder injuries and may struggle with conventional squatting positions.
To program the hand-supported squat, I usually suggest 20-25% more weight than an athlete’s back squat 1RM. I employ two variants depending on whether the athlete needs more knee extension or hip extension:
- Hip dominant hand-supported squat
- Quad dominant hand-supported squat
Integrating Bulgarian-ish Squats
I use an auto-regulatory method for athletes with high training loads, particularly in-season, that I call the Bulgarian-ish method. I apply this only once a week rather than every day as per the original method.
Simply, the athlete works to a maximum single rep for the day. You can use velocity threshold to dictate how heavy the athlete goes, and building an individual velocity profile can be useful. But I find 0.25 m/s average for back squats and 0.3m/s average for front squats works really well. The aim is to work up to a comfortable heavy single.
Adding volume is simply a matter of dropping 10-15% of your daily maximum and doing a few sets of doubles or triples. Any attempt to add more volume will usually end in disaster. I only back off sets on the day I feel capable. Controlling your ego is crucial.
The following example presents a threshold of 0.25m/s.
I find this method highly beneficial from a psychological perspective because it allows athletes to come close to their maximum in a controlled fashion. It re-establishes that they are not stepping backward regarding their strength, offering a boon mentally.
It’s very important to restate that this is not an opportunity to go for a 1RM every time we use this method. I’ve had athletes sheepishly admit that they couldn’t resist the temptation to go for a new one-rep maximum when left to their own devices, usually when a coach wasn’t present. I’ve had athletes hit personal bests in training and established a new 1RM staying out of velocity threshold. It’s great if this happens, but it’s not the goal.
Pervasive thinking in fitness has damaged the reputation of partial squats. I’ve heard strength coaches, athletes, and personal trainers screech about “ass to grass.” The depth conversation has been done to death, and it’s not what I’m addressing here.
As a culture, some coaches have a hard time with the partial squat as a tool due to the “squat deep” mantra that’s become deeply ingrained. This makes little sense in a world where the trap bar deadlift has been embraced wholly–ostensibly a partial squat but with none of the benefits of a heavy squat–which Carl Valle illustrates in this article. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Put the much-maligned partial squat in your toolkit and use it.The partial squat allows greater force and power outputs. Put it in your toolkit and use it. Click To Tweet
From a research standpoint, partial squats have received a reprieve with studies demonstrating its benefits. The usefulness of the partial squat comes from accelerating high loads at high velocities, which allows for greater force and power outputs, according to a Drinkwater et al. study, 2012.
To quote Chris Beardsley discussing a Bazyler et al. study, 2014, “Partial squats may have applications for improving maximum full squat performance, possibly because heavier relative loads can be used for the same number of reps when working at shorter muscle lengths.” Greater intensities for more reps reflects the thinking we apply to clustered squatting.
Another option is the sports back squat, a narrow stance partial squat discussed by Cal Dietz in his book, Triphasic Training. The aim is to take the hamstrings to a parallel position.
The thinking is that “athletes don’t need to keep working on hard, straining, maximal effort lifts in very wide stances. We want explosive, reactive athletes who can generate huge forces quickly in the direction where their sport will likely be played (i.e., narrow stance).” We see the same thinking in the Bazyler study concerning the need for force generation.
Key technique uses the agonist and antagonist muscles most effectively. Athletes pull themselves into position using their antagonist musculature–the hip flexors and the hamstrings–and explode back out again. I usually encourage this technique for all squats my athletes do.
We often see people perform partial squat off pins. While useful for powerlifters, this isn’t the most productive method because it lacks the return of force and the switch from eccentric into rapid concentric action. It’s the same reason I prefer Romanian deadlifts over rack pulls.
Partial squats should be included in programs when athletes have a decent level of strength and have performed full range of motion squats. Provided you choose appropriate ways to implement a partial squat, it provides a powerful stimulus for great levels of power and force production. I find it particularly useful as a heavier in-season option as it offers a lot of stimulus without a lot of tissue perturbation.
Putting It Together
Intensive squatting for non-lifting athletes has many benefits. Understandably, some perceive it as dangerous and fraught with risk. We know, however, that this kind of stress builds robustness and resilience that we can’t find under an upturned kettlebell.
To integrate intensive squatting into a program, I plan a 90%+ squatting option at least once a week during our heaviest lifting cycles. Below are some weekly sample programs showing how to slot 90% squat options into a program.
There’s no reason why we can’t apply some of these 90% options to other movements such as the press or deadlift. These have their own constraints and limitations, however. For instance, 90%+ deadlifting can be extremely taxing neurologically, not benefiting from a stretch reflex, unlike the squat pattern.
Future Considerations and Suggestions
Running off-season programs presents ample opportunities to implement intensive squat work. For advanced athletes, it provides an opportunity to express their highest levels of strength in a manner that yields improvement but errs on the side of caution. Trying to put non-lifting athletes through a conventional intensive squat program is a fast way to burn them out. However, manipulating movement, load, and volume at high intensity will hopefully keep athletes safe and improved.