Maximizing Squat Gains With Bar and Load Squat Variations
Talk to the majority of strength & conditioning professionals, and they will call the squat the king of all exercises. While the back squat is the most common, it is important to note how multiple squat variations from bars, to loadings, and placement can provide a completely different training stimulus.
By modifying your squat practice through bar placement and load type, you are adding dimension and perspective to your training. If done correctly, you will find enhanced muscle recruitment of prime movers while more actively engaging your stabilizers helping you to safely increase your loads and to reach your full potential.
Maintaining proper motion patterns in the hip and spine is one of the greatest priorities when executing your squat. A number of different options exist including modifying bar position on the body, or using a curved barbell or equivalent. Common Squat Variations from the traditional "High-Bar" back squat include:
- Front squats with the bar resting on the front of your shoulders with arms in the front rack position. This modification helps keep the spine erect, the lower back in extension, and encourages the hips back at the appropriate 45 degree angle from vertical
- Goblet Squats with a kettlebell, where lower trapezius and rhomboid recruitment is enhanced. This also helps encourage other shoulder stabilizer with other alignment benefits similar to the Front Squat. To see a video of this variation click here
- "Low-Bar" Back squats again offer modifications to the "angles" and the loads placed on the hips and can have benefits that may also include reduced knee pain.
A great article jointly written by Barbell Physio and Barbell Rehab covering the above in more detail is available here.
Other benefits associated with the "Low-Bar" back squats include:
- More ergonomic shoulder positions for those who face challenges externally rotating during traditional "High-Bar" back squats
- The gentler engagement of the shoulders in the "Low-Bar" position may find enhanced lat recruitment, a powerful and often under-utilized back extensor
Although the "Low-Bar" position is an excellent choice for many people, changes in technology and equipment availability now offer other options. In particular, an "Arc’ed" or curved barbell may further enhance the benefits offered by the "Low-Bar" back squat by reducing the horizontal distance between the bar and the hips/lower back.
The first of these products was developed by Iron Mind. Called the "Buffalo Bar", it offered a gentle camber in the bar to enable a more ergonomic load on the shoulders while placing the shoulders in a gentler external rotation position. More recently, the "Kabuki Strength Duffalo Bar" has introduced an even greater camber and the ability to add rubber bands, while "The Yoak" offers a portable and multi-functional option to those looking for some versatility in their training arsenal.
Other bar variations include the Cambered, Safety, Trap, and Football bars, all of which are covered broadly in this article from T-Nation.
Load Stability – Bands, Chains, and Pendular Movement
Load type and stability are other great options when one is looking to improve their squat performance. These include the use of bands, chains, and pendular movement in the load.
Bands and Chains
The explosive use of bands in strength conditioning has added a dynamic element to squat training. By anchoring bands to a rack or a connection point on the ground and then on the bar forces you to recognize when you movement patterns differ through your range. It is important to ensure proper foot placement relative to the bands to ensure the anterior or posterior chain aren’t being overly recruited during the movement. Other benefits of the band squat include non-linear variations in tension through the movement, increasing the load as you extend your hips while adding instability.
Chains attached to your barbell contribute to your strength improvement and movement awareness in a similar fashion. As your extend your hips, you are increasing the load on the bar as more of the chain is lifted off the ground. Although not often anchored to the ground, the mass of the chain can act as a guide keeping the vertical and lateral movement patterns in check.
#pendularsquats session with Brad at @crossfitsudbury this morning. A healthy load for this modified squat challenging #corestability and enhancing glute activation. Notice the minimal swing in the weights as he moves. A symptom of great form. If he was tracking improperly you'd notice a sway in the kettlebells!!!! #pendulartraining #stabilitytraining #heavysquatsfixeverything #stoked2yoak #getyoaked
Pendular Squat Variations
Newest on the scene is the use of pendular motion to encourage proper tracking of the load when performing squats. Since the aforementioned bands have an anchor point, there is less subtlety in movement and self-awareness offered compared to pendular squats which enable the load to move freely. This instability created by the pendular movement further enhances your training by recruiting stabilizers through your full range. The lack of an anchor on the load for pendular squats can be said to improve feedback in real time.
- Start with a lower weight. Approximately 50% of bodyweight is plenty. The instability offered by the pendular motion can be challenging at first.
- Move slowly. Since the pendular weight moves in two directions, and can also reflect asymmetry and rotation in your squat, tune in to your movement patterns with controlled hip extension before making the movement more dynamic.
The use of kettlebells in the farmer carry position is another option worth mentioning when one is looking to modify their squat practice with pendular movement.
- Hold kettlebells at your sides in a farmer carry position. Focus on centrating or “anchoring” the shoulder blades to the spine by rolling shoulders back and down
- Tune in to any extra loads on your back, hamstrings, or hips as you descend trying to touch the kettlebells to the ground. This will indicate your inconsistencies in your movement patterns on the frontal (vertical) plane and
- Notice where the kettlebells hit the ground, using a mirror to track anterior/posterior movement. This type of squat mimics the physics of the Barbell Pendular Squat, however minimizes the need for equipment beyond the kettlebells
- Finally, notice if you feel a sway in the kettlebells when your extend your hips and return to the starting position. This may give you insight into differences between your movement patterns when you
At the end of the day, beyond our unique anatomy there are several aspects of the barbell squat that may be modified to improve one’s sustainability of practice, efficiency, and ultimately the power generated in the movement. These may include, but aren’t limited to: your body position and foot placement, mobility, stability (prime movers vs. stabilizer recruitment through range), and the choice of bar and load applied.
Ultimately the objective of any modifications is to:
- Enable the optimal recruitment of hip extensors
- Reduce or eliminate lower back flexion
- Eliminate any pain or discomfort in the shoulders
— The Yoak Team