Tag Archives: squat

Want a better booty and thighs? Try my favorite lower body builder.

squatfun

Sure, you squat. Or you should be squatting, because squats are crazy effective at defining muscle, making you strong, and will help you sculpt dat ass.  But hold the phone – because there’s one that you probably aren’t doing. But it’s my very favorite of all, and I want you to love it too. 

It’s a variation on a goblet squat. A squat that’s almost anyone can do. But I’m going to show you a “next level” squat that’s basically a souped up goblet squat. 

In case you don’t already know, to perform a goblet squat, you simply hold a dumbbell under your chin and skwat. Easy peasy. Just think about squatting between your legs, let your elbows brush your thighs, and chances are, you’re going to do a pretty bang up job. 

gobletsquat

Maybe you think you’re too strong/jacked/dope to goblet squat.

 Nope nope nope.

Changing up the kind of squat you do helps you build strength and stability in new ways, prevents boredom, and helps you work around injuries. That’s all good stuff. For me in particular, heavy barbell back squatting just didn’t play well with my hip, and at times my shoulders, very well. That’s where I began to use goblet squats way more frequently for lower body work. Not only for high rep fat burning workouts – but for sculpting more muscle too. 

So what’s the problem?

You see, I reached a point in my training where I wanted to use the squat to get stronger through my legs and glutes. Here’s where it sounds like I’m going to cry and complain about a “first world gym problem”.

crybabies

The heavy dumbbell. On the rack. It’s so big. So unwieldy. So annoying to get into position. Bleh.

Yeah yeah, maybe I’m being a big baby about it. But the act of dragging out a big dumbbell was off putting. Yet as some inventor-type person once said, “necessity is the mother of invention”. So it dawned on me that I could get around this issue and squat heavier weight more comfortably.

It’s the zercher squat.

Here’s the part of the article where anyone who’s ever done a zercher squat is going to silently say “Amy, are you high?”

No. I am not. I’m merely highly caffeinated. But I always get this look when I talk about zercher squats:

zercherface

That’s because they can be hellishly uncomfortable. But there’s a work around there too, so stick with me for a minute and I’ll show you.

“Zercher” is named after an old lifter named Ed, but the name now just refers to how you hold the bar. In the crook of your elbow. For the squat, most people set pins on a rack somewhere between waist and chest height, and scoop the bar into that sweet spot.

As you can imagine,  the big issue that people seem to have with this variation is that the thin bar, nestled into this tender spot, becomes terribly painful at higher loads, especially if you’re doing a lot of reps. So that’s why I get the look of dismay.

Photo credit wrestler power. This guy looks like he's feeling the pain.

Photo credit Wrestler Power. This guy looks like he’s feeling the pain.

Before you run for the hills, convinced I’m going to say “Suck it up, buttercup”, remember – I was just whining about being uncomfortable with the dumbbell. Instead, I want to focus on getting stronger without my work feeling needlessly awkward. You need only one thing.

This baby.

squat-sponge

Squat sponges get mocked regularly at gyms. I’ve heard them called “pussy pads”. Cue the snickering. It’s apparently the anti-badass gym accessory. 

And I don’t love them for barbell back squats: I feel more stable and better tension with the bar maintaining close contact with my back. But I wondered what would happen if I used the sponge as I had been doing for months already with hip thrusts. If now, instead of protecting my hips, I could create an elbow cushion. 

Then I gave it a whirl.

Magic, baby, magic. The Zercher squat remained stable and secure – even more so, I wager, than with just the bar. And I could load up more weight than I could with a dumbbell goblet squat.

Check mine out here:

The thing is, the two lifts have quite a bit in common:

  • They both encourage a more upright posture, which can be tricky for some who squat. 
  • Both variations are fairly friendly to the lower back.
  • Both zercher and goblet squats allow you to get down and dirty into a deep squat – good for building your butt.
  • Each lift require your body to maintain a metric ton of tension throughout your core. You don’t even have to try to engage your core. It’s going to happen if you like it or not. 
  • And both are safe to do without a spotter – at worst, you’ll dump the bar in front of you and feel a little embarrassed.

While I wouldn’t recommend the zercher variation to a brand spankin’ new squatter, I see it as a fine variation to use simply because you can load it more heavily, making it possibly appropriate for a “main lift” of the day.  And once the discomfort issue is out of the way, there’s no reason not to try.

Unless you’re like my friend Andy, who retorted “yeah but I could never Instagram that”. Get outta here. You’ll still be a badass even with a snuggly squat sponge. I promise.

So give Zerchers a try if you’ve avoided them. Just like dumbbell goblet squats, they’re a great tool in your leg day tool kit. 

 

Want to get stronger? Try these 3 brutally effective variations on lifting classics.

longleverplankThe interesting thing about strength training is that when it’s all said and done, there really aren’t that many movements you need to learn to reach your goals, whether that’s getting stronger, leaner, gaining more muscle, or all of the above. If you can check off the following boxes, you’re in good shape to get cracking with some good work at the gym:

-Squatting movements (like a goblet squat)
-Hinging movements (deadlifts, exercises that emphasize movement from your hips)
-Pushing movements (pushups, bench pressing, overhead pressing, etc.)
-Pulling movements (chin-ups and rows come to mind).
-Core stabilization and rotational power development (planks, chops, crunches, twists, etc.)
-Power movements – to build explosiveness and improve overall strength (think oly lifts, jump squats, plyometrics)

If we focused on improving just one move from each category, we could make quite a bit of progress for quite some time. But that’d get pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that variations on exercises require our bodies to move, build strength and stability, and function better in slightly different ways. That’s where we spice things up with twists on the basics that we’ve come to know and love.

Sometimes we progress a movement because one becomes too easy. I’m going to show you one today. We often also use a variation of a staple to work our muscles differently, to get past a “sticking point” or even to work around an injury. Or sometimes just because it’s fun to change stuff up. Fun is important too, yeah? Read on for ideas:

Progress Your Plank
Once you can hold a plank pretty easily, you’re ready to move up in the world-o-planks. Congrats, it’s time to make them hard again. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve been messing around with long lever planks and even 1 legged long lever planks. They’re tough!

Here’s a demo:

How to do it:
Start by getting into the plank position and walking your feet back so that your elbows are in front of your shoulders instead of in a traditional plank, where you have them stacked under them. Brace those abs like you’re going to get sucker punched and hold there. Try starting with 3 sets of 10-20 seconds and tell me how much you love them.

A Squat You’ll Love-Hate
I think that every beginner would do well to begin with a simple body weight box squat to groove that sitting down and back movement that’s critical for the squat. From there, the sky’s the limit: goblet squats are a good next step, but another overlooked squat that works well not only for beginners but squat pros is the underrated Zercher Squat.

A Zercher squat may feel easier on the lower back than a barbell back squat; it also lets you get low (to the window, to the wall). It requires you to stay pretty upright, a good reminder for those who are new to squatting.

I put them to use for a client who is rehabbing her shoulder and can’t comfortably get into a back squat position. Zerchers feel great to her. Sometimes an injury allows us to discover a brand new way to get strong. Cue the silver lining, eh? 

silverlining

And for those of us who have been squatting for a long while, it’s a great variation to play with to get some extra fun and glute gains on leg day. Oh, and they’re harder to load up than they look. Good grief.

Demo here:

How to do it:
You’re going to cradle that bar in the crook of your elbows. I really like a squat sponge for these, because they’re way more comfortable with the pad. If you don’t have one, try crossing your arms a bit around the bar to feel more secure. Some people deadlift them up from the floor but it seems a heck of a lot easier to me to just start with the bar in a rack at an appropriate height. Get under it a bit, lift it into your arms and walk it out a few steps.

Make Your Barbell Bench Press More Badass
It’s a smart idea to spend training cycles using slight variations of the “big players”: you know, the squat, deadlift, and bench press for starters. The bench press is a staple of the gym (and favorite bro lift of all time). Using variations like pausing at the chest, 1.5 reps, and using dumbbells instead of a barbell will make your bench press stronger over time.

I’m working on the eccentric bench press again this month after a short hiatus from barbell bench press. Holy hell it felt hard this week. Eccentrics will do a lot of muscle damage, which is actually a good thing. They’ll make you muy strong and force you to learn to control the bar better.

Check it:

How to do an eccentric bench press:

I sort of forgot I was doing an eccentric on the first rep. Heh. Progress, not perfection, right?

You’re going to try to lower the bar very, very slowly – take a full 4 seconds. You’ll notice that it’s toughest down near the bottom of the movement. That’s where you’re going to need to control it even more. Lower the weight on these: they’re brutal.

So you want to try these out in a workout?

Of course. So let’s do one today. On Instagram I shared a bonus: a lower body conditioning circuit you can use to give the Zercher squat and long lever plank a whirl. Check that out for butt feels and sweat-inducing fun. You can also put them into a classic full-body strength workout, like the one below.

1. Zercher Squat 4 x 6

2a. Eccentric barbell (or dumbbell) bench press 3 x 6
2b.Band pull aparts 3 x 12

3a. Barbell RDL with 4 second eccentric 3 x 8 (yup, another eccentric variation!)
3b. Chest supported row with a pause at the top 3 x 8

4a. Incline dumbbell bench press 3 x 10
4b. Long lever plank 3 x :15 seconds

Now go flex, and remember to never stop experimenting with movement, both within the gym and outside it. 

Want to get in on more tutorials to make you a lean machine? I share my insider info for fitness and nutrition with my newsletter every week. Join for free and I’ll send my e-book, Fat Loss on a Budget, right into your inbox. 

 

 

Setting up to Squat – 5 Pro Practices that Anyone Can Use

squatforfun

It wasn’t until I took up powerlifting as a hobby/sport/crazy obsession this year that I really started to rebuild my squat. I had the basics covered: my body gave me a decent amount of stability and mobility that let me move through the pattern appropriately. But when I saw others around me leveraging a hell of a lot more weight than I could ever imagine lifting, I wondered if there was something more than raw strength at play. Was it the doughnuts? (I wish it were doughnuts).

You can see it as they prepare to squat. The folks at my powerlifting gym looked different than I did even before they got under the bar. And yes, those small details can make a big difference in our ability to not only lift more weight but feel better doing it. There are a billion resources to help you improve your squat mechanics. I won’t cover those here today. But just setting up effectively will  make an improvement in your ability to squat.

I’m not a squat guru but making these changes has quickly improved my overall lift. And you don’t need to be participating in a strength sport to use these techniques! They can help anyone get a more powerful squat. Even grandmas. That’s right, badass grandmas who squat.

1. Know your stance. 
Take time in your warm-up to play with foot position. There is no one correct way to position your legs in a squat. It’s more of a continuum of positions that work depending on your mobility and hip anatomy.  Many, many people feel better when they turn their toes out just slightly. Some people move more easily with a wider stance, others narrower. If you take the time to groove that stance, you won’t have to think about it when you approach the bar (or the kettlebell or whatever you’re using for your squat variation).

2. Get your mind right. 
Go into your happy place, or your zen place, or your asskicking place. For my own needs I prefer a zen/asskicking combo of self talk that says “f**k yeah, I’ve got this.  I own the hell out of this weight.” But in a calm way, so I’m not so amped up that my heart races too much. I might be a weirdo, but hey, it works for me and many others. Every experienced lifter I’ve seen has used some kind of focusing technique before they approach the bar for their working sets.

2. Walk it out.

When you’re getting ready to go for a really heavy squat,  the way you walk the bar out matters. A lot. Wasting energy on too many steps can kill your effort. Even if you’re not going for a huge lifting attempt you will have a better set if you take a little time to get your bar positioning set up well. For a high bar back squat, pull that bar right down into your delicious cushion of a trapezius muscle and pull your shoulders back to make a shelf. Awww yeah, sweet spot.

Some people squat with the bar lower. It doesn’t really matter for most of us: just get the bar into a good place.  Most advice for hand placement directs us to keep our grip fairly narrow because it helps create stiffness. If you have shoulder issues, a medium to wide grip might feel better. Do what works for your body.

Grab the bar hard. From the moment you touch the bar, you are creating tension.

Finally, stand up and walk the bar out like you’re large and in charge instead of wobbling around without much thought. From the moment that the bar leaves the rack, you are ready to lift. No Gumby bodies.

photo credit: worker101 flickr

photo credit: worker101 flickr

3. Show me your t-shirt. 
Puff your chest out a little, like you have swagger.  This helps keep your spine from flexing. Some people like to think about arching their upper back a bit too. That way you end up getting your chest out and help set your back into a good position to squat.

4. Keep it tight. 
Get tight get tight get tight! This is what I’ve heard yelled at me.  At first I felt confused by this. What does this mean exactly?  I didn’t yet understand what a big advantage tension can bring. I’m not talking about emotional tension. I mean bracing the abs and getting the lats tight.

Understanding and executing are two different things entirely. In the back squat, pulling the bar as if you were pulling it down to you will help activate your lats. This will give you more stability through your torso. That translates to a bigger squat that feels better.

As in any other movement, your abs need to come to the party too. You’ll brace them as if you were about to be punched in the stomach. Again, this creates stiffness that makes it easier to squat more powerfully. However, I brace just as I take my breath. Learning to set my air is the most dramatic change I made in my squat set up. Let’s take a look at that next.

5.Breathe, baby.
Learning to take in and hold air for heavy squats was my biggest game changer. This is something that every serious strength athlete knows how to do but the average gym goer rarely practices. Take in a huge breath that expands your entire rib cage. Not a dainty breath – you need a big, POWERFUL breath.

Put your hands just above your waist and try to push them out. If you have a hard time doing this, lie down on the floor. This forces you to use your diaphragm instead of taking shallow breaths. Get comfortable with how that feels and then go back to try it before your squat.

As you take that big breath, do you notice how your ribs flare? Now lock it down as you brace those abs. Here’s what that looks like:

 

This is me practicing my breath for a set. 

It’s go time. Reset between reps. When we lose our air during a squat, we lose our power. We bleed the capacity to generate force because we lose so much tightness. I blow out my air as I finish my rep. Then I reset and do it all again.

How to get started: if you haven’t been doing any of these things, don’t smash all of these cues into your head at once. That would hurt. Use warm-up sets to practice. Work on your breath for one. Think about your lats on another. In time, those new habits will become second nature. Squat smarter and improvement will come.