Herculean Strength

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5 squat variations you should be doing in 2022 (but probably aren’t!)

That the squat is the King of The Lifts is unarguable – everyone from the Instagram fitness model to the grizzled old gym veteran who trains in work boots recognizes the squat’s place in the hierarchy.

However, there are times when the faithful high bar or low bar squat just won’t cut it.

Sometimes an injury, training plateau or plain boredom might require you to mix things up a little. In such events I would recommend taking one of these variations out for a spin.

The Zercher Squat

Zercher squats, where the bar is held in the crook of your arms rather than on your shoulders, are a powerful variation that can look intimidating but will give you very real results very quickly.

Due to the bar being located at the mid-point of the body there is no axial load on your spine – a godsend for lifters with back problems.

The bar being ‘carried’ in your elbows means an insane core engagement so be prepared for some exquisite pain in your abdominals when you try to get out of bed two days later.

To get started with Zercher squats, pick a load that you can comfortably do an 8RM back squat with and load the barbell whilst it is on the pins. Enter the rack and scoop the bar into your elbows. Some lifters like to hook their thumbs together at this point to make an unbreakable circuit. Once your grip is firm and the bar is in your elbow grooves, stand upright – and then squat!

The most important cue to remember here is “chest up”. The first few reps might feel clunky but as you get into it you will notice that the front loaded squat pattern allows you to really feel “the groove” of the squat.

As you get familiar with the lift, reduce reps and add weight: Zerchers lend themselves to sets of 3 to 5.

If you’re into 20 rep death sets I suggest you look elsewhere!

The Belt Squat

Belt squats are the darling of the ‘Injured Lifter Club’ – allowing you to achieve a sick quad pump while putting only minimal strain on your lower spine. Those with beaten up shoulders and tight elbows also preach the Belt Squat gospel.

Some readers will be blessed with a gym that has a belt squat machine, but hope is not lost for those of us without; all you need is a cheap dip belt, some weights and something to stand on. You’re going to need some clearance from the ground, so straddling two benches or plyo-boxes is ideal. Strap the weights on to the dip belt and let ‘em dangle! Then, slowly descend and explosively squat back up. As ever keep your chest upright.

The belt squat is forgiving on the lower back, so you can really go to town on high reps. The lower back pump that is so prohibiting in high rep squats is no factor here.

If you’re looking for a variation to isolate the quads, the belt squat is for you.

The Pause Squat

Pause squats, whether back or front, are a vital tool in any plateau-buster’s armoury. It’s a squat variation we’ve already waxed lyrical about, but we like it so much we thought we’d talk about it again.

What makes them so effective is the removal of the stretch reflex. A paused squat cannot make any use of momentum (sometimes called “bounce”) out of ‘the hole’ (the bottom position of a squat) so a lifter can really see how strong they are. Or they aren’t.

It might be handy to have a spotter on hand when you first try pause squats, as they can be quite humbling.

To execute; simply load up a squat as you would normally and descend in a controlled manner to the bottom portion of the lift. Then, pause. Ideally for two seconds although some lunatics choose to do longer. After you have counted to two, explode upwards as quickly as you can. Then reset and do some more reps.

Pause squats lend themselves to sets of 2 or 3. 5 if you’re a masochist.

The Jump Squat

The logical extension of the pause squat, the jump squat takes the principles we just discussed and turns them up to ten.

Beloved of old-school strongmen and more recently used to great effect by powerlifter Jamie Lewis to help him bust through plateaus in this lift, the jump squat is the embodiment and proof of the high school physics formula ‘force equals mass times acceleration’.

To employ jump squats, set up in exactly the way you would for a normal squat – but be warned; keep it light. One 20kg or 45lbs plate a side is plenty to be starting out with. Un-rack, squat down and jump, literally jump, out of the hole. Your feet should leave the floor. Chuck Sipes, strength legend, recommended doing jump squats with dumbbells in each hand for 4 sets of 10 reps.

This is probably safer than doing them with a barbell on your back, where you should stick to sets of 5-8.

The Barbell Hack Squat

When is a squat not a squat? The barbell Hack Squat, named after legendary lifter George Hackenschmidt, is actually a variation of deadlift.

Another ancient lift, and one that might earn you strange looks from the modern gymgoer, the barbell Hack Squat is a behind-the-back deadlift with a slightly exaggerated wide stance.

If you have the mobility to perform the lift safely, the barbell Hack Squat is a proven quad and hamstring builder that has carryover into both squat and deadlift and has the added benefit of making you look like a testosterone-fuelled wildman in the gym. And that is something we all should strive for.

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Summary

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“LIGHT WEIGHT BABYYYY!”

Squatting should be an integral part of your training plan – you don’t skip leg day, do you?

When things begin to get stale with the old faithfuls, try substituting one of these variationss for a training block of 4-6 weeks and see whether it supports your development.

You may be pleasantly surprised, and you will certainly be sore.

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