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Power Building: The Barbell Squat

by Dylan Falduto

barbell_squats_imageWhile it is often the “beach muscles” that get all the attention, it is really our legs that do the most for us in terms of athleticism and mobility. Accordingly, it is important for any athlete to have strong and conditioned legs no matter what his or her goals are—one of the best exercises for developing this strength and conditioning is the barbell squat. The barbell squat is unrivaled in its ability to prompt lean muscle mass, fat loss, and core strength. Primarily targeting the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, the barbell squat is a highly efficient means of building lower body power and size; in addition, the upper and lower back, trapezes, shoulders, and abdominal muscles are also utilized to stabilize the barbell—making the barbell squat a full-body exercise, and prompting anabolic growth throughout the entire body—so even if it is those big upper-body beach muscles you’re after, the squat will help you grow all over!

Quality over Quantity

One of the biggest mistakes I see on a regular basis in any gym I’m training at is the improper execution of the barbell squat. I commonly see guys overloading the bar with far too much weight only to make a 45 degree descent at best, all the while grunting loud and throwing their back every which direction (being meatheads). This is not how to squat, and it will not help you no matter what your goal is. Remember, the key to building muscle is time under tension—if you are rushing through an overloaded rep with terrible technique and no depth, your quadriceps and hamstrings are not being stimulated for growth; but conversely, your back and the rest of your body are being overloaded with far too much weight, and you are running the risk of seriously hurting yourself and being sidelined due to injury. Take the time to learn and execute quality repetitions, and the quantity of weight you are loading will increase accordingly.

While the squat is a simple movement, proper technique should always be of paramount importance. To properly execute a squat, an individual should be using a weight that will allow him or her to effectively squat to a 90 degree descent, and ascend back to his or her starting position while keeping a straight back and tight core. In addition to good posture, hand positioning is also key to an effective and safe squat. While arm span will vary depending on your height and body type, a safe bet is to position your hands just a hair past shoulder width apart—this will ensure that you can make a “shell” with your trapezes muscles and upper back to support the weight of the barbell for each repetition.

Simple Grit

grit_when_exercising_imageBeing a firm believer in straight-forward, efficient work-outs, I have put together a simple, yet very intense routine that I have found to be my favorite for squatting. This routine utilizes only three primary lifts—the barbell squat, dumbbell front squats, and the stiff-legged deadlift— and one abdominal movement—the exercise ball roll-in, yet if executed at proper pace and intensity, this routine is very challenging and highly beneficial for building lean muscle.

The Barbell Squat

The basis of this entire workout is the barbell squat, and accordingly, there are seven total sets to be completed—two warm up sets, and five working sets. I always start my squatting routine with an unloaded bar just to get blood flowing. As I continue to warm up, I will load the bar with a lightweight and run through an additional 10–12 repetitions. At this point, my legs are warm and ready to go. I will now keep my repetitions in the 10–12 range, but load the bar considerably heavier. Focusing on complete depth and proper technique, I will go through two sets like this. From there, I will load the bar even heavier and complete two sets with proper technique in the six repetition range (while I will powerlift with other movements in the three rep range, I like to keep squatting to six repetitions or higher due to the deep range of motion and stress the movement puts on the entire body). The final set of the movement is to be performed with a moderate weight, and this set is to be taken to failure—pushing your body’s endurance and forcing new growth.

This varied pattern of light, moderate, and heavy weight will push your body in different capacities—working both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. I advocate this style of training because it prompts raw power in the heavy sets, strength in the moderate sets, and endurance in the failure set and the continuous pace throughout.

The Dumbbell Front-Squat

A dumbbell front-squat is completed the same way as a standard squat except you bear the weight by holding two dumbbells in front of you, shoulder width apart and at chest level—shifting the focus of the lift away from the glutes and lower back, and putting a greater emphasis on the quadriceps, while further engaging the core. Generally performed with a barbell, this variation is instead performed by using two dumbbells. While the barbell front squat is an excellent lift, it can cause wrist pain in some individuals—the dumbbell front squat is a great way to reap the same benefits without this discomfort.

The Stiff-Legged Deadlift

The Stiff-Legged Deadlift is an excellent full-body exercise—utilizing the hamstrings, lower-back, forearms, and core. A stiff-legged deadlift is performed by placing a barbell on the ground and positioning your hands a bit further than shoulder width apart. As the name implies, your legs are to be kept almost entirely stiff with just a slight bend in the knee. With hands in proper positioning and a slight bend in the knee, tilt your torso forward while keeping your upper body parallel with the floor and your back straightthis is key to safety! Flexing your glutes and hamstrings, elevate your torso until your body is completely erect. As with all exercises, safety and proper technique should be the top priorities of the stiff-legged deadlift; this is a supplementary movement, and should be not be overloaded with ridiculous weight.

Exercise Ball Roll-In

ball_roll_in_exercise_imageOne of my favorite core movements, the exercise ball roll-in is a great way to develop your lower abdominal muscles while also utilizing the hamstrings—making it a great pairing for this leg-central workout. To perform an exercise ball roll in, place both legs on an exercise ball while supporting your weight with both hands shoulder width apart—essentially starting in a push up position with your legs elevated on the ball. Once you have secured your posture, a repetition is completed by ball_roll_in_example_picslowly moving the ball forward with your legs until it has reached chest level—going from a push-up position to butt in the air. Once you have reached this position, contract your abs and slowly roll back to the starting position. When done correctly, the burn of this exercise is like no other!

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The Complete Power Building Squat Routine:

Barbell Squats:

Execute each set with proper technique for the repetitions indicated. Rest for sixty-ninety seconds between each set.

  • (Warm Up Set) Unloaded forty-five pound barbell—fifteen to twenty repetitions.
  • (Warm Up Set) Light weight—twelve repetitions.
  • Moderate weight: ten to twelve repetitions
  • Moderate weight: ten to twelve repetitions
  • Heavy weight: six repetitions
  • Heavy weight: six repetitions
  • Light to Moderate weight: repetitions to failure

Dumbbell Front Squats:

Four sets of twelve repetitions. Rest for one minute between each set.

Stiff-legged Deadlifts:

Four sets of twelve repetitions. Rest for one minute between each set.

Exercise Ball Roll-In:

Four sets of twelve to fifteen repetitions. Rest for forty-five seconds between each set.

Wrap Up:

An exercise routine does not always have to be overly complicated to produce great results. This is a basic, old-school routine that will take up less than an hour of your time, and push you to your limits for every minute. Endure and enjoy!

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