Today, let’s talk about resistance training – specifically the squat.
The Squat Is King
There’s a reason why the squat is often called the “king of all exercises.”
No matter the sport, if it involves pushing against the ground, from running a marathon, to MMA to even breakdancing, the squat if done regularly and properly will significantly improve one’s performance. There are a myriad of squat variations spanning assisted movements, calisthenic options as well as loaded. Any squat is better than not squatting at all. That said, I believe that as an athlete, loaded squats (regardless of implement used) is as important to your success as your conditioning is and we’re going to talk about it.
For most of you reading this I’m probably preaching to the choir. That said, let’s review a few of the many benefits to squatting under load, what I mean by loaded squat, and how I use loaded squats in my personal programming as a tactical athlete.
Squats for Conditioning
Without delving deep into physiology and things like gene expression and hormones, the first benefit of loaded squatting is that it takes a lot of effort. When I mention effort here think kilocalories burned. Loaded squats are a great conditioning (there’s that dead horse again) and body composition altering tool if used correctly. Say I’m a 300lb 1RM squatter.
I love to lift and weight/fat loss is a primary objective of my program. However, I don’t like to do the stair stepper or run (for example). I could instead simply bang out a 20 minute EMOM (every minute on the minute) of 60% 1RM doubles of barbell back squats. 60% of 300 is 180lbs. With an easy to safely repeat load with minimal risk of injury, I get in a nasty conditioning workout as well as 40 reps of squats equalling a whole lot of “trigger time” under the bar and a total of 7,200lbs moved in 20 minutes!
You can “have your cake, and eat it too.” You can get stronger AND leaner at the same time. It is not a myth.
Squats for Gainz
Above is just one example of using squats as a conditioning tool. In other articles I’ll discuss combinations of squats and other tools, as well as just provide a comprehensive list of some of the squat variations I use to this end. Before that however, I want to discuss the primary benefit to the loaded squat and why almost every sport includes some version of it in both in-season and off-season training.
It makes you strong as $#!+.
If you learn to squat to the best of your ability and do it often, you will see tremendous strength gains as well as improvements in other performance metrics. This is because the squat isn’t just a “leg” or “lower body” lift. A loaded squat will absolutely wreck your whole body (in a good way), especially at high loads and/or volumes. This is because mechanically, you have so much going on when you squat.
There’s extension in the ankle, knee and hip. You have to stabilize every loaded joint from your feet on up in order to properly apply force. You have to breathe and brace the midsection and you have to recruit a large amount of motor units.
Everything is working.
Legs, sure. Back? Definitely. Regardless of variation. If it’s a loaded squat, you’ll make your back stronger. “Core?” one of the most abused words in the fitness industry. Yes. Your “core” will get worked, a lot. Sometimes more so than your legs will especially on repeated heavy efforts. Shoulders, neck? You get the picture. Plus, If you have something awkward like a sandbag, atlas stone or heavy kettlebells, all manner of additional muscles come into play. If you want to be strong, do a loaded squat.
Squat Variations with Barbells
We kind of touched on some of the many variations of loaded squat that you can include in your programming. The most obvious tool would be a barbell. Front and back squats are par for the course in most strength sports but what about for beginners? YES! Learn your way around a barbell.
Barbells make people awesome.
That said, some people have mobility issues that prevent them from getting under a bar. A variation that is a great tool to teach as well as load for individuals with some mobility issues and/or “feelings” about barbell squats are landmine or “corner” squats. Stick a barbell into a corner or at the base of an I-beam. Load the free end with plates and have the individual cradle the end of the barbell like a goblet squat with either a single or both hands. You can practice the movement under load, do strength and/or conditioning training without loading the spine, and improve mobility simultaneously.
Squats Variations with Dumbbells or Kettlebells
Dumbbells and kettlebells are another useful tool to load a squat. While the option to go really heavy (over 400lbs) isn’t typically available, you trade loading for convenience and versatility. The obvious go-to with these implements is the goblet squat. These are an amazing teaching tool because they don’t load the spine and the location of the loaded implement allows the squatting individual to maintain a more upright posture which typically requires less mobility of the hips and ankles.
You can also do single or double front squats to train a more “quad-centric” squat.
A major benefit of using dumbbells or kettlebells is that of asymmetry. As, most people train or just go through life, inevitably you develop some structural imbalances. You sleep a certain way all the time so one shoulder is slightly in front or behind of the other (as viewed from the side). Maybe you separated a collar bone and it healed funny. It could be anything.
With a single loaded implement in each arm, you can make minor adjustments (compensations) that allow you to safely conduct the movement. Oftentimes a barbell will “hurt your feelings” if you are structurally unsound. That an/or force you to generate some unsafe compensations that could lead to future injury.
Squats with Odd Objects
You can also use random objects to squat. In the Infantry, especially in the field or overseas, we often had to be creative with training tools.
A rucksack is a great way to train the squat, specifically for tactical athletes. You could replace kettlebells or dumbbells with a heavy sandbag or two. The way the load shifts and moves around adds an extra level of “real world” difficulty to the lift without egregious loading. You can also use another person! Grab a buddy, toss him or her on your shoulders and squat away.
Again, the instability and awkwardness of loading makes this another good option in terms of specificity for law enforcement, 1st responders and/or tactical athletes, as well as those individuals that just want something different to do with a training partner.
How I Squat
I squat every day because other than an aerobic base, being a tactical athlete (Infantryman) is all legs and back. To excel in combat arms, especially if you want to be an elite Infantryman or operator you need a decently strong set of wheels, a back that can handle what you can squat (and a heavy @$$ combat load) and do it pretty much all day, every day.
To me squatting every day plus an hour of conditioning minimum is much, much less training volume than when I was in Afghanistan with a team.
You may be thinking, “Well SSG Mat, uh.. That’s overtraining.”
Here’s the thing. I make it sustainable because I cycle volume and intensity. Much like missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, you don’t do the same thing every day. It’s not, “Uh..Ok. 5×5 80% 1RM, 7 times a week.”
I structure my programming like so:
- Monday – (Volume) This day I do several repeat efforts of sub-maximal loads. Usually 15-25 sets of 1-5 reps depending on how heavy I feel is safe.
- Tuesday – (Mobility) This day I always do light to moderate loads, low volume with 5-10 sets of 1-3 reps of deep pauses. This day I practice getting comfortable in the hole and “owning” the end ranges of not just my squats, but also pulls and presses.
- Wednesday – (Deload) This day is chill. 5-15 sets of whatever feels easy. Often I won’t even use a barbell this day and opt for single leg and/or dumbbell or kettlebell work only to give my spine a break.
- Thursday – (Heavy/Speed) This day I reduce the volume and either go to a “technical max” or the heaviest I can repeat for 5 singles and not break myself, or use accommodating resistance like bands or chains to improve bar speed and the ability to blast through sticking points. This day is similar to a “speed day” or “dynamic effort” day for those of you similar with the Conjugate System.
- Friday – (repeat Tuesday) Same idea, but do a different lift or set/rep scheme than Tuesday. An example would be if you did 5×10 kettlebell goblet squats, perhaps do 5 sets of double kettlebell fronts and another 5 sets per leg with dumbbell bulgarian split squats.
- Saturday – (repeat Wednesday) Again, I take it easy but with something different than whatever I did Wednesday.
- Sunday – (repeat Wednesday and Saturday) Usually at this point I’m getting kind of run down so almost always I’ll just do an easy 5 sets of something light, some calisthenics and conditioning then shut it down.
Squat. Squat well and often.
I squat daily and utilize a system that is sustainable for me and delivers the desired training effect for my “sport.”
Whether it’s once, twice or however many times a week, I firmly believe that including a loaded squat in your training program will assist you in whatever your fitness aspirations may be, from MMA to running a Spartan race.
Don’t get discouraged.
Squatting is a skill that comes fast with consistent practice. Start light and with whatever movement ranges you are capable of. Start with a mirror so you can observe and be meticulous with your technique.
When in doubt, ask questions, watch videos, read articles. There is a wealth of information available on all manner of squats, as well as qualified individuals that love coaching and helping others succeed.
I hope you enjoyed the blog and got something useful out of it. Any questions, comments, etc, DM me @afronetix on Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org. An appendix of short, medium length and extended conditioning methods is in the works with options for a variety of athletes as well as post-partum and other special population needs. Look for new content on the BeDiesel Youtube page with content from yours truly as well as my partner, former amature weightlifting and figure competitor as well as mother of 2 @femalebbcom. Thanks for reading. Now GO DO SOME PT!
SSG United States Army Infantry (sep.)
Master Fitness Trainer