Tag Archives: hamstrings

How Deep Should You Squat? The Squat Depth Debate

Proper squat depth is a hotly debated topic in the strength world and you’ll get a lot of different answers depending on who you ask and what their perspective is.

My answer?

It’s two-fold.

  1. In an ideal world, you’d squat to parallel or below. Deep squats are actually healthy for your knees and they engage your posterior chain far more than partial reps.
  2. In reality, most people lack the flexibility and mobility to squat below parallel with good form and without rounding their back. So in the real-world you squat as low as you can with good form, and then you work on your strength and mobility over time until you can squat deeper. Form trumps all so better to squat a little higher safely, then crush your back trying to go below parallel.

Is Squatting Below Parallel That Important?

Outside of power-lifting and some sports (that require a high-degree of mobility), squatting below parallel is not totally necessary. However, the deeper you can squat, the more benefits you will receive and I believe everyone should aim to squat deeper.

If you think about it, we are born with the ability to squat deep and we simply lose the ability to do so over time due to poor lifestyle habits and inactivity. I watch my two year old on a daily basis squat “ass to the grass”, so as adults we should be striving to regain that lost ability.

What Can You Do To Increase Your Squat Depth?

#1: Cue Yourself

Whenever I teach someone to squat properly, I’m usually amazed about how much progress they can make in the first 5 minutes of training just by me cuing them.

The top 3 cues I use are “Chest Up”, “Spread the floor”, and “Sit in the hole”.

  1. “Chest up” cues the lifter to stick out their chest and keep it high, allowing them to maintain good posture throughout the lift and focus on sitting back into proper position.
  2. “Spread the floor” cues the lifter to spread their knees apart. Legendary lifter Dan John said that squatting takes place between the knees, not over them. So “spreading the floor” allows the lifter to get in between their knees and engage their glutes and hamstrings. Otherwise, the lifter tends to make the squat quad dominant and they get out over their knees. Really bad position to be in if you want to stay healthy…
  3. When you “spread the floor” you create a void (the hole) in between you knees, which is where a parallel or deeper squat is made. By “sitting in the hole”, you naturally squat deeper and get a deep knee bend while engaging your glutes and hamstrings.

By cuing yourself, I can almost guarantee you will squat deeper from the outset.

squat depth
By “spreading the floor”, this lifter is able to “sit in the hole” and squat deeply. Notice how his abdomen and torso slide into the void (the hole) created in between his knees.

#2: Crush Assistance Work

Assistance exercises are vital to training your mobility and flexibility that will lead to a deeper squat.

Other than barbell squats, you should be hitting a few of these exercises on your lower body days:

  • Goblet Squats
  • Front Squats
  • Zercher Squats
  • Single Leg Squats
  • High-box step ups

These exercises won’t load the spine and allow you to naturally squat deeper than you would on heavy barbell back squats. My typical rep range for assistance work is 6-12, so a few sets in this rep scheme on lower body days will help you develop the mobility for a deeper squat.

#3: Isolate Your Posterior Chain

One of the few times I recommend isolation work is to bring up weaknesses. In this case, most people have weak hamstrings and glutes. This prevents them from squatting properly, and in some cases causes them knee pain.

Bringing up your posterior chain will alleviate both of these issues. Focus on glute ham raises and hip thrusts. Often times in my warm ups, I do several sets of glute ham raises, meaning I’m hitting my posterior chain directly at least 4 times a week.

Departing Caveats

  • I mentioned this before, but form trumps all. If you can’t squat parallel or below, work with the 3 strategies I outlined and you will be able to squat deeper over time.
  • Injuries, blown joints, knee pain, and other circumstances may prevent you from ever squatting below parallel. With this in mind, squat as low as you can while maintaining a neutral spine. You can still get great benefits from partial rep squats, and then crush the assistance work I outlined to augment your back squatting.

— Tank

Best Exercises You Aren’t Doing

best exercisesSome of these may seem obvious to you, but inevitably we all can neglect some of the best exercises for building size and strength.

Take a look back at your training logs and see how much time you are devoting to these. I bet you’d be surprised at what you find. I meticulously plan my workouts every single day, but when I look back on my records, I can always find at least one these best exercises that I’m neglecting.

Missing something from this list in your training? It’s time to make it a priority. Maybe that means scrapping something else from your current training plan to fit these in, and in that case, you are welcome for the intervention.

  1. Deadlifts – What? Everybody does deadlifts right? Wrong. The average gym rat doesn’t spend enough time making these a focus, or they commit one of the greatest gym sins of all by not deadlifting period. They are one of the greatest tests of overall body strength, and if you aren’t doing these with regularity, I can guarantee you that you aren’t meeting your full strength potential.
  2. Pushups – Amazing that such a classic can get overlooked, but it happens on a regular basis. Hall of Fame NFL running back Hershel Walker claims he built his body totally from push-ups. Not sure I buy it, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. An easy way to make sure to get these in is by incorporating them into a warmup or a finisher.
  3. Pullups – Same as above. After you can do 15 perfect pull-ups, vary your grip and start working on some of the variations.
  4. Glute Ham Raises – Weak hamstrings are the single most pervasive muscle imbalance across the planet. Weak hammies will hinder you in the deadlift, squat, sprinting, and a myriad of other athletic performance activities. If you don’t have access to a glute ham machine, there a variety of different techniques to perform them, or you can substitute in Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, hip thrusts, hamstring curls and boxsquats. If this list was a top 15, all of these would be on there.
    best exercises
    If you don’t have a glute ham machine, there are a variety of alternatives.
  5. Farmer Carries – These are a must and one of my favorite exercises. They make a great training finisher and will work wonders for your upper back, grip strength, forearms, and mental toughness.
  6. Squats – Kinda goes hand in hand with #1. If you don’t want to look like a lightbulb, you gotta squat. Squat often, squat for a lot of reps, and squat heavy. As I mentioned with pull-ups, work in some of the squat variations like front squats, box squats, and single-leg squats. All of these will help improve your flexibility, technique, and strength.
  7. Hang Cleans – Performing these will do wonders for building mass on your entire upper body and for developing your explosiveness. Hang cleans produce 4 times as much power as squats and deadlifts, and 9 times as much as the bench press, according to some research. They are also fairly easy to learn, making them a great addition to the classics like bench, squats, overhead pressing, and deadlifting.
    best exercises
    There are several starting positions for doing cleans. I like hang cleans because they require more upper body strength and force and the technique is much easier to learn than full cleans.
  8. Kettlebell Swings – These are the easiest of the kettlebell lifts to learn and one of the most effective. Benefits for your legs, shoulders, hips, mobility, explosiveness and power make this fat burning lift a must for your strength training routine.
  9. Hill Sprints – Get outside and run some hills for fat loss. I always feel sorry for the suckers I see on the stair stepper or treadmill for hours on end when they could be outside doing 20 minutes of hill sprints and get a far better training effect. Hill sprints are the single most efficient way to burn fat. No more elliptical, I’m begging you.
  10. Hanging Leg Raises – In my opinion, these are one of the best core exercises you could do. Not only do they strengthen your ab muscles, but they target your hip flexors as well. They offer a great range of motion and help improve your mobility.

— Tank

How to Build Bigger Legs

When explaining the human body to people, I generally compare it to a house.

strength bigger legs

Your legs are the foundation, your torso the frame, and everything else is supporting structure.

Without the foundation, the house sinks and crumbles over time.  It is not built to last.

Your body is no different.  Your legs are the most important part of your body and only become more important over time as you get older.

Top 5 Leg Exercises

#1: Squat Variations

There are dozens of squat variations out there with hundreds of different resistance tools to use.  Start with back squats and front squats.  Once you master those you can mix in the other variations, including the single leg variety.

I tend to train squats with low to moderate rep ranges most of the time to build maximal strength.  I rarely go above 8 reps here and train with a lot of heavy doubles and triples.

When you feel like you need more volume, throw in high rep sets every now and then.  If I’m squatting for say, multiple sets of 300+ with low reps, I may throw in one or two sets at 185 for 20 reps.  Your legs will be throbbing, and if you are a pump chaser, this will do the trick.

#2: Deadlift

It is the number one mass builder of all time and one of the top brute strength exercises.

Some people consider this an upper body exercise (and for good reason) because it will pack a lot of muscle on your back.  But it will also build tree trunk legs and help you develop overall body strength and power.

I rarely do these for high reps.  I make sure I’m really stacking the weight on the bar and getting after it.

If you want to do high reps here, really tamper down the weight, somewhere in the 50%-70% of your 1RM and perform reps explosively and with relatively high tempo.  High tempo is not an excuse for poor form.  Form always trumps all.

women's strength legs

#3: Good Mornings

A lot of times we focus too much on the muscles we can see, and neglect the posterior chain.  Good mornings will build football sized muscle on your hamstrings.  The added strength will benefit you in the squat and deadlift as well.

Hit these for moderate to high reps (5-16 reps) for multiple sets.  I do these after squats or deadlifts.  Keep your form tight to protect your back.

#4: Glute Ham Raise

Another great posterior chain exercise that will beef up your hamstrings.  I’d recommend doing these as a warmup, or as a precursor to one of the big leg lifts like the squat.  I’ve heard Joe DeFranco talking about his athletes performing upwards of 100 of these (with resistance) before doing anything else.

If you don’t have a glute ham raise machine, you can do these using TRX bands or a stability ball.  In the beginning, I would do these at least 3 times a week.  When I was trying to strengthen my hamstrings, I did these every single workout, even if I was training upper body.

#5: Jumps (Plyos)

Another great warm up exercise and a key component of training like an athlete.  For a while, my cardio consisted strictly of pulling and pushing sleds, and doing box jumps.  But plyos build a ton of leg strength and explosive power as well.  Coincidently, when I was at peak performance in my jumping, my squat numbers were at all time highs.

Box jumps, broad jumps, one legged jumps; if you can jump it, do it.  Work them into your warmup.  Start with just 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps a piece.  Rest up to 2 minutes in between.  

Focus with each rep because jumping can be dangerous, especially when landing.  Cushion yourself to absorb the fall and stick the landing.

Check this guy out, really damn impressive…

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGl2XFhpX5k[/tube]

Moving on…

Ok, so what else do you need to know? 

In addition to making those exercises are part of your normal training, you need to add the following components as well.

Warming Up

You should be hitting a warm up before every workout.  I have my clients do the same warm up every single time.  It may sound boring, but it is effective and is something I learned from world class strength coach Zach Even Esh.  In our warm-ups, we are hitting bodyweight squats and lunges, various jumps, sprinting, back pedaling, lateral shuffling, and crawling.

This is also a time when you should be foam rolling.  Hit your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and inner and outer thighs.  If you are hitting squats as the main component of your workout that day, take the foam roller with you.  It is not uncommon that I am foam rolling in between sets to keep loosening things up so I can squat deeper.

Hill Sprints and Sled Work

If you know my philosophy, I don’t believe in training muscles as much as I do movements.  One of the primary movements that man must perform to survive is “gait”.  Therefore you must run.  But I also believe in building muscle, so I don’t run for distance.  Instead I train high intensity which almost exclusively means hill sprints and sled work.  I do this a couple times a week to supplement my normal weight training.  Walter Payton emphasized hill sprints in his training and he seemed to have some minor success relying on his legs…

strength bigger legs

Stretching

Long muscles are strong muscles.  Remember that.

The longer your muscles are the more room you have to pack in dense mass, hence you get bigger.  Besides, as you get older, you need to be flexible.  You don’t want to be an old person who can’t tie their own shoes or spends half their morning trying to get out of bed.  If you are a young’en, you may be flexible now, but don’t think that will last forever.  And the more flexible you are, the more range of motion you have; this will come in key for squats, lunges, and jumps.

You can do some static stretching before your workout, but it really should only be the focus after the meat of your training is done.  Stick with foam rolling and active movements prior.  Then afterwards you can static stretch and foam roll some more and call it a day.

What now?

Put all of this together and you will build bigger legs, no doubt.

So if you are serious about training and improving your performance, you must attack your legs with the same ferocity that you would your chest or your biceps. You have the knowledge now, so take action and get it done.

Remember, you don’t build a house without a foundation…

— Tank