Tag Archives: squat

Is Strongman For You?

When I first opened the Primal Strength Gym, I was the only one who trained for Strongman. At my last Strongman Sunday event, around 8 months after I officially opened Primal, we had more than 15 people come and train.

After this upcoming Saturday, I will have had 9 people from Primal compete within the past two weeks, with 5 of those competing for the first time.

It has been a cool experience watching the sport grow amongst my gym members, and the general awareness my gym has created across the city of Charlottesville.

But there are two things that seem to peak the curiosity of my followers.

Continue reading Is Strongman For You?

Why You Should Be Squatting With A Safety Squat Bar

Specialty bars have grown in popularity since Westside Barbell introduced them into their training. While the straight bar may always be king, especially for powerlifters who must use a straight bar in competition, variety never hurt anyone and in a lot of other cases, may prove superior to standard training. Enter the safety squat bar.

Continue reading Why You Should Be Squatting With A Safety Squat Bar

Building Lifting Programs: 4 Vital Characteristics

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll notice I don’t put a ton of lifting programs up on my site.

That will probably change in the near future but for now there are many reasons that I don’t. The overarching reason is because I pride myself on educating lifters so they can think for themselves, not just follow a program blindly. The fitness community is inundated with thousands of lifting programs that people can follow, but ask the average user to develop their own program and describe the inner workings of their training and they likely can’t.

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”

I’d much rather teach you how to do your own programming so you can sustain yourself over a lifetime, rather than trying to find the next greatest thing after the end of an 8-week cycle.

Log-Press
So in designing your own lifting program, what are the major factors that you need to develop it around?

#1: Your Goals

Far too often when I talk to someone about lifting, they don’t have a clear definition of what their end game is. When embarking in lifting programs, you need to train to both your short-term and long-term goals.

Do you want to add on mass? Or do you want to gain total body strength? Maybe your goal is lift specific and you want to add 25 pounds to your bench press?

You need to have your end game in mind. If you want to add mass, doing programs meant for powerlifters may not add a lot of hypertrophy, and inversely, if you want to get stronger, high-volume bodybuilding style programs probably won’t get you there.

All of your training must be done with intention.

Never Change The Goal
#2: Volume-Intensity Relationship

To induce a training effect you have to stimulate your body with enough volume under heavy enough loads.

Training to your goals will take care of a lot of this dynamic. Strength seekers will favor less volume with more intensity and the mass seeker will probably favor more volume with lighter intensities.

Knowing the relationship between volume and intensity is paramount and may take some manipulating to make the gains you are looking for. Throughout the course of your training life, you will come across periods where your body needs more volume to induce growth, whereas other times you may need to add weight to the bar to boost your gains. Unfortunately there is no magic recipe for this. This comes down to your knowledge as a lifter, understanding what your body is telling you, and your ability to manipulate your programming to what your body needs.

For some general guidelines on volume and intensity check these out:

How to Add More Volume To Your Training

Crank Up the Intensity

What Rep Range Should You Use to Gain Mass?

#3: Training Frequency

This is how often you train, and more specifically, how often you are stimulating your various muscle groups.

Depending on how you break-down your training sessions, your training frequency may vary but typically you should be training at least 3 or 4 days a week.

Your training frequency will also be dictated by the volume-intensity relationship as higher-volume or intensity sessions may require more time in between training sessions. Rule of thumb for Primal lifters is that you allow for 48 hours rest in between muscle groups.

#4: Exercise Selection

This is a big one for me. I’m a firm believer in recruiting more muscle to build more muscle, so I favor a lot of compound lifts. However, you must be careful when using a lot of compound movements and ensure that you are getting proper recovery and not over-training your nervous system.

This is not to say isolation movements don’t have their merits, but you just have to know when and how to use them.

arnold-squat-franco-300x271
In Summary…

There are four major components of program design:

  1. Your Goals
  2. Volume-Intensity Relationship
  3. Training Frequency
  4. Exercise Selection

These are the only things you need to think about when designing a lifting program.

Any time I write a program for Primal, I am building it around these components. So as you progress in your lifting career, these are the things you need to think of in order to give yourself the proper programming to make both short and long-term gains.

As a parting thought, I want to finish by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect program. It just doesn’t exist.

Something may work for a while, but your body will adapt and your gains will stall. This doesn’t mean the program is garbage, it just means that you need to manipulate a portion of the program to reach your desired end state. This is what I call the 25% rule. To read more about the 25% rule, stay tuned for my next post…

— Tank

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

Contrast Training To Boost Strength Gains

Contrast training is one of the most effective ways to increase your strength levels, power output, muscle mass, metabolic function for fat loss, and overall performance levels.

contrast training
Sprinting with a parachute or sled, followed by sprinting with no resistance, is a great example of contrast training.

I first read about contrast training in Yuri Verkhoshansky’s Supertraining, but I have seen it employed elsewhere for a variety of different training goals and applications.

The concept is simple. Taking an example from Verkhoshansky and something we’ve probably all done in our lives, imagine picking up a can that was half full of liquid when our mind thought it was full. Typically what happens is we move the can with much more force than we intended and make a big mess. Our nervous system was primed based on past performance and therefore muscle capability was enhanced.

Now apply this to strength training. There are two different ways I use contrasts in my training. I use contrasting movements (an explosive movement after a heavy lift) and I use contrasting tempos (lighter loads with explosive, faster tempo than normal).

Using either of these, think of the above water example. Working in explosive movements/tempos after a strength movement recruits more motor units and produces more force. The benefits are straightforward. The more muscle you recruit, the more explosive, strong, and powerful you are. Contrast training also increases the amount of work you are doing giving you a greater metabolic boost than normal training. And obviously, the more muscle you recruit, the more hypertrophy you can induce (although you may want to up your reps slightly for a hypertrophy focus).

Putting Contrast Training Into Practice

Ok, so you get the concept, but how do you actually implement it? As mentioned before, I use contrast training in two different ways.

#1 Contrasting Movements

Start with a 5-8 rep set of a heavy lift and pair it with an unloaded explosive movement with the same rep scheme. For example, a heavy set of squats followed by a set of box jumps; or a heavy set of bench followed by a set of plyo push-ups; or a heavy sled drag followed by an all-out sprint.

contrast training
Heavy squats followed by max effort box jumps will increase your strength and explosiveness.

Your unloaded contrasting movement should be done with maximal effort. Rest times in between your heavy lift and contrast movement can vary and is goal dependent. If you goal is maximal strength, rest for 3 minutes. If your goal is for increased athletic performance or fat loss, rest for 30 seconds or no rest at all. For hypertrophy, split the difference somewhere in between.

Four to five sets (of each movement) will do the trick. Use the lower end of the rep scheme for maximal strength, and the upper end for hypertrophy and fat loss. You don’t need to use contrast movements every training session, as I don’t recommend training maximally for extended periods of time, but continuously keep it as part of your training toolkit.

#2 Contrasting Tempos

For this, you are doing the same movement (bench, squat, deadlift, etc.) for three sets, but varying the tempo in which your perform it. You start with a set of slow tempo emphasizing the eccentric movement of the lift, then perform a set faster than normal, and then perform a normal one. Here is an example:

Set 1: Using a moderate weight (70-80% of your 1 rep max), you use a very slow tempo (about 5 seconds on the negative portion of the lift) and then pause near the bottom of the lift for 2-3 seconds. For squats the pause would be at roughly parallel, for bench, the bar just above your chest, etc. The idea here is that you keep full body tension. After the pause, you perform the concentric part of the lift normally. This set is done for 2-3 reps, and then you rest for 2 minutes.

Set 2: This set is done with lighter weight (60-70%) but done explosively. You control the eccentric portion, but explode from the bottom applying as much force as you can. This set is for 3-5 reps, and then rest for 60 seconds.

Set 3: This set is done with the heaviest weight (80-85%) using normal tempo (2 seconds down, no pause, 2 seconds up). This set is for 4-6 reps and then you rest 3 minutes.

You perform this series of sets (all 3) 2-3 times, giving you a total of 6-9 sets.

After your last set, try to end your training with the tempo that is most conducive to your goals. For example, if you are a strength athlete always end your training with the heaviest set. If you’re a an athlete and are trying to develop explosiveness, then add in an extra set of set #2 at the end of the series. For hypertrophy, end the series with an extra set of #1.

contrast training
This is perfect position for pausing at the bottom of the squat.

Training Smarter, Not Harder

Use contrast training to help boost your performance, but know how to tailor them to your goals based on the recommendations I gave above. These are easy to integrate into any strength training program, so use them to your advantage and break through your plateaus. But as with anything else, do not overuse them to the point that they lose their effectiveness.

— Tank

Implementing a Full Body or Upper Lower Split

The only two training splits I recommend are either full body or an upper lower split.

Body part splits and bodybuilding style training has its place for supplemental programming, but it’s ill-suited (as a primary focus) for the average gym rat or athlete who wants to get both strong and huge. Training full body or with an upper lower split recruits far more muscle, allows you to train much more frequently than body part splits, and will build both size and strength concurrently.

If you want a more detailed look into why I advocate against body part splits for the average gym rat, read this: Ditch the Body Part Split

upper lower split

I favor an upper lower split personally because I think it has a few advantages over full body training, but I’ll give you examples of both just so you can decide for yourself what suits your needs and schedule more.

Full Body

For a full body split, it’s pretty straightforward. You train your entire body each training session so no movement is off limits.

The disadvantage to full body training is that your training sessions will typically be longer than normal and your recovery times increased. You may also be hard pressed to fit everything you’d like to do in a single training session.

As a general rule, no matter what the split, I train my biggest/heaviest lifts first and follow that with assistance work and specialty training such as plyometrics and explosive movements. Several days a week, I will end with 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio.

Here is an example full body training plan:

  1. Big Lift (Bench, squat, overhead press, deadlift)
  2. Assistance (row variations, tricep and bicep work, hamstring and posterior chain movements, floor presses, squat variations, single-leg exercises, etc.)
  3. More Assistance (different movement from your 1st assistance exercise)
  4. Bodyweight or Explosive Movement (push-up and pull-up variations, dips, kettlebell cleans and snatches, barbell hang cleans, heavy push presses, plyometrics)
  5. Core Work and/or Conditioning (sprints, hanging leg raises, medicine ball throws, kettlebell swings, battle rope, weighted crunches, farmers carries)

* For some of your explosive work, if it’s really taxing, you may perform that as your second movement to reduce the possibility of technical errors and injury, as well as increase the actual training effect of the exercise. *

Training hard with a full body approach, you only need to train 3 days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example), with some light to moderate active recovery sessions on your off days.

34f18_ORIG-friday_59_

Upper Lower Split

Upper lower splits are a progression from full body training and are what I typically use in my own training and with my clients. Your training sessions are split into upper body days and lower body days.

The upper lower split is more flexible than a full body split and allows you to hit your entire upper/lower body within a reasonable time frame (a typical training session would be about an hour). It also allows you to train more frequently, several times a week for both your upper and lower body.

Sticking with some of the considerations I laid out above (heaviest lift first, etc.) an upper lower split would look something like this.

Upper Body

  1. Big Lift (bench, or overhead press)
  2. Upper Body Assistance
  3. Upper Body Assistance
  4. Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
  5. Core Work and/or Conditioning

Lower Body

  1. Big Lift (squat, deadlift)
  2. Lower Body Assistance
  3. Lower Body Assistance
  4. Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
  5. Core Work and/or Conditioning

For an upper lower split, I take a 2 days on 1 day off approach. A sample schedule would be something like this:

Monday – Upper
Tuesday – Lower
Wednesday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Thursday – Upper
Friday – Lower
Saturday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Sunday – Off Day/Active Recovery

If you are looking for some set and rep guidelines for both full body and upper lower split programs, check out these two articles:

How Many Sets To Build Muscle?

What Rep Range To Build Muscle?

If you want an 8 week program centered around an upper lower split, check out Uncaging Your Primal Strength. You can download it from my programs page. It comes complete with an exercise list, rep and set guidelines, and built-in printable training worksheets.

Since its release, people from all over the world have been crushing the program, breaking strength plateaus, building muscle mass, and shredding body fat.

I also have a ridiculous deal going on for 3 of my eBooks, where you can get Uncaging, The Primal Mind, and Primal Strength Nutrition for a 30% discount. Don’t miss out before I come to my senses and raise the price back to face value!

If you want something even more dynamic and personalized, check out my online coaching portal: Primal Online Coaching.

By investing in online coaching, you will get 8 weeks of personalized programming, video critiques of your lifts, and a lot of interaction with me. Why not invest in the same training that is producing the nationally ranked athletes and record holders from the Primal Strength Gym?

Online Coaching Sign Up

— Tank

Top 5 Muscle Building Exercises

Here is a list of the top 5 exercises everyone should be doing to get stronger and build muscle mass.  If you aren’t doing them, you better start!  These are not an option, no excuses.  Get it done.

muscle building

#1: Deadlift

Nothing makes you feel manlier than stepping over a huge amount of weight and muscling it up off the floor.

In the earlier stages of my training, I made the rookie mistake of ignoring this.  Don’t be like me.

Deadlifting is the best total body exercise you can do.  Most new lifters are weak in the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, back), so immediately putting this into your routine will help bring up your weaknesses.

If you look at some of the strongest and most impressive physiques around, you will notice the size of their upper back.  Deadlifting will build mass on your traps unlike anything else, and having strong glutes and hamstrings will improve your ability in a lot of other areas; jumping, sprinting, squatting, etc.

Another often overlooked benefit of deadlifting is the improvement it will have on your grip strength.  Getting over the bar and picking up heavy sh*t will improve your grip strength exponentially.

muscle building women

#2: Squats

You know how I tell the difference between serious lifters and “pretenders” at the gym?  The size
of their legs and whether or not I ever see them squat.

You want to be strong, you gotta squat.  Quads, abs, glutes, hamstrings, I can’t think of a better lower body exercise to do.

Squatting is an essential part of your routine.  The beauty of squats is the versatility of the exercise. Bodyweight squats, front squats, back squats, zercher squats, jump squats, the list goes on and on.

But we train for strength here, so start with back squats.  Using a box is a good way to get your form down correctly before you progress to free form squatting.

#3: Bench Press

Want to build a big chest?  Get off the pec dec machine, put down the dumbbells and step away from doing flys.

Get under the bar and move some heavy weight.  Bench pressing is king.  And lets face it.  If you are trying to be an alpha male and impress some people, what’s the first thing most people will ask?

“What do you bench?”muscle building

If you have a choice, set the bench to an incline of about 30 degrees.  It’s a bit easier on the shoulders, and helps incorporate more upper chest into the exercise.  A big upper chest is what most people look for in their physique.

Bench pressing is a great upper body exercise, not only because it builds your chest, but also your triceps, shoulders, and forearms.  I never do direct forearm work and I attribute my growth there to doing rep after rep of heavy bench.

Keep adding weight to the bar and improving this lift.  Aim to bench press 1.5x your bodyweight; that’s an honorable accomplishment.

#4: Overhead Press

Picking up heavy weight and pressing it over your head doesn’t get any more Primal than that.

muscle building women

Shoulders, upper back, triceps, and core strength are just a few of the areas worked by this classic exercise.  If you perform these standing (which you should be), or progress to a full clean and press, you are talking about an awesome total body exercise.

This press is a great example of an exercise you can do with anything, anywhere.  You name it, you can press it.  Odd objects like kegs, sandbags, stones are awesome tools,
or just your standard barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.

Regardless of how you are performing the exercise, incorporating heavy military presses in your routine will build some serious upper body strength.

**Note**  NEVER perform these presses behind your head.  I know you’ve seen people do it, doesn’t mean you should.  It’s just an injury waiting to happen, unless you are rigidly strict with your form.

muscle building

#5 Farmers Carry

Farmer carries will crush you.  If you want to build some serious mental toughness, start performing these.

The beauty of farmer carries is, like the military press, you can do them anywhere, with anything.  Sandbags, jerry cans, kettlebells, dumbells, stones; just pick up something heavy and walk around with it.

Grip strength, your entire back, forearms; they all get worked over doing this exercise.  If you perform these while only carrying an object in one hand, you will work your obliques and core.

At Primal Strength Camp, we try to emphasize this lift because it’s simplicity and versatility yield great benefits for any kind of lifter.

Honorable Mention

“Only 5 exercises?  These possibly can’t be all you need to do!”

Yep, you are right.  There are a number of exercises you should be doing that aren’t on here.  Maybe one day I’ll expand this to a top 10.

So what didn’t make the cut?

  • Pull-ups — You can argue for these over military press.  Either way, you need to be doing these.
  • Pushups — An oldie but a goodie.
  • Snatches — A great power exercise and overall strength builder.
  • High-Pulls — I’m big on building an impressive back.  These will add meat on your traps.
  • Power cleans — Awesome exercise leading up to incorporating the full clean and press into your routine.

Now What??

Start doing these NOW!  If you want to get bigger and stronger, you have to do these on a regular basis.  If you don’t, you will be missing out on some serious gains and you won’t be meeting your potential in the gym.  There is a reason these have been around forever; it’s because they work!

Evolve!!

–Tank