In most people’s books, it’s viewed as the king of all exercises. And really, they have a strong case.
With all things equal, if you’re not squatting (but you could be), you’re probably selling yourself a little short where your programming, strength and size gains, and overall results are concerned.
They’re that good for you.
The problem is, many people ditch squats for a few reasons:
- Squats are tough, and they’re lazy lifters.
- Their body types don’t make squats easy to perfect.
- The rest of their workout kills their energy.
In each of these examples, there are ways to make squats happen – it just takes some willpower and being open to investigating your body and workout.
Knowing the right exercises to help your cause and improve your squats generally helps too. That’s why I’m here.
Just so we’re clear, I’m choosing the most popular squat variation as the basis of the conversation here today – the barbell back squat with a traditional stance. It’s the most popularly done variation, and also the most bread-and-butter for most lifters as far as load placement and weight lifted go.
Generally speaking, it serves many as a “foundation” to other squat variations. With that said, these assistance movements can benefit many squat variations; but back squats are the focus today.
Exercise 1: Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat
Big surprise that this landed a spot in the article. Right?
The rear leg elevated split squat is arguably one of the top go-to assistance exercises to a lower body workout, and they should be. This movement combines single leg strength with knee stability and a good stretch for the hip flexors. All three of these are things standard bilateral squats slightly minimize (and overdoing them could result in development of muscle imbalances).
If your knees are OK to bear the load, it’s definitely a smart move to incorporate into your workout program. Moreover, this movement is often performed using dumbbells, which places the load closer to the posterior chain, and allows for a slightly more direct hit for the glutes.
In the case of a longer legged lifter with depth issues in the squat, this is a great way to understand deep knee flexion (at least to or below parallel) without the insane forward pitch that a back squat would normally place their upper body in.
Lastly, you’re performing reps with lighter loads and gunning for range of motion with a hip flexor in constant stretch. That’ll do wonders for the health of the low back over time. We have to remember that the psoas (one of the hip flexors) attach on the spine, and constantly shortening them can lead to low back pressure and tightness that’s unwanted. This can be one of the ways to attack this.
Exercise 2: Spiderman Walks
You may be surprised to see a mobility drill enter the mix here, but it indeed counts as an exercise that will improve your squat. Keep in mind – by “improve”, I’m not only referring to the weight you lift.
Everyone reading this would do well to shake that mentality as early in their lifting careers as possible, as such set thinking can only lead to harm and an imbalanced view of what this should be all about.
In my books, improvement and progression comes from better patterning, improved range of motion, and better overall rep quality. Improved strength numbers are also deservedly on the list, but not at the top.
A mobility drill like the spiderman walk is worth its weight in gold for hip mobility and groin flexibility, and adding an overhead reach component improves the health of one of the most key weak links for many squatters: the thoracic spine. An inflexible or immobile thoracic region results in poor extension and a difficult time keeping the chest up as the squat continues.
The product is a slouched, dangerous squat that only worsens with added weight. This can refer itself to shoulder problems, poor pressing patterns, and almost always elbow stress when back squatting.
Starting up every workout – even workouts that don’t include squats – with mobility drills including this one can be a life saver for your squats’ quality and your body’s health during the long term.
Exercise 3: Banded Goblet Squats
The goblet squat is what I consider the “universal squat fixer-upper” exercise. It’s an easy and safe variation to clean up lifters’ technique, whether they’re just plain new to learning squats, bad at performing them, or a prisoner of unsuitable anthropometry.
Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell at chest level is a great way to fix things because of the fact that a lifter now has a counterbalance enabling them to sit “against” the load, and that load can also be moved around to find the right position – unlike the barbell front squat.
Adding a band just above or just below the knee creates a third dimension to the benefits, since it teaches a squatter to drive the knees wide in order to help keep alignment with the hip and shoulder, but also to improve the gluteal involvement in the lift.
For many, driving the knees outward against a band will encourage plenty of trunk flexion, and becoming strong and stable enough to counter that flexion and stay upright will be a huge step in the right direction for a better back squat, and the improvements will show right away then the band is removed for conventional squats once more.
There’s one more thing I forgot to mention when it comes to getting better at your back squat: You need to back squat.
Keep these tools in your arsenal to improve the quality of your lift, but remember that there’s no substitute for practicing the back squat itself also.
Doing so with the help of these movements every week can almost guarantee positive change.
The truth is, practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Doing the right things in the gym can only help your cause, and it may mean starting from the ground up, re-establishing your movement pattern, and using other movements like these to help.