How to Build a Big Raw Squat

By Andrew Levings
(April 2016)

The squat is unquestionably the 'King of the Lifts'; it is an essential movement for anyone wanting to get bigger or stronger. In fact, some have said that the squat builds entire strength from toe to head. I also believe that if you increase your squat, your deadlift will also increase. So if performing the squat is absolutely necessary (unless you have injuries stopping you), it is worth spending some time getting to know how to perform it correctly and how to program it.

If you go to any gym in the world with a squat or power rack you will inevitably see someone performing the squat at some point, but how many of these people are really utilising this 'king' lift to its full advantage? How many times do people miss maximal weights due to technique issues? How much more could you have squatted with correct programming and technique?

This article is written with the strength athlete in mind, particularly those just starting out on squatting, but I hope it also includes some useful tips more experienced lifters may benefit from. Please note, I have never trained for hypertrophy or bodybuilding, so this article is aimed at those wanting to build a huge squat as an end to itself, whether that be for powerlifting or athletic development.

It Should be Simple, right?
Simply load a bar with weights, place it on your shoulders and squat down until you reach the correct depth, and then come back up. However, the squat is definitely the most technical of the three powerlifts, and requires constant attention to correct technique, as well as being the most mentally taxing of the three. As such, a large portion of this article will concentrate on getting the technique right for you.

This article sets out to detail:

  • The correct technique for the squat
  • Some invaluable discussion points you need to be aware of
  • A 10 week strength cycle to get your squat skyrocketing

Where and How I Learnt to Squat (Powerlifting style)
I often think that for people starting out in strength training or powerlifting today, they are very lucky. There is so much information freely available on the internet, both in terms of technique and programming, which you can learn quickly and easily the key points, in theory.

I say in theory, because in reality: There is no replacement for real life coaching and experience and lifters starting out are often overloaded with articles and YouTube videos which contradict each other at best, and confuse and frustrate at worst.

Back in 2002 when I set myself the goal of becoming strong and competing in powerlifting, I made a decision: I was going to seek out the strongest, most competitive guys around and learn from them. I was lucky, because on my journey I went to Adlington Barbell and got taught by the late Alan Fairclough (who was a hugely successful Olympic Weightlifter in his time, and a very well respected coach).

Alan was a complete technician, always seeking to improve your technique, your approach to the sport and gave a lot to making you the best you could be. In fact World's Strongest Man competitor Mark Felix sought out Alan for help with technique for overhead work. With Alan watching and coaching, Mark deadlifted a 400kg Deadlift at an IPF sanctioned competition.

If I learnt one thing from my time at Adlington Barbell it was the importance of technique. Sure, powerlifting and squatting is about being strong, but being strong without good technique is not optimal.

'Correct' Technique for the Powerlifting style Squat
I am hesitant to write 'correct' technique. Why? This is simply because there are as many individual techniques as there are lifters. Whilst this may be an exaggeration, individual technique, and thus your best technique is dependent on a plethora of factors, including but not limited to:

  • Limb length
  • Overall body width and girth
  • Flexibility
  • Level of experience

If you have ever seen a powerlifting competition or watched powerlifters or strength athlete's squat, you will appreciate what I mean. Some squat wide, some narrow, some high bar, some low bar and some wear Olympic lifting shoes, others convers. The list is endless.

Nevertheless, there are some essential technique pointers for developing an impressive raw squat which are pretty much universal:

  1. Equipment
    Sure, you don't want to be 'all the gear and no idea', but having the correct equipment (again, for you) will give you the best starting point for squatting big. The two most important pieces of equipment for squatting are the correct footwear and the correct belt.

    • Shoes/Footwear

    The key point to make here is: don't squat in shoes designed for running. You wouldn't run in shoes designed for squatting, so why vice versa? Any shoe without a hard sole with no give is unsuitable for squatting in. The last thing you need when under a heavy squat is the instability of a cushioned sole.

    Another key point: squatting in no footwear, i.e. just in socks, is an equally bad idea. You will have no support for the foot, and over time there is a danger the bridge of your foot could collapse or be damaged.

    With this said, there are two main options for footwear:

    1. Olympic Weightlifting shoes

      Squatting in such shoes is very common, both at powerlifting competitions (and perhaps due to the influence of Crossfit) in many mainstream gyms too. Footwear is another article in itself so I'll keep this to the most salient points. If you squat with a medium or narrow stance (i.e. not much wider than shoulder width or narrower) then Olympic lifting shoes are a good option. They will tend to cause you to utilise more quad strength, although many people comment such footwear throws them forward when squatting in them, at least initially. You'll get used to this.

      Personally, all my best Squats done as a Junior lifter (u23) were done in Polish weightlifting boots. I remember getting these for Christmas as a teenager and being incredibly happy with them. Over a decade on, they are still going strong.

    2. Flat soled 'boots' such as Converse Chuck Taylor High-Tops or similar

      Nearly all of the Westside lifters lift in Chuck Taylor's made by Converse. What is the reason for this?

      Firstly they are durable and good quality. Second, they offer excellent ankle support which is great under heavy loads. Lastly, they have a hard flat sole (as compared to Olympic lifting shoes which have a raised heel).

      The general rule for whether to wear these or not is: If you Squat with a wide stance (i.e. wider than shoulder width) these are preferable, or in fact ideal. Clive Henry (a legendary UK Powerlifter who squatted 445kg at over 40 years old) always wore Chuck's. So if you squat wide, they are good enough for him, so maybe give them a consideration.

    • Belt

    A good solid powerlifting belt is a must for when performing heavy squats. This is not only for safety reasons, but also because wearing a belt allows you to create effective inter-abdominal pressure which is a learned technique in itself, and one in which when you've mastered it, it will increase your squat on its own.

    There are many on the market; I suggest you do your research and get a good quality belt that is approved by the federation you wish to compete in (if you wish to compete; if you don't, the fact a belt is IPF approved is usually a sign of good quality).

  2. Depth
    I am sure this is the first question that springs to mind when most people watch powerlifting style squats; some seem very deep, and others seem high. What is the correct depth? This question is essential to ensure you get the most from the squat in terms of overall strength building, and also ensures that you get your squats passed at competitions if you decide to go down that route.

    Please note, that I am a nationally qualified BWLA Powerlifting referee (BWLA being the predecessor to GBPF which is linked to the IPF, the World's most prestigious Powerlifting organisation, in terms of recognition at least). With this being said, my idea of 'correct' depth comes from that perspective. Put simply, correct depth is when the crease of the hip joint breaks the line of the top of the knee. Personally, I like to go a little deeper than this when I squat to ensure that I would never miss a squat in competition due to depth.

    If you are squatting higher than this, that's cool, you'll still reap some rewards of squatting; but squatting below parallel in this manner is the most optimal way to get the most out of the 'King Lift' that is the squat.

  3. Warm up properly!
    One of the keys to squatting big is squatting frequently, with heavy loads for a long period of time. Inherent to doing so is staying injury free. I learnt this the hard way when I was in a rush and only performed 2/3 warmup sets before hitting a heavy load and tore my ligament in my knee, and my squat hasn't had the same confidence since.

    The best approach is to take small jumps, and use your warmups to reinforce good technique and speed. Apply maximal force to every rep of every set, regardless of weight. Fred Hatfield advocated this approach, and he squatted a huge 1014lb in basic equipment decades ago!

  4. Correct bar placement: Low bar vs high bar
    The definition of high bar squatting is when the bar is resting on your traps. This is how Olympic weightlifters squat, and how many regular gym trainers squat. Conversely, low bar is where you position the bar below your traps in the 'shelf' created by the rear delts.

    In order to squat in a typical powerlifting style, you need to use a 'low bar' position. Doing so will result in a mechanically stronger position, and one which allows you to use the full posterior chain in order to successfully lift big weights.

    Note; It will take some time to get used to the low bar position. Stick with it and it will soon become natural. It's common to feel like the bar is going to slip off your back, but this will some rectify itself as you develop the correct technique and strength where it matters.

  5. The body follows the head so what your head does during the squat is vital
    Your body will always follow your head. In other words, if you look down at the bottom of a squat (or in the 'hole') you will have a tendency to fall forwards. The best way to remedy this is to fix your eyes on a point in front of you just above eye level, and maintain this position through the squat. This may mean driving your head back into the bar (also known as 'packing the bar').

    Squatting in commercial gyms is often tricky, as you may have to squat in front of a mirror. If this is the case, use the same principle, but try to avoid looking at yourself in the reflection during the movement, as this may cause you to fall forward (a common weakness in the squat).

  6. Grip the bar in the correct way
    Firstly, a simple point but one that is often overlooked; grip the bar as hard as possible when setting up your squat. Doing so is not only essential for safety, but is also important for maximising tightness which is crucial for squatting big.

    Secondly, generally the closer you can get your hand position together when gripping the bar, the better. This is because a close tight grip on the bar will have the tendency to keep your chest up and avoid the chest collapsing, which can result in losing the squat forward (as aforementioned a common error).

  7. 'Open the Groin'
    Ed Coan, arguably the greatest powerlifter ever to live, always says that 'opening' the groin is essential to a big squat. Whilst this may seem like a strange concept, I think another way to put it is to force your knees out both through the descent and the ascent. This will not only recruit more muscle, but will also help ensure your knees don't collapse inward which is a common error with the squat (especially for those just starting out).

  8. Stance
    How wide your stance is will be dependent on a number of factors, notably your individual body make up. Generally when 'raw' squatting most lifters will take a more moderate stance than if they are equipped squatting (i.e. in a squat suit and with knee wraps).

    However, with stance there is no hard and fast rule, people have squatted huge weights raw both with narrow and wide stances. What I suggest is you find a stance that you feel comfortable in, and one where you can hit the required depth, each time, every time. Note that a closer stance will usually mean you recruit the quads more, and the wider you go, the more the posterior chain, particularly the glutes and the hamstrings, come into play. The toes should be pointed slightly outwards for most people, and it's also important that your knees track your toes on both the descent and the ascent (see the above note about 'opening the groin').

Mental Approach to the Squat
For me, when in a powerlifting contest, once the squat was over I could look forward to the rest of the competition. The squat is perhaps the most mentally demanding lift, as you are putting a maximal weight on your back, and when it gets heavy every part of your body and mind is telling you that you can't do it. As such, I often find it curious that lots is written on the squat, particularly in terms of exotic squat routines, but little attention is paid to the mental approach to the squat.

I detail some of the key considerations below:

  1. Visualisation
    The importance of effective visualisation applies to any lift, but particularly to the squat for me. In fact, before I squatted 200kg at 19 years old and weighing a skinny/fat sub 90kg, I must have done it hundreds of time in my head. The more detail you can visualise the better; how the bar feels on your back, how many steps back you take out the rack, how many breaths you take, how do you get as tight as possible and so on.
  2. Use controlled aggression
    To fulfil your squat potential you have to commit to the lift and attack it hard out the bottom portion or 'out the hole'. One of my old training partners always used to say 'beat it out the rack' (i.e. mentally defeat it before you squat it). The best way to achieve this is focused aggression; shouting or swearing at the bar is a release of energy and aggression which would be better off bottled for when you need it.

Ten Week Strength Squat Cycle
The following routine is based on tried and tested methods which I have used over the years and is a classic progressive overload based program with a twist.

Week 1-4

Day 1: Squat 5x5 (at same weight for all sets). Aim to build up to 77.5%+ for 5x5.

Day 2: Paused Squat* 9x3@ 55%.

*Pause at the bottom (below parallel) for 2-3 seconds. The whole point of this day is not to kill yourself with maximal loads but to develop speed, to re-inforce good technique and confidence.

Week 5-7

Day 1: Squat 3x3 (at same weight for all sets). Aim to build up to around 83-85% of max, or more.

Day 2: Paused Squat 6x2 @65%

Week 8

Day 1: Squat up to heavy double. This should be a near all-out effort.

Day 2: Pause Squat 6-8 singles @70% (you can do these without a belt for added difficulty)

Week 9

REST or some light squats at 60% for 3-5 reps.

Week 10

Test max/competition

A Note on Assistance Exercises
An old Powerlifting saying is: "Nothing is better for your Squat than doing the Squat".

This rings true, as for me personally, I don't need a lot of assistance exercises if I am squatting heavy and regularly. With this being said, I would recommend that after each squat day you pick 2-3 assistance exercises. Don't worry too much about identifying your specific individual weakness, as when you're starting out everything will be relatively weak, and in my experience people are usually much more similar than dissimilar in what exercises will work best.

Front squats, good mornings, glute ham raises and anything that strengthens the hamstrings or posterior chain are a good bet. Even hack squats are a favourite for many raw powerlifters; Dan Green is a big fan of them for developing quad strength, and before him, Kirk Karowski (possibly one of the greatest squatters ever) used to use them frequently in his training cycles.

Also note, training the abs is highly important from an injury prevention perspective, in that many lower back injuries occur due to weak abs when squatting.

Wrap Up
I hope this helps; remember squat heavy, work to perfect your own individual technique and learn to love the Squat (it is the 'King' after all), and you will achieve a big Raw Squat!

A good initial aim is to squat double bodyweight for a 1-3 reps in a strict deep fashion.

Good luck on your mission to conquer the 'King of Lifts!'