We've gone over how to do the Big 3, but what else do we do? Why do we do it in the way we've done it?
Luckily, James Kennedy is back with some information on Squat Accessories.
Whilst most of your training as a natural strength athlete should be focused on the big 3 - the squat, the bench and the deadlift - your programme should also include accessory lifts. Accessory lifts are used for a variety of reasons within your training. Primarily, accessory lifts are used as a way of getting targeted training for a specific muscle group without increasing the wear and tear that repeating the same movement patterns can cause.
The reason that accessory work is needed is for three reasons. Firstly, as you train a movement - for example the squat - you will develop muscular imbalances. The accessory lifts target the muscular imbalances, reducing your injury risk. Secondly, training compound movements can lead to overtraining due to the higher weights used. Using accessory work allows you to increase training volume but minimally increases the fatigue you accumulate. Thirdly, it adds some variety to training - training should be fun and doing the same exercises over and over again gets boring, fast.
The selection of accessory work is important. As accessory work helps develop more complete hypertrophy, it should be used to target specific weaknesses you have in a lift.
To give a very simple example - if you are struggling to lock out a bench press it suggests your triceps are too weak. Therefore, you should be using accessory work to target tricep strength and hypertrophy.
Why does hypertrophy matter?
Hypertrophy matters for lifters, even if you’re just trying to get as strong as possible. Simply put, the larger the muscle, the larger the force it can exert and the more weight you can lift.
With the squat, there are three main weaknesses; technical, leg strength and back strength. The technical weaknesses can be addressed through practice - i.e. doing more squats and focussing on the technical issues that you have with the lifts. Filming your sets and talking through the videos with your coach - or refering to the squat guide (link here) - will help you identify the technical aspects you need to work on within the squat.
The other two weaknesses - leg and back strength - can be identified from how you fail or struggle with the squat exercise. Generally, most people can deadlift more than they can squat and, generally, most people have a stronger back than legs. Whilst this is generally true, It is important to identify the weaknesses within the squat, to more specifically target the accessory work.
The most common weakness is relatively weak legs vs the back during the squat. Without going too deep into the biomechanics this boils down to being able to produce greater torque via hip extension than knee extension. When squatting, this results in people doing a so-called ‘good-morning’ squat. This is where the hips rise quickly but the bar doesn’t. The knees extend and shoot back, driving the hips up, but the bar does not move up. This leaves the lifter in a bent-over, good-morning, position, leaving them to use their hips and backs to lock out the lift. To address this weakness it is essential to train the quads directly using movements where the back cannot take over, allowing you to to isolate the quad muscles needed for knee extension.
The exercises that more directly target the quads can be split into several groups: squat variations, bi-lateral movements and unilateral variations. These variations all target different aspects of leg strength and have different degrees of crossover.
The squat variations are exercises with a high degree of cross-over between the primary squat movement (the low-bar squat) and the accessory exercise. The bi-lateral and unilateral movements have less direct crossover, however they help address muscular imbalances and weaknesses.
The secondary squat exercises which target the quads to a greater degree are the high bar squat and the front squat. If your gym has one, the safety bar squat also works really well for this. As these squats are accessory lifts which are being used to develop leg strength they should be performed at a lower intensity, with a higher volume, than the main squat movement. Ideally, perform 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps on the secondary leg training day.
The bilateral and unilateral movements are more varied. For bilateral movements, the hack squat and leg press are excellent exercises for isolating the legs and stimulating quad hypertrophy. Bilateral movements should be performed for 3-4 sets in the 8-20 rep range. Most lifters find that they can lift significantly more weight using bilateral movements.
Unilateral movements are movements where only one limb is used. In this case, we are using only one leg at a time, to isolate the quads and drive quad hypertrophy and leg strength. Classic examples of unilateral exercises are the split squat, rear-leg elevated split squats, lunges and step ups. You can also use machines to do single leg leg extensions. Unilateral movements should be performed for 3-4 sets for 8-20 reps per set per leg. Whilst you can usually lift more weight on a leg press than a squat, unilateral movements are humbling. Usually, a relatively low weight can be incredibly challenging.
The second major weakness in the squat is driven by relatively weak back vs strong quads. This is more common in olympic weightlifters than powerlifters, as weightlifters spend more time squatting and less time deadlifting compared to powerlifters. When a lifter has a relatively weak back to their quads they still end up in a ‘good-morning’ squat position. However, in contrast to strong backed lifters who can often grind out multiple reps from this position, weak-backed lifters fail squats once they reach this position.
If you’re failing squats due to back strength, the solution, obviously, is to increase your back and hip strength so you can lock out the hips and complete the lift. If you don’t already include it in your training, the conventional deadlift is the best exercise for back and hip strength development. Incorporating 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps will massively improve your hip and back strength.
If you are including the deadlift already there are still multiple good options. The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) - a top down deadlift, where you isolate the hips and glutes to develop hip and leg strength - is a fantastic developer of hip strength. For an in depth guide to the romanian deadlift, this guide from Eric Helms will teach you everything you need to know (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sd1AZZ77aw).
Performing 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps of RDL’s after your squat workout will develop hip and back strength.
As the weak-backed lifter ends up in the good-morning position, but is not strong enough to actually perform the good-morning, good morning’s are a good, specific way of targeting this weakness. To perform a good-morning, set up for a squat, then bend at the hips whilst keeping the knees softly bent. This movement targets the lower back, hips and spinal erectors - the exact muscles needed to lock out a squat from this position. Personally, I prefer to do this for high reps and lower weights, focusing on form and developing lower back hypertrophy. Programming 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps, with a lower weight, is ideal for this accessory movement.
Putting it all together
At this point you should have an idea about how to recognise if your back strength or leg strength is the limiting factor in your squat and what exercises will help you address these weaknesses. I’ve outlined a sample program below for weak legged and weak backed squatters.
Sample Program A - Leg strength weakness
Squat 3x5 @ 75-85%
Leg Press 4x8-12 @ 60-70%
Split Squats 4x15-20
Deadlift 3x5 @ 75-85%
Front Squat 3x12 @ 60-70%
Leg extension 5x10
Sample Program B - Back strength weakness
Squat 3x5 @ 75-85%
RDL 5x12 @ 60%
Split Squat 4x15-20
Glute Ham Raise 5x10-12
Deadlift 3x5 @ 75-85%
Squat 3x8 @ 65-75%
Good Morning 4x10-15
Back extensions 4x10-15
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