Step up your Squat Game by max el-hag

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Squatting for The Sport of CrossFit™

Squatting is a fundamental component of almost every strength-training program. Every group of coaches has a different systematic approach they use for development and there are a lot of egos in the market who will gladly tell you how things ‘should be’ done to improve squat strength. There are a couple of problems in the sport of CrossFit™ with using these ‘experts’ for their guidance on the issue of squatting because: A- the sport is so new, B- the adaptations for squat development are much more broad than typical powerlifting/Olympic lifting coaches have ever had to account for and C- many experts on squat development have a very poor understanding of both energy system development and the sport itself. When you try to evaluate your training needs in the sport you have to understand the skills you need for the sport, the skills that could be helpful to develop for the sport while having longevity, the strength characteristics of the squat you need to develop, and the strength capacity characteristics you need for the sport. After evaluating these and prioritizing your needs, you need to figure out how the complexity of the sport affects these characteristics and how to layout progressions for squat development. Throughout the article I will explain each of these topics in more depth and give you a sample day to highlight how a CrossFit™ athlete can develop their squat capacity appropriately for long term development.

Skill Characteristics

The breadth of skills needed in the squat are exponentially higher than what most coaches are accustomed to developing for sports -specific athletes. In CrossFit™, you must understand that in order to prepare for anything and everything, your index of developmental skills must cast as wide of a net as possible to make you statistically more likely to be prepared for anything. The things you must develop considerable skills in are:

  • Snatch/clean
  • Back squat
  • Front squat
  • Overhead squat
  • Lunge variations
  • Wall balls
  • Thrusters
  • Pistol squats

On top of these more commonly accepted skills, you must also take into consideration that in order to support the level of contraction volume while minimizing the likelihood of injuries or tendonitis you must develop a high level of movement skill/complexity. Because there is no basic system for developing this, you can create a list of skills/accessory movements that address having high levels of mobility and stability to support the above list. Some examples of these may be:

  • In line lunge
  • Crossover step up
  • Lateral lunge
  • Cossack squat
  • Advanced shrimp squat
  • Feet together bi-lateral squat
  • Rear foot elevated split squat
  • Locomotive patterns
  • Single leg jumping proficiency
  • Proper running/bounding mechanics
  • Natural knee extensions
  • Back bridge

If you evaluate many of the highest-level CrossFit athletes, they lack many basic skills in this second category. This is likely due to the fact that they focus solely on the Olympic lifts and/or power lifts and some of the lighter loaded repeated contractions often found in met-cons. As a result they have tremendous lifting numbers, BUT a high percentage of them have injuries and train through them. My guess is that many of these athletes will have very abrupt ends to their careers or will peak quickly in the sport before fizzling out never to improve beyond their first 2-4 years. After developing the skills required to perform and technically execute the above movements, you would then have to develop the strength characteristics in these skills.

Strength Characteristics

Strength is exponentially more complex than most experts acknowledge when speaking to the market. If someone can weightlift well or powerlift well, we’ve come to say that these people are ‘strong’ and while that may be true if you are evaluating that individual variable, it does not necessarily make you “good” at this sport or prepared for anything/everything. Instead of writing this out in paragraph format, I will use a bullet format with brief explanations as to make it easier to read:

  • Absolute strength – Slow strength development. Movements would include the back squat, front squat, overhead squat (OHS would have a bit more of a positional element than the other two)
  • Strength speed – The ability to move heavy, but not maximal, weights at high speeds. Movements would include clean and snatch. * note, many CF’ers spend almost all their squat training time here
  • Speed strength – The ability to move light weights at really high velocities. Examples would include light thrusters, wall balls. This focus in training here is on speed per rep.
  • Absolute speed – The ability to move no external weight at maximal speeds. Examples would include air squats

On top of these strength characteristics, for the sport, we must also include the strength endurance characteristics:

  • Absolute Strength Endurance – Example would include 50 front squats for time @70% of your 1rm (or for less strong athletes, 225/165# front squats in a met-con
  • Strength speed endurance – Example would include repeated heavy weightlifting movements (20 cleans for time @90% 1rm)
  • Speed strength endurance – Example would include light thrusters, wall balls in high volumes. 200 wall balls for time. The difference between this and the normal speed strength category would be that the volume is higher and you are looking for average speed per rep over the course of a lot of contractions versus just a maximal-velocity training stimulus.
  • Absolute speed endurance - Example would include high volumes or air squats or unloaded lunges.

I could write an entire blog post on the above categories by themselves, but I just wanted to highlight that there are different strength qualities and make it really clear that just getting people really strong in one or two lifts won’t necessarily make them good at the others. I’ve seen it more frequently that athletes with 350# cleans are not making it through the opens. Some of this is a tie of one’s ego to a singular number instead of appropriate focus on the things necessary for the sport. The best in the world can simultaneously develop all of these categories at once, but most people have a limitation in some of the variables. For example, some people get beat down from the volume so their ability to develop the strength endurance qualities is worse than the strength qualities. Some people are much stronger than they are fast, and therefore develop on the absolute strength side of the continuum but always lack speed per rep. As the sport gets more competitive it will be necessary to ensure all your athletes develop all these components at a high level. The strength course we will launch in August will delve into the development of each of these categories and a more detailed explanation of each. The above 8 categories can seem simple enough, but that is not where the complexity of the sport ends…

Complexity

When you develop these skills in relative isolation, you need to then begin to start the integration from a less complex training system into a more complex training system so that you are indeed prepared for anything. For example, a workout could be called for that challenges you to do 200 wall balls and 2 miles of running then find a max back squat with an incomplete rest time. The absolute strength test (back squat max) here is significantly different now after being in a high level of fatigue from the previous test. Instead of explaining all of the ways that the complexity challenges these skills and strengths in the squat, I will give a list of adaptations you must consider when pairing workouts (this is not exhaustive):

  • Pairing multiple adaptations into a single test – For example:

For time:

20 squat cleans @80% 1rm

100 thrusters 30% 1rm

  • Performing strength endurance qualities while previously fatigued or at near max heart rates.

Example One:

For time:

Run 2 miles

150 wall balls

(in this example, speed strength endurance is being tested after previously fatiguing the local tissue and getting the heart rate at a near maximal working level)

Example Two:

For time:

Row 5k

20 squat clean for time @70% 1rm

(in this example, strength speed endurance is being tested after previously fatiguing local tissue and getting the heart rate at near maximal levels

  • Testing maximal strength levels after previous fatigue.

Example One:

For time:

150 wall balls

…rest to the top of 7 minutes then you have 5 minutes to establish a 1 rep max snatch

(in this test strength speed is being tested after speed strength endurance)

Example Two:

6 minutes to perform

50 thrusters 95# for time

then build up to a max clean in the remaining time *scored as two events

(in this test, strength speed is being tested after speed strength endurance)

As you see, even prepping someone so they are good at the lifts in the traditional sense while working on all the qualities will still not optimally prepare them for the sport. What I’ve seen is that people most frequently fall in two camps where they ineffectively train. The first is that they add complexity before they have the basics developed and balanced, where they are doing met-cons and high volumes of running before their strength work. This is just poor training and will likely result in slower strength training adaptations and higher likelihood of injuries because the athletes’ bodies are not prepared for the volume. The second is that people keep their training qualities too separated. For example athletes work with Olympic lifting specialty coaches and only perform the lifts in traditional singles, but don’t work versions of touch and go lifts, higher volume lifting, lifting while under fatigue, lifting when movements are paired together, etc. You must first develop the skills. Then layer in more complexity over time to ensure that your athletes are ready for the sport.

Layouts

The more I’ve spoken to other coaches in the market, the more I’ve seen a big deficit in people’s training principles. Many people try to mimic what the best are doing thinking that they have the best protocols for development only to find themselves beat up, injured, burnt out, and not progressing at everything the way their more naturally gifted counterparts are improving. This is because when you try to layout every single thing into a singular training cycle and run it at high intensity year round with no thought, no progressions, no peaking/tapering, high volumes of competitions, you are likely going to kill everyone but the cream of the crop. Ironically you are also not making the cream of the crop as good as they can be, but that is a conversation for another day and stems from the fact that the sport is so new, genetics are such a huge variable in world class talent, and the media can create fabulous stories to sell you on people/coaches/ideas. The best way to do this appropriately for yourself is to hire a coach who understands all of this and understands how to observe how you respond to each one of the variables and whether or not you are able to develop them all concurrently or you need a periodization schedule to break your year up into phases of development (for example in a simplified world your off season you work on the strength qualities, and in the preparatory season you work on the strength endurance qualities). Because everyone is not able (or willing) to hire an individual coach, I figured I would lay out a sample framework for you to integrate a 2 day a week squat template that encompasses most of the adaptations that you need for the sport. You can play with and adjust this for your own needs and see also the sample day of each:

Day 1:

A. Pistol developmental work

B. Speed strength endurance work (technical focus)

C. Absolute strength development

+

High volume EMOM including strength speed endurance

+

Unilateral accessory work

Day 2:

A. Locomotion work

B. Absolute speed development

C. Strength speed work

D. Unilateral absolute strength work

+

Met-con including absolute speed endurance

+

Lower body mobility work

Day 1 example:

A1. Slow controlled single leg deck squats; 4 reps per side x3; rest 1 min

A2. Lateral DB side step ups; 6-8x3/side; rest 1 min bw sides/rest 1 min

B. 5x Squat snatch on the min for 10 min @35% 1rm

C. Back squat; 5x5 @83% 1rm; rest 3 min

+

20 min EMOM

Odd- 3 squat clean @65% 1rm

Even- 10 burpee box jumps

+

D1. Single leg DB rdl; 6-8x4/side; rest 1 min

D2. Natural knee extensions; 12-15x4; rest 1 min

Day 2:

A. 20 min focusing on: beginner lizard crawl, horse walk, foot/walking drills, bear crawl

B. Rear foot elevated split squat unloaded jumps; 5 reps per side x4; rest 1 min bw sides

C. Squat clean; 8 singles @88% 1rm; rest 2 min

D. Barbell reverse lunges @2111; 10-12x3/side; rest 1 min bw sides

+

5 rounds for time:

Run 400m

50 air squats

+

20 min split developmental work (front split, side split, pancake split. 30 seconds in one position, rest 30 seconds and switch to a new position)

Hopefully this has provided some insight into the complexity of squatting for the sport and a way to upgrade your own training structure. I have heard/seen many people in the media say that being concise is a sign of wisdom. I believe that this is only true if you fully understand and comprehend the complexity of a system, and then are able to break it down into it’s most simple form. I am clearly not yet wise, and I have not gotten to the point in my mastery development that I can synthesize a topic this complex into a really simple package. But, I can tell you that many people who are selling programs based on ‘getting stronger quickly’ may not even be aware of the complexity of the problem. I call that ignorance, not wisdom. I would rather be comfortable with my place on my path than afraid to step into the unknown and try to find my way through the chaos. I hope that this at least gives the audience a context for developing the necessary attributes of your squat for the sport and also expresses the magnitude of thought that you should be applying to your training if you want to reach your physical potential. Good luck and keep squatting!

~ Max

Created By
Max El-Hag
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