Squat Training - Westside Style By: Dave Tate, CSCS
I have been training at Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio under the coaching of Louie Simmons for over seven years. The knowledge I gained in that first year far exceeds everything I learned studying exercise science in college. I thought I knew all there was to know in the field of strength and conditioning. I have read all the articles, magazines, journals and books on the subject and spoke with many professionals in the field. I had heard of Louie Simmons and had read his articles on training methods, but at that time it went against everything I had studied, so I disregarded it. Then I started reading back issues of the Soviet Sports Review, as well as some other books on eastern block training methodology. Now Louie’s articles started making sense to me.
After I graduated, I moved to Columbus, Ohio where I knew Matt Dimel. He brought me to Westside Barbell. At the time I thought I was a good lifter since I had competed at the elite level in three weight classes. I figured I had nothing to lose by training a new way, so I started to workout at the gym. To make a long story short, my total went up 300 pounds and my squat went from 750 pounds to 900 pounds. This convinced me that there was no better way to train than the Westside way. I have seen many people join our gym or come in for seminars and learn this method. A year later, their results are great. This is the best way to train if you are willing to give it a try.
The Westside program is not cut and dry. It is impossible to put a program on paper and say, "Do this!" The Westside program is all about finding where you are weak and making it strong. Your weaknesses will hold you back. A great example of this is the bench press. Lets suppose your triceps have the ability to bench 300 pounds, but your shoulders can only handle 250. How much do you think you will bench? I will guess and say 250. Now, if you bring up your shoulders to match your triceps, how much will you bench? Probably 300. This is only part of what our program is about. From this example you can see how you need to be specific in your training, and why one program will not work for everyone. What you need is a training template, or a way to structure your training.
The purpose of this article is to outline the structure of our squat and deadlift training. Since we rarely train the dead lift, this article will focus on squat training. Squatting power is defined as the product of two abilities, strength and speed. At Westside we divide squat training into two workouts a week, one on Monday and the other 72 hours later on Friday. The Monday workout is to train the muscular system with maximum effort strength training and Friday is to train the neuromuscular system with dynamic effort training. According to Zatsiorsky, there are three ways to achieve maximum muscular tension.
1. The Maximal Effort Method: This is defined as lifting a maximal load for 1-3 reps, and is the highest force that can be performed by the muscular system. This is and should be an all out effort. This method will improve neuromuscular coordination by increased motor unit recruiting, increased rate coding, and motor unit synchronization. Many coaches view this as being the best method for both intra-muscular and inter-muscular coordination, because the muscles and the central nervous system adapt only to the load placed upon them.
The maximal effort method does not utilize psychological preparation, in other words you should not psyche up before the set, this will only bring about emotional fatigue. Save the psyche for the meet when you really need it. Training with the max effort method more than twice a week should be avoided because it will impair muscular coordination as well as increase defensive inhibition.
2. The Repeated Effort Method: This is defined as lifting a non-maximal load to failure. The most important repetitions here are the last few where the muscles are in a fatigued state. This is because it is the final reps that activate the largest number of motor units. As the tension in one motor unit drops, more and more join in the work. It is important to utilize long rest periods because of this reason. We like to use around five minutes of rest between sets when training with this method. Also, this method is excellent for muscle hypertrophy.
3. The Dynamic Effort Method: This is defined as lifting sub-maximal weights with the highest attainable speed. It is used to increase the rate of force development and explosive strength. With this method, we utilize multiple sets with lower reps and lift the weights with compensatory acceleration. This means that if you can squat 800 pounds and are training with 400, you should be applying 800 pounds of effort to the barbell. Rest periods should be no longer than one minute.
Most of the training in the United States today focuses on the repeated effort method in a progressive overload fashion. There are many problems associated with this type of training, which will be outlined below.
The repetition method will produce the most gains in maximal strength because of increased muscle diameter. However, this type of training does nothing to stimulate the recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibers. Also, a large volume of weight is hard to apply to most lifters because the reps are performed in a fatigued state, which leads to bad lifting form. The progressive overload method has not been used since 1964 in the former USSR. They realized 33 years ago that it didn’t work, but in the USA we still haven’t figured it out yet. This type of training will cause lifters to have better and bigger lifts in training than in competition. How many times have you or someone you know said after missed maximum attempt "I tripled that weight in training". There are several reasons why this occurs. First, the protocol starts 10 to 16 weeks out from the peak or competition week. The beginning of the cycle starts with a low weight percentage and a large training volume. This will build muscle mass, but the training percentage is too low to build strength. Although the bar speed is fast, the weight is too light so little force is being developed.
As the peak or competition draws closer, the weight on the bar increases, so force is being developed but the bar speed has slowed down. Another problem with this phase of the training is that too many weight attempts over 90% are being taken. This will lead to a distortion in form and missed attempts.
Another problem with this type of training is that it is based on a hypothetical max. Let’s say your best squat is 700 pounds, and you did this fairly easy. You will probably base your training program on a 730 squat thinking that this weight is closer to your true max. Most of the time a progress overload training cycle starts after an active rest period of two to four weeks. This is where the problems start. It has been proven that you can loose up to 20% of your strength after two weeks of non-training. This will cause the lifter to begin the training cycle based off a 730 pound squat, when in reality may only be capable of a 600 to 650 pound squat. This causes the training percent to be higher than what is programmed. For example, if week one calls for 3 sets of 12 with 50%, the lifter will be using 365 pounds if based on a 730 squat. Keep in mind that the lifter may only be capable of a 650 squat so he should be using 325. This would mean that he is lifting 56% instead of 50% This is really no big deal with such a low percent because the weight is still light. The real problem comes later down the line when the percent raises to 85% to 90%. If there is a 6% difference in the weight, it could be up to a 50 to 70 pound difference.
Tudor Bompa states that strength improves as a result of creating high tension in the muscles and is directly related to the training methods employed. He also states that any increase in power must be a result of improvements in strength, speed, or both. So why would anyone want to limit themselves to only one type of training? I feel this is because of the large amount of body building information that is out there. Most lifters start by asking the biggest guy in the gym what he does and by reading the muscle magazines. Most of this information lacks any scientific background and is based on creating muscle hypertrophy. There are many bodybuilders out there who have large muscles and yet cannot display power. Why? They lack the ability to contract an already strong muscle in a short period of time. It is like having a big engine, but no gas. The advantage to maximum effort and dynamic effort training is that both train the nervous system to contract in the shortest period of time. This neuromuscular adaptation results in improving intra- muscular coordination and improved relations between excitatory and inhibitory reaction of a muscle during the training stimuli.
Now that you understand the science behind the training, let’s look at what we do to incorporate it. Louie has devised a way to use all the above methods to increase our performance. As already mentioned, we do our squat training two times a week. Lets look at day one first. For us, this is on Monday. It is our maximum effort day. We start with one special exercise that is either a type of squat, dead lift or good morning. We have a list of over 600 different variations of these exercises. Why so many? We all know the body is in a constant process of adaptation, so it only makes sense to bombard it with new stimuli all the time. We will use one exercise for two to three weeks and then switch to another. This is called conjugate training and it keeps the body in state where it has no chance to adapt. We have found that when you switch exercises it should be to another kind of exercise. In other words, do not go from one type of good morning to another variation of it. It is far better to switch to a squat or dead lift. Whatever the exercise, it will be performed for a maximum set of one or three reps. First; we warm up using three reps until you can no longer do them, then switch to one rep. You will have only one 1-rep max.
Since we perform good mornings about 40% of the time, I will use it as an example to show how we come up with so many variations. We use special training aids such as chains, bands, weight releasers, or a combination of these. This is known as the contrast method. These aids help to change the strength curve. They apply a greater resistance at the top of the curve where we are strongest. An example is using chains. When using them, you should have two lighter chains, one for each side of the barbell that hang down and hold all the other heavier chains. These heavier chains should be about 5’ in length and weigh about 20 pounds. Adjust the chains so only about three links are on the floor for all squatting and good morning type exercises. Another example is the Jump Stretch bands. To use these, all you need to do is loop one end of the band around the power rack or Monolift and the other around the barbell. We will also use a number of different types of barbells such as the buffalo bar, Hatfield (safety) squat bar, and others to add to our growing list of different ways to perform the good morning. Below is a list of possible Good mornings, deadlifts, and squats.
Types of Good Mornings
Good Mornings: These are regular good mornings that can be performed either with a rounded back or arched back.
Good Mornings off Pins: Set the bar on a selected pin of any height and duck under it. Set up in a good morning position and lift bar up to a standing position. This can be performed with either an arched back or rounded back.
Hanging Bar Good Mornings: Hang the selected bar in the power rack with chains. Set a desired height; duck under the bar in a good morning position and lift to a standing position. It can be performed with either a rounded back or arched back. This is a current favorite of Westside.
Good Morning Squats: This is a combo between a good morning and a squat. You begin the motion as a good morning. At the bottom position of the good morning you squat down, then squat the bar back to a standing position
Seated Good Mornings: These are performed in a seated position. Unrack the bar and bend over as low as you can go and arch back up. These can be performed in an arched or rounded back position.
This list becomes very extensive when you add in the chains, bands, weight releasers, different bars, and different stances. We perform as many different variations as we can come up with. I have calculated over 300 different good morning variations. This keeps the body guessing and getting stronger.
Types of Dead Lifts
We do many types of dead lifts as well, but I am not going to bore you with another list. I will just say we pull dead lifts from various pin settings out of a power rack, we dead lift standing on different height boards, and we use multiple stances. Also, we use chains and bands to incorporate the contrast method.
We also do a great variety of squatting movements. We use training devices such as the Manaray, safety squat bar, buffalo bar, front squat harness, belt squats, and whatever else we think up to include variations. We usually perform the squat using a box on this day, unless we hang the bar from the power rack. Chains, bands, and weight releasers are also used for the contrast method.
Day 1 (Maximum Effort Training)
Our Monday workout is based on different groups of exercises each intended to fill a specific purpose. Group one is the max effort exercise, which was reviewed above. Group two is the supplemental exercise and is intended to train the specific weakness of the squat. This group is performed with multiple sets of varied reps usually over five reps but not more than 20. Group three and four is to train the body’s core. These are the most important groups because without a strong core, you do not have a transfer of power. I like to use the example of squatting to illustrate this. If you were to replace your lower back and ABS with a large pillow and try to squat what would happen? The pillow would collapse and you would not be able to squat. Now, if you replace the pillow with a rock what would happen? Your power would be transferred through the rock and the squat would go up. It is not enough to only train the low back and abs; you have to make them stronger all the time. Group four is the pre-habilitation group. This is the time to correct muscle imbalances and work some of the stabilizing muscles that normally do not get worked. A great example of this is the external rotators of the shoulder complex. Next, I will briefly review some specific exercise in-groups two to four. This will give a better understanding of the structure of our training.
Group Two (supplemental accessory)
Our second exercise choice is specific to the athletes’ weaknesses. Most of the time in our Club, it is the glutes or hamstrings. In order to work these muscles, we would choose one of the following:
Glute Ham Rise: This is a special bench that is similar to a hyperextension bench except the movement is initiated by the glutes and hamstrings.
Partial Dead lifts: Arched back dead lifts from the knees up performed in a ballistic fashion for high reps.
Seated Leg Curl with Jump Stretch Bands
Pull Through: Facing away from a low pulley, bend down and grab the pulley between the legs and pull through to a standing position.
Zercher Squats (seated, standing, or off pins): Cradle the barbell in your arms and squat.
Group Three (Core accessory #1)
Our third exercise is usually for the low back and is typically a reverse hypertension. We use many variations often using a long or short strap. A light day will consist of 3 - 4 sets of 15-20 reps using a light weight. A heavy day means 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps using a heavy weight. Keep in mind you should have at least one or two of each type of workout a week.
Group Three (Core accessory #2)
Our fourth exercise is for the abdominal and consists of one or two of the exercises below.
Pull down ABS: Using a latte pull machine with a rope, you grab the handle behind your head and perform a reverse dead lift.
Blue bench ABS: This is the Ab bench featured in Iron Man magazine.
Spread eagle sit ups: Lay on the floor with your legs spread out wide in front of you and perform sit ups. We hook our legs under our power rack.
Incline sit ups
Weighted Swiss ball sit-ups: Using a large inflatable ball, lay on your back across it and perform sit-ups.
Group Four (Pre-habitation)
Our last exercises are chosen to increase our work capacity and to help train the stabilizing muscles. This type of training helps to avoid injury. These exercises should never take more than 15 minutes. They consist of lat work, dragging, reverse curls, wrist and grip work, and external rotation exercises. These workouts are not predetermined and are not restricted to any certain exercises.
Two samples Good morning max effort workouts would look like this:
1. Good Mornings off chains with Safety Squat Bar: We would start by warming up with the bar and keep adding weight. Most of the reps per set are around three. We would stay with three until that becomes impossible (we know this by feel. You don’t want to fail doing your triples) At this point we switch to singles until we fail or our eyes pop out of our heads.
2. Glute Ham Raises: We would do multiple sets, nobody really counts, but I guess around five. The repetitions are either heavy five's or lighter sets to failure. This depends on how we feel.
3. Reverse Hyper: Either 4 or 5 sets of heavy weight sets of five or 3 sets of lighter weight sets of 10-15. Once again it depends on how we feel.
4. Pull Down ABS: We really don’t count sets or reps. Try to do a least 6 to 8 sets of 10-20 reps.
5. Pre-habilation : This stuff is really not heavy but just exercises to increase our work capacity and help train stabilizing muscles to help avoid injury, These exercises never take more than 20 minutes and consist of lat work, dragging, reverse curls, wrist and grip work, external rotation exercises, and what ever else you may deem necessary. This is not predetermined work and is not limited to the exercises listed. This portion of the workout can be done in a second workout on the same day.
6. Eat: We always seem to find somewhere to go eat.
Good Morning Squats with Chains: The Good morning squat is performed by starting the lift in a good morning position. Start the decent as a good morning by bending at the waist until until your upper body is slightly above parallel. At the point squat down into a deep position and squat the weight back to the starting position. Work up to a max single or triple.
Partial Dead lifts. To do this, pull the bar with a conventional style to a lockout position. At this point arch your back and drop to just below your knees and explode back to the top. Perform multiple sets of high reps (15-20)
Reverse Hyper: Perform three to five sets of 6-12 reps
Weighted Incline Sit-Ups: Use a weight that will only allow 6 to 10 reps. Perform 5 to 6 sets.
Prehabilation: Same as above
Day 2 (The Speed Day)
The second workout for squat training is on Friday. This is the speed day that, as stated before, trains the neuromuscular system. We only use box squats to train our squat. The box squats are performed on a box that is 1-2 inches below parallel. We train with 50% to 60% of the weight of our best squat at a meet. These percentages are performed in a wave fashion for a 4-week mini-cycle, and are then repeated. A sample wave might look like this: week 1 (50%), week 2 (55%), week 3 (58%), week 4 (60%). If chains or bands are used, they should be used in addition to the weight. Using weights this light makes it easy to develop explosive and accelerating strength, and to perform perfect form. Each repetition should be performed with compensatory acceleration. The bar speed must be fast and explosive. If you squat 800 pounds, and your training weight is 400, then the force applied to the bar should be 800 pounds of force not 400. We train with only a light squat suit (straps down) no knee wraps. We also train in a flat sole shoe such as wrestling shoes or Converse Chuck Taylors.
To perform a correct box squat, you should set up that squat in a position that is wider than normal stance with your feet pointed straight ahead. Arch your back, pull your shoulder blades together, and drive your head into the bar, push your knees apart as well as pushing your abdominal wall against your belt. During the decent push the hips back first, then bend the knees. Make sure to sit way back onto the box (do not drop fast, and stay in control). While on the box your position should be: arched back, abdominal against belt, knees out, shoulder blades together, your knees should be in line or behind your heals. Now, you pause on the box (notice I said pause, do not bounce), then explode up to the starting position. Why box squat? This is because it breaks up the eccentric/concentric chain which builds explosive strength.
For our speed day we use 8 to 12 sets of 2 repetitions. We will only try to rest for 45 to 60 seconds between sets. This is a form of lactic acid tolerance training, which increases work capacity. The 12 sets are usually only performed in the beginning of the mini-cycle when the percentage is lower. We will also work up to a single or double after our sets if we feel good. This is not every workout, it is only when we feel strong. After our squat workout we will perform the same assistance groups as on Mondays workout. As on Monday we pay special attention to our weak points.
These workouts should not take more than 60 minutes. Dr. Angel Spassov in his tour of the United States spoke of the release of testosterone during training. His graph showed that the resting testosterone levels are significantly increased during the first 20 minutes of training. During this time we are performing our warm ups such as dragging or light ab work. He also believes that the most critical time of training is between 20 and 50 minutes, that is the time when we perform all our work sets. During this time the testosterone levels are at its peak. After this time the levels start to decrease.
I hear people say all the time " that westside stuff won’t work." My question to them is have you tried it, because if you haven’t, you really don't have any room to speak. I used to say the same things and now my total is up 300 pounds. The proof is in the results, we have twelve 800 pound squatters, three 900 pound squatters, and Matt Dimel's 1010 pound squat. We also have fifteen 700 pound dead lifters and two 800 pound dead lifters. Think about it. I will close by saying that many people may ask why not just keep training the same normal way? Well in the words of Dr. Angel Spassov "Who wants to be normal? Who wants normal results? We want to be exceptional. Exceptions confirm what is not normal". We at Westside agree 100%.