What are the Best Squat Variations for Olympic Lifting?
Squatting is an absolutely pivotal part of developing successful Olympic weightlifters. Unfortunately, many Olympic weightlifters don’t squat well or lack an understanding of how to actually squat. For instance, this can manifest in long-legged lifters who struggle with finding a good movement pattern, time under tension, struggle to grind through specific portions of the movement because of weaknesses in different areas that have not been addressed, and the same for athletes with limited ankle mobility. Stiff ankles result in the knees not tracking overly well over the toes, ending up looking like they are doing a good morning when performing back squats.
Recognize that squatting transfers really well to pulling strength off the floor, to an effective snatch, and tremendously well to the clean. It is important to utilize the back squat as a gauge for the success of the lifting athlete. Notice how well the lifting athlete is snatching relative to their squat, clean and jerking relative to their squat, and how well they are front squatting relative to their back squat.
It is important to utilize the back squat as an indicator to dive into various issues to improve the squat to continue the upward trajectory and improvement of the athlete.
Let’s take a look at four squat variations with varying focuses to enhance an athlete’s squatting potential to greater heights.
4. Eccentric Focus
At Garage Strength, the first factor we like to focus on with athletes’ and their back squats is to focus on the eccentric portion of the movement. Eccentric loading is key to success. It is key to understanding the motor pattern, especially for long-legged lifters--someone with 60% of their height in their legs--it will be really hard to bump their squat tremendously. However, spending a lot of time under tension during the eccentric portion, the athlete’s trunk stability and back strength will be enhanced.
The eccentric portion of the squat begins with the descent of the squat. We love to see timed eccentric portions of the squat: 4, 5, 6 all the way up to 8 seconds of a timed eccentric. Lifters performing such long-duration eccentrics allow them to learn the precise pattern that needs to be upheld when coming through the concentric portion of the lift.
We like to utilize 6-8 second eccentrics for two to three reps within a set. Keep the weight a little bit lighter; this will allow the lifter to feel their knees track forward while the hips come back, stay upright with the trunk control, and drive as aggressively as possible out of the bottom portion of the squat.
This can make lifters pretty sore because there is a lot of time under tension and because there is a lot of musculature damage that transpires during the eccentric portion of the squat performed at such a deliberately slow tempo. Because of this, use this variation once a week.
3. Pause Back Squats
We like pause back squats to improve squat mechanics and squat strength. We love pause back squats, especially for our long-legged lifters.
What ends up happening when performing the movement is a controlled eccentric portion. Now when they get to the bottom, we want to see the lifter in the bottom to sit and continue to put more pressure through the entire foot and hips. The athlete needs to keep their upper back nice and tight, thinking about showing their chest off while they are in the hole. Hold that position for two to three seconds and then drive out of the hole as fast as possible.
Now athletes can use a bounce to come out of the hole, but we prefer just one drive out of the hole from a static position. This will not only help long-legged lifters, but it will help short-legged lifters as well. A lot of short-legged lifters struggle pulling off the floor because they tend to not have as long of hamstrings and strong of a lower back as long-legged lifters, so when using a pause back squat with short-legged lifters, they start to carry that over to the pull off the floor. It is almost exactly where they will be when setting up for the snatch or clean.
This movement is also something that can be utilized with athletes with limited ankle mobility or lower back issues. The pause will help them enhance the positions that need to be executed in the squat movement.
2. Unbroken/Maurus Tempo
An unbroken tempo, or as we like to call it, Maurus tempo, is named after Harrison Maurus. He is a tremendous back squatter. Watching him squat, he barely pauses between reps. He performs incredibly heavy back squats as if they were air squats-down, up, down up, incredibly rapid.
We think what ends up happening when performing squats at this tempo, it establishes very strong trunk control. The established trunk control helps create a tight mind-muscle connection. The focus on moving as quickly as possible dramatically improves the movement pattern dramatically, the drive out of the hole improves and the athlete’s movement is faster. The faster movement will transfer better over to higher-end weights.
We like to utilize unbroken sets as drop sets off of some heavier end movements. We also like to time athletes to see how fast they are performing the unbroken sets. The stopwatch will reveal if the athlete is moving slower than normal or are driving very, very rapidly hitting very fast times at very high weights, signaling where the lifter is at in their training to a better peak.
It is important to utilize unbroken squats on a regular basis. Just remember to utilize it for specific reasons: improve movement patterns, improve the speed of the lift, or as a gauge to see where the lifter is at in their training.
1. Double Bounce
We believe that if athletes have mobility problems, the double bounce squat will help dramatically with mobility. We also believe if the athlete needs a huge boost to get stronger, use the double bounce.
The double bounce is going to create a lot of time under tension and it will create a stretch-shortening cycle. When the bounce occurs, the muscle will get lengthened further on the second bounce than it did on the first bounce. That will trigger the GTO to fire more to recruit more high threshold motor units. Meaning, the response in the nervous system is telling the body to bring in more motor units to lift the weight. Being able to do this for two to four reps consistently, the squat will continuously grow over a long period of time.
We like to use these to peak our athletes because one, the athlete’s squat strength will improve, but two, when taking max attempts at a competition, often time on the second or third attempt in the clean and jerk there will be a double bounce component to the clean catch. This is an idea we have taken from Norik Vardanian, son of Yuri Vardanian. Yuri Vardanian utilized a double bounce at a 220+ clean and jerk at a bodyweight of 82.5 kilos--one of the best pound for pound lifters of all time and also the lightest person ever to total over 400 kilos. He utilized a double bounce consistently when going for max attempts. That is exactly why we use the double bounce.
The double bounce is a unique method to improve mobility, to force the body to recruit more motor units and it is also something the body will naturally do when taking the top end lifts in the clean and jerk. We recommend utilizing the movement once a week starting with five doubles and see an incredible increase in the back squat.
Every Olympic weightlifter needs to squat. Every Olympic weightlifter needs to get stronger. Squatting is a sure-fire way to gain absolute strength. Back squatting is great. Front squatting is great. Still, there will come moments in time when the body adapts and more is needed and slight variation in the movements have to enter to get those oh-so sought after gainz. That is why using timed eccentrics, pauses, unbroken tempos and double bounce varieties is a must for any Olympic weightlifting squat program. And if, dear reader, you ever feel like getting real fancy, go ahead and combine the different variations in a lego type of way.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.