Originally published in Jiu-Jitsu Magazine
As a jiu-jitsu athlete, you probably aren't interested in gaining 100 lbs of muscle. But you would love to have more power and a stronger core while not having to sacrifice hours on the mat for hours in the gym. And you’d also like to look better with your shirt off. Yes, that’s right, the squat will add size and definition to your chest and arms too because it activates muscle growth throughout your body, not just in your legs. The squat needs to be part of your regular training program, especially if you don’t have a lot of extra time to hang out in the gym.
The classic barbell back squat was introduced to Americans in the 1920s by German immigrant Milo Steinborn. He used a flat footed style that allowed the use of much heavier weights than the American style of the time, which was performed up on the toes. Milo also had a unique method of squatting with no rack. He would take a 550lb barbell, lift it up so it was standing on one end, then lower it down onto his shoulders, center and balance it, and then squat. He took the bar down the same way. Milo was still squatting 400lbs late into his 70s, and he lifted into his eighties. Steinborn was physically strong, but perhaps even stronger mentally. He owned a pocket watch for many years that was engraved “H. Milo Steinborn, 3-14-1893. Expected departure: 1989.” He died at 95 years old in 1989.
Milo influenced a whole generation of bodybuilders and strongmen, including Mark Berry. Berry was the editor of Strength magazine, and the coach of the 1932 and 1936 US Olympic weight lifting team. Berry implemented training regimes inspired by Milo and refined them through testing and measuring results both on himself and his students. He ushered in the use of the squat rack, which brought a much needed level of safety to his team, who were regularly working with weights in the 300lb – 500lb range.
The core exercise in Berry’s programs was the barbell back squat. And his writing in Strength magazine combined with the amazing results of his athletes and the people who followed his formula, built the foundation for the idea of the squat as the king of exercises.
The athletes who were following programs developed by Berry and some of his students were not just getting stronger in squats, but they were getting stronger in everything. They were adding on pounds of muscle throughout their core, including their chests and arms.
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One of Berry’s students was a famous power lifter named J. C. Hise, who took up a program of “Heavy breathing squats + wholesome food + milk + rest” and gained over 29 lbs of muscle during a single month. Hise trained outside with a rack improvised between his tool shed and a tree in the yard, proving that expensive or fancy equipment isn't required to get great results with squats. J.C. developed a system of breathing squats that required at least 3 deep breaths in between each repetition.
Starting with Steinborn, Berry, and Hise, in the 1930s, and continuing throughout the 1970s, it was understood that no matter what your specific sports goals were, if you wanted to be stronger you needed to squat. And heavy breathing squats were the single most efficient and effective way to gain strength and size in the gym.
Since then, many athletes have lost sight of this simple truth in an increasingly confusing sea of products, programs and promoters. But with all the advances in science, training, and nutrition, there still isn’t anything that comes close to the benefits you’ll get from heavy squats. So let’s get busy.
Old School Programs
The classic old school program is a single set of 20 ‘breathing’ squats. Here’s how it works.
To start with, select a working weight of 75% of your bodyweight. It’s better to start too light than too heavy as we’ll be adding weight every time you lift and your form is more important than the amount you lift. Take 60% of your working weight and put that on the bar for 2 sets of warm ups. If you don’t have the exact plates you need, just get as close as you can.
If you weigh 180lbs, your working weight will be 135lbs (180 x .75) and your warm up weight will be 85lbs (135 x .60 rounded to fit available plates). You’ll do 2 sets of 10 squats at the warm up weight, and then one set of 20 reps at your working weight. After you’ve finished your squats you’ll do one light set of 20 pull overs using a 15lb – 20lb dumbbell or plate.
That’s basically it. You’ll repeat this workout 2x each week with at least 3 days between lifts for recovery. Each workout you’ll add 10lbs to your squat working weight. If you miss your reps you’ll need to repeat the same workout the next time, at the same weight, until you hit all 20 reps and then you’ll move up again. Run this program for 8 weeks with the goal of hitting your body weight for a working weight. At 180lbs and 20 reps that’s an estimated one rep max of 382lbs, which would make you an absolute beast.
Form for the squat is absolutely critical, and often abused. This is one place not to cheat as you’ll be setting yourself up for injury if you don’t practice strict form when squatting heavy.
Ideally you’ll squat inside a rack with safety chains or bars that will catch the weight and not let it land on top of you in the event of a failed rep or bailout. If you don’t have a rack that can catch the weight, then never squat without a couple of spotters on each end of the bar.
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You’ll want a pair of flat bottomed shoes for squatting, something like a Converse All-Star or wrestling shoe works great. You can also lift in bare feet, just be careful when moving around plates. Olympic lifters have specialized shoes with a heel, but for this program you don’t need those. Power lifters use lifting belts, but they will interfere with your breathing so train without a belt if you can.
Set your bar in the rack at a height about even with the middle of your chest and load it. Take a grip just slightly wider than shoulder width apart and put your neck under the center of the bar. As you step under the bar with both feet wider than shoulder width apart, lift your chin up and rotate your elbows forward and in towards your chest while you drive your chest out. The bar should now be resting on the shelf just below the base of your neck that you created with your posture. Take a deep breath and push it into your belly, lock the tension into your upper body and drive the bar up out of the rack pushing against your heels on the floor. Take one step backwards (two max) and recheck your posture.
Mental Posture Check List – perform before each rep:
Once you've finished your mental checklist take at least 3 deep breaths, taking in as much air as you can and driving the breath all the way down into your belly. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. On your final breath, take it in and hold it as you begin your descent. As you start your ascent at the bottom of the squat you’ll expel that final breath through your mouth using it to help drive your lift back to the top.
As you begin your descent it’s very important that your upper body stays locked in position with your eyes tracking your target. If you find that you can’t keep your upper body locked practice with lower weights until you can master the form before moving up in weight.
As you descend, your glutes go both down and slightly backwards – there is no need to make a huge exaggerated movement back, they will track properly as long as you keep the upper body in tension and don’t let the weight shift forward. The weight in your feet should be on your heals with a slight amount on the outside of the edge of the foot. The heals of your feet should never come off the ground, and you should not feel any weight or pressure on the inside edge of your foot. Your knees should track a straight line even with the angle of your foot; they should not wobble or track in or out during the lift. Continue down until your thighs are below parallel with the floor. Now simultaneously drive with your heals directly up through the bar as you forcefully expel the air from your belly out through your mouth.
Now, take at least 3 more deep breaths, more if needed. Repeat the mental posture checklist, and repeat the squat motion.
Range of Motion for Squats
It’s not unusual for you to need to work on your range of motion before you can do a proper squat. Most people are restricted in either their hips or their ankles. It’s a great idea to determine your mobility and range of motion before you get yourself trapped underneath a fully loaded bar.
Here’s a quick test. Take an empty bar (even a broomstick will work for this) and stand facing the wall about a foot away. Press the bar up over your head. Now, with your feet at squatting width apart, slowly do a squat down to below parallel and back up. If you mashed your face into the wall or fell on your ass, you failed the mobility test – best to fix that now.
There is a myth that squats are bad for the knees. This is only true if you use bad technique – specifically not going low enough in your squats. While it might be counter intuitive, partial squats place a huge stress on the knee and create imbalance between the quads and glutes. A full deep squat equalizes the forces on the knee and will help you avoid knee pain and injury.
A simple method for improving overall hip and ankle flexibility and range of motion is called the pry in. Find something you can hold onto (a column or pole in the basement works great for this) and simply work yourself down into a deep, butt on the ground squatting position. Once you’re down really move around and loosen up the hips and ankles. Do this simple exercise for 2-3 minutes a few times a day. It’s great for keeping loose and will pay off on the mat and under the squat rack.
There is a lot of debate about the proper width for your feet during a heavy squat. Power lifters take an extremely wide stance to limit the range of motion of the weight. One the other hand, if your feet are too close together you won’t properly engage all the muscle groups to help with the lift. The answer is somewhere in between extremely wide and shoulder width. Both the proper width of your feet, and the angle out of your feet are unique to your body and you’ll need to experiment to find the most comfortable and stable position.
In a future article we’ll explore some great squat alternatives for guys with bad backs or limited range of motion, without access to squat racks, and people more interested in improving flexibility and range of motion than overall strength.
Lifting and Hormonal Response
Studies have shown that resistance training has the capacity to increase your production of testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). It can also reduce your production of the stress hormone cortisol. The biggest release of these critical hormones happens after intense lifts of moderate repetitions that engage large groups of muscle fibers. Hitting the gym for a few dumbbell curls just isn’t going to give your system the shock it needs to dump out those hormones and stimulate muscle growth. And even if you’re not looking to get bigger, nothing will help your recovery time from intense jiu-jitsu training as much as a nice boost of T and HGH.