By Terry Grant
“If you train hard, you’ll not only be hard, you’ll be hard to beat.”–Herschel Walker
“The mistake most trainees make is that they try to move too quickly for complex movements before getting the form down. But greatness resides in those who have the patience to master the patterns first, then add complexity later.” –Dan John
In Part I we learned that Squats and Deadlifts should be the cornerstone of your workout routine because they are two of the most effective exercises for building muscle mass known to man. We covered 9 tips to help you prepare your body to perform these exercises and greatly reduce any risk of injury.
In Part II we learned the importance of having a healthy level of respect for the iron and thus a strong focus on lifting with proper form and technique. I also revealed three different progressions for safely working up to a top end lift.
In this final installment, I plan to cover several variations of the squat and deadlift that you can pick and choose to use in your training programs. These variations offer many benefits:
- Allow you to learn proper form and technique
- Work your way into more advanced variations of the lifts
- Prevent muscle imbalances and overuse injuries
- Stave off boredom by rotating them in and out of your program
- Select certain variations that correlate with your goals
- Choose variations that work best with your structure and biomechanics
Squat and Deadlift Variations
There are many variations of these lifts that you can use in your arsenal to get bigger and stronger. Each variation has some advantages and disadvantages and you can select which version of the lift that will benefit you the most.
In this article, I’m just covering some of the bilateral variations of the lifts that are most popular. There are also unilateral or single leg variations of these lifts that allow you to target each leg in isolation, hitting the stabilizer muscles as well. These are important and as I suggested in Part I, these unilateral lifts work great to build basic strength and prepare you for heavier squats and deadlifts.
If you’re new to this game I highly suggest that you spend some time doing lunges, Bulgarian split squats and single leg Romanian Deadlifts before moving on to the bilateral lifts. Additionally, you may choose to perform a couple sets of single leg exercises after your compound lifts as I outlined in The Awakened Warrior Workout.
Shut up and Squat….
Goblet squats were made popular as a teaching method by the great strength coach, Dan John. He found that by using goblet squats his students were able to quickly and safely learn how to squat to depth.
I began incorporating goblet squats into my routine and was amazed at how good they felt. By good, I mean the ability to squat deep, in good form, and with little to no pain in my lower back; all things that I struggled with when doing back squats.
If you’re new to squats, you’d be wise to start here and spend some time learning proper form with lighter weight. You’d be surprised to discover that you can get an awesome leg workout in by using goblet squats. Plus, as you get stronger you’ll be able to transition nicely in to Front Squats.
You can start these off with lighter dumbbells and progress to heavier ones as you get the form and technique down. Before you know it you’ll be holding a 75+ lb dumbbell… at which point you can probably move on to front squats. Although, goblet squats rock and can always be reintegrated back into your programs for higher reps or secondary assistance exercises. Keep that in mind.
I love front squats because for my specific structure and limb length they feel a lot better than back squats. With front squats I’m able to squat deep and still maintain great form with less stress on my lower back. In this way they are very similar to Goblet Squats.
Make no mistake, the front squat is challenging and puts tremendous emphasis on your quads and core (which will be burning by the time you’re done.) In fact, because it lessens the assistance of your posterior chain you will not be able to use as much weight on the front squat as you will in the back squat.
Most athletic coaches prefer front squats to be performed with a clean grip (as shown in the pic), however since my arms are longer I find this grip to be rather difficult and painful in my wrists. If you can pull it off then you’re the man or woman as we can see in the pic!
I personally like to use the cross-arm grip like many bodybuilders incorporate. There is also another grip method I may try where you attach lifting straps to the bar and hold onto the straps in a similar position to the clean grip. Just visualize the woman in the pic with her hands slightly above the bar holding onto lifting straps as handles.
This is the exercise that most people think of when they hear the word SQUATS! It’s the King Daddy, the Grand Poobah, the Godfather of all barbell exercises. It turns mice into men… men into warriors… and transforms mere mortals into Gods… okay, I’m getting a little carried away here, but you get the point.
The back squat hits the posterior chain (low back, glutes, hamstrings) with more emphasis than the front squat. Because it has the added assistance of these muscles you can typically lift a lot more weight than in the front squat. However, you must have a strong core to stabilize your spine as you drive the weight up with your legs. A weak core can limit your transfer of power and/or cause a breakdown in form.
With back squats it’s generally acceptable to squat to parallel (see pic) or even slightly below parallel. The key to staying healthy is to go as low as you can while maintaining neutral spine. If your lower back starts to round at all, you should go no lower than that point (better to stop before it rounds) until you increase the flexibility in your ankles and hips. This increased mobility should allow you to squat safely at a lower depth.
Goblet squats and fronts squats should help with this and also strengthen your core. That is why I generally recommend starting with those lifts first. Usually people with longer legs and arms may find back squats somewhat challenging at first, until they learn how to adapt the lift to their specific biomechanical structure.
A variation of the back squat that can be used to increase bone density, tendon and ligament strength, and overall ability and feel of handling heavier weights is the partial squat or quarter squat. This exercise is best done in a squat rack with safety pins set to the depth you want.
At first you may just want to move the weight a couple of inches and work the top lockout portion of the squat with heavy weight. This is a favorite of Nick Nilsson who swears by these “Partial Lockout Squats” as he calls them. Now he is able to load over a thousand pounds on the bar and uses this technique to strengthen his skeletal structure.
Another method would be to set the pins a little lower which allows the top quarter range of the squat. Partial squats will allow you to handle slightly heavier weight and work in the strongest range of motion. This will strengthen your bones and connective tissue while preparing you physically and mentally to lift even heavier poundage. As you get stronger you may also consider lowering the pins little by little, thus increasing the range of motion over time.
Partial squats should typically be used for a limited amount of time, as they can take their toll on the body. Also, it’s important that you include exercises that do have full range of motion in your program as well. Maybe add a few bodyweight squats or lunges to the mix to keep your full range.
Grip, Dip and Rip….
This is an exercise that goes hand in hand with goblet squats and was also taught by Dan John under the name “Potato Sack Squats.” Since it is a type of deadlift where you pick the vertical dumbbell (goblet style) off of the floor… I took the liberty of calling it a Goblet Deadlift.
The key here is to use proper deadlifting form… this is not a squat. You want to make sure you are pushing your hips back first and then lower the dumbbell to the ground just like you would if you were doing a regular deadlift or Romanian deadlift.
Just like with Goblet Squats, this is a great exercise to start off with as a beginner. You can start with lighter weight to focus on proper form and increase as you get stronger. Once you reach a certain level of strength you’ll be better prepared to move on to trap bar deadlifts or even barbell deadlifts if a trap bar is unavailable to you.
As you start lifting heavier dumbbells your grip and finger strength will also be tested here. Just a little bonus for you!
Trap Bar Deadlift
This is another one of my favorites because of how it spares the stress on your spine that is caused from regular barbell deadlifts. With the bar in front of the body, as it is in your standard barbell deadlift, the weight shifts forward from the center line of gravity. This shift causes shearing forces against the lumbar spine and can exacerbate low back pain, which deadlifts are notorious for.
I love trap bar deadlifts because it is a little more forgiving on the good ol’ back. The trap bar and super deadlift bar are two bars designed in a way that the weight can be lifted within the center line of gravity, eliminating most of the shearing forces and allowing the spine to handle the compressive forces it handles fairly well. In addition to that, your hands can grip the bar in a neutral position, which can be safer for the shoulders and biceps tendons.
Many strength coaches have opted for the trap bar deadlift over the barbell deadlift and have most of their athletes using this version for safety and efficiency. Unless you’re a powerlifter or have an unwavering love for the barbell deadlift, you should consider making this your primary deadlift variation. I’m just sayin’
This is a classic and probably one of the first barbell exercises ever created. Nothing is simpler, more basic and primal as bending down and picking up some heavy ass object off of the ground… in this case it’s a bar made of solid iron!
The barbell deadlift is one of the greatest muscle building exercises next to the squat. Many argue that it surpasses the squat and I’m sure this debate will go on forever! It’s great for posterior chain and overall back thickness and development. This particular variation hits the spinal erectors hard, while both glutes and hamstrings get rocked as well. And let’s not forget about your upper back, traps and forearms.
The only downside to this exercise is its demand of flawless technique. This is one you need to have solid form on because the bar has to travel slightly in front of the center line of gravity. This causes additional shearing forces on the spine which can lead to lower back pain for those with less than stellar technique. For some individuals this will be relevant then with others.
Those with longer femurs may find it challenging to get the weight around their knees and must consciously remember the importance of sitting back or pushing the hips back before lowering the weight. Those with a strong core and lower back and slightly longer torso may excel in this lift.
Partial Deadlift (Rack Pull)
Sometimes doing the full range of motion can be overrated… enter partials and the rack pull. By limiting the range of motion you can use heavier weight, work the lockout portion of the deadlift and hit the back hard. Be sure to maintain proper deadlifting form or else they may be little carryover when you go back to pulling from the floor.
Rack pulls can be used to teach beginners the deadlift or for people who are lacking the necessary flexibility and mobility to deadlift from the floor. Advanced trainees use rack pulls to bring up weaknesses they may have locking out the weight.
One way to do them is to set the barbell on boxes as pictured. However, most lifters will perform these in a power cage or squat rack off of the safety pins. You can set the pins at slightly below knee level or even above knee level depending on your goal for this lift.
As is the case with partial squats… rack pulls or partial deadlifts should typically be used for a limited amount of time. You may decide to spend a month focusing on heavy rack pulls before returning to another variation of the lift.
Wrapping Up Part III
Well this concludes my series on The Foundation of a Mass Building Workout Routine. We’ve covered a lot of material and yet barely scratched the surface… so my work here has only just begun! Haha
After reading this series I hope you’ve come to value and appreciate the squat, deadlift and their many variations. Using these exercises as the foundation and cornerstone of your workout routines will stimulate your muscles to the max and force your body to release a flood of mass building hormones into your bloodstream.
As previously mentioned… greater returns often involve greater risks and to capitalize on these returns one must first accept and then do his best to diminish those risks with intelligent programming and workout routines.
You can also use the 3 P’s… practice, patience and progress:
Practice- many believe strength is a skill and to achieve proficiency in any skill you must practice. Stay away from failure and keep your reps lower so you don’t burn yourself out or injure yourself. Train for success…. Not failure!
Patience- take your time on your journey. There’s no need to rush this process by trying to lift more than you can handle or pushing to the extreme. Realize that getting big and strong takes time and you have to allow your body that time to adapt.
Progress- the name of the game is to constantly be getting better over time. If you’re lifting the same weight as you lifted last year… don’t be surprised that you look the same. Adding weight to the bar in small increments over time adds up and produces results.
Train with heart,