Try These 9 Exercises for a Better Squat

with Personal Trainer Joseph Freeman

We usually think of working out as a means to improve mobility and endurance for day-to-day living, like running errands or keeping up with rambunctious kids and grandkids. But, depending on your fitness goals, exercise can also be used to help you…do more exercise! As an extreme example, before a weightlifter can perform a 600-pound deadlift, they have to practice deadlifting with less weight, and they have to strengthen all muscle groups required to perform that movement. You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to put this idea into practice. Here, one of our trainers will be reviewing movements you can use to build up to performing specific exercises with optimal power and form.

1. Light Squat With A Pause

For this exercise, choose a lighter weight to focus on endurance rather than strength. (A) Stand with your feet spread so that shoelaces are in line with your armpits. (B) With feet flat on the floor, hinge at the hips first, then bend at the knees as you lower your body toward the floor. Focus more on keeping your chest forward and head neutral than increasing your range of motion. Once you feel the glutes and hamstrings engage, pause for three seconds, then return to standing. Adding a three-second pause at the bottom (a.k.a. an isometric muscle contraction) will challenge your endurance and improve stabilization. Repeat for 4 sets of 10 reps.

2. Sit-Ups

(A) Lying on your back on the floor or utilizing a sit-up bench, bend your knees about 90 degrees. If set on the floor, your feet or heels should remain firmly planted throughout the exercise; find a friend to hold your ankles or use some kind of anchor, like the edge of a couch or cable stack, to keep your feet on the ground if needed. (B) Engage your core to bring your chest up toward your knees, then lower yourself back to start. Repeat for 4 sets of 10-15 reps.

Hand Placement Modifications

Generally, reaching your hands closer to your hips will help to keep the chest out and put less strain on the neck; keeping your hands closer to your chest and head necessitates more core engagement to keep your torso from curling and neck from straining. The below modification are listed in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest:

  1. Hands gliding over the knees
  2. Hands reaching parallel to the floor or bench (shown)
  3. Hands across chest
  4. Hands across chest with elbows raised
  5. Hands aimed toward the ceiling
  6. Hands placed behind the head

3. Romanian Deadlift

(A) Grab two dumbbells of the same weight or a barbell, choosing weight(s) lighter than you would for a typical deadlift. Set up with feet hip-width apart, toes facing forward, and arms extended so that the dumbbells fall in front of your hips. Hinging at the hips and maintaining a flat back, lower your weight(s) in a straight path toward the floor, then reverse the motion and return to standing. (B1) Lowering the weight(s) tight to the shins will result in more lower back muscle recruitment, (B2) while lowering the weight(s) over the toes will engage the hamstrings more. While your knees can bend a little, the majority of the movement should come from the hips. Repeat for 4 sets of 10 reps.

4. Pelvic Bridges

(A) Lay face up on the floor and plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. (B) Drive through the heels to raise the hips, creating a straight line from knees to shoulders. Maintain constant core engagement throughout the motion. Hold at the top for one count, then lower to the floor and repeat for 4 sets of 10-15 reps.

5. Supermans

(A) Grab a mat and lay face-down on the floor. Extend your arms straight out in front of you and your legs straight behind with feet together or slightly separated. (B) For more upper-body activation, leave your feet in place and only raise the top half of the body from the floor. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears and resist the urge to look up in front of you as this places unnecessary strain on the neck. Your arms can stay extended up front, or you can swing your arms out. Bringing your arms to the sides, bending the elbows, and squeezing the shoulder blades will add additional upper-back engagement. Repeat 4 sets of 10 reps.

6. Ball Transfers

(A) Grab an exercise ball and lie on your back on the floor. Start with the ball between both hands with arms extended above your head and legs outstretched together. (B) Keeping arms extended, transfer the exercise ball from your hands to between your feet. Extend the arms and legs to lower feet and hands toward the ground, maintaining as straight a line between your hips and feet as possible, (C) then reverse the motion and pass the ball back to your hands. The more extended your legs are, the more challenging the exercise becomes. Repeat for 3 sets of 14 total passes, 7 to feet and
7 to hands.

7. Cable Hip Flexion

(A) Grab an ankle attachment and set the cable height as low as it can go. Face away from the cable stack, plant your non-weighted foot on the floor, and use a bench or something tall and sturdy to stabilize yourself. (B) Pull through the hip flexor and lower abdominals to bring the knee of your working leg up toward your chest. The sharper the angle between your body and the floor, the harder the exercise will be. Repeat this exercise for 3 sets of 20 reps total, 10 per leg.

8. Isolateral Leg Presses

Isolateral leg presses are simply leg presses performed with one leg at a time or with each leg manipulating weight independent of the other. (A) Focus on keeping your knee in line with the pressing foot and bearing the majority of the weight on the pressing heel. (B) Engage your core as you press the platform away from your body. Slow, controlled movements will increase muscle endurance, increase stabilization, and protect the lower back. Repeat for 4 sets of 20 reps total, 10 reps per leg.

9. Oblique Crunches

(A) Lay on your side, resting your hip on the center of a bosu ball close enough to plant your feet against a wall. Positioning your hip further away from the center of the bosu ball will add more support to the obliques, making the exercise easier to perform. Stagger your feet heel to toe and, (B) keeping shoulders, hips, and feet all in one line, pull your elbow up in the direction of your hip to raise your upper body, then return to neutral and repeat. Repeat for 3 sets of 20 reps total, 10 reps per side.

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