by Robert Maxwell
A while back, I wrote an article detailing the training program I used at that time, and recommended to my personal training clients. I have since made some changes to the program, which I feel are significant enough that I should let you know what they are. No matter how much knowledge you have in a particular field, It’s important to never stop learning. It’s also vital to experience something yourself in order to fully understand it. This is certainly true of strength training. This experience should be ongoing, leading to increasingly specialized knowledge over time. The last several months in particular have been very instructive for me in my own strength building journey, and my experiences have led me to make the following three changes to my training program.
Change 1: I Now Squat Low Bar
If you’re not familiar with barbell training, you might not be aware that there are two basic styles of barbell back squat: high bar and low bar. The difference, as you can probably guess, boils down to the point on your back where the bar is supported. High bar, or olympic style squats involve placing the bar on top of the traps, at the base of the neck. With low bar squats, your torso is bent over more, and you support the bar on the rear deltoids, forming a muscular shelf to keep the weight from rolling down your back. For most of the years I’ve been squatting, high bar has been my chosen style. There’s no particular reason for this - it’s just the way I’ve always squatted and seemed to come most naturally to me. At least that’s what I thought until recently. I made the decision to go low bar after reviewing my training footage and noticing some bar path issues with my old squat. I was consistently having trouble keeping the bar moving in a straight, vertical path for the entire movement. This is the most efficient way to move weight when squatting, but whenever I squatted a weight heavy enough to be a struggle, the bar would lurch forward as I began my ascent. That’s why I decided to try moving the weight down my back slightly to see if it helped. For a while, I did what some call the “hybrid squat”, which has the same mechanics of a regular high bar squat, but the bar is just an inch or so lower. Eventually, I realized my bar path issues and particular limb leverages were best suited to the full-blown low bar squat. Since shifting the bar down to my rear delts and bending over more, I’ve made more progress in the squat in 3 months than the previous year of squatting high bar style.
Change 2: I Save the Heaviest Weights for the Final Set
With my old workout regime, I would do a few warmup sets, then do 4 working sets, all with the same maximal weight. I figured this was the best way to get stronger, since it involved a lot of muscular effort. Trouble was, this approach often left me feeling way too sore, tired, and discouraged by minor injuries. To top it off, I wasn’t even getting much stronger. That’s when I decided to adjust my approach, doing my first working set with a relatively light weight, then incrementally adding plates to the bar, culminating in a final sat with a very heavy, challenging weight. This might seem like a minor change, but it quickly helped me gain lots of strength, confidence, and avoid the burnout I used to feel following a tough workout. Don’t get me wrong - my workouts are still far from easy, and sweat always flows freely by the time I reach my final set. It’s just that now, the sessions are sustainable. They’re also far less likely to leave me injured. The increments by which I increase working weight depend on the exercise I’m doing. For squats, I usually add 20 pounds to the bar with each set, resulting in a 80 to 90 pound jump from the first set to the last.
Change 3: I Belt Up for Most Squat Sets
If you’ve been following this website for a while, you may have read some of my thoughts regarding lifting belts. I get lots of questions about these: what are they for, whether or not they’re cheating, what type is best, and specifically when they should be worn. Previously, I’ve stated that for high-volume work under the bar involving sets of 8 or 10, there’s no need to belt up. Although I haven’t completely changed my stance on this, I have personally started to wear a belt for my high volume work, including sets of 8, 10, and 12. The reason is simple. I’m much stronger now, and using considerably heavier weights at high volume than previously. A lifting belt offers me protection and reassurance that I’m less likely to get injured. Although I still believe there’s a significant place for non-belted lifting, when moving hundreds of pounds, belting up is a legitimate form of help. My rule of thumb is to do most warm-up sets of squats, deadlifts, and overhead press beltless, then belt up when the weight gets significantly higher than 200 pounds.