I love squats — and you should too.
Squats have made me a better athlete. Squats have made me stronger, leaner, and more explosive. Squats have made me more mentally tough and more resistant to injury.
Given all of those benefits, you may be wondering, “How can I squat more?”
Well, I'm not the strongest guy in the gym by any stretch of the imagination — growing up, the widest part of my legs were my knees — but I have become much stronger with consistent training.
In fact, over a 4–month span I doubled my squat from a measly 175 pounds to over 350 pounds. If you want to know how to squat more, then I'm going to share all of the details about my progress in this article — including my workouts, my diet, and my training schedule.
Read on and lift heavy, my friend.
My Leg Strength When I Started
In the spring of 2010 I returned to the United States after living in Scotland for a few months. My travel schedule had been crazy: 12 countries in less than 14 weeks, which included a particularly insane span of 6 countries in 12 days.
It was an amazing time for my photography, but I wasn't making it to the gym very often. Pushups and other bodyweight exercises were about the extent of it. I committed to getting back on a proper weightlifting routine once I returned home.
My first day back in Ohio, I called Mark Cannella, the head coach at Columbus Weightlifting. (Mark is a good friend now and was an Olympic Weightlifting coach at the 2012 Olympics in London.) We set up a time for me to come in the next day.
I walked in that first day, weighed in at 196 pounds, and squatted for 5 sets of 2 reps with 176 pounds (80 kg). Four months later, I did 2 reps with 353 pounds (160 kg).
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I could have done more on that first day — but not too much more. Those 5 sets of 2 were probably about 50 pounds below my true max. (I might have been able to grind out a true two rep max with 225 pounds.) I'll talk more about why I started below my true max in a little bit, since I think it played an important role in my long–term growth.
Regardless of what my true max was on that first day, we can safely say that I increased my squat by at least 100 pounds in 16 weeks that followed. With the proper combination of training, diet, and recovery, I think you can achieve similar growth.
How to Squat More
First and foremost, I decided that squats were my number one goal. Everything else was secondary. This sounds simple, but how often do people actually structure their workouts around one goal?
When I went to the gym for those 16 weeks, I did squats every workout. (I was lifting 3 days per week.) Squats were also the first exercise that I during each workout. I wanted to make sure that I was working on my most important goal when my energy and concentration were at their best.
Compare this strategy to how most people lift: they do a wide range of exercises and rotate them frequently. I'm not saying that's a bad thing on the whole — in many cases it makes a lot of sense — but it's not conducive to achieving a specific goal. I did other exercises during that time (usually snatch, clean and jerk, and pullups), but squats were always number one.
And that's the first lesson, have a clear target and know what is most important to you. If you want to squat more, then make it your number one goal. Go after it with focus and purpose rather than dividing your energy amongst a wide range of exercises.
In fact, I'd say that this same principle holds true for most things in life. If something is important to you, do it first. Put your best energy toward the things that matter most to you.
What My Squat Workouts Looked Like
My squat program was as simple as it gets.
I just did a basic progressive overload. In other words, I squatted based on how I felt that day and each week I tried to do a little more than I had the week before. No fancy periodization scheme, no crazy Bulgarian squat protocol, no 20–rep squat program.
I also rotated front squats and back squats each workout. Back squats on Monday, front squats on Wednesday, back squats on Friday, etc.
Example 1: About halfway through the program, I had a workout where I did 120 kg (264 lbs) for 4 sets of 2 reps. The next workout, I did 120 kg for 4 sets of 4 reps. And I just kept making small increases like that — based on how my body felt each week — for the next 16 weeks.
Example 2: If I started a workout and didn't feel too hot, then I'd back it off a bit.
During one streak of three workouts I did the following…
- 4 sets of 5 reps with 110kg
- 4 sets of 3 reps with 120kg (this was tough, so I dropped it the next workout)
- 5 sets of 5 reps with 110kg
In the past, I used to be so focused on hitting my goals in a program. I was obsessed with following a detailed program or some complicated rep scheme that was never designed with my body in mind.
This time, I just told myself, “Do a little bit more today than you did last time.”
Here's the deal: you'll never get stronger if you don't place a larger stimulus on your body (more reps or more sets or more weight), but it's useless to pressure yourself to perform like that every workout. If you follow that basic principle alone, then you'll make gains.
Tracking My Squat Workouts
Want more details? Of course you do.
Below, I graphed every squat workout from April 1st through July 14th.
I did this in a Google spreadsheet where I track all my workouts, including squats.
This brings me to my next point: I track all of my workouts.
Because if you want to make progress in a particular area, then you should measure it. Again, this sounds simple, but how many things do you say are important to you without actually tracking them?
- People who “want to eat healthier,” but don't track their meals or calories.
- People who “wish they had more time,” but don't track where they spend it each day.
- People who “want more money,” but don't track where they spend it.
Now, I'm not saying that you should track everything in your life, but if you're serious about improving something, then you should be measuring it.
Plus, recording your workouts takes the emotion out of things. There are bound to be days when you don't feel like showing up. When those days roll around, you can just open up your book or spreadsheet, look at your past workouts, prove to yourself that you're still making progress, and get the little push you need to get under the bar.
For more on this, read this article on how to get motivated.
Important: Build Volume Before Intensity
As I mentioned previously, I made small, incremental increases throughout this program. Another way of thinking about my approach was that I put volume before intensity.
In my opinion, this is the biggest mistake that people make when it comes to weight training: they try to do too much, too fast. And trust me, I've been there. In the past, I would hear about the awesome progress a teammate was making or read an article about a super intense workout program and I'd immediately be inspired to do more. The next time I was in the gym, I would really push myself.
That strategy might last for a workout or two, but it's not a good way to build growth over the long–term. (Truthfully, it's not even that useful in the short–term. The push–yourself–to–the–extreme mentality is rarely feasible for more than a week or two.)
Your first workouts should be easy. When I started this squat program, I began by building volume. Remember that first workout I did? 5 sets of 2 reps with 176 pounds. That was probably 50 pounds below my true max at the time. That's good. I think most people should start slow and easy. This approach allows you to handle the intensity later on.
Build the foundation first. It will get hard enough, fast enough. It always does.
To put it simply, I ate everything I could get my hands on.
Thankfully, I wasn't a total garbage disposal for bad food. In general, I ate pretty healthy. Lots of chicken and lean meat each day. I love fruit, so apples, strawberries, and bananas were always a staple. I had a sweet potato pretty much every night at dinner and a tuna sandwich at almost every lunch. And 6 to 10 eggs for breakfast each morning (usually about 4 whole eggs and 4 egg whites).
Overall, my strategy was to eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible. That said, if I had to do it over again, I would add more vegetables to the mix.
Sleep Well and Reducing Stress
Squats will help you sleep like a baby. I was so wiped out by the time 10pm rolled around that I consistently got incredible sleep.
Furthermore, my schedule allowed me to sleep in until about 8am each morning. I would say that, on average, I got about 9 to 10 hours of sleep per day during those 16 weeks. This was critical because it allowed my body a lot of time to grow and recover. Recovery is an area that is often overlooked and I think it's a huge opportunity for strength and muscle growth for many of us.
I also implemented a tiny bedtime habit to help me pack on muscle and grow. I had a cup of peanut butter, oats, and honey, and washed it down by drinking a protein shake. Then I brushed my teeth and went to bed. (Note: I have no scientific evidence that this bedtime snack helped me get bigger and stronger. I just know that it was one of the many little things that I did during this experiment — and that during these 16 weeks I packed on muscle like I never had before.)
Perhaps more importantly, I was living a low stress lifestyle. It was my last semester of graduate school, so my work load was low. I even took a vacation and spent my “off week” hiking in the Alps in Switzerland. That week was a good mental break, but it was also nice to have a few days to recover physically.
If you're feeling overly stressed or taxed, then it's going to be hard to make the gains you want. Find a way to deal with it — breathing exercises, meditation, walking. If you want to make gains in the gym, you have to reduce the tension you carry around with you all day long.
I’m not a big fan of supplements. Most of them are supported by a lot of marketing and very little science — not a good combination.
I’m even less of a fan today than I was when I did this experiment. If I had to do it all over again, my only supplements would be whey protein and fish oil.
That said, I want to be completely open and transparent about this whole experiment, so here's a list of what I took during those 16 weeks: fish oil, whey protein, liver tablets (which are basically a tablet of protein), B–vitamin complex, and a multivitamin.
I typically took them in the following order…
- Breakfast — fish oil, liver tablet, multivitamin
- Lunch — fish oil, liver tablet, multivitamin, B–vitamin complex
- Post–workout — protein shake
- Dinner — fish oil, liver tablet, multivitamin
- Pre–bedtime — protein shake
While I think the supplements did help my progress, there were too many other factors going on for me to say for sure.
As I already mentioned, I was never missing workouts, I was getting great sleep, I was eating everything I could find, and I was living a low stress lifestyle. There were too many other great things going on at once for me to say whether or not the supplements made any difference.
Bottom line: if I were picking different areas to focus on (training, diet, recovery, supplements, etc.) supplements would be at the end of the line.
Remember, Strategies Only Work When Executed
When you squish 16 weeks into a single article, it’s easy to make my progress look like an overnight success. The truth is that it was more of a plodding and unsexy grind than anything else. I slowly and consistently implemented small changes that eventually resulted in big gains.
Most goals in life, squatting included, come down to execution.
There aren't any “unique” or “secret” ideas in this article. What made the difference for me wasn't finding a new training program or a complex squat system, it was simply executing on the ideas that I already knew worked.
Regardless of the goals that you are working towards, my bet is that you already know a few things you could do to become better. And yet, when things aren't going the way we want, what do we do? We hop online and search for a “new” training program or we hunt for the latest supplement or we read another article from our favorite expert.
In my experience, your success usually hinges on your ability to consistently do the things you already know you should be doing.
That's all I did when I blew my squat through the roof. I focused on actually implementing the solutions that I already knew worked. You don't need a new system, a better idea, or a groundbreaking discovery. You just need to do the work.
If you want to learn how to squat more, then I think these lessons are key. I also believe that these can apply to many of other goals in life.
- Decide what your most important goal is and focus on that. Everything else is secondary.
- If something is important to you, measure it and track your progress.
- Build volume first so that you can handle the intensity later.
- Sleep well and find ways to reduce stress in your life.
- It's better to use the ideas you have than to spend all of your time searching for better ideas.
Whatever your fitness goals are, I hope you found this to be a useful discussion about how to squat more.
And with that said, I'll leave you with some simple advice for life: smile often, travel far, and squat heavy.