by Stephen Brindle
Two and a half years ago my squat max was 407 lbs. Two months ago at the USAPL Raw National Meet I squatted 507 lbs. This is the SECOND part of a two part series on “How I Squatted 500”. Part 1 can be found at: http://basbarbell.blogspot.com/2011/11/stephen-brindlehow-i-squatted-500.html
After humbling myself, I did what Steel told me to for the whole summer of 2009. I mainly did grueling Sheiko workouts. They paid off and in a meet in August of 2009 I squatted 458. My squat jumped 50 pounds in three months while staying in the same weight class. After that I got a strength and conditioning job at the University of Pittsburgh and wrote my own programs for about 10 months until I started working with Steel at Penn in the summer of 2010. I had a crappy meet in August of 2010 and didn’t hit any PRs. I believe I was plateauing doing the Sheiko variations. After that, Steel started writing me individualized workouts and I’ve been on them ever since. In December of 2010 I squatted 479 at a meet, and a few months ago I squatted 507 at the Raw Nationals. Since I started listening to Coach Steel my squat has jumped 100 lbs; from 407 to 507. I’ve done all this with my bodyweight only going up 7 lbs (205 to 212). Aside from protein shakes and occasional creatine use, I haven’t taken any supplements. All of those numbers are raw maxes with strict USAPL judging. My next goal is to get 515 lbs sometime soon. Here are some of the major things that helped my squat improve.
Steel helped me with my technique in a major way. Before I met him I used to do an Olympic style squat. The bar was high on my shoulders, my head was up, eyes up, and my chest was almost vertical on each rep. This is how I was taught to squat by other strength coaches I had worked. Steel had me change from a high bar position to a low bar position, squatting with my eyes down and using my hips more, rather than just keeping my chest vertical. Keeping the eyes down and chin tucked allows the bar to stay over the middle of the foot. For those of who you have read Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, you know that keeping the bar over the middle of the foot allows the bar to be positioned in line with your center of gravity, which is your most mechanically advantageous position to lift the weight. Instead of keeping my chest totally vertically when squatting I started to use more of a lean and use the hips more. The chest is still positioned up and the rib cage up but not totally vertical. Using the hips more and giving up the lower back at times has helped me push past the sticking point on many reps I didn’t think I could get. Steel helped me realize the importance of staying tight on every rep and taking a huge breath of air before every rep. He stressed the importance of not breathing out until the very end of the rep in order to stay tight. Steel always emphasizes speed on the squat; on both the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift. That has helped my lifts a lot by being able to utilize the stretch-reflex better.
Stopped Majoring in the Minors
One of the things I noticed that I was doing wrong prior to Coach Steel working with me was not paying enough attention to my technique on the major lifts. I was doing too much volume on the assistance work and not enough volume on the main lifts you get tested in at powerlifting meets! I made the mistake of majoring in the minors. Do you want to get good at shooting free throws? Then shoot lots of free throws, not three pointers. Want to get good at squatting? Then do lots of sets of squats, not single leg RDLs on a Bosu ball. Previously, I would periodize my program and do something like 3 x 6 x 80 on the squat. When I started doing workouts like 6 x 3 x 80 or 10 x 1 x 90 I noticed I got stronger. This is likely because each rep was a quality rep done with speed and good technique. Here are some examples of tough workouts that Steel has had me do in preparing for meets.
405 lbs (86% at the time) x 60 total reps
93% 10 x 1
85% for 5x5
95% for 6 sets of 1
Greasing the Groove
The first program Steel gave me was a Sheiko powerlifting program. For those of you who have tried it you know how brutal the workouts can be. The volume is insane. Many times you have to do two squat sessions in one workout! One thing I’ve learned is that doing multiple sets of squats really helps your set-up. I have a certain routine checklist I go through every single time I approach the bar for a set.
“Shrug up, elbows high, walk it out 1-2, toes out, eyes down, huge breath, hips back, fast on the way down, fast bounce out of the bottom, finish, and rack.” I go through this checklist on every single set whether it’s a 225 warm-up set or 500 lbs. My goal is for every rep to look the same. Same set-up, same depth, same speed. Neuromuscularlly, that recruitment pattern gets engrained to the point where it’s almost second nature. Steel calls this “greasing the groove”.
Managing Assistance Work
I’ve done assistance work over the last few years but have been more selective as to what exercises I do. The one exercise that I believe has helped me the most has been standard goodmornings. They strengthen my low back and hamstrings without stressing them so much that I can’t recover. They also help me to utilize my hips on the squat. Many times during an all-out grueling set you have to give up your low back and lean forward a little bit. The goodmornings really help with this.
I used to go really heavy on RDLs in the past but I found when it came time to deadlift later in the week my lower back was still fatigued from the RDLs. I do RDLs occasionally now but with medium weight. I still throw in some leg press from time to time, but I never substitute leg press for squats. It is just an assistance exercise for me that helps my legs grow. I will throw in lunges sometimes using medium weight. I used to go real heavy on barbell lunges and step-ups just about every week. Does it really matter how much I can lunge though? Last I checked they don’t test the lunge exercise at a powerlifting meet. The last few years I rarely did any form of step-ups, front squats or cleans. I haven’t done one box squat whatsoever (Might write an article on why sometime soon). Most of the aforementioned exercises are not bad exercises, but I’ve found I don’t need to do them to help my maxes go up. I’ve realized I can’t repeatedly go real heavy on them and recover for my next squat or deadlift session.
Learning How to Push Past the Struggle
When I used to write my own programs I would often squat weight that I knew I could get. Since I didn’t always have a training partner I wouldn’t always select sets where there was a possibility that I could fail. Our whole staff at Penn lifts together so I always have someone to spot me or check my form, which has been a huge help. Steel has given me workouts that help me to learn how to struggle with heavy weight; struggle yet be victorious! I believe this has been pivotal in increasing my max. A true max is never going to be easy. It’s going to be a struggle and it’s going to be painful. You’re going to turn red and see white spots. Experiencing this struggle needs to happen before you get to a meet! It’s going to hurt but how great is the feeling after you hit a PR and get three white lights from the judges?!
Something I really appreciate about Coach Steel’s program is that there are always new challenges being thrown at me on a frequent basis. He’s given me workouts that have caused me to doubt myself like crazy. However, it’s a great feeling when I kill a rep scheme or percentage that I didn’t think I could get. Whether it’s a rep record or a new max I always look forward to the challenges he gives me. Many times I think he gives me certain workouts for the mental strength it will produce rather than the physiological changes. Getting past these grueling sessions builds up a high level of confidence. It helps me to get into “Peanut Mode” on a regular basis! (More on “Peanut Mode” coming soon!)
Stephen Brindle is an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached for training consultations or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also a hip-hop artist and you can buy his music on iTunes at http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/believin-stephen/id291666425