How to increase your back squat in weightlifting with pin squats, tempo squats, and banded squats

Mastering the Squat: Three Overlooked Squat Variations

You will be hard-pressed to find a weightlifter who isn’t looking to further develop their squat (back, front) max or technical execution. Unless you have reached the acclaimed Ilya Ilyin 2014 status your best bet is to keep improving the squat and its variations. As simple as this sounds, many people struggle the most with this aspect of their training. This stems, at least partly, from a lack of understanding basic programming concepts, not just the general principles but the less discussed points. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Inter-individual variability in the dose-response relationship to intensity and volume
  • Fluctuations in day to day and week to week performance, caused by a plethora of bio, psycho, and social factors
  • The hindrance that specificity could have on motor learning, implying that more movement variability leads to improved rates of learning/skill acquisition

Of course, there’s a subtlety to these points, but the overarching ideas hold true.

This article will highlight squat variations, relatively unknown or underused versions of the lift, that will improve the efficacy of your or your athlete’s programming, squat execution, and, ideally, squat max. 

Squat Variation #1 – Pin Squat

This is a variation I have seen used somewhat infrequently in the weightlifting world, but when it is, it’s commonly done incorrectly.

Before you begin the lift, set the pins in the squat cage, or blocks if you are using those instead, to depth for your specific squat. For some people the pins would end up around parallel and for others lower, but the point is to try and replicate your bottom position. Once the set-up is ready, the lift is executed like a normal squat:

From the top down, unrack the weight, walk back, and squat down, deccelerating more than normal as you approach the pins. The bar will gently touch the pins/blocks and settle onto them. The weightlifter must keep tightness throughout their body when this is happening. Do not unload the weight onto the pins. The pin squat isn’t a settle-and-release type of movement.

There are many reasons why you would use a pin squat, most notably:

  • The development of strength and positioning out of the bottom position of the squat. When the barbell settles onto the pins there is a moment where you are able to re-organize yourself and be more deliberate pushing “into” the bar and keeping the knees forward as you squat back up. 
  • The slower tempo into the pins helps the lifter become more deliberate and comfortable with this deep position.
  • Pin squats are generally done with less weight and can effectively alter the amount or position of training stress within a workout, executed on days with higher intensities snatches or cleans preceding this.

Programming Example

Very general programming guidelines would include: a heavier set, to establish work with weights around the technique threshold and then some back off sets to accumulate volume and further refine the skill of pin squatting. 

  • Example: 3×3 at RPE 7, 8, 9, then -15% for 3×5

Squat Variation #2 – Tempo Squat

Although this squat variation is pretty common, there are iterations of the tempo squat which can be used to achieve a few different ends that I would like to highlight. As far as execution, this squat, be it back or front, is performed as normal, altered by the amount of time it takes to perform the eccentric (lowering), isometric (bottom), concentric (raising), or a combination of the three phases of the movement. 

The tempo squat comes in many different variations, with plenty of benefits:

  • Altering the tempo of each individual phase of the movement (ecc/con/iso) can greatly improve movement quality. The increased time under the bar allows the athlete to readjust and reposition to find the most efficient movement to accomplish the task.
  • The increased time under the bar is another means of improving work capacity, the ability to tolerate higher volumes of training, without adding sets/reps. 
  • An increased isometric, or pause in the bottom of the squat, confers many benefits, mostly aiding in squatting technique and force production from that specific position.
  • Slowing down the concentric, or ascent of the squat, improves technique out of the out of the bottom position and can help override a common instinct to shoot the hips back or let the knees dive in.

Programming Example

Very general programming guidelines would include: slowing down the phase with the greatest inefficiency, adjusting the length of the tempo as the training cycle/cycles go on, using this as a load management tool.

  • Example to improve work capacity: 4/2/0 tempo for 3×8 at RPE 6, 7, 8
  • Example of a more technical prescription: 3/0/3 tempo for 3×5 at RPE 7-8 (~65-70%) 
  • Example of a “load centric” prescription:
    • W1: 1×3 – 0/3/0, W2: 1×3 – 0/2/0, W3: 1×3 – 0/1/0, W4: 3RM 0/0/0

*The numbers used in annotating tempo are to be read as follows.

3/1/2 – 3 seconds eccentric (lowering), 1 second isometric (pause), 2 seconds concentric (standing). The number 0 means ‘no pause’ or ‘as fast as possible’.

Squat Variation #3 – Squat with Bands 

This is an exercise and tool I was hesitant to use, though I started recognizing its utility more recently. Admittedly, I am no expert when it comes to using bands as a training tool, but I will give my initial thoughts and share a few that I picked up when speaking with more experienced coaches.

There are plenty of ways to vary the banded squat, but I limit its use to a band hooked around a pin near the bottom of the squat rack. Instead of typing out how to elaborately organize this set-up, I’ll include a visual aid (here). 

The benefits seem to be wide ranging, but this is why I use the variation:

  • After speaking with Kevin Cann of Precision Powerlifting Systems I noticed one of the benefits he mentioned with regards to the first rep of the movement. Squatting with bands highlights walkout inefficiencies. This may not mean much to most of you, but it should. Walking the weight out of the rack correctly and setting up in a good position without unnecessarily wasting energy and effort is nothing but beneficial for maximizing the training effect of the squat. How many times have you seen someone clumsily unrack the weight, wobble around, only to set-up in a poor position and continue to have to re-adjust as the set goes on? The banded variation drags you, whether you like it or not, to the exact position you need to be in, highlighting and rewarding proper tightness and efficiency in the set-up and walk out.
  • Another perk of this squat variation is its emphasis on the top ½ – ⅓ of the squat. Athletes need to understand that effort is a critical component to success within all domains of training. Besides cueing this, (“fast”, “strong”, “accelerate”) we can teach it with variations such as a squat with bands. The bands pulls the bar down, increasing the downward force on the bar as the band stretches, forcing the athlete to continue driving up. Where have we seen this before? The explosion phase of the snatch/clean, and the upward drive of the jerk dip. 
  • Since the bands pull down harder as they stretch, this can be used to overload a portion of the movement. Imagine being able to put 10-20% more weight than you can normally lift on the barbell and use it to create a beneficial training effect. It is akin to using a snatch balance or jerk recovery. 

Programming Example

Very general programming guidelines would include: not going too overboard with the band tension (~20% of total barbell load), keeping the sets heavier than other variations, keeping similar rep back-off sets, using bands on a high stress/overload squat day likely paired with moderate sn/cnj or technical work.

  • Example: red mini band + enough bar weight to reach the RPE
  • W1: 3×3 at RPE 6, 7, 8, repeat triples at 8 until you reach a 9
  • W2: 3×3 at RPE 7, 8, 9, -10% for 3×3
  • W3: 3×2 at RPE 6, 7, 8, -10% for 3×2
  • W4: Heavy Single w/no bands

These three squat variations can all be used, at similar or different time points, to help you improve your squat technique and max. The number of reps and sets, along with other variables (tempo, band tension, pin height) can be altered to change the training effect of the squat. 

Higher pins overload the top portion of the squat, a longer tempo in the bottom of the squat further diminishes the stretch reflex, and band tension can be added or subtracted to change which portion of the strength curve is highlighted. The key is knowing how and when to use these lifts to get the most out of them. The suggestion is always to start with less and add more, tracking the response along the way.

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