Squat Accessory Exercises to Improve Strength
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Obviously performing and practicing squats does help improve strength for the exercise, but eventually you’ll run into a strength plateau if that’s all you do without any changes.
Accessory exercises for squats can be for several different focuses – with the end result always being better mobility and strength progression.
What are Squat Accessory Exercises?
Without them your progress is going to be hindered and cause frustration, which is a big reason why people stop powerlifting and switch to "bodybuilding" workouts. Don’t get butt hurt and understand this is what happens.
We all hit that wall and need to make adjustments. Squat accessory exercises can be literally doing different types/variations of squats, or exercises that focus on your legs, core, and posterior chain.
They can be for strength deficiencies, mobility, flexibility, and fixing other issues possibly affecting your squats such as a hip shift.
We can break the needs down into portions as well:
• Un-racking and Position
• Control and Bracing
• Coming Out of the Hole
• General Strength and Muscular Endurance
Let’s take a look at what you need to get your squat numbers higher without half-repping or collapsing.
Tempo Squats: The All Time Squat Improving Exercise
Before diving into the extra goodies that go along with squats, let’s take a look into tempo squats to get you heading in the correct direction. This squat variation is when you control the motion during the descent into the squat, ascent out, or even both. You also have the variable of pausing at the bottom.
The full control of your squat will help fix many movement issues such as hip shift, knee cave, butt wink, and even a weak upper body causing forward rounding of the shoulders.
Also develop better core use plus stability and improve your strength and muscle potential.
These are normally executed with 85% or less. The common way tempos are written out look like 3-2-1, 3-0-1, etc.
First Number – Represents the descent into your squat. This is how many seconds you should be counting in your head before you reach the bottom your squat.
Second Number – This is the pause at the bottom position. A zero denotes that there is no pause.
Third Number – Represents the ascending phase of your squat i.e. coming out of the hole. This is the most difficult portion to control the tempo of. Generally, you won’t see this as more than a 1 or 2 in programs.
Seriously, an easy way to incorporate squats into your program utilizing 3.1.1 tempo variation can go like this:
Week 1: 4x10 w/ 68%
Week 2: 4x8 w/ 72.5%
Week 3: 3x6 w/ 75%
Week 4: 3x4 w/ 78%
Week 5: 4x8 w/ 68% (deload week)
Squat Un-Rack and Position
This portion of your squat is important to understand just as much as your actual squat movement. An improper walk off can end in unnecessary energy use and possibly even injury.
Many take that step back and smack the plates against the rack or bar holder. Even get scared once that 95% (or more) load is weighing down on the back. The other portion of this is taking those short steps back and getting into your squat stance.
This phase needs to be controlled, but take only moments to accomplish to complete the lift(s) and get the weight racked and off your back.
Note: A simple change that works for many with not hitting the rack during squat walk backs is to keep your eyes forward. Many will shift heavily towards the foot they’re looking at while the head is down.
Movement confidence is key. Your feet aren’t going anywhere.
Squat and Rack
You can do these within a set time frame like however many possible in 1-2 minutes, or in designated sets of single reps.
The purpose isn’t to do a large amount of weight, but rather around 75-80% to practice lifting the weight off, stepping back, and then racking the bar after the squat is performed.
Muscle memory develops through repetitions, and practicing this phase will make everything much smoother transitioning into heavier squats.
Back Rack Holds
Commonly utilized for the front rack position with Olympic weightlifting programs, but still a useful tool for powerlifters or those looking to squat heavier.
Back rack holds are when you use around 105% your max to simply lift the bar off the holders and hold this weight for a few seconds maintaining core bracing.
This will help you learn to un-rack a larger amount so that your actual squat weight doesn’t feel so difficult, plus learn to brace better during the liftoff.
Squat Control and Bracing
It’s going to be really difficult to progress further if you can’t control the weight going down into your squats. This is your ability to control multiple muscle groups, properly brace, and prevent collapsing during the descent into your squat.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do a tempo down for all squats, but you don’t want to just drop into the hole and completely collapse under the bar either. Control furthermore helps prevent many other injuries from taking place.
The control phase is going down towards the parallel position before you allow the hips to drop in and create momentum to bounce out of the squat.
Goblet Squats (Squat Accessory Exercise Extraordinaire)
I firmly believe these should be taught and/or executed first before even placing a bar on the back, or at least taught right alongside the barbell for all new lifters.
The name comes from how you hold the dumbbell or kettlebell. You can also hold this way for lunge variations and other exercises to keep the weight focused down the center.
This exercise helps develop leg and core muscles, understand how to execute a proper squat since the weight is directly down the middle maintaining an upright position, plus helps with ankle and hip mobility.
Any new lifter should be performing these without squat shoes to help get those ankles moving. The heel raise in squat shoes assists with this, and may limit your ability to improve mobility.
Don’t just perform the reps - actually control the movement for muscle development and squeeze at the top.
One of the most underused and looked down upon exercises with awesome benefits. I’ve even seen people joke how a coach who uses step ups for programs is unqualified. Why? Because simple works?
Obviously, many don’t understand movement, and most likely just suck at performing this exercise even without weight. Step ups carry over to squats by improving stability, ankle mobility, and even muscle development.
On top of these benefits, the step up is a unilateral movement, which helps correct any deficiencies you may have on one side especially your hips.
The best way to execute these is by engaging your core. You are going to be unstable and falling over to either side if you don’t brace.
Perform a full knee extension at the top to squeeze your muscles into further use along with your glutes.
Lunges and Bulgarian Split Squat
Both of these exercises are similar in being unilateral i.e. using one side of the body, which helps with stability and muscle development. Isolating each leg helps with any strength deficiencies taking place from only doing squats and similar exercises like the leg press.
Don’t rush these exercises. Control the use of your core and maintain stability. For lunges, don’t use your knee to slam into the floor and provide assistance. This will possibly injure your knee(s) overtime.
The lunge and split squat both improve knee strength, plus hip and ankle mobility alongside muscle hypertrophy. Perform them as accessories following your squat program, or for a leg accessory only day (these come in handy as a deload day to end the training week with beginners).
Experiencing knee pains from lunges and split squats? These exercises fire the quadriceps muscle intensely, and can pull at the tendons and ligaments within the knee.
Reverse lunges help reduce the intense focus on the quads, and will utilize the use of your hips and glutes more to counter this issue. It’s best to rotate these exercises every training block.
Breathing Pause Squats
This type of squat is great as a warm up, but can be completed after your top sets as well. The breathing pause squat is when you sit into the squat and take full breaths in and exhale out.
You will be able to strengthen your core drastically when executed properly, which will carry over to performing better squats since you are bracing in and out. This exercise is necessary for many because of the bad habit of not using the diaphragm fully.
Chest breathing is the enemy when taking a deep breath in. Doing so will cause you to butt wink and collapse at the torso i.e. folding up like an accordion. That is why it’s imperative to stomach breathe when doing lifts.
Breathing pause squats are not just to teach you bracing though. This squat variation literally forces your core to work harder without a full breath of air staying inside as commonly used too. These muscles will be fully put to work in order to prevent collapsing with the bar.
Do not do these with heavy loads. Stick to around 50-65% max! Take 3-5 deep breaths in and out then come back up from the squat. I only do single rep sets with this method.
Coming Out of the Squat Hole
This is the fight or flight phase when doing squats. Either get that weight up or get the hell out from under the bar quickly. You will need to explosively power out of this position while maintaining decent form.
Obviously, a PR (personal record) won’t be looking like the sexiest lift you’ve ever done, but you can’t let your form breakdown too much or injury is highly possible.
Form breakdown can be when your knees cave-in, lower back rounds, and a common one is the upper torso collapsing forward. Slight inward knee shifting I don’t see as being a huge red flag, but if they fully almost touch each other that’s a problem.
“But Olympic weightlifters do that?”
I don’t want to go on a rant, but if you were conditioned like them, and trained by reputable coaches, then you wouldn’t be reading this for assistance. Focus on improving your lifts with as little risk of injury as possible.
Okay, essentially we want to develop explosive power from the bottom position, and find your sticking point as well.
Note: Sticking point means the point of the squat you get stuck at. Sometimes this is directly at the bottom of the squat, while for others it’s halfway up before the weight stops moving.
This squat variation works great for both developing leg power and working on sticking points. You may also see this called an Anderson squat or dead squat as well, and can be used for the bench press also.
You’re basically going to be positioning the safety bars to the desired height you need. For actual leg power development, you would want them set to just above full depth squats.
You can work sticking points by placing these safety bars at parallel or a few notches over parallel. This totally depends on where you get stuck at with squats.
You perform pin squats by controlling the squat down until you fully rest against the safety bars, pause for 1-2 seconds, and then explode out of this bottom position. Don’t slam into the safety bars. This can damage equipment.
This brief stop on the safety bars hinder the stretch reflex from working well, and encourages the recruitment of your leg’s muscles even more than regular squats.
The pause squat is a fundamental exercise for both powerlifting and weightlifting. Being able to sit in the bottom position for a brief time and explode back up encourages lots of power and strength development.
Aside from this, you’re telling your body to recruit more slow twitch muscle fibers, which in turn leads to muscle development as well. All this from the general concept of time under tension (TUT).
A pause squat is simply sitting into the bottom position for 1-3 seconds normally for 1-8 repetitions depending on load used. Some even use lighter load weight for up to 10 second holds – although this is rarely programmed.
Strength and Muscular Endurance
Most of the accessories discussed are basically doing a different method for the back squat, which of course helps lead to better movement and strength.
However, you should add two or more of the following exercises after your primary squat sets. They are great for targeting the leg muscles and some even isolate particular areas that need better attention.
Also referred to as an RDL, you utilize this deadlift variation to target your hamstrings and glutes better while learning to execute a proper hip extension. Heavier sets are better with a barbell, but you can change things up using kettlebells or dumbbells also.
The proper way to execute these is by pushing your hips back and lowering your upper torso forward. The weight should not bypass the knees very far before pulling back up.
When you lower the weight too far, this causes less hamstring focus and more emphasis on your lower back even if the back is kept straight. Once you feel enough tension on your hamstrings you pull back up and squeeze your glutes.
However, those with shorter legs may need to go down further to feel the hamstrings activate. This is only acceptable if the back can maintain a neutral position.
This exercise works similar muscles as the RDL, but instead you have the barbell position on your back in the high bar position. Doing so will target your hamstrings and glutes.
However, you also get to practice your squat form by maintaining and pulling down on the bar to execute the exercise.
The same applies to good mornings as you do with RDL. Push your hips back and lean forward until you feel the tension on your hamstrings. Extend your hips forward and squeeze your glutes before the next repetition.
The name is short for glute-ham raise. Basically, it’s telling you what muscles are going to be used. Primarily focuses on your hamstrings, but your glutes are going to get a nice activation as well.
You perform these by keeping your upper torso vertical throughout the movement with little rounding in the back as you lower. On the way up, you don’t want to extend your hips forward causing pressure on the lower back.
Other Squat Variations for Low Bar Lifters
These squat variations assist with your training as well. The intention is to use varying training styles to achieve the overall goal of improving your squat. The following teach better upright stability and use of leg muscles with less support from your back muscles.
Low bar squats allow most to lift heavier because their posterior chain is used more, which can carry over to more back use. This is accomplished from the heavy forward lean you see many utilize with low bar stance.
Personally, I don’t like the position and it teaches many new lifters bad habits. Many lean too far forward to where it’s nearly a good morning instead of a squat, and commonly given red lights at meets also since they “feel” they’re at depth, but just leaned over with hips high.
Lots of low back muscular and spine injuries occur because of improper movement. Some will learn to stay more upright through proper bracing and understand how to open their hips and use hamstrings more efficiently.
The ones who don’t will either keep injuring themselves or switch over to “bodybuilding” workouts. If you’re a low bar squatter – this is not trying to convince you to switch.
Simply use the following squat positions to work on using your core, hips, and leg muscles more dominantly during squats.
High Bar Squats
A high bar squat is when you place the bar deep in your upper traps. This variation teaches upright control of the bar without having to lean forward much – if any at all.
The anterior leg muscles and your hips take much of the movement. Your back is definitely still used, but not nearly as much as with the low bar position.
You will surely have strength and/or mobility deficiencies if doing working sets with 70% your squat max is difficult while executing a high bar.
Uncomfortable is fine since it’s not your preferred stance. However, if your legs and lower back are giving out you know what needs fixing.
Another squat that requires an upright position with heavy use of the anterior leg muscles and hips. Great for improving your quadriceps strength and muscular development.
Your lats are actually used quite a bit for this movement as well. They give you the ability to keep your elbows up and maintain keeping the bar in your “racked” position.
Powerlifters often have issues executing front squats weightlifting style due to mobility issues. The common resolve for this would be placing the bar in the racked position, but crossing your hands over the bar, which takes away the need for wrist strength and mobility.
SSB Squats (Safety Squat Bar)
The SSB is a cambered bar that has pads place for your traps and handles in the front. The cambered bar means the weight sits below your shoulders and tries to push your body forward.
This is the huge benefit from using the SSB for squats. You literally have to fight to maintain and upright position, and during the squat your hips MUST be opened up.
These are great for working your posterior chain and anterior legs muscles. Also, they take strain off the shoulders and elbows for those recovering from injuries. I wrote a previous SSB squat article if you want to learn more about them.
Example Squat Day Program
Below is an example of a squat day program. You will see the percentages added to have an idea of how much weight should be utilized for the primary movements. Accessory exercises like leg extensions etc. are at your discretion for what the body is capable of handling by that point.