by: Paul Leonard
Paul Leonard Squatting 810 in 2003 at the APF Senior Nationals
Although my best competitive squat is officially 810, I am equally proud of the 545 Arizona State Record Squat I did 7 years later. Why you ask? Well the 545 was done with a belt only in a USAPL meet, an organization with strict performance standards and drug testing. When I squatted the 810 I wore lifting equipment such as a squat suit, briefs, and knee wraps-while weighing 310 lbs. When I squatted the 545, I weighed 269 and it was only 8 months after I had my right tricep tendon reattached following a freak weight room accident (my injury article is a tale for another day).
I did both squats following the same conjugate style of training which I would like to detail for you now. Although I never trained at Westside Barbell, I followed their principles as best I could from reading their material, studying their videotapes, and corresponding with some of their lifters after I competed against them at two APF Seniors National Championships.
The cornerstone of my squat training since 1993 has been the box squat. I will work up to a heavy single on a different box level during my Max Effort (ME) lower body workout. The different levels I squat to vary from a 10” box up to a 15” box. I will also squat to a hassock set at different levels, which in my opinion is the most brutal way to squat as the foam in the hassock sucks the kinetic energy from your muscles following the eccentric phase down the hassock. Other ways that implement conjugate principles on ME squat day is to utilize different bars such as the safety squat bar, a bow bar, a 14” cambered bar, a manta ray, and a Texas squat bar-which is longer and heavier than a standard power bar. In addition to straight weight there are times when I squat against bands, chains, or a combination of bands and chains.
The future method is critical when you are close to a meet to give you the overload of handling heavier weight without chewing up your body a few weeks from the meet. With the future method, ie the squat bar being suspended in bands from above the power rack, I shoot to handle 120% of my projected max. For example, if I want to squat 500 at the meet, I need to squat 600 lbs suspended in mini bands. Where did I come up with the 120 percent? I got that from Dr. Squat Fred Hatfield who advised doing overloads with 120 % of your max for a few weeks prior to the meet. Holding that much weight simply makes 100% feel lighter. As any lifter knows if you take a weight out of the rack to bench or squat and it feels light, you are a thousand times more likely to smoke that weight. I implement the future method on ME days either following the heaviest attempt of the day, then I will add reverse bands to the bar so that I overload the weight at lockout but deload it enough with the bands so that I get a full ROM on the exercise with more weight than I could do without the assistance or the bands.
Why do I box squat? To me it is the safest way to squat, causing far less wear and tear on your lower body-specifically your knees and hips-than traditional squats. I subscribe to the ME style of squatting as well as power legends Jon Cole and John Kuc who repeatedly stated that the best way to avoid injury in the squat was to use lots of singles and very low reps when you squat heavy. There is an argument as to which one of these icons was the first to officially squat 900 lbs but rest assured they both did that in 1972 and went on to compete for over ten years after that milestone. You will never reach your full potential if you are hurt and cannot stand the test of time.
In addition to my ME squat workouts, I will do a Dynamic Effort (DE) squat workout three days after my ME squat day. The DE squat day is entirely built around the box squat but for a high volume of sets such as 12 doubles or 5 sets of 5 reps. I do not venture over the key Hatfield strength threshold of 80 percent for working weight this day. I arrive at the 80 percent by doing either straight weight for 80 % of that specific box maximum or I will add in either bands or chains so that the load is as close to 80% as possible. For myself, if I correctly adjust a medium band (jump stretch green) then it is fair to say that the bands add a virtual 100lbs of force to the weight when it is locked out. Make sure when you box squat on DE day you are jumping off the box with the weight as to go too heavy defeats the purpose.
Some of the key conjugate assistance exercises that have built my squat and deadlift are kneeling squats, zercher squats, and power good mornings. I will touch upon each of these exercises that I learned from Louie Simmons. To do a kneeling squat place some padding on the floor and kneel down inside a power rack. Set the j-cups at such a height that you can unrack the weight while kneeling and you can squat back until your butt is touching your calves and ankles. Once you have squatted down, reverse the action and squat back up to your knees. This is 100% pure hip extension-compliments of your isolated hamstrings. I like to to reps of 8 to 5 reps on this movement, but I have done a single with 900 lbs back in the day. At age 50 now my hips still feel great while some other serious powerlifters have had hip replacement surgeries.
Zercher squats are the best exercise for building gut strength that I have eve4 used. If you are built like I am, 6’2” with a 32 inseam- then you have a long back that you need to strengthen. There is no better way to strengthen the front of your back, i.e., your abs than zercher squats. To do a zercher, you place the bar in the crook of your arms from the j-cups in the power rack and you unrack and brace yourself to squat. Position your feet in your normal squat or deadlift position – this can vary and be alternated-then squat down by pushing your knees out and butt back. Squat until your elbows scrape the inside of your knees and then reverse action by standing erect with the squat. The whole time you are pushing out as hard as you can with your stomach. Wear a belt to cue the stomach push. What you are doing is building static strength into your core-that is how enormous weight gets lifted correctly, your trunk is entirely stable and static while your prime movers like your hips, hamstrings, quads and glutes do all the lifting. As an added bonus, zercher squats will traction your lower back in a healthy way by pulling your pelvis forward some and making your lower back strong deep down inside the lumbar musculature.
Power good mornings are essential to creating a huge raw squat. Take the bar out of the racks with your regular competition bar placement on the back. Set up as if you were going to squat. Now push your knees out to the sides as if you were going to squat as you push your butt back. Let the bar come forward approximately 4 to 6 inches then return to your upright position and repeat for 3 to 5 reps. What you are doing is increasing the static strength of your back by allowing the weight to travel a few inches further than it would during a regular squat where you hold your back static and all the motion takes place around the hips and knees going out.
In retrospect my 545 squat means a bit more to me because leading up to that squat in late July that year, I served as a catcher for my daughter in softball as well as a flag football coach for my oldest son and an assistant on my youngest boys little league team. It was a busy spring with lots of time on my feet-but I was able to piece everything together successfully with the conjugate system.
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