Adding the Squat to Your Strength Routine
by Alex Thompson
To strength athletes, squats are known as the king of all exercises. And, despite being endurance athletes, most ironman competitors can gain a lot from adding squats to their routine.
Squats are more effective than dedicated abdominal work at developing core strength, which is necessary for maintaining good form during the ironman marathon. The movement of squatting resembles the pedaling action, so work done here resembles huge strength gains on the bike. Remember if you want to push 300 watts aerobically, you need kilos of aerobic quad muscle, so get it in the gym!
Squatting can prevent injury. Patella tendonitis, cruciate ligament damage, patella track issues and all sorts of lateral movement are linked with weak VMOs. As the VMO is the only quad muscle which crosses the knee joint, it is vital to keep it strong. Your legs need to go up and down in vertical lines when cycling and running and if they deviate from this path, it is due to weak VMOs.
Squatting past parallel with perfect form is the best way to activate the VMO. Although you’ll hear stories that squatting past parallel is bad for you, if it was so bad we’d see Olympic weight lifters, whose sport revolves around deep squatting positions, have more injuries than people whose sports mainly involve partial range of motion, such as runners. Deep squatting is actually better as the load on the bar is nowhere near as much as if you do partial range of motion squats. That said, it’s important that you squat with proper form and with a weight you can manage.
Squatting with a full range of motion requires good joint flexibility. For those who want a long healthy triathlon career, and enjoy good quality of life in their twighlight years, flexibility should be important. I find practicing the movement with just the bar for 10x50 is good flexibility routine. There is very little crossover from static flexibility and dynamic flexibility, so save the stretches for post work out cool downs; to increase practical ROM the deep squat movement will work whatever is weak. After you’ve developed perfect form without weight, only then can you start adding weight in next session.
Front squats are more specific to cycling strength than back squats, and use less weight. To front squat effectively, place the bar high on your delts and touching your throat (at the end of my session I usually have a little red mark where the bar was). The cross over grip is easier for people lacking wrist flexibility but I find working towards an Olympic grip is better as it is more stable.
When you descend, keep your back upright -- if you lean forward due to hip tightness, you’d end up dropping the bar, or put huge stresses on your lower back. The front squat makes it impossible to cheat because you’d fall forward very easily.
Go all the way down until your hamstrings touch your calfs. When rising up note your tendencies: if your knees dart in it is likely VMO weakness; if want to lean forward, it is due to weak quads related to your glutes. To correct these imbalances lower the weight so you keep perfect form.
A great variation is cyclists squats -- these are front squats slightly less than shoulder width, and are down with the heels raised an inch on a platform (I use two small plates on for each foot). This should be done only when perfected normal technique and require much more flexibility, however this overloads the quads in a way specific to cycling. When planning your strength work over a season, keep in mind Bompa’s general rule of periodization and move from the general to the specific. Cyclist squats bridge the gap between front squats and big gear hill reps.
Don’t expect the weight to be much to start off with; while 40kg seems low for a parallel back squat, for someone new to front squatting it is about right. If you struggle with light weight, it will mean you have found your limiter on the bike and two strength sessions a week will give you legs which look good and can handle spinning the big gears. If your one-rep maximum for your front squat is less that 85% of your back squat then you have a big imbalance,, which could have been caused by excessive back squatting and underdevelopment of necessary muscles. If you’ve been lifting weights and not getting stronger on the bike, this is likely the reason.
Planning Strength Sessions
To learn your 1RM without actually having to spend the time in the gym to find it, work out your three rep max then add 10%. For our purposes perform all exercises with 80% 1RM and lift with a smooth continuous motion; it shouldn’t look like you are forcing the bar up, but smoothly pumping the bar. 3 seconds down 1 second up. Short recoveries of 45 to 90 seconds (the bigger the muscles use, the longer the recovery) will lead to exhaustion of the fibers we are looking to develop leading to much crossover to our sport. You will get much better gains with a lighter weight and better form.
The first exercise is a superset: perform 4-6 reps of front squats to failure (never perform more than 6 reps for the front squat) then immediately perform full ROM back squats with the same weight, you should get to around 5. This will be one set. Perform five sets in total with two minutes rest between sets.
Next alternate between step ups and lunges with a 60 second break between each exercise. Perform all the reps with one leg switch legs, then move onto the next exercise. 5x8 will be good; this will work your core and help sort out imbalances between the strength of your legs. if there is any lateral movement of the knee, lower the weight and keep form in check to train out the imbalance.
After this, I like to do assistance movements of anything that is weak. For example, if you struggle to hold the bar still for a front squat it is likely rhomboid weakness: lie one your side on a bench and with your higher arm raise a small dumbbell (straight arm) above the line of your face and back down, slow and controlled movement is key.
I hope you found these tips useful, and if you see me in the gym, feel free to jump in between sets!
Alex has been a triathlete since 2005 and has competed several ironman and ultra distances races. He is currently working towards making the transition from age group athlete into the pro ranks. He has been working closely with Alan Couzens for the last few years to achieve his goal. You can follow Alex's progress through his blog, TriOnTrack and on Twitter @XIronmanAlexX.