Article written by Josh Mac
Have you ever tried to explain that you train to compete in powerlifting, strongman, oly lifting, or crossfit to someone who doesn’t lift, run, jog, walk fast or otherwise exert any effort beyond blinking and mouth breathing? It’s tough! Besides knowing someone who lifted more than me who was younger and wasn’t as fat, one other common sentiment amongst these fellers was an adaptation of the warning that Ralphie kept hearing about his Red Ryder carbine action air rifle: “you’ll blow your O-ring out.”
Although I think they were talking about my actual bung hole instead of my back, leave it to me to actually DO it and make them partially right. Luckily, permanently damaging parts of my L-spine did wonders for my back squat! So how in the hell does that work? Aren’t heavy squats the worst thing you could do for damaged discs? Is this guy full of shit?
No, well not figuratively anyway. In the time span of about 9 months, I birthed a series of squat PR’s right off of a major back injury. I did it by changing the very foundation of how I approach accessory rep work and what I expect from it.
It all started after returning to the gym after 2 months off following injuring 4 discs. (yadda yadda yadda it hurt, read THIS to learn more about how I did it and rehabbed it.) Recovery was heavily centered around ab/core/trunk/torso strength (choose your industry buzzword.) This included using the ab wheel, crunches, leg raises, sit ups with plates, beltless front squats, and variations of planks on unstable surfaces, punching each other in the stomachs, eating spicy food and butt kegels.
Ab work aside, my legs had atrophied quite a bit from sitting on my arse feeling bad about my back. My quads went from chunks of rock to the legs of Super Hero 6. Besides having the muscle tone of a bean bag chair, I had sciatic pain in both legs and numbness in my right quad. It wasn’t time to start loading the bar just yet, so I focused on something just as hard: accessories.
When I temporarily made accessories my MAIN work for the day, I rebuilt a sturdy foundation to handle the squats to come. I was apprehensive to moving any heavy loads early on since it takes a disc many months or even years to fully heal. So the following were done twice a week with varying intensity. I’d alternate heavy and light based on the day and how I felt.
Split squats: These were brutal from day one when I used no weight. I’d stand about 2-3 feet in front of a bench or box, place one foot on the bench/box behind me and lunge down slowly as far as I could. These woke me up to how much strength and muscle I had really lost. I stayed in the 3×10 range for lighter days using body weight or light db’s and 5×5 for heavier days with db’s or a Safety squat bar loaded with small plates.
Forward backward lunges
When split squats weren’t hard enough and I wanted to punish myself with the added aspect of keeping balance, I would do fwd/bwd lunges. These were great for 2 reasons:
1: there was limited space in my gym to do walking lunges.
- It was harder to balance, so my abs must have been doing something other than just looking invisible.
I’m right hand dominant so I like to plant my right foot like I stopped dribbling in basketball. Then lunge forward with my left leg and keeping my right foot planted, push hard off of the floor to transition directly into a backward lunge with the left foot. It’s basically ping pong with one foot. I didn’t invent these, I just did them.
These are great for keeping tension on the muscles throughout the range of motion, and since I’m a man of some size and girth it was a little bit of cardio as well. Aw, look at that, I’m sweating just thinking about them. Let me just drink this gravy right quick, hold on.
Paused hypers and back raises
If your gym has a reverse hyper (I’m looking at you crossfitters at gyms with everything rogue has ever made) then you’re in luck… or not, depending on how you view back pumps I guess. Here’s what I did:
Popping a few quarters on the pins, I’d start with slow reps to a 2-3 count hold at parallel, then slowly returning the weight to the starting point. Having command of the weight at all times, I’d control it to a dead stop and use my body to reinitiate movement rather than the momentum of swinging the weight back up. Reps were usually around 10-15 with 2 or 3 sets. I’m no doctor or anything but this did a lot more for my posterior chain than loading up a half ton of plates and treating the thing like I’m pushing a kid on a swing.
These were done similarly and usually at the very end of the day. I’d start off with a 45# plate for 10 reps, then drop the plate and immediately complete 10 bodyweight reps. On the 10th rep I’d grab the plate again and complete 10 more reps, drop it for 10 more with bodyweight and finally finish off with the plate again for AMRAP (as many reps as possible.) The reps never stopped and look seamless between plate and no plate reps.
Bodyweight or light band for 10 reps, holding for a 3-5 count on the 10th rep, then 10 more and a hold and so on until 50-70 reps depending on feel.
(Note: The wider my foot placement on these, the more burn I’d get in the hamstrings, so spread ‘em and go ham if that’s your thing.)
Once my back was feeling up to it, I started adding some heavier weights and harder movements.
Heel elevated hack squats
Since my quads had disappeared, I decided to torture the places where they used to be. I like doing these as a front squat to really make me hate everything about lifting.
Placing quarters or plates on the floor side by side, I’d unrack the bar and step back until my ankles were elevated on the plates and my toes on the floor. I guess you could equate this to how ladies wear high heels. Wait, no I don’t like that comparison. I take it back; it’s like a lumberjack whose boots have huge heels. Yeah, lumberjack.
I kept my feet and knees pointing forward and pretended I was one of those springs from the mattress factory commercial. Now I know this is going to sound weird but depth doesn’t really matter on these. Obviously if you’re barely moving, you’re barely working but truthfully, going deeper on these isn’t necessarily better.
THIS IS NOT A SQUAT
You’re not going to get red lit on an accessory movement, so check your depth ego at the door. It also doesn’t take a ton of weight to make you start sending out Yak mating calls. This is a quad dominant movement, and if done as a front squat, your abs are going to take a hit as well. Designate a driver or call a taxi for a ride home, you’re not going to be fit to drive for a few days.
No lockout paused squats
When I think of a raw competition squat, I think of it as a journey to the hole and back. Now the hole is the worst place you can imagine. It’s uncomfortable, it’s the least advantageous as far as leverage and it’s a place that you want to visit only briefly. In fact, you want to get the hell out of these as fast as possible.
Well training should be the opposite. Your sets and reps should have an intimate knowledge of the hole. Heck, it should be a tour like Dante’s Inferno. You should spend as much time in and around the hole in training as possible.
Enter the no lockout paused squat. Welcome to hell.
Sets of 5 were plenty for me to regret stopping at the gas station for that Red Bull on the way to the gym earlier that day. Staying tight, pause at parallel and WITHOUT DIPPING for momentum, squat the weight to JUST SHORT of lockout and get right back down above that hole. A 2 count during each pause feels like an entire episode of The Curse of Oak Island, so choose the weight accordingly.
On squat days and even some deadlift days, I alternate these as a front squat or with a SSB. Both pull you forward, although I save the SSB for higher rep days since there isn’t a bar on my larynx. I focus on a slow controlled descent and a hydraulic like rep speed. There is a time and a place for explosive reps, and this isn’t either.
Dead stop front squats
Dead stop squats are basically eating the chocolate chips out of the cookies and throwing the rest away. No walking it out, just getting down there and bringing a crapload of weight back up with you. Now remember, these are accessories! It’s tempting to get nuts with the weight but reps are where it’s at. I like sets of 3-8 depending on my oxygen level and if I remembered to go to the bathroom beforehand.
Set the bar in a set of catch straps, chains or rack pins right at or just above parallel and load her up.
Because the stretch reflex is gone, zip, zilch, nada; this is all up to your brute strength to initiate movement and build speed. So reset after each rep and let the full weight of the bar return to the straps, chains or pins before the next rep. If you really want to piss your body off, throw a couple bands or chains on there. Hey, why not? You deserve it!
3 sets of 8 with a weight you could probably do for 12 is a good starting point. Enjoy your new teardrops.
After a month of focusing just on accessories, I slowly started adding in relativly heavier working sets again. Within 3 months of returning, everything had fallen back into place. Pain minimized and the rubber met the road again.
Now the 800# gorilla in the room: I’m not a world record squatter, and I might not even be a county level squatter. Hell, the 200# crossfitter down the street may even out-squat me. But I took my squat from a grinding 560 with a healthy spine to an easy 635 with a severely compromised back bone in a little less time than it takes to brew up a baby, all the while focusing on physical therapy and secondary work to build the big 3. Accessory work isn’t just shit that you do to fill the gaps and make a work out look like you did something on paper that day. It has to compliment your work sets and you’ve got to FEEL it working for you.
I’ve got a lot left in me as I barrel toward 700 and there’s no doubt that this is how I’ll get there. And those quads that I had mentioned earlier… they came back.