We’ve all been there before saying to ourselves “technique doesn’t matter as long as I get the weight up” and that works — until it doesn’t. As a coach and lifter, I’ve researched and observed those exhibit the best technique in the world. In this process, I have identified the nine best accessories they implement in their training to improve strength and technique.
The best accessory exercises for the squat are:
- Pause Squat
- Tempo Squat
- High Bar Squat
- Banded squat
- Front Squat
- Squat to Target
- Kettlebell Goblet Squat
- Rear Foot Elevated TRX Split Squat
- Belt squat
Let’s take a closer look at each of these squat variations so you know why you should do them and how to implement them into your training.
1. Pause Squat
What is it? The pause squat is performed like a regular squat, but with a 1-2 second pause in the deepest part of the squat.
Who would this be good for? If you always miss the squat coming out of the hole then the paused squat would be a great addition to your training. Also, since the pause squat create more time under tension while your knee extensors are at their greatest end range, it would be an appropriate exercise to build strength in your quads. If this is a weakness for you, then consider the pause squat.
The importance of the paused squat is that it exposes an athlete’s weakness in the bottom position of the squat, which is also where the stretch-shortening cycle (bounce or rebound) happens. Removing that cycle forces the athlete to control the ascent of the lift.
The paused squat will also strengthen the hips, low back, core and legs simply by increasing the time under tension and not accelerating (bouncing) through that specific range of motion.
How would you program it? I would start my clients off doing pause squats in the 4-6 rep range between 60-65% of their 1 rep max. I would then progress the load, and drop the number of reps over the course of several weeks of training.
2. Tempo Squat
What is it? The tempo squat puts more time under tension either on the way down, on the way up, or both.
Tempo squats are a phenomenal accessory to slow down the movement and in doing so expose any technical errors. If knees buckle, neutral spine is lost, the bar path is off or tension is compromised, the tempo squat will expose it when the lifter is fatigued. Once the technical error is exposed, the athlete can focus on those areas with deliberate attention.
Who would this be good for? The tempo squat should be used by lifters who lack control in the descent phase of the squat. A lack of control would be present if the lifter can’t keep the bar in the right bar path, or loses muscular tension.
How would you program it? You will often see the tempo squat programmed using a series of numbers.
For example, 4020 tempo.
The numbers show the tempo based on the range of motion — “eccentric, isometric, concentric, isometric” or “down, bottom, up, top”. A 4020 tempo would be down in 4 seconds, no pause in the bottom, come up in 2 seconds, and no pause at the top.
Using another example, a 3120 would look like go down in 3 seconds, pause for 1 second, come up in 2 seconds, and no pause at the top.
Tempo squats can be programmed in the 1-5 rep range with loads of 50-70% of 1 rep max depending on how long the lifter is expected to be under tension (i.e. how slow the tempo is prescribed).
Use a metronome or an honest coach because; let’s be real, nobody counts slow enough. If using a metronome set it to 60 beats per minute.
3. High Bar Squat
What is it? The high bar squat is where you place the bar on your upper traps.
Many people might already be using a high bar squat, but powerlifters mostly squat in a low bar position. If you predominately squat in a low bar position, then the high bar squat could be an excellent accessory.
The high bar squat does two things to help with technique:
- Increases knee extensor strength leading to stronger quadriceps (Glassbrook, Brown, Helms, et al., 2017).
- Increases demand on torso extensor strength resulting in a more upright torso (Glassbrook, Brown, Helms, et al., 2017).
Who would this be good for? If you find yourself lacking quad strength, then the high bar squat would be a good addition to your program. You’ll know if you have weak quads if you always fail a squat in the bottom position.
Of course, there are a variety of quad-focused exercises you can do in the gym. But, the high bar squat allows you to work your quads in the specific movement pattern that you’re trying to improve strength. Therefore, it should be prioritized over other isolation-type quad movements.
How would you program it? You can typically do the same set and reps that you normally would program for your squat workouts; however, you’ll want to start with a 5% reduction in your loads. So if you would normally squat 5 sets of 5 reps at 70% of your 1 rep max, then your high bar load would be 65% of your 1 rep max.
4. Banded Squat
What is it? The banded squat is where you place bands on either side of the barbell, attached at the floor, so that as you stand up it adds increasing resistance through the range of motion.
The banded squat is limited to those people who, first, have bands, and second, who have the proper equipment to attach the bands to the floor.
Who would this be good for? Banded squats will help athletes who tend to lean forward during the ascent of the lift or miss the lift just out of the hole. The band will reinforce a vertical bar path upwards because it is increasing the pull of gravity (if set up correctly). As well, because the tension increases as the athlete stands up, the exercise becomes more challenging as the athlete comes out of the hole thus emphasizing that particular technique portion of the lift.
The band also forces lifters to ‘drive through’ the entire range of motion. Sometimes lifters get lazy and don’t apply maximum force, especialy if the load is sub-maximal. The band teaches athletes that you can’t be lazy, and that you have to apply maximum force at all times.
How would you program it? I would start with the smaller bands and work your way up to thicker bands. Obviously, the thicker bands will add more resistance, so start light and build yourself up. Keep the reps between 3-5 and the bar load between 60-70% of 1 rep max. The weight will feel heavier because of the bands, especially through the mid and top end range of motion.
5. Front Squat
What is it? The front squat is placing the barbell on your front delts rather than your upper back.
When working with a client for the first time my preference is to teach the front squat before the back squat. The reason for this is torso positioning. Let me explain.
Why do I always teach the front squat first? One technical error that is common with powerlifters is the “good morning squat” where the hips shoot up first and the bar goes forward over the ball of the foot. The result is the athlete must rely on more back extensor strength to finish the lift. This changes the bar path creating a further total distance to move the bar, thereby increasing incidents of injury to the low back area.
The front squat corrects this issue. If the hips shoot up first and the barbell goes forward, it will actually fall towards the ground. In a way, it forces the lifter to stay upright.
Powerlifters may struggle to get into the front rack position where the barbell is on their front delts. If you have difficulty try this nice wrist mobility series from our friends at DTS Fitness Education.
Who would this be good for? The front squat should be used for lifters who fail to maintain an upright torso in the squat, or need to strengthen their quad muscles. The front squat has more quad activation than the back squat.
How would you program it? You can program a wide range of rep ranges depending on the adaptation you want to target (1-5 reps for strength and 6-12 reps for hypertrophy). In terms of loading, if you haven’t trained the front squat, you’ll want to use a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. Use an RPE of 7-8, which means no matter what the rep range you’re doing, always finisih the set and leave 2-3 reps left in the tank. Don’t take this exercise to failure, until you feel competent at the movement pattern.
6. Squat to Target
What is it? The “Squat to Target” is an exercise where you use an implement, either a box, block, or risers, to set the range of motion of the movement.
This movement should not be confused with a box squat. A box squat is used to take away the stretch-shortening cycle at the bottom of a squat. Conversely, the “Squat to Target” is specifically used to gauge the range of motion.
Who would this be good for? The “Squat to Target” should be used by lifters who squat inconsistently in terms of depth. You want to have all squats performed at the same depth across any rep range or intensity. This tool can also be used when addressing sticking points, not just depth issues. The key is to use an implement that is adjustable in order to track individual client’s progress. For this reason, risers are a go-to for me.
How would you program it?
You would program the “Squat to Target” with the same sets, reps, and load that you normally would for your regular squats.
7. Goblet Squat
What is it? The goblet squat is where you hold a single dumbbell in front of you, holding with both hands just underneath your chin.
The goblet squat is a beneficial exercise to teach squat mechanics with a focus on hip abduction (external hip rotation) and ankle dorsiflexion (the ability for your ankle to flex up).
Using a dumbbell or kettelebell, the client can create a shift in the center of mass, thus allowing for a more upright torso and deeper position.
I also use the goblet squat as a warm up to increase the mobility of ankles and hips.
Who would this be good for? If mobility is a technical opportunity for someone, this leads to better carry over into the barbell squat. In addition, the goblet squat is a precursor to teaching the front squat. If a client can perform the goblet squat proficiently, they will be ready to start front squatting.
How would you program it? The goblet squat is best performed with higher rep ranges (8+). This is because it will be hard to load the exercise with a single dumbbell. Use it as either an activation exercise prior to your regular squatting, or use it as a way to increase mobility and range of motion.
8. Rear Foot Elevated TRX Split Squat
What is it? For the rear foot elevated TRX split squat, you’ll place one foot in a TRX strap, take a split stance, and perform squats (similar to a lunge).
Dedicated powerlifters who stick to the big three (squat, bench, and deadlift) and do not incorporate any unilateral-based training may develop muscular asymmetries, which over time will result in a lateral shift in the squat.
A lateral shift in the squat favors one leg over the other and in addition to decreasing technique efficacy by pushing a balanced structure unevenly, it can also be very painful later in training due to the irritation of structures such as sacroiliac joint.
Unlike the Bulgarian split squat (where the rear foot is elevated on a bench), the TRX split squat provides two different training stimuli:
- The TRX allows height adjustments for different body sizes, increasing or decreasing the stretch on the hip flexors
- Unlike using a bench, the TRX becomes an unstable surface thus challenging neuromuscular control and joint stability at the hip, knee, and ankle.
Who would this be good for? The TRX rear elevated split squat is a good variation for anyone wanting to be proactive in their muscular imbalances.
How would you program it? This exercise would be best programmed after a regular squat with a higher rep range (8+).
9. Belt Squat
What is it? The belt squat is an exercise that loads the movement from your hips rather than on your back.
I have yet to meet a lifter whose legs became so strong that it negatively affected their squat technique. However, I have seen lifters whose legs are weak and rely on using more back extensor muscles to compensate.
A belt squat is an accessory tool that will not necessarily increase technical performance directly. But, if the athlete needs stronger legs and would like to spare the wear and tear on the back, the belt squat is a great accessory to add to the program. If you do not have a belt squat at your gym, you could use a dip belt and two risers.
Who would this be good for? This is another exercise that targets the quads muscles. If you find your quads weak, then this would be a great addition to the program. The belt squat has also been used by lifters who have trouble loading their spine because of an injury. However, not many people have a belt squat machine, and even if you do the variation above, it might be a bit awkward to set up.
How would you program it? The belt squat should be done with higher reps (8+) using moderate intensities (RPE 7-8).
Why Are Squat Accessories Important?
Accessory exercises should not be the main focus of lifting.
They are used to address weaknesses whether these occur in strength or in technique. When asked how to increase a squat, my first response is always “squat more”. What I mean by this is practice the main lift more frequently.
If a lifter is squatting one day per week and doing accessories three days a week they will see very slow progress. Increase the frequency from once a week, to two times a week and so on.
How & Why to Choose an Accessory Exercise
When choosing an accessory exercise you must first identify the technical issue. When such issues arise it will invariably be a result of one or more of the following issues:
- Tension/Weakness issue
- Bar path issue
- Capacity versus demand
When you are around lifters and coaches at a meet you will often hear them saying things like “GET TIGHT, BIG AIR, TIGHTEN UP!”. What they are referring to is creating tension. Tension helps keep the line in balance with gravity and protects the lifter’s spine thus reducing injury.
This is explained in more detail in an earlier article I wrote on breathing while squatting. Essentially if you lack tension or strength in a specific range of motion you will see the bar speed slow down.
For example, speed coming out of the bottom of the squat then slowing down just above parallel. Be aware that just above parallel is NOT the area of weakness. Just before that spot is where you need work. Your weakness area is just before the bar slows down. When you see the bar slow down you are seeing the side effect of the weak area just prior.
I suggest using a camera with a slow-motion option to really watch the bar speed change. Here you can use exercises like paused squats, banded squat, or squat to target.
When tension is lost it is not unusual to see a technical collapse starting at the midsection and then moving elsewhere. This collapse can often look like a rounded low back or the torso dropping too soon. Here, tempo squats would be a great exercise to choose. When incorporating them, the focus should be on increasing time under tension in those weak areas.
When the bar is not in line with the lifter’s center of mass (the midline of the foot), problems arise.
The biggest of these is when the bar travels forward making the lifter expend more energy as they must move the bar a greater distance to overcome it. To be efficient you want to stay in line with gravity. With this scenario you could program banded squats from bottom up, tempo, high bar and/or paused squats with intentions of owning the bar path. If bar path is lost due to lack of mobility, the goblet squats and TRX rear foot elevated lunge can assist here.
Capacity Versus Demand
Capacity is the ability to repeat something over and over again before reaching biological limits. An example of exceeding someone’s capacity is technique breakdown/injury.
If the demand is beyond the lifter’s capacity there will be a breakdown. An easy way to vet capacity would be to use video while squatting. Gradually increase from warm-ups with sets of 5’s increasing by 5-10% each set (lower % as weights get closer towards maxes).
If light-weight moves well, then form changes as the weight increases the demand has exceeded the capacity of the lifter. In this scenario identify the percent of the lifter’s max where this happens and program just below that for an entire block.
Where Do I Put Squat Accessories In The Program? And, How Do I Determine The number Of Reps I Should Do?
This is a very common question without a one size fits all answer.
The exercise of choice should be slotted appropriately within the training plan. The more the exercise resembles the main lift, the greater the specificity and thus should be prioritized first within that session.
An example would be the paused squat. It is the exact same movement as the squat but with a pause. Put it first in the workout when you are fresh and can get the most out of it.
In contrast, would be a belt squat. Belt squats are towards the other end of the specificity spectrum thus can be included after the main squat or exercises similar to it.
In terms of reps, they should be based on the purpose of the exercise. Closer to 1 rep maxes is more specific but would have fewer reps involved. Too far away and it could have less strength carry over.
For example, paused squats and tempo squats take longer per rep thus programming them with lower reps ranges to equal similar times under tension are beneficial. A belt squat can be used in to increase knee extensor strength and size so higher reps of twelve plus can be beneficial even going as high as thirty repetition sets (Glassbrook, Brown & Helms et al., 2017)
Using this information one should be able to choose the appropriate repetition range for an accessory exercise.
When selecting the best accessory exercise for improving squat technique it is important first, to understand what the exercise is meant to accomplish and second, to ask whether that is what is needed to help one’s technique.
About The Author
Chris has over 20,000 hours of high-level coaching experience. He has worked with powerlifters, award-winning fitness models, and professional athletes. He has been awarded Personal Trainer of The Year across Canada and is a nationally ranked powerlifter.
Glassbrook, Daniel, J., Brown, Scott R., Helms, Eric R., Duncan, J Scott., & Storey, Adam, G.(2017). The high-bar and low-bar back-squats: A biomechanical analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Feb 8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001836. [Epub ahead of print]
Schoenfeld, BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP & Krieger, JW. (2016). Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2014.989922