Master Your Barbell Squat With This Advanced Training Technique
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
The barbell back squat is one of the most butchered strength training movements in existence. Between poor spinal alignment, excessive range of motion, lack of motor control, poor hip hinge mechanics, and overall sloppy technique, the number of aberrations and types of dysfunction witnessed on barbell squats is endless. Although there are numerous methods that can help clean up squat mechanics including proper coaching and cueing of the basic squat pattern, one of the most effective techniques I’ve used for enhancing squat form is offset loading. Simply place 5-10% more weight on one side of the bar and perform the traditional back squat as demonstrated by several of my NFL and collegiate athletes.
There are actually 10 reasons why offset loading improves barbell squat form.
1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Performing loaded squats with ass-to-grass depth (ATG method) is plain wrong and not ideal for most lifters as it represents excessive depth and collapsed body positioning (read more about proper squat depth here). The offset barbell loading helps to eliminate this collapsing and excessive range of motion as the increased full body tension helps promote strong 90-degree angles rather than excessive range of motion. Even the slightest collapse or going beyond parallel will cause the lifter to lose control of the movement as the body will tend to twist or laterally flex. If you’re not sure about how deep your should be squatting or are still on the fence about optimal squat depth mechanics just use the offset loading protocol. Essentially it forces the lifter to produce optimal range of motion which happens to be somewhere between 90 degrees and parallel.
2. Lack of core activation is a common issue during squats that can quickly lead to a variety of dysfunctional squat patterns. The offset squat method not only works the primary muscles including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings but also crushes the core and spinal stabilizers. In fact you’re essentially resisting rotation and lateral flexion throughout each movement making it incredibly effective for hitting all of the spinal stabilizers and core musculature. Think of it as a combination of a squat and single arm plank or Pallof press performed at the same time.
3. Offset barbell squats are incredibly effective for eliminating momentum and jerky mechanics as they require the lifter to lift the weights smoothly and in a very controlled manner without wiggling, shifting, or use of excessive momentum. That’s because they force the lifter to synchronize the movement so that both sides of the barbell move in unison rather than out of synch with each other. Besides improving mechanics this also places more tension on the targeted muscles making it highly effective for hypertrophy training.
4. Lack of full body tightness and intramuscular tension is a common problem on squats. One of my favorite features of the offset barbell squat is that it teaches the lifter to stay tight by increasing intramuscular tension throughout the entire body. In fact this method helps promote concurrent activation and irradiation. Simply put it produces increased neural drive from staying tight which helps eliminate energy leaks and clean up form. Once you go back to standard loading don’t be surprised if your squat strength as well as other similar movements such as deadlifts, lunges, and RDL’s greatly improve.
5. A subtle yet frequent issue I commonly witness on the barbell squat is asymmetrical positioning as well as asymmetrical loading (placing more tension on one side of the body). The offset technique helps eliminate these symmetry issues as it forces the weaker side to catch up to the stronger side. In fact, if one side is even slightly weaker it will be immediately exposed. This is one of the single most effective methods I’ve ever used for correcting side to side imbalances and asymmetries in the squat pattern for my athletes and clients.
6. If you’re in need of an intense squat variation that crushes the quads, glutes, and hamstrings while minimizing total loading, joint tension, spinal compression, and muscle damage the offset barbell method is it. Because you won’t be able to handle quite as heavy a loading as you typically would (I recommend you start with 50-60% of your 1RM) it allows increased training intensity and activation but with decreased soreness, reduced joint tension, and less demands on recovery. This also allows the individual to train more frequently yet still with a relatively high intensity. In addition, if you have low back pain or spinal issues on squats I highly recommend incorporating the offset barbell method with lighter loads as it’s incredibly therapeutic on the spine not to mention brutal on the surrounding musculature.
7. A common squat cue that helps improve form is to pull the barbell into your upper back and traps by firing your lats and upper back. While this is something that takes practice to ingrain, the offset barbell loading method forces the lifter to adopt this cue out of pure necessity. In fact, the key to keeping the barbell level on your back and avoiding a tilted position is to literally squeeze and pull the barbell forcefully into the upper back and traps. Besides creating a stable position and level bar, this does wonders for improving squat mechanics and full body tension.
8. One of the first things my athletes notice when they perform offset barbell squats is how brutal and intense the movement is not just from a physical standpoint but also from a mental one. The level of mental focus and concentration as well as physical effort involved to make the movement one smooth and seamless motion is difficult to replicate with other squat variations. Once you return to traditional squat variations you’ll find your body and your mind better prepared for the task.
9. As previously mentioned when it comes to the various form aberrations and dysfunctional patterns witnessed during barbell squats the list is endless. Some of these include valgus collapse, anterior knee drift, excessive external rotation of the feet, foot and ankle pronation, lack of hip hinge mechanics, and numerous other issues. Fortunately the offset squat can help with each of these as I’ve literally seen it improve nearly all form issues on the squat. Although there are a number of explanations, it’s most likely a combination of core stabilization, full body tension, and greater motor control that causes the lifter to clean up their body mechanics within seconds in order to successfully complete the lift.
10. Although this article highlights the use of offset loading for traditional barbell squats it can actually be a applied to a number of lifts including all barbell movements such as bench press, deadlifts, overhead press, rows, and more, as well as a number of dumbbell and kettlebell exercises. It can also be applied to specialty barbells such as the trap bar, football bar, and fat bar.
Here’s one of my awesome clients and bodybuilders Ben Lain performing an continuously-adjusting offset barbell squat with an eyes-closed eccentric isometric protocol. Yep, that’s a mouthful and without a doubt a very advanced training method but here’s why it’s so effective.
Once you master the traditional offset loading (as described above) you can actually use chains to create the offset effect. The added benefit of this is that the chains create a continuously adjusting offset load that the lifter has to adjust to in a continuous fashion throughout the set. In other words the bottom may only be a 10 pound offset difference whereas the top may be closer to a 20 pound difference.
With traditional offset loading using standard plates, once your body becomes calibrated to the exact amount of offset neuromuscular recruitment needed for a particular set the lifter can somewhat get into a groove and find their sweet spot. Although this is ideal at first, forcing the lifter to continuously adjust and recalibrate every second of every set not only makes the movement infinitely more challenging but it also improves proprioception, kinesthetic awareness, full body tightness, core activation, and mental concentration. Simply put they can never go into autopilot mode but must constantly be at a maximal cognitive engagement state. This is ideal when it comes to skill acquisition, movement mastery, and motor control.
As a result, this is one of the best protocols for improving mechanics and form. To take things a step further, try incorporating an eyes closed eccentric isometric protocol as Ben demonstrates as this provides even greater proprioceptive feedback and sensory integration allowing the movement to hone in other mechanics and fine-tune their form. Once you’ve mastered this variation it’s safe to say you’ve perfected your squat pattern. And yes that means avoiding ass-to-grass depth or anything below parallel.
Bonus: Offset Power Hold
Here’s one of my awesome clients Eric McIntyre performing a deceptively brutal yet highly effective core exercise, the offset barbell hold. Simply load one side of the bar with a plate, grasp the bar with a shoulder width grip or wider, then simply hold an isometric lockout while attempting to keep the bar perfectly square using perfect posture and spinal alignment.
Essentially this ends up feeling similar to a combination suitcase hold, Pallof press, and single arm plank, as your entire body from head to toe will be forced to fire in order to resist lateral flexion and rotational forces acting the spine. The goal when performing this movement is to keep the barbell as square and parallel to the floor as possible while also keeping the center of the bar (i.e. center knurling patch) to line up with the center of your torso.
What inevitably occurs is the loaded side wants to drift inward/medially towards the midline of the body thereby forcing the lifter to pull that loaded side away/laterally to the side of the body to keep it centered. In fact this is one rare instance where I actually recommend using the mirror as most folks will think the bar is centered when in reality it isn’t.
This is also a similar setup to a an offset shovel deadlift however I’ve found this to be much more spine friendly as performing a deadlift motion with such an extreme offset load is oftentimes not the best option particularly for individuals with pre-existing back issues.
A few other cues for this including staying as tight as possible from head to toe, squeezing the daylights out of the bar with your grip, and bracing your core with maximal effort. Also make sure you don’t rest the bar against your body. Try performing several sets of 20-30 sec per side while super-setting it with other axial loaded movements such as squats, deadlifts, and more to reap the benefits of increased core activation, full body tension, and maximal spinal rigidity.
As previously mentioned I suggest starting with approximately half of your 1RM and loading 5-10% more weight on one side of the bar. 2-4 sets of 3-5 reps on each side of the body (6-10 total reps per set) will more than suffice for improving your squat as well as providing a significant strength and hypertrophy stimulus to your legs and core.