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The Smartest & Most Unusual Squat Solutions

Cory Cripe, DVRT Master (Creator of DVRT Dynamic Strength Program)

sandbag exercises

I always have prided myself on the fact that twice in my young fitness career I was praised by two professional strength and conditioning coaches on my barbell back squat (Green Bay Packers’ S&C coach, Kent Johnston, in 1996 and Chicago Bulls’ Assistant S&C coach, Mike Gattone, in 2001). I first need to credit my ankle, knee, & hip mobility, but then I also would like to mention I put in A LOT of work making my squats better than anyone else in my high school!

Me with legendary Strength Coach for the Bulls, Al Vermeil. Good thing he remembered me from my time with them!

While everyone else was building their bench press, I knew (or thought I knew at the time) that squats are where it happens. Even though my long legs made it challenging to hold the most plates on the barbell, it was my determination to make my form the best and deepest!

But like most powerlifting exercises, there comes a time you hit that plateau. You just can’t add anymore weight and there seems to be a lull in your progress. Many that don’t know any better try to push through these plateaus only to find themselves staying stuck, frustrated, and/or injured.

Even though my form was pretty stellar – it still wasn’t enough to keep me safe.

Wait, what?!?!

Shouldn’t ideal form be the “cure all” in the world of fitness regarding safety? Obviously, yes. But, when you start peeling the DVRT onion you will discover there is a deeper attention to details necessary than just, ‘Keep your chest up.’ when squatting.

Twice in my lifting career I “threw my back out” while barbell back squatting. And the embarrassing thing is it wasn’t when I was going heavy. Both times were during my warm-ups. You know, 45lb plate on each side for a set of 10 just to get things going.

So, the point I’m trying to make here is the fact that all the work I’d put into fine tuning my squat and being told twice by two professional strength coaches that I had a great barbell back squat didn’t prevent me from getting injured doing the exercise I love to do.

The good news is it’s a pretty easy fix to clean up your squat and become a stronger squatter without practicing squats! I can hear you thinking to yourself, ‘Now Cory has gone off the deep end for sure! Get better at squatting without squatting, pooh!’

Now, if you’ve been following DVRT long enough you might be thinking what I think (and forgive my movie reference here), but Josh is the Morpheus to our Neo. We’re offered the blue pill and the red pill. If we take the blue pill, the story ends, we wake up, and believe whatever we want to believe.

However, I took the red pill – sometimes I regret that decision 😉 … I stayed in Wonderland and am finding out how deep this rabbit hole goes. Remember DVRT is offering the truth in fitness, nothing more.

And now bettering your squats without squatting. Warning! Another Matrix reference. There is the scene where Neo is going to talk with the Oracle and there is a boy bending spoons on the floor. Apparently Neo is very curious of how this is happening and the boy says not to bend the spoon because that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. Where Neo asks, ‘What truth?’ The spoon boy replies, ‘There is no spoon. Then you will see that it’s not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.’

It is difficult from the outside fitness world to look in on the magic of DVRT and try to understand what it is we do, but for those red pill poppers like me you can understand strength isn’t necessarily muscular – it’s neural. Unlike the spoon, there is a squat – but trying to pretend that I’m the Spoon Boy, to build a stronger squat we have to realize the truth, there is no squat solution requiring the squat exercise. Trying to become stronger at the squat (or any other exercise) and just continuing to hammer it by increasing the volume and intensity will take the neural involvement out of the equation. And remember, I said strength is more neural than muscular.

Albert Einstein said it best, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” We need to look outside the squat exercise to improve it and I’m going to give you 3 DVRT experiences to make that happen. And if it doesn’t – you get your money back!

#1 Squat Strengthener: USB Side Planks

I have discovered for me personally and many clients I train at Fitness Lying Down one of our biggest energy leaks come from our inability to be stable and strong in the frontal plane. Being unable to resist forces in this plane of motion can place our hips in a compromised position doing squats. You might see it when people tend to lean to one side as they either descend or come out of the bottom position.

Check out these DVRT side plank progressions that will have a positive impact on your squats with better pelvic control. 

Using the DVRT side planks with the Ultimate Sandbag is necessary when cleaning up that weakness and building a stronger squat. There are so many progressions to this popular (but often misunderstood) exercise. But whatever level of side plank you choose, there are a few non-negotiables to go over.

Never think of picking your body off the ground to set up in your side plank – you must understand pressing your body off the floor is what will set the stage for a successful side plank performance! You hand on the ground must be in contact and pressing to create the lat tension on the bottom side to be confident that the shoulder joint isn’t taking the beating of keeping you up.

Using the Ultimate Sandbag and either pulling on the suitcase handle without actually pulling the USB off the floor or rowing the USB by squeezing the shoulder blades together will connect the top side lat with that bottom side glute for the core response you’re looking for. And having that core response while resisting the frontal plane motion (because that’s what you’re doing in the side plank) will set you on the right path for building the right strength for a stronger squat!

I personally like to set our clients in a modified side plank with knee on top of knee and foot on top of foot as a starting point. The more knee angle you have – the easier the side plank is. I tend to use a 25 – 35 pound power USB (one that cannot be easily lifted off the ground and is high enough to pull on the suitcase handle) and have our Sandbaggers pull the slack out of the suitcase handle while owning the top of the side plank position for 10 seconds. We repeat that for a total of 3 times on one side and three times on the other.

#2 Squat Strengthener: USB Overhead Presses

I can understand how this can be a head scratcher for many out there, but let me explain. If you can appreciate how pressing overhead is NOT an arm and shoulder exercise – I repeat, not an arm & shoulder exercise – but a total body movement then you can begin to piece together the reasoning why this will build a stronger squat.

And there are two levels of OH pressing I’d like to throw out there for you, standing and military stance. Standing will have the feet shoulder width and military will find your feet together with the toes and heels touching. Both stances require your legs to be locked out and your feet pressing into the ground; the footwork this exercise requires is not fancy, but strong, and will create those core connections to maintain a neutral pelvis. That neutral pelvis can be challenging for some coming out of the squat (aka “the butt wink”) and those issues can be solved by learning how to use those feet!

True military press refers to the feet together. 

When you can will the Ultimate Sandbag to rise over your head as a result of you pressing down into the floor and creating footprints in the ground, then you are on your way and can move from level 1 to level 2 and bring those feet together for less stability and more “opportunities.”

It seems so counterintuitive, pressing overhead – but yet – pressing down. However, this is a foot exercise more than anything when we are transferring overhead pressing to build stronger squats. So if you can focus on those feet while you press up (and even more importantly pulling the USB down) – those are the same feet we need when squatting down and rising up. Remember the truth…there is no spoon!

#3 Squat Strengthener: USB Bear Hug Rotations

I have personally fallen in love with this bad boy for numerous reasons. And I’ll tell you as a coach, this is one of the most efficient ways I’ve found to teach rotation to our clients at Fitness Lying Down!

And I understand there is no rotation in the “traditional” squatting exercise, but there can be a lot of anti-rotation you’re not even picking up on. If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen someone come out of the bottom of their squat and let a knee, or both knees, do some sort of twisting out or caving in I’d have more money than DVRT has USBs!

Taking a line from fellow Master Instructor and good friend, Cam Ward:

“Train the PLANE and challenge the CHAIN to get the GAIN

We’ve had a good conversation about the importance of the feet in the OH press, but now we take it up a notch, just like Emeril Lagasse – BAM! So when we rotate, we need to see a good pivot to show some healthy internal rotation of that same side hip. But as I like to always mention try not to look so much at the moving parts – see what the non-moving parts are doing! As we pivot and rotate through the hips (not the waist) there is a huge demand on the stance foot to hold it’s ground *literally* and not give in to rotation.

Strength Coach Joel Gunterman shows how we can use this concept to feed right into better squatting mechanics.  

Teaching the knees not to twist by building strong feet will not only make you a better squatter, but a stronger one, too! If you are struggling with joint aches and pains as a result of squatting – it’s pretty common that you might find those inconveniences beginning to end because of the strength being built in those feet. And one other coaching suggestion to help your squats be better. If you are wearing shoes – kick them off! If you are uneasy about being barefoot, go minimalist with your footwear. You will notice the difference in how your squats will feel better instantaneously! And then you will truly know squat!

For me, there is nothing better than teaching the joy of movement and how diverse we should be able to move with strength and power. Of course, my biggest thrill is sharing this passion with my children, the ones I want to fall in love with movement the most!

Check out Cory’s new Dynamic Strength Program HERE