Fast Forward Your Gains with the Reverse Squat
Come to a dead stop when doing front squats to speed up gains in strength.
By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography: Michael Butler; Model: Nick Best
As a strongman you’ll use any tactic and every scheme at your disposal to move more weight. Although some strongmen prefer to rely on traditional movements like the back squat, others would rather hoist tractor tires in the parking lot. This month we have a traditional move with unorthodox effects, bringing the two camps together in some unique and specific ways. Meet the front squat done from a complete stop (called a reverse movement).
Before diving into the focus exercise, let’s take a look at what happens during the tire flip. There are very good reasons why it’s an old-school strongman favorite. You start in a deep squat position, calling into play your arms, upper body and legs as you pull and press almost simultaneously. All the weight of the tire is in front of you throughout the exercise, and by the end of it you feel the stress from head to toe. It’s a favorite among strongmen because it’s basically a deadlift, curl, squat and incline press all rolled up in one. It’s primarily a deadlift because you begin each rep from a dead stop. With your body in the deep squat position, you’re actually performing a squat in reverse, or a “reverse movement.”
If you’ve never tried reverse exercises, you’ll need to learn reverse movements eliminate the built-up negative energy (sometimes called elastic energy) that makes the positive (concentric) contraction easier to perform. During the downward phase of most exercises, such as the bench press or even the squat, you build up energy — this phase is also called “the stretch-shorten cycle”—as you descend with the bar. This built-up energy enables you to explode out of the bottom of each rep. If you remove that energy and begin each rep from the bottom (say, with the bar at your chest during the bench press or in the deep squat position like a tire flip), you’re starting from a disadvantage because you can’t use that built-up energy. If you can make gains during a situation like that, you know you’re getting stronger.
You start each repetition without supplying the target muscle with that powerful negative energy. That’s the genius in this month’s strongman move. The reverse front squat will not only force you to rely solely on positive strength to get out of the hole, but because the weight is in front of you, it requires a much more upright torso out of the bottom of the rep, just like the tire flip. That all translates into immediate and noticeable strength gains. Whenever you gain strength using positive movements, as soon as you go back to more traditional exercises in which you can use that built-up energy, you immediately see the effects. If you lean more toward squats, we guarantee you’ll notice increases in your RM strength.
The best place to perform the reverse front squat is obviously in the power rack where you can set the safeties at the perfect level. If you don’t have a power rack, you can also practice this movement in a Smith machine, even though the Smith removes the need for balance. In either case the bar should rest across your upper chest and front delts. Cross your arms to help build a shelf for it. Try using chalk to prevent the bar from slipping. By mastering the reverse front barbell, whether you prefer tires or the traditional squat, you’ll be better able to handle either or both with greater strength and success.
Try this full-body, reverse-focused routine and watch your plateaus come to a screeching halt!
Reverse Front Squat 4 Sets x 5 Reps, 2-3 min Rest
Deadlift 3 Sets x 6 Reps, 2-3 min Rest
Back Squat 3 Sets x 6 Reps, 2-3 min Rest
Incline Barbell Press 2 Sets x 8 Reps, 2 min Rest
* Doesn’t include 1-2 warm-up sets.
* Take only the last set of each exercise to failure.
Reverse Front Squat: Do It Right
START: Stand inside a power rack with a barbell resting on the safety bars about thigh level. Squat down to get under the bar. With your feet about shoulder width apart place the weight across your upper chest and front delts. Your arms should be crossed in front of you, creating a “shelf.”
MOVEMENT: With your chest up high, your torso erect and abs tight, extend your knees and hips by powerfully pressing through your feet to raise your body to a standing position. Squeeze for a count before slowly lowering yourself back to the starting position. To remove the negative energy, you must allow the bar to settle on the safeties before starting the next rep.