Leg Training – Squats with BandsPosted: November 9, 2014
The squat is one of the two major lower body exercises, the other being the deadlift. Squatting with bands allows you to overload the weight at the top of the lift, while driving out of the bottom of the squat where the weight is lighter. Since the band tension decreases as you descend, the weight is lightest at the bottom of the squat. As you come back up weight builds rapidly as band tension increases. The resistance builds as your mechanical advantage and strength improves toward the top end of the squat, forcing you to work hardest at your strongest point in the lift.
This overloading effect the bands create will prepare you to move greater amounts of weight, and increase your explosive power. Bands can greatly amplify the difficulty of the squat. It is very important that you perfect your technique in the barbell squat before attempting band squats.
Muscles Used for this Exercise
- Primary Muscle Groups: Quadriceps, Glutes, Hamstrings
- Secondary Muscle Groups: Both anterior and posterior muscle groups in the lower body are very important to this lift; if you are squatting correctly, they should all be considered primary
- Stabilizers: Abdominals/Core, Upper Back (Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius), Lower Back (Spinal Erectors)
Because of the instability created by the bands, your stabilizers will be taxed to a great degree when squatting with bands.
At first glance, the squat seems like a simple exercise – get under the bar, sit down and stand back up. To squat effectively is, however, quite complex. There are many nuances to the lift that will make the difference between a good squat and a great squat. The approach described here emphasizes maximizing strength and power:
- Squat rack – you will be lifting too much weight to lift onto your shoulders. Set the rack height at mid to upper chest height so that you will have good leverage to unrack and walk the weight out. Set the safety pins low enough so that you can squat to full depth without bumping them, and high enough so that they can catch the bar if you get into trouble.
- T-Shirt – for squatting use a relatively tight t-shirt. The bar will be less likely to slide on a t-shirt than on your bare skin (ie a tank top), and a tight t-shirt will keep the shirt from sliding between the bar and your skin. For additional stability, run chalk along your back and shoulders where the bar rests.
- Shoes – lift in shoes with a solid sole. Running or athletic shoes have soles that will compress under the weight of your body and the bar, greatly decreasing your stability.
- Bands – a pair of bands varying in width and resistance. These are specialized bands made specifically for adding resistance to your lifts. They vary in tension from relatively light to very heavy (over 200lbs in tension for a single pair of bands).
- Anchoring the bands – if you’re fortunate, your squat rack has pegs built in to anchor your bands. If not using heavy dumbbells is easy enough, just be sure your have dumbbells heavy enough to hold the bands down when fully stretched. You may have to get creative if your gym doesn’t have heavy dumbbells.
- Band Setup: To maximize the effectiveness of the bands, set up your bands so they have very slight tension at the bottom of your squat, but are not completely loose.
- If you want to increase the tension, you can increase the amount of band wrapped around the anchors.
- Pull the slack out of the bands, and make sure the anchors are evenly set up with identical tension. If not, one side can have significantly more tension than the other.
Technique for setting up and squatting with bands has some slight differences from your standard barbell squats. Greater care must be taken to stay tight, given the instability created by the bands, and the pull they draw towards the anchors.
- Bar Placement: Demonstrated here is the low bar position. This will give you good leverage for maximum power. The bar should rest on the back of your delts at the base of your traps. If you slide the bar down your traps as you step under it, you will find a groove between your delts and traps the bar slides right into.
Note: there are other bar placement options based on training goals and body mechanics – alternate bar placement is beyond the scope of this article.
- Hand Placement/Grip: Grip the bar as close to your shoulders as your flexibility will allow. Moving your hands out wider, away from your shoulders will reduce tension on your shoulders and elbows. If you lack flexibility it can reduce some strain but it will also loosen your upper back, reducing your stability. Conversely, bringing your hands in will tighten your upper back, increasing your stability.
- Foot Placement: Once set up, your feet should be set with your heels at shoulder width with your toes pointed outward. Your center of gravity at your ankles should be lined up directly with the bands’ anchor points to prevent the bands from pulling you forward or back. You may have to adjust the width of your stance based on your body mechanics and mobility to find the optimum position for you. Some general guidelines:
- A wider stance increases emphasis on your hips, reduces tension on your glutes and hamstrings, and can make it more difficult to hit full depth. A wide stance also reduces the range of motion of the squat.
- A narrower stance increases the stretch of your glutes and hamstrings allowing them to aid more in the lift. With the proper foot position, a closer stance can make it easier to squat to depth.
- Step under the bar using the hand and bar placement as discussed above. To unrack with bands, one foot should be slightly behind the other to prevent the bands from pulling you backwards and off balance (see the first frame of the walkout diagram below).
- Take a deep breath, filling your lungs and abdomen completely with air. Drive the air down and tighten your core, blocking to create intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize your spine.
- Rotating your torso as a solid unit, drive your hips forward under the bar. Lift the bar straight up out of the rack using strong leg/quad drive (I call this the quad pop – the bar should pop right out of the rack).
- Watch your feet as you walk out, to ensure correct placement. Take at least two, but no more than three short, quick steps back from the rack to set up.
- I prefer to take one foot straight back, move the other back into the lifting position, then move the first over into lifting position. The fewer and shorter steps you take, the less energy you will expend.
- With bands it may help to draw a chalk line between the anchors so you can set your feet in direct alignment with the bands. This will prevent the bands from pulling you forward or backward.
- When ready to squat, take another deep breath into your lungs and abdomen and block again, tightening your core and holding the air in.
- Begin your descent by driving your knees outward and sit down into the squat as if sitting into a chair.
- Keep your head and chest up, and your back flat throughout entire lift.
- Depth: Proper squat depth depends on a number of variables.
- If you are a competitive powerlifter, every squat rep should be below parallel. The top of your thigh at your hips should be below the top of your knee.
- To build muscle mass, you will get maximum hamstring activation at parallel. To maximize glute activation, you should squat 1-2″ below parallel.
- It is possible to squat too deeply. If you lack flexibility, and your lumbar bar spine begins to flex as you reach parallel, and your buttocks tuck under, limit your squat depth to the point where the tuck begins – until you can improve your mobility.
- Drive the weight back up explosively. The weight will be lighter at the bottom because the band tension is low. Drive hard out of the bottom when the weight is light to help you carry through the sticking point as the weight gets heavier. The lift will slow as the band tension increases at your sticking point. Keep driving up through the sticking point.
- Keep your head and chest up and drive down through your heels to maximize the use of your hamstrings and glutes. Force your knees out as you begin the drive and through the lift, this will prevent them from collapsing in, and will help you increase hip drive.
- Complete the lift by locking out your knees, squeezing your glutes to force your hips forward and bringing your back fully erect. Exhale once you pass the sticking point and through lock out.
- Select a weight that you can perform all of your repetitions using proper technique. On your last 1-2 sets, your last repetitions should be very difficult, but you should maintain good form.
- The purpose of squatting with bands is to overload the top end of your squat. Set up the bar and bands so top end of the lift is 10% over a straight bar weight set. For example, if you normally lift 315lbs for 5×5, set up the bar to 355 (315 bar weight and 30lbs of band tension).
- A sample band calibration chart can be found on EliteFTS web site: http://articles.elitefts.com/training-articles/long-band-calibrations/
- Not bracing your feet to unrack: if you don’t brace one foot back as described above, when you unrack the bar, you may be pulled back off balance by the bands.
- Not driving hard enough from the bottom: if you don’t drive hard from the bottom of the squat when the weight is light you’ll have much greater difficulty pushing through the sticking point.
- Partial squats: performing squats without descending at least until your thighs are parallel with the floor reduces the effectiveness of the exercise. Use a weight you can control through the full range of motion.
- Leaning forward: leaning forward will make it more difficult to squat to proper depth, will reduce the workload on your legs, and increase the tension on your lower back. Note that the bands can exacerbate mistakes such as leaning.
- Allowing your knees to buckle in: don’t let your knees buckle inward during the lift; this puts unnecessary strain on your knees; forcing your knees out as you lift gives you greater stability and power.
- Rounding your back: keep your back flat throughout the lift.
- Taking too much time to set up: set up quickly and get into position to squat; the longer your setup takes with the weight on your back, the less weight you will be able to squat.
- Perform your squats with perfect form. Any errors in technique using bands will result in a much greater chance of injury than with straight barbell weight.
- Always use a spotter when squatting. Make sure your spotter knows how to properly assist you if you get into trouble with your lift.
- Consider performing your squats in a squat rack or cage with safety bars in case you are unable to complete the lift. Before starting, make sure the safety bars are set properly for your height. You should be able to complete a full squat without touching the bars, but with the barbell on the safety bars you should be able to easily get out from underneath it.
- Never dump the barbell onto the safety bars unless your spotter is aware and able to get out of the way.