Back to basics: Squatting to build the Olympic lifts

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  • Use high-­bar squats to build a higher tolerance to increased training volume or positional strength in Olympic lifts.
  • When squatting for general strength, stick to 5­-8 repetitions per set.
  • For building positional strength in the lifts, stick to 2­-3 repetitions.
  • Use pause squats in sets of 3 reps (pause for 3­ seconds) to improve your first pull and ability to stand-up from heavy Snatches and Cleans.
  • ­Try keeping your balance on the mid-­foot to properly load the legs during this critical assistance exercise. And for sure, never bend over at the hip! We don’t want any stripper squats.

A few common questions I hear all the time from beginner to intermediate lifters is “Why do we squat, and what’s the best way to squat to improve the Olympic lifts?”

Today I will discuss two reasons why the squat is so critical for weightlifting. Also, I’d like to share some specific squatting techniques that are sure to help you Snatch, Clean & Jerk bigger weights with far less effort.

There are two ways we can approach squat training for the Olympic lifts. The first is to spend time building general strength, so that your body can get used to higher volume training (and buttloads of work!). The second way to train the squat is to focus on building “positional strength,” which is how you will learn to apply your newfound strength to the lifts effectively.

Let me explain.


1. Squatting for general strength and preparation.

In this phase, we’re going to use the high-bar squat to prepare your entire body for the cumulative stresses of weightlifting.

If we think about training as if it causes a short-term fever in the body, then our job is to first build our tolerance to this fever. That’s why barbells are so great! Just like with a medication, we can easily increase our dose by exact increments to get the desired, measured response.

So, during this first phase of training, your primary job in the squat is to accumulate “time under tension” by doing five or more repetitions per set (4-5 sets is great). That amount of work will certainly stress the joints and connective tissues, but it will also thoroughly fatigue and activate just about all of your muscle tissue. That level of work is required if you want to MAXIMIZE your strength and long-term weightlifting performance.


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The Snatch, Clean & Jerk will certainly challenge your nervous system, connective tissues, and fast­-twitch muscles. However, these lifts DON’T provide your slow-­twitch and postural muscles with an opportunity to work and adapt. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to perform higher repetition work during your “offseason,” which comes after any big weightlifting meets like the American Open, or fitness competitions like Regionals or the CrossFit games.

Bottom line: Your body needs periods of time during the year to heal, recover and grow through proper rest, nutrition, and a shift in training focus. Taking the time for higher-repetition work will give you exactly what you need.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 10.56.14 AMCoach Patrick Griffin performing a high-­bar ATG or “ass­-to-­grass” back squat.


2. Squatting for positional strength.

If we look at the Olympic lifts in phases, we can address which sections need more help with key assistance exercises.

When a lifter moves out of a general strength training phase, their focus can then shift to using their new overall strength to improve the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. That’s because these lifts are usually a percentage of our general strength, so when we get stronger overall, our capacity to withstand loads of heavy Snatches, Cleans & Jerks also improves. That’s absolutely critical to understand.

For more developed weightlifters, the high-bar back squat should be roughly 130% of your 1RM Clean & Jerk maximum, while the Snatch should be about 80% of your best C&J. This is how I know if a lifter should focus more general strength, or lift-specific weaknesses.

For example, let’s say a coach decides that her lifter needs improvement their Clean performance. In this case, her first and second pull looks great, but the lifter is also getting stuck at the bottom when trying to stand up with 90% or more of their best lift. This is a great opportunity to use the squat to eliminate this weakness.

Here’s a great way to train the squat to eliminate this positional weakness. Work up to 100% of your Clean max on the Back Squat. Squat slowly to parallel without using a bounce, then pause there for three seconds. I got this gem from the Russians when they visited Waxman’s Gym in November of 2013. See the picture below for an example.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 10.59.46 AMThe perfect spot for a pause. 


The logic behind this is that lifters generally do not get stuck at the bottom of a clean. But they DO often get stuck at parallel, because the legs have the least leverage while trying to stand with an upright torso.

Pause squatting trains the nervous system to activate all those secondary muscle fibers that generally don’t get activated when you execute the lifts at full speed. This will help build your positional strength in what was previously a “weak” portion of the lift. If all goes right, next time the lifter should be able to stand up much easier during heavy Cleans.

The type of squatting we are discussing here assumes the balance is on the lifter’s mid-­foot or arches. If you are squatting with the weight on your heels, that is fine as well. I just want to be very clear with these recommendations, because how you load the body in weightlifting is everything.

No matter what, the lifter should avoid “Stripper-­butt” good morning style squats (see below), because that will shift the emphasis away from the leg musculature and onto the lower back. Sure, you might get stronger, but you will never get better at standing up with big Cleans.
So, choose your squatting style wisely!

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 11.00.54 AMNo matter what you do, don’t do this! 


I hope you found this information useful. If you’ve got any squatting questions, just leave them in the comments below. We’d love to help you out.

Now, go squat!


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14 Responses to “Back to basics: Squatting to build the Olympic lifts”

  1. Josh Settlage

    Awesome article!

    What are your thoughts regarding squating toes straight ahead vs. toes slightly outward?

    • Chris

      Generally, as the feet come out wider, you’ll want the toes to come out a little more. Close stance, you can certainly keep them straight if you feel stronger. If that gives you a stronger feeling hip, good. The one thing, though, is pulling stance. What foot position do you keep when setting up for the clean and snatch? Where do they go when you drop under a lift? Just to be safe, I would take a close look at both and then drill foot position across lifts, just for consistency. You need to look pretty similar across them all.

      • Josh Settlage

        Thanks for the response Chris! My feet during the set up for the clean and the snatch are always straight forward, once I drop under the bar in a front squat or over head squat position my feet are little wider set and my toes go out a lot. Could this lead to potential injury in the future?

  2. Peter Keenan

    With ref to the hip raising in the squat ,this is what happens to me every time i go for a max or fairly high percentage ,obviously not intentional but always shift forwards ,have ended up doing what looks like a good morning with 160kg,not a good look ! Any thoughts on remedy for this ? Cheers,

    • Chris

      Pause squats. More lunges, step-ups and jumps. Basically, you are running towards your back because it’s what can lift the load. Strengthen the legs and torso more, and you’ll drive more upright. Keep the weight down for now and practice form. Hips up WON’T help you in the lifts. It’ll just reinforce bad habits.

  3. Grace

    Chris I have a real forward lean in all my squats and this shows up badly in snatches. Is there anything I can do to improve this, i find sotts press impossible at the bottom of a squat!

    • Chris

      Yeah, there are a few things you can do.

      First, back off the snatch. You don’t want to engrain a bad pattern, or grind your shoulders.

      Think mobility first. How’s your ankle range of motion? If it’s tremendous, skip it. But if you cannot squat deep with bare feet, work on it. When you lift, make sure you’re wearing a proper weightlifting shoe with a heel. That will help position. Otherwise, give your hips some TLC and mobilize there too.

      As far as training goes, If I were you I would shift my training goal towards keeping vertical under heavy loads. Front squat more often. Take your time during those sets. Hold the weight before you squat. Breathe and reset your arch. Controlled tempo down. Pause at the bottom. Keep upright. Fire up as fast as you can. That will make you much stronger.

      When you back squat, go high bar and use pauses here too. Sit down in the bottom. You’ll notice that, to do that, you need to be upright. Or else your back will really fatigue quickly.

      You can still snatch a little, but be careful. Go back to squat one and practice a vertical,full snatch with light loads. Drill your overhead squat, really fighting for the same vertical posture. Yes, all this will be akward for a while, but that’ll just be for maybe 2-3 weeks. After that, you’ll quickly get used to it. Loads will go up. Squat and snatches will start to feel more efficient and easy.

      Hope that helps,


  4. Enrico Marino

    Hi! I am Enrico a fan from Venezuela! I am a big fan of your show and advice. I have a concern with squating by myself since most of the time I squat by myself and I fear getting hurt. Any advice to get more confident with squats. I have been lifting for only 6 months.

    • Chris

      If you plan well, you don’t have to risk failure and excessive injury. Sure, shit happens. You can never be sure. But if you progress at a reasonable pace, use great form, work pauses and tempo squats (they make lighter loads harder), etc, you’ll be A-OK.

  5. Paul

    Dear Chris,

    I’ve followed the muscle gain challange for 10 months. The whole year I have used my lifters when back and front squatting, went up from 275 to 330 lbs (great program thanks.) Now after 3 months competition prep im starting with my strenght work again.

    Whats your advice about lifters / flats. Should I stick with my lifters for another year or would it be a good idea to swtich from lifters to flats like every cycle or something else. Whats your opinion on that?

    This question is because i did a few time squats during the prep on my flats and noticed a lot of different muscles in my posterior chain where working.

    Warm greetings


  6. Pascal

    What would you say would be good RPE’s to work with?
    When squatting for general strength, 5­-8 repetitions @RPE ??
    Positional strength in the lifts, stick to 2­-3 repetitions @RPE ??
    pause squats in sets of 3 reps (pause for 3­ seconds) @RPE ??

    I see weightlifters squat with ease when using their squats. No where near a set which I’d count as an RPE 8 or 9.
    What do you recommend?


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