Disclaimer: The subject of this article is something I wrote about in my book Bones of Iron. Sometimes I get ideas to write about things I’ve already covered, but I shy away from them because I say, “This was in my book, and I don’t wanna repeat stuff.” Then I remember that not everybody has read my book (which makes absolutely no sense to me), so I feel okay about hitting some previous material.
This is going to be about squats, squat cycles, and how they impact your Olympic lifts. People ask me about this all the time and I’ve read dozens of internet debates about it.
First, let me make a basic overall statement. Squats are one of the most important components of a weightlifter’s success, absolutely no doubt about it. I actually think squats are the most valuable and beneficial exercise that can be performed with a barbell, period. If I was stuck on a desert island and told that I could only do one lift for the rest of my life to stay strong, I would pick the squat. Many strength athletes feel the same way. It gets a lot of reverence, and rightfully so.
BUT…people sometimes get carried away with this mentality and start to think squats are the solution to every problem in Olympic weightlifting, saying, “If you squat more, all your other obstacles will be wiped out.” This isn’t always correct. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the squat is the most important assistance exercise for an OLifter, but it’s still an assistance exercise.
People get on the internet and watch hours of weightlifting videos on YouTube, All Things Gym, and other sites. We see top international lifters from Europe squatting 600-700 lbs with ease. We also see them snatching and clean and jerking world records. From there, we sometimes make the logical conclusion, “If I add 100 lbs to my squat, my SN and C&J will go up too.”
Get a stronger squat… and your snatch and clean & jerk will increase. Is this how weightlifting works? Well, maybe…but not necessarily. It’s not a 2 + 2 = 4 equation.
First of all, the answer to that question has a lot to do with HOW you’re squatting (position and technique
). If the bottom positon of your squat is basically identical to the bottom position of your snatch and clean, you’ll probably get a lot of transfer strength. If your squats look like wide-stance, sit-back-to-parallel powerlifting squats, the transfer to your snatch and clean & jerk will be much lower.
Speaking of powerlifting, people sometimes develop love affairs with squat cycles (long-term training programs that are specifically focused on increasing squat strength). I’ve seen a bunch of these in my career. The two most popular ones have been the “Russian Squat Cycle” that was all the rage back in the 90s, and the Smolov cycle that’s got everybody giddy these days. The basic principle with these programs is, “If you make the squat your #1 training priority and use a program where you squat your ass off all the time, your squats will get stronger.” Okay, gotcha. That’s not exactly revolutionary thinking, but it makes sense.
But, will all that squat strength lead to improvements in your SN and C&J? That’s the real question if you’re a competitive weightlifter, and there’s not a clear-cut answer to it.
Most powerlifters think our American weightlifters would be more successful if they squatted more. People love reaching this conclusion because it’s so easy. However, most powerlifters haven’t done the Olympic lifts at the same level as a full-time OLifter, so they don’t understand the sport as deeply. I know some of them like to say, “Well, I understand STRENGTH. Strong is strong!” Yeah, okay…but it’s not that simple. I know it looks that simple from the outside, but it isn’t.
If you have a 300 lb C&J and a legitimate 550 lb Olympic-style back squat, your squat strength isn’t the problem you need to be looking at.
1) I went to a national championship back in the 90s, and one of the lifters in my weight class told me he had recently increased his squat strength to 600 lbs (272.5 kg). In the competition, he attempted a 182.5 kg C&J (402 lbs) and it almost murdered him. He caught the clean in the bottom position and then it took him about six seconds to stand up with it…screaming, fingers popping off the bar, back rounding, etc. Then he barely got the jerk off his shoulders and passed out. It wasn’t the most impressive display of leg strength I’ve ever seen.
A few years later, I was lifting that same weight (402 lbs) in the C&J and standing up with the cleans pretty easily. My top back squat at that time was 245 kg (540 lbs). So this dude squatted 60 lbs more than me, but I could C&J more than him…and much easier.
2) Yuri Vardanian did a 222.5 kg C&J (490 lbs) and cleaned 230 kg (507 lbs) back in the 80s, at 82.5 kg bodyweight (181 lbs). He also stated that he rarely squatted with anything heavier than his top C&J weight in training. On the other hand, I once saw a Turkish lifter named Dursun Sevinc do a 285 kg front squat (617 lbs) at approximately the same bodyweight as Vardanian. Sevinc’s best official C&J was 207.5 kg (457 lbs), I believe. So his squat strength eclipsed Vardanian’s, but Vardanian could kick the living piss out of him in the C&J.
- Side note: I know people always use Vardanian as an example in the squat conversation. Admittedly, he’s not a typical example because he’s not a normal representative of every weightlifter. He was an exception to the rules. Hell, he was an exception to every rule in the history of the human race. So I understand his training practices might not apply equally to everybody. But there’s still something to be learned from his information.
- Side note #2: I lifted in a raw powerlifting meet a few weeks ago and squatted 237.5 kg (523 lbs) with just a belt and rehband sleeves. That’s almost as much as I was squatting when I did my top OL totals 15 years ago. But the biggest SN I could pull off right now would be maybe 130 kg (286 lbs) on a good day, compared to my old competition best of 155 kg (341 lbs). My squat strength hasn’t gone away, but my speed and power have.
Listen, I’m not saying a big squat isn’t important for an weightlifter. IT DEFINITELY IS. I’m just saying it’s not necessarily a guarantee of a bigger snatch or clean & jerk the way many people think. Skill development and technical efficiency in the SN and C&J is the primary thing you need to improve as a weightlifter. If you can develop this while also
increasing your squat strength, you’re on the road to huge totals.
Bottom line… there are a lot of variables in human performance. You can’t paint the whole sport with the same brush and claim that a 100 lb squat increase will lead to a 100 lb competition snatch and clean & jerk total increase.
Get a big squat. But if you’re a competitive weightlifter, don’t set up your training with the idea that squat strength will be a cure-all for everything. You can’t walk into a battle like this with only one weapon.
By the way, I picked the title of this article specifically to see how many people would post half-cocked arguments against it, without actually reading the article. Ready? 1, 2, 3…GO!