SPECIAL EXERCISES SERIES – No.6 Partial Squat from pins
Ass To Grass … ATG … this is the acronym you must use to make a squat sound legit. And in most cases I agree that the full barbell squat is one of the most productive exercises you can do and that most healthy lifters should include it in their training.
Just like most of you, I’m not crazy about those who squat shallow just to brag about how much weight they can “squat”.
But that’s not to say that partial squats are not effective nor that they should be avoided. When used properly they can be one of the most powerful tools you can add to your program. When I got my heaviest squats (595lbs raw, high bar Olympic squat) and front squats (220kg/484lbs), I was frequently doing partial squats from pins; top quarter and top half squats.
These build strength in the quadriceps and will increase your squat, deadlift, cleans and snatches. But again, they are not a replacement for ATG squats, they are a special exercise to target a specific result.
What is it good for?
- Strengthen the quadriceps and mostly the vastus medialis. The vastus medialis is responsible for the last degrees of knee extension, and in the partial squat you put a huge overload on that part of the range of motion. Because of the loads used, the partial squat likely is the exercise that puts the greatest overload/tension on the quadriceps.
- Strengthen the core significantly. Let’s say that you can do a partial squat with 100-200lbs (depending on the range) more than your full squat. Well, your body does have to stabilize and support that load which increases core activation.
From experience, big lift from pins (squats, front squats, Zercher squats, Goodmorning, deadlifts) also create a much higher “core tension” at the start. The more core tension you learn to produce, the less strength leaks you’ll have when you lift and the stronger you will be.
- Prepares you psychologically to handle big weights. Even if you aren’t doing a full range lift you are still feeling that weight on your shoulders. A lot of heavy squats are missed before you even attempt the lift: if the weight feels heavy, it will psych you out and cause you lose your drive/confidence to lift, and you will only give a token effort. But the heavy partials help you get used to feeling super heavy weights and prepare you for heavy attempts, which won’t feel as heavy by comparison.
- The heavy partials when performed overtime will desensitize your Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs). These are protective mechanisms to protect you against yourself. When they sense that you are producing too much force, they inhibit (limit) force production.
The thing is that this protective mechanism is super conservative; it doesn’t allow you to use more than 30-60% of your strength potential (depending on your level). By frequently lifting maximal (and supramaximal) weights you can desensitize them. As a result they will allow you to use more of your potential strength.
- It can improve the performance of several actions like jumping, sprinting, and the Olympic lifts. The principle of accentuation (Zatsiorsky, Science and Practice of Strength Training 1995) refers to putting an overload on the body where strength is the most needed in certain movements.
For example if I do a partial squat from a 100 degrees angle, this is very specific to the position from which I jump or explode from in a power snatch. By training with very heavy loads on partial movements I can overload that part of the range of motion much more than with full movements.
As a result this part of the ROM will get stronger, faster. In fact a study has even found gains of 5% with only one session of partial lifts (Mookerjee and Ratamess, 1999). And if a sporting action only needs a high level of strength at the angle being trained then your performance will improve if you get stronger in that range, even if it was through partial lifts.
How is it done?
- Set up the barbell on safety pins in the power rack. The height of the barbell can vary depending on your strategy and objective (more on that later). But it will normally be a height that will give you between a 90 and 135 degrees knee angle once set-up.
- Assume your squat position under the bar. The position needs to be mechanically identical to the position you would find yourself in at that part of the range of motion while doing a full squat. If the position is not the same, you wont have much strength transfer.
- Before you stand up with the weight establish proper tension: screw your feet into the floor (trying to externally rotate them), grab the floor with your toes, contract your abs as if you were gonna get punched in the stomach, squeeze the bar hard and try to compress your torso with your arms to keep the back tight.
- When tension is set-up, push the weight up until you are completely standing up.
- Lower the weight under control back to the pins, the same way you would lower a full squat.
- Before starting the next rep repeat step 3.
Are there any different variations?
One variation I really like is to use the hanging band technique (HBT) with heavy partial squats. Very few exercises can beat that combination when it comes to strengthening the core and improving your capacity to stay rigid and tight under load.
What do you need to avoid?
- Do not take a position that is different than the one you would be in at that part of the range of motion during a full squat. You want to stay as specific to the key positions as possible.
- Avoid dropping the bar back down on the pins. I made that mistake on bench press from pins and as a result my capacity to lower heavy weights under control got worse: even though my bench press from pins went up to 425 (1” from the chest), I missed a regular bench of 365 at the time because I couldn’t control it properly on the way down.
If anything, when doing partial squats, do the eccentric/lowering phase much slower than when you do the full lift. Anyway, being able to control heavy weights on the way down will build a lot more strength (and size) than just lifting them.
- Do not bounce the bar on pins. First because it’s dangerous but also because it makes the movement a zillion times less effective. From my experience, the most useful part of heavy partials from pins is breaking the inertia. This is where you create the most tension. If the bounce off of the bar, it helps you start the lift you are losing most of that benefit.
- Do not go straight into the next rep as soon as you touch the pins. As I mention, breaking that inertia off of the pins is where the money is. So, you want to rest the bar on pins, reset, create tension, and lift. This will maximize the tension created on each rep while also making sure that you initiate every rep from a perfect position.
- Never do a rep before you have created the proper tension (refer to bullet point no.3 in the previous section), as this will not only make you a lot weaker but it also greatly increases the risk of injuries. As my friend Alex Babin often says, “respect the barbell”. Even when you are working your way up and are using lighter weights, treat the bar as if it were a max effort. Empty barbell or maximum lift should be lifted the same way: maximum tension, perfect positions and technique.
What are the best loading parameters?
The purpose of the partial squat is to create an overload that is greater than what you can do on the full lift. So, we want to use weights that are in excess to your maximum on the full lift. But that doesn’t mean that you must use sets of 1, 2 or 3 reps on partial squats.
As long as the load is equal or superior to your full range 1RM, it will work. So you could do 6-9 reps with 100% of your maximum if your goal is to build quadriceps size while getting the benefits of the overload.
For maximum strength, I like sets of 3-5 reps on partials. Sets of 1 and 2 should only be used to work on desensitizing the GTOs in very advanced athletes. I really like to use either 5/4/2 waves (1 x 5, 1 x 4, 1 x 3, 1 x 5, 1 x 4, 1 x 3) or 5/3/1 waves (1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 1, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 1) for this exercise when my goal is to build maximum strength.
When to use it?
Again, there are several ways to use it.
If you are an athlete you could use the partial squat on the last phase of a training cycle. For example you could squat for 9 weeks and do the partial squat for 3 weeks to peak strength and power at a sport-specific angle (principle of accentuation).
Phase 1 (weeks 1-3) -Back squat 1 x 7, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 7, 1 x 5, 1 x 3
Phase 2 (weeks 4-6) – Back squat 1 x 6, 1 x 4, 1 x 2, 1 x 6, 1 x 4, 1 x 2
Phase 3 (weeks 7-9) – Back squat 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1
Phase 4 (weeks 10-12) – Partial squat 4 sets of 1+1+1+1+1 cluster
If you are someone who just trains to get strong you could use the partial squat (or partial squat HBT) as a neural activation prior to doing your squat sets. In that case you would do sets of 1 or 2 reps, ramping to a heavy (but not all out) single. We want activation with minimal fatigue.
If you are after maximum muscle growth you could do 3 sets of partial squats after you’ve done your sets of full squats.
A. Back squat
4 sets of 4-6 reps
2-3 min rest
B. Partial squats
3 sets of max reps with 20-40lbs more than “A”
2-3 min rest
If you train for strength/performance and like a higher frequency of training you could do the partial squats once a week, regular squats once a week and Zercher squat from pins (or front squats) once a week.
1 x 5, 1 x 4, 1 x 3, 1 x 5, 1 x 4, 1 x 3
1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 1, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 1
Zercher squat from pins (from the bottom)
1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1
If you are an athlete who is looking to rapidly increase his jumping power and sprinting speed you could do a complex like this:
A1. Partial squat
2 minutes rest
A2. Back squat
2 minutes rest
A3. Jump squat (from partial squat) with 20% of your max
4 minutes rest
Do 4 sets