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Jedi mind tricks to up your squat

July 30, 2007 12:12 PM

Have you ever noticed that once you start to squat a weight that is close to your one rep max, or getting toward the end of a heavy rep max that it becomes very difficult to push your stomach against the belt . . . almost as if you lost 5-10 lbs. in a hurry the belt can actually feel loose? For a long time I thought it was just me, but then many other fellow powerlifters confirmed the same experience. We all just assumed it was as simple as needing a lot more ab work; however, I recently stumbled across something in my reading that made me understand exactly what was going on. You see, every once in a while my training as a special education teacher crosses with my powerlifting experiences. I know that sounds weird, but let me explain.

Other than being a gym owner, family man and practicing natural raw powerlifter, I have been teaching emotionally disturbed adolescence math and philosophy for the past 8 years on a full time basis. I recently earned my Master's plus 30 in the field of education and I have a special interest in current brain research. During my study of a book called "Your Immortal Brain"by Dr. Joe Dispenza I came across a paragraph that instantly reminded me of the experiences I was having with a really heavy bar on my back… believe me, I know how crazy that sounds, but check out this statement from the book regarding the mid-brain's fight or flight response:

"When your autonomic nervous system triggers your fight-or-flight response to prepare you for activity there is a sequence of automatic internal event. An instant burst of adrenalin prepares your body. Blood flow is directed AWAY from your internal organs to your arms and leg, maximizing your ability to move so that you have the best odds of escaping."

Reading that statement made me feel a lot better about what was going on with me as the bar got heavier. I always felt like I could push hard against the belt up to a weight that is around 90%, but then it actually feels as if the belt gets looser despite my best efforts to push as the weight approaches my 1 rep max. Turns out, I was right — that is exactly what was happening!

So what did I start doing different? Ah, you read articles for practical solutions too? Good, let me give you a few:
  1. I know it has been said to crank the belt tight for your deadlift and leave it one notch loose for your squat (in order to leave room to push the belly out). I agree with that… until the weight gets close to your 1 rep max. I started to crank the belt on my squats as I went over 90%. Guess what? I recently hit a 20 lb. squat PR in my first full meet since I destroyed my hip last summer. With the belt extra tight as I go into the hole and the fight or flight response starts to fire, the blood that leaves my core has a minimal effect since I have the belt cranked extra tight and I can still feel my belly pushing into the belt. Try it and see what happens!

  2. Since this is a neurological phenomenon that is caused by the fight or flight response, do not allow yourself to get anxious before the squat — rather train yourself to be confident as you step on the platform (and believe it or not this CAN be learned). Present brain research is proving that an individual can literally "change his mind" by the way we train ourselves to think. The more we do it the better we get. Practically speaking, instead of getting butterflies have supreme confidence that all the work you have done is going to pay off.

  3. Unless you are an elite powerlifter you should avoid getting overly fired up before the squat (save that for the deadlfit). Here are 2 really good reasons why: 1) You are still falling victim to the fight or flight response before you even touch the bar. I'm not saying you should not get excited, but keep it as internal mental confidence rather than excessive body language. 2) It is also important to stay mentally under control because the squat is a very technical lift. You need to remember to sit back, spread the knees, spread the floor with your feet, push your belly against the belt, keep your chest up, keep your elbows under the bar as best you can, drive your head back into the bar, etc. etc. That is a lot of stuff to remember and if you are not an elite powerlifter (and sometimes even if you are) you will not remember to do all that stuff if you are too worked up. The squat is not a grip and rip movement. Practice internal confidence, extreme physical tension under the bar and mentally work yourself through that squat PR

  4. Do more ab work, but not just any ab work. Start doing ALL your ab work standing for a while or at least in the vertical position. There are a bunch of standing ab exercises to choose from so make them heavy and do them 3-4 times a week. The more practice you have doing ab work standing, the easier it is to have control over your abs in that position. This extra practice will help mitigate the phenomenon under a heavy bar described above.

Stick with these tips for a few weeks and see what happens with your squat. Like any new experience it is going to take a little while for your mind and body to get used to it, but I think you will be happy with the results down the line. I would love to hear your feedback. Until then keep training hard!

Thomas Phillips is the owner of Fit-for-Life pt in Marlboro, NJ. He is the 2002 Body-for-Life Grand Master Champion. He placed first in the deadlift at the National AAU, received first place at the AAU PL Nationals 181 raw division, and is a national qualifier for the sport of kettlebell lifting. Thomas also won back to back first place finishes in the National TSC elite class ( and earned the U.S. Army certificate of Achievement in Physical Fitness. Thomas was also chosen to be an RKC team leader for Pavel Tsatsouline. He is a certified personal trainer, sport specific trainer, strength trainer, and kettlebell instructor. Visit his personal website at or his business website at