Use the Dead Squat to Improve Your Squat Form & Build Maximum Strength

Aug 8, 2022 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

Close up on Olympic weightlifting woman training at the gym and performing a dead squat
You’ve probably seen videos of people getting crushed by a squat due to improper form and loading too much weight. Don’t be that person. The dead squat is the perfect movement to prevent this from happening – it’ll improve your form and increase maximum strength (so you won’t have to fear getting posted on a “squat fails” video compilation anytime soon).

Joseph Lucero, owner of Harvesting Strength, is a powerlifter and strongman coach with years of practical S&C experience in high school, collegiate, and professional settings. In this blog, he’ll walk you through each step of the dead squat and introduce variations and progressions so you can reach new levels and perfect your squat technique.

Joseph Lucero

You Need to Work on Your Squat Form

From my experience as a powerlifting competitor, coach, and judge, I have to say the absolute toughest lift to prepare for is the squat. You unrack the weight and drop your hips to meet the standard of hitting “depth” while having a tremendous load forcing vertical compression down your spine. This can be a recipe for fame OR disaster!

It seems like for every impressive squat video we see on social media, we see another video of someone missing the standard entirely and risking intense injury.

With that being said, it’s important to find ways to improve your squat form. Of course you can (and should!) use corrective movements and hip mobility exercises, but there’s another way to train the squat for massive success. Of all the exercises I could prescribe to an athlete, the one that stands out to me the most is the dead squat. So what the hell is a dead squat?!

The dead squat is an exercise that requires the lifter to rest the barbell on the safety pins before executing the lift. They’re also called Anderson squats or pin squats depending on how you perform the movement.

The dead squat can be done many ways. In this article, I discuss the modifications of this lift based on your training block and expertise as a lifter.

Muscles Used in the Dead Squat

Anterior Quadriceps Muscles Labeled
The dead squat physiologically mimics the principles of an ordinary squat, but unlike the ordinary squat, the bar rests on the pins to give you a mega disadvantage and propose a great challenge. The muscles used in this lift are the leg extensors and hip extensors, meaning the various quadricep muscles and the gluteus maximus.

If you aren’t aware of it yet, the gluteus maximus is simultaneously the biggest muscle of the body and the most underdeveloped muscle in most athletes (in my experience). You typically see this muscle trained through various hip thrusting movements, and although the hip thrust has major benefits, it also has a stigma of being a gender-based movement. Essentially, this muscle sometimes gets neglected, and it’s important to make sure to develop the gluteus maximus. The dead squat does just that.

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How to Do a Dead Squat

When you train the dead squat, I recommend starting at the top with your hooks/J-cups at normal chest-height, then unrack the weight and squat down to the pins. You can also let the bar rest on the pins and then start the movement at the bottom by getting underneath it, then driving up. For safety reasons, I recommend starting at the hooks to unrack the weight first.

As the weight rests on the pins, your joints are stacked in the same movement pattern for a normal squat. Don’t hold the weight as it rests on the pins. Let it (and your body) come to a complete stop so the load rests on the pins.

To perform the dead squat, you push against the barbell to lift the weight off the pins from a resting position. That’s why it’s called the dead squat — you’re lifting dead weight off the pins!

Once you understand the anatomy and biomechanics of the movement, you can start to attempt some variations and progressions. But first: How low do these damn pins need to be?!

Finding Your Pin Height

The pins need to be (more times than not) either at parallel or 1-2 inches above parallel. Those two positions are the most common areas where people struggle. Your hip “lever” is at the greatest mechanical disadvantage in this position.

If you imagine doing a dead squat a quarter of the way up, this is probably as effective as a rack pull 1-2 inches from lockout — NOT THAT EFFECTIVE AT ALL!

Of course my opinion, but I feel strongly about it. The only reason you should be doing a higher variation of the dead squat is if you’re training for an event that promotes this height of the barbell, such as mimicking the physiology of a yoke lift or walk.

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Dead Squat Variations & Progressions

Tempo Dead Squat – Learn How to Squat Properly

Let’s say you are not that great at squats and need to learn how to hit depth to promote a more effective movement pattern. The tempo dead squat is perfect for that!

In the tempo dead squat, you squat down to the pins with a slower tempo (3-5 count) to build higher tension in your squat. Once the bar rests on the pins, let your body completely rest, then drive the bar back up with a normal tempo, or even slightly faster than normal.

By controlling the barbell, you learn how to consistently hit depth and improve your rate of force development by coming off the pins faster.

 

Heavy Dead Squats – Build Maximum Strength

Heavier dead squats will obviously help with maximum strength as you are loading more weight with the disadvantage of a resting bar.

Again, you start by setting the pins parallel or even 1-2 inches higher than your normal squat. Whether the bar is parallel or 1-2 inches depends on your current squatting ability. I would suggest recording your normal squat from a side view and watch the lift unfold. If you come out of the hole fast and abruptly slow down, you should dead squat 1-2 inches above parallel.

If you get stuck at the bottom of your lift but know deep down you can lock out the weight, set the pins to parallel to help you get stronger off the bottom.

Coach’s Tip: What about the idea of “meeting the standard” and hitting true depth below parallel? I chose to NOT set the pins at this height because I want to overload the body at higher settings so the dead squat isn’t so light in weight.

 

Speed Dead Squats – Forge Explosive Strength

If the name of this article implies improving your maximum strength, why am I focusing on a speed lift? Remember, when attempting max lifts, you aren’t going to attempt a heavy load with a passive approach.

You’re walking up to the barbell with bad intentions if you’re trying to lift the weight with as much power and speed as possible. This is why you see athletes with their sniffing salts and enraged mindsets – they are going all in with the idea of lifting the barbell as fast as they can so they don’t put themselves at a disadvantage due to slower muscular contractions.

It’s important to take lighter loads and learn explosiveness in the same range of motion to help with rates of force development. That’s one of the main differences between good lifters and great lifters – rate of force development and being explosive versus merely being strong.

To practice your speed under the bar, set the pins at or around parallel like you would for a regular dead squat. Instead of focusing on the descent, focus on driving the weight up from the pins and hitting lockout as fast as you can. Don’t let your ego get in the way here, use lighter weights.

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