Building a Better Squat; American Record Holder Shawn Bellon’s 6 Basic Tips

Reposted from Box Life Magazine

At 260lbs, MHP sponsored athlete and American record holder Shawn Bellon can move over 700lbs off the squat rack for multiple reps. Even more impressive is that he does this raw, that means no Powerlifting gear, knee wraps or double thick knee sleeves. To say this Powerlifter knows something about squatting would be an understatement. In this article Shawn offers a few tips to help us increase our own squat numbers.

Despite what Allen Iverson said, it’s extremely important to practice your technique. I follow the same steps from the lightest warm-up to the heaviest work set when I train. Perfect practice makes for perfect lifting. In training, it’s critical that you don’t just go through the motions. Mentally prepare yourself for every session, set and rep. I appreciate how Louie Simmons encourages lifters to treat their dynamic sets (sub max weights for max speed) as if they were true max sets in a meet. Do this religiously and half the battle is won.

Control the Movement
There’s some misunderstanding about the speed of movement during the squat. While I disagree with those that say a faster descent is better, I also don’t think you need to make it a 5-count negative. A nice 3-4 count once you start your squat should work very well. This allows you to stay in control of the lift, to better find your depth and have the explosive power to come out of the hole. The faster you go, the harder you will have to reverse the momentum. A high-speed “suicide squat” will eventually K.O. any lifer.

The Stance
The stance is one of the most debated parts of squatting. I’ve been told that if I were to spread my feet out really wide I would be unstoppable. Well, that sounds great, but the application just doesn’t work for me. I’m very comfortable being a shoulder width stance squatter. Based on my experience coaching lifters, I recommend that you start with a shoulder width stance, toes point out 45 degrees. This recommended starting stance is your base to tweak and adjust during practice to see what is optimal and comfortable.

Finding your best squat stance
One great tip for finding the correct stance for your structure is to sit on the end of a flat bench with your feet flat and spread at hip width. Attempt to stand up without leaning forward. By doing this, you will quickly find that if your stance is too close you lean forward excessively. Picture that same movement with 400lbs on your back and imagine how badly you’ll pitch forward. As you gradually spread your feet and do this over and over, you’ll find the stance where you can easily stand without leaning forward at all – that’s the ideal stance spread for you. Likewise, if you spread your feet extremely wide, you’ll find that you start to lean forward again.

Volume is great for building strength. Here is a great 5 week squat cycle:
Week 1: 3 sets of 10 reps (7-8 RPE)
Week 2: 3 sets of 7 reps (7-8 RPE)
Week 3: 3 sets of 5 reps (8 RPE)
Week 4: 3 sets of 3 reps (8-9 RPE)
Week 5: Deload

RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. Using the RPE concept helps you assess how you are feeling on a particular day.
A simple RPE chart would state:
10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank
9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank
8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left
7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”
6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force
5: Most warm-up weights
4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle

Don’t get so caught up on your lifting numbers that you ignore how you feel. Let’s face it, some days lifting just stinks! Shoot for your RPE range even if it means you have to drop some weight to do so. If you have to drop weight for 3 consistent weeks, it may be time to rest.

Focus on one squatting movement a week for your main lift while adding a simple 3-5 sets of 5 reps of another squat movement as assistance work. As an example, I might focus my main squat lifts on the safety bar while adding some pause squats for my easier sets of 5. Obviously power squats and Olympic squats should be utilized regularly as well.

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Train the way you expect to compete

Squatting was always something I was just built to do well.  Add in hard work and study with good genes; you get some great results.   A good coach works with the lifter constantly.  No part is more important than the other.  It is always a partnership! Here are some tips that I have shared with lifters.  These are guidelines while working with a client in person I might make different adjustments as the lifter can have nuances that are very beneficial to the lifter already.

Warm ups:

These are a combination of active and direct warm ups.  Active can be cardio, rolling etc. Direct warm ups are done with the actual lift itself.  Never tire yourself out during warm ups and always use this as assessment time to see how you are feeling.  If things feel heavy maybe go lighter. Seems like common sense but too many times people are married to the idea of the set numbers.  Flexibility in programming is a precursor to long term success and longevity.

Warm Up Options

Set up:

Bar placement, bracing and the walkout are all part of the set up not excluding feet spacing as well.  Bar placement is the foundation to you success in the squat. So long as the bar is stable and works with your mechanics that is what matters whether low, middle or high bar placement.  Keep the humerus pulled in tight to keep the upper back engaged along with the rear delts. This will keep you from rounding as much when in trouble. Bracing is just learning to take in air in the stomach and lungs and holding to support the spine to a higher degree than the belt alone.  The idea is to push into your belt while sort of crunching down. Brace when lifting the bar off the rack and before you start your squat. Walkouts need no explanation beyond what we discussed but please practice them.

Squat Tips



Be aware of your surroundings particularly in a mainstream facility.  Never be afraid to approach people to give you space. Safety is paramount.

Foot placement:

This is partly comfort based but also based on the bar placement and the shoes you wear.  Be aware how these variables impact you as a lifter. A close stance in heels with a high bar is prone to balance issues for example.  Too wide can make depth challenging as too narrow can throw balance off. Remember regardless of the foot placement the power is from the midfoot to the heel.  Experiment and take the time to see what feels good based on our first rule: STABILITY.

Bar placement:

Already mentioned but learn and understand why you use the bar the way you do.  Understand which placement is best for your mechanics. This is always going to be something that is individual.  Be willing to experiment. Low bar is optimal for a powerlifter many times but can cause shoulder and bicep tendon pain over time for some.  High bar can work great if the person is very quad dominant and squats upright but getting out of that upright position can be devastating to a strong finish.


If not competing find a comfortable range of motion period.  If competing learn to lift every time like on the platform which includes depth on every rep.  Know what is good by feel not others telling you. The ping effect of the lifter hearing creates tentativeness and is very robotic.  The first sign of an unprepared lifter is bombing out of a meet for depth.

Opening Knees For Better Depth


Your feet, bar ride and depth are all factors of mobility.  Heels can  come     up because of high bar position pitching the lifter forward as can tight achilles      and hips.  When squatting your descent is based on bending at the hips first. Lifters than bend at the waist often get stuck being pitched forward and can even “lean into parallel” which is a crap shoot for white lights.

Mobility WOD for Ankles

Bar Path:

Sitting back is incorrect.  Drop. Drop it like its hot. Whatever helps you to understand. Raw lifters drop but we do stick our butts out. The bar should really travel in a straight line up and down.  Try some of the apps around to see the difference of a box squat and a regular squat. Perfect practice makes perfect so consider box squats as a secondary or assistance exercise at best.

Using elbow torque

Questions?  Feel free to email me.