You should be doing the hip belt squat
Hip belt squats are one of the best accessory movements for building huge squats, and huge legs, while working around pain and injuries. But they're rarely seen outside of specialist powerlifitng and bodybuilding gyms.
This is partly down to a lack of equipment – most gyms don't have a specialised hip belt squat machine – but variations of the lift can be performed with everything from a standard leather dip belt to a Barbell Strap. This article will show you why, and how, you should include them in your program.
The most obvious benefit of the hip belt squat is the way the weight is loaded on the body. Since the belt goes around the hips the exercise avoids the most common problems people have with traditional barbell back squats, where the weight is loaded on the shoulders.
The lack of spinal loading made possible by this position means those who spend a lot of time doing heavy back and front squats can continue to work their legs without worrying about the injury potential of excessive spinal compression and shear forces (Diggin, et al. 2011). Lifters with existing back or shoulder injuries should pay extra attention.
Leg press and hack squat machines have their place, but they take stabilising muscles out of the movement and still load the back and shoulders to some extent, making hip belt squats one of the only true squat pattern movements you can do without involving these body parts.
The exercise also lets you go to or close to failure without the risk of a loaded barbell falling on your head, which is always handy.
All this makes the hip belt squat a solid option to add more training stress, and ultimately more strength and size gains, with a minuscule risk to reward ratio.
Finally, lifters with stability problems, such as amputees and those with some leg injuries and neuromuscular conditions, can take advantage of hip belt squat's lower centre of gravity, and the chance to use their hands to stabilise during the movement. I fall into this category myself, and hip belt squats are the only free weight squat I can load up and go heavy on without worrying about falling over.
By far the most common way to perform the hip belt squat is to attach some plates to a leather dip belt, set up two flat benches or weighlifting blocks in a V formation, clamber up and start squatting. This works well enough, but can be awkward, especially if the platforms are unstable – one slip and you're looking at a strain or worse.
A problem stronger lifters tend to have with this set up is that it quickly becomes awkward to attach enough weight to the belt without making your stance excessively wide. One partial solution is to buy a specialised belt squat loading pin, which attaches to the belt and allows you to load the plates vertically rather than horizontally. This gives you some extra weight to play with, but still forces an unnaturally wide stance, limiting its utility.
A second option is to attach the dipping belt to a low cable. This is a great exercise for the quads, but more closely mimics a reverse sled drag than any kind of squat. If you try it you'll notice that the main challenge isn't powering out of the hole, but resisting the cable's horizontal pulling force while squatting. This can be useful, but calling it a squat variation is contentious.
A third option, and by far the best in my experience, is to use a Barbell Strap. This allows you to straddle and load up a full Olympic bar. Meaning you can go heavy on the exercise while avoiding the awkwardly wide stance and stability problems of other set ups.
To perform a hip belt squat with the Barbell Strap, set up the strap in its shortest configuration (carbine hooks attached directly to the O rings) and loop the dip belt's chain directly through the central hoop of the strap. This sets the barbell as close to your hips as possible, and keeps it centrally balanced. With this set up most lifters will be able to do full range of motion squats using 10-15kg plates without needing to set up platforms. This makes the Barbell Strap squat by far the heaviest and safest variation of the movement.
Give it a go
For disabled lifters like myself, the hip belt squat is a staple. For everyone else it's a solid accessory for packing on size and strength, and a good alternative to back squats when your back or shoulders need a break. Try it with a Barbell Strap to get the most out of the exercise, in the safest way possible.