As a visually-impaired person, it can be hard to do some common free-weight exercises. A major one tends to be the barbell back squat. Between lining the bar up right on your back to the walkout to the fatigued walk back into the rack, typical back squats can be tricky. In comes the Hatfield squat, negating those issues and allowing you to get off the leg extension machine and push your legs better!
Introduction of the movement
The Hatfield Safety Squat’s invention is credited to Fred Hatfield, one of the first men to squat 1000 pounds. He used a safety squat bar (SSB) to help him overload his leg muscles thoroughly. An SSB is a special bar which has padded handles attached near the middle of the bar. You place your neck in between the pads to place the bar on the back of your neck. The bar also has a slight bend at the end, terminating in space to add weights on either side. This bend displaces the pull of the weight just right so the bar will stay put on your back. Due to this design, you can let go of the bar entirely and perform movements like a free-standing squat. Fred Hatfield used this freedom to hold the outside pillars of his squat rack or onto a bar he had placed on pins lower in the rack. He could then use his hands to gently help him through the hardest parts of his squat. This allowed him to not be held back by the weakest link in the chain but instead to accrue more time squatting with greater weights. This aid from his hands also allowed him to put in more and more work at his weak points thus helping to eliminate them.
Pictured below: Safety Squat Bar placed in a squat rack. The forward facing shoulder pads are pointed slightly downward counter to the camber of the end of the bar, allowing it to stay on your back while squatting.
The Hatfield squat has been used for years by powerlifters, bodybuilders and other fitness athletes. Its versatility and efficacy make it a great movement for anyone hoping to improve leg strength, size or both. It is a great movement for those with visual impairments for those benefits but more so because it provides a safe squatting environment. The ability to self spot oneself with the hands gives instant feedback and continuous control over the movement. I always feel very safe when performing these as my hands can easily fix my balance or pull me through the movement a little harder as my legs fatigue. With the SSB, the unknowns and difficulties of the barbell back squat are eliminated. There is no difficulty in finding equal hand placement or finding equal placement on your back. Additionally, with the SSB on my back, it is easy to simply walk or lean the bar back into the pins without worrying about it falling backwards off my back.
Advantages over machines
The Hatfield Squat is superior to machine work for a myriad of reasons. It will help develop better body awareness. This is important for being able to apply force in the real world, as opposed to being locked into a machine’s linear range of motion. This version of a squat also loads your spine, helping you to learn to brace with your core musculature and building a more bulletproof back than a leg press would. The ability to use your hands to pull through sticking points will also better train your legs with more constant tension and with more weight than you could normally squat. While this amount of weight may feel foreign at first, your body can quickly adapt by being exposed to a proper overload while moving safely through the squat with your hands serving as an instant spotter. And after all, wouldn’t you rather be the machine than be stuck lifting on one?
The Hatfield squat also accounts for asymmetries one may have. Machines such as the Smith machine put you in a specific range of motion which can allow any asymmetries to cause issues. Many people with VI have poor posture, and even scoliosis, which will lead to imbalances exacerbated by having to conform to a machine’s range of motion. I myself have scoliosis, and often find issues with one arm or leg locking out but not the other on many machines. My back even puts me in an uneven position on leg press machines, causing asymmetrical work even for the lower body. The Hatfield safety squat lets me maintain a more natural range of motion and limit these risks.
Description: Evan at the beginning of the Hatfield Squat. Using his hands to stabilize, he stands with the SSB balanced on his back.
Description: Evan at the bottom of a Hatfield Squat. Using his hands, he's both stabilizing himself, as well as using his arms to assist when his legs need an extra boost.
How to progress
This movement has a slight learning curve as you have to get used to the balance and weight distribution of the bar as well as acclimate yourself to spotting yourself with your hands. This being the case, I advise you try this movement out with fairly light weights for 5 sets of 5 repetitions on 5 different occasions before you start pursuing heavier weights.
Find a weight that provides a slight challenge for ten repetitions. On a scale of 1-10, the difficulty should be about an 8. Proceed to performing one set of 10, resting 2-3 minutes, performing a set of 8, resting 2-3 minutes, and ending with a set of 6 repetitions.
Perform this sequence two to three times a week, adding weight when the set of ten is no longer very challenging. Only add 5-10 pounds at a time. If you find the sets of 8 and 6 too easy, simply pull less with your hands during the tough parts of the movement to make them much more challenging.
This is a simple program that is only intended to add to your lifting experience for a while, not last forever. Remember that your legs and body will accommodate to the stress of this particular rep and set protocol before too long so you will need to incorporate this exercise in other ways down the road.
Performing the Hatfield Squat: Step by step instructions
1. Place a safety squat bar in a rack at a height requiring you to stand at least two inches in order to be fully standing
2. Add the desired weight on either side and add clips to the end of the bar
3. Place your head between the padded handles of the bar, grabbing the end of the handles with your hands
4. Be sure the back of the bar is placed below your neck bones and is on top of your upper back muscles, be sure to squeeze them tight to provide a solid shelf for the bar
5. Still holding the handles, push them forward and up so they are parallel to the ground and the bar is secured onto your back
6. Stand up fully
7. Walk backwards 2 small steps per foot
8. Release the handles, leaving the bar safely on your back
9. Reach outwards towards the rack you just walked back from and find the pillars with each hand. Use this as an opportunity to feel if you are too close or far from the rack and if you are crooked or not. Remedy any issues before proceeding.
10. Get a good hold on each pillar somewhere near belly button height, this position keeps your shoulders out of the way at the bottom of the squat and puts you in a better place to pull through the hard portions of the squat
11. Squat by bending your knees and hips until your thighs go father than parallel to the ground then rise back up keeping your weight in your heels
12. Only use your hands as much as necessary to not have to come to a stop at hard parts of the movement. Remember they are an aid for balance and good steady form. They are not there to get a workout themselves!
13. When you have completed your set, take small steps forward until BOTH sides of the bar are in solid contact with the rack’s pillar above the pin
14. Gently bend your knees and slide the bar down to secure it in the rack again
15. Mission accomplished!
Give this squat variation a try, and use it to push your limits beyond the machines at the gym. It's a great place to start getting a barbell on your back, and to dip your toes into strength training!