Squats make better athletes. That’s why strength coaches almost universally have their athletes do some type of Squat in their training.
We recently had the opportunity to watch NFL prospects, including Jamal Adams, Takkarist McKinley and T.J. Watt, train for the NFL Scouting Combine at EXOS (Phoenix), and sure enough, they did Squats. However, they performed a unique variation called the Safety Bar Handle Squat, also referred to as the Hatfield Squat.
The Hatfield Squat is similar to a Back Squat with two major differences: 1) You use a safety bar (shown below) instead of a straight barbell; and 2) You put your hands on handles or the cage in front of you, not on the bar.
Jonathan Barlow, the strength and conditioning coach at EXOS who directs the NFL Combine Prep strength program, outlines the distinct benefits of this unique Squat variation.
1) The Safety Bar is Safe
A safety bar is fitted with two pads that sit on your shoulders on each side of your neck. It has handles that you can hold in front, which Barlow says is easier on the shoulders than holding a barbell on your back—a reason why pitchers are often told to do Safety Bar Squats instead of Back Squats.
In this case, the pads allow a lifter to take his hands off the bar without having it slide off his back. He can then place his hands on the squat rack poles or the handles in front of him.
“If a guy has knee issues and can’t necessarily get a lot of bend at the ankle or knee, the handles allow him to sit back into the Squat a bit more without falling over,” says Barlow. “It allows us to work around some injuries and still be able to load them safely.”
2) It Builds Serious Strength
Barlow explains that holding onto the handles takes away some common weaknesses or limiting factors of the Back Squat. It reduces stress on the upper body and improves stability, shifting the work to the hips and legs.
“When there’s more stability, they’re allowed to push more and utilize their legs more,” he says.
It’s also possible to pull yourself up with the handles.
“We don’t teach the guys to pull themselves up,” Barlow says. “But when they get really heavy and do heavy singles above 90 percent of their max, they will start using their hands a little bit. And that’s OK.”
This allows for Squats that are heavier than traditional barbell Back Squats, because you can lower the heavy weight and then pull yourself up if you get stuck. Lower-body muscles are forced to move heavier weights, resulting in greater strength gains in the muscles that are directly involved in athletic skills.
How does this Improve NFL Scouting Combine Scores?
It’s all about horsepower. An athlete who can squat more weight has more potential to put force into the ground, which results in faster sprints and higher/farther jumps.
“A Ferrari can go fast because it has a lot horsepower under the hood,” says Barlow. “It’s the same thing with these guys.”
However, horsepower is only a part of the equation. The athletes need to turn that strength into explosive power with exercises like Cleans, Explosive Squats and Jumps to teach their muscles to fire quickly. A strong Squat doesn’t guarantee that you will be fast, but it does provide the foundation on which to build speed.
Now to address the elephant in the room. Who has a safety bar? Unless you go to a strength and conditioning facility, you’re probably out of luck. That said, be on the lookout for safety bars to become more popular in the coming years. Maybe one day all gyms will have this versatile piece of equipment that allows you to safely challenge your lower body.