Jefferson Squat – Exercise Guide

The Jefferson squat is an old-time movement that can be used by nearly every athlete to enhance multiplanar movement, increase quad and glute hypertrophy and development, and challenge systemic strength, coordination, and neuromuscular systems.

Therefore, in this article we will break down the Jefferson squat, and specifically address everything beginners (and all levels) should know about this intriguing and one-of-a-kind squat variation.

The History of the Jefferson Squat

The Jefferson squat was named after old-time circus (travelled with Barnum and later, Barnum & Bailey Circus) strongman Charles Jefferson (1863-1911), who was known for his chain-breaking abilities and enormous feats of strength. Very similar to the Jefferson deadlift (also know as the Straddle deadlift in Great Britain), this squat variation can be used to increase leg strength, muscular hypertrophy, and build anti-rotation and asymmetric strength.

Want to know more about the Jefferson Squat’s cousin, the Jefferson Deadlift? Check out our full guide here!

Jefferson Squat vs. Jefferson Deadlift

Both of these movements are very, very similar to one another, and are often interchanged, however there is a slight difference that lifters should be aware of. The Jefferson squat should be performed with a much more vertical spine so that the hips drop downwards and the knees bend to a higher degree forcing greater quads engagement. The Jefferson deadlift can be done with less knee bend and more of a hinging motion to increase back, hips, and hamstring loading. 

Who Should Do Jefferson Squats?

I am a firm believer than nearly every athlete can justify this exercise at some point or another in their assistance work or conjugated strength program.

I highly suggest beginners familiarize themselves with the lift with light to moderate loads in higher volumes (3-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions per leg) to build up the fundamental strength, muscular development, core stabilization, and movement patterning necessary to advance into heavier Jefferson squats and deadlift variations.

Neglecting this foundational stage of training (1-3 month, generally) could increase risk of injury and derail your long term progress as a lifter/athlete.

Why Do Them?

The Jefferson squat is a very interesting and intriguing exercise that offers beginners (and all level lifters/athletes) many highly beneficial outcomes, such as;

Increased Quad and Glute Muscular Development

This is a great exercise to target the glutes and more specifically, the quads, as this forces a very vertical torso with good degrees of knee flexion.

Enhanced Asymmetrical Strength

Because this lift places emphasis on slightly one side over the other (depending on you grip, which is suggested to alternate grip placement every set), you are able to target one leg and side slightly more than the other, helping to increase asymmetrical strength (for more on this, check out this phenomenon called, “Bilateral Deficit”).

Core Stabilization and Anti-Rotational Strength

The odd angles and barbell placement requires high degrees of core strength and stabilization, as the barbell will try to spin during the lift if you are not tight and contracted. The abs, obliques, and erector muscles must fight rotational forces of the joints and spine, making this a real-world ab builder when done correctly.

Decreased Spinal Loading

While spinal loading has massive benefits for lifters of all levels and abilities, sometimes decreasing spinal loading can be beneficial. For example, lifters who may have sore or injured backs and/or lifters who are trying to isolate the legs rather than the entire system during squats can perform these to give the lower back a break after hitting heavier back and/or front squats and deadlifts.

Multiplanar Development

Nearly every weightlifting, powerlifting, and mainstream strength and fitness exercise occurs within the sagittal plane of motion, however not this one. The Jefferson squat challenges multiple planes of motion at one time, helping to increase athletic strength and movement capacities, create new metabolic and neuromuscular demands onto the body, and help to bulletproof joints, connective tissues, and muscle from repetitive overuse injuries.

How to Do Jefferson Squats?

The Jefferson squat does not replace traditional back and/or front squats, however can be a very good isolated approach to quad and glute development. Beginners should start with light weight (the barbell) to first access the movement, hip mobility, balance, and proper vertical patterning to reap the immense benefits that this squat variation has to offer.

In the above video, the Jefferson squat is demonstrated. Below is the step by step directions on how to properly set up, brace, and execute the movement correctly.

  1. Assume a standing position over the barbell, with your heels touching and your feet both turned out so they make a perfect 90 degree angle. The barbell should be running diagonally (perpendicular) underneath you.
  2. With your feet pointed out to make a 90 degree angle, step both feet out slightly wider than shoulder width. It is important to note the the wider the stance the greater emphasis of the glutes and hamstrings will be, similar to a wider step when lunging.
  3. When ready, grasp the barbell with a mixed grip, flatten you back, and squat down to the barbell. Make sure your knees bend, allowing the torso to stay as upright as possible. Generally speaking, the top of the thighs should be parallel to the floor, or slightly lower. Too deep of a squat may limit the emphasis on the quads, therefore be conscious of your depth and positioning.
  4. Perform the prescribed number of repetitions in a slow, controlled manner, focusing on the contractions in the quads and glutes at the bottom and top of the movements. Do not bounce off the floor and focus on moving light to moderate loading for increased volume (sets and reps) and tension to drive muscle mass.
  5. When done, place the barbell on the floor and prepare for your next set, making sure to switch your grip (place the other hand with palm up and vice versa) to ensure a balanced, non-asymmetrical loading and patterning on the legs, core, and back.

When to Do Them?

For most beginners, this exercise should find it’s way into your training routine after your main sets of squats and/or deadlifts, as this is a great way to add quality hypertrophy in a more isolated approach. Following the main strength components of the sessions, the Jefferson squat can be a great way to add extra emphasis to leg development, especially quad and glute enhancement.

It is important to note that the Jefferson squat could also be programmed as one’s main strength lift of that training session, which in that case the athlete should default to their coaches recommendations.

Final Words

The Jefferson squat has been around for ages, and can be adapted to meet the needs and wants of newbie and elite lifters alike. I personally recommend this exercise for general fitness and targeted hypertrophy work, which nearly every athlete and lifter can benefit from (weightlifters, powerlifters, functional fitness athletes, personal training clients, etc. With that said, beginner lifters need to familiarize themselves with the movement, the loading, and not become overzealous with their loading in the earlier developmental stages.

Featured Image: @manletmorrison on Instagram

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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