Among the old time strength feats of the past century, few movements have raised as many eyebrows as the Steinborn Squat. To many onlookers, this often misunderstood exercise can be seen as a spinal injury waiting to happen. For others, this primitive squat variation has a high transferability to daily life, manual labor, and complete and integrated total body strength and control.
The Steinborn Squat is a simplistic in nature, yet extremely challenging and taxing on the body as a whole, requiring a lifter have have strong prerequisites and awareness prior to performing this lift.
In this Steinborn Squat exercise guide, we’ll cover multiple topics including:
- Steinborn Squat Form and Technique
- The History of the Steinborn Squat
- Steinborn Squat Disclaimer and Prerequisites
- Benefits of the Steinborn Squat
- Muscles Worked by the Steinborn Squat
- Who Should Do the Steinborn Squat?
- Steinborn Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Steinborn Squat Alternatives
- and more…
How to Perform the Steinborn: Step-By-Step Guide
The below step-by-step guide discusses how to perform the Steinborn Squat.
Step 1. Grab the Bar
Start by standing perpendicular to the end of the barbell, and squat down, grabbing one end.
Set your back like a deadlift, and stand up.
Step 2. Lift One End Up
Continue to walk the barbell up so that it becomes vertical to the ground
Use your legs and lift up like a deadlift
Coach’s Tip: Be careful not to let teh bar roll on the ground.
Step 3. Set Your Grip
This is one of the most difficult steps, as set up is key for balance and safety of the load.
Take your bottom hand and grab in the same spot at which you would take in a back squat. Squat down and get yourself fitted to the barbell, which often means your lead foot is close the the weight plates on the ground.
Coach’s Tip: Use your core to resist excessive spinal lateral flexion and/or movement of the bar.
Step 4. Pull Yourself (and the Barbell) Down
With the feet and hands secured, pull the barbell down into the body and begin to sit into a deep squat.
The bar will move and/or slide if you do not properly position yourself during step 3. Additionally, be sure to be fluid as you drop into a deep squat.
Coach’s Tip: This step happens quickly, so just be ready to take the load.
Step 5: Sit into a Deep Squat
Sit deep into a strong, low, and stable squat.
Be sure to keep you chest up and core tight, and prepare yourself to stand up.
Coach’s Tip: Be sure you are able to sit in a deep squat prior to training the Steinborn squat.
Step 6. Stand Up
Once you have stabilized the load on the bar, simply stand up to the top of the squat position.
You can then dump the barbell off the back, walk it into the rack, or reverse steps 1-6 (like you would in a Turkish get up) and load the load back to the floor, repeating on the other side.
The History of the Steinborn Squat
Henry “Milo” Steinborn was born in 1893, and became one of the most influential strongmen and weightlifters of his time, along with the likes of Eugen Sandow, Arthur Saxon, and Charles Atlas (just to name a few).
Milo Steinborn began his lifting career after spending four and half years as a prisoner during World War I, where he would perform random acts of strength and fitness on minimal income. In 1920, he went on to finish second in the German National Weightlifting Championships, in which he then moved to the United States of America.
It was here (in the USA) that Milo Steinborn flourished, breaking three world records at Philadelphia’s Herman’s Gym, which led him to meet Alan Calvert and Arthur Saxon, who convinced Milo to begin wrestling for income. Over the next 30 years, Milo would wrestle over 300 matches, as well as go on to record some of the heaviest and most impressive feats of human strength the world had ever seen…
- 553 lb back squat, from the floor (no squat rack, AKA, the Steinborn Squat)
- 218 lb one-armed snatch
- 255 lb one-armed jerk
- 375lb clean and jerk
- 5,000 lb leg bridge (see image below)
- Impromptu back lifted an 800 lb elephant at age 57, in a business suit
- In his early to mid 80s, he was regularly reported doing 300lb back squats
Milo’s feats of strength lasted over 50+ years, each of them highly respected and inspiring in their own right.
While these numbers are impressive, many readers may think to themselves that doing such moves as the Steinborn Squat isn’t necessary, as times have changed and circus acts are on their way out.
I’m here to shed some light on this primitive, controversial, and often misunderstood squat, so that coaches, athletes, and all humans can learn to respect the barbell and the history of those before us; so that one day, we too can truly be stronger for whatever life throws our way.
Steinborn Squats – Injury Disclaimer
Before we go into how to actually perform the Steinborn Squat, I feel obligated to address the elephant in the room before someone out there gets all hot and bothered about the risk of the exercise.
It goes without saying that the inherent risk of injury is higher with a more challenging, “unorthodox” (in a general fitness sense) movement. Many out there will make the decision to not do this exercise, and so be it, as there are other exercises out there that I too, choose not to do, for whatever reason. The point is that for some people, this exercise has demonstrated the potential to develop strong, capable, and resilient humans. For some people, and with proper technique and fulfillment of the prerequisites (and I would suggest no prior injuries to the lower back), the Steinborn Squat can add value to training and daily life.
Lastly, I say “unorthodox” with quotes because this movement is actually highly specific to proper carrying of heavier objects during manual labor; such as construction, military, wrestling, and other acts of human daily life.
Moves to Master Before the Steinborn Squat
This exercise is not one to jump into without proper progressions and fundamental strength. For many lifters, that means being able to squat their bodyweight, at the VERY least, for full ass-to-grass squats. Secondly, coaches and athletes should be well versed in such movements:
- Steinborn Bends / Turkish Get Ups
- Single Arm Windmills
- Anderson Squats
- At least 1x bodyweight full-depth back squat
While this list is short and straight forward, this lift is not. Coaches and athletes must then teach the movement, lateral flexion with hip support, and proper bracing techniques with unloaded barbells prior to loading.
4 Benefits of the Steinborn Squat
The Steinborn Squat offers lifter’s a set of benefits that are completely unique to this prehistoric squat variation.
The lift requires an athlete to stand the barbell up so that is perpendicular to the ground, position themselves underneath, pull the barbell (like a lever) down across their upper back and receive the load in the squatted position. From there, the lifter must stand the weight up, perform some squats, and return the barbell to the floor in the same reverse fashion that they picked it up. Below are just a few of the benefits that the Steinborn Squat can offer most trainees and athletes who have properly progressed and fulfilled the prerequisites listed in the next section.
- Real-World Functional Strength
- Obscure Spinal Loading and Core Stabilization Resilience
- Concentric Strength
- Neurological Adaptation
1. Real-World Functional Strength
The ability to pick odd objects up, hoist them overhead or onto the body, regardless of the shape, size, or environment is one of the most beneficial movements coaches and trainers can teach their clients and athletes. Too often we program sagittal, singular plane movements into the programs of sport athletes and everyday humans, which places them at a great disadvantage for an ever-changing and non-uniform environment.
2. Obscure Spinal Loading and Core Stabilization Resilience
We all know about the benefits of core stabilization and the ability to resist shearing forces upon the spine. Certain exercises like rotational training, extensions, and flexion (or anti-flexion, since there is still a debate on should we flex the spine or not…) are all great ways to build injury resistance, strength, and muscular control at end ranges of motion.
The Steinborn Squat is kinda like the Turkish Get Up, but much more demanding. It builds coordination, oblique and transverse core strength in multi-planar fashion, increasing the body’s ability to resist and adapt to all angles and lines of stress/force placed upon the spine. For some lifters, the sagittal only life may be your style, however for more dynamic athletes and individuals, the ability to interact, confront, and overcome a magnitude of forces at varying angles will only increase your likelihood of injury resilience.
3. Increasing Concentric Strength
The ability to move loads from a dead stop is key to most strength and power sports. As the lifter catches the load in the bottom position, he/she must stabilize the body and bar, then perform a concentric based squat from the deepest of positions. Over time, increasing static strength (no momentum or stretch reflex) can increase for production at end ranges and enhance overall performance.
4. Neurological Adaptation
Stressing the body via new movements can be one of the most impactful things you can do for maximal strength, muscular, and neurological development. By introducing new stressors from various angles, similar to most movement found in strongman competitions, you have the ability to elicit total body adaptations that can then be transferred back into your regular routine. By performing new challenging movements correctly, you stimulate new motor units, create new synapses between the brain, nerve cells, and muscle units; all of which can add to your pool of strength and performance potentials.
Muscles Worked – Steinborn Squat
The Steinborn Squat is a unique movement that does not specifically target one muscle group, but rather challenges all muscle groups as a whole. This unorthodox movement is not for beginners, and is often trained for either movement purposes or strength, and is rarely trained in high volumes (to mitigate fatigue, which can often result in poor technique).
- Back (Erectors, Latissimus Dorsi, Traps)
- Posterior Shoulder
Who Should Perform Steinborn Squats?
The Steinborn squat can be used by strength and fitness athletes to increase general functional strength. It is important to note that this movement is much more injury prone than other forms of movement, and should not be trained unless (1) the athletes has completed proper prerequisite training (2) has learned proper technique and developed foundational movement, (3) understands the risks vs rewards of performing this exercise.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength athletes can use the Steinborn squat to develop raw strength and add variety to htri training, however a proper risk vs reward analysis should be done if they choose to program these in their workouts.
- Strongman and Powerlifting Athletes: Strongman athletes can benefit from this movement as it can help to diversify raw strength and functional movement. Powerlifters, while not needing this exercise specifically, could use it to improve overall movement. That said, powerlifters, like Olympic weightlifters and fitness athletes, could also use safer alternative to reproduce fitness and mobility improvements.
- Olympic Weightlifters: There is little to no sport specific application of the Steinborn squat to Olympic weightlifting. That asid, it could be used to help increase overall movement, however is not suggested (you could program other things like Cossack Squats, Turkish Get Ups, etc).
General and Functional Fitness
The Steinborn squat is generally not recommended for general fitness goers, as it is a complex and more advanced movement. Trainers and coaches who program the Steinborn squat need to be sure to (1) evaluate the needs of their clients/athletes to determine if the squat is truly something they need to do, (2) let the client/athlete know the risks of the movement, (3) master all other regressions and alternatives prior to performing the Steinborn squat.
Steinborn Squats Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
Below are two (2) primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming barbell curls into training programs.
Movement Integrity – Reps and Sets
Below are recommendations on how to program and the Steinborn squat to enhance technique, motor control, and functional movement.
- 2-5 sets of 1-2 repetitions per side
- It is important to note that you can develop functional strength, movement patterning, and many of the same benefits without the Steinborn squat (such as using some of the alternatives below). Be sure to not choose an exercise for the sake of a movement, but rather to truly determine if the Steinborn squat is something the athlete truly needs, as the risk vs reward may very well not be in their favor.
Strength – Reps and Sets
Below are recommendations on how to program Steinborn squats to develop functional strength.
- 3-5 sets of 1-2 reps per side
- While there are no exact guidelines on how to strengthen the Steinborn squat, one can assume that after the initial learning phases of movement integrity, low volumes and longer rest periods should be used to enable a lifter to have adequate recovery and mental focus to decrease fatigue and injury risks.
For many lifters, the benefits of this lift may not be worth the risks, however for many, proper progression and developments of necessary movements can make the Steinborn Squat an impactful functional and movement based exercise to add into one’s training arsenal, regardless of sport.
Steinborn Squat Alternatives
Below are three (3) Steinborn squat alternatives that can be done to vary programming, challenge lifters, and minimize injury risks.
1. Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get up is a total body movement, like the Steinborn squat, that can also be loaded significantly (kettlebell, barbell, dumbbell, etc) without increase risks of injury (as the Steinborn squat can place less advanced lifters in precarious and potentially harmful positions.
2. Cossack Squat
The Cossack squat can be a great movement to increase hip mobility and strength, both of which are addresses with the Steinborn squat (but unlike the Steinborn squat, the Cossack squat is much less of an injury risk).
3. Fireman Carry
The fireman carry is a basic movement that has high functionality for life and sports. This can be done in most gyms and facilities and can be taught far easier than the Steinborn squat.
Every athlete and coach needs to have an internal discussion before programming these squats into training programs. Mass programming these without proper individualization can result in back-breaking effects. When done correctly, Steinborn Squats can be a valuable functional exercise and functional inspired by real-life movements. Proper progression and fulfillment of prerequisites is paramount, as is the understanding that maximally loading this movement should be reserved for those who are highly trained and well-aware of the risk.
In closure, I personally feel that the Steinborn Squat can be integrated into most training programs with caution, and the benefits outweigh the risks. While some readers may disagree, this time-tested movement has produced some of the strongest, most resilient, and awe-inspiring athletes and humans of the past century. Hard to argue with Father Time…
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured Image: Mike Dewar