September 13, 2021 9 min read
Part lunge, part squat, and part deadlift, the Jefferson squat is a combination exercise with a style all its own. It definitely takes some getting used to and you might get some looks at the gym, but you’ll also be targeting important muscles like your quadriceps and spinal erectors.
The Jefferson squat seems like one of the best squat variations because it increases hypertrophy in the legs, core, and back. All of these muscle groups can be hard to target in a single session unless you’re performing deadlifts - and even then, you won’t be hitting your quads.
But the Jefferson squat may not be for everyone. Because the technique is so complex and the form is so unlike the vast majority of other bodybuilding exercises, lifters could make mistakes and either rob themselves of gains or cause an injury.
Read through this exercise guide to find out all about the Jefferson squat, how it’s performed, what muscles it works, and whether or not you should give it a try in your next workout routine.
Named after circus strongman Charles Jefferson, the JS is one of the strangest strength training moves around. It goes by many names including the Jefferson lift and the straddle deadlift. To do it correctly, you need a barbell loaded with an appropriate amount of weight for your strength and experience level.
We’d advise you to start low because there are so many opportunities to get the form wrong. Put on just enough weight so that you feel some resistance and won’t be moving too quickly, but not enough that you’re straining too hard and can focus on how you’re doing the lift.
One of the biggest advantages of the JS is that it works your quads in a way deadlifting doesn’t. Because your torso will naturally want to twist during the course of the exercise, it also makes your obliques and transverse abdominis work.
The following muscles are activated during a Jefferson squat:
Although both of your legs seem to be in play, it’s actually only the forward leg that gets a workout during the Jefferson squat. The asymmetrical stance does allow for more specific muscles to be targeted, but it could also lead to strength imbalances if you aren’t performing the JS exactly the same way with each leading leg.
When you bend down to pick up the barbell, your body is going to want to move the torso forward to compensate. This is especially true if you have short arms. But you have to avoid hinging at the hips - that’s how a Jefferson deadlift is performed, but not a Jefferson squat.
Your torso will also want to twist. The muscles responsible for preventing it from doing so are the obliques and multifidus, which are long muscles that run along the length of your spine. If you allow for any twisting, you’ll be robbing these important muscles of any benefit and might also cause them some injury.
A rounded back is another big problem. Not only will it rob you of strength gains, but it will also interrupt the transfer of power down through the posterior chain. Normally, the resistance of the bar would activate your shoulder and arm muscles before moving down your back, through the core, and into the legs. But if you lift with a rounded back, your lower back muscles will bear the brunt of the lift.
You may have heard of a rounded back deadlift, which has its advocates in the powerlifting world. However, when you’re performing squats, rounding your back through the lumbar can cause something known informally as “butt wink,” which is what happens when your pelvis rotates backward during the squat. That’s a big risk to your lower spine.
Having said that, the Jefferson lift could also be a lifesaver for lifters who don’t want to put their lower back at risk. It doesn’t put the weight of the barbell directly on the back the way a traditional squat does. The weight of the barbell is also pretty much square with your body’s center of mass which is also healthier for the spine.
Another common form mistake with the Jefferson squat is lifting the heel on the back foot. This puts your body out of balance during the lift and robs the back leg of its supporting role.
The weight you’re picking up during a JS should load both legs, but if you lift your back heel then you’ll be pushing your front leg to take on the full weight of the lift, which can be disastrous and is basically guaranteed to build strength unevenly in your legs.
If you try this exercise out and find that you almost can’t help but lift your back heel, you’re most likely standing with your feet too far apart. While you should be in a wide stance, it should be narrow enough for you to pivot upward to heft the weight of the barbell without needing to raise either heel.
Many strength training and powerlifting coaches tell their clients and pupils that you should outright avoid the Jefferson squat. The majority of their concerns with this exercise are that it is overly complicated, rife with opportunities for mistakes and injury, and that it is easily replaced with exercises that are already in the repertoire of people who have been lifting for a decent amount of time.
For example, while advocates of the JS point out that it’s a full-body exercise that targets lots of different muscle groups, detractors say it can be replaced by rows, squats, and bench presses.
Squats are much safer and all three exercises are easier to execute than the fairly odd Jefferson squat.
Fans of the JS say it works out muscles in a new way, in a way that the squat, bench press, and rows won’t. The main part of the movement that they point out is the range of motion on the spine. It activates the muscles that power the anti-rotational stopping power around your spine. Specifically, your obliques and multifidus.
The muscles of your inner thigh are also targeted. But are they really targeted in such a way that no other exercise can replace the Jefferson squat?Not really. The front squat and back squat can be performed with a kettlebell to get the same sort of strain on your quadriceps and even activate your core muscles in a similar way to the Jefferson Squat.
As for that trunk rotation, beginners and amateurs are probably better off doing isometric stretches and other exercises like planks, twists, side throws, and even windshield wipers.Using a medicine ball in place of a heavy barbell significantly reduces the likelihood that these simpler exercises will lead to injury in your back or around the spine.
Probably the biggest impediment to learning the Jefferson squat - and the reason you’ve probably never seen it done at the gym - is because you have to learn a ton of different placements, positions, and timing cues. Imagine how long it took you to learn proper deadlifting form. With the Jefferson squat, that timeline could be two or three times as long.
And the plain fact is that you could mess up a Jefferson squat no matter how long you spend mastering it. The move simply takes way too much concentration and you could be paying attention to your muscles during that time.
It’s also not a versatile move at all. While it does target lots of different muscle groups that many other exercises don’t, you can’t really make up a Jefferson squat variation. The best you could do is revert to any of the more readily-known exercises this exercise is based on - the lunge, the squat, and the deadlift.
Alright, so maybe you don’t need the Jefferson squat in your routine. Why take the time to write about it, then? Why do we even remember this lift at all?At certain times, the JS really comes in handy. If you only have a short time to spend working out, say half an hour, and you need to hit your glutes, quad, core, hamstrings, and obliques, then the JS is perfect.
But watch out here. We just explained that there are tons of little movements you need to pay attention to when you perform the Jefferson squat. If you’re really pressed for time and rely on the JS to get a great workout in no time at all, make sure you aren’t rushing through the move.
You should also avoid using this lift the way you would use a deadlift. A single-rep max on the Jefferson squat is basically useless information. The move is meant to be done in reps, not with as much weight as you can tolerate. But people who already use deadlifting as part of their monthly workout routine don’t need to worry about that because they already know a far more useful figure.
The 1RM for a deadlift is so much more revealing than what you lift for the JS. Concentrate on learning the exercise and do many low-rep sets, say five or six sets of between 4 and 8 reps.
If your body type doesn’t suit the JS or you want to reduce the likelihood you’ll be injured during this exercise, you can doctor it a bit. Some trainers will call these variations on the exercise, but they aren’t quite different enough from the (conventional? regular?) Jefferson squat to call them variations in our opinion.
Sometimes people with short arms find it too challenging to get a grip on the bar in the position required to do the Jefferson squat. If that’s the case, you can’t really switch to dumbbells like you could with some other exercises. But you can place the bar on some blocks in the starting position and do your reps with a more limited range of motion.
Use blocks to accomplish this. Taller lifters often start with the barbell in a rack to make it easier on them and avoid back pain after the workout. If you really wanted to build muscle, you could also add a bit more weight since the range of motion of the bar is more limited when it starts off in a rack.
As far as fitting the JS into your workout routine, we’d recommend saving it for days when your schedule doesn’t allow you to spend as long at the gym. If you only have about half an hour to work your lower body and build core strength, then the JS can take up one of the days in your weekly schedule.
Since it involves so many different muscle groups throughout your body, the JS would appear to also be a fairly good calorie burner. It’s also designed to be done in small-rep sets, albeit in many sets of low reps.
If you use it right, it could help you burn enough calories to cut some weight. But since it’s more of a strength training exercise than anything else, it’s most likely to be an effective weight-loss tool for people who are already built and perhaps coming out of a bulking phase and want to make sure their new-found muscle mass is popping out.
When weight loss is the central goal, you’re probably better off doing plyometrics and long-distance cardio to burn calories. But if you’re just trying to build lean mass as well as muscle during your workout, then the Jefferson squat could work perfectly well.
Jefferson squats are a great powerlifting exercise, but it doesn’t belong in every workout routine. While it’s a great way to target lots of different muscle groups during a short workout session, it’s also very complicated and easy to mess up.
It presents some risk of injury because of the twisting your torso instinctively wants to do as you lift the barbell, but you can minimize this risk by building strength in your posterior chain, core, and quads.
Give the exercise a try with someone experienced watching and see if it’s something you want to stick with long term. It’s always worthwhile to learn a new way to build your muscle mass.