As a guy who’s built to deadlift, I used to really struggle with sticking points in my squat. I like to use a lot of lower back and quad, and, as a result, I often found myself falling forward in the hole. Even when I could easily deadlift over 600, a 400-pound squat felt like an all-out effort. It took me years to find the answer, but when I did, my squat shot up – and now it’s an even better lift for me than my deadlift.
At Reebok Record Breakers earlier this year, I hit a PR of 799 lbs, which was just five kilos away from Ernie Lillibridge, Jr.’s all-time world record.
I don’t think my experience is unusual. Squatting is probably the most frustrating movement for novices, because it requires more balance and kinesthetic awareness than the other two powerlifts. On top of that, there are so many different styles of squatting, and everyone on the Internet seems to have an opinion about which is best.
Should you push your knees forward or sit back? Low bar or high bar? Wraps or sleeves? Wide stance or narrow? It’s overwhelming. And, unfortunately, all of these answers are right – but they’re not right for everyone. Your individual leverages, strengths, weaknesses, and goals will all partly determine which style of squatting is best for you.
What’s “Good Form?”
I see a lot of novice and intermediate lifters get stuck just trying to figure out how to squat. They’ll try one style, and it’ll feel pretty good, and they stick with it for a few months. And then progress starts to stall, and they get frustrated, and – assuming they keep training – they decide they need to start from scratch and change their technique, or their routine, and take a giant leap backwards in order to regroup. That works, for a little while, but a few months later and it’s the same old story all over again.
Here’s the deal: at the novice and intermediate stages, you haven’t yet built the skills necessary to determine which style of squatting is best for you. That’s why trying to find the perfect squat for many is so often an exercise in frustration.
Of course, some people are natural squatters, and they’ll immediately and naturally fall into a comfortable and productive groove. Everyone else has to pay their dues – sometime years of dues – under the bar before their strengths and weaknesses even become apparent. Over time, some muscle groups will develop better than others; kinesthetic awareness and skills like breathing and bracing can be perfected; and, eventually, it becomes easier to find a strong squatting groove.
I’m a great example of this. I have long femurs and a short torso, and, as would be expected, I was an abysmal squatter for quite a long time. At my first meet, I deadlifted close to 600, but squatted in the low 400s. My squatting technique was terrible, too: a bastardized “squatmorning” with lots of back involvement and not much else. Everyone told me I needed to take a wide stance, sit back, practice box squatting, get my posterior chain involved more, but that didn’t feel natural at all.
I have strong quads and a strong lower back, and I lack strength and mobility in hip abduction, so a wide-stance squat was way off base for me. Try not to cringe too hard when you watch this:
It literally took years before I found a groove that did work: a narrow stance, medium bar position, and lots of forward knee displacement. That technique allowed me to take advantage of my strengths, and once I perfected it, my squat skyrocketed.
I’ve now squatted 750 lb at 181 lbs – an IPL world record – and 799 lbs at 198 lbs. But that wouldn’t have been possible years ago, because I didn’t have the experience necessary to devise such an unconventional technique.
I’m not advocating that you use an unconventional technique. I’m saying that you shouldn’t waste time at an early stage trying to make things perfect. Instead, just focus on getting stronger.
For most people, the easiest way to do that is with a moderate stance, high bar squat. You will not be as strong in this position as you would be with a lower bar placement. But you also won’t have to worry about your technique interfering with your progress. The high bar squat feels more natural for most people: it’s easier to balance and your sticking point is not in the hole. And, because the loads are a bit lighter and the stress on the lower back a bit less, you’ll be able to practice squatting more often and therefore improve more quickly.
Eventually, you’ll want to transition from the high bar squat to something more personalized or something that allows you to take better advantage of your leverages. But when that time comes, you’ll have developed the strength necessary to do so comfortably, and you won’t waste time that could’ve been better spent elsewhere.
Okay, But I’m Still Stuck
But let’s say you’ve been squatting for quite a while now, and you know you’ve got solid technique and are past the novice/intermediate stage, and you’re still struggling with a nagging sticking point. That’s when it’s time to start taking a closer look.
First, the secret to getting through any sticking point is tightness. Tightness refers to your ability to activate all of the muscles involved in a movement throughout the entire range of motion of that movement. Tightness requires both strength and skill: if you haven’t practiced enough, you won’t have the mind-muscle connection necessary for that coordinated activation in the first place; and if you’re not strong enough, then you won’t be able to maintain that activation throughout the entire range of motion.
The simple solution is to squat more and get stronger, but we can do a bit better than that. Once you’re at this level, you’ve probably built quite a bit of strength in certain muscle groups, but you might still lack strength in others. The most effective way to address sticking points is to first identify those weaknesses and then find assistance exercises that improve them. This way, instead of spending long amounts of time getting stronger all over, only to continue to be hindered by those same lagging muscle groups, you can develop balance.
A balanced body is a more efficient body, and you’ll find that once you develop balance, you get stronger all over more quickly and can devote more of your training to the competition lifts and less to assistance exercises.
So, how do you determine your weaknesses? The easiest way is to work with a knowledgeable coach. This is one of those areas where an objective view can be invaluable; it’s always so difficult to be honest about our own shortcomings. But if, for whatever reason, you can’t rely on a coach to help you, then try this:
Start with a high-level view of one movement at a time. Where do you fail on your
heaviest reps? For most people, in the squat, it’ll be in the hole, but maybe you miss
most of your reps just out of the hole, or maybe you even miss at the top. Don’t worry
about it for right now – just identify your sticking point.
Then, zoom in a bit and try to identify why you miss at that point. For example, maybe your knees shoot in as you start to come out of the hole, or maybe your butt shoots up. It’s very important that you don’t jump to conclusions at this step. So many “gurus” are quick to do exactly that: they’ll claim that when your hips rise faster than your shoulders, and that’s a sign of a weak posterior chain; or that knee valgus is a sure indicator of quad weakness.
That is not always the case. Everyone is different; everyone’s form breaks down for
different reasons. At this stage, all you know is that you have a weakness. Forget the movement for a second, and honestly assess your muscular strengths and weaknesses. If you’re in touch with your body, this will be easy; if you’re not, it’ll be very difficult. Sticking with our example, maybe you ask yourself whether you’re sore for days after a couple sets of hamstring curls; or maybe you know that trying to stretch your quads is excruciating.
Finally, try to make a connection between your muscular weaknesses and your sticking points. If your butt keeps shooting up, maybe you do have weak hamstrings or glutes, but maybe you’re not activating your quads properly during that part of the movement. If your knees shoot in, maybe your quads are weak, but maybe your adductors are.
This step is the most important. If you misidentify the connection between your muscular weaknesses and your sticking points, you won’t be able to choose an effective assistance exercise to help your competition lift. Once you do make the connection, you just need to choose an exercise that makes it very easy for you to activate the proper muscles in a position very similar to that of a competition lift.
Usually, these will be close variations of the competition movement: front squats for quads, pause squats for glutes and hamstrings, and so on. But they don’t have to be close variations, and they don’t even have to be conventional exercises at all. You can get really creative here: anything that loads your weaknesses safely and progressively is a good exercise.
Be patient. You won’t fix a weakness overnight. In fact, the entire process can take
months or even years. Just remember that addressing weaknesses is the key to moving from the intermediate stage to an advanced level, so no matter how long it takes, and if your goals are important to you, then it’s a valuable use of your time.
Accessorize for Balance
As you determine your weaknesses and find the appropriate assistance movements to correct them, remember your goal is to develop balance so that you don’t have to perform any more assistance movements. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of wasting time and energy on set after set of assistance work: it’s fun, and different, and assistance movements typically progress more quickly than the competition ones.
But unless you’re directly addressing a weakness, then those assistance exercises aren’t making you a better lifter. Once you’ve developed balanced strength, you’re better off devoting the vast majority – maybe even all – of your time and effort into the competition lifts.
Personally, I use very few assistance movements. For the squat and deadlift, I perform glute-ham raises and reverse hyperextensions. For the bench press, I perform exercises to strengthen my rotator cuff. That’s it! Occasionally, I’ll do some work for my upper back or biceps, and if I find that I’ve developed a weakness, then I’ll address it with a close variation of one of the competition lifts. But the squat, bench press, and deadlift make up at least 80% of my training.
One huge caveat: I’m talking here strictly about powerlifting. If you want more well-rounded strength, or if you want size, then you need to train differently. Let’s say you’re trying to get huge quads. Your base movement should still be the squat – there’s nothing else that loads your quads as heavily and effectively. But squatting alone isn’t enough. Optimal training for hypertrophy requires taking a high number of sets to failure, and it’s not safe to do that with the squat.
Even if your form doesn’t break down, and you somehow avoid injury, the demands on
your recovery are just too high – you’d never be able to sustain that type of training. This is where isolation exercises become so important. You can take high-rep sets of leg extensions or step-ups to failure, and you’re not risking injury or burnout.
The same goes for other muscle groups, of course: you can’t just train the deadlift to develop your back; nor can you rely solely on the bench to build a huge upper body.
Feature image screenshot from @phdeadlift Instagram page.