The king of all lifts: the squat.
A strong squat in strength sports is like owning a sports car in the real world. It’s sought after by most, envied by many, and acts as somewhat of a social status (relatively speaking, of course). No matter what sport you partake it, there’s no denying the importance of a strong healthy squat.
Unfortunately, the squat can be a troublesome lift to progress at certain points in one’s lifting career. A plateau or stalled squat could be the result of many things. Often, it’s mental, strength, or mechanics related. Thankfully, if an athlete is truly stuck at a plateau, then they can enlist multiple methods to push past it.
In some cases, an athlete is stuck at certain points of the movement, such as coming out of the hole, or finishing the lock out. This article will be broken up into three plateau sections: Bottom of the squat, top of the squat, and general plateau.
Bottom of the Squat
Coming out of the hole is one of toughest parts of having a strong squat. This is when the body is transitioning from using all of the force loaded eccentrically, and converting that into the concentric portion (utilizing the stretch shortening cycle). If an athlete struggles with loading their body eccentrically, then a squat become increasingly more tough.
1. Eccentric Tempo Focus
An easy way to strengthen the squat that’s getting stuck at the bottom is with eccentric tempos. This is one of my favorite squat tweaks for two reasons. First, it teaches composure and patience, which can translate to understanding the body better. Second, you don’t really have to change your program to utilize this tool.
If you watch some of the strongest squatters, then you probably notice their slower descend. They’re extremely well versed with eccentrically loading the lower limber, and that’s why they’re able to stand the weight back up, even with a slower lowering phase.
- Beginner: Experiment with a 3-second lowering phase. Mentally count out three seconds in your head as you descend to the bottom. Most beginners can get away without decreasing their working weight with a 3-second eccentric.
- Intermediate: Try 3-4 second loading schemes. If you’re working with 80%+ working weight, then I’d recommend trying a lighter set to feel out the tempo first to avoid getting trapped.
- Advanced: 3-5 seconds will office suffice. An advanced athlete will probably not be able to use their higher percentage working weights with longer tempos (5ish seconds), and it’s not uncommon take a few workouts to adjust, or slightly drop working out.
2. Isometric Pauses
Stemming off of eccentric tempo focus comes isometric pauses. This is when an athlete will make an active pause at the bottom of the squat. Often times, this pause will be 1-3 seconds long, and will require the athlete to maintain maximal tension to support their postures and avoid getting trapped.
These can be a useful in multiple applications. For those who want to stay on their current program, then you may find it useful to add these to your warm-ups, and lighter sets. Your body won’t overly fatigue, and you can train yourself to cue in the muscles that will promote your stand up out of the hole.
If you’re interested in making a workout catered for pauses, then start with a 1-3 second focus around 65-75% of your 1-RM weight. As you gain comfort with those working weights and isometrically holding, then you can then experiment with varied rep schemes at higher loads.
3. Resistance Bands
Bands can be used for plateaus at the bottom of the squat, or the top. But for the sake of this article, we’ll reference them at helping an athlete come out of the hole. A resistance band creates an additional overload on the lowering phase of the squat, then requires a lifter to drive through sticking points during the lifting phase.
[Want to know more about bands? Check out this in-depth guide into how to use them for every level of strength athlete.]
A study published in 2011, demonstrated resistance bands having the ability to slightly improve an athlete’s 1-RM strength, torque, and power. They can be a useful tool for someone who’s having trouble with sticking points, especially driving through them at the bottom of the squat.
4. Box Squats
Box squats have been used for years, and were heavilyy popularized by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell. This style squat requires an athlete to control the lowering phase of their squat, come to a complete stop, then stand while avoiding any form of rock to initiate movement.
A box squat is unique because it requires a static and dynamic focus. They can be a great tool for the lifter who’s having trouble initiating standing from the hole, or locking out a squat if you position the box higher. They work on power development for the concentric portion due to the dead stop. In addition, box squats can be useful tools for those coming back from injuries, or needing extra time to recover.
5. 1 ¼ Squats
The 1 ¼ squat is an amazing exercise for providing an extra training stimulus to an individual having trouble with rebounding from the hole. This squat requires an athlete to perform a normal descent, then come up about ¼ of the way, and descend back to the bottom before completing the rep.
For those getting stuck at the bottom this squat can be a useful tool for multiple reasons. One, it helps provide additional and reinforced postural positioning. An athlete will have to maintain a strong hinge and torso position in order to complete the second descent. Two, muscular strength and hypertrophy. The addition of the ¼ movement will improve an athlete’s time under tension, which will improve strength and hypertrophy.
Third, improvement of rebound and the stretch shortening cycle. This style squat will work an athlete’s ability to rebound more efficiently, which can carry over to cleans and front squats.
Top of the Squat
It’s less likely your plateau is coming at the top of the squat, but if it is, then there are a few useful tools you may find useful. Quad, glute, and back weakness are often the issues for a squat that’s having trouble at lockout.
6. Deadstop Squats (Bottoms-Up Squats, or Pin Squats)
This style squat requires you to have a barbell fully racked on pins or safeties, usually in a position that’s usually starts around 5+ inches or higher from your parallel position. An athlete will then position themselves in their normal rack position with the bar on their back, then stand up to complete the lockout.
These are great for breaking through squat plateaus for a few reasons. First, they provide an excellent stimulus on the quads. Second, they can help you dial in your setup technique, and find your optimal bar positioning. Third, you’re not doing the full movement and bottoming out, so you can overload the barbell (aka 100%+ 1-RM). Fourth, if you need to rest a nagging back injury (in this case lower), then these can be an okay supplement for providing stimulus, while achieving rest.
Yes, resistance bands and chains are similar in nature to how they provide accommodated resistance. Unlike bands, you can alter a chain to provide more of an concentric stimulus. To do so, find the area of your squat you’re getting stuck, and alter the links so they start providing resistance at this point.
If you do this correctly with the right chains, then the resistance will feel like normal weight until you start passing that sticking point. And of course, you can use chains for a bottom focused squat, but unlike bands, they tend to have more variance in use.
8. Reverse Band Squats
Similar to chains, this method could be used for those getting stuck at the bottom of the squat too, but we’ll reference them for the top in this article. A reverse band squat involves hanging bands from above the bar in the rack, and having them assist a lifter on the eccentric and concentric portion. They’re a great way to provide supramaximal loading without trapping a lifter under heavy weight.
A lot of times you’ll see athletes use this technique when they’re working on improving their ability to handle a new weight, gain a training stimulus without getting hit with a ton of fatigue, and improve their confidence. If your problem is locking out a squat, then using bands to supraload the bar to move past a plateau could be a useful tool.
9. Quarter Squats
Yes, this is one of the few occasions when a quarter squat may be useful. This style squat requires an athlete to only move the weight a fraction of their normal full-depth squat. For this reason, an athlete will have the ability to load the bar with weight they may not feel comfortable at full-depth.
This style squat is also a good exercise for emphasizing quad focus. In addition, this squat can help improve a lifter’s confidence and comfort with a certain weight that may be intimidating with full depth.
Regular Squat Plateau
If you’re unsure of where your plateau lies, then these few points below could be useful to increase your gains. These are more broad training concepts and will benefit most athletes having trouble progressing.
The above points are for those with specific problems in the squat, and if you’re simply having difficulty with a certain weight, then try one of these methods.
10. Take a Deload
A plateau isn’t always a result of lacking muscle and form, but more neural drive. The nervous systems plays a large role in lifting, especially when it comes to heavier intensities. A well planned deload can promote recovery fornot only the muscles and mind, but the nervous system as well. This is why strength athletes take a few days to a week (sometimes more) off before competing.
The best part of taking a squat deload is that you don’t necessarily need a deload from every exercise. Sometimes taking a few workouts, or a week off from squatting is enough to give your system a rest.
If you haven’t taken a deload for a prolonged time in your program, then try dropping your intensity and volume to around (<60%) for a week, or take a full rest. This is a good starting point to assess how beat up you may be without even realizing it.
11. Post-Activation Potentiation
This method is much more useful for the elite level squatter, and is useful to increase neural drive. The concept behind post-activation potentiation is to create an adequate training stimulus to increase neural drive, then utilize the heightened neural drive by using a power based/plyometric movement.
In theory, this training modality is useful for improving an athlete’s explosiveness and power development. An increase in power will have carryover to a stronger squat. If you’re an elite level squatter, then try using post-activation potentiation training for increases in power.
12. Check Your Walkout and Breathing
How’s your walkout? Is it a calculated system, or a haphazard happy feet dance to find a comfortable position. Taking extra steps and time during a squat’s walkout can drain energy, especially when you’re nearing a maximal load, no matter the intensity. Try dialing in a consistent walkout that minimizes energy before actually moving weight.
Breathing is also another factor that could be holding your squat back. Are you getting adequate air to provide the body with enough tension and rigidity to push through a heavy rep? This is when honing in on breathing techniques that encompass belly breathing and the valsalva maneuver are useful. Check out the video below from Juggernaut Training Systems that covers the importance of breathing.
13. Stay On the Program
Program hopping is another issue athletes have when moving past certain points. No matter what program an athlete follows, there’s always a form of periodization that’s at work on the band end. It could be linear, block, or undulated, regardless the periodization scheme, that program is designed to progressively overload lifts in a calculated way.
[New to periodization schemes, or curious what you’re following? Check out this article that deep dives into the most common periodization cycles.]
If an athlete is constantly jumping programs, then loading schemes and intensities will be inconsistent. This can then lead to a frustrated athlete wondering why they’re not progressing. Before getting antsy and moving on to the next best thing; try to finish a full mesocycle of the program you’re on (this is typically a 4-6 week block).
14. Change Up the Program
Counter-intuitive to what I just said? Yes and no. There comes a time in every strength athletes career when a program they’re on just ins’t getting the job done. Programs that follow a linear loading scheme will often result in the need for change most often.
The strength training program 5×5 is a perfect example of this. This program follows a linear loading scheme, and has an athlete load the bar with a certain amount of weight every workout. There will come a point in time when a lifter simply can’t add more weight due to their ability to grow and recover quick enough. These are occasions when a program change can be useful to dial in on weaknesses and progress past a plateau.
15. Rest In-Between Sets
Do you time your rest in-between sets? If so, then you may need a longer rest for heavier lifts, or even 1-RM attempts. This is usually more prevalent in newer athletes, but 1-RM attempts or heavy sets get rushed, and missed, even though their strength may be there.
Dial in your rest to shadow the intensity and volumes you’re using. On occasions when a new weight or PRs are present, then there’s no shame in taking extra rest. A good rule of thumb to remember for heavier loads in the squat is a 3-5 minute will often suffice, and sometimes this can be longer. Then again, this point will be dependent on your training goals.
16. Change Up the Time of Day
This point won’t be as relevant for the elite athlete, but more so for the recreational and evening lifter. Sometimes lifting at a certain time of day can leave you hitting a muscular and neural cap. For example, if you’re stuck at a certain squatting weight and tend to lift at the end of the day, then consider how much you’ve done that day.
Work and life stress, sleep, dietary factors, and much more will all be heightened as we lift later in the day. There are occasions when simply changing the time of day in which you lift for a few workouts is enough to give the body, and the squat specifically, a nice refresh.
17. Eat Enough
This point is definitely not applicable to everyone, especially those with elite level squats. But if you’re in a caloric deficit, or maintaining a certain bodyweight and body fat, then you may find yourself under eating for your leg day. Anyone who’s worked towards one of these physique driven goals will typically understand the important of diet and food manipulation on training.
If you find yourself constantly drained midway through your leg day, then there’s a chance you’re not eating enough pre-squat day. Check your meal timing pre-workout and what you’re eating the day before. It could be a simple manipulation of extra carbs for squat day to provide you with a little surplus energy.
The squat is often considered the king of all lifts, and there’s no secret behind the importance of strong squat for all sports. No matter your fitness level, a plateau can be very frustrating. A squat plateau could be caused by a variety of reasons, and those reasons will come down to the lifter’s current status, context, and training program.
Before changing a program due to a stalled squat; try out one of these methods where you feel like you’re lagging the most.
Feature image screenshot from @megsquats Instagram page.7
Editor’s Note: After reading the above article, CrossFit Relentless Owner Erik Castiglione had this to add:
“This is an excellent article with a lot of great suggestions. As someone who has struggled with squat plateaus myself, I can honestly say that tempo, pause, and 1 ¼ squats work very well to improve form and help you progress. The only suggestion I would add: find a coach who can critique your squat form. Training on your own is great, but having a critical eye to give you feedback is better. A coach can diagnose your problem area and help you pick the method listed in this article that will help you the most.”