We have all been there. You are in the gym, it’s the final heavy squat day before your meet next week, and all you can hear echoing through the room is,
“Up, UP, UP, UP!”
Today though, the battle is lost, and you just can’t drive through your sticking point in the squat. The weights come crashing down to the pins and all hope feels lost. You start to question why you are doing this, and what you could possibly be doing wrong.
Everyone has one, a point in the squat where the lift starts to slow down and sometimes despite our best efforts it comes to a freezing halt and subsequent descent. So how do we stop this from happening? How can we improve the squat movement pattern so the sticking point does not win in the future? The answer is through repetition, and exercise selection.
I can’t guarantee you will never miss a squat, in fact there will probably be many more misses in your future. Sometimes, it’s out of your control, and if you are not able to accept failure and learn from it, then you are probably in the wrong sport. The positive side to this battle is there are enough variables in your control to decrease the chances of failure in squat that are worth learning and implementing.
Squats Sticking Points and Repetition
The True Power of Perfect Reps
How many times have you done a set of squats, and while reviewing the video you notice each rep looked different. The first rep your heels came up, the second rep you sat too far back, the third rep your hips shot back too fast out of the hole, and the list goes on and on. When completing a set like this we are not ingraining the same motor pattern each rep. As a result, your progress will not be what you would like it to be, and what it should in fact be.
Understanding the importance of repetition and how it contributes to your lifting success is crucial. Not just understanding that training with higher repetitions is important, but how technical consistency rules over all. Making sure each rep is a mirror image of the rep before. That way, you are practicing the same exact movement over and over again while your technique stays solidified.
If you were to look at a video of your squat set of five, you should not be able to tell which rep was the first of the set, and which was the last.
If you are not able to achieve this, then you should drop the weights down to an intensity where you are able to achieve technical perfection while training under the threshold of technical failure. This is increasingly important for beginners as they are learning technique and becoming more efficient lifters.
Achieving technical prowess is easier with less intensity, and more repetitions. The lighter weights on the bar allow you to dispose of your bad habits and force your body to move in an “optimal” movement pattern. The increase in reps allows you to practice it over and over again until it becomes autonomous.
Squat Sticking Points and Exercise Selection
The Art of Improving Weaknesses
Now that you have started a new program where you are going to practice proper technique through each rep of every set, what about your variation and accessory work? The fact of the matter is this — we will more than likely always have some sort of relative weaknesses and strengths. This is attributed to the fact that from lifter-to-lifter our anatomies are different. Our relative limb lengths, muscle distribution, insertion points, and even our muscle fiber types are all slightly different. So how can you program in a way that benefits the individual either in front of you, or the one in the mirror.
The answer is understanding what exercises improve each individual variable, and programming those exercises accordingly. In the squat, there are usually two major muscle groups that contribute to success and that we train often. Simplified, these are the legs and back, working in unison to sit down and stand back up with weight. Typically, you have a lifter that has a build that favors one or the other. This could be anatomical, as they may have leverages that favor a certain style of squat. It could also be muscular, which is when either the back or the legs are lacking in muscle mass.
So the question is, how do we know what your relative weaknesses are in the squat? Well, each type of weakness will have a certain apparent way of expressing itself.
The Problem: Weak Legs
If your legs are weaker relative to your back strength, you will usually tip forward right out of the hole while the hips and knees shoot backwards. The lift is typically finished by the back pushing into the bar as the hips slowly make their way back to the center.
The Fix: Exercise Selection
After practicing good technique with your normal squat sets, here are some variations and accessories for the squat that can be programmed to help with your relative leg weakness.
- Pin Squats at Parallel – Set the pins to where the hip crease is right at the knee, and slowly bring the bar down to the pins maintaining tightness and control. When coaching this movement, I typically tell a lifter to not allow the bar to make a sound when touching the pins. This reinforces the idea that the lifter should stay tight at the bottom and control the weight. After pausing for a one count, the lifter will stand up, forcing the back into the bar and not allowing the hips to shoot back.
- Pause Squats – The pause squat is a very common variation, and can definitely be used to address leg weakness. The best place to pause for a lifter with weak legs is in the hole, then as they come out of the hole the focus should shift on not allowing the hips and knees to shoot backwards and maintaining quad tension.
- Belt Squat/Pitshark – The belt squat or pit shark is a fantastic tool for increasing leg strength in the squat. This exercise mimics the squatting pattern very closely, while not allowing for much back fatigue, so volume can be pushed pretty high. Not too many gyms have these, but if your gym does and you have weaker legs, then you should use it. Our substitute for the belt squat if it is not available would be the leg press. The leg press when done properly is still a great movement for leg development, but definitely falls a little short when compared to using a belt squat or pitshark.
The Problem: Weak Back
When your back is weaker relative to your leg strength, then your squat will be very strong out of the hole, but hit a wall much higher in the lift. This is because the back cannot handle the load transfer, and the legs have already extended a decent amount.
The Fix: Exercise Selection
If a weak back is your limiting factor in the squat, the goal should be to hammer the main movers of the back.
- Pin Squats Above Parallel – This exercise will help a lifter drive the bar up with the back right around where they start to slow down in the squat on the concentric portion. It should be done just like the pin squats at parallel, with maximal control.
- Pause Squats Above Parallel – These are less commonly programmed, but pause squats right under your sticking point can help build strength and control. Most people program pause squats in the hole, but pausing around where your lift starts to decelerate will actually be more beneficial for pushing through a higher sticking point.
- Good mornings – Good mornings are a fantastic exercise for the posterior chain. They can help improve back, glute, and hamstring strength while not really engaging the quads at all. These will work wonders for somebody who has stronger legs relative to their back in the squat.
- Back Extensions – Getting the back stronger is really the key for a lifter whose legs are more dominant, and back extensions do a fantastic job of this. If your gym has a GHD, grab a plate or two, and perform back extensions keeping the spine neutral throughout the movement. This will help increase strength in the erectors and carry over to a stronger back in the squat.
When combining both good technique in training, and proper exercise selection for the squat, you will indefinitely see an improvement in your sticking point. The sticking point may always be there, and due to your leverages the point in which your squat struggles probably won’t change.
However, we can do all we can to improve it, and to get our our squat stronger. Understanding where your weaknesses lie, and holding yourself accountable with your technique in training is the key.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @bartellbarbell Instagram page.