Breaking Squat Plateaus

By Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES ProSource


“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning provided by a correctly performed full squat.”


Strength Coach Mark Rippetoe


The squat is the king! The squat has built the strongest, most muscular men of all time from the Mighty Minister Paul Anderson to the greatest bodybuilder of all time, Ronnie Coleman.


You want to get big? Let’s take a look at seven plateau-busting squat strategies!


1. Minimize the Walkout


This is not an evening stroll through the park! Save your energy for the squat, don’t expend it walking out. No more than three total steps are needed to walk a weight out and get set to squat. Step one gets you back and out of the rack, step two sets your first foot, and step three places the opposite foot in the squat position.


Some advanced lifters can do this in two steps by picking the weight up off the rack, stepping back with one foot to the set position then doing the same thing with the other foot. A walkout should be no more than three steps; save your energy for squatting heavy pig iron.


2. Sit Back


Squatting is initiated by sitting back, not down. At first, this may sound odd, but go sit in a chair, do you naturally crash straight down or do you sit back first? Lots of bodybuilders are used to a quad-dominant squat, but they could get more out of the movement, while maintaining better knee health, by learning to sit back and engage the glutes and hamstrings. Initiate the movement by sitting the hips back before bending the knees; this will allow you to lift more weight safely.


3. Knees Out


Quad-dominant gym rats make the mistake of keeping their knees neutral (straight ahead position) on the descent of squat. Even worse, some will let their knees drift in. To maximize power and engage the powerful muscles of the posterior chain (back side of your body), push your knees out as you squat down. This is a win-win scenario, by allowing you to squat more and keep the knees healthy.


4. Squat Explosively


The more explosive a squat, the stronger it will be! Your muscles and your central nervous system do not know the actual amount of weight on the bar while squatting; they know muscle tension and force produced!


Now let’s look at a way to get many of the benefits of maximal poundage training with submaximal weights. Force = Mass X Acceleration. Lifting your lighter sets with maximal force is called compensatory acceleration training (CAT). Greater amounts of force exerted into the bar will create higher amounts of muscle tension. This will not only build strength, but aid in muscle hypertrophy because you recruit a higher amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers (the ones with the most potential for growth).


5. Distribution of Workload


Eight sets of 3 reps does not provide the same training effect as 2 sets of 12 reps, even though both are 24 total repetitions. Your one repetition max is obviously one rep. Performing 8 sets of 3 reps provides a better training stimulation for maximum strength because you can concentrate on greater force production and you get more first reps. For all 8 sets you have to walk the weight out, get set just like you would for a maximum attempt; for two sets of 12, this would only be done twice. More sets and less reps = getting stronger.


6. Bottom Position Overloads


Squats have an ascending strength curve. In layman’s terms, this means as you complete the lift it gets easier. Much less force can be produced at the bottom of a squat then at the top. Why do you think 90 percent of folks at the local chrome palace gym do partial squats? Avoiding full squats is easier and you can lift much more weight, satisfying the ego in the short term.


This means to get good at the full squat, you have to build hellacious power out of the bottom. This can be done with the dead squat!


The dead squat is performed off the pins in a squat rack (bottom up style), there is no eccentric (negative) phase of the lift; so no elastic-like energy assists you on the concentric (positive) phase of the squat. You are lifting dead weight, like a deadlift. Plain and simple, you live or die on this lift based off your starting strength.


If you want to take this a step further, use bands and chains in order to build acceleration strength. Both of these tools will increase tension as the weight is lifted off the pins, so the resistance is heaviest at the top, where you are the strongest.


Dead squats also enhance develop rate of force development (RFD), which is how quickly you can develop tension in a muscle. If you cannot develop tension quickly, the weight won’t move off the pins!


Start dead squats 1-2 inches above parallel. With normal squats, the initial spring out of the bottom is from the elastic-like energy stored on the negative portion of the squat, assisting you significantly to right above parallel. Because of all the energy stored on a squat descent, starting a squat without it is a huge bottom position overload, attacking where you need it.


The dead squat should be performed for singles. Some variables to increase intensity on the dead squat are shortening rest intervals between singles, adding more singles to the same weight, adding more weight, or adding bands or chains. You can also look at lengthening rest periods and decreasing the number of singles as the weight gets heavier. Looking only at bar weight is a good prescription to running yourself into the ground quickly.


Some Key Points to remember are:


Perform this exercise with straight bar weight and with bands and chains.

If your primary goal is muscle hypertrophy, this exercise doesn’t have a real big benefit in your program.

Dead squats are very beneficial to those that have a sticking point two to three inches out of the hole in the squat.

Start with the weight 1-2 inches above parallel

This movement is very effective with a safety bar, and easier to get under the weight.


7. Repetition is the Mother of Skill


A great free throw shooter in the NBA makes 90 + percent of free throws. Pitiable free throw shooters barely make half. During basketball season as a fifth grader, I shot 75+ percent from the free throw line because I had a coach that made us shoot 100 free throws a day. That’s much higher than Shaquille O’Neal shoots! I practiced free throws daily, Shaq did not.


This taught me an early lesson, repetition is the mother of skill. I would walk up to the free throw line the same way every time, dribble the ball twice, the repetition of doing the same skill correctly over and over became a habit.


Squatting the right way over and over builds a skill. Some say that it takes 10,000 correctly performed repetitions to master a movement. Every rep you perform squatting, from your first warm up to your heaviest set, provides an opportunity to perform a rep correctly. Focus on getting proper alignment on the bar, hand spacing, walkout, foot spacing, depth and just overall technique.


Some old-time powerlifting aficionados have stated that every inch of depth equates to 40 pounds. If your squat max is 400 but you squat 500 four inches high, in theory you are actually squatting 80 pounds “less.” Minimally, you are robbing yourself of a properly performed rep.


Every rep, every set is a chance to get better; focus and use it your advantage.


Final Thoughts

Time to hit the squat rack! This poem by Dale Clark says it all:


Down this road, in a gym far away,

a young man was heard to say,

“No matter what I do, my legs won’t grow”

he tried leg extensions, leg curls, and leg presses, too

trying to cheat, these sissy workouts he’d do.

From the corner of the gym where the big men train,

through a cloud of chalk and the midst of pain

where the noise is made with big forty fives,

a deep voice bellowed as he wrapped his knees.

a very big man with legs like trees.

Laughing as he snatched another plate from the stack

chalking his hands and monstrous back,

said, “Boy, stop lying and don’t say you’ve forgotten,

the trouble with you is you ain’t been SQUATTIN’.



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