Breaking Plateaus: The Squat
Updated: Jan 27
Congratulations! You have reached a plateau.
I know this may seem like an odd thing to congratulate you for BUT this is a big step. It means all of your work has paid off and you have reached all that you can achieve with your current knowledge and training. You have literally topped out and can’t go any farther with what you have built. Although it is frustrating, this is a GOOD thing.
The only way out and up, is to step back, re-asses and drive forward with new skills and methods of attack.
There are a number of reasons for a plateau. One missed lift doesn’t necessarily mean a plateau. You expected to hit 225 but can’t today, that might just be missed sleep, wrong time of your cycle, or a bad day. But a series of missed lifts over a number of weeks or months means a plateau.
Lets go over the techniques that you will employ to get over this hump. You can use one or two of them, or you can use all of them. It really depends on your performance and what exactly the problem is. Some lifters, move too slow, some top out at a weight, some have hip mobility issues. This is where having a session or two with a sports oriented Physical Therapist or powerlifting or olympic weightlifting coach would be helpful. Remember, not all personal trainers are movement specialists.
Also, there are differences between men and women when the hit plateaus. Women will typically hit a number, and be able to increase the amount of reps that they do with that weight but be unable to go heavier for one rep. Men will reach a number for one rep and not be able to break it. If the can increase the number of reps, they can typically increase the amount of total weight moved. Absolute strength - not endurance - has to do with the amount of testosterone in the body.
Let's go over some of the thing you can incorporate into your programing to break through a plateau
Strained or Relaxed Face
If you can squat you 1RM and your face isn’t struggling or straining, this means you are not truly at your strength 1RM but your technique 1RM. This would mean, we have preach a plateau for technique or mobility. You need to film you squat and have it assessed by a movement specialist or read up on some technique.
Many squats suffer because of poor hip mobility. I can tell you is is super fashionable and nice to have a narrow squat stance and go below parallel. But unless you are Asian or Middle Eastern, the likelihood of your ankle mobility being that great is slim to none. Sure you can do a long term project and work on it, or you can just widen up your squat stance and sit down all the way.
Women who learn to squat from lean men are often given this bad advice as well. Because of a woman's wider hips and the Q angle of her femurs, women naturally need a wider squat stance. Your pelvis needs to sit in between you heel comfortably. This means a wider stance for most.
Improve hip mobility over time by finding the right stance and stretching your hips to be able to go below the knee (breaking parallel). This should be your long term, high ROI project.
Out the Hole
Speaking of hip mobility, we have to work on the strength “out the hole.” The hole is the bottom of the squat. Many people will “PR” but their squat never broke parallel, or put them in the hole. Because that is an inherently weak part of the lift. You glutes, one of the biggest and strongest in the body are disengaged and then you have to get up.
Hole holds are a great way to better your squat. Goblet squats with a 5 sec hold at the bottom is a good start. My favorite exercise to better this is stolen right from a powerlifter I knew; 5 sets of 1 minute BB Back squat hold at 30% of you one rep max. Do this to finish up every squat day you have scheduled. Holy shit, you’ll be better in no time.
This is extremely helpful in training squats. Strong folks are not usually fast - but in order to produce power, you MUST have some speed. You must be explosive.
This is a good trick especially for the ladies because this is especially where we are weak: absolute power generation. Women who plateau at a number but go up in reps will take this route to get that bigger number.
Plyometrics are explosive movements: jumps, primarily. Back off heavy squatting for 4-8 months and focus on plyos, broad jumps and sprints. Jumping goblet squats, sets of 2-3 speed squats at 50%.
DO NOT do 4 sets of 10 squat jumps in a circuit. You need to do 5 max effort squat jumps and 10 kettlebell swings and rest for 3 minutes. You have to train your body to give all of it’s juice to ONE MOVEMENT SET and not save any for another. Eight sets of three reps weighted speed squats, focusing on moving your hips up and down, as fast as you can.
Larger Strength Base
Sometimes, you just need to be stronger. You need a greater strength base.
Work in your 70-90% 1RM range for a couple of weeks. Do ridiculous sets of 1x10 or 1x20 reps at 80% - don't put the bar down, just stand and rest. Hit your 5x5’s like it is a religion. People will do 3x10 and 4x8 but never get into the weight that is serious for struggling and getting stronger. If you can do three or four sets of 10 comfortably, you will NOT get stronger or increase your weight. Train your squat three times a week.
Squat, squat, different squat, weird squat, squat, squat walk, squat, squat, squat hold, squat contest.
There is something to be said about exposing your body to a wide variety of squats. This is usually used as a last ditch effort to squeeze out a couple more pounds for an already top tier athlete. If you have tried a couple of things and you have just been back squatting, you need to try ALL KINDS of squats.
Front squat, goblet squat, squat walk, weighted squat walk, jumping squat, squat with one foot on a plate, Zercher squat, Jefferson squat, banded squat, atlas stone squat, overhead squat, pistol squat, box squat, squat with toes on a plate, sissy squat, sumo squat, plie squat, narrow squat, b-stance squat, cable squat, belt squat, single arm overhead squat. How many more can you come up with?
Are you just not eating enough? If you are fairly lean and eating a healthy and/or monitored diet, it could be the you just don’t have the fuel to grow more strength and muscle. Up you caloric intake by 200-400 calories a day, test you number after a week or two and see where that takes you.