When we first start powerlifting it feels like squat gains come quickly, but when progress stalls and our squat seems to plateau, what should we do? How can we continue seeing gains in squat strength?
Here are my 9 tips for breaking through a squat plateau:
- Assess Deficiencies In Your Technique
- Widen Your Stance To Decrease Range Of Motion
- Follow A Periodized Program
- Increase The Frequency Of Squats In Your Program
- Strengthen The Posterior Chain With Accessory Movements
- Strengthen The Quadriceps With Accessory Movements
- Ensure Adequate Core Stability And Bracing Capabilities
- Change Your Training Approach To Present A New Stimulus
- Set Realistic Goals
Although a squat plateau may be frustrating, there are many options that we can employ to build momentum and set ourselves up for continued progress. In this article, we’ll discuss why squat progress may have stalled and how to break through the plateau.
1. Assess Deficiencies In Your Technique
If our technique is insufficient, we will eventually reach a point where we can no longer make progress with our current movement pattern.
At this point, we need to assess deficiencies by determining at which portion of the squat we begin to struggle.
The recommended method for identifying breakdown in our technique is by taking videos of our squat from multiple angles and seeing when things start to “fall apart”.
Some common squat deficiencies we’ve addressed in other articles include:
If we currently lack the knowledge and/or understanding to identify deficiencies within our own movement patterns, it is worth seeking an expert opinion – as they will be able to set us on the right path for improving our technique to break through our squat plateau.
2. Widen Your Stance To Decrease Range Of Motion
If the feet are too close together during your squat, we may be working harder than necessary to hit depth and struggle to stand back up out of the hole. It is worth experimenting with widening our stance to at least hip width, or a little wider, and then assessing how our movement changes.
If our hip structure allows for the wider stance (meaning we do not feel restriction or tightness in the hip joint), if we are able to hit depth more easily, and we feel strong out of the bottom of the squat – it is likely that a wider stance is optimal.
It is worth mentioning that as with any change in technique, the adjustment may not feel natural initially as the body is not accustomed to this position; therefore, we should spend time adjusting to a change in technique, before counting it out.
There is such a thing as too wide – this will be very individualized and must be determined by what position yields the strongest squats, as the goal of the sport is to lift the most weight and not to do the splits.
Want to learn more about the stance width for squats? Check out our article on If Wider Squats Are Better For Powerlifting.
3. Follow A Periodized Program
Many lifters show up to the gym and do the same workouts day after day without actually tracking their sets, reps or weights – making it difficult to ensure progression.
Following a periodized program provides us with the right stimuli to make progress on our lifts, by presenting a new challenge over weeks of training that signals to the body to adapt to the increased demands.
When the body can no longer keep up with these increasing demands, a proper periodized program will include deloads – a time for the body to recover enough to avoid injury while still reaping the benefits of training.
Without a periodized program, it is more likely that we are limiting our progression in the squat due to: lack of consistency, failing to present an adequate stimulus, or overtraining.
4. Increase The Frequency Of Squats In Your Program
If we are experiencing a squat plateau we should evaluate how often we are squatting each week, as it may not be enough of a stimulus to warrant an adaptation.
This means that our body is accustomed to this frequency of squatting, and no longer feels the need to increase force output or muscle size to accommodate this workload.
If we are currently squatting once a week, we can try increasing to twice a week. If we are currently squatting twice a week, we can bump it up to three times a week. In addition, I would recommend having at least one of these squat days as a technique day to promote recovery of these muscles while still practicing the movement.
If we are currently squatting four times a week or more, it is unlikely that we will fix the plateau by increasing frequency further. At this point, we may want to consider that perhaps we have reached a plateau because we are not recovering enough between squat sessions and the muscles cannot adapt – therefore they are overtrained and performing inadequately.
Check out some of my other resources on squat frequency:
5. Strengthen The Posterior Chain With Accessory Movements
It is possible that the strength of the posterior chain is limiting the progression of our squat. The reason for this is that lack of strength in the muscles of the posterior chain will lead to an inability to create the force necessary to maintain positioning and complete the lift.
The muscles of the posterior chain that could be weak are the spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings.
In order to strengthen these muscles and break through the squat plateau, we should consider adding the following accessories to our training:
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Kettlebell Swings
- Single Leg Hamstring Curls
- B-Stance Hip Thrusts
6. Strengthen The Quadriceps With Accessory Movements
If the quads are weak they can limit our ability to push out of the hole (the bottom of the squat) and complete the lift.
If the quads are weak we may notice that our hips shoot up first out of the hole (aka good morning squat), or that we are failing the lift in the bottom half of the ascent.
To strengthen the quads and break through the plateau we can include squat accessory movements that emphasize the quads, such as:
To learn more accessories that will improve the squat, check out these 9 Accessories To Improve Squat Strength & Technique.
7. Ensure Adequate Core Stability And Bracing Capabilities
If we are failing the squat because our core is unable to maintain positioning throughout the lift, we need to address this lack of strength and enhance our ability to brace properly. Increasing our core stability will not only strengthen our position during the squat but it will also make us more resistant to injury.
To strengthen our core musculature, we can include the following exercises in our training program:
- Cook Hip Lift
- Suitcase Carries
- Pallof Holds
For more exercise options to increase core stability, check out the 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters.
In addition to these anti-movement core exercises, we need to master the ability to brace and create full body tension.
This is accomplished by increasing intra-abdominal pressure through breathing into the abdominable region, engaging the muscles to attain a 360 degree expansion of the core, and maintaining this tension throughout the squat.
Interested in learning more about bracing? Check out our step-by-step guide on the Proper Breathing Technique For Squats.
8. Change Your Training Approach To Present A New Stimulus
If we have been following the same program for a period of time and we are no longer seeing progress, it may be time to change things up. In order to see progress, we need to present a new challenge for the body to adapt to, as things that were once challenging will not continue to yield the same results once the body has adapted.
For example, if we typically program our squats with a set and rep scheme of 4 sets 5 reps, maybe it is worth switching to a new approach that consists of a top set (at higher intensities) such as 1 set of 5, and including back down sets (at lower intensities) for 3 sets of 5. Although the volume itself is equated, we are getting one set at a higher intensity.
There is nothing magic about different training styles; in fact, everyone will respond differently.
But what can make a program effective is doing something in training that presents a new stimulus that we can adapt to. Once we stop adapting to a certain stimulus, we can make another change – whether it be volume, intensity, or frequency – to continue seeing progress.
This is why I’m such a fan of powerlifters doing high reps because anything over 8 reps is often ignored in a powerlifting-style training program.
One of the programming approaches we can implement to break through plateaus is the use of back off sets. If you don’t know how to use them properly, then check out my article on Back Off Sets: What Are They & How To Use Them.
9. Set Realistic Goals
Perhaps we think we’ve plateaued, but in reality we are just not patient enough to see results. Once we are no longer beginners results will take more time, as we are no longer in the learning stages where neural and strength adaptations happen more quickly.
If we are constantly “program hopping” it is difficult to see progress, as there is a lack of consistency with movement patterns and progressive overload. We need to be patient throughout a training cycle and allow the body to adapt over time.
However, if we haven’t seen any progress after multiple training blocks, perhaps it is time to change our training variables and to present a new stimulus.
There are many ways to break through a squat plateau to continue making progress, the key is identifying why the plateau has occurred in the first place and what the limiting factor might be. Presenting a new stimulus in training should lead to squat progression – if not, then it is likely that the chosen stimulus was not the limiting factor for the squat plateau in the first place.