Why Are Squats So Hard? (10 Squat Exercises & Ways To Fix)

why are squats so hard

When I first started experimenting with different squat variations I always found the front squat and overhead squat to be extremely challenging.  

For you, it may be another squat variation that seems really difficult.  

No matter the squat variation, though, what makes a squat hard or not usually depends on three factors:

 (1) a lack of strength in a specific muscle group,

(2) a lack of overall technique, i.e. not knowing how to put your body in the correct position at a specific time throughout the range of motion; and, 

(3) a lack of mobility, either in the hips or ankles (and sometimes shoulders).  

In this article, I breakdown the top 10 most popular squat variations and discuss why they might feel hard and what you can do to make them stronger and more comfortable. 

Skip to the squat variation that you want to learn more about: 

Why Are Back Squats So Hard?

back squats are hard because of the demand for back strength, core strength, and hip mobility

Back squats are hard because of the demand for back strength, core strength, and hip mobility. Back strength is needed to keep the bar stable on the upper back. Core strength is needed to maintain a rigid brace. Hip mobility is needed in order for you to be able to reach depth without compromising your hip position.

Reason #1: Lack of Back Strength

Back strength, particularly your upper back strength is in high demand during back squats. Your shoulders need to be constantly pinched back and down and held there to stabilize the barbell on them. Having a weak upper back means you may slouch during a set of back squats.

How to fix:  

  • Engage your shoulder blades intentionally and actively, not passively

Reason #2:  Lack of Core Strength

Core strength is needed for two main reasons: being able to brace hard and manage your posture. Being able to brace hard means that you can keep your core as rigid as possible. This leads to an efficient transfer of force from the lower body to the barbell. Core strength is also needed to manage posture during squats.

How to fix:  

  • Overload the core exercises you do by increasing resistance or weight
  • Do not neglect the oblique muscles as they are important for bracing
  • Train core in a position that replicates the squat position e.g. bear plank

Read my article on the best ab exercises for powerlifters

Reason #3: Lack of Hip Mobility 

Having good hip mobility is necessary to be able to squat deep. If you have restrictions in hip movement, you may risk losing your posture, particularly around your lower back. In this scenario, you may find that your pelvic tucks under, which is also known as a butt wink.

How to fix:  

  • Elevate your heels with squat shoes so that you move the demand away from your hips and onto your knees
  • Perform front foot elevated split squats in your warm-up routine
  • Integrate some dynamic stretching drills such as side to side leg swings into your routine to warm your muscles up

Get our complete list of best hip mobility exercises for squats.

Why Are Pistol Squats So Hard?

pistol squats are hard because of the demand for leg strength, mobility, and coordination

Pistol squats are hard because of the demand for leg strength, mobility, and coordination. You need to be able to tolerate your whole body weight on each leg. You need high levels of mobility through your hips and ankles, as well as superior coordination in order to balance on one leg.

Read our other guides on pistol squats: 

Reason #1: Lack of Leg Strength 

You need to be able to squat your whole body weight onto one leg at a time when you do pistol squats. So it would be useful if you can perform a loaded squat with an excess weight that is more than your body weight.

How to fix:  

  • You can get your back or front squat strength up to about 1.5x your bodyweight
  • You can perform single-leg pressing exercise variations in your accessories
  • Perform banded or suspension trainer assisted pistol squats so you can practice is less weight going through each leg

Reason #2: Lack of Hip Mobility

You need a sufficient amount of mobility going through your hips and ankles in order to perform the pistol squats. You need to sufficiently raise the resting leg high enough so you can reach a full range of motion. You also need sufficient ankle mobility on the stance leg in order to get deep.

How to fix:  

  • Perform dynamic stretching drills such as forward leg swings with a kickback

Reason #3: Lack of Coordination

Even if you have the strength and mobility to perform pistol squats, there is also a great demand for coordination since you are balancing on one foot during the pistol squat.

How to fix:  

  • Increase the time under tension during the descent of the pistol squat
  • Try to perform the pistol squat with bare feet if possible so you can feel the whole ground with your foot
  • Pin your eyes forward and fixate on a singular point during the whole descent without deviating

Why Are Front Squats So Hard?

front squats are hard because many lifters struggle to maintain the barbell on the front of the shoulders

Front squats are hard because many lifters struggle to maintain the barbell on the front of the shoulders while squatting due to shoulder and wrist mobility demands.  As well, the quads are challenged to a greater extent during the front squat.  So if you have weak quads it’s going to be more difficult.  

Check out our other front squat resources: 

Reason #1: Lack of Shoulder and Wrist Mobility

Some people do not have the shoulder and wrist mobility to be able to get into a front rack position for the front squats. Stiffness may come from the poor shoulder and scapula mobility, general tightness in lats and triceps, or your arms may be too big.

How to fix:  

  • Try warming up your shoulder and scapula mobility with drills such as scapula push-ups
  • Try warming up your wrist flexibility with drills such as floor wrist stretches

Reason #2: Lack of Leg Strength

Leg strength, especially from the quads, is important for front squats. If your legs become a weakness, you may find yourself shooting your hips back when you come up from the front squat. This is called a good morning squat and may increase your risk of losing the bar forward (i.e. dropping it on the ground) or injuring your wrist.

How to fix:  

  • Perform more quad strength exercises in the accessories such as leg extension
  • Perform front squats with pauses

Reason #3: Lack of Hip and Ankle Mobility

In order to perform a front squat, you need to be able to have the right amount of hip and ankle mobility so you can do the front squat with a full range of motion.

How to fix:  

Why Are Split Squats So Hard?

split squats are hard because of the demand for coordination, hip mobility, and quad strength

Split squats are hard because of the demand for coordination, hip mobility, and quad strength.  As you squat down, you need to coordinate both legs on an uneven plane.  Additionally, both hip mobility and quad strength are needed to achieve the proper bottom position and maintain an upright posture.  

Reason #1: Lack of Coordination

The coordination for the split squats can be hard because there is a lot of room for error when performing split squats. You need to coordinate your torso, feet, knees, and hips to be aligned in a certain way in order for you to balance.

How to fix:  

  • Ensure that both of your feet are parallel and pointed forward but are not positioned one behind the other as you will feel like you’re walking on a tightrope
  • Ensure that your hips are pointed forward and not too rotated away from the front leg
  • Ensure that the knee of the back leg is bent and not straight
  • Ensure that your head, shoulders, hips, and back knee align in a straight line.

Reason #2: Lack of Hip Mobility

Another reason why split squats are hard is that you need superior hip mobility. If you do not, what you might find is a restriction in hitting depth and holding an upright posture. As a result, your hips will be in an anterior pelvic tilt where your low back overextends (arches) to compensate for a lack of hip mobility.

How to fix:  

  • Squeeze the glute of the back leg when doing split squats

Reason #3: Lack of Quad Strength

There is a great deal of quad strength that is needed to do split squats particularly in your back leg where you train your quads in a long muscle length. If you do not have enough quad strength, you may find that your knees will crash onto the floor when you descend during execution.

How to fix:  

  • Provide cushioning support for the knee of your back knee to reduce the impact of the knee hitting the floor and also artificially reduce the range of motion
  • Train quads in isolation with quad exercises such as reverse nordic curls, leg extensions, and sissy squats.

Why Are Overhead Squats So Hard?

Overhead squats are hard because it requires superior balance and both upper/lower body mobility. Any deviations of the bar not being over the midfoot will cause you to feel like you’re falling over.  As well, mobility is needed to hold the bar with a wide grip overhead and keep an upright posture.

Reason #1: Lack of Overhead Mobility

Superior overhead mobility is needed for overhead squats as you need to be able to hold a barbell overhead with a wide grip and maintain that as your torso angle changes during descent. Without a lack of shoulder mobility, injuries can easily occur, especially if the load is too heavy.

How to fix:  

Reason #2: Lack of Hip and Ankle Mobility

Along with overhead mobility, lower body mobility will be equally as important specifically in the ankles and hips. If your ankle mobility is insufficient, you will find yourself learning forward too much, which will lead to excess stress on the shoulders. If your hip mobility is insufficient, you may find yourself rounding in your lower back.

How to fix:  

Reason #3: Lack of Balance

Having high levels of balance is going to be crucial in completely successful reps. This means keeping your center of mass over the midfoot.  Losing balance can lead to you losing control of the bar either in front or behind you.

How to fix:  

  • Take your time during the descent and ensure that you are pinning your eyes in a distant singular point
  • Ensure that you are using appropriate footwear; you don’t want to be doing an overhead squat in running shoes.  If you don’t have proper squat shoes, then going barefoot is your next best option.
  • Ensure the barbell stays right on top of the crown of your head throughout the entire movement.  This should also keep the barbell in line with your midfoot as you squat. 

Why Are Hack Squats So Hard?

hack squats are hard because of the high demand for quad muscles

Hack squats are hard because of the high demand for quad muscles. You can’t recruit the glutes and hamstrings as you normally would in other squat variations.  This is because your torso is fixed in a range of motion rather than being able to freely move to place yourself in a stronger overall position.  

Reason #1: Lack of Quad Muscle

Hack squats place a lot of emphasis on the quads more so than other exercises — so a lot of people will find them particularly hard.

How to fix:  

  • Perform quad isolation exercises such as leg extensions
  • Adjust the weight so you can perform more repetitions on the exercise
  • Ensure that you are pushing through the mid-foot when performing them
  • Experiment with having a wider stance to make it slightly easier

Want an alternative to the hack squat?  Check out my article on the 9 Best Hack Squat Alternatives.

Reason #2: Cannot Use Hip Muscles

The direction of movement is parallel to your torso and your torso is upright. This means that when the weight gets hard, you cannot cheat in a way where you can lean forward to use your hip muscles to finish off the lift like you would in a back squat.

How to fix:

  • Reduce the weight so that you can fit in quality reps in
  • You can move your feet position forward to reduce the range of motion and rely on the back of the legs and hips more.

The hack squat is not anything like the leg press, even though they both are machine-based movements.  Look at the differences in more detail in my article on Leg Press vs Hack Squat: Pros, Cons, Differences.

Why Are Jump Squats So Hard?

Jump squats are hard because it requires maximal intent (moving your body explosively) and superior leg and ankle strength. As well, every time you jump there is the stress of the landing. As such, jump squats have a higher degree of stress on the joints compared with other squat variations.

Reason #1: Requires Maximal Effort

The nature of a jump squat requires you to be as explosive as possible because if you are not explosive, you may not be able to actually jump. Therefore this requires maximal intent or maximal effort during execution.

How to fix:  

  • Ensure that the intensity of the load is appropriate because if it is too heavy, you might not be able to fully “jump” squat.
  • Ensure that the repetitions are low so you do not accumulate too much fatigue and cap the repetitions at 5 reps

Reason #2: High Stress on Joints

Landing from landing after a jump squat can be very harsh on your knees, hips, and back especially if you are loading the jump squat.

How to fix:  

  • Cue yourself to land as quietly as possible, because this encourages you to allow your muscles to absorb the impact as you decelerate when you land
  • Make sure you make contact with the forefoot first when you land before gradually returning your heels to the floor as well
  • Make sure that your knees track in line with your feet and ideally your knees will feel less stress if kept behind toes

Check out my article discussing the science of whether squats can help you jump higher.

Reason #3: Lack of Lower Body Strength

You need to have strong enough legs and hips to be able to push your body and weight hard enough to propel everything off the ground and land safely with healthy knee tracking. If you have weak legs and hips, you may find that your knees will buckle in upon landing, which may be painful and is a risk factor for injuries.

How to fix:  

  • Make you strengthen hip muscles such as the glutes and hamstrings with exercises such as hip thrusts and deadlifts
  • Make sure you strengthen your leg muscles such as quadriceps and calves with exercises such as squats and calf raises.

Why Are Goblet Squats So Hard?

goblet squats are hard because of the logistics of getting the weight into position and the demand for arm strength

Goblet squats are hard because of the logistics of getting the weight into position and the demand for arm strength. It can be difficult to get a dumbbell on the front of the shoulders to start the lift.  Also, unlike other squat variations, superior upper body strength is needed to hold the weight in front of you.

Reason #1: Difficult To Set Up

If the weight is light, you may find that you will not get much out of the exercise. So you will find that you will need to choose heavier dumbbells or kettlebells but it can be difficult getting the weight into position from the floor.

How to fix:  

  • Place the weight onto a bench or plyo-box before commencing to lift the weight into position to perform the exercise

Reason #2: Lack of Arm Strength

Unlike a back squat or front squat, the weight is not shelved on your torso but there is complete reliance on the arms to hold onto the weight. If your arms are the weak link in the exercise, this may hold you back.

How to fix:  

  • Train bicep curl variations to strengthen forearm and bicep muscles such as hammer curls or barbell bicep curls
  • Train the shoulder muscles through the range that your arms will be in when holding the weight with exercises such as a plate pinch press or push-ups

A goblet squat is much different than a front squat even though they are both ‘front-loaded’ exercises.  Read my article on the Goblet Squat vs Front Squat: Pros, Cons, Differences.

Why Are Pause Squats So Hard?

pause squats are hard because of the increased time under tension

Pause squats are hard because of the increased time under tension and the necessity to hold your ‘core brace’ for a longer duration. If you are already weak in the bottom position of the squat because of a lack of quad strength, then increasing the time under tension will make it more challenging.  

If you are weak at the bottom of the squat, then read my article on How To Fix Losing Tension At The Bottom Of The Squat (6 Tips).

Reason #1: High Time Under Tension

There is an increased time under tension through the additional isometric contraction at the bottom range of the squat.

How to fix:  

  • Ensure that you are selecting the appropriate weight when performing paused squats (usually 55-70% of your 1 rep max for 3-6 reps)
  • Ensure that you are breathing and bracing properly so that you are more stable in the pause. This should make the pause and ascent easier.

Reason #2: Lack of Core Strength for Bracing

You will need to hold your breath and brace longer, which will be experientially more difficult as you feel an increase in blood pressure. If you do not have a strong core, you might struggle with the extending period during the breath-holding and bracing.

How to fix:  

  • Wear a powerlifting belt as a good powerlifting belt can help you brace your core harder
  • Train your core more through exercises such as planks, dead bugs, side planks, etc
  • Reduce the number of reps you perform in each set or reduce the load per set

Reason #3: Lack of Bottom Range Strength

Paused squats demand you to keep active tension and a voluntary hold in the bottom position. You might find yourself wanted to sit and relax at the bottom. This might be because you are naturally weak in this position.

How to fix:  

  • Perform pin squats where the pins are set at a height so that you stop in the position you pause
  • Perform box squats where the box is set at a height so that you touch the box in the position you pause

Why Are Wall Squats So Hard?

Wall squats are hard because, unlike other squat exercises, there is constant high tension on the quads. The wall squat is an ‘endurance’ exercise, so if you haven’t trained leg endurance, then you might find it more challenging. This is especially the case if you perform wall squats with your hips below parallel.

Reason #1: Lack of Quad Strength

There are not many other exercises that train the quad to constant tension in a fixed position like a wall squat and this may be a weak position for your quad

How to fix:  

  • Perform high rep (more than 15 reps) leg extensions
  • Perform high rep (more than 15 reps) sissy squats
  • Increase the height at which you sit on the wall to build up fitness with this exercise variation before lowering the range of motion.

Reason #2: Lack of Muscle Endurance

You may have a really poor lactic acid energy system (endurance), which may be your weakest link in the wall squat exercise

How to fix:  

  • Perform high-intensity interval training with an exercise bike to condition your quad muscles and develop your energy system
  • Perform the wall squat in shorter time periods but over more sets, so you can spread out the work done with more rest

Final Thoughts

Different squat variations will have their unique nature of challenges. This should not discourage you from pursuing improvement and progress in those variations. You are only as strong as your weakest link for given movements. It is worth exploring how to fix those issues and mastering those exercises until they become easier.

You never know when you might be making squat mistakes so check out our article on the top squat mistakes and how to fix them here.


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com