Training

Fix Your Stubborn Squat Plateau with These Six Solutions

July 16th 2019

For many athletes, the commonly performed exercise known as the squat is the ultimate test between new year resolution gym attendees and gold star powerlifters. This compound exercise is extremely popular among lifters, women, and men due to the numerous possibilities of variations that one can apply to the exercise. Every once in awhile, you might be experiencing a struggle between a strong, healthy squat and a weak, broken squat. This is formally known as reaching a squat plateau or stalling on your squat. Plateaus or stalling occur often when an athlete reaches their current peak power, strength, and endurance on an exercise. The reasoning behind the squat plateau is no different, but exercise physiologists have associated weaknesses relating to the squat plateau from mental determination, biomechanics revolving around the exercise or other related strength issues. Not only is it seemingly embarrassing, but the battle to break a new squat repetition max can also leave one frustrated as well. Luckily, there are many solutions to fix the stubborn squat plateau that can take you from internally agonizing over your next squat to being hungry for 5 more reps and more weight than you’ve ever dreamed of. In this article, we will discuss the true definition of a squat, anatomically and physiologically analyze what muscle groups are being activated and which ones are not, and conclude with six solutions that will solve your squat plateau. 

The Elements of a Squat and How to Perform a Barbell Squat

Let us examine the process of completing the simplest of all weighted squats, the barbell squat. The barbell squat is a basic push exercise that begins by holding the barbell posteriorly behind the neck, resting on the horizon of the shoulders. For beginners, it may be ideal to utilize a Smith machine which assists in the stability of the squat by keeping it secured on a single, vertical plane. It is also recommended that you begin perfecting the form without using any additional weight on the barbell. By doing this, there will be no added resistance to perform the squat, making it easier to perfect your form. Make sure your feet are shoulder-width apart with equal weight distribution, and that your knees do not cave inwards. Inhale through the nose and brace the abdomen as you squat down. Keep the back straight as the knees will start to bend forward. A research study conducted in 2003 had concluded that appropriate joint loading during the squat may require the knees to move slightly past the toes, but not drastically. So, if this typically occurs when executing the barbell squat, do not be alarmed. The descending squat should reach until the thighs are parallel to the ground. Finally, fully extend the knees and hips until the body is completely vertical on one axis.

Breathing during a barbell squat is entirely different than breathing through a lightweight exercise with higher repetitions. In order to breathe correctly during a barbell squat, it is important that you inhale at the beginning of the exercise and brace the whole way through. First, start by correctly breathing into your stomach; you should not see your chest rise. If the chest is rising and falling, you aren’t working the diaphragm to its full potential. Thus, if you inhale into your stomach and then brace that same area as if someone were to punch you, intra-abdominal pressure will increase while the diaphragm will contract. As described in one study that focused on the stability of the spine, if the pressure in the intra-abdominal cavity decreases, then the stability of the lumbar spine will decrease as well (Crisco 2004).

“Practice makes progress, not perfect”

Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters use certain terminology when describing what position, they are executing during the exercise. For instance, “coming out of the hole” is known as the absolute lowest point of your squat. Another saying, “finishing the lockout” discusses the complete locking of the knees in which they are in full extension. Knowing the terminology will not only make you a better lifter but also contribute to your knowledge regarding certain positions during the exercise.

The main muscle that is being targeted during the barbell squat is the quadriceps. However, there is more than just the quadriceps at work here. The synergist muscles, which are the gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, and soleus, all aid in the knee joint movement of the squat. The dynamic stabilizers are muscles or muscle groups that hold the body in place and keep it steady throughout the exercise. The main stabilizers are the hamstrings, gastrocnemius, and erector spinae (ilocostalis, longissimus, spinalis). Lastly, the antagonist stabilizers like the rectus abdominis and the obliques work on maintaining postural tension and alignment of joints. Specifically, in this case, the rectus abdominis and obliques counteract the erector spinae’s pull on the spine (ExRx 2019). 

Maintaining Safety and Stability During the Barbell Squat

Some squat variations can make the exercise more difficult or much easier. It is important that you find what feels the most natural and comfortable for you. During the barbell squat, torque and rotary forces will occur that affect the stability of the movement. Torque forces are essential to significantly load muscles and allow them to adapt to the magnitude of progressive overloading that occurs in the center of joints. One example is if the knees do not move forward when performing the barbell squat. This could justify that the quadriceps or knee extensors are not being fully utilized. Rotary forces can be discovered throughout the knee when the tibiofemoral joint is directed outwards. Otherwise known as valgus, it occurs most often due to the adductor magnus being significantly overloaded instead of the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. Such signs call for concern like the knees begin to point outward, or even the extreme degree of pointing inward will put the stability of the squat at risk and will not allow for the body to drop in a controlled manner (Signorile 1995). 

The most common variations of barbell squats include the powerlifting type squat, the full/deep squat, and more. The powerlifting squat is the most common type of squat performed in the gym and during powerlifting competitions around the world. It is typically recognized by the hips which are seated farther back with the barbell placed lower behind the shoulders. It is also very common to have a wider stance known as a sumo stance, that holds the knee back, so it does not travel as far forward. The sumo stance also requires more hip torque referred to as strength through hip abduction (McLaughlin 1977). The other popular type of squat is known as the deep or full squat. However, this squat leaves a risk of injury to knee joints if not performed correctly. When comparing the hip joint versus the knee joint, the knee or tibiofemoral joint has a greater vulnerability to injury due to its anatomical and physiological differences. The few areas of concern are the speed of descent towards the ground, the size of one’s calves and thighs, and the overall strength and muscular endurance of the individual. In order to perform the deep squat safely, one should keep their center of gravity leaned forward, and makes sure the quadriceps and hamstrings are in optimal condition with the descent performed in a steady and stable manner.

Why Did I Stall For My Squats?

 

  • You are not eating enough
  • Fix your form
  • You need a new program

 

You are not eating enough

If you have done Starting Strength, you will know that one of the best ways to increase in your squatting strength and to never stall is to gain bodyweight. In fact, that is one of the goals for Starting Strength - to get you as big and as strong as possible in the shortest period of time. Would it be ideal to run Starting Strength forever? Yes, but our bodies are imperfect and they require us to rest, adapt and learn how to make progress without killing ourselves.

With that being said, this is only for lifters who have been progressing for several months or longer without issues. Then, all of a sudden, you seem to hit a wall. 

Fix your form

If you hit an early stall, you should probably look at your form. Any healthy athlete doing barbell back squats should be able to progress every workout without fail for the next several months. If you find yourself stuck early, you are either ego-lifting and using too heavy of a weight. In that case, you need to drop the weight and start to build strength, not test it.

Or your form is actually bad and you need to work on your squatting mobility and technique before you begin to lift heavier weights. Again, you would need to drop the weight down and begin to work up again while practicing better form.

You need a new program

If you have successfully run through Starting Strength, you may wonder what you should do after linear progression. For a late beginner or early intermediate lifter, you have a ton of choices. One great intermediate program I believe you should run is 5/3/1 Forever. In addition to getting a training program, you also learn about a new training methodology, which will serve you in training forever without injury.

Six Solutions to Solve That Stubborn Squat Plateau

1) The Less Weight, The Better

More often than not, beginning lifters or even experienced lifters in the gym performing the barbell squat will use too much weight, and begin to stall or reach a plateau. This can be extremely upsetting, especially if you have been making significant strides through your barbell squats. Suddenly, all that progress comes to an abrupt halt and the steam that was powering the train runs out. While it may not be the most ideal option, the simplest method of getting over a barbell squat plateau is to decrease the amount of weight that is being lifted. By lessening the amount of resistance, the muscles will be better suited to withstand the amount. This can also allow you to work on form and technique which are essential to your squat.

2) Squat Mobility Exercises and How They Can Help

Another solution to reduce the occurrence of a squat plateau is to integrate squat mobility exercises to increase the hip and knee joint range of motion. Three great squat mobility exercises are the dynamic squat & pull squat & thoracic reach, and squat & wall slides. For the dynamic squat & pull, squat as low as possible and touch the toes of your foot, then lift the hips towards the ceiling and after pull the chest up. The squat & thoracic reach begins with squatting as low as possible with one hand touching the floor. Next, wedge the elbow into the knee on the same side of your body and reach the opposite hand towards the ceiling. Lastly, the squat & wall slides include squatting as low as possible against the wall and keeping the elbows at 90-degree angles. While this is occurring, press the arms along the wall until full extension occurs. With practice, there should be an increase in hip and knee joint mobility.

3) Feel the Difference, Not Just See It

It is also true that different variations of squats such as weighted squats, bodyweight, dumbbell, barbell, can all alleviate squat stalling or decrease the amount of difficulty to lift. For example, the easiest variation would be bodyweight squats where there is no added resistance. Next, squats that allow for light resistance such as dumbbell squats or resistance bands would allow for a more moderately strenuous exercise. Finally, performing a barbell squat or deep squat would provide the most strenuous activity. It is best to begin at a bodyweight squat and gradually move higher up in weight and type of exercise over time. 

4) Focusing on Technique and Form

Overall, the most important aspect of working out is an emphasis on technique and form. If you don’t have those two components solidified in your workout, then the body is put at a high risk of injury. Specifically, for the barbell squat, do not hesitate to use a wider stance (especially if you are tall), practice breath training and brace yourself for each repetition to increase intra-abdominal pressure, and keep a neutral lumbar spine. 

5) Take a Visit to a Physical Therapist, Athletic Trainer, or Strength & Conditioning Coach

If the previous methods had not garnered your interest and you would like to view this issue from a clinically and anatomically inclined perspective, it is recommended that you seek out assistance from a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or strength & conditioning coach. My first preference would be a physical therapist mainly due to their emphasis on injury prevention. A physical therapist has the knowledge and resources to construct a plan of care that could not only lower the risk of injury but also get you past your current squat plateau. This could be achieved by integrating squat mobility exercises, working on your form, and applying treatments such as kinesiotape and manual therapy. 

My second suggestion would be to consult an athletic trainer because of their ability to create workout plans and familiarity on the topic. Regardless of which option you choose, both professionals provide a fresh set of eyes that could observe and see something you aren’t noticing yourself. Furthermore, in a 2018 study that tested the effect of manual therapy and kinesiotape applications on maximal squat strength on 13 male college students, it was found that manual therapy and kinesiotape both had positive increases that improved maximal squat strength when performing a 1-RM (1 repetition max). Again, another option would be to see a health professional that specializes in kinesiotape or manual therapy. 

6) Progressive Overloading – The Right Way

In order to progressively overload for a barbell squat, you could either decrease the amount of rest time between sets, increase the amount of the loading weight, increase the training frequency of the muscle group, or increase the number of reps. In a 1992 article conducted by Utah State University, 48 male lifters with a range of lifting experience and almost no exposure to plyometrics or power training were tested to see if a plyometric program, squat program, or squat-plyometric program is the most effective. After careful time and consideration, it was discovered that the squat-plyometric program (a form of progressive overload training) had increased hip and thigh power production significantly. It was also found that the squat-plyometric program plays a higher role in facilitating the neuromuscular systems’ efficiency, multiple muscle fiber recruitment, and demonstrating the stretching reflex (Adams 1992). 

Conclusion

It is unequivocal that there is a solution, if not many, to solving a squat plateau! Many of these solutions are highly accessible, with a few taking more time needed than others. In conclusion, the answer to why your squat plateau is happening could be solved by doing less weight, adding squat mobility exercises, trying new variations, focusing on technique and form, visiting a health/fitness provider, or by changing your type of resistance training. 

References

“Barbell Sumo Squat Exercise Instructions and Video.” Weight Training Guide (blog), May 18, 2017.

Crisco, J. J., M. M. Panjabi, I. Yamamoto, and T. R. Oxland. (1992). Euler Stability of the Human Ligamentous Lumbar Spine. Part II: Experiment Clinical Biomechanics 7(1), 27–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/0268-0033(92)90004-N.

“ExRx.Net : Barbell Squat.” Accessed July 9, 2019. https://exrx.net/WeightExercises/Quadriceps/BBSquat.

“ExRx.Net : Squat Analysis.” Accessed July 9, 2019.

 https://exrx.net/Kinesiology/Squats.

Fry, Andrew C., J. Chadwick Smith, and Brian K. Schilling. (2003). Effect of Knee Position on Hip and Knee Torques during the Barbell Squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17(4), 629–633.

Mcbride, Jeffrey M., Tony R. Larkin, Andrea M. Dayne, Tracie L. Haines, and Tyler John Kirby. (2010). Effect of Absolute and Relative Loading on Muscle Activity during Stable and Unstable Squatting International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 5(2), 177–183. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.5.2.177.

Signorile, J. F., D. Kacsik, A. Perry, B. Robertson, R. Williams, I. Lowensteyn, S. Digel, J. Caruso, and W. G. LeBlanc. (1995). The Effect of Knee and Foot Position on the Electromyographical Activity of the Superficial Quadriceps. The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy 22(1), 2–9. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.1995.22.1.2.

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