Squat Plateau – 5 Exercises to Help You Smash New PRs
No one likes stalling and stagnation, especially in the weight room.
Squat is one of the big 3 exercises and considered a staple exercise in most powerlifting and bodybuilding routines. The two most common forms of back squatting are low-bar and high-bar placement.
The low-bar back squat places the barbell on the mid-back and rear delts, permits the trainee to take a more forward torso angle, and is performed using a stance wider than shoulder width. The high-bar back squat places the barbell on the upper back, requires the trainee to keep the torso more upright, and is performed using a stance at or slightly narrower than shoulder width.
Two of the most common recommendations for adding weight to the bar or repetitions to the set is to perform these exercises more frequently and with more volume. While those two approaches will help most beginner and intermediate lifters, performing the same motion repeatedly without variation can also lead to and expose muscle imbalances and weaknesses.
One of the most difficult parts of blasting through a plateau is being honest with yourself and identifying muscular and form weaknesses. Take videos of your form and compare it to those with a similar build and setup that move significantly more weight for more repetitions. Once you identify areas of improvement, you should begin incorporating squat variations based on which portion of the lift you need to improve.
In this article, I will lay out five exercise variations for back squats that improve different lagging muscles and aspects of the lift based on where you struggle most.
How to do squats with movement specialist Dr. Stu.
Squat Plateau Busters
Front Squat – 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 repetitions
To improve your quadriceps size, abdominal and upper back strength, and uprightness during the back squat, take a page out of the Olympic weightlifting book and start front squatting. Front squats are staple in Olympic lifting routines because they assist with the catch and stability elements of the clean.
Check out the quadriceps of most Olympic lifters and you’ll find that front squats significantly stimulate the quadriceps. During front squats the bar rests on the meat of your front deltoid muscles, vertically in-line with the middle of your foot. This forces you to stay more upright during the lift; a position requiring exceptionally more upper back and abdominal engagement.
I prefer using a clean-style grip and my normal back squat stance but you can also bring in your stance or use a bodybuilder grip in which you cross both arms and place your hands on your shoulders.
Paused Squat – 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 repetitions
If you fail to remain tight during any portion of the back squat, especially at the bottom or during the transition from lowering down to pushing up, then pause squats should be a staple. Set up for the paused squat exactly as you would for the barbell back squat. Unrack the bar and lower yourself down until you feel yourself losing tightness.
For some this may be halfway down and for others it may be once your hips break parallel with your knees. Hold this sticking point for three to five seconds before resuming the repetition. During the pause focus on bracing your abdominals for impact, flexing your lats, screwing your ankles in to the floor, and keeping your torso moderately upright. This is a humbling exercise so start with 50 to 60% of your one repetition maximum an increase accordingly.
To further increase the difficulty and two working on multiple portions of the movement at once, feel free to incorporate two or more pauses during the repetition. For example, you could pause halfway down, at the bottom of the movement, and halfway up.
Bottoms-up Squat – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions
The bottoms-up squat is an excellent variation for increasing tightness at the bottom of the movement, increasing speed out of the hole, and improving overall squat strength even with the stretch reflex removed.
Unlike a traditional squat, you will start this movement from when your hips are below your knees so set the pins or supports so that the barbell is in-line with or slightly above your upper back in this position.
Move underneath the bar and set your stance and upper back for the movement. Ensure your lats are flexed and ankles are screwed in to the ground. Brace your abdominals for impact and push through your heels and flex your glutes until your hips and knees are fully extended.
Start with 50 to 60% of your one repetition maximum and adjust accordingly. Focus on exploding out of the bottom of the movement and then lowering back to the start position so that the barbell rests fully on the pins or supports.
Pin Squat/Anderson Squat – 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 repetitions
Pin squats, also known as Anderson Squats, are a brutally effective exercise for increasing central nervous system activation, overloading the muscles used to complete a squat, and improving your comfort with weights at or above your one repetition maximum.
Like bottoms-up squats the barbell will rest on pins or supports in between each repetition. This variation differs because the barbell height is set so that you begin in a quarter or half-squat position. Many lifters lose tightness and pitch forward during the descent or ascent in the quarter and half squat positions.
Anderson squats can help solve this issue. By shortening the range of motion, you will also find yourself able to move more weight for more repetitions. Some individuals find they can perform Anderson squats for multiple repetitions using a weight above their one repetition max.
Start conservatively and increase the weight appropriately to maintain optimal form and reduce the likelihood of injury. You can also try adding Anderson squats prior to a max effort or repetition effort attempt with full range-of-motion back squats as the movement increases central nervous system activation, resulting in lower weights feeling lighter.
Reverse Lunge – 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions per leg
So far, we’ve only discuss squat variations to help overcome plateaus on the barbell back squat. The reverse lunge is one of the most underrated movements for improving lower body flexibility, coordination, as well as muscle strength and size. The reverse lunge is classified as a unilateral exercise which means one leg moves independently of the other.
Set up for the movement by taking a hip width stance, toes pointing forward, and ensuring your torso is fully upright. Your arms can rest by your sides, crossed in front of your body, extended out in front of your, or placed behind your head. While keeping one foot stationary pick up the other foot and step backwards as far as comfortably possible.
Your heel should be off the ground and toes should be in-contact with the ground. Flex your hips and knee of the stationary foot, lowering yourself down until your hip breaks parallel with your knee. Hold this bottom position and then raise and bring your leg back to the starting position.
Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. You can perform all reps for one leg before moving on to the next or alternate legs for each rep. Increase the intensity by holding two dumbbells of equal weight by your side or by placing a barbell on your back.
What are your favorite exercises to blast through plateaus on the back squat? Let me know in the comments below!