10 Tips to Break Through a Squat Plateau - Coach Mark Carroll


Apr 1, 2022
Mark Carroll

Squats are my favourite exercise to program for clients! There are many variations and different tempos we can use, and the squat is an exercise we can train quite frequently. I have been fortunate to train many great lifters over the years, and a big highlight has been the big squat numbers they have achieved.

Squat numbers, like anything in life, do not go up forever. Progress is not linear. Many times clients come to me to help them break through their squat plateaus. Here are the 10 strategies I would assess and then attack to regain momentum, and dramatically smash through old personal records. 

1 – Technique

Improving technique does not sound sexy, but it’s usually the first variable I look at to address potential strength plateaus. Your body can be placed in a position to have as much potential to lift huge numbers as humanly possible, but the more we move away from the mechanics to lift in the most mechanically advantageous way, the less likely we are to lift to our full potential. What does this mean? Work on your technique!

There is not necessarily one single best squat technique. Things can differ between individuals as we all have different body structures/limb lengths, etc, but we can at the very least optimise our movement. 

Are you creating tightness through the entire body? 

Are you bracing when you squat? 

Are your hips shooting up too early when you drive up out of the squat? 

Are you butt winking at the bottom of the squat? 

As you can see, there are many variables to look at. The best thing to do is to film yourself lifting. This will always give you a huge amount of feedback and reveal areas to address.

 2 – Use a Variety of Squats 

I like programming different squat variations – high bar, heels elevated high bar, low bar, and sometimes front squats. Often, when we plateau in one squat it’s a good time to program a different version to allow progression to occur. 

Take the low bar squat, for example; it is a more hip dominant squat. Often, when the weight gets very heavy, lifters have a tendency for the hips to shoot up first instead of knees and hips working in synergy. This is a sign your body is moving away from a weakness (the quads) and moving towards its strength (the posterior chain). I would program a heels elevated high bar squat instead, which is more quad dominant. We address the weakness by focusing on it for a few phases, then come back to the low bar.

 3 – Squat More Frequently

I like to use frequency when programming squats. For a client aiming to progress a squat, usually a minimum of 2 sessions a week is ideal. Squatting once a week is not enough to bring about rapid progress in a squat plateau I believe. The squat is a skill. The more we can practice a skill the better and more efficient we can become at it. When I get lifters who have been training for a year or two and are at a squat plateau, the first part of programming I look at is increasing their squat frequency to 2 sessions per week.

 4 – Deload Squats

A squat deload means to actually back off squats, or at least reduce squat volume. The exact opposite of what I just wrote in the previous point! Remember, everyone reading this will be at different levels and abilities and have been doing different programs. For some clients, they come to me after over training or performing very high squat volume for extended periods of time. Their body feels beat up and mentally they dread their sessions. This can be a good opportunity to have a break from squats for a training phase.

We can replace the barbell squat with an exercise less fatiguing like a machine hack squat, or replace the low bar squat with a heels elevated high bar squat, which places less demand on the lower back to help manage training fatigue. A few short weeks of regressing the squat can then lead to a lifter coming back rejuvenated and ready to make progress again.

5 – Exercise Order

This sounds simple enough, but so often I see lifters make this mistake. If there is a specific exercise you are determined to improve, we want to do this first in the workout, when you are most fresh. So often I see novice lifters come to me unable to improve their squat, but they are always squatting after doing heavy deadlifts first in their workout. Performing deadlifts before squats will lead you to starting your squats in a much more fatigued state, particularly increased lower back fatigue. Want to break through a plateau? Squat first in your workout!

6 – Decrease Deadlifts for a Phase 

The deadlift is often seen as the king of exercises as it uses a lot of muscle tissue, but using a large amount of muscle tissue also means more central nervous system fatigue. If you are a powerlifter, sure you want to be squatting and deadlifting frequently. However, lifters who are not powerlifters and don’t have to deadlift, can use the strategy of having a few training phases without deadlifts. This is a strategy I use for clients frequently. In these training phases, I regress the deadlift to then allow me to distribute more training volume to a squat for a time period. Increase volume for the squat short term, but do this by decreasing volume to the deadlift. 

7 – Utilise Tempo 

Tempo is the speed that you lift the weight. We can use slow eccentrics (lowering portion of the squat), pauses at the bottom of the squat, and  explosive techniques like 1 & 1/4 reps. There are many options! For my clients, I routinely use slow eccentrics with a 5010 tempo or phases of long pauses such as a 2-3 second pause at the bottom of the squat. After 4 weeks using paused squats, you will be surprised how much easier normal reps (with no pauses) feel again, utilising the natural elasticity of the muscle.

8 – Core Strength 

Having a strong squat is not just about strong legs and technique. Your core strength will also help to improve your ability to lift as much as possible. The core is not just your visual 6 pack muscles but deeper muscles like your TVA. Training your core can improve your ability to keep the muscles around the spine tight. We want what is called spinal stiffness. In a heavy squat, we want stiffness around the spine to ensure we stay tight in the squat. 

Core movements such as bird dogs, planks, side planks, and paloff presses can all be great options as part of a well planned training program to improve your squat potential.

 9 – Warm Up Your Nervous System

Our central nervous system (CNS) plays a huge role in our strength potential on low reps. Low reps under 5 is often referred to as neurological training. The ability to use our CNS can allow for an improved ability to recruit muscles quickly and increase neurological efficiency when we train. Our nervous system is similar to a muscle, in that we want to be able to warm it up, so to speak, to improve our ability to lift heavy.

Warming up for a squat is not just foam rolling, walking on a treadmill, or mobility work. We want to be using the movement we are training – the squat to warm up our nervous system. So yes, do some mobility work pre-squat, but more importantly, perform multiple warm-up sets of squats, adding weight to the bar each set. I like clients to do low rep warm ups such as 2-3 rep warm up sets where they progressively add weight to the bar. The heavier it gets, the more we can excite the nervous system. Ensure you enter into your first working set having done numerous warm up sets of considerable weight!

10 – Utilise Various Rep Ranges

Not all of us want to be powerlifters and test our 1 rep max. A lot of us want a bigger squat to do for reps to help build more muscle. Say you want to improve your 6-8 rep max for squats. That’s great, but that does not mean you can only squat in 6-8 rep ranges or above. A simple and effective strategy I use for my hypertrophy focused clients to break through strength plateaus is to use training phases of lower reps.

I find rep ranges they have not been training previously and try to attack those weak links. Want fast progression? Find what a lifter has not been training which naturally will be a weak link and spend some time improving it. Good chance this can then lead to great momentum. 

For example, if I get a client who usually only squats 8-10 reps and does traditional higher rep hypertrophy rep ranges, my plan of attack is to target a 12 week phase of strength.

Let’s improve their neurological strength. If I can spend 12 weeks improving their squat strength on 3-5 reps or so, then that will carry over to improving squat strength on higher rep ranges.

If I add 10-20kg to the client’s 5 rep max, then 99 out of 100 times I can bet they will then go back to their old 8-10 rep max and be able to do considerably more reps than they could do before.

Don’t be afraid to utilise various rep ranges or totally new rep ranges to bring about fast success in hitting new bests!

Let’s get squatting!