You must find and break the weak point that's creating the sticking point. It’s time to analyze where things are going wrong in the squat leading to a sticking point in the first place. There are several options in every category so let’s go ahead and examine common sticking points, what’s mechanically going on, and a few options to fix it….
Hips rising out of the hole
I want you to imagine you’re sitting at the bottom of a squat, if your knees were to extend but your hips didn’t change, what would happen? Your butt would rise up and your chest would fold over. So what came to the party and what didn’t? If you’re ending up in nearly a good morning then it’s a very clear clue that your QUADS aren’t up to snuff. You need QUADS and they need to get MUCH stronger. In a case of “you’re only as strong as the weakest link” you’re being limited by force production coming from the quads. Commonly these same folks I’ve found have a strong deadlift and are usually “tall.” I bring up the point of being tall or long limbed because the length of the femur has a dramatic impact on the needs of the movement. Basically, the further from the mid-foot (center of gravity) a joint travels, the greater force production that joint will have to produce. So if the hips rise and travel back, there’s a huge amount of force the hips will have to overcome. Meanwhile, the knees travel back as well and get closer to the center of gravity meaning that the knees/quads aren’t having to produce as much force. So basically, this lifter is staying out of their quads due to weakness that’s compensated for by trying to shift the weight back to their strength. Makes sense for this person to “be strong in the deadlift”
THE FIX: You have to do things that address the quads head on. Front Squats, Heel Elevated Squats, Heavy Lunges, Hack Squats, Leg Press, Closestance Box Squats & Very Low Box Squats, Pin Squats from just below the sticking point to practice position, and backwards sled dragging are a few options. The quads respond super well to eccentrics and volume (as per most muscle groups).
2. Knee Cave
AH KNEE VALGUS. Everyone hates when this happens and thinks it’s very dangerous. I’m not going to say its dangerous but instead I’ll say that its a symptom of a point that could be holding back squat gains as the GLUTES/HIPS are usually holding back development. Generally though, it’s probably a smart thing to reduce rotational motion under heavy loads at the knee joint… It’s important to remember that technical efficiency is specifically to improve how much someone can lift in the long run and inefficiencies show areas that if gotten stronger would potentially improve the amount of weight someone could lift by increasing the strength of the weakest parts of the system. If hip external rotation and abduction is weaker than the force needed to stabilize the femur through a squat, then the femur will cave in and internal rotate creating knee valgus. This gets a bit more complicated for some individuals with ankle immobility or foot issues but in those cases pursuing increased dorsiflexion and increased foot strength (specifically tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longs, and the peroneals) should help a good bit - generally though for weightlifters and powerlifters, look to the hips & glutes though. Especially with being placed into higher squat shoes covers the needs of the ankle, although this could only be a temporary fix as the need will only increase.
THE FIX: Widestance Squats, RDLs, Hip Thrusts, Glute/Ham Developer Extensions, Pull Throughs, Leg Curls, Single Leg Reverse Hypers, and Single Leg Hip Thrusts are a few options. There’s often an awareness aspect to this as well so balance/coordination exercises can often be helpful in teaching the hips to stabilize the femur.
3. Getting stuck in the hole
Oh man, there’s nothing as exciting as feeling a max weight feel light on your back, you go down and then just NOTHING brings the weight up. Trapped in the hole. This is a unique circumstance and could be a very easy fix with isometrics or you might need to go to the drawing board with technical or mobility needs. So let’s paint a few pictures of folks getting stuck in the hole:
Bracing - collapsing into the hole and unable to maintain a strong lower back.
THE FIX: Learning to breathe and utilize your abdominals to create a rigid secure torso. Direct abdominal work and things like farmer carries, planks, rotation & anti-rotation work, turkish get ups, heavy walk outs, etc.
Knees Travel Back in the Hole - ankle mobility
THE FIX: Direct calf & tibialis anterior lengthening/strengthening. Eccentrics work GREAT. Long pause work can help with position in the hole as well.
Weak Quads - Your glutes, back and brace are all easily supporting the weight but you just have zero push to get out of the hole.
THE FIX: Eccentrics & Isometrics. Teach the quads to stay engaged and overcome the load. This might lead to a higher sticking point eventually that looks like “hips rising first” so go back up to that section but if you continue with quad focused exercises then you’ll inevitably only get stronger. Get on machines like hack squat machine, closestance leg press, even leg extensions could potentially help. Low Box squats can help with overcoming standing up out of the hole as well as enforcing technique standing up out of the squat.
4. THE SLOWEST SQUATTER IN THE WORLD
That one guy who looks like the first rep of their 5x5 if a full send max attempt… and somehow still manages to complete the set. Probably way too much exposure to mountains of volume and just never working on power development. Always grinding out reps thinking “train heavier = get stronger” or "blow myself apart with 10's"... yeah that's probably not the answer. The slow squatter is a more complicated situation however because they need to change their total force expression and it's going to take time, like months & months. These “grind thru” folks are living day to day on their muscle and as a result their tendons just don't come to the party like very fast squatters have access to. They’re training too heavy! It’s a real ego shock when you do start training at smaller percentages. Doing 75% for 3x10 is cool and all but what are you really getting from that if your top single isn’t changing vs. the other guy doing 2x5 at that same percentage and taking down PR after PR…
THE FIX: BANDS. Pause Squats. MORE BANDS. More Pause Squats. And doing multiple sets with the empty bar up to 60% with the focus on Power Production. I often give the challenge to my lifters to Google “Power Percentage Squat” and you’ll find research article after research article explaining that peak power is between 0 and 50%, some saying 30% is optimal all the way up to 70%. With this in mind, considering basic plyometric training… let’s say jump training… why would anyone do plyometrics? Because they’re want to build muscular power. So how can this be trained specifically in the squat? Lighter loads and faster reps! I prefer continuous jump squats with a bar on your back and I have my own founded %’s and rep ranges that I’ve found over the past 7 years across over 150+ lifters & athletes. Often, folks get pigeon holed into “70-85% is optimal” or “gotta go heavy to get strong.” Look outside the box.
5. Just zero progress and the squat won't budge no matter what you try
There’s nothing like folks who train every week, their squat seems to improve and then get weaker over & over & over with seemingly no reason. A very difficult conundrum. Before discussing those individuals, let’s talk about the qualities that required to develop.
Mindset/Expectations & Hopes
In every scenario where someone isn’t making the progress they want, three or more of these are keeping them from reaching their goals. CONSISTENCY looks like consistency, never missing training. It doesn’t matter how you feel, the training must be done or you won’t get the reward. Showing up and only doing half the work out, having a meltdown and leaving isn’t going to lead to the prize at the end of the training cycle. Having a hard work day and blowing off training even one day per week is MASSIVELY preventing your progress. MASSIVELY. It’s harsh but get over yourself and don’t miss training. The math is math and if your equation doesn’t add up then it won’t add up to progress. SLEEP looks like AT LEAST 8 hours/night period. “Oh but I just need 6 hours” no you’re wrong. If you want to make gains, like real big gains then you have to consistently get at least 8 hours/night. Maybe 6 hours per week got you to a lousy squat but it’s not going to get you any sort of high caliber dream you have - you have got to sleep! NUTRITION looks like eating a lot of food. A LOT OF FOOD. You’re a strength athlete, you’re not trying to be a stick - you’re trying to hold onto muscle and maximize your performance. So what does that look like? Checking off your protein intake (~1g/lb of bodyweight or more), carb intake (~2-3g/lb of bodyweight), and your fat intake (1.1/lb of bodyweight). The total calories should be between 25-40 calories per pound of bodyweight DAILY. These values are based on the peer reviewed studies examined and accepted by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in their review update, not any sort of fad or diet - this is fact, y’all (https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y)
So let’s map out different bodyweight needs as a Strength Athlete:
Protein: 185g (740 calories)
Carb: 370g-555g (1480-2220 calories)
Fat: 30% of calories (~154g to 246g or 1386-2214 calories)
Calories: 4625 to 7400
And this is just a rough outline for a 185lb person. So if you’re falling short of these numbers, why would you make good progress? Just from working hard? Your body has to recover and have the building blocks to grow. And don’t be fooled! No one said this would all be easy. And on that stressful note, let’s talk STRESS MANAGEMENT lol. How stressed are you? I’ve had lifters who check off 5/5 stress every other day they show up to train, and as you can imagine those days are really hard and low quality training days - and that adds up! Remember this little morsel of advice, being obese might kill you in your late 50s or 60s but stress can kill you in your late 20s. The chemicals in our bodies respond to stress with disappointing hormone interactions that lead to reducing overall performance, affecting sleep, and creating a cascade of rough interactions that work against you in training. And if your end goal is sports performance it’s vitally important to keep the stress at a low and keep your mental health in a good state. You matter and deserve to be happy, explore strategies to keep stress at a minimum. Your TRAINING PROGRAM should probably go last as it’s least important but I want to end on probably the most important note overall. So in regards to your training program… It matters least. Yes, obviously it matters - if you don’t train nothing will happen - but truthfully you won’t gain from your training program what you want if your ducks aren’t in a row. No amount of magical training volume manipulation, auto regulation, coaching care, or personalization can save someone from generally shitty recovery. And trust me, when 3 are out of whack and one is resolved - BIG things happen. In fact, very often folks who are struggling with these factors often end up feeling pain, aches, and just generally off in life. But folks who figure out how to manage the external points seemingly cruise through gains and have very positive experiences from training. That leads us to my final point, and maybe the most important out of ALL of these factors - MINDSET & EXPECTATIONS. Mindset in strength sports is 100% of it. It might look like its just picking things up and putting them down, but you have to have a strong self-belief that you’re capable of doing these different lifts. And when things don’t go well, you’ve got to be able to bounce back quick in your own self-belief so that training doesn’t become a chore and something you dread. If anything in this life reveals the rule of thirds, it’s lifting. A third of the time, things are going to feel AWFUL and will probably look rough as heck. Another third of the time, things will feel meh where they could feel better but they could also be worse. And then in the remaining third, things will be amazing. But this rule of thirds is ONLY true when folks are ridiculously consistent. Its okay for things to go wrong, its okay for things to go great! In fact, in either scenario it doesn’t even really matter that much, and it’s up to you to get over it. When folks can’t get over it, they’re going to have much worse days and not be able to see beyond the fog. The natural development of training SHOULD feel shitty. And if you’re having tons of “feel great” days then you’re not pushing hard enough. Peaks & Valleys. When folks say “leave the ego at the door” this is what they’re talking about. My lifters who have the greatest success are the ones who don’t meltdown and recognize there is a tomorrow and that practice is PRACTICE. If you’re melting down at the gym or on your coach, then… you might be the problem… Mindset is everything. When it’s time to push, PUSH. When it’s time to settle into reps and practice, PRACTICE. And one final thought I’m going to leave you with… Your coach should never want it more than you. YOU have to find it within and make the choice to either get disciplined or never reach your full potential. Don’t be the person folks said “yeah they had a lot of potential,” be the person that people say “I didn’t think they could do it, but then they did.” Rambo was founded on the underdog. Underdogs don’t quit when things get hard, they get harder. They get more disciplined. They stay hungry.