Leg strength problems : Why your squat won’t improve and some ideas on how to fix it

tumblr_neoi2rTahy1s3vnemo1_500Although weightlifting success is not a 100% dependent on Leg strength, strength of the legs is of great importance for the weightlifter. Every athlete is different – yet we could define them as either Technicians and Strength based athletes. Technicians tend to be rather weak in the strength movements (especially the squats), yet lift heavy because of how efficient they are (They can use a high % of their strength). Strength based athletes tend to get strong super fast in comparison. Their efficiency is, however, on the lower side. They tend to have a large surplus of strength. Both type of athlete can and do step on the international stage. Here are some of my better tricks and ideas to build a bigger squat.

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Strength based athletes are athletes that can improve their squat by training it 1-2 times a week. These are people you have always known as being stronger than the next person. For instance, my sister deadlifted 160kg the first time she tried the deadlift. She also squatted 60kg for 20 reps on her first day. I have a junior female athlete (53kg, 1 year of training) who can squat twice her bodyweight – yet we only train the squat 2 times a week. For these athletes, increases in strength don’t necessarily translate in improvements in the lifts. These athletes should be spending more time on technique work to increase their efficiency and reach average ratios.

Most technicians tend to be great snatchers and jerkers. However, when it comes to the clean, it just takes out a lot out of them due to how poor their raw strength is. These are the athletes that will clean 95-100% of their best front squat. They are usually great pullers though. For this reason, Technicians should spend more time on getting strong. For technicians, this can be hard on the mind. Working on strength means that your classic lifts will temporarily go down, and that you will need to work a lot to gain kilos on that squat. An increase in strength usually improves the total of these lifters.

There are a lot of ways you can get stronger and improve the squat. Nothing is set in stone and you have to find what works for you. Everybody can get strong – but everybody will do it differently due to individual differences (Recovery, trainability, adaptive ability,etc). However, the idea that to get a bigger squat you need to just squat more is wrong in my opinion. Chances are that if your squat is not moving up, you might have technical issues and muscular imbalances. Thus, any weakness will prevent you from being efficient. In other words, you are as strong as your weakest link.

Om-Yun-Chol

3 main reasons the squat won’t go up (They are all linked!)

1. Your core strength is on the low side

Stability is the key to efficiency and strength. When people think of the core, they think of six packs abs (rectus abdominis). The core is  the central part of a body or a thing. Thus, in the human body, the core refers to all body parts but the arms and legs. Wikipedia states : ”Major muscles included are the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae (sacrospinalis) especially the longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm. Minor core muscles include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius”. Your approach to core training as to reflect the function of these muscles. Good core strength increases stability and the ability to keep good posture through the lifts. Good posture translate in greater efficiency which translate in more kilos lifted.

Just because you can hold a plank for 3 minutes does not mean that you have sufficient core strength for weightlifting. This is why we have to differentiate between static and dynamic core functions. When we think of static core strength, we think of posture and the ability to hold said posture. Static core strength is of great importance for weightlifters because it allows you to resists forces applied on the body (prevent the body from moving). In other words, it helps with stabilizing weights over head and in static positions of the lifts (ie : Front rack before jerking). This is why we – coaches – include pause work in our training plans.

Credit Macklem
Credit Macklem

Dynamic core function refers to the ability of the body to move in a planned manner while forces from different plane of motion are applied on it. For example, when squatting, the barbell applies a force on the body. The direction of the force can change minimally as you squat (Different leverage and/or different positions as you execute the movement change the contribution of the muscular system).  To keep good form (good posture), you therefore need to be able to adapt to the change in speed (From static to dynamic movement), which in turns means that muscles contractions must match the forces applied on the body to preserve posture through the movement.

This is why good core training includes a lot of movements from different plane of motions. My favorite are the barbell side bends, good mornings, ab roll, oblique crunches and hyper extensions. The good morning and hyper extensions are especially good because they work muscles that will help you grind through a bad squat. If you can’t squat and keep tight at the bottom, chances are your core strength needs some working. Also, it is a good idea wear the belt only for heavier sets.

2. Mobility/mechanical problems

Sometimes the squat won’t go up because your mobility does not allow you to use certain muscles fully. I’m always surprised to see some weightlifters – who have great quad development – walk around with average or below average glutes and hamstrings muscle mass. This can be the result of training methods – but it can also be the results of bad mobility. Only in deep squats do gluteal muscles get fully activated. Because of the importance of powerfully hip extensors, it seems logical that your squatting mobility should allow you to go low to reap the benefits of strong glutes.

Credit Hookgrip
Credit Hookgrip

Most people will be tight in their hamstring, piriformis and calves. This may lead you to be inclined forward as you descent in the squat or squat from the toes or from the heels (straight shins). The back – and to some extent the quads – will take most of the load. The hamstrings and glutes wont be recruited as much. If your mobility is good enough to hit great position, then you will be more efficient. A sound squat technique will prevent these muscles imbalances which will help in getting stronger.

Mobility in the thoracic region can also ruins your chances of developing a bigger squat. Many people with poor thoracic mobility will compensate by exaggerating the curve in their lower back (lordosis). Most of the time, the hips will tilt anteriorly as well. This will make it much harder for the muscles of the abdomen to stabilize the spine. In other words, putting yourself in such a position makes it hard for your core to do its work. The back will be recruited a lot more than it should and the leg drive will be lessen.

It is a good idea to stretch often to preserve your mobility or make it better. You will also notice that stretching some muscles will loosen other muscles in the chain. For instance, most people will improve hamstring range of motion by stretching their calves. It is a good idea to consult with a professional to find out what are your mobility problems and how to fix them.

Credit hookgrip
Credit hookgrip

Pushing the knees out excessively is also something that can create efficiency problems during the squat. By pushing the knees out excessively, it is harder for the hips to sink low and for the quadriceps to work optimally. I have not conducted any EMG or biomechanical studies on this, but one of my athlete saw big gains in strength and mobility when I told her to keep the knees in a neutral position (towards the middle toes -not out or in). My hypothesis is that once you reach the bottom position, you should be focused on extending the knees and hips. People who push the knees out excessively will introduce abduction as the first movement and main movement of the ascent, thus proper knee extension is not happening. I might be wrong – but it worked for her.

3. Poor upper body strength. 

Depending on your method of training, poor upper body strength can lead to instability during the squat. A common example of this can be observed during the execution of a front squat. If your shoulders and upper back are not strong enough, elbows will drop and the thoracic region of the spine will round. Thus the force generated by the legs is lost to instability in the upper body.

The body moves according to the principle of the path of least resistance. Thus, what is strong is privileged. If your lower body is very strong in comparison to your upper body, then stability will be compromised. The expression of your leg strength will be limited by your upper body strength. The same is true when it comes to the jerk. Many people have trouble stabilizing weights above head because their upper body is just too weak.

It is a trend in weightlifting to not work on the strength of the upper body. Many people don’t include good mornings, rowing, presses, pulls and the like in their training. This may result in a weak torso in the long run. Your legs might be able to push the weight up and down, but your torso wont be able to resist the forces applied by the barbell. The further you are from competition, the better it is to train your upper body. As you get closer to competition, it is a good idea to remove draining upper body work.

You need more than strong legs to squat heavy. Credit Hookgrip
You need more than strong legs to squat heavy. Credit Hookgrip

Ideas on how to develop a bigger squat

1. Frequency of the squat 

If you are currently doing high frequency squats without any results, then change for lower frequency and vice versa. Adaptation takes time and you need to find what works for you. Many people have built big squats either way. It can be a good idea to alternate 1-2 weeks of higher frequency with 1-2 weeks of lower frequency.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the frequency, the lower the volume. If you squat everyday, it might be a good idea to do less sets and reps. If you squat 1-2 times a week, it is a good idea to include a lot more volume.

2. The Stimulus is important and needs to be varied

Strength increases are always bigger if it follows a period of hypertrophy. Most people care too much about the weight lifted and not enough about the stimulus itself. If your squat is weak, doing singles at high intensity day in day out does not work well. You will need to spend some time with moderate weights and more sets and reps before you move back to higher % squats.

I like to keep things simple. I like to write programs in 3-4 weeks blocks and the strength phases usually last for a while. Here is an idea, 3 weeks of 4-5 sets of 5 reps, 3 weeks of 4-5 sets of 3 reps, 2 weeks of 3-4 sets of 2 reps, and 1 week of 1-2 sets of 1 reps (test week). Auto regulate the weights (moderate weights for the first 6 weeks) according to frequency and how tired you are. Plan frequency according to tip #1.

Credit Hookgrip
Credit Hookgrip

3. Include a lot of posterior chain work

I can’t tell you how many people’s squat I have increased by reducing squatting frequency and upping the frequency of posterior chain exercises. Most people will increase their squat quickly by working on their back, hamstrings and glutes. You need posterior chain strength to hold position as you move through the use of your legs and hips.

Exercises I like are romanian deadlifts with snatch grip, good mornings, Kang squats, hyper extensions, Hang pulls (going all the way down to low hang without touching the floor). For romanian deadlifts and hang pulls, I use weights between 90-100% of the best snatch done for a few reps (3-5). For the good mornings, kang squats and hyper extensions, higher reps are recommended (4-6 for the first two, and 8-10 for the hypers). Of course, pulls should be done frequently as well.

4. Squat variations are important too.

Replacing  1 squat session with a squat variation has been very productive and conclusive for us. There are three variations that I use often : Pause squats (pause either in the bottom or at parrallel — pauses are usually 4 seconds), box squats (not the powerlifting kind where you roll back and forward – I want straight torso and no sitting) and dead squats (squats where you start at the bottom in a cage). All have their purpose and you should use the one that targets your problem. The first and third variations are harder than actual squats – thus they help with developing the right mind set as well.

5. Upper body strength

Anything can work here, but I would include a lot of  sotts press (clean and snatch) to help stability and mobility issues at the bottom of the squat. I like shrugs, rows, presses, dips, pull ups and even bench press sporadically. I usually program 4 sets of 4-5 reps. These can be done at the end of a training session. No need to overdo them – but don’t skip them.

6. Unilateral work

It can be a good idea to include some lunges as many weightlifters have an imbalance in strength between both legs due to the jerk. It is also a good way to develop hip muscles that are key in the squat.

Credit Hookgrip
Credit Hookgrip

The bottom line :

I explored many concepts and although some of it is simple, they are important and should not be overlooked or underrated. However, don’t include everything at once – add in and remove as you go. For the most part, if your squat is low and not moving up, you need to either squat more frequently or less frequently (based off what you are currently doing). I highly recommend to play with various rep and set ranges. Too much of the same thing seems to not be productive.

On top of that, I would suggest to work a lot harder at developing your core and posterior chain. I listed some exercises that I think you should be doing to accomplish this task. I have to repeat that this should not be overlooked I have seen lifters add 10kg to their squats while not changing a single thing in their squat work out other than working a lot on their posterior chain. I did not list any full programs, but I do have some that have worked exceptionally well in the past for my lifters.

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