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Hack the Squat Rack: An 8 week squat program for busting plateaus

A Brief History of the Squat’s reputation

There is no getting around it, the squat is one of the best exercises you can engage in.  “How much can you squat?” is starting to replace “How much ya bench?” among athletes and weightlifters.  But the squat is still regarded by some as a dangerous exercise with claims that it puts too much stress on the knees and lower back.  Back in 1961 a study analyzed knee structure of weightlifters performing deep squats concluded that deep squats compromise knee joint stability (1).  This can be seen as the beginning of the negative view on squats.  In 1989 another study found results directly contradicting this thesis, they found that weightlifters that performed deep squats actually developed tighter joint capsules around the knee during squats (2).   These are just two examples of the wide array of contradictory information in the scientific community regarding squatting as an exercise.

Squatting may seem like an extremely simple exercise but it is actually very technical.  Learning to squat with weight correctly is a skill that needs to be honed.  Most avid exercisers squat once a week if they squat at all.  This is not the optimal way to master the squat.

Full range of motion squats are associated with large muscle development and increased athletic performance (3).  So let us consider another aspect of athletic performance: a football quarterback.  A quarterback that has made it to the elite level of performance, the NFL, doesn’t practice by going to the field once a week and throwing the ball until their arm has “the burn” and wait til next week to do it again.  He practices often (probably 6-7 days a week) but he does not go to the point of burning out his shoulder.  So, if we wish to master the squat, we must also practice consistently but not to exhaustion.

8 Weeks of Squats

I’m just as guilty as many in that for a very long time I would only squat once a week and I’d typically do a heavy weight each week for a low number of reps, or I’d lower the amount of weight and do high reps.  But I was never consistent and I began to see that no matter what I did my endurance started to drop and it became harder to stay in rep ranges I previously could perform.  My problem is that I was trying to just keep moving upward without ever taking a step back and eventually I hit a ceiling.  The solution was a periodized training program.

Since I’ve incorporated this squat program into my training my flexibility and mobility has greatly increased, my leg endurance has returned and improved and my legs are getting noticeably larger (and fast!). I don’t use this program constantly, typically I will use it for 8 weeks and then switch to another set up for 8 weeks to give my legs some time to recuperate.  If you’re a beginner and looking at this program don’t be intimidated; you can begin with air squats or extremely light weights and progress the same.  The strength of this program is that it is based on the principles of motor learning and strength training making it a good option for athletes of all levels of experience.

The following table is the squat progression program.  You will initially need to know your one rep max, you can either find this out in the gym or, if you’re uncomfortable finding it in the gym, you can use online calculators like the one here. You’re main focus on these two days at the gym is to focus on squatting the prescribed amount of weight for the given amount of sets and reps.  The lay out of the table is:

% of 1RM x # of Sets x # of reps per set

The number in parenthesis is an example assuming the 1RM is 300 lbs.

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 65% x 5 x 9  (195 lbs) 70% x 6 x 7  (210 lbs)
Week 2 75% x 7 x 5  (225 lbs) 80% x 8 x 3  (240 lbs)
Week 3 70% x 5 x 9  (210 lbs) 75% x 6 x 7  (225 lbs)
Week 4 80% x 7 x 5  (240 lbs) 85% x 8 x 3  (255 lbs)
Week 5 75% x 5 x 9  (225 lbs) 80% x 6 x 7  (240 lbs)
Week 6 85% x 7 x5   (255 lbs) 90% x 8 x 3 (270 lbs)
Week 7 65% x 5 x 9 (195 lbs) 55% x 4 x 10  (165 lbs)
Week 8 Rest Set new 1RM

Once you have finished the squats you can perform some leg press/calf work if you so wish, however I’d recommend keep accessory work under 6 sets.

That’s the simple squat program.  Twice a week with consistent increasing over 4 sessions before lowering it.  This program is designed to be inserted into an already existing program or to be the basis of a new program.  Personally I use this program on Mondays and Thursdays while the remainder of my week has a push day, a pull day and a body weight & conditioning day.  Try it out with your program and tell me how it works, hopefully I hear from you in 8 weeks and you’re bragging about your new personal best on the squat rack.

References

  1. Klein K. The deep squat exercise as utilized in weight training for athletes and its effects on the ligaments of the knee. J Assoc Phys Ment Rehabil 15: 6–11, 1961
  2.  Chandler T, Wilson G, Stone M. The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc 21: 299–303, 1989
  3. Weiss L, Fry A, Wood L, Relyea G, Melton C. Comparative effects of deep versus shallow squat and leg-press training on vertical jumping ability and related factors. J Strength Cond Res 14: 241–247, 2000.