Many athletes and fitness professionals regard the squat as the king of all exercises. This is because it is a compound exercise that works most major muscle groups at once.
Jim Smith strength coach and creator of the Athletic Development Training System, says that though squats “promote a stronger core, develop your lower body strength and size, and make you mentally tough,” they are not easy to perform and require a lot of technique and conditioning to get better.
But what steps can you take to increase your squat performance?
1. Check Your Technique
To get the most from your squat, it’s important to be aware of your form.
Here are some guidelines for get you started:
- Stand directly under the bar, with the bar centered on your traps and shoulders. Place hands close to shoulders to create tension in upper back. Keep chest raised to create tension in the lats. Make sure feet are shoulder-width apart.
- Take in a deep breath and hold as you lift the bar off the rack, take a step back, and exhale. Using your hips and driving your knees apart, lower yourself to 1 of 2 stopping positions: thighs parallel with the floor or butt is almost touching your ankles.
- Once you hit the bottom of your squat, explode to the top of the form, keeping back straight.
If you think you have been squatting correctly but are having a hard time increasing weight, watch videos of pros performing it – it never hurts to double-check your technique. Or, have a personal trainer give you some tips; you never know what small mistakes you may be making.
2. Use a Different Training Method
There are different squat training methods if you are not seeing success. Oftentimes, lifters abide by the 3 sets of 5 or 6 repetitions. If this is not working for you, try lifting heavier.
Many athletes suggest identifying your max weight and lifting 90% of your max for 1 or 2 sets with 3-5 repetitions. Then, on “speed days,” lower your weight to about 50-70% of your max with 2-3 repetitions in 8-10 sets. Perform those lifts with as much speed as possible.
Another method is the Maximal Effort Method, developed by powerlifter and gym owner Louie Simmons.The ME Method has athletes lift much heavier weight, which places greater demand on muscular coordination and the central nervous system.
Like the first method, athletes are required to lift 90% of their max weight. Additionally, athletes perform 1-3 repetitions with 10 or fewer sets, increase gradually in weight with each set, and wait 2-5 minutes in between sets. After performing this exercise once a week for 2-3 weeks, the exercise should be changed to avoid weakening the muscles used.
One study confirms its advantage. Athletes who trained with the ME Method at 90% of their max increased their maximum strength and their strength at lighter loads more than athletes who just trained with lighter loads.
3. Increase Flexibility
Many weightlifters experience discomfort and issues if their range of flexibility is limited, particularly in the shoulders, hips, and ankles. To counter this, spend more time stretching and warming up before you begin.
Michael Mathews, bodybuilder, personal trainer, and author of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger, points out hip, ankle, and shoulder flexibility is crucial to proper squat formation and the ability to lift heavy weight. He recommends relying on one stretch in particular, the Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch, to loosen hip flexors to allow for a deeper squat.
Here are step-by-step directions on how to perform the Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch:
- Kneel on your right knee, with your left leg up and knee bent at a 45 degree angle. Your left foot should be flat on the floor.
- Place hands on hips, stretch pelvis forward until you feel tightness in your hips.
- Hold for several seconds then slowly move your pelvis to starting position.
- Alternate knees, following the same procedure.
Another option to consider is participating in yoga or another flexibility program that focuses on stretching and improving range of movement.
4. Supplement Well & Eat Right
If you want to increase your squat performance, muscle strength, endurance, and recovery, then it’s important to choose the right supplements and get the right nutrition.
Multiple studies consistently show creatine enhances high-intensity exercise while building strength and power. Amino acids, such as l-arginine and l-leucine, play a critical role in muscle building and supplying energy for muscles.
Additionally, protein powder is one of the most studied and effective dietary and athletic supplements available. Studies show protein supplementing allows for more muscle growth and repair, faster healing from soreness and muscle injury, and greater strength increases.
One of these studies tested the effects of whey protein on strength training exercises such as squatting and found subjects increased squat strength.
-  Smith, Jim. “Squat 101.” Schwarzenegger.com.
-  10 Ways to Improve Your Squat. “10 Ways to Improve Your Squat.”
-  Fioritto, Bobby. “The Maximal Effort Method: Building Stronger Athletes Part 1.”
-  Moss, B. M., Refsnes, P. E., Abildgaard, A., Nicolaysen, K., & Jensen, J. (1997). “Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, load-power and load-velocity relationships.” European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 75(3), 193-199.
-  Mathews, Michael. “How To Improve Flexibility and Mobility for Squatting.”
-  Tarnopolsky, MA, and DP MacLennon. “Creatine monohydrate supplementation enhances high-intensity exercise performance in males and females.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 10.4 (2000): 452-63.
-  Bassit, RA, CH Pinheiro, et al. “Effect of short-term creatine supplementation on markers of skeletal muscle damage after strenuous contractile activity.” European Journal of Applied Physiology 108.5 (2010): 945-55.
-  Borsheim, E, KD Tipton, et al. “Essential amino acids and muscle protein recovery from resistance exercise.” American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism. 283.4 (2002
-  Cooke, MB, E Rybalka, et al. “Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7.30 (2010).
-  Cribb, PJ, AD Williams, et al. “The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2006.16 (5): 494-509.