3 Squat Variations to Break Plateaus

With enough training time under your belt, the gains seem to get harder and harder to come by. Eventually you'll have to implement more variation into your training to continue driving adaptation. If you haven't hit a PR on the squat in a while, a few specific squat variations can help you continue to improve without altering your training too much or interfering with your current program. The variations below are easily implemented and can be just what you need to mix up your training stimuli.

Tempo Squats

Tempo squats dictate a specific time frame in which to perform the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phase of the squat. Forcing a tempo on your squat increases time under tension, places a higher demand on stability throughout the movement, and increases positional awareness of the hips and knees. Effective tempo schemes can range from 5 to 10 seconds on any portion of the lift. Increasing the time it takes to complete the eccentric (down) or concentric (up) portion of the lift means that the muscles involved spend longer time in a contracted state. More time under tension is correlated with greater hypertrophy, bigger strength gains, and can help increase the strength of connective tissues. Tempo training also allows the athlete to learn beneficial form corrections due to the increased amount of time reaching and holding the bottom position of the squat. For team sport athletes, it's more beneficial to prescribe tempos to ONLY the eccentric portion of the squat, and always have the speed demand of the concentric be "AS FAST AS POSSIBLE."  Team and field sport athletes don't need to train slow concentric actions, and would benefit more from an injury prevention standpoint by increasing their ability to decelerate a load with good knee and hip positions. The intent of moving a weight as fast as possible in the concentric phase can help improve the rate of force produced, and may help athletes increase the speed of their muscles' motor recruitment on the field. Tempo squats offer the best levels of adaptation early in a hypertrophy-focused phase, for the time under tension can help improve the anatomical modeling of the muscles themselves, specifically when taking into account the injury prevention benefits associated with eccentric training.

A word of caution to those who haven't experienced tempo squats before: be sure you don't have a hard practice for the next few days, for the chance of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) increases significantly with more time under tension. Introducing tempo squats into your training requires checking your ego at the door and performing them with light loads (closer to the 60% of 1 RM range). Increasing your strength in the eccentric portion will have great benefits towards improving your ability to stabilize heavier weights. Once you gain more and more control of the weight in the eccentric portion, your ability to move heavier loads will increase significantly. 



Pause Squats

Similar to tempo squats, forcing a pause at the bottom position of the squat can lead to favorable adaptations to strength, mobility, and speed of recruitment. Pausing between 3 to 5 seconds at the bottom adds time under tension, but has the added variable of removing the stretch reflex seen in a standard back squat (the "bounce" out of the bottom). Normal squatting utilizes the elastic components of the muscles and connective tissue to assist the concentric action of the squat to move resistance. Pausing at the bottom of the squat removes the assistance of the stretch-shortening cycle and places a higher demand on the pure concentric action of the squat. Increased time exposure to the bottom position of the squat can help promote mobility of the hips and ankles while placing a demand on the core musculature to keep the spine in stable position. Driving out of the bottom following a pause places a high demand on motor efficiency, and like tempo squats, the intent to move the weight concentrically as fast as possible can increase your ability to move weight with better speed. Pause squats typically require reducing the load somewhere below 80% of your 1-rep max. They may not actually make you stronger as much as they'll allow you to improve efficiency of motor recruitment. Once you can complete effective pause squats above 80% of your 1 RM, you'll increase both the strength and efficiency needed for breaking PRs. 

Cluster Sets

Cluster sets allow an athlete to perform multiple reps at higher relative loads by distributing a normal rep scheme into smaller clusters interspersed with brief rest periods for recovery. An example would be to perform 3 sets of 6 reps (3 x 6) as 3 sets of 3 clusters of 2 reps with small recoveries(3 x 2,2,2). This allows for the weight to be at a higher relative intensity, and offers the athlete brief recovery periods so that each rep can be more powerful than if they were fatigued by attempting 6 total reps. Resting between clusters typically is about 15 seconds, just enough time to rack the weight, catch a few breaths and reload for the next cluster. The rep demand of the clusters can be varied, but it is important that each rep move fast and explosively while using the inter cluster rest to maintain the speed and power. As the load increases, the recovery in between clusters becomes greater (no more than 30 seconds) to facilitate better recovery and not leave you piled up at the bottom of the squat rack. This scheme is great for power-based athletes who compete in a sport where the level of action itself is pretty brief (e.g., shot put, football, volleyball, etc.). Cluster sets are great for developing power output and can allow you to accumulate more volume at higher percentages of your best lift.  Prime for a power phase, cluster sets allow for increased gains in speed and efficiency at higher loading, which is perfect for setting up for hitting new personal records.   

Everything works but nothing works forever. When the gains start becoming hard to come by, variation is a key way to continue driving strength gains. Most of the time, what an athlete needs is to increase efficiency, and focused training to produce more force at a quicker rate can help promote better squat numbers down the road. Implement these variations in 2- to 4-week segments, focusing on a single variation. Once you start making improvements in that variation, move on to the next one to challenge different motor patterns and begin moving towards a new PR. 


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Jace Derwin is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. He is a CSCS-certified strength coach, the lead Sports Performance Specialist at Volt and a Lift Big Eat Big athlete.
Learn more about Jace and read his other posts | @VoltCoachJace