By Isaiah Rhodes
If you’re serious about your training, then you will squat with regularity and enthusiasm. The squat improves athletic performance and total-body strength, and because squats target the largest muscles in the body, proficiency with the move also can lead to a leaner overall build. But as with any other exercise, strength gains can eventually plateau, leaving you in leg-day limbo. To keep adding plates to the bar — and inches to your quads —try some of these proven tactics.
1. Rack It
Readers, meet the power rack. This often misused piece of equipment — we’re looking at you, power-rack curlers — is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the gym for those looking to build squat strength. By setting the pins higher — the top third of the squat, for starters — you can safely load the bar with heavier-than-normal loads (no spotter necessary) for low-rep sets, recruiting more muscle and priming your nervous system for bigger weights. As you gain strength, you can lower the pins to overload your muscles through longer ranges of motion. The result? Greater pound production throughout your entire range of motion.
2. Capitalize on Caffeine
You are likely a fan of preworkout supplements, but the one ingredient you should absolutely check for in your “proprietary blends” is caffeine. Numerous studies have shown the performance benefits of this natural wonder, but the one that you’ll be most concerned with revolves around strength. Researchers at the University of Nebraska found that subjects added 5 pounds to their max bench press when given 200 milligrams of caffeine before workouts. Another study found that athletes could do more reps at a heavy weight when adequately caffeinated. Similar results can be expected when under the barbell at the squat rack. Try 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine anhydrous 30 to 60 minutes before your first rep.
3. Squat Deeper
How deep is your squat? If you’re among the small-quad, shallow-squatting crowd, you may want to start dropping it like it’s hot. Biomechanical studies show that full-range-of-motion squats, in which your thighs go beyond parallel to the floor, have a 20 percent greater increase in net joint movement and force production than partial squats. So don’t sacrifice depth for weight — lower is better. And in case you were wondering, volumes of research show that deep squats are not more likely to result in knee pain and are actually easier on the back than poorly performed partial squats.
Activation is hard enough. But post-activation? Well, that’s tough, too, but when achieved, it provides a huge benefit for strength. Post-activation potentiation refers to the ability of one exercise to immediately impact the exercise that follows. When it comes to your squat, you’d load the bar with 90 to 95 percent of your one-rep maximum, rest three minutes and then perform your working sets with a weight slightly higher than normal. It’s thought that the initial heavy set fires up your central nervous system, compelling it to enlist more total fibers for the work that is to come.
5. Train One Leg at a Time
You are human, which means that you will naturally have imbalances. And when you’re trying to grunt through a heavy set of squats, these imbalances can mean the difference between a clean rep and a miss. Compound exercises such as step-ups, lunges and even single-leg presses can correct these asymmetries. Follow your heavy squat work with a few sets of one or two of these exercises, done within the six- to eight-rep range (per side).