Updated: Jun 21
In part one of the squat series, I discussed the variables affecting how to improve the quality, comfort and control of your squat. We talked about individual variables such as set up, grip position, torso and limb lengths, and how they will largely determine the style of squat that one should safely select to use in their training (there are many variations that are usually suitable for a single individual).
Now, if you understand to some degree what was discussed in that article and have squatted frequently enough to make a decent level of initial strength improvements, we can dig a bit deeper into why you may be struggling.
Having some level of knowledge as to the musculature involved, programming options and exercise variations allows you to make rational decisions for correcting technical, physical or mental limitations. It will also guide you in your own particular exercise selections when trying to address your weaknesses.
The 3 limitations listed above are not exclusive in their own right, and most times, improving 1 will have a significant impact on the others. This is more important than most people realize, and even as I write this, I know there are some people who just want to be told what to do to have a bigger squat, but unfortunately that only goes surface deep and will only lead to a short-term improvement. I write to support those seeking more serious improvement, so the next section will be a bit deeper into the rabbit hole and if you want to bypass this short section and move to the “How to address your weaknesses” section, feel free to do so!
PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS AFFECTING PROGRESS
Physical limitations are the clearest and most apparent reason for stalled training progress (most of the time). If you have been training hard and consistently for a decent amount of time (let’s say 2-3 years) , and you have made an appreciable amount of progress in the gym, your rate of improvement will slowly start to decline. This does not mean you cannot still make significant improvements, however it does mean that you will need to be more conscious of how you lay out your training programs and the variables within them.
Many variables exist when prescribing exercise programs, and the manipulation of these variables is what allows long-term continual progress. These variables should also be manipulated in a manner that aligns with their actual needs at any given time. This is not a static or linear need system either - your needs will fluctuate and change as you adapt to each new training program, and thus a needs analysis when designing each upcoming training block should be able to potentiate the one before it.
For example, if someone really needs to improve their quad strength in order to improve their squat, then perhaps 2 dedicated training cycles will allocate a majority of the training volume to this need. 8 weeks later, with the quads having improved their capacity and force producing abilities (they are stronger and more capable of doing the work you want them to do), now we may find that we are losing our stability and position through our spine and trunk. This now becomes our focus/need, and so we program exercises and variables to challenge this limitation to the squat as a whole.
Hopefully this makes a lot of sense and you can see how the the process of improving our strength, a particular lift, or any weakness for that matter, improves the system as a whole. Brick by brick, we add layers to ourselves, through rational and well thought-out programming.
Going to the gym is incredibly easy - buy a membership or get access to equipment and off you go. However, getting more significant progress and improving beyond stagnation is an artwork and comes with many shades and colours to consider and play with!
Some of the primary variables that we manipulate in any program to improve physical limitations, include:
Program structure (full body, upper body/lower body, etc…)
Total volume per lift, measured via total sets, reps, load or a combination of all (sets x reps x load= total volume)
Lifting tempo/speed of any given exercise (eccentrics, isometrics, mixed tempos, time under tension)
Intensity (% of maximum) and rep range. For example: 5 rep maximum (written as 5RM) or 85% of 1 rep max (written as 85% of 1RM). This can also be taken into account by the individual writing the program and written such as (4 x 8 @ 75%) or (4 x 3 @ 85% with maximum possible reps on the 4th set)
Physical limitations can usually be attributed to and placed into 1 of 2 categories- neural or structural. Without getting into lengthy descriptions of what the nervous system is and how it works to produce force, let’s take a minimalist learning approach to give you the nuts and bolts of it. This should allow you to grasp the key concept of its importance in building strength and muscle size.
When we want to produce force, our brain sends a neural pulse or signal to our muscles via a motor nerve. This motor nerve then attaches (innervates) 1 or many more individual muscle fibres, and we call this a motor unit (the nerve and all the muscle fibres it communicates with via its signal).
Each neural pulse causes a shortening or contraction to our muscle fibres, and when many of these neural signals are sent at the same time or in close proximity to each other, the total force produced is magnified. We consider this an improvement in neurological coordination and is seen very quickly in new lifters and explains the large majority of initial strength improvements that occur. This neural coordination causes multiple- even dozens or hundreds, of individual muscle fibres to produce their own individual amount of force, which then creates a given cumulative amount of force.
Now, if let’s say for simplicity sake that you had 500 fibres in your rectus femoris (a muscle in your quad) and a total of 50 motor nerves sending signals to these 500 fibres when you are squatting - you would get a certain level of force and stimulation occurring.
Now, if you actually had 1500 fibres available in your rectus femoris muscle in total, you would in theory only be using 33% (500/1500) of your available motor units to produce force.
When we think about this explanation, we can at least appreciate that there is often a lot of improvement that can be made by working hard to improve our neurological efficiency. This improvement happens in a few ways:
*Image used to show anatomy only, not proper squat technique.
Intramuscular coordination- an improvement within any given muscle to fire more available motor units in a coordinated manner - equalling more total force produced (such as a higher % of your rectus femoris muscle firing and contributing)
Intermuscular coordination- an improvement in the coordinated firing of motor units within multiple muscles- equalling more total force being produced by the multiple muscles working together (all of your quadriceps muscles, your adductors and your glutes, all working together to produce en even greater amount of force)
Firing rate/rate coding- the ability of all of the motor nerves we have discussed sending their signal more rapidly and repeatedly to produce multiple contractions in a very short period of time. Again, this equals more total force being produced as a whole, since each contraction firing repeatedly and amongst all of the involved muscles produces a more robust total than each muscle fibre firing on its own
With a general understanding of the fact that when we improve neurological coordination or rate of firing via the mechanisms listed above, we in turn improve our ability to produce force with the amount of muscle we currently possess. Getting stronger up to a particular point, thus requires us to get better at recruiting the muscle we have and becoming more efficient at coordinating force production. To do this, squat more, squat with more intention and treat the squat (like anything you want to improve at) as a skill!
In part 3, we will continue our understanding with the structural limitation side of the coin when it comes to physical limitations.
Continue improving your knowledge of the lifting game and the results come!