Has your squat stalled out? Are your lifts limited by weak legs? If so, you might be thinking . . . I need to squat more! More weight, more reps, more days per week, more leg-related accessory work, etc. However, the real secret to success may be the opposite.
I spoke recently to coaches of some of the leading young Olympic weightlifters in the United States: Ray Jones (coach of C.J. Cummings, Youth World Record holder), Kevin Simons (coach of Harrison Maurus, Youth World Record holder), and Tripp Morris (coach of Hampton Morris, who holds youth American records in both Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting). All three athletes have tremendously strong squats compared to their peers.
These three coaches work independently of one another, but all three follow these two guidelines:
Less is More: Harrison squats three days per week. Hampton and C.J. both squat two days per week. Hampton’s coach, Tripp, explains, “You’ve got to give your muscles and your central nervous system time to recover.”
Put another way, if you don’t give your muscles time to rest and rebuild, you can’t make gains.
Muscular overtraining occurs when muscles are not given enough time to repair themselves between training sessions. For instance, if you squat heavy on Monday and then attempt heavy squats again on Tuesday, you run the risk of overtraining, which may lead to injury rather than gains.
Similarly, overtraining the central nervous system (CNS) occurs when you stack workout upon workout, stressing and fatiguing the whole body. CNS overtraining causes an athlete to be weaker and slower in all movements and reduces their force generation capacity. Athletes can recover their strength and power by resting sufficiently between workouts.
To keep the gains coming, avoid overtraining the muscles or the CNS.
Failure Training: All three coaches encourage extra reps on the last set of squats. For instance, if you have sets of five programmed for the day, make the last set of squats a 5+ set. Sometimes an athlete will only achieve five reps on this set, but often he or she will achieve more.
Training to failure is one way to stimulate muscle growth. In a 2013 study, Brad Schoenfeld, M.Sc., CSCS, demonstrated that greater increases in lactic acid in muscle are critical for muscle growth because they trigger increases in intramuscular growth factors.1 Failure training causes lactic acid and fatigue metabolites to accumulate in the muscles, setting the stage for muscle growth.
Failure training is especially appropriate for young lifters because it can build muscle with lighter loads, reducing stress on the joints.
However, More is not Better! Failure training on the last set of an exercise promotes muscle growth. However, training to failure on every set actually hinders muscle growth. Spanish researcher Dr. Mikel Izquierdo found that training to failure on every set measurably increased resting levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol and suppressed anabolic growth factors such as IGF-1.2 This suggests that athletes who take every set to failure risk hindering long-term growth.
A variation of failure training includes fatiguing the muscles and then immediately performing a movement that requires those muscles. For instance, the video above shows Coach Jones’ athlete, Dade Stanley, doing snatches right after a high volume of medium-weight squats. This combination helps build Stanley’s legs without taxing his joints with heavy weights.
Photo Credit to Hilary Clarke and CrossFit Pace Patriot Pride
- Schoenfeld, Brad J. “Potential Mechanisms for a Role of Metabolic Stress in Hypertrophic Adaptations to Resistance Training.” Sports Medicine 43, no. 3 (2013): 179-94. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0017-1.
- Shrier, I. “Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains.” Yearbook of Sports Medicine 2007 (January 12, 2006): 99-100. doi:10.1016/s0162-0908(08)70094-1.