A road map to your best squat

Stephane Cazeault

Articles, Strength and performance

0 min
A road map to your best squat

A road map to your best squat

In my opinion, when it comes to the primary strength exercises, the squat is the key lift for overall athletic development. I often like to make the analogy between the game of chess and the squat, where the deadlift is the king of lower body exercises and the squat is the queen. The squat is the most versatile and effective exercise for overall functionality, just like the queen on a chessboard. Along with the great lower body strength it develops, squats require great dynamic mobility across the ankle, knee, hip and shoulder joint.

Anyone who has watched the documentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno preparing for the 1975 Mr. Olympia, Pumping Iron, will recall the scene where Arnold and Ed Corney are squatting. I remember how impressed I was with the intensity in which Ed Corney pushed himself to complete his set of squats. This scene is what sparked my fascination with perfecting my squatting ability. That same afternoon, I went to the gym and did 12 sets of 12 squats thinking I’d be on my way to looking like Tom Platz. I quickly realized that timely progression was a wiser long-term path to success.

Luckily, I now understand that there is much more behind peaking squat performance than sheer drudgery through overtraining. In this article, we will cover my preferred periodization model to improve the squat, how to appropriately manipulate exercise selection and training parameters and what the best timing is for special methods to enhance the training effect of the entire 12-week cycle. If you wish to learn the specifics of how I program for the squat, read on! 

When it comes to strength training periodization models, my favorite is undulating periodization. The premise of the undulating model is to alternate between phases that emphasize neuromuscular adaptations through volume, accumulation phases, with phases emphasizing neuromuscular adaptations through intensity, intensification phases. Implementing such a protocol with your training plan allows the trainee to improve hypertrophy and strength over time while minimizing the negative effects of staying on one spectrum of the continuum for too long.

Here is an example of a 12-week macrocycle dedicated to improving the squat for an intermediate lifter with a solid 2 years of training experience:

Accumulation 1 (week 1-3)

5 x 4-6

Intensification 1 (week 4-6)


Accumulation 2 (week 7-9)

6 x 3-5

Intensification 2 (week 10-12)


The two accumulation phases use simple standard sets with step loading to prepare the connective tissue for the heavier loads while keeping the nervous system fresh before the more challenging rep schemes are introduced in the intensification phases. Accumulation 1 is followed by a stage system in intensification 1. The reason I chose this stage system is because it begins at a slightly higher intensity which makes proper load selection relatively easier. The last two singles of the stage system are there as a practice round to get a sense of what a weight near your 1RM should feel like. Even though the reps are similar, the intensity backs off in accumulation 2. The similarity in reps will help facilitate ideal weight selection. Finally, intensification 2 is the peaking phase where I chose wave loading to prime the nervous system for its heaviest single of the entire training block. By week 12, you should be able to reach your highest score.

For more details on how to correctly load the different rep schemes used in this program, please refer to the article: The Rep Scheme Manifesto.

Now that we have laid out the plan of action in terms of rep selection, let’s take a closer look at the exercise selection and the training parameters involved. Here is an example of the lower body sessions for each mesocycle:

Each microcycle assumes this exact split:

Monday: Upper Body 1

Tuesday: Lower Body 1

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Upper Body 2

Friday: Lower Body 2

Saturday: Off

Sunday: Off

Accumulation 1

Lower Body 1

A Squat 5 x 4-6 40X0 180

B1 Low Pulley Split Squat 4 x 8-10 3010 60

B2 Standing Leg Curl 4 x 6-8 4010 60

C1 Narrow Stance Leg Press 3 x 15-20 2010 60

C2 BB Wide Stance Goodmorning 3 x 10-12 3010 60

Lower Body 2

A Front Squat 5 x 4-6 40X0 180

B Below-Knee Rack Deadlift 5 x 6-8 2110 150

C1 Seated Calf Raise 3 x 20-25 2010 60

C2 Paloff Press 3 x 4-6 1018 60

Intensification 1

Lower Body 1

A 3-Pause Eccentric Squat* 6 x 2-3 42X0 240

B1 DB Lunge 3 x 6-8 2010 60

B2 Lying Leg Curl (2-1) 3 x 3-5 6010 60

C1 DB Step-Up 3 x 10-12 1010 60

C2 Horizontal Back Extension 3 x 8-10 3011 60

Lower Body 2

A Squat 5,5,3,3,1,1 40X0 240

B Mid Range Inertia Squat 4 x 6-8 22X0 180

C1 Leg Press Calf Extension 3 x 8-10 1410 60

C2 Hanging Leg Raise 3 x 10-12 4010 60

Accumulation 2

Lower Body 1

A Ballistic Squat** 6 x 3-5 20X0 180

B1 DB Split Squat 4 x 6-8 3010 60

B2 Kneeling Leg Curl 4 x 4-6 4010 60

C1 Wide Stance Leg Press 3 x 12-15 2010 60

C2 Safety Bar Goodmorning 3 x 8-10 3010 60

Lower Body 2

A Front Squat 6 x 3-5 40X0 180

B Above-Knee Rack Deadlift 5 x 4-6 2110 150

C1 Seated Calf Raise 3 x 12-15 1210 60

C2 Pre-Stretch Crunch 3 x 8-10 3011 60

Intensification 2

Lower Body 1

A Squat 3,2,1,3,2,1 40X0 240

B1 DB Alternated Lunge 3 x 4-6 2010 90

B2 Lying Leg Curl 3 x 4-6 3010 90

C1 BB Step-Up 3 x 8-10 1010 60

C2 Reverse Hyperextension 3 x 8-10 3010 60

Lower Body 2

A Squat 3,2,1,3,2,1 40X0 240

B Safety Bar Quad Squat 4 x 4-6 4010 180

C1 Standing Calf Raise 3 x 8-10 2010 60

C2 Roll-Out 3 x 10-12 2020 60

*3-Pause Eccentric Squat: From the standing position you lower to the first ¼ of the movement and pause for 2 seconds, then pause for 2 seconds at mid-range and finally pause 2 seconds again at the last 1/4.

**Ballistic Squat: You go down to the bottom position as fast as comfortably possible to make use of elastic energy. You still need to be in complete control of the movement. If it’s your first time doing this method I suggest you use a 20X0 tempo, but if you have experience with this technique, use a 10X0 tempo.

Notice that the squat is used twice within the microcycle for both intensification phases. The reasoning behind this is to increase movement pattern rehearsal during the phases that use the muscle fibers that are the most relevant to maximal strength development. The accumulation phases will still train the squat pattern extensively, but one of the sessions focuses on the front squat. The front squat will further enhance quad development while conversely deloading the lower back because of the more upright torso position.

The conventional deadlift should not be trained when the goal is to specifically improve your squat score. The lower back and overall residual fatigue caused by the full range of motion deadlift will be detrimental to greatly improving your squat. It is still important to overload the hip extensors to ensure you don’t overly de-train your ability for the deadlift. This is why we use the rack deadlift twice during the macrocycle. The rack deadlift will allow for the use of substantial weight, but is performed through a shortened range of motion and subsequently shorter eccentric contraction times which will prevent too big of a dip in the recovery curve.

The various assistance and remedial exercises used within this program are there to reinforce the squat pattern, as well as target the weak points adversely affecting your full squat potential.

Finally, the special methods used will significantly improve your performance and serve as plateau busters through varying the modes of contraction.

The 3-pause eccentric method is an isometric technique used to increase strength at different angles via increased tension and protein degradation rate from the lengthened eccentric load. Since the recovery is slower with this method, it’s advisable to use it further away from your peaking phase.

In order to improve performance, it is advisable to follow a phase that uses a “slow” method with a phase using a “fast” method. The ballistic method in accumulation 2 improves power output through the use of elastic energy to further enhance the recruitment of high threshold motor units. This method requires a solid hypertrophy and strength base to ensure the ligaments and tendons are strong and healthy enough to withstand the high force demands. The increased eccentric speed of contraction will create a deloading effect from the previous eccentric-heavy phases.

The squat is an incredible exercise that every trainee should include in their program. To reach your full potential you have to make sure that your plan will guide you to your goals. Paying close attention to your periodization, your overall exercise selection and the timing of special methods are essential aspects of programming. Once the appropriate measures are laid out, all you need is hard work and consistency. I hope this article provided a good insight on programming and the motivation to go for your best squat score!


Stéphane has spent the last 24 years perfecting his work. He has a strong formal academic foundation, earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Montreal. Stéphane recently published his first book, 66 Strategies to Program Design.

In his career Stéphane has personally trained professional athletes in football (NFL), baseball (MLB), and hockey (NHL).

Stéphane’s passion is program design. His program design is carefully structured with every possible component taken into consideration to ensure the trainee reaches and exceeds their goals, making his work a combination of both science and art.