How Many Squats is too many squats?

Liam Rodgers
6min read
October 21, 2022

Olympic weightlifting is big on leg strength: every day is leg day. Inside we discuss how many squats is too many - and what you can do about it. How to structure a training program to build big legs, lift big weights, and maximise your return on effort.

Short Version: Is There Such a Thing As Too Many Squats?

For weightlifting, 'too many squats' only becomes a thing when you start being too tired to do your snatch and clean and jerk.

Your squat needs to be strong enough to give you a ton of power in the top of the lift. It should provide you with the strength and muscle to lift sustainably, to lift big, and to contribute big leg and hip extension to your classic lifts.

The squatting process is simple:

  1. Develop positions and mobility with goblet squats
  2. Build a big back squat for surplus strength
  3. Use front squats to make the strength more specific
  4. Use body weight squats as a recovery and warm-up tool

That's the short version. you can add as much complexity as you want, but anything more than this is probably a conversation you should have with your coach.

I'm not your coach, I don't know what you need.

Squats: Weight Training Bread and Butter

You cannot get good at weightlifting without a massive squat. It's that simple: if you look at any weight category in Britain, big squats regularly define the top 3.

International athletes have a minimum requirement on squat strength: no matter how efficient you are, you're going to get left behind if you don't have the legs to keep up with the competition.

Lower body strength and power are crucial. The snatch pull, front squat in the clean, and the power for the jerk all come from the legs. Basic squat proficiency and muscle mass in the legs are the foundation for your lifting.

Why Do Olympic Weight Lifters Need Squats?

What's so important about the squat?

Nothing, inherently, but it's a great way to do all the things we want for weightlifting:

  1. Develop a lot of leg strength
  2. Increase leg muscle mass to protect the knees
  3. Strengthen posture - with good movement and paused squats
  4. Develop squat depth for the snatch (overhead squat) and clean (front squat)

This is why - when in doubt - it's a squat workout. Whatever squat variations you're using, body weight, bar, or goblet squat, developing the thighs, glutes, and back muscles is key.

you can't afford to have weak hips and legs - and here's why...

1. The snatch and clean pull

Before you even lift, the starting position for the Olympic lifts requires deep flexion in the legs and hips. You've got to squat into your starting position - it's deep and it requires both the strength and mobility to give yourself the best start.

From that starting position, you need to use the legs and hips together (like in a paused squat) to maintain your back angle ("shape") and start the pull. Weak leg strength compromises your first pull; you'll bend forwards, over-stress the hamstrings, or simply round your back.

The whole pull - not just the starting position - depends on your leg strength and control. The hips control the shape, the legs perform the pull. Weakness in either will ruin the whole movement - i.e. where you're compensating after a bad start.

2. The Triple Extension

Triple extension - the top part of the clean and snatch pull - requires big effort from the legs and hips.

The point of weightlifting is to get the maximum power imparted to the bar at the top. If you're in the right positions (which is part of the challenge) then this is typically the limitation: putting enough height on the barbell to give yourself time to squat underneath it.

This is a huge demand on leg and hip strength, which drive the bar to the appropriate position. Squat workouts make that possible - and if you don't squat regularly, you're going to lose weight on the snatch, clean, and jerk.

Squats regularly provide the 'backbone' to a weightlifting training program. It's rare to find a weightlifter who has less than 3 squat workouts a week - often before lifts (during a strength program).

Lower body strength is the basis for the whole sport.

3. Squatting

Once you've hit triple extension and pulled the bar into the correct position with the upper body, you need to get under it. Squatting under the bar isn't optional for good results: it lets you lift more weight and keeps your back and hips safe.

As you start squatting under weights - early on in your weightlifting practice - you might not feel particularly challenged. As you get stronger, you'll find that squatting strength could be a defining limitation - especially in the clean.

Being able to sit down under a heavy weight - and know you've got the legs to stand it up - is a huge part of weightlifting. It lets you commit to your lifts more easily, keeps the knees and hips pain free in the bottom position, and reduces the overall intensity of a given weight: bigger squatters have less struggle in their snatches and cleans (particularly).

A weak squat can easily limit the clean and jerk, in particular, which uses bigger weights and requires more total force from the thighs and butt. You know how you build this strength and power? Squat big tin.

4. Jerk Drive

As with the snatch and clean, you need big leg extension to jerk heavy. Your lower body drives the bar to the point of lockout: a height overhead where you completely extend the arms.

You need to give your arms time to get to lock, and big leg strength makes this possible. This is more directly correlated with the front squat - the most important squat variation for weightlifters.

Being able to perform a heavy jerk without excessive bend in the hips or softening the upper body is key. Back squats provide the gross leg strength, while front squats and even goblet squat variations provide postural strength for the jerk drive.

Squatting For Olympic Weightlifting

As mentioned above, we squat for gross leg strength, postural strength (in the front squat and overhead squat), and to practice deep squatting positions.

Your squat form - the way you move - impacts all of these.

Poor squat form can over-emphasise the butt, when you want to target the thighs. In the opposite direction, poor squat technique can completely neglect the butt, which can destabilise the lower back and/or leave you with a weak posterior chain.

The squat is an important accessory exercise for weightlifters and has to be performed properly to get the best carryover to the main lifts. There's a fine art to it; a little more than just sit down and stand up.

Squatting with Good Form: Basic Squat Technique for Weightlifting

Weightlifting squats need to be

  1. Deep
  2. Upright
  3. Active

These are the main criteria we're going to work on because they ensure that you hit the right muscles, maintain good posture, and keep yourself healthy. Messing up any of these 3 comes with some downsides - either in how you perform or the health of the body.

Getting them right, on the other hand, means getting more from your squatting exercises and classic lifts. Let's go one by one.

Deep Squats: Specific For Weightlifting

Deep squats are the minimum for weightlifting; you need to be able to get to the complete end of your range and not fear it. These positions will be required when performing a max weight snatch and clean.

These positions also provide the best stimulus to the thighs and butt. The deep position strengthens their whole range, while the stretch in end range provides better muscle growth and strength gains.

Developing the muscle size and strength in this range prepares you for anything. Equally, the depth protects your back: lower back strain is lower when squatting to full depth, as it puts the stress in the hips and knees - where it's meant to be for squats.

Depth provides a way to:

  1. Ensure you're never caught in a weak position
  2. Maximise your strength
  3. Reduce your injury risk

So there's no excuse for cutting depth in a squat for weightlifting. Sit as far as you can without rounding your back, collapsing your knees, or popping your feet off the floor. Stop where that stability stops, and be patient with depth.

Upright Squats: Strength and Posture

Upright squatting positions are key for weightlifting - they require proper activation of the hips and they transfer over to the classic lifts most effectively. Movements that maintain upright posture are great for the torso demands of Olympic lifting.

This comes from many choices: feet shoulder width, rotated out, opening up the hips. It also comes from actively stabilising the core and hips, and sitting in the hips and knees together for deep flexion.

Staying upright is a skill in itself and you won't be able to get it down in a single squat workout, as a beginner. The point is to build it up as the body gets stronger and more comfortable with the position.

This is why weightlifters do so much squatting, but also why we do so much mobility work. Staying upright can also reduce the risk of back injury by keeping the lever short and reducing stress in the pars interparticularis of the spine.

Keeping the chest up and proud also ensures good activation. The muscles around the scapular and the erector set are essential for torso stiffness and proper snatch or clean positions.

Rule of thumb: if you keep your chest up in squats, you'll have an easier time keeping your chest up in the classic lifts.

Active Squats: Keeping the Hips and Butt in the Lift!

Proper squat form involves actively recruits the hips and butt, using them to stabilise your upright position at full depth. This active hip involvement can protect against injury by stabilising the knees and spine.

It also gets the largest muscles in the body - the glutes - to contribute to the squat. Neglecting these muscles will leave you with a huge hole in your overall strength progress - good squats ensure you're training the right muscles for well-rounded progress.

Designing Effective Squat Workouts

So how do you design a squat workout for weightlifting?

You're going to spend many hours under the bar. Learning how to use different variations, prevent injury, and select the right exercise are all crucial.

  1. How often should you train squats? Usually 2-5 sessions a week - depending on your fitness level.
  2. Which exercise is right for you? Back squats for strength, front squats for postural strength.
  3. What intensity should your squats be? Always challenging, aside from designated 'light' days.
  4. Are there additional exercises that are valuable? Typically goblet squats and lunges or other single-leg work.
  5. How many reps do you need? For weightlifting, 1-6 is typically best. Power.
  6. Do you need to specify for your sport? Squat like you want to snatch or clean.

These are basic but effective questions to ask yourself every time you put squats into a training session.

Squat Variations for Weightlifting: Bodyweight Squats, The Goblet Squat, and Lunges

Different variations of leg training can also be added to your training program for better muscular endurance, as a warm up, or to prevent injury.

Body weight squats are great for warming up and getting into your starting position. They're also a fantastic choice for endurance - which is useful during GPP phases, or low intensity sessions for recovery. Body weight just isn't enough for stronger thighs.

Goblet squats are great for positional strength and learning to squat upright. The proper position for front squats is similar to goblet squats, and it can be a great replacement for beginners who need to develop squat technique.

Lunges are a great choice to prevent injury by developing hip muscles. They also teach you to stabilise your knee with the hamstrings, which is a huge deal for knee health. Include single leg exercises like split squats, single leg press, and Cossack squats.

Add these additional exercises into your workout as a finisher for the legs to build muscular endurance in postural muscles, and develop joint health.

Final Thoughts: How Many Squats Are Too Many Squats?

Predictably, the answer to 'how many squats is too many squats' is "it depends".

The more experienced you are, the more squats you can squat. The ideal is typically 3-5 sessions a week, but you'll find elite weightlifters training squats more often than this - but they're usually on gear.

For weightlifters, volume is king, and making sure your squats are contributing to your current weaknesses. When squatting properly, you only hit too many squats when you're losing performance elsewhere in your training!

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