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How and Why I Squat

October 20, 2004 01:15 PM

For strength athletes, sprinters, running backs and linemen everywhere, the squat is the acknowledged King of Exercises. The transformative power of the 20-rep squat routine is legendary. Do 20-rep sets twice a week, ransack your refrigerator hourly and sleep nine hours a night, the legend runs, and in six weeks you will be a massive, superhuman version of your former self, with the clothing bills to prove it.

The legend is largely true. When combined with the right protocols and lots of food, the squat will pack on mass like no other exercise. But even if you don't want to pack on mass -- for example, if you are a "wiry" strength trainee like myself (5' 11", 165) who can't or won't spend half your waking hours eating -- you should seriously consider making the squat your core exercise. This article explains why and how.

The squat vs. the deadlift
The best ? maybe the only ? contemporary book on the wiry strength ideal, Pavel Tsatsouline's Power to the People!, proposes a highly abbreviated daily program based around the deadlift. To gain strength without mass, Pavel explains, train the nervous system instead of bulking up. Pull two sets of five daily with a near-maximal poundage, then hit the showers (if you even need to). Stay fresh, stay alert. Choose the deadlift for its brute simplicity and total-body training effect. Avoid the squat due to its technical complexity and its mass-building effects.



The IPF squat: Louie Simmons meets Idalberto Aranda. Note distinct non-hugeness of the quadriceps and hamstrings.

I find most of this logic tough to argue with. I find abbreviated daily training with high poundages invigorating and a great way to make steady gains. However, I do not agree that the deadlift is simpler or less technical than the squat ? or, to address a corollary argument, that it is less dangerous. Granted, with light poundages, a raw beginner will probably make a better first showing in the deadlift than in the squat. Picking a weight off the floor is more intuitive than squatting with it on your back. But as the poundage increases, the deadlift quickly becomes every bit as technical as the squat. The penalties for minor lapses of form mount quickly: a tweaked back, a forced week off. I am an absolute stickler for form in every lift, and yet I have hurt myself deadlifting more times than I care to admit. The injuries have come despite close attention to form and despite the fact that I have the classic "deadlifter's build" of long arms and long legs. If the deadlift has treated you better, I wish you the best, but I do not feel comfortable generalizing that the deadlift is safer than the squat, or that it is inherently better for long-limbed wiry trainees.

As a learned skill, the squat is quite the opposite of the deadlift. Your first few squats will likely be grotesque in the extreme. Raw beginners seem to think the point is to collapse under the weight ? that is, to perform what Dan John calls an "accordion squat." The potential for injury in this initial learning phase is high, but with light weights and some good coaching, anyone with fair athletic sense can learn to squat safely over the course of several weeks. There is one important caveat: unless you are handling very light poundages, you should always squat with qualified spotters or a rack. This is not quite the "gotcha" some would have you believe, however. A serviceable rack can be had for around $250, and anyone with basic carpentry skills can improvise some type of spotting solution for far less than that.

Once the basics are in place, the squat is much like the deadlift: heavier poundages require more and more precise technique. Given a good spot, however, the price of technical failure is much lower. I have never hurt myself seriously doing barbell back squats. When I miss a lift, I simply lower the weight to the rack pins, crawl out, and prepare for the next set. A serious lapse of form can hurt you in any lift, of course, but in general minor lapses will not damage you in the squat the way they do in the deadlift. I strive for 100% concentration on every lift, but when I squat in the rack, I feel safer knowing that if I only hit 95% concentration, I will still be back the next day.

What about the wiry strength ideal? Will squatting necessarily blow up your quads and hamstrings and set you up for a lifetime of shopping at the big-and-tall store? If you tightly control your volume and caloric intake, no. Ask any big guy how "easy" it was to become big, and you may find yourself hanging from your pretty new squat rack. I have put on ten pounds squatting over the course of a year, but they were ten pounds I felt I needed and had to fight hard to put on. I put them on during cycles of 20-rep squats by eating four times a day. When I hit my desired weight, I dropped back to a Power to the People!-type protocol (three sets of three with maximal weights), began eating normally again, and stabilized at 165. In the NFL, I wouldn't even pass for a soccer-style kicker from the Czech Republic.

Of course, you can squat and deadlift, and if you are a powerlifter, you have to. But if you are practicing for wiry strength without mass, you are better off sticking to one total-body lift and working the heck out of it. So far, the squat has done wonders for me. I've squatted 315, and with the aid of kettlebell training, maintained my deadlift (which I now do sumo-style under the influence of my squat) at 365 or better whenever I've checked in on it. I am faster and more flexible and feel athletic in ways I never did while concentrating on the deadlift. I do all my lifts raw without so much as a taped knuckle or a lycra waistband for support, and so far, I still fit into my 32/34 jeans without a hitch.

Technique
What about technique then? I will not mince words: the squat is a relentlessly technical exercise. If you have a short attention span, stick to your leg press or better yet, stay out of the gym altogether. If however you accept the basic fact that anything worth doing takes serious work and concentration, you are already halfway to becoming a good squatter. The next step is to find yourself a good teacher or, barring that, some good instructional material. I cannot recommend the following highly enough:
- Bud Jeffries' books and tapes on squatting, available through www.strongerman.com.
- Dan John's online materials on Olympic lifting, freely available at danjohn.org/coach.html.
- Louie Simmons' and Dave Tate's articles on squatting, freely available at www.deepsquatter.com.

Before you go looking for material, be warned: even those who agree on the value of the squat are split up into camps. The two primary camps share a basic theory that there are two types of squats: "power squats" and "Olympic squats." The theory runs something like this:
- In the power squat, the lifter keeps the bar lower on his back and uses a fairly wide stance. He concentrates on sitting back (rather than down), and leans forward somewhat as he reaches a bottom position just below parallel.
- In the Olympic squat, the lifter keeps the bar higher on his back and uses a narrow stance. He concentrates on sitting down between the legs (rather than back) and keeps the torso bolt upright as he squats all the way to "rock bottom" - i.e. the position where the hamstrings come to rest against the calves.

This distinction is good and valid as far as it goes. As a tool for really understanding the squat, though, it is hopelessly inadequate. There are three major problems with it:

The Olympic/power distinction isn't particularly descriptive. Very few people do a pure power squat or a pure Olympic squat. There are countless differences of physiology and technique. In fact, if you took just six variables -- bar position, stance width, forward lean, hip flexion, knee flexion, and ankle flexion -- you would not find two people in a hundred who squat the same way. At least one of these variables would almost surely differ in any two people you looked at.



IPF squat, mid-position: Power or Olympic? Purists of either school would blanch.


The Olympic/power distinction covers up similarities between the two allegedly pure styles. As much as their techniques differ, all good squatters have a few things in common. They "sit" under a weight instead of folding up under it. They keep their knees more or less in line with their toes. They maintain extreme tension while descending with a weight and stand up with it explosively.

The Olympic/power distinction covers up differences between allegedly similar "Olympic" and "power" squats. Many powerlifters, particularly in the US, are "good morning" squatters: they use extreme forward lean, particularly when competing in a meet with a monolift, and just barely break parallel. Other powerlifters, particularly those you see in the IPF, keep their torsos fairly upright, use a slightly narrower stance, and get well below parallel: in some cases, three or four inches below. These "IPF power squatters" bear a closer resemblance to Olympic squatters than they do to good-morning power squatters, a fact that seems to undermine the "power squat" category altogether.





IPF squat, low position: Note that what little hamstring I have is touching what little calf I have. For some beefy guys this is indeed "rock bottom." There is a slight lumbar rounding that I have since eliminated.


Similarly, there are Olympic squatters, particularly those with long limbs, whose squats look nothing like the textbook "no no no" squats lionized in the pages of Milo. If you've ever seen the 85-kilo Oscar Chaplin perform a squat snatch, for example, you've seem him pull with his feet close together, then jump into a super-wide, not-so-deep squat to get under the weight. If there were any purists booing him at the 2002 Nationals in New York City, where I happened to catch his brilliant performance, I didn't hear them.

The fundamentals don't change
The point is: free your mind. The less you try to force yourself into a "power squat" or an "Olympic squat" based on the advice of someone with a completely different build and training history, the better off you'll be. Experiment with the pure types early on, using very light weights. Widen your stance here, narrow it there, change your bar position, do whatever you need until you have found an efficient groove that lets you break parallel without sacrificing overall muscular tension.

After a year of serious squatting, I have distilled all I know about the squat into seven fundamental principles. I have put these on a sign in my garage gym:


SQUAT POINTS

REVIEW BEFORE EVERY SET
- Chest way out
- Feet braced outward against the ground
- Knees braced outward
- Flex hip flexors hard while descending
- Sit down/back and "pull hips out of sockets"
- At bottom, "drive traps into the bar" and push with feet
- Drive up with explosive acceleration

If these don't make sense to you yet, they will. Seek out a teacher or instructional material and start learning. Regardless of the style you end up with, every good squat you manage will be more or less based on the above principles.

Cycling poundages
I am a highly non-scientific cycler. In my kettlebell training, in fact, I don't cycle poundages, reps, sets, or anything else. With the squat, though, I believe that some type of cycling is necessary. It is too taxing a lift to leave to "feel" or whims or crystal readings.

In a normal workout I do four sets of three reps or less. For me a typical squat cycle might look something like this:

Workout Squat poundages x reps (x sets)
1 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 235 x 3 x 2
2 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 245 x 3 x 2
3 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 255 x 3 x 2
4 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 265 x 3 x 2
5 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 275 x 3 x 2
6 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 285 x 2 x 2
7 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 295 x 2 x 2
8 185 x 3, 225 x 3, 305 x 1 x 2

As you can see I like to do warmup sets, but I never do them with less than 185. I find a weight like 135 just does not enforce good form. If I squat using tension with 135, I cannot feel the weight and have no sense of technique. It takes 185 or more to do a warmup that will resemble the actual work sets. The next weight, 225, feels like half warmup, half work set. The next two sets are the ones for which the poundage is actually cycled.

Note that the foundation of my routine is triples. I cannot provide any rational explanation for this; I just feel like three is a good number. On the first rep, the weight feels novel, on the second I adjust to it, on the third, I feel technically perfect. On a fourth or fifth rep I get no improvement of focus or concentration, so I don't do fourth or fifth reps. I like to think that in the great cosmic scheme of things, the bodybuilders are doing my reps for me.

Of course, at the top of the cycle I get into weights that I cannot necessarily triple. So I don't. I simply do a double or single with maximum concentration. You may object that this strategy won't add mass. My point exactly.

Twenty-rep squats
When I do want to add mass, I do twenty-rep squats twice a week, rest at least one day after each twenty-rep session, and space out the work days of my normal cycle which otherwise proceeds normally. Many strength-and-conditioning writers have extolled twenty-rep squats, and everything they say is true: they are brutal, they make you hungry, and they add mass. There is one other point those writers have neglected to mention: if you have good conditioning from kettlebell work, you should not take three deep breaths between each rep with the bar on your back. Your breaths will be so slow and so long that you will be there forever and will crumple before your twentieth rep, even if you just have 150 on your back. Two medium-deep breaths will do for a kettlebell man. If a big guy who can't climb a flight of stairs without huffing and puffing challenges you on this point, challenge him to an underwater breath-holding contest.

That, in sum, is how and why I squat. If you have questions, direct them to robt_lawrence@yahoo.com or address them to me on the www.dragondoor.com forum.
 

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