The Squat: Not Just For Pooping Purposes

If you’ve spent much time in a gym you’ve probably seen the guy with the massive upper body and the spindly legs shaking in attempt to support the weight of his torso. This guy exists in every gym in some form or another and while he’d rather trade away his left testicle instead of missing National Chest and Triceps Day (Monday to the rest of us) he’ll futilely tell himself that his 5 minute treadmill walk warm up and afterthought sets on the leg extension/leg curl machines will surely satisfy all of his leg training needs.   The flesh covered twigs coming out of his oversized shorts should tell you not to listen to this guy.

The squat is the King Daddy Godfather Chief Boss of all lower body exercises and EVERYBODY who isn’t completely paralyzed from the waist down should be doing them in some form or another ( I apologize if any of my readers are fully paraplegic, but you should tell everyone else that you would do squats if you could, and that they need to stop complaining about all of their meaningless little problems ).  Look at it this way, if you can’t squat, you can’t get out of a chair and unless you’re Stephen Hawking and are solving the mysteries of the universe from your chair, you should probably get out of the damn chair at some point. So, in order to make sure you’re still a productive member of society via leaving your chair/couch/giant bean bag from time to time, lets going over your squatting options and proper squatting technique.

There are several different kinds of squats, and which one(s) will be right for you will depend on your goals and training skill level. The Back Squat is the most recognizable, but there are 2 primary ways to do that. After that we’ve got the Front Squat, Zercher Squat, Goblet Squat, and Overhead Squat, and all of this is either with just a standard barbell or kettlebell(s). The Westside Barbell guys use Safety Bars, Buffalo Bars, Spider Bars, Giant Cambered Bars, and probably some other funky bars that no one who doesn’t train at Westside will ever actually know about. We’re not going to get in to those spiffy different bars because most people don’t have access to them and there are far too many idiots who would just wind up trying to do biceps curls with them if they did come across em. Also, we’re only dealing with bilateral ( 2 legged) squats today; the ongoing debate in the Strength and Conditioning community regarding whether 1 or 2 leg squats are superior is a topic for another post.

This is an illustration from Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength”

The image above demonstrates the body angle and bar position for the standard Front Squat, High Bar Back Squat, and Low Bar Back Squat.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mark Rippetoe or his awesomeness, definitely pick up any of his books because you will instantly be both smarter and manlier than before you owned them. Lets start with the Back Squat variations. The High Bar (aka the Olympic Squat) uses a more quadriceps dominant movement and allows for much greater depth by keeping the spine upright and dropping the body between the hips. Your legs are simply sticks jutting straight down from your pelvis, the femur comes out at nearly a horizontal angle before descending down the shaft ( you can feel free to chuckle every time I say “shaft”, really its OK ).  This means that in order to achieve depth we drive the knees out to the sides; if you feel your stomach colliding with the top of your thighs then you’re doing it wrong.  The Low Bar Back Squat positions the bar lower ( crazy how that name fits, huh? ) on the back down along the shoulder blades rather than directly on top of the traps and as such requires a much steeper back angle to keep the vertical line from the weight down in to the mid-foot/heel area. Simultaneously, the hips sit further back behind the heels which keeps a more vertical shin position and engages far more of the high hamstring/glute complex.  Both versions use the same muscles, its just to what extent.  You won’t be able to go as deep with the low bar position but you’ll be able to handle a heavier weight because of the extra help from the hammies and the butt. A heavier weight will lead to a greater systemic response throughout the body which is in general a pretty badass thing to have and because of this I recommend that everyone serious about getting stronger should do the Low Bar Back Squat on a weekly basis.  To truly earn some punches on your athlete card though, a second squat workout each week be very beneficial, and that’s where we can incorporate these other varieties of squatting.  You can do two Low Bar Back Squat workouts per week but to be a little more well rounded and especially to aid in developing strength in greater ranges of motion on the knees and hips. If you’re going to compete in Olympic Weightlifting ( an awesome decision ) then its absolutely essential that you strengthen your Front Squat or you’ll never Clean heavy weights; the Front Squat can also be very beneficial to fighters too because you become adept at supporting a weight across the front of the shoulders and driving upward and that definitely comes in handy when working to complete takedowns, against the cage in particular. You can also perform Front Squats with 1 or 2 kettlebells for a more unstable training effect. Doing a Front Squat with one kettlebell on one shoulder will force your core to contract hard to keep an upright and centered alignment which is excellent if you’re lacking strength on one side of the body.

2 KB Front Squat

1 KB Front Squat

Zercher Squat

The Zercher Squat carries a lot of the same benefits as the Front Squat but requires a good tolerance for pain because even with a pad or towel around the bar these things are rough on the elbow crooks.  The upside is that you don’t have to be quite as flexible in the hips and wrists to perform them and they do a great job of simulating a bear hug position: excellent for Grec0-Roman/Judo clinch work.

Use a dumbell, kettlebell, sand bag, small child, or whatever you've got handy

Then there’s the Goblet Squat; easy to teach, easy to perform, and it can be done with pretty much any heavy thing you can heave up to your chest. The only drawback to the Goblet Squat is that you’ll be limited in your loading, especially when compared to the Low Bar Back Squat. That said, its an extremely versatile exercise and develops great strength in the abdomen, lower back, forearms, and obviously the legs.

This woman has an amazing overhead squat, and no, she won’t go out with you

If you’ve never squatted before with an external weight, or if you’re not training for Olympic Weightlifting and lastly if you don’t enjoy torture ( to each their own, I pass no judgements based solely on your pain/pleasure preferences, but I’ll judge you on a bunch of other stuff ) then you probably won’t ever need to Overhead Squat. Don’t get me wrong the Overhead Squat is outstanding exercise for developing strength and endurance through the muscles surrounding the shoulder girdle as well as great strength through the core. The training effect on the legs will be minimal from an absolute strength standpoint because the amount of weight you can support overhead and squat with will probably be less than 50% of your best back squat, especially at first before you develop proper technique. CrossFit HQ would have you believe that everyone should Overhead Squat but the move is difficult to perform, harder to teach if you’re working with someone who has significant flexibility issues, and the benefit doesn’t likely outweigh the risk. Now that I’ve given you a bunch of reasons not to do it, if you decide that you really want to do the Overhead Squat, more power to you for taking on a challenge and I might as well tell you how to do it right. I still Overhead Squat when I’m feeling masochistic or if I’m looking to improve my Snatch practice.

If you’ve managed to read through my ramblings this far then I suppose I should wrap things up with a general recommendation; Squat. That’s right, do your Squats, every week.  Lets take back Mondays and make them National Build Tree Trunk Legs Day and do Low Bar Back Squats as your first strength workout of the week when you’re still fresh from resting the day before.  For your second squat day ( Thursday or Friday to allow for adequate recovery time ) choose one of the upright torso squats presented above. I recommend sticking with one secondary squat for 4-6 weeks before switching while continuing to progress your Low Bar Back Squat each week. If you’re still new to squatting then following Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program of doing adequate warm up sets before reaching a working weight for 3-5 sets of 5 reps at that same weight. Typically you’re going to use 80-85% of your 1 Rep Max for the working weight but start off conservatively to really train in the movement pattern.  Make sure you’re breaking at the hips first to protect your knees, maintain intra-abdominal pressure to keep the weight from crushing you, keep the heels on the ground, drop to adequate depth (just below parallel on low bar, and as deep as possible without “butt winking” on the upright spine versions), keep your knees pushing out to the sides and drive up to full hip extension on each rep. Once you’ve trained your squat to be consistently awesome and you want to build some more endurance in the legs (essential for mud runs and wrestling) you can follow Dan John’s advice and move up to 10 rep sets.  I personally cycle them about every 4-6 weeks or so, or when I plateau with my current program. So I’ll build up my 5RM until it will not go higher, then switch to working on 10 rep sets; this has allowed me to continue progressing even after a decade of squatting.

Lets get some discussions going in the comments: What’s your favorite/least favorite kind of squat? Funny squatting mishap stories, I wanna hear em!

Intelligent Training

I’ve experimented with various training methods and strategies over the years and I’ve found that there is definitely no single program which will be effective or appropriate for every person.  To assume that such a magical combination of exercises exists is arrogant and foolish.  The more specific a person’s goals are, the easier it is to design a program to achieve those goals. There in lies the problem because most people have no freakin’ idea what they want from a fitness regime so instead they use vague, non-descriptive words like “firm”, “toned”, or “super freakishly ripped” to explain what they’re looking for. The path is then further complicated by many different factors such as previous injuries, poor body mechanics, lack of commitment/time, or bad habits developed in previous attempts to look great in a bathing suit.

If a person is an athlete and wants to train for a specific sport then the problem does become significantly more simple because sports have certain variables which can be factored and accounted for such as time demands, strength and flexibility requirements, and certain skills which must be developed/enhanced.  Once you know these landmarks and you know where you stand in relation to them, i.e. the need to become more agile, flexible, or explosive then you can start to plan your training sessions around them.

Keep this in mind, there is a distinct difference between “Working Out” and “Training” and the while the outcomes can occasionally be similar, the purpose is light years apart.  “Working Out” is simply exercising in whatever form you enjoy doing. If you’re a Zumba fanatic then more power to you, but don’t think for a second that it will have any real effect on your performance on the field, ice, cage, or where ever you do battle as an athlete. Every “Training” session should have a specific and distinct purpose, otherwise whats the point? Simply because its Tuesday and thats what you do on Tuesday? While there are certainly days where we need to be mindless automatons just to get through the session, the more often we can be in the moment, taking responsibility for our own progress the more we will learn and accomplish in each time we set foot in the gym.

If you don’t have a sport or competition to guide your work outs then you need to decide with a realistic outlook what kind of physique you’re looking for. If you’re a classic ectomorph (tall and lanky, long musculature, usually can eat just about anything and won’t gain a pound) standing 6’4″ and tipping the scales at a whopping 150lbs. then the chances of you looking like Ronnie Coleman are pretty slim.  In the same vein, if you’re 5’7″ and a flabby 240lbs. then you won’t be mistaken for an Olympic sprinter any time soon. Just because you weren’t blessed with the perfect genetics doesn’t mean you can’t make some drastic improvements on what you’re currently working with, but approaching the process with unrealistic expectations will only lead to frustration and disappointment.

So, are you an athlete training with laser focus looking for the extra edge to crush the competition or are you working out to get the best looking physique you possibly can? Figure out what you want and your path will be much easier.

In upcoming posts I will examine different training/fitness programs and comment on their effectiveness and application.

Feel free to post your goals to the comments section as well as different techniques you’ve used to accomplish them. Did something work well that you’d recommend to others or did it not live up to expectations? Let the world know!

Mental Fortitude

This blog is going to deal with many of the technical aspects of health, nutrition, and training and there will be some posts of a strictly scientific nature. This is not one of those. This post deals with the intangibles, the “Stuff in the Basement” that Stallone spoke eloquently about in Rocky Balboa. I believe that there lies a competitor within every human being because even the most humble of us enjoys the thrill of victory and abhors the agony of defeat. But we can’t experience the joy of succeeding if there was no contest to succeed at in the first place.  There are those among us who are content to go through life being moderately successful within our normal, every day jobs and activities but there are those of us who seek more.  The greater the challenge, the greater the glory.  I recently completed the 2011 Tough Mudder race in Mt. Snow, VT. and despite the difficulty of the course, I was having a blast the whole time.  Ridiculously steep hills to traverse, near-freezing water to ford, walls to climb, and finally the shock (pun intended) of being electrocuted right before the finish line, and a huge smile on my face.  This made me realize that I will probably always seek out additional challenges in my life to keep myself interested and I believe that if more people sought similar trials with the intention of finding out where their limits lie it would greatly improve their quality of life.

I see so many of my clients and gym patrons come in without specific goals or direction. “I want to get in better shape” or “I want to lose weight” and other equally vague statements are obviously common in the initial conversations between gym goers and persona trainers, but I believe that if everyone could create a hurdle for themselves to defeat, whether it be a Strong Man Competition, Powerlifting Meet, Highland Games,Golden Gloves Boxing tournament, or even a good old boring 5K foot race then it would allow them to not only add more direction to their training but it would give them observable progress and achievements which become few and far between as we get older.

You have to find reasons to productively abuse yourself. Merely floating through existence without ever pushing your limits is really no way to enjoy your life. Pain is inevitable and failure will definitely occur from time to time but its how we respond to defeat that truly shows our character. When the challenge forces you into self doubt and the voices begin to war within your mind; one telling you to quit and one urging you to continue, these are the times when we truly discover things about ourselves.

What was your last great challenge? What did you feel during the difficult times? What future obstacles do you hope to conquer?