Friday, June 5, 2015

Tips for a better squat II (equipment)

I’m assuming at this point in my life my rethorical skills are sufficiently honed that after reading my previous post on the subject you have already decided that you have to squat regularly. Using a formulation that has become popular, you have to acquire the habit of squatting (there are whole books devoted entirely to making that acquisition stick so you have no excuses about it, really). Maybe you have even already done a few sessions of bodyweight squats (done without a bar, just to take the rust off the ol’ joints and slowly get back in the groove of the movement), and are considering what your next steps should be. At this point you may be a bit confused about your options, but fear not, I’m here to help. We will be talking a bit about equipment (distinguishing between equipment you use and equipment you wear), and after we have hopefully cleared any doubt about what is essential and what is accessory we will move on with the famous tips, destined to make you a better squatter once you are firmly on your way of squatting often and squatting heavy.

Equipment  you use:

Although my initial recommendation if you are a complete novice is to get a subscription to a gym, so during  the first months you have all the equipment ready for your use without having to disburse a great amount of money, sometimes that option is not available (although boutique gyms seem to be sprouting like mushrooms in any Western City, my reader may live in the desert, or in a remote island in the Pacific), or simply it may not appeal to some (gyms, after all, are for the non-athletic population like dragon’s dens, full of lurking dangers like judgmental bodybuilders that may scorn us for our lack of muscular definition, or at least that is what the advertising of Planet Fitness and the like would make you believe). Either since the very beginning or at some more advanced point in every lifter’s career there comes a point at which it pays to have at least the basic equipment in house, as regarding convenience nothing beats having your own weight set in the basement (or in the dorm, or in the living room, the possibilities are endless!) and being able to knock out a few sets to help us unwind after a stressing day at work.

So with a view towards being able to comfortably squat at home, these are the things to acquire, by order of importance:

·         Bar and plates: depending on how far one intends to go with the whole lifting thing, any bar would do, including the typical bars of 28 mm diameter one sees in most sport equipment shops. Buy it at least 220 cm long, with 130 cm between the inner face of the collars (the wider part that avoid the plates from hitting your hands).  However, my experience is that once the lifting bug has bit you to the point of acquiring your own equipment, it is most likely that squatting is not the only thing you will want to do. Bench Pressing and Deadlifting will surely come not much afterwards, and power cleaning will follow on their footsteps. Now if we are even remotely considering doing any lift that requires rotating the bar in the air, it is most advisable to buy a bar with 50 mm diameter sleeves mounted on bushings in the extremes (and still 28 mm in the center, where you grab the bar) that let the central bar spin freely during the lift. It is important to decide on this from the start, as the plates that go with the first type (with an inner diameter of 29-30 mm) wouldn’t fit in the sleeves of the second (that have, obviously, to have an inner diameter of at least 50 mm).  You can find Olympic bars at any price from 125 € (roughly 150 USD) to 1.000 €, and the standard recommendation is not to skimp money in this particular piece, as a good bar may last a whole lifetime, and makes the lifting so much more comfy. However, I’m gonna break ranks with my fellow meatheads here and declare that I’ve been lifting for the last two years with the cheapest bar I found that met the specs (99 UK pounds brand new) and can only say good things about it…

As for the plates, the most expensive ones are the most precise regarding their true weight, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. You can go on buying as you get stronger, and the important thing at the beginning is to get enough fractional plates (1kg, and even 0,5 kg) to be able to increase the weights as gradually as you want. The big 20 kg plates (about 45 pounds) will come in handy later, and there are few things that warm the heart of a seasoned lifter as surely as a bar with as many big plates as possible on each side. Cast iron plates are, pound for pound the cheapest around, but for safety reasons (if you have to drop the bar, metal plates have a wonderful floor demolition capability, and sound like the end of the world has come) many people prefer to buy them covered in rubber (they have the unexpected disadvantage of smelling like hell in most cases, something to take into account especially for those sharing their space with sensitive nose spouses). The most expensive category here are “bumper plates”, specifically designed to be dropped from high (above 2 meters) without cracking or chipping –now, the floor should be equally prepared to support the impact if you want to give them such use. They are a must if you intend to Olympic lift frequently and heavily, but definitely not needed for squatting purposes

If possible, choose the lower one

·         Somewhere to put the bar: If you read the description of how to start squatting in my previous post you may have noticed that I was assuming you had some kind of support for the bar at roughly shoulder level, as the movement starts standing up, and finishes in a similar way. I’ll declare right away that we have already moved in the realm of the optional, as I can personally attest: for many, many years I squatted in my parents’ garage with no supports whatsoever. I just cleaned the bar to my shoulders, then jerked it over my head and let it fall (as gently as possible) on my back, then did my squats and, when I was done, I push pressed it from behind the neck to overhead, lowered it back to the shoulders and from there back to the floor, without ever letting it fall. I recognize that it greatly limited the amount I could squat with, but I compensated with volume, and I think I got quite strong with that…

However, I understand that acquiring the proficiency needed to put the bar on the back can be an insurmountable obstacle, so there are a number of options that makes sense to consider instead. Which option is best depends on how much money you are willing to spend, how much space you have, and what other uses you may want to give the equipment. Going from the simplest to the most complex, you may consider:

o   Squat stands: as their name indicates, they are a couple of stands (independent or united by a bar so the distance between them stays constant) which you can regulate in height and little more. The occupy the least space, and are easily movable, but they don’t allow you to do anything more than squatting (some of them may go low enough to allow for bench pressing by just putting a bench between them, but they typically wouldn’t allow for safeties, although you can get those separately)

Courtesy of IronMind

o   Half racks: made of two columns (the uprights) that are bolted to the wall and the floor for stability, and full of evenly spaced holes where a moveable piece (j-hooks, as their shape seen from the side resembles the letter “J”) that actually supports the bar can be adjusted. They can occupy even less space than the stands, but are not movable (without the hassle of unbolting them). It allows for squatting, bench pressing, pressing and typically they have a bar on top that allows for doing chin-ups and eventually pull ups. Some even have partial safeties that can be inserted in the j-hooks holes, so they allow for squatting low bar or bench pressing alone without risking your life

This one doesn't bolt to the wall, though

o   Full racks: similar to the half rack, but made of four columns instead of two, so they stand by themselves and do not need to be bolted to the wall (it is advisable, although depending on how heavy they are and how solidly they are built, to still bolt them to the floor, though). They occupy more space and are more expensive, but their more sturdy built allows for more weight, and their safeties are also more resistant (having two support points each, instead of only one as in the half racks). Some allow the addition of pulleys and weighted plate columns for extra exercises

Where magic happens... in front there is a weightlifting platform, we'll talk about that another day

o   Monolifts: for completeness sake, I’ll briefly consider the ultimate squatting equipment, the monolift, a structure similar in size to a full power rack, but with a couple of hydraulically operated swinging hooks to support the bar that allows the lifter to avoid walking it off (in a traditional rack you get under the bar, lift it slightly, and then take two little steps backwards before you start squatting; after finishing you take the same steps in reverse order to put the bar back in the J-hooks), and thus allows him/ her to train with slightly bigger weights. Suffice it to say that if you are considering buying a monolift you are either too advanced for this series of posts, or just totally nuts (and a tad capricious)

Equipment  you wear:

Once you are all set with your bar (or the gym’s) properly loaded, in a support that suits your needs  it is time to start actually squatting. But there are a number of elements you may want to consider first, so you approach the bar with no other concern than doing your sets in a technically sound manner, giving it your best and exerting as much force as possible against the bar in each rep:

·         Belt: you have seen the photos, and likely some YouTube video or other where the squatter is wearing a belt, and you may be legitimately concerned that such contraption may make the exercise safer (or, if you have done some research of your own in weightlifting forums you may have read that it may make you weaker, not allowing for a healthy development of the abdominal muscles). To decide if a belt is right for you, and what kind of belt at that, let’s first elucidate what role the belt plays in a heavy squat. I mentioned in my previous post that once you had the bar firmly on your back (and had already walked it off the supporting structure where it was resting) you should inhale a big gulp of air and close your mouth. Technically what you close is your glottis to keep the pressure you just increased in your lungs by filling them with air, and if you are experienced enough you direct that pressure towards the abdominal area, because that is where it is going to help you more, making it more rigid and thus helping the erector spinae (the posterior muscles of the lower back) to keep the back flat (the first safety rule we mentioned). That intra abdominal pressure that helps stabilize the lower back can be enhanced if the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis and obliques) have something to push against, like a convenient piece of hard leather that won’t give up or stretch. So that’s the role of the belt: offer a solid, unyielding surface against which the belly muscles can push to better stabilize the lower back. As the support they offer is to the belly muscles, the greater the surface in front, the better (the width in the back does nothing whatsoever to stabilize more, the back does not “lean” against the posterior side of the belt, all the tension you may feel there is caused by the pull from its anterior side). That’s why powerlifting belts have the same width all around, typically 4 inches (10 cm, the maximum allowed by most federations, and also the maximum that sits comfortably between the hip bone and the lower ribs for most people). It has become fashionable in powerlifting circles to disparage “traditional” weightlifting belts that are tapered (thinner in the front than in the back) with statements like “anybody that has ever used a belt knows that such belts are useless” or “only an idiot with no knowledge whatsoever of how a belt works may use a tapered belt”. Well, Eleiko, which only makes the finest equipment (their bars and plates are the gold standard of the industry, the equivalent of a Ferrari in sport cars), offers only tapered belts, and also you can see them around the waist of most elite level weightlifters:

Doesn’t know the first thing about lifting weights… oh, wait

The explanation for such apparent cognitive dissonance is that weightlifting, especially at its higher level, requires not only that the lifter recovers from a squat under a (very) heavy load, but that previous to that he receives that bar as low as humanly possible, and a thick and wide belt in the middle of his belly may be a major impediment for attaining such low position, so he wisely sacrifices some surface against which to exert pressure to gain some freedom of movement.

Now, as I guess my readers are not Olympic weightlifters, and this post is not intended for the experienced lifter, in most cases they would be better off with a powerlifting belt, 4’’ wide all around, made of hard solid leather. There are a number of ways to adjust the belt: Velcro (convenient, and allows for infinite adjustability), one prong, two prongs (most people hate them, as you have to wear them pretty tight, and when you finally get the second prong in you normally loose the first and have to start all over again) or a lever (they require a screwdriver to adjust but once adjusted they are the fastest to open and close) and multiple thickness (4 mm is probably more than enough for all but the most experienced lifters). When we get to the tips we’ll have more to say about the use of belts, for now I will just say that a beginner has no business wearing one, as it is more profitable to learn to brace and use his own musculature to stabilize the bar, and only when the weight becomes significant (above one’s own bodyweight) does it make sense to start using it.

·         Weightlifting shoes: I hope you all have noticed that I favor the most minimalist approach to this thing we do with weights (lifting them just to put them down again, or in the case of the movement we are talking about the other way round), and I generally recommend postponing the acquisition of any piece of material as much as possible, as you can get darn strong just with a bar (that doesn’t have to be top notch, regardless of what you hear once and again) and a few plates (or even without them, if you have a spouse patient enough). But probably a good pair of shoes are, from the very first day, an investment worth making. Although squatting barefooted (or with minimalist shoes with zero drop and zero cushioning) is a viable alternative, especially in the case of low bar squatting, where the shins stay more vertical and do not require that much ankle flexibility. What you shouldn’t do in any case is squat in traditional running shoes, with their squishy heels that blunt the proprioception of the floor in the foot and rob it of stability. But seriously, if you try a pair of shoes designed specifically for moving weights with them on you will probably never want to lift without them ever again. A good shoe has a slightly elevated heel (no more than 2’’), made of non-compressible material (wood was until recently a typical choice), has a flat sole  made of non-sliding material, and typically has a metatarsal strap to ensure the foot is firmly fixed within the structure of the shoe. Something like this:

After my family and my bikes, what I love most in this world

·         Knee sleeves: if you squat a lot, and go progressively heavy, you knees may hurt. Not that they should, the good technique we have been discussing is geared mainly to keep the joint in a safe position, doing only the work it was designed by nature to do, and a good squat should be painless, but… we all have had our lives, some have abused our bodies more than others, and sometimes our joints arrive at the gym with a lot of wear and tear from previous activities (I myself had a knee surgically reconstructed after an ACL and meniscus tear… the ACL was replaced but the meniscus is gone since then, so the femur has been sitting directly on the tibia for a few decades already). Experience has shown me that a knee sleeve can do wonders to reduce the discomfort caused by heavy use of a joint in less than stellar condition. Not because it provides any support (the tendons and ligaments that get stronger by the day practicing the exercise regularly do a superb work in that department), but because it keeps it warm, and that warmth works wonders in how you feel afterwards. Any neoprene sleeve can do the trick, and some people prefer to use elastic bandages, although I indulged a bit when choosing and went for a slightly pricey option (Rehband classic, you may see them at work in any of my You Tube performances, like this one with 160 kg -also visible are a powerlifting belt and weightlifting shoes...):

However, if your knees are still in mint condition, there is no need at all to surround them with any kind of protective material.

·         Wraps and squat suits: every piece of equipment we have discussed so far would still allow you to compete in the category known as “raw” or “unequipped”, as in theory it just increases your safety, without adding any kilogram to what you end up lifting (it is a bit of a germane argument, as anybody will tell you the belt can “give” you as much as 20 kg, although may be for reasons more psychological than physical). I will just mention, without going in any detail, that there is another category of equipment that is designed with the specific purpose of allowing the lifter to move more weight, by storing kinetic energy while he goes down and then releasing it in the ascent. That equipment consists in knee wraps (that come in many lengths and elasticities) and squat suits (ditto). If you are considering going equipped, I’d suggest you research what to buy after you have settled on what monolift you are going to acquire

I hope I haven’t given the impression that squatting is an overly complex business that requires tons of specialized equipment, as nothing could be further from the truth. All you really, really need (once you have passed the initial stage of getting gains by squatting just our own body, with no additional weight) is a bar, some plates and the desire to get better.

On my next post I’ll share the promised tips, until then, get some practice!


  1. Being able to squat or lift at home also saves time. It often takes me a couple of hours to do a session, so saving the time of travelling to the gym, waiting for equipment to become available is a real boon. The garden yard has been my gym for the last nine months, and has worked out fine, even in the UK winter. Though your extremities (hands) get a bit cold as the thermometer plunges towards zero. I planned to quit the yard for the gym if the weather became unbearable, but this year (my first) was fine. It was, however, a mild winter and very few days were rained out. Next year will be the litmus test. And this quite feasibly doesn't work so well in more extreme climes - even the UK summer is too hot for lifting (occasionally).

    For those of you like me, who don't have much room for a home-gym, or a suitable space for a power rack, I read a thread about trying saw horses. Yes, the things carpenters saw planks of wood on!

    I shelled out a modest sum for two folding, steel saw horses, rated to bear 200kg each. These have worked great, and have the added benefit of not taking up much room at all once they are folded. The only downside is they require you to begin every squat from a very dead stop at the bottom! This no doubt limits what you can attempt to squat, as I have only failed lifts when I can't shift the damn bar to start. But at least you can safely build up as a beginner...

  2. I think the saw horses are a fantastic idea! even as a starter kit, as afterwards you could upgrade to a pair of stands, and use the saw horses as safeties, having the security of a full rack with the advantage of being able to fold 'em and use much less space.

    Before my current cycle I was programming concentric squats (also known as squats from the pins) once a week, and they are terrific to build strentght out of the hole (as you can not rely on the myotatic reflex to power you through). Also, they make failure much less risky (well, that depends, you may also fail with relatively low weights towards the end of an AMRAP set...)

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