So far we have covered quite some ground regarding why and the rudiments of how to squat (two verbose posts you can find here and here). It is time then to share my ten pearls of wisdom (plus a bonus one) for a long and productive squatting career:
· Tip #1 progressive overload: The secret to reap all the benefits of squatting, as we intimated in the first post of this series, is to continuously increase the effort. I advised to start with the empty bar, and slowly increase the number of reps until one can execute with perfect form (preferably ascertained by some objective judge with enough experience) 5 sets of 5 reps each. From that baseline level (that some can reach in their first session, and some in their first month) you should strive to add a little in each session. A good rule of thumb is to add 5 kg if you are a healthy young male, 2.5 if you are an elderly out of shape man (anything above 50 years, 35 if you never exercise) or a woman, and as little as 1 kg per session if you are frail or affected by some serious health condition (that would make it advisable to start with a technique bar weighting less than the customary 20 kg). It is preferable to err on the side of caution and start too low, as it will simply require a bit more to reach the same level as if you had started higher, but you will get there more safely.
I recognize that this “increase weight in each session” is downright scary for many people, especially women, who would tell me “I do not want to compete in powerlifting, so what is the point in adding more kg to the bar” (behind that you can always detect the faint echo of “I don’t want to get bulky, and moving a stratospherical weight like… 20 kg will surely make me look like the feminine version of the Hulk”). Sorry, but adding weight, more so at the beginning, is non-negotiable. Only the judicious imposition of a reasonable amount of stress to the organism can induce it to break the homeostasis (the equilibrium it find itself into) and trigger the chain of beneficial effects I described in the first post of this series. And after a few sessions with the same weight, it will just stop imposing that stress, so more weight has to be employed. There will come a time (typically well above the 20 kg mentioned before!) when weight can not be added, no matter how small the increment, and at that point the trainee will need to switch to a “periodized” model in which he or she plays with the number of sets and reps with sub maximal weights (see tip #4), but the later the transition to that model happens, the better, as the linear progression we are proposing to begin with will provide the fastest, surest gains (in strength, balance, joint health, self confidence and overall physical well-being)
· Tip #2 low bar for strength, high bar for athleticism: regarding the style of squat to use, low bar allows for higher weights and requires less flexibility. This allowance for a higher weight makes it a source of bigger systemic stress, and thus is to be preferred if our main goal is becoming overall stronger. Now if instead of pure (brute) strength what you are after is better performance in most sports, high bar squatting is less taxing in the organism, and favors a faster rate of force development, which translates in greater advantages in the court for most sports (that require sprinting and changes of direction where comparatively stronger quads give you more bang for the buck than a more solid posterior chain)
· Tip #3 squat often: because of its relatively demanding eccentric component (the part of the movement where the muscle lengthens while applying force –in this case, the lowering part) the squat can easily produce a very intense DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Even recognizing that, relying on the biggest, strongest muscle groups of the body it also lends itself to be trained frequently, and the bigger gains come performing the lift (even if it is in different variants which can complement themselves nicely) at least twice a week, and possibly above. There are many good programming philosophies out there that contemplate training each main lift of the powerlifting trifecta only once a week (Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 comes to mind), but a) they are typically oriented to the experienced lifter, the more novice one tends to benefit from practicing it more frequently, and b) many times they posit a 2nd session within the week where, focusing on another lift, some variant of the squat is used as an assistance exercise with a less demanding load. So to simplify, ensure that, especially at the beginning of your lifting career, you squat at least twice a week, and do not fear doing it more
· Tip #4 wave volume and intensity: in a few months after you start squatting systematically it will become impossible to keep on adding the weight you were adding from one session to the next while still doing 5 x 5 (five sets of five reps each). Traditionally this is considered the end of the noob phase, and it is advisable to transition to a more advanced scheme where you vary the number of sets, the reps in each and the intensity (percentage of the 1RM, or “one repetition maximum” that you think you could achieve) to allow for continuing progress. There are a number of ways of doing this (currently described under the umbrella term “periodization”), and all of them are variants of the same basic pattern: start doing more reps with less weight, from one session to the next increase weight and reduce total reps –volume- until you reach a new maximum weight –not necessarily for a single rep-, at which point you start the cycle anew, but with slightly more weight than at the beginning of the previous iteration. Both the aforementioned 5/3/1 and Mark Rippetoe’s Practical Programming for Strength Training are excellent resources from where to mine programs that can keep you going (and progressing) for years.
Those four tips will probably set you to stand head and shoulders above your regular gym goer, who squats infrequently if at all, with atrocious form (or even worse, in a Smith machine) and with no rhyme or reason (no consistent plan of programmed improvement, so he stays at the same level year after year), and just following them guarantees 80% (maybe even 90%) of the benefits I’ve been extolling. Once you have made a habit of them, there are a number of lesser details that in my experience can give you a little additional boost, and that can be ingrained since day 1
· Tip #5 belt only in heavy sets: we discussed the benefits (and more pertinent kind) of belts in my previous post, but I want to delve a little deeper about its use here. Although some coaches maintain that the belt allow the muscles to work more intensely, and thus see some merit in using the belt for all sets, since the beginning of each session, the mainstream view is to restrict its use only to the heaviest ones. I personally never use it for HBBS (where I simply can not lift above 80% of my PR in LBBS) or for FS (where I do not go above 70%) ,and when I do LBBS, I lift without it until I get to about 85% of whatever my current PR is (so now I would only use it when attempting lifts above 145). That gives me a nice balance between having to rely on my unaided “core” muscles for most of the workout (and you really feel them being more and more exhausted as the reps accumulate!) and feeling safe and protected for the heaviest lifts of the day.
· Tip #6 walk off authoritatively: few activities are more revealing of the extent we are embodied minds as lifting weights. I have read the works of George Lakoff and disagreed with every sentence of the page (and I’ve made my stance about dualism as a better description of what is really out there in other posts in this blog). However, when it comes to getting under the bar and either moving it successfully or failing, I subscribe to the old saying of Tommy Kono about this sport being 80% mental and only 20% physical. Being convinced of your ability to move the Goddamn weight is much more determinant of you actually completing the lift than your precise training methodology in the previous weeks and the sets, reps and percentages of your max you have been moving. And that conviction starts showing the moment you lift the bar from the J-hooks and take the little steps backward before initiating the descent. If you grab the bar full of doubts and it feels ungodly heavy from the moment you let it rest on your traps you are substantially reducing your chances of ever standing back up with it.
So rather than letting those doubts ruin the result of potentially many months of effort, visualize the lift in as much detail as you can. Think of how the bar is going to feel, heavy but not that different from so many times you dominated it. Not just in your traps and delts, but imagine also how it is going to feel in the palm of your hands, the distinct relief of the knurling, the smell of the chalk in the air… now think as minutely as possible in how you will start bending the knees and going down with that bar in your back, the hammies kicking in high gear once yo are close to parallel, the glutes and the adductors stretching so they can contribute more powerfully to the rebound that is going to get you out of the hole. Imagine yourself half way up, may be decelerating a bit but pushing now with all your might ‘til the lift is completed and you have safely locked the knees and the hip. Now actually walk towards the bar, with determination and confidence. Start executing the sequence you have run in your head. When you take the bar from the hooks (do not hesitate there, lifting it two inches is not a real challenge, so stand tall with it, chest well puffed out), tell yourself it feels light, convince yourself it is easy to move and erase any trace of doubt about your ability to complete the lift. Take the two steps back thinking all the way how eminently doable it feels, how you have grown strong up to that precise point in time where you are standing now, ready to crush the weight and complete the deed.
· Tip #7 screw feet/ spread floor: so you are already standing with the bar one feet from the rack (or from the stands), and you want to pre-load the main muscles you are going to use. You want to create some tension, so they have an extra tightness in them when they start lengthening as you descend, storing a little extra energy in their myosin bridges so when you change direction that extra energy is released in an extra strong stretch reflex, and propels you upwards like a rocket. For that, think in screwing your feet to the floor, rotating slightly your knees outwards (the left one rotates anticlockwise, whilst the right one rotates clockwise, if you have some difficulties visualizing it), which should be made contracting your vastus lateralis (the outer part of the quadriceps). Once you have slightly rotated the knees and feel the tension all along the legs, you can squeeze the last atom of tension by “spreading the floor”, or trying to force the feet apart (without the feet actually moving, you just use that cue to remember to contract the muscles that are about to lengthen in the descent). It goes without saying that you shouldn’t overdo this, to the extent of actually bending the legs (or opening the feet in a less advantageous stance), you keep everything locked and tight, create that extra tension in the quads, the adductors and the glutes, and then go down with the confidence enabled by that extra tigthness.
· Tip #8 The big gulp (breathing & valsalva): We also mentioned in the first post that you inhaled before each rep, blocked the glottis and “pushed the air down” or into the belly (this is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, and of course the air does not actually go to the belly, you just use the filled lungs to better push with your diaphragm down to increase the intra-abdominal tension). With heavy weights, you also have to learn to “brace”, or use that extra intra-abdominal tension to contract the core muscles (rectus abdominis, both external and internal layers, and obliques) really hard to stabilize the spine and counteract the shear forces it suffers (that lacking enough strength in the core would make you fold like an old envelope). That contraction shouldn’t be that alien to anybody that has ever suffered from constipation (that should be about 99% of the human race) and has had to fight mightily to have a stubborn shit out of him (or her, as much as we guys may cringe at it women also have to take difficult dumps now and then). Same thing or (if you can) more intense, but without relaxing the sphincter (although in some Anglo-American circles it is wore as a badge of honor squatting so hard that you have sometimes met with all of the “four P’s”: peeing, pooping, puking and passing out, seriously guys, do not relax the sphincter, your gym buddies will forever thank you)
· Tip #9 slow downwards, explode upwards: in training, a common saying is that “speed is king”. The faster athlete is normally the better athlete, and speed, although it has a very high genetic component (it is determined mainly by the percentage of type II muscle fibers you are born with, being unclear to what extent that percentage can be modified by external factors), is like most physical features amenable to improving through training. There is a quite complex theoretical framework about how speed can be manipulated as an additional variable (from Verkhoshansky’s distinction between speed-strength and strength-speed, as opposed to pure strength, to CAT -Compensatory Acceleration Training- as advocated by the likes of Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield), at this point I just want to point that squatting fast feels different, and has some distinctive advantages, over grinding most reps. Now that speed has to be cautiously applied, as going down quickly can impose an excessive stress on the knee joint (especially because of the well known fact that muscles grow stronger faster than tendons, ligaments and the rest of supporting structures, so it is relatively common in the initial stages of training to be able to move with ease weights with the potential of wreaking havoc on some joints, causing injuries that vary in seriousness from tendonitis to tendon tears that require surgical reattachment of the involved muscles). Thus my rejoinder to descend slowly and in a controlled manner, but then explode upwards trying to accelerate all the way up (what the old timers called “rattling the plates”, as that speed should impart a momentum to the bar as to force it to continue moving upwards after we have fully stood up), even if that means leaving the ego aside and training with a bit less weight (a smaller percentage of our 1RM)
· Tip #10 explore the depths (how low should you go): Probably the only issue more contentious in fitness circles than the position of the bar (low vs. high) is the recommendable depth to reach. In one extreme, we have general enthusiasts that are of the opinion that any squat where the femur goes below parallel is akin to committing suicide, and buying all the tickets in a raffle where the only prize is seeing one day your kneecap blow out of the patellar joint and smash the opposing wall; in the other extreme we have Olympic lifting coaches that say that any squat where you don’t leave the mark of your butt in the gym floor is too high, unfit for purpose and no good at all for generic improvement. And in the middle we have powerlifters, for which the only valid squat is the parallel squat, but that think that any squat that goes an inch deeper is a waste of time and energy (to the extent that they have developed a specific variant, the box squat, where you literally squat to a box to ensure you reach “proper” depth but no further… well it is a bit more complex, and the box squat is indeed a wonderful assistance exercise, but I’m not going to discuss in this already too long post). As is usually the case, the best option depends on the goals we pursue and the particular conditions of the individual. However, for most purposes the deeper squat is the better squat, as it is the only one that makes the quads work to its full extent (it may challenge the hamstrings and glutes less, but if it is the development of posterior chain strength you are after, I’ll be introducing you in a few posts your future best friend, he is called “deadlift”). Although it forces you to use less weight, so it is indeed a bit less conductive to overall strength development, it more than compensates by giving you a strength that can be expressed through a wider range of motion, and that better simulates most sports. It also improves flexibility, which is never a bad thing.
Regarding the potential negative impact on joint health, I’ll share with you a personal story (which is up to you to decide how representative it is, or how applicable to your particular case). Four years ago I was squatting regularly (as I had been for four years prior to that, give or take) and running, but I was experiencing lots of problems in my reconstructed knee, which was inflamed most of the time, and so made it quite painful to bend (not very good for the squats, as you may imagine). So I went to see a doctor, the same knee specialist that had performed the surgical reconstruction of that very same knee about twenty years back. After I told him what ailed me, and he examined (and saw X-rays of) the knee, he told me not to worry, as the inflammation was caused by the normal wear and tear of the femur against the tibia, not having a meniscus to cushion it. The solution according to him was to wear orthotic insoles (so the heel was raise on one side to tilt a bit the tibia, which would help to distribute the weight more evenly between the femoral condyles), to sit with straightened legs (the less I bent them the better) and, especially, to never squat below 45º (so not even a half squat, but a quarter squat). “But Doctor!” -I complained, “as you can see I lift weights, and not in any lackadaisical and casual manner, but in competitive weightlifting and powerlifting! How am I supposed to crouch under a heavy weight in the snatch or in the clean and jerk if I can not bend the knees to the full?” “Well, son” –he answered “at your age you should forget about those demanding exercises and take better care of yourself… you can be as muscular as you want squatting just to 45º, so be reasonable and leave it at that”. If I had even for a second considered following his advice I would have been devastated. Which I didn’t (so I wasn’t). I did buy the insoles and to this day sit preferably with more extended knees. And I kept squatting as low as I could go, until the calves smashed against the hamstrings (when I squatted high bar or front squatted, when I went really heavy and used low bar I didn’t go as deep). Now because the insoles made running noticeably less comfortable, I started running much, much less, and my knees improved noticeably (the inflammation went away, and I recovered most of the mobility I had lost). The moral of the story? I’m not sure squatting deep is bad for your knees (if executed with proper technique), as I do it regularly with no pain or inflammation whatsoever. What I do know is that running (in asphalt or stony pavements) is much, much worse, and that I know what I would suppress first.
· Tip #11 Little rest between sets (the less the better): There is something in squatting that just lends itself to being done continuously, for as long as possible. Maybe it’s the way the whole body enters in a kind of haze (that can reach hallucinatory levels if you push it hard enough) when your ability to keep going depends to a certain extent on being able to “get out of your own body” and contemplate it from afar, alien to the pain caused by the accumulated fatigue, the burning pain in the legs and the difficulty to keep on breathing under the crushing weight. Given the systemic nature of the exercise (the fact, mentioned before, that it involves almost all the consciously controlled muscles of the body) it can be very profitably used to improve the whole cardiovascular condition, on top of its effects to increase the strength we are capable of exerting. But for killing that second bird with the same stone you have to really push yourself a little harder and keep the rest period between set always below what you consider necessary for full recovery. So when you think with just three or four more deep breaths you may be ready for another set it’s past time already to run under the bar to start the next one, the whole universe be damned. Not only will your overall aerobic capacity improve (without having to resort to that evil kind of exercise called running, that as we have just seen is dastardly dangerous for some of your joints), but probably also your testicular fortitude (ovarian fortitude for the ladies, I guess), your resolve and your will to live. Of course, that whole training philosophy is incompatible with the prevalent attitude you see in gyms nowadays, where people talk to each other between sets, seem in general quite unfocused and, sin of sins! Even carry their smartphones with them and dare to fiddle with the little gadgets every now and again. A serious trainer, one truly committed to his / her physical and mental improvement does nothing between sets but look intently at the bar, full of rage, desire to overcome and willpower, and when he looks about to croak from exhaustion he stands up and goes for another friggin’ set
So there you are, ten plus one tips to help you get your squat to the next level. Now read less, talk less, and train more. Time to put some weight on that bar!