Squats Redux - Mind And Muscle

girl standing on squat barSquats Redux by: Jim Ganley

Of all exercises the squat is the one most likely to be avoided. The excuses are many,
though flimsy. For the most part they can be summarized as fear of hard work, a real pity considering the substantial benefits to be reaped.

My first squat workout took place in 1963. With no weights or other forms of exercise equipment, I did deep knee bends…balanced precariously on the balls of my feet with hands on hips. It may have been that I had read an article about how Airborne troops were expected to be able to make 75 reps this way. I did 76 and promptly gave myself a pat on the back. I can still recall the sense of pure elation generated by the raw, deep-down burn in my quadriceps.

Subsequent sessions saw me knocking off more and more reps until I had eventually worked my way up to 1,000 reps via ten sets of 100. It goes without saying that I mustn’t have had much of a social life. I didn’t care; I was getting into shape.

By the late fall of 1967 I was training at the ‘Y’ after my college classes had let out for the day. Squats were done differently by the guys I observed. They would straddle an exercise bench and descend about a quarter of the way down. The rationale here being that going below parallel would be too hazardous for the knees…or at least that’s what the ‘experts’ were telling us at the time.

Most memorable was the time I observed Dick Dubois squat this way with well over 500 lbs. for one rep. The whole weight room crowd stood by observing and shouting words of encouragement. What struck me as odd was that he did not appear to be particularly muscular and there seemed to have been more stress on his spine than on his legs as he struggled and wobbled to hoist the bar out of and back into the squat rack. He also had a thick towel wrapped around the bar. When I questioned the ‘Y’ Assistant Physical Director, Larry West, about this he told me, “If going below parallel were that bad for the knees, wouldn’t you expect baseball catchers to have a higher than normal rate of knee problems?” Nobody had ever mentioned that.

So I asked Larry to show me the correct way to squat, but he just smirked in a patronizing sort of way and replied that he didn’t lift weights. It was then that I began reading whatever articles I could find about how to train the legs.

John Jesse, RPT wrote a couple of articles in which he declared, in so many words, that full squats were the root of all evil. Trainer to the Stars, Vince Gironda, condemned squats as anathema to physical aesthetics stating, “All you’ll get from squats is a big butt.” Vince didn’t even have squat racks in his gym, preferring instead hack squats, sissy squats, and Smith machine squats. Vince also had leg development that was small compared to what he had achieved in his upper body.

Then, while reading a copy of Muscle Builder / Power Magazine, I noticed an article on the best exercises for leg strength and development, in which it was stated that full squats were the granddaddy of all leg exercises. Featured therein was a photo of Dave Draper, barbell balanced across his upper trapezius, coming out of the hole. The article explained that Dave was one of only a handful of modern bodybuilders who still did this demanding though productive exercise. Maybe full squats were just what I needed.

The solution to my squatting dilemma was beautiful in its simplicity. To avoid knee injuries and a big butt, I would do full squats with a light weight for very high repetitions. I wouldn’t even need to use the squat rack. The ‘Y’ weight room had a pair of home made parallel bars comprised of plumber’s pipes bolted to the wall and floor. Ordinarily this set up was used for dips. All I needed to do was place a fixed 35 lb. barbell atop these parallel bars, come up beneath it, step back, squat to exhaustion, and then re-rack the barbell. I would attempt to do at least 20 but not more than 50 reps. When I could reach 50 reps I would advance to a 45 lb barbell.

It wasn’t long before I had worked my way up to 20 reps with 95 lbs. I knew I was growing stronger, and my knees still felt great. There was, however, one problem. My improvised squat rack was located right next to the door to the boiler room. Unfortunately this door opened INTO the weight room. I had just finished squatting when the door opened unexpectedly, slamming into that 95 lb barbell and knocking it off the dipping bars and onto the floor. The noise was like a plane crash. Then the shouting tirade began.

“WHO PUT THIS BARBELL ON THE DIPPING BARS ?” It was Mr. Gilbert Grant, the Physical Director of the ‘Y’. Mr. Grant was a career ‘Y’ director from the old school. In his early sixties and very fit, he was a knowledgeable, helpful professional…but didn’t suffer fools very well and wouldn’t put up with any nonsense at the ‘Y’; not for a minute. And it
didn’t matter how big and strong or tough the transgressor was; if you screwed up, Mr. Grant would put you in your place. “Uh…I did,” came my timid reply, acknowledging my faux pas, “It was me.” Sore as a boil, Gil Grant walked up to me and said, “Pushing your luck a bit aren’t you, son?” Looking at the floor sheepishly, I just mumbled something that sounded like, “Hummina-hummina-hummina…”

Eventually Mr. Grant adopted a more civil tone and pointed toward the squat rack. “We’ve got a rack for what you want to do, you know. That’s why they call it a squat rack. The dipping bars are for dips…get it? I got it.

So at this point I was forced to graduate to the squat rack. This one was a primitive, home made model composed of two pipes with non adjustable weight supports bolted to the wall, ceiling, and floor. There were no safety bars, as I learned very abruptly when I got stuck in the low position with 205 lbs. and had to dump it off my back, my feet going out from beneath, and me landing flat on my can on the concrete floor. Except for a bruised ego, I was uninjured.

I had been following a power routine written by Chuck Sipes in Muscle Training
Illustrated that called for very heavy weights for only 2 or 3 reps…apparently 2 or 3 reps more than what I was able to do at that time. It was then that I decided that it might be wise to observe some of the Y’s more proficient squatters. There were only a few: Gus Normand, a collegiate hockey player; Alex Tartsa, a high school biology teacher; and Al Pelletier, a plumber who’d purportedly been training seriously since he was a little kid.

These guys all wore heavy work boots and squatted ‘butt to the floor’ with heavy weights for moderate reps. None of them did the crazy, impossible weight, quarter squat stuff that most everyone else at the ‘Y’ had been doing. Rather, they would work up to perhaps 365 to 405 lbs. for 8 to 10 reps. It was here that I learned how to squat the right way.

Some important points to consider. There are several ways to squat: high bar, also known as Olympic squats, keeping the torso upright with the bar carried on the upper trapezius; Power squats, leaning forward with the bar resting on the posterior deltoids and scapula area; front squats, where the bar rests on the anterior deltoids and upper chest. I always preferred high bar squats and front squats because they seemed to suit my particular structure better than the other squat variations.

Next, when we’re 20 to 25 years old it is far too easy to believe that we are indestructible and adopt some rather risky training practices…such as squatting without safety bars or spotters, rounding the back, descending too quickly into the low position, bouncing out of the low position, twisting the body like a corkscrew and inverting the knees to get the weight up…doing anything to get it up. Most who squatted this way eventually accrued injuries. I was one of the lucky ones because I adopted better form and a safer style of squatting.

The other factor to consider is your focus. When squatting with extremely heavy poundages for low reps, our concentration is directed almost entirely toward moving the barbell from point A to point B. What matters most is what happens BETWEEN point A and point B. In this regard, a more moderate poundage may yield superior results because we are free to concentrate on the kinesthetics or pure muscle action of the exercise, thereby imparting greater stimulus to the targeted muscles.

There are a million stories in the world of fitness…this has been one of

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