Monday, June 16, 2008

Squat. And don't die.

After my squat rant the other day, Charlotte asks:

I love lower body work. I really do. But please tell me how to do heavy squats without getting hemorrhoids. Not trying to be gross. Just saying it took a good six weeks to recover from my last 1-rep max.

She raises an excellent point. Squatting is one of the best things you can do for your body because it involves so many muscles working together to do so many things all at once. Unfortunately, this also means that if you're doing something wrong, you have the opportunity to mess yourself up in so many different ways.

So how do you squat safely? Follow my simple, patent-pending 4-step program:

1 - Learn technique.

The squat is the most technically complex of the "slow lifts." It's worth taking some time to understand exactly what you should be doing before loading up a bar and putting it on your back.

If you can afford it and can find a good coach in your area, in-person training is the best way to learn. If you can't get one-on-one training, then there are plenty of resources out there. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is generally regarded as the Holy Gospel of Strength Training and will tell you everything you need to know about the squat, deadlift, bench press, press, power clean and other lifts. There are plenty of useful videos out there in the inter-webs, too. I'd recommend the Squat Rx videos.

2 - Practice.

As with any physical skill, learning to squat takes practice. Use a light weight -- the empty bar works just fine -- and practice doing all the things you learned to do from your extensive study of technique.

If you have access to a video camera, tape yourself squatting and then watch it to make sure your body is really doing what you think it's doing. You can even post the video online and ask for people to critique your form -- the Crossfit Message Boards and Rippetoe's thread over at Strength Mill are two great places for this.

3 - Take it slow

Once you feel comfortable with the movement and have a reasonable degree of certainty that you're doing it correctly, increase the weight in a CONTROLLED, GRADUAL and METHODICAL way. Increase your weight by a set increment between workouts: 10 pounds at the beginning, moving down to 5 pound or even 2.5 pound increases once the weight starts getting heavier. Making big jumps in weight that your body isn't prepared for (even though you think it is) is a great way to injure yourself.

4 - Rinse and repeat

Tiger Woods is possibly the greatest golfer ever, and his swing causes golf aficionados to drool all over their Nike Dri-Fit polos. But no two swings he's ever taken were identical, and he's completely re-tooled his swing more than once.

Squatting is no different -- even when you've been doing it for years, your squat is constantly changing and you need to be constantly monitoring your form to make sure everything is going well. Once you think you've gotten the squat down pat, take occasional form check videos to make sure you're really still on track, or ask a knowledgeable coach or friend to watch you squat. "Form creep" happens to everyone, and the earlier you spot and correct the little things that start to go wrong, the better off you'll be.

5 - BONUS! A few assorted tips

Some tips for safe & fun squatting for the entire family:

  • Always warm up before squatting. A general warm-up to break a light sweat plus a set or two of light squats before your "work sets" will go a long way to keep you safe.

  • No 1 rep maxes for beginners! Hate to call Charlotte out like this, but she probably shouldn't have been doing a 1 rep max in the first place. Things WILL go wrong in a 1 rep max attempt, and you should have a good deal of experience under the bar before even attempting one. Unless you're training to compete in a strength sport, 1 rep maxes aren't really ever necessary in your training. And many competitive lifters don't attempt a true 1 rep max outside of meets, anyway.

  • Always have some sort of spotter handy. This can mean that you have the safety bars in a power rack or squat rack set to a height that will catch the bar if you get stuck at the bottom of a squat, or just that you have a friend who knows how to safely spot you standing by watching you in case things get out of hand.

Take the time to learn to squat safely and correctly, and you'll reap the benefits for years. Try to do too much weight too soon without learning proper form, and you might end up like this guy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Squat, dammit!

I've discussed the value of the squat before. But it's frustrating to see so many guys in the gym doing nothing but 17 variations of bicep curls and then a set or two of "bench," so please indulge me as I rant a little more about the value of the squat, and lower-body training in general.

For some reason, the American male thinks of strength as an upper-body phenomenon. If a guy wants to get an idea of how strong another guy is, he asks how much he can bench press. Or, if he's not the "interact directly with others" type, he just sizes up the guy's biceps.

But WHY? If your idea of strength can be entirely contained between the elbows and the rib cage, then you're leaving out a significant portion of the human body.

In the real world, if your legs can't support it, you can't lift it. You may be able to bench press 300 pounds, but if you've never squatted or deadlifted, you'll be exactly as useful as your 95 pound niece when it comes to moving a couch or pushing a stalled car.

And please don't try to tell me that you don't need to squat because you run, and running is all the work your legs need. That's just silly. Is 500 dumbbell bench presses with 5 pounds in each hand the same as a heavy set of 5 with 200 pounds? No. Lifting heavy weights builds strength, endless repetition of a motion that is easy when done once does not.

For those of you who don't train for strength, but just want to "look muscular," all I can do is slap you upside the head and tell you to go read up on exercise: if you want to look like an athlete, you have to train like an athlete. And that includes squats, Sonny Jim.

So, please, if you're lifting weights to get stronger, SQUAT. Or deadlift. Heck, do dumbbell lunges if you can't stand the thought of putting a bar on your back. But strengthen your legs with heavy weights, or all you're doing is trying to build a brick house on a foundation made of toothpicks.


I've sucked at this blog thing. To be fair, I was on vacation in China for pretty much the entire month of May, but I logged back on this blog and saw that my most recent post was on April 8!

A quick update on where I've been since then: I started modeling my programming after Crossfit's 3 on, 1 off schedule. I'd lift on the 1st day, do the workout posted to the Crossfit website on days 2 and 3, take a rest day, and repeat. This only lasted for about 2.5 weeks before I headed off to China, but it seemed to be greatly improving my general conditioning while still helping me build strength.

But then I went to China, and had nothing but myself and occasionally some playground equipment to work out with. I did a pretty good job of working out, averaging about 2 workouts for every 3 days I was there. But it was all bodyweight stuff and sprints, so while my conditioning improved a little, my strength definitely went downhill.

So now I'm working on building my strength back up, although I still haven't really gotten back into a steady schedule. I was intending to go with a lift-rest-lift-rest, rinse, repeat, schedule until my strength returned to previous levels, but I've let other things get in the way of that. I'll have to tinker and find a schedule that fits both my goals (get strength back!) and my life.

I generally use squats as a measure of my overall strength, and I'm scheduled to attempt 5 sets of 5 with 245 pounds for my next workout, compared to 275 pounds before I left. It's a little frustrating working with what I previously considered "light" weights but I know it'll come back quickly, provided I can actually get my rear in gear and re-establish the habit of getting in the gym.