“I bet you think you just have to train hard to grow like a weed, right? Wrong, bro. To run with the big dogs, you've got to be 100% healthy and injury-free first.”
From the very first day I picked up weights as a kid, squats were at the center of my lifting universe. Today, I still believe that squats are the "king" of all exercises. Not Smith Machine squats, or front squats. Not hack squats, or the latest squat machines with the comfy shoulder pads. No, I'm talking about barbell squats pure and simple. Barbell squats are an exercise surrounded by myths, untruths, and outright lies. I'm going to set the record straight.
But you want to know, what makes me such a squat expert? For one thing, I've been training for twenty years now. Some have accused me of being a squat purist: I don't use a weight training belt or knee wraps. My best squat in an official powerlifting meet to date is 805 pounds. I was even filmed by Powerlifter Video Magazine completing twenty rockbottom squats with 500 pounds of weight, followed by eight reps at 600 pounds a few minutes later, and then a single rep at 700 pounds. No belt. No wraps. No squat suits. These squats were flat out rockbottom. So yeah, I know squats. Whether you're a beginner or a pro, the squat is a great way to increase strength and muscular development.
My success and absence of injuries are the result of several factors, including being obsessed with exercise performance, solid nutrition, preventative health care, and taking the slightest injury seriously and getting the proper attention immediately. I'll deal with each of these issues separately.
There are many variations on the basic barbell squat. As I'm most concerned about muscular development and raw power, I choose to do my squats with a relatively narrow stance, toes slightly pointed outward. This is also how I stand when relaxed. In fact, most people will find that their own "natural positions" will be the most productive and comfortable when it comes to squats.
I also stand on a 3/4" thick board which elevates my heels slightly. Some experts believe this puts too much stress on the knees. While this may be true, it's because there is less hip flexion, and more stress on the quads. Remember, your knee is a hinge joint, and the movement forward out over the toe is not necessarily a bad thing. I keep my lower back tight, my chest up, and shoulders back. I also keep my eyes forward. In my opinion, looking up can put unnecessary stress on the vertebrae behind the neck.
Treat every rep as a separate event. I consciously remind myself (especially as fatigue sets in during a set) to keep my chest up and back tight. Not maintaining this position will open your back up to possible injury. Personally, I wear a snug tank top under my sweats which reminds me to keep my chest, back and abs tight. When I begin the movement, it is always under control. There are no rapid jerks or bouncing. I slowly lower myself to a full squat position, and then deliberately push upward, maintaining position, to complete the rep.
I'm against partial squats as these movements transfer too much negative stress to the knees during the process of "stopping" the squat. During a full squat, this stopping stress comes at the bottom of the movement and is absorbed by the glutes and hamstrings. These are big muscles which can handle the stress. Have you ever noticed that the people who complain about knee problems from squats are those people who do partial squats, believing they are easier on the knees?
Proper warm-up is also crucial. I ride the exercise bike for ten minutes, perform five to six sets of leg curls to failure, plus one or two easy sets of leg extensions. I'll also do a couple of sets of squats with my lightest weight to get physically and mentally prepared for the torture that will follow. Between sets of squats, I stretch my quads, lower back and hamstrings constantly. Tight quads or hamstrings will contribute to sore knees.
While saying that I don't use knee wraps, a suit, or a belt may sound like bragging, it's not. There's a good reason why I avoid using these accessories. Knee wraps will take good developmental stress away from the knees, creating muscle imbalances which can ultimately lead to injury. Also, tight knee wraps will compress the kneecap, which can result in serious problems. In the gym, guys who use knee wraps are always the ones complaining about knee problems. Get a life, girls.
The same can be said for using a weight training belt. If you're healthy, a weight training belt will take good stress away from developing muscles, causing muscle imbalances. A weight training belt can actually act as a second set of abdominal muscles, taking stress away from the abs. My advice is to lose the belt. You'll be rewarded with better abs than any crunch or infomercial gimmick will ever accomplish.
One final bit of advice on the topic of squat performance: common sense dictates that if you approach your half squats wrapped from head to toe with a belt, power suit, knee wraps, and the like, don't suddenly run into the gym and try to do full squats "au naturale" with the same weight you were using. Start with a light weight, and use strict form. Or go to a psychiatrist so he can unscrew your head and let the hamster out. Remember, weight training done properly is one of the safest activities one can undertake. Done improperly, it is one of the most dangerous.
In general, when you're training for maximum size and strength, a high protein, moderate carb, and moderate fat, mass gain diet will work well. While my diet is solid all year round, there is always a place for quality supplements, especially during periods of intense training. Whether I'm preparing for a meet or not, I never leave home without my Animal Pak, Animal Stak and Animal Whey. Supplementation works. For serious athletes, it's mandatory, so take it seriously.
In keeping with proper supplementation, taking an active part in preventing injury is also important. As I said, I stretch quads and hamstrings. I also fill a sandwich baggie with ice and put one on each knee while watching TV after a particularly tough squat workout. During the winter months, I'll even use neoprene knee wraps to keep my knees warm during a workout. They do not provide support, but just keep the warmth in. I also get chiropractic adjustments regularly.
No matter how skilled a race car driver is, speeding around a track at 205 miles per hour will eventually land him in an accident. Likewise, squatting hundreds of pounds involve a similar risk of mishap, and when one happens, no matter how minor, your immediate attention and response is critical. As soon as I feel a pulled muscle, a tender joint, I give it immediate attention. I consult with my healthcare practitioner and follow his advice to the letter.
Many people, when they experience a pulled muscle, rest it until pain goes away. This only encourages the development of scar tissue, which is different and weaker than healthy tissue. Visiting a professional who uses the appropriate therapeutic modalities (massage, ultrasound, diathermy, etc.) will ensure that the injured tissue is rehabilitated to the point of being 100%. Most serious injuries begin as minor aches and pains, so listen to your body and treat it properly.
More than any other exercise, squats demand a mental toughness that no other exercise can match. That's one reason I like it so much. I feel like a true gladiator going into battle as I approach the power rack. Like a warrior, I begin thinking about my impending battle, days in advance, with excitement. I begin to hunger for the feel of the weights on my back, imagine how tough the sets will be, and savor the sweet taste of victory as I slay the beast.
Believe me, you'll feel the exact same way when you do twenty reps to failure. Grinding out rep after rep can be a spiritual experience.
In my gym, we call those people who get consistent results "grinders." They rep until failure, then somehow manage to grind out another one. Develop an animal instinct for this kind of mental and physical toughness, and when you combine it with squats, you'll see spectacular results. I hope these tips inspire you to bigger and better workouts. Soon, you'll know squat.