A look at the exercise most people feel is the master exercise: SQUATS!
“Yet when it comes time to do leg work, he ambles over to the squat racks (indeed, if he goes at all) rather reluctantly. You can almost hear him say, “Crap, I wish I didn’t have to do these frigen squats today— they’re just no fun—and they’re probably bad for my knees anyway.”
You’ve probably seen the type before: he’ll spend hours and hours doing all manner of bench presses (wide, medium, narrow); inclines, flyes, curls, pressdowns, dips and perhaps even a little light back work thrown in to round out his upper body session. Yes, our friend is definitely ready for the beach this summer: his chest and arms are large and well-defined with each muscle showing maximum development. Furthermore, he spends much of his spare time devising new ways to attack his pectorals; he searches endlessly for some new exercise to add yet another one-half inch to his biceps. Whenever the subject of training comes up, he always asks: “How much can you bench?”
Yet when it comes time to do leg work, he ambles over to the squat racks (indeed, if he goes at all) rather reluctantly. You can almost hear him say, “Heck, I wish I didn’t have to do these cursed squats today— they’re just no fun—and they’re probably bad for my knees anyway.” He does a few half-hearted sets, performing a partial movement at best, then walks away, glad that the squat ordeal is done with. Now he can relax and do some leg extensions and leg curls with 30 pounds. Our upper-body addict, who does 25-30 sets for his chest, and another 20 or so for the arms, does at most three agonizing sets of squats, half squats actually, yet he feels it’s more than enough.
But most weight trainers these days don’t even bother to go that far; they have all been informed by the mass-produced, heavily certified body of “experts” who predominate in our gyms and health clubs that squats are terrible for the knees, bad for the back, and horrendous for the butt, and probably awful for your love life. When I hear these leg-warmer types talk about the squat, I think they must really be discussing the Plague, such is their hostility to the movement.
So, our high-tech fitness buff, not wanting to waste precious time and unnecessary sweat on those worthless squats, will instead do a few extensions and curls and maybe even one set (to failure, of course) on the multi-functional, super-duper leg press machine. He’s convinced that these lazy, purely supplementary lifts are going to put some muscle on the twigs he now possesses, and he’ll be able to do it on the cheap: 20 minutes, three times a week maximum. Thanks to the fitness entrepreneurs and opinion formers, he no longer has to worry about sweating away set after set of full, deep barbell squat. He firmly believes his gorgeous machines will suffice to build his legs, and toss in some functional strength into the bargain.
Except that he, like the chest’n arms kid, is sadly mistaken. The conditioning and strengthening of the quadriceps, hips, and low back should form the basis of ANY valid weight-training routine. These crucial muscles contribute far more to overall health and fitness than any combination of torso muscles can possibly do, simply because these anchoring regions are largely responsible for keeping us upright and for moving us about. Furthermore, as one who has been involved in lifting for over a decade, I have never used any machine, no matter how elaborately designed or ‘time efficient’ that has remotely approached the full squat In terms of its overall effect on the body’s center of power. Indeed, virtually all the equipment on the market today gives almost no direct stimulation at all to the vital hip-low back muscles; In fact, many of the machine manufacturers go out of their way to construct apparatus that will neglect this area entirely. Hence the ineffectiveness of exclusive fixed-stack weight training.
But these explanations, as comforting as they may be, avoid the central issue of the absence from current regimens: squats, when done properly and strictly, are super hard. Much, much harder than our beloved bench presses, inclines, curls and pressdowns could ever be; and all the Mickey Mouse leg-machine movements that dare pretend to replace the squat. Yes, my friends, squats ARE the real McCoy, of weight lifting; but what benefits they give to those who have sincerely apprenticed themselves to the unique demands of this lift!
Take a moment, and find some of the old pictures of Tom Platz, and see for yourself what properly executed full squats can do to a man’s legs. I have yet to come across an article written by or about Tom Platz in which he did not mentioned the tremendous effect squatting has had on his legs; indeed, upon his entire physique. Men like Tom Platz know what the score is when it comes to iron and muscle. Even more broadly if you can, flip through some back issues of the mags published in the 60's and 70's and examine the thigh, hip and low-back development of the Olympic lifters, all of whom have had to pay heavy dues through years of squatting. Many, like Ivanchenko, Rigert, Rakhmanov, Nedelcho Kolev and Blagoev have developed their awesome legs through various squats, and NOT from leg extensions and upside down one-legged presses. They all squatted, squatted, and then squatted some more— because that was (and still is) what it takes to really condition the body to handle the rigors of the loaded bar. If that trip in nostalgia isn't enough just think about who rules the roost today in the world of bodybuilding, Ronnie Coleman. After others were calling his reign over with 2002, he refocused and went on a squatting program that netted him his sixth-seventh-eighth sandow trophies.
But as I’ve said, full squats require far more than virtually any other resistive exercise. Sometimes after a particularly hard high-rep set, with my heart pounding and legs throbbing, I’ll realize why so few expose themselves to the challenges of this movement. It’s so much more comfortable and easy to be lying down doing pec work, or to be sitting in some thickly padded leg machine doing half-rep leg presses. Bill Starr, probably the preeminent authority on weight training in America during the 70's and 80's, unequivocally came out in favor of the full squat in his book The Strongest Shall Survive ( found at Ironman Books just search for the title, very good book by a very good writer).
In fact, the squat forms the heart of his Big Three lilting program; the other two exercises being the power clean and bench press. He writes that “the full squat once again found its way into the athlete’s training schedule and rightfully so since no other single exercise can do so much for hip and leg power.”
In fact, long before our athletic landscape became cluttered with all manner of expensive and questionable machinery, many of the pioneers of weightlifting in America based their workouts around this one movement—Grimek, Berger, Davis, Kono, Schemansky, and, of course, Peary Rader (original publisher of IronMan Magazine). They discovered, even by the 40s and 50s, that the surest method to increase the size and strength of the legs was via consistent squatting. We in 2004 would do well, before condemning the lift, to remember the development and achievements garnered by these men.
Although squats are the best exercise for the power center of the body, the squat can also offer definite cardiovascular stimulation to those wishing to use weights to really work the heart and lungs and increase the breathing capacity. All you have to do is increase the repetitions per set to say 20 and higher, and then do consecutive sets with a minimum of rest in between. If you decide to perform high-rep squats, be sure to concentrate fully on your technique (back held straight, head up, knees out over the toes) as the reps get up there: I have seen people get sloppy and start bouncing out of the bottom and use too much forward lean, which can DEFINITELY lead to injury. Also, breathe deeply as the set progresses; imagine filling and emptying the lungs completely with each inhalation and exhalation. This will enhance your respiratory system and leave your legs and hips humming (due to the tremendous surge of blood, no doubt) in a way no Nautilus program ever could. Five or six sets of 20 reps and up should do the job just fine.
Think about it: how many other weight-training exercises can claim to stimulate the heart and lungs thoroughly while giving the thighs, hips and low back an unparalleled workout? Very, very few, I will maintain. But this will be no vacation In the Bahamas. All It takes though is a little determination and concentration, and a desire to see through the horror stories about the lift, most of which are not founded on actual experience, but rather on misguided imaginations.
The next time I go to the gym, I think I’ll tell both the beach-muscle kid and the high-tech trainee about the advantages and results of deep squatting—they don’t know what they’re in for!