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Default 08-21-2005, 08:54 AM

You Don't Know Squat

by Joe DeAngelis

From the very first day I picked up weights as a young 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.

What makes me such a squat expert? For one thing, I've been
training for twenty years now. Some might consider me a purist-I use no
weight training belt or knee wraps. My best squat in a powerlifting
competition to date is 805 pounds. Recently, I was 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. Once again, I didn't use a
belt or knee wraps. These squats were rockbottom.

For these reasons, I feel I know something about squats. I consider
the squat to be a great way to increase strength and muscular
development. I have no knee or back problems-I actually feel like I'm
fifteen years old! Plus, with several personal trainer certifications
under my belt, I can confidently say, “I know squat.”

My success and absence of injuries are the result of several
factors, including being obsessed with exercise performance, proper
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 of the basic barbell squat. As I'm most
concerned about muscular development, 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
endeavor to keep my lower back tight, my chest up, and shoulders back.
I also keep my eyes forward. 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's no rapid movements 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-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 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. Once again, the guys who use knee wraps are
always complaining about knee problems!

The same can be said for using a weight training belt. In a healthy
athlete, 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 informercial gimmick will ever
accomplish. Did you know that 90% of back pain is a result of weak back
muscles, not injury? The remaining 10% are directly attributable to
accidents. So strengthen that back, sofa boy!

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 natural” with
the same weight you were using. Start with a light weight, and use
strict form. Or go to a doctor 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, a high protein, moderate carb, and moderate fat intake
works well for me. While my diet is solid all year round, there is
always a place for quality supplements, especially during periods of
intense training. For example, when I trying to achieve a specific
goal, such as preparing for a bodybuilding competition, my pre-workout
ritual includes Animal Stak, Hot Shots, a mixture of Ribose and
Glutamine Powders, and sometimes an aspirin to help cut down the
inflammation that will come from my workout.

As my training is always hard and heavy, I also take Flax 1000 for
its anti-inflammatory properties, Jointment as insurance against joint
and ligament problems, and a daily Animal Pak for its vitamins,
minerals, antioxidants, aminos, and performance enhancers. Proper
supplementation works. Take it seriously.

Preventative Health Care

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 200+ 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. I've had no significant injuries
(my worst injury in all my years of training was a shoulder problem,
and that was from snowboarding!). But 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 health
care professional who uses the appropriate therapeutic modalities
(massage, ultrasound, diathermy, etc.) will insure 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.

Mental Prep

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 gladiator going into battle as I approach the power rack. Like
the gladiator, 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 the
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 near-spiritual experience.

The people who get consistent results are referred to as
“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. Happy squatting.
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