Are you just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner. A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.
Have you read those articles calling the squat the “King of all Strength Exercises.” but find the squat to be an uncomfortable, troubling exercise? Has your coach told you to do squats, but you have stuck to leg presses instead? Do you look at the Powerlifting Meet schedule on this site, but only look for Push/Pull competitions? Does the idea of holding a heavy weight on your shoulders give you a queasy feeling? Let me share a little story with you:
One day when I was about 13, I was sitting at home watching TV, when my father came running up the stairs huffing and puffing, and yelling for me. He told me to come down stairs with my mother and my brother, and he wanted us to bring the camera. My father had built a squat rack in our basement, and for many years he had been training down there, to get time to himself in our noisy house. On this day, my father was attempting a PR squat, and he wanted the moment preserved for posterity. My mother held the camera as my brother and I watched my dad hoist the weight off the rack. The intensity in his face was kind of scary, since I had only ever seen him like this when I had done something truly mischievous or stupid. But then he lowered himself with the weight, and then stood up slowly, making a loud, muffled scream through clenched teeth as he went. About halfway up, he leaned forward a little and started to tip. I saw the bar starting to drop, and then my brother yelled something. I grabbed one end of the bar. He grabbed the other, and we helped my dad put the weight back into the rack.
Up to that point, my father’s weight set had been just a big pile of junk that I stubbed my toe on, except for the little dumbbell, which was fun to smash matchbox cars with. One that day, that PR squat became a sort of “brass ring.” My father tried a couple times over the next couple years to get the weight, but never made it. To me, it was like the peak of Mt. Everest, the seemingly unattainable goal, off in the distance. Sometimes, late at night, I would sneak down to the basement, and carefully load the bar up to the exact weight that my father had bombed, just as it had been that day. Then I would stare at the bar, sometimes turning the plates, and sometimes even putting my shoulders underneath the weight. And every time, I would imagine myself making the lift. I was hooked, and needless to say, it didn’t take that long before I was putting up some weight on the squat.
So, now that you have read about my childhood, what is my point? Well, in order to squat and squat well, there is one element that I found to be more important than anything else: RESPECT. Not like Aretha Franklin respect, but more like driving that Uhaul truck you rented to move out of your apartment. The squat is a difficult, technically challenging, and potentially dangerous lift. It can make you feel very awkward and humble just taking the weight out of the racks. Please let me be clear: I am not saying fear the squat, but I am saying respect the squat. If you respect it, and tame the beast in the racks, then you will be more than half way to a huge total. One cannot attain a Karwoski/Coan/Hatfield-type total without it.
Here are some basic things that I have learned from 12 years of squatting.
For one thing, the squat is a pretty precarious position to put yourself in. It seems unnatural to many, and feels vulnerable to many more. My guess is that a significant portion of the population would be unable to do a single deep squat, even with no added weight. The motion requires strength in a lot of muscles. It requires flexibility, and it creates muscular tension at several joints, which may not be accustomed to the stress.
Plus, there are many who just look at the exercise and get psyched out. I have seen many guys at the gym climb under the bar in the rack, and as they unrack the weight and step back, you know that they are already defeated, just by the look on their face. They squat shallow, or they don’t even try. Or, they do a couple reps and put the weight back, not coming close to the goal they set, or making a set that they are capable of.
Here is an extreme illustration: When was the last time you saw a guy do forced reps on the squat? Maybe you have, but compare that to the number of times you see bench press for forced reps. Also, how many people actually go to failure on free squats? It is a humbling feeling to have the weight come to rest on the rack pins when you fail a squat. Unlike the bench, deadlift, or many of the assistance lifts, it just feels so much worse to fail a squat. And the fear of failure has kept many from trying. (Before I get a bunch of e-mail on this point, let me clarify: I am not necessarily advocating forced reps or going to failure on the squat, or any other lift. I am just saying that the lift is so challenging, that pushing to the limits on the squat is rarely done, because a lifter is not mentally ready to make a lift.)
The key to a big squat is first believing that you can make it, and secondly having the mental discipline to hold your form, even if the weight feels uncomfortable.
Another big key to finding the right groove is foot placement. Many have written volumes here, but I will keep this simple. At the beginning, do a free squat without weight, with your hands out in front of you. Wherever your feet are, that is probably pretty close to the best balance for your weighted squats. This may change a little when the weights get heavier. But as a beginner, lets not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The Ten Commandments of the Beginning Squatter
So, she started with the 25 lb. curling bar, and
then started adding weight. Here’s how it went:
For those of you used to looking at training articles by multiple World Champion Ed Coan, you may say, why are you talking about such a light weight? I do more weight than that for one-arm curls!!
Here is the point: Only squat with weight you can handle. (See Rule #8) . Then, slow steady progress with hard work will lead to big gains. A 5 pound jump may seem small, but they add up quickly!! Many competitive lifters would kill for a jump of 40 lb. in 8 weeks. In this particular case, the trainer had trouble keeping form. By doing sets of 5, she got more accustomed to watching her form, but not fatiguing so badly from a high rep set that her form started to suffer. As a result, she is building good habits, instead of bad ones. The results: After only two months, she has singled 85 lb. raw, and should be good for 100+ at her first meet. All this without even a hint of knee trouble or back pain.
While progressive overload as I have described above may not be the most effective for the seasoned veteran, or Elite-level lifter, I do believe a beginner will see great progress from a basic system of training the squat once per week, increasing weight by 5-10 lb. each week. When I first got started into power squatting in college, I increased the weight by ten pounds each week, doing 1 or 2 sets of 5. I started at 155x5 the first week, and at week 14, I was nailed 295x5. If you think that I started light, well, yes I did. But I got used to working with a weight that I could handle. I worked on keeping my form, and even though I didn’t struggle with the weight for the first few weeks, I did get plenty sore. That’s part of what makes squats so great. They will make you strong even if you don’t train with maximum loads.
So, I encourage you to jump right in and give them a shot. The “King of all Exercises” will crown you for your efforts.
For more information on getting started check out the archives section here on Strength Online or drop by the Q&A forums.
Reproduction of this article,
in whole or part, for any purpose other than personal use is