Learning the squat 2: Why squat?

In Part 1, I discussed the myth that people shouldn’t learn to squat because they don’t need to, or that machine leg exercises are a good enough substitute. Sure, machines can come in handy and they have their place, especially in rehab. But the skills gained from squatting cannot be matched by a machine. In this section, I’m going to discuss what the squat actually does for you.

First and foremost, the squat improves your strength. The prime movers in the squat are the muscles of the thighs, hips, and buttocks. However, many other muscles are involved as stabilizers and helpers. The back muscles must keep the spine in the correct position, pushing the chest out and retracting the shoulder blades, and holding the arch in the lower back tight. The muscles in the calves and feet must provide a steady foundation. The muscles of the torso, such as the abs and obliques, as well as the deeper muscles, must help provide a column of support (see my article on ab training). It’s really a full body exercise. Squatting improves strength for activities such as cycling, running, and jumping, as well as daily-life activities.

Second, the squat improves your balance. Folding up under a load, and not falling over, challenges your body in a way that is unique. With practice, your balance improves. This is useful not only for folks who compete in sports requiring good balance, but also for people like seniors whose balance decreases with age. As a older client of mine once said, “Squats are the only thing standing between me and getting stuck on the toilet.”

Third, the squat can improve your endurance and work capacity. You might notice that after a set of squats, you’re slurping oxygen like… ummm… let’s not go there with that joke. Squats improve your ability to tolerate this type of workload. With the proper training protocol, squats will also improve your strength-endurance, which is great for folks competing in endurance sports. It has been shown that endurance activities hamper squatting performance, but not the other way around. So, what that means is that endurance activities like long distance running are contraindicated for athletes, such as powerlifters, who need to exert maximal strength in the squat, but the reverse is not true. Squats are not contraindicated for endurance athletes, and can, indeed, help to improve endurance performance.

Fourth, the squat can improve your functional mobility and active flexibility. In other words, it can improve your range of motion. Many folks find when they begin squatting that achieving full depth is difficult. This is normal, and with careful attention to stretching, it can be easily overcome. But the squat itself can be an active stretch! The simple act of squatting to full depth extends and maintains a larger range of motion.

Fifth, the squat can make you faster. A study that examined the relationship between squats (pretty much full depth squats, by the way, down to a 70 degree knee angle) and sprint speed in football players found that the heavier an athlete’s squat, the faster their sprint times. The study concluded that “a substantial commitment to increased squat strength has a high likelihood of contributing to increased on-field sprinting ability.” (McBride JM et al. Relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten, and forty yard sprint times. J Strength Cond Res (2009) 23.)

There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.

–Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength

Finally, using the squat to develop all of these abilities has numerous practical applications in daily life: picking up a child, bags of groceries, manual labour in the garden, getting out of a chair, improving overall mobility, etc. I’d like to share two stories that were posted on misc.fitness.weights years ago.

The first story is told by powerlifter Jason Burnell, aka Deepsquatter:

My neighbours wanted to redo their back yard so they rented this monsterous roto-tiller. It was so damn big it was delivered on a flat bed and they used a crane to download it. Well stupid me, I decide to borrow it. I’m out back tilling away to make room for next spring’s garden when I get to a particularly hard piece of earth. Here I am, Mr. Suit and Tie, in only shorts and shoes, covered head to toe in dust. The contraption has like a 50 hp motor, huge self propelled wheels, reverse, etc. I decide to back up.

The Satan machine takes off backwards in a lurch. By the time I get my hand off the throttle lever it’s too late. The handles are about 3 feet long. They pass me, and push me into the 6′ chain link fence. The reverse lever and the throttle lever are about 2′ long. I’m pushing forward for my life, while simultaneously trying to reach behind me to get a hold of the disengage lever which is now torn off of the handle and stretched to the max. I’m of course losing the battle. The two levers in the middle, (the throttle and reverse lever), are pushing into my stomach, slowly raising the engine power, and more fully engaging the reverse clutch. Now I’m getting smashed into the fence, being impaled by two steel rods without any sort of protective caps, and having my feet nipped at by the tines that are spinning at an astonishing speed.

I take my feet off the ground and contort in a manner to get them onto the machine in a way to try and push back. My left upper thigh is now being jabbed by the sharp corner of one of the control boxes in which the HOT hydraulic fluid runs through. The pain of the corner was more than the searing cooked flesh I am now experiencing.

By now I’m totally smashed into the fence. The fence starts to tear away from the posts it’s anchored to, one at a time. As the roto-tiller gains ground the parts I’m being impaled with along with the front raises off of the ground. Its comin up at me and I’m stuck like an idiot about to be the first man in the local news to be roto’d to death. The entire time I’m thinking of Mike Mentzer and his fanatic negative and static strength beliefs. That SOB better be right, I’m thinking, as I pray to God my wife isn’t the one who finds me ground up into hamburger and garden mulch.

The rototiller advances further, and more fence rips off of posts. By now I’m seriously considering intentionaly impaling myself so I can reach the filter which the hydraulic fluid passes through, to unscrew it and hopefully get patched up by the medics later on. I can’t reach. My legs are totally ruined. I’m pushing with every last ounce of will I possess just trying to keep it from advancing further… The two rods are now pushing my stomach so far in I can’t really breathe. The corner of the metal box is pushed about 4 inches into by upper thigh and is smashed into the bone. It was well over 350 to 400 degrees. By now I’m thinking I’d better yell for help and the fuckin hell with embarrassment.

So I yell, “HEEEEEEEELLLLP” at the top of my lungs. Which actually wasn’t very loud since I couldn’t breathe. I keep yelling until the neighbors all start running like madmen in a stampede. My neighbour across the street, who is in her 80s, sprints across in what must have been a 4.1 40 speed and climbs the fence on the other side of the house, runs around the back of the house, and shuts the damn thing off. The other neighbors arrive and it takes 8 of them to pull the fucker back far enough just to get my feet near the ground. My legs were so fried from pushing so hard for so long that I couldn’t even hold myself up. They drag me into my house and my sweet lovely 80 yr old neighbor gets me 3 shots of peppermint schnapps out of the freezer. God I love her.

The moral of the story: squat.

I had problems with my knees that were answered by Dr.Squat. And I tell you what. If the answers hadn’t helped me overcome my bad knees in training I most certainly would have been dead. Without question. I now sport a weird looking dollar sized scar on my thigh. And newfound respect for Mentzer. When I returned to the gym a week later I squatted 405 for the first time in my life. Seriously though, I would be dead if it were not for heavy squats. No shit, or hyperbole, or exaggerating. I would have been dead before I ever got a chance to yell for help.

(If you want more of Jason’s advice on powerlifting-style squatting, see here)

The second story comes to us from the mighty Squatto, aka Stephen Mulholland of Northern Ireland.

It’s 8:30 in the evening now, and all is calm in Castle Squatto, but the past hour has been…interesting. It’s Hallowe’en, and my youngest two boys, 5 and 2 (unusual names, I know, but they’re easy to spell) wanted to go out trick or treating. So, one was dressed up as a vampire, the other as a ghost. We smeared them with makeup, put on the little dressing-up things, and off we went. The boys collected a big bag of sweets off the neighbours, and we wandered back home to fire up the fireworks.

We came back home, and locked the front door as we came in, then we headed through the kitchen into our small back garden to let off the fireworks. Being mindful of the boys’ safety, I told them to stand well back while I set off the fireworks. So, as the boys came out through the back door, the eldest one closed the door behind him, so that the light from the kitchen wouldn’t lessen his little innocent’s pleasure at watching the fireworks.

We were locked out. The back door locks when it’s closed, unless we click the little clicky thingie to prevent it locking automatically.

So, we wandered round the house, in the vain hope that there’s an open window. Hope was cruelly dashed to the cold road. We were still fucking locked out, it was freezing, and starting to rain. 2 was terrified of all the bangs and flashes of the neighbours’ fireworks, while 5 was suitably upset for having locked us all out.

There was no way in, no keys hidden outside, nothing. The door is a solid, thick pine door. It was time. I’d kept my powers secret from my family, but they had to know; there was no other way.

“Stand back”, I cried. I lifted my left foot, and, with my mighty Squatto thigh, drove it at the back door.

The fucking thing practically exploded. Doorframe, hinges, bits of the lock, all were blasted into the kitchen. I heard a “Holy shit” from my next-door neighbour, who was watching from his garden.

I’ve spent the last hour fixing the door and frame enough to prevent anyone walking in.

It was worth it. The soreness, the almost-vomiting, the 20 reps, the low reps, the front squats, all worth it, just to explode a door with one kick.

Squats ROCK.

Okay, hopefully I’ve convinced you, and you are going to join the proud, the few, the bootylicious, the squatters! On to the instructions and tips in Part 3!