Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Get Low - The Strength Of Squatting

Despite my conviction and declarative writing style, there are not a lot of fitness facts that are true across the board in all cases. Every body, every joint and every muscle is different. Even so, what I'm about to tell you is possibly one of the very few things that is just not up for debate.

If you want to be strong, you have to squat. No excuses, no exceptions.

That being said, a true squat is one of those things that you just don't see very often in the average gym. Some of it's an educational issue. People just don't know any better. Some of it's a safety problem. Squats, despite being a very natural movement, can be incredibly dangerous and detrimental to your knees, hips, back and even your ankles if you do them incorrectly. Like this guy. 

Once upon a time someone, somewhere started telling people that squats destroy your knees. A decades long game of telephone filtered through numerous misconceptions about how to get strong (most scientific research on strength training is less than 50 years old) lead to the "common knowledge" (read: total horsesh*t) that squats are bad for you, especially if you go low.

I, for one, tend to go with the experts on most things. Who are some of the biggest, strongest athletes pound for pound? Olympic weightlifters. Dan Cantore was an Olympic lifter back in the seventies. This dude competed at 5'4" and 148 lbs. I've dated girls bigger than that.

He set the US record for the clean and jerk at 358lbs. That's more than twice his body weight. This dude didn't even weigh a buck fifty soaking wet and he could take 358lbs from the floor and in two quick movements chuck it up over his head. That's some sh*t right there. 

It would seem, then, that Olympic lifters seem to know something about pound for pound strength. Do they squat?


Do they squat low?

Uh huh.

Do they squat heavy?

You bet your ass. 

They also have surprisingly low incidence of lower extremity injury. In fact, a recent study demonstrates that people who squat heavy have, on average, significantly stronger knees (measured by maximal load and estimated cross sectional area of soft tissue (tendons&ligaments)) than those who don't squat at all. Seriously, just go type "squats and knee integrity" into the google search bar. I'll wait.

You back? You see what I'm saying? Crazy, right?

In addition to these actual scientific studies I'm going to drop some bro-science on you right now. Normally I wouldn't do this because I do believe training scientifically is the best way to go but hear me out. So, there is a demonstrated endocrine (hormonal) response from strength training. It increases circulating levels of Testosterone, HGH and IGF-1 to name a few. These are all anabolic hormones that have the direct effect of increasing lean muscle mass. That being said, the verdict is still out in terms of the direct causal relationship between this endocrine response and muscular hypertrophy(fancy science word for increased cross-sectional area of muscle fibers). In other words, we know your hormones start flowing when you lift weights, but we have yet to prove that this hormone response leads directly to bigger muscles.

Way I see it, what they're looking at is that on a cellular level different events are actually starting the process of hypertrophy. I'll buy that. But we also know beyond any shadow of a doubt that illegal performance enhancing drugs, such as pro-hormones, can make you big and jacked. So what I personally believe is happening is that although the endocrine response from strength training may not be the initiator of muscle growth, providing an optimal anabolic environment for your muscles to grow after the process has begun is definitely a positive thing. 

How does this relate to squats? Your legs have some of the largest, most dense muscle on your body. The evidence demonstrates that the endocrine response has a direct relationship to the volume of muscle fiber contracted. In other words, squats make your body produce more anabolic hormones than most other exercises. While I can't say it with scientific conviction, it's pretty likely this is a good thing. 

There's also the effect that squats have on bone density. As we all know resistance training increases bone density in direct relation to the weight lifted. Squats let you lift a f*ckton of weight, therefore they make your bones a f*ckton more dense (them's scientific terms.) Plus, balancing a couple hundred lbs. across your shoulders builds genuine core strength the way your core was designed to be used: as a stabilizer. 

Squats are a foundational movement. We squat all the time for any variety of reasons. Athletes squat. Little kids squat. Hell, in numerous countries in asia they squat to use public restrooms and we're talking everyone, even the elderly. 

Personally I love the back squat. It's just one of those big, powerful, primal movements where you get to push a couple hundred lbs.  and feel like a badass. Lately I've also been focusing on front squats and overhead squats but my shoulder mobility at the moment makes going heavy on the latter somewhat difficult.

So here we go. Quick lesson on how to squat properly. (Like this guy...for the most part)
1. Head up, shoulders back
2. Feet shoulder width apart with a slight turn out (this severity of the turn out or in has more to do with your natural anatomy than any mechanical advantage)
3. Either cross your arms over each other and place your hands on your shoulders with your elbows pointing away from you, or simply hold your arms out straight in front of you as pictured above (Personally i think this provides a more useful counterbalance for when you move your hips backwards. Read on.)
4. Initiate the movement by placing your weight on you heels dropping your hips backwards. DO NOT start by bending your knees or putting your weight on the balls of your feet. (Your knees are going to bend, it's going to happen. The point is that if your squats involve your hips simply moving up and down but they do not move forwards and backwards as well, you're doing it wrong and likely placing an incredible amount of strain/shear force on your patellar tendon)
5. Continue to drop your hips back until your thighs break the plane of parallel with the floor. If you can go all the way down (full range) without restriction or pain, go for it.

Start with your bodyweight until you have the form down and you can knock out 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps in a few minutes. From that point you should progress to weighted variations of which there are an immense amount. Front, back, overhead, goblet, etc. (To Google!) The one thing I would say is that if you have never done a weighted squat before, find a professional or at the very least a knowledgeable friend and make sure you're doing it right. You can f*ck yourself up if you do these wrong. High risk, high reward.

I was going to link a video/images but its incredibly hard to find one that I actually agree with. I guess I'll have to make my own....until then. I'm going to leave you with some wisdom:

Today's Workout - Rest Day - Hence my intense verbosity. 

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