Monday, November 3, 2008

Pushing For Power Part Three - Bill Seno

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The Squat

How many times have you walked into a gyms health clubs and YMCA’s and seen loads of weight trainers with big arms and upper bodies trailed by birdlegs? This is because of the dreaded squat, which used to be called the deep knee bend. There is always a discomfort in the pit of the midsection while doing squats. This is why it is one of the most difficult to get novices to do because they simply don’t like the feeling. They have all been running for years and running doesn’t give them the same sickening feeling unless they push themselves beyond their endurance, at which they will stop running. One doesn’t need spotters to stop running, but to be caught under a weight, a veritable prisoner, isn’t pleasant; furthermore, unless the lifter shows signs of great effort to the spotters, it will be a blueprint of his internal make-up because the weights and gravity tell no lies. The only other alternative would be for the lifter to dump the bar off his back, and that would be a further embarrassment. So the result remains that we see loads of good upper bodies with underdeveloped legs within the weight gyms across the country. Legs develop only when the desire to develop the whole body is greater than the tolerance level of the squat. Good powerlifters and good bodybuilders finally defeat the squat and are able to work it hard and grow to love it when the body tunes in and progress is noted.

Working the squat hard cannot be explained, only experienced. At times it will seem as though your intestines want to jump out while the rest of the body is about to admit defeat, but if the desire is great enough, the lift is won. By conquering the lift, a “high” is created that can be doubled if done in competition. I have heard lifters say there is no feeling like it. It is always a boost to the ego and confidence level to have been faced with great odds and to come out the winner.

Before powerlifting became sanctioned, the old squat used to consist of placing the bar on the top of the trapezius and going all the way down, folding up like an accordion. This was great for hip flexibility and concentrated quadriceps development. The back remained upright and did not come into play very much except to guide and hold the position by tightening the erector spinae. Since it was a great quadricep developer, bodybuilders used it to pump, but it is difficult to hold the position long enough to get the kind of pump bodybuilders want in the legs. This is why bodybuilders use leg presses, leg extensions and other groove devices so they can concentrate on pumping the target muscles only – the quadriceps.

Even when powerlifting competition began in 1963, the lifters where using the old style squat. So it was a combination of many things that allowed the squat records to fall: lowering the bar to the second ridge on the back (below the traps resting on the posterior deltoids), knee wraps, power suits, steroids and techniques such as bouncing out of the bottom position. The new powerlifting squat position allowed a lifter to hang in longer and fight the bar with grueling tenacity, whereas the Olympic squat didn’t. The critical point of the squat was too long, and the leverage worked against the squatter. It is as if one were attempting to lift a load by hand with the arms extended away from the body rather than with the hands closer to the body so that one could, indeed, use the power of the body to advantage. I have, however, seen some prodigious poundages lifted Olympic style: around 700 lbs. without a suit or wraps. Of course, the same lifter with all other advantages would do closer to 850 lbs.


The toughest feat for most squatters in the power style is to sink the squat below parallel; that is, the upper part of the frontal thigh is below a point at the top of the knee. Since the bar is lower on the back, the lifter bends forward somewhat to control the weight. In so doing, the hips pick up and the knees move forward. This position makes it difficult to fulfill the full squat unless the lifter squeezes down or moves the hips back, which can put the lifter in a pit or possibly make him fall. The wide stance squatter does not encounter this problem as much because the wide base adds to stability. The lifter lifts with the hips and thighs more than the lower back; therefore, it is advantageous for the lifter to assume a more upright position whereas the close stance squatter uses more back and can pitch forward and lose his balance on a smaller base. This is not to say that the wide stance squatter is superior. As in the bench press or deadlift, whichever grip or stance is advantageous to the bodily structure and muscular development of the individual is the best way to go with. Any lifter with any stance can develop into a world record holder. I have seen world record holders such as Dennis Reed 852 at 242 lbs. and Larry Pacifico 810 at 220 lbs. Reed is a close stance squatter and Pacifico is a wide stance lifter.
If a lifter is thinking of changing his squat stance, he is in for a difficult venture, especially if he has been lifting a long time. The longer one has been lifting; the body develops for the particular body positions that are used. If a person does not find the switch hard, it is because he is and always has been built for the new position or stance but never had the physical inclination to use it to his advantage. So the question arises, how may a person realize his most advantageous positions for lifting? Some people have a feel for their strengths and weaknesses and are tuned in to their bodies. Some are not. This is why there are coaches or why it is wise to train with experienced powerlifters. It is best to have a reflection of ourselves if our mind’s eye cannot perceive what is happening.

Again, everyone starts out doing sets of reps for training. This also applies to the squat. The excuse has always been that novice lifters need more muscle development, and only sets and reps will do this. This is not so. I have trained novices with singles, that is, singling up to a maximum and quitting and saving the reps for the light training day, and the results made them the best squatters in the meet. I problem may arise when some lifters and coaches feel that if singles work for one lift, they should work for all. This is also not true. As I mentioned in the bench press chapter, each of the lifts are to be considered different and, thus, treated differently. I have seen lifters treat them alike and not come up to their full potential until they vary the training for each; however, it is true that singling up to a maximum once a week is the best way to work the squat when cycling for a contest. Most lifters continue this method for 6-10 weeks prior to the meet. Dennis Reed, Sam Mangialardi, Ernie Frantz and Bill Nichols work the squat this way, and all squat between 830 and 900. If the lifter has a lot of energy, he can experiment with another set of 5 reps of maximum effort, but that is all once each week. The other day, which considered light, can be experimented with leg presses, one to three sets of cruising squats (somewhat effortless), or nothing at all. I have experimented with loads of lifters doing a maximum set of 10-15 reps on the light day mainly to tune them in to gut lifting. The results were haphazard. Some made good gains up to a point, and some made small gains. All were continual, however. After the weights become substantial, which is squatting between four and five hundred pounds, I stop pushing them on the light day because recuperation becomes more difficult, so they do one to three sets of 6 reps with moderate effort but not all out. This seemed to work best. For myself, I have found leg presses on the Universal machine to work best on my light day – one set of 15 reps. This keeps my quads and hips strong without tiring the back, since they are done sitting in a chair. The squatting power is always up oh the heavy day due to resting the back while working the legs. The legs need work, but the back needs more rest.
Reps are fine conditioners for power and can make a lifter strong, but doing a weight for 4 or 5 rep sets is not the same as doing a heavier single. The body and mind become accustomed to a certain degree of afferent and efferent nerve stimuli with lighter poundages that are lifted over a longitudinal period. It will, therefore, take time for the body to convert whatever strength gains were made in the rep sets. This is why lifters begin peaking or doing singles some weeks before meet time. In some instances the peaking or singles never convert.


Keeping in mind that it is always best to experiment to see which routine or variations of a routine work best for you, here is a good squat routine: supposing that the maximum squat is 600, begin warmups with 135 for about 10 reps followed by 225 for about 5 reps. Begin singling up with 315, then 405, 500, 550 and finally 600 for the maximum lift and quit. 550 will definitely indicate if your maximum power is above 600 for that day. It is possible to gauge your feeling of the weight comparable to the last workout with that warmup single. You will know. If there is a positive indication, be conservative and go up ten pounds to 610 on your last attempt. Sometimes 605 might be a wise choice. It the old bird in the hand attitude. If the 610 feels light enough, one can always take another single. Even if the next maximum single is not made, the lifter still has a personal record to his benefit, otherwise, it will always be guesswork as to where the body power is.

Another side benefit to this training is preparing for meets. Starting light saves the lifter from a bomb-out and allows him to climb to the heights with confidence right out on the lifting platform where confidence is most needed. In short, it breaks the ice.
Since the squat is the first lift in competition, it also presents the greatest amount of nervousness for the lifter. It is the lift that takes the longest to prepare for, considering all the wraps and suits, and it also consumes a greater amount of meet time than either of the other two. Another facet that adds to the nervousness is hitting the proper position and depth. It is difficult enough to lift a heavy weight without having to worry about meticulous techniques. Also, being the most difficult lift to judge, this adds to the lifter’s tension as he knows full well that his efforts may be in vain as they are left up to the whims of subjectivity; therefore, it is always smart to start light for the opening squat.

There, of course, are many extraordinary lifters with emotional control. I once remember Chip McCain being turned down by the judges on a 705 squat. He then jumped to 788 and buried it for a good attempt. This is not the usual case, so don’t get greedy.

After a while some lifters develop shoulder problems from squatting low on the back. Stretching so far back while attempting to hold the bar is the culprit. If this is the case, move the bar back on top of the trapezius for a period of time until the shoulders heal. Squatting high on the back is very beneficial for leg power. Also, many lifters claim that when they return the bar to the low position o the back, their squat is stronger due to more leg isolation. I think this training can be tempered if squatting high on the back works for you. For example, try squatting high on the back on the light day only, or every other heavy day, etc. The goals will have to be different since the lifts are different. The lifter will have a high on the back record and a low on the back personal record to keep things interesting.

Many good lifters claim that the only way to work the squat is to bury them or go below parallel each rep. This is a good method and certainly a lifter can do no wrong working in this way; but is he necessarily doing as much for himself as he could?
The lifters who claim that working on the squat below parallel for each rep do so because they feel that this is what is expected in a meet; therefore, why not do it in training? Also, they feel that the flexibility in the hips will come easier to the lifter, and he will have no trouble trying to get down. To say the least, the low position, out of the bottom is being worked constantly which can only make it strong, and the body and mind are learning one complete method with no variation for mistakes.

I speak positively about the above method, but beyond any method, there is still the individual and his differences.

I have known great squatters, world record holders, who train the squat above parallel to parallel. It seems to work for them if they attain world records. What is their theory behind working the squat high? There are many reasons, but most of them come right down to overload or handling more weight. These squatters ask themselves why they should struggle through a critical point at the bottom position for five pounds at a time when they could be lifting 15 to 30 pounds more an inch above parallel. This position is an advantageous one for being able to hang in there and fight the weight which allows them to continually handle heavier weights and get stronger. The conversion of what they can do below parallel plus the hip flexibility can come later, and very often it does.

Lifters who train the squat high will occasionally try their strength by doing a parallel squat, being able to gauge by the ease of the lift what they can do below parallel; otherwise, they may at times decide to really bury a squat to test their strength. Usually, they find that they are strong, but they may be sore the following day from the unaccustomed stretch. Once in a while an injury may even occur from the quick change in style. This is why it is best to begin at a lower poundage some weeks before peaking out. This system may have some disadvantages, but one advantage it does have is strength.


Other methods of training the squat that are worthy of recognition are the squat in the rack and bench squats. Most lifters don’t work these exercises unless their squats have leveled off; they feel that their squats have gone nowhere or no progress has been made for a long time. Both types are usually worked above parallel. The bar position on the back may be either, but the second ridge allows for more overload.

The basic advantage to the rack is the adjustment of the pins to any desired height. Of course, the exact height for you just may be in between the pin holes; then, it is best to stand on a few 45 lb. plates or a board to accomplish the desired height. Even though the lifter may seem as though he is below parallel or at the parallel position when he gets under the bar in the power rack, he will be a little higher when he begins to move the bar from the pins. This is the real height for the lift, so the level of his thighs should be observed at the point of push by a training partner. Again, the adjustment may be made to work the rack at any level, but chances are the lifter went stale in the full squat. There is nothing like high squats (above parallel) to bring the lifter back from stagnancy. The reason is probably due to a more advantageous position for the push coupled with allowing the muscles to recuperate, which have been overworked in the low position.
High reps are better to aid recovery after being traumatized and, of course, accustom one to the rack. The rack is not like a groove machine, but the bar may hit the uprights if the two uprights are too close together. This will, therefore, interfere with the lifter’s groove. The problem is minor considering the benefits. Sets of 6 to 8 are good until the lifter tunes in and begins to see progress. It is always good to get hungry lower the amount of reps; but too much weight too quickly or for too long a period can put the lifter back where he started. Of course, once strength returns, the lifter will return to full squats, or it is possible to mix rack squats into the regular routine. Tony Fratto, a world champion, once did 750 x 3 at 198 at this lift.

The same principles apply to the bench squat. The main difference is the bar is not resting on a pin but is taken off a free rack while the lifter squats to a position where the buttocks tough a bench beneath him. The rack squat is very difficult to start because the muscles must all become tense before lifting the first rep. Once the muscles are in control, the following reps are easier. The bench squat does not have this first rep difficulty because of the freedom from the rack groove and the dead start; touching the pin or the bench.


The squat is the one lift chosen by powerlifters and bodybuilders alike as the single most beneficial overall body developer and conditioner. It is this lift in competition that adds up to the most weight lifted when we total any ten lifters at random. Obviously, many muscles are coming into play; therefore, it is a demanding lift on the structure and lungs. The squat is the lift that makes the human anatomy appear complete.

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