The Deep Knee
by Bob Hoffman
Many body builders place overemphasis on the deep knee bend. They come to feel that it is the only exercise. It is one of the best, certainly one of the three best, and it should be included in the roster of exercises in every day of training, but other exercises should be practiced to, exercises which bring into action and develop all the major muscle groups of the body.
Every one of the
This exercise is practiced with a moderate weight, seldom with more than bodyweight in the style I am about to describe. When the weight is light, merely lift it high and overhead, allowing it to rest on the back of the shoulders. When a fairly heavy weight is employed you will need some form to get the weight to the shoulders. When a very heavy weight is used you will be wise to build some form or a rack or trestle so that you can load the weight while it is supported, then bend under the weight, step away from the supports, and practice your bends. There are some men who have practiced with very heavy weights in deep knee bending on toes. Frank Shofro, the winner of this year’s junior and senior heavyweight lifting titles, habitually deep knee bends with 400 lbs. while maintaining the on toes position.
If the weight is one which is fairly heavy for you, assume the position you use in the dead weight lift, or clean to chest. Bend down with your back flat, grasp the bar with knuckles front, hands shoulder width or more apart, pull the weight up straight, as close to the chest as possible, resting it momentarily on the chest. If the weight is heavy bend the legs a bit as the bell reaches the highest possible position, whip your elbows forward and catch the bell on your chest. With a sudden jerk of your legs throw the weight overhead, lowering it to rest behind your head upon your shoulders. You now stand with heels together, toes pointed well out, at least at an angle of 45 degrees. Bend the legs at the knees and lower yourself until you are sitting on your heels. By keeping the knees turned well out it will not only assist you to balance, but will develop the outside of your thighs to a pleasing extent. At first it may be difficult for you to go the entire way down, but soon your leg muscles will become stronger and more flexible and the exercise will be fairly easy to perform. As you lower the body keep the back flat and permit the heels to arise from the ground.
The exercise most regularly practiced by body builders is the old standby, the deep knee bend with flat feet, or while holding heels on the floor. It is one of the best exercises known, and a close rival of the regular dead lift to be the exercise in which the most weight resistance can be handled. The heavy weights which can be used in this exercise cause the legs and back to rapidly increase in strength and development. As it brings into action the largest and strongest muscles of the body, those farthest from the heart, it is one of the best means to greatly stimulate all the internal organs and functions.
The exercise should be performed with the back flat, for if you don’t, it becomes partially a back exercise, robbing the legs of some of the benefit it is expected to produce for them. Also there is danger of straining the back, as it bends greatly to raise under the weight. If you find difficulty in keeping the back flat, try holding the bar as low as possible on the shoulders, turning the head well back as you look toward the ceiling. A one or two inch board placed under the heels will aid in keeping the back flat. Many men who practice and use in competition the squat snatch employ a specially constructed high-heeled pair of shoes.
This oldest and best of the deep knee bending movements develops the muscles of the upper leg from the extreme of contraction to the extreme of extension. Load the bar to a weight which you can properly handle for the desired number of repetitions. If you are a beginner, be satisfied to train with a moderate weight for a time until the muscles become accustomed to the movement and until your body has learned to maintain balance. You can bring the weight to the chest unassisted in the style briefly described for the deep knee bend on toes, you can have two friends lift it there and stand by while you perform your exercises, or you can load the upon a rack or trestles and bend your legs to get under the weight and take it off yourself.
Advanced barbell men use heavy weights in this movement. It’s common for Dick Bachtell to practice his deep knee bends with 375 lbs. And Dick never weighs over a pound or two above the 132-lb. class limit. His record is 400 lbs. The stronger fellows in the
It is wise to have men standing by when you are using a very heavy weight on your limit day for there are times when a man finds that he can not complete one more bend and there he is bent over with a great weight on his back. He can always drop it back over his buttocks, but this is dangerous for the weight may fall on the back with some damage to the trainee. I could always give the bell a toss forward and over the head. My record is only 350 in this exercise, for to me it has always been just a good exercise and I never specialized in it. But I tossed 375 over my head when I could not get up with it. If you don’t toss it right it could strain your neck. And sometimes a man is held down and can’t get out from under without assistance or possible injury. One day recently, John Terry came into the gym while we were training. I doubted very much if he had trained more than a few presses, snatches or other lifts since he was discharged from the Army due to injuries. Among other feats he wanted to try a deep knee bend, As he got under the bar he asked how much it was. “285,” I replied. “Are you sure you can handle that much?” I asked. “Sure,” said John, “I did it just last night.’ Well, that weight pushed him down like it was going through him and the floor too, and there he sat folded up almost like an accordion. I didn’t know what he would have done if we had not promptly come to his rescue. So if you are lifting alone, be sure you have the ability to get out from under like some do, or lift well within your limit. If you are trying a heavy bend, your limit or more, it’s wise to have someone stand by.
Most barbell men hold the feet about shoulder width apart. Art Levan, who was always good at the deep knee bend (older readers will remember that Art won ten consecutive national championships in weight lifting in the 126 or 132-lb. classes, that he was the first native born American to lift double his bodyweight overhead, having hoisted 262 when he weighed 131 way back in 1933), always made his bends with his feet quite wide apart and his toes turned out. Dick Bachtell kept his feet only about a foot apart, toes almost straight front. But Dick used the squat style in the clean and the snatch, while Art used the split in both of these lifts.
So you will find by practice the best position for your feet, whether they should be wide or close. The major group of muscles developed by this exercise are the Vastus Externus, Vastus Internus, Vastus Intermedius, and to a partial extent the Gluteus Maximus or buttock muscles. Most deep knee benders will find it easier to carry the bar low on the shoulders, and turn the head toward the ceiling to assist in keeping the back flat. Some hold the hands at shoulder width apart in the position they used in pulling the weight to the shoulders, while others will wrap their extended arms around the bar, holding the hands as far out toward the weights as possible.
While there are the somewhat different positions of the feet I have mentioned, the chief difference in performing the deep knee bend by leading strength athletes is the number of repetitions and the method of breathing. The case of Roger Eels is well known. About ten years ago he, as the result of a chest injury, had reached an advanced stage of tuberculosis and had been given by his doctor just three months to live. He was pleased to find that he had not died at the end of three months, so cast about hi to determine if there was not some way in which he could win back a measure of his strength and health. He wrote me, asking what he could expect from the York courses, purchased them, and in a matter of several years was not only completely cured, but a far stronger, healthier, finer looking man than he had ever been in his life. He came to weigh 185 lbs. and lifted 250 lbs. overhead with one hand. I was cited by the Federal Trade Commission late in 1935 for stating that Roger was completely cured. He came to the hearing and testified that he was a bona fide
Roger is doing wonderful work now. He is conducting a large gymnasium in
In practically all movements it is recommended in the
Some of the nation’s star lifters, notably Weldon Bullock, the first 17 year old boy to clean and jerk 300 lbs., and Louis Abele, a youthful star lifter of a few years back, who was the first American to break a world’s heavyweight lifting record, have specialized in the deep knee bend. Although Louis Abele was never successful in winning the senior national weight lifting heavyweight title, he became one of the world’s best lifters, having totaled a splendid 980. The deep knee bend served well for him, but he happened to come along when Dave Mayor and Weldon Bullock were winning the championships, and later Steve Stanko and John Davis prevented him from winning.
These two fellows would practice 20 repetitions and they would take huge breaths between each bend. You could hear Bullock in particular for a full city block as he continued his ohs, ahs, and breathing groans between bends. But the York champs who won national titles year after year, Terry in the 132, Terlazzo in the 148, Terpak and Davis winning in Europe, Terry establishing his world’s record in Vienna (Stanko was at is peak after the war in Europe had its inception, although his best record total is just short of 100 lbs. more than Manger, the Olympic champion, required to win his title at Berlin, he did not win an official world’s title, but he was very definitely the world’s champion) did not specialize in the deep knee bend. To them it was just one good exercise and was practiced no more than any other good exercise. Emerick Ishikawa, the former Hawaiian lifter, who lived and trained in
You will do no harm if you practice as many as 20 repetitions, and it will not hurt if you make a habit of three deep breaths between each bend. But my thought is that 15 are sufficient, that it would be better to increase the weight rather than go to higher repetitions when you can perform 15 correctly with a heavy weight. Thus you will continue to go forward in building your strength and all around physical ability. In breathing, I think it is the best plan to breathe just as your body can make use of the oxygen, it can’t be forced to use more than it needs. And after about the tenth repetition with a heavy weight there will be such a crying need for air that almost every fibre of your being will be shrieking for air. Then breathe as many times as necessary between bends. Two may suffice at first, then three and perhaps as many as four or five.
It is best to practice a good all around training program which puts into action all of the muscle groups of the body. You should practice the deep knee bend on toes at times, as well as the flat foot bend. When you train with your dumbells practice the recommended deep knee bends too, also when you are training with cables. For all of these movements, the dumbell press while lowering into the full squat, the deep knee bend with weight held overhead, the press while rising from the squat, the press while using springs and stirrups, all bring the muscles of the legs into action in a somewhat different manner, developing more of the complex muscles of the huge and powerful extremities.
Do not practice the deep knee bend to exclusion of all others. Do not neglect to practice your deep knee bends while you specialize on other movements or body parts. Many en of the past mistakenly practiced little more than the deep knee bend coupled with very heavy eating to gain weight. They gained weight, but the vast majority of them never had an attractive physique with this system, but were only huge, fat men. Strive for all around physical perfection, let the deep knee bend play its important part, but please remember that there are numerous other good exercises, all of which should be included in your training programs.