Originally Published in This Issue (January 1969)
My friend Ollie came over for supper the other night. We got to talking training over the blueberry pie. Ollie's kind of blunt.
"You got a hangup on squats," he told me.
"No, I haven't," I said. "It's just that I know how good they are. That's why I push them so hard."
"You act like they're the only exercise."
"Do I?" I said. "I don't mean to."
Ollie shoveled pie into his mouth. He had blue coloring smeared from his nose to the point of his chin.
"Would you like a bib?" I said.
He laid his fork on the table. "I guess I'd do better with a spoon."
"The way you eat," I said, "you'd do better with a sponge."
He wiped his mouth with a napkin. "You're changing the subject," he said. "What makes you think squats are so good?"
"Because," I said, "everybody who does them gains lots of good solid muscle."
"What are you," I said, "a broken record or something? Certainly, everybody gains on them."
"It seems to me there ought to be the odd failure."
"Look," I said, "Any time anybody fails on squats, it's their own fault. They're doing something wrong."
"How the devil do I know like what?" I said. "Like any number of things."
"Such as eat up your pie," I said. "You sound like Perry Mason."
He scraped his plate clean. "Look," he said. "I'm serious. You say squats are foolproof, and yet everybody don't end up like Mr. America."
"So what?" I said. "I didn't say everybody would end up like Mr. America. I said everybody could gain lots of solid muscle."
"All they want?"
"I don't know about all they want. All they need, though."
"Well, look, then," he said. "How come some guys do squats and don't gain so well?"
"I told you," I said. "They're doing something wrong."
"All right," Ollie Said. "So tell me in detail."
I went into the kitchen and brought back the last piece of pie. "Here," I said. "You might as well clean it up."
He mushed it up with his fork like a guy puddling cement.
"Ollie," I said, "you gotta be the world's messiest eater."
He jiggled his fork at me to make a point.
"And quit waving your fork around," I said. "You'll get pie on the tablecloth."
"Listen," he said. "Quit stalling. What can a guy do wrong in squats?"
"Ollie," I said. "A guy can do plenty of things wrong. Do you know I actually got a letter the other day asking me how to get the bar on the squat rack after it's loaded to 300 pounds?"
Ollie stopped eating. "You're kidding."
"I'm not kidding," I said. "So there are lots of mistakes a guy can make. The most common mistake is not using anywhere near enough weight. You've gotta set your sights high. You can't expect king-size muscles from baby-size weights.
"Another mistake is using too many exercises in squat programs. Squats are highly specialized training. They're practically a workout in themselves. If you start adding a dozen other exercises to the program, you're dragging off energy that should be used for squatting.
"A squat specialization program shouldn't take any more than an hour at most to complete. Any more than that is too much. You'd be overextending yourself and you wouldn't gain.
"Another common mistake is not eating enough. You've got to put away a terrific amount of good food. You won't gain otherwise. Muscle isn't built by fresh air and good intentions. It's built out of protein, vitamins, minerals, and so on."
"Lotsa grub, eh?" Ollie said through a mouthful of pie.
"Right," I said. "Lotsa grub. But not blueberry pie. I mean protein foods, like meat and milk and fish and whatnot."
"And supplements?" said Ollie.
"Sure," I said. "Lots of supplements. "The more the merrier. Protein, oil, vitamins, the whole bit.
"Another thing is the matter of sets," I said. "You don't need many sets unless you're doing low reps. If you're doing 20 rep squats for weight gaining, then one set is enough. One set'll make you gain weight like a baby whale, but two sets might be too much."
"You're always talking about hard work though."
"I know," I said. "But on a limited amount of exercises. If you do too many exercises it becomes more or an endurance feat. You've got to work to the limit on the exercises you do, but don't do too many of them.
"You've got to get a feeling for it," I said. "You've got to be enthused about what you're doing. You've got to have confidence in it. And you've got to want to succeed so badly you can taste it."
"Take it from the beginning," Ollie said. "What would you do first?"
"The first thing," I said, "is put the bar on the rack and load it up. Not load it up and then try to get it on the rack. Put it on the rack first and then load it to the weight you're going to squat with.
"You should be warmed up by the time you get to the squats," I said. "Don't put them first in the program. Always do at least one other exercise ahead of them.
"Your lower back is a critical zone. So are your knees. Warm up with some prone hyperextensions and free squats. Don't go into it with these areas cold.
"When you feel sufficiently warmed up, sit down and let your breathing come back to normal. While you're sitting and waiting, you should be working up the necessary mental drive for what's to come. Use auto-suggestion. Close your eyes and get a clear mental picture of yourself completing 20 reps in good form. Keep this image in your mind while you're building up your determination. Know that you're going to complete the set. You've got to. It's imperative. Make it an absolute burning urgency. Make it life or death. You're going to complete the full 20 reps.
"When you're worked into a pitch, step up to the bar. Dip under it, step back and you're ready to go.
"Don't make the mistake of backing under the bar and stepping forward away from the rack. That would mean you'd have to back into the rack when you're finished. You'll be too tired for anything that fancy. When you finish the last rep, all you want to do is step forward and drop the bar on the rack.
"Don't go too far back when you step back. Long walks are great, but take one some other time. Just step back enough to clear the rack."
"Are little things like that important?" Ollie asked.
"Certainly," I said. "Perfection is made up of a series of little things." If you don't do everything right, you'll only get partial results.
"And," I said, "don't forget to use some padding under the bar. There's no point in making it painful. Get a big piece of sponge rubber, roll up a towel, use something that'll stop the bar cutting into your shoulders. You don't want that in the last reps when the going gets real tough.
"Now," I said, "you're ready to go. Put your heels a foot or so apart and turn your toes out to about a 35-degree angle. Keep the bar low on your shoulders. Don't let it ride up high on your neck. The lower it is on your shoulders, the better leverage you have for your lower back.
"Pick an imaginary spot just a little above head height on the wall in front of you. Keep your eyes glued to the spot during the whole set. That'll guarantee you keep your head up and your back reasonably straight.
"You've got to have a solid feeling about the whole thing. Make sure your feet are firmly planted and your back slightly arched. Now, take a deep breath and do the first squat.
"Never squat any lower than parallel position. That means until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. You don't gain anything by going lower, and you're running a risk of injuring your knees or lower back. Just squat to parallel, get a muscle rebound and bounce right back up again. Don't pause in the low position.
"Exhale violently when you're almost erect. Now, stand erect and take three huge, gasping breaths. Cram in every bit of air you can. Open your mouth wide and make like a locomotive. Hold the third breath and squat.
"You'll find it a lot easier squatting on full lungs. It gives you a feeling of stability. Don't try to breathe during the actual squat. Hold your breath till you're almost erect and then exhale, take three more lung-busters and do another rep.
"You'll find the first few reps pretty tough. By about the sixth rep you're warmed up and they go a little easier for a while. By the tenth rep you should feel like you've had it. Each rep after ten should feel like your limit. This is where your mental preparation comes in. You've got to go on now and complete 20 reps. Your mind has got to force your body even though it feels like you're coming apart at the seams. You've got to block off everything except the absolute necessity of doing another rep, and then another, and then another.
"If you've prepared well, and if you really want something sensational out of your weight training, you'll finish the 20 reps. And next workout you'll add a few pounds to the bar and do it all over again. And the following workout you'll add even more weight. And you'll go on this way, workout after workout, adding a little weight each time, until you're using a poundage you can be proud ot.
"And then," I said, "you'll own a body you can be proud of and you'll have made progress."
"That's good," Ollie said. "I think I got the picture now."
I took a look at him. He had enough crumbs in front of him to start a bakery.
"Great, Ollie," I said. "I'm glad you enjoyed our little talk. I think I'll send you a bill."
"You're kidding," he said. "You never charged me for advice before."
"Not for the advice," I said. "To get the tablecloth cleaned."
He looked down in front of him. "Good idea," he said. "And if I don't pay . . ."