Article Courtesy of Liam Tweed
Originally Published in This Issue
Why expose yourself to the stress of putting a heavy chunk of iron on your back and descending into a full squat position?
The answer touches on basic notions of what weight training is all about. The many alternative machines on the market today - leg press machines, in/out thigh machines, leg curl/leg extension machines, back squat machines (the full list is long) - often have their place in an athlete's training program.
But none can replace the excellent versatility and intensity afforded by squats. That intensity is essential for complete development of the legs, either for specific athletic reasons or for general fitness and appearance.
There must be a balance between the extent to which you isolate a muscle and the amount of intensity applied. Too much isolation puts the muscle at such a leverage disadvantage that not enough stress is applied to it for adequate gain. On the other hand, exercises that involve several muscle groups at once can also rob the target muscle of needed stress, since the stress is absorbed by the other muscle groups.
Squatting with upright torso, knees extended over the feet, and to an appropriate depth centralizes the majority of the stress in the quadriceps. The hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae get some stress too - but not enough to rob the quads of the major effect.
That's not to say that compound exercises can't be beneficial. You'll benefit as long as you adjust your technique to make sure that the target muscle - the one you want to work on - is positioned to be the weakest link in the chain. That way it will receive the most overload stress. Squatting properly ensures that the quads will receive overload stress to a greater extent than another exercise can give you.
The key word here is properly. Perhaps more than any other exercise, squats must be done properly. So much weight is used in the squat in such a precarious way (your knees and spine are fragile, after all) that injury may seem to be an inevitability of squat training. But it's not. Injury need never occur if some simple rules are applied. Just as important, the benefits you'll derive from squatting far outweigh the risks.
Some experts disagree. There are those orthopedic specialists who continue to insist that squatting is bad for your kn ees, back, hips or whatever. Their arguments often seem convincing, especially given the growing number of patients who come to them with bad knees from exercising improperly.
But the nay-saying orthopods and other anti-squatters base their concerns upon gross misinformation. Most of them either have never been under heavy iron or have never worked with well-trained athletes. So how could they possibly understand the value of squats?
Their response to such a question would typically be something along the lines of, "You don't have to jump off a bridge to be able to accurately predict what will happen to your body if you do." Then they'd point to the knee, hip and soft tissue injuries they see among their weight training patients.
But most of these patients are ignorant of sound training practicies. And most of the medical critics apparently have never looked at x-rays of athletes who've squatted properly for years or explored the indications of stress adaptation in cadavers of former weight trainees. Had they done so, they'd know about the following clear benefits of squatting:
- Muscles are strengthened far beyond the norm, making injury far less likely and increased performance far more likely.
- Bones are strengthened - in density as well as in improved strength of ligaments and tendinous insertion points - greatly decreasing the chance of injury.
- Ligaments and tendons - connective tissue - are increased in thickness, viscoelasticity and tensile strength, yet again greatly decreasing the chance of injury.
No, those who recommend against squatting don't know about the vast majority of athletes and fitness enthusiasts who've benefited tremendously from this exercise. They see only those who come to their clinics with problems. Healthy athletes, you see, don't go to the doctor much.
How you squat will affect your legs in different but predictable ways. The variables include number of repetitions, number of sets, speed, frequency, load, and technique. There are at least 10 different methods of squatting, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. (In competitive powerlifting there are so many existing styles, each designed to maximize the user's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses, that it's impossible to list them all.)
There are four different goals to work toward in squatting: muscular size, strength, power, and endurance. Each requires a different approach and an array of squatting techniques.
Leg Size - if you want to improve the muscular size of your upper legs, use a holistic bodybuilding approach. Variation is the key. You should perform your squats in something close to the following routine:
1) With heavy weights, do 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps. Heavy poundage in this case is 80-90% of your one rep maximum.
2) With moderate weights (75-80% of max), do 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
3) With light weights (50-60% of max), do 3-4 sets, up to 40 reps each.
When you perform the heavy sets, move the weight out of the hole as fast as possible every inch of the way up, but put on the brakes near the top of the movement to avoid throwing yourself off balance. This "compensatory acceleration" ensures the maximum effect on the fast-twitch fibers - the muscle fibers you develop for size and power. It also provides high quality overload for every rep, every set and for most of the movements in each rep, thereby maximizing myofibrillar growth (myofibrils being the contractive elements of muscle cells).
Use compensatory acceleration with the moderate weights as well, but also use a controlled, rhythmical cadence. One or two sets of each cadence/speed is recommended. The combination will help the myofibrallar growth of both the white (fast twitch) and red (slow twitch, for endurance) fibers.
Handle the light weights with slow, continuous tension movements, never pausing at the top or bottom of the squat. The continuous tension causes increased capillarization, and thus brings more oxygenated blood to the muscle cells. It also maximizes growth (in number as well as size) of the muscle cells' mitochondria, which supply the energy for contracture.
Leg Strength and Power - myofibrillar growth is the most important component in improving your leg strength, since it's the myofibrils of your muscle cells that deliver the contractile force. But for power - the ability to deliver strength with explosive speed - you need more than just high tension exercise. I've found that both strength and power can be achieved through the application of compensatory acceleration. Then, through a six week peaking period, they can be brought to a maximum and held for a short period (perhaps as long as one month).
Try the following approach for leg strength and power. Your white fibers are the central target here.
1) During the off-season, train with heavy weights (80-85% of max); do 4-5 sets of 5-8 reps, using compensatory acceleration on every rep.
2) Follow as six week peaking program to maximize strength and power.
3) Agility, explosiveness and body control drills are imperative in any leg strength/power program; do them during both off-season and preseason.
Step 3 is important and can aptly be illustrated with a football analogy. What's the sense of coming off the line like a shot from a cannon if the guy in front of you can simply step out of harm's way? Power isn't enough in most sports. Agility and body control are also essential, and they require something more than squats can provide.
In powerlifting, however, strength and power suffice; the weight on your back isn't going to play tricks on you. All you have to do to excel in powerlifting is to achieve massive strength and power. Other sports aren't quite that accommodating.
Leg Endurance - Many sports, including rowing, cycling and long distance running require high levels of muscular endurance in the legs. For leg endurance, the central cellular targets are the extensiveness of the blood supply (capillaries) and the efficiency of each cell's oxygen uptake and utilization mechanisms (mitochondria).
When working for leg endurance, try the following approach:
1) With light weights (50-70% of max), do 3-4 sets, 20-40 reps each, using slow, continuous tension.
2) With light weights (50-70% of max), do 3-4 sets, 20-40 reps each, using high speed compensatory acceleration movements.
3) The accent should be on forcing yourself past the pain barrier that is felt with extreme fatigue and on maintaining a high heart rate (generally above 60% of your maximum heart rate, which is computed by subtracting your age from 220).
A myth persists that wide stance squats develop the inner thigh (vastus medialis), while close stance squats develop the outer thigh (vastus McLateralis). In all my years of training, I have never seen this happen to any noticeable degree. The quadriceps share a common tendon of insertion at the knee joint, making differential contracture from foot spacing minuscule in effect. My opinion is that you'll do as well with a foot position with which you're comfortable. Then you can apply a variety of squatting techniques to supplement your squats, and greater all around leg development will result.
Type of Bar
For the average athlete or fitness freak, the kind of bar you use for squats will make little difference, as long as it's sturdy and fitted with safety collars. However, for the behemoths among you - the bodybuilders, athletes and powerlifters who are using tonnage merely dreamed of when Olympic lifting was the only game in town - you'll have to be a bit more careful about the bar you use.
Your bar should not whip up and down excessively, as this can cause muscle tears or spinal injuries from being thrown off balance when stepping backward with the bar. Choose a sturdy bar, preferably one measuring at least 29 millimetres in diameter and with center knurling to prevent it from slipping on your shoulders.
The plates should fit on the bar loosely, and the collars should not clamp the plates tightly against the inside collars. Tight fitting plates cause the bar to absorb the kinetic energy generated by walking backward, and it whips more. With loose fitting plates, the rattling absorbs the energy, thereby preventing dangerous whipping.
When I walk into a gym to get in a squat workout, most of the guys know what's going to happen. "Oh no! Hatfield's here! He's going to ask me to spot him!"
Well, that's the breaks in the iron game, fellow ironheads. Gym etiquette dictates it, and I'd do the same for you. I can't help it if it takes five of you. it's amazing how many "bad backs" or "torn muscles" show up when I ask for assistance. Be a nice guy, won't you? Help your gym partners when they need spotting assistance. It could be you who gets hurt from lack of inadequate spotting.
You may find that wrist wraps help in holding the bar firmly on your back or shoulders. Weak wrists can cause the bar to slip. Also, heavy squatting can injure your wrists over a period of time by disrupting the carpal tunnel, the passage through the small wrist bones through which your hand's nerves pass.
Your shoes should have strong lateral support to prevent rolling outward on your feet. Old, worn sneakers or bare feet are definitely not recommended when you're squatting. In fact, they're dangerous.
Maintain a clean, litter-free area for both yourself and your spotters. If you get in trouble, you want both you and your spotters to have a clear track back to the rack.
Don't wear belts, wraps or supersuits when squatting with under 80% of your max. Doing so robs your support muscles and legs of needed stress that will force them to adapt. Personally, I don't wear any supportive garb until I'm over 85% of my max. The whole point of training is to deliver adaptive stress to your body so it'll get stronger, bigger and more enduring. Absorbing the stress with supportive gear is silly.
Once you get superheavy - and that shouldn't happen more than one to three weeks before the end of a cycle - you can don your support clothes. It's advisable to do so at that point. But not before.
Enjoy Your Lifting!