“I squatted 365 yesterday,” said the 165 pound sophomore high school wide receiver, his pigeon-chest puffed out in triumph.
“Oh yea?” I replied, “How many times?”
“Three times. The coach doesn’t let us max out for one rep ‘cause he says it’s not safe.”
“Oh I see. Well that’s pretty good. I’d like to see that sometime.”
So the following week I walked into the weight room after school to find one obscenity-prone coach yelling at two dozen adolescents to “explode!” and “use the hips!” I walked past the group preacher curls, through a few kids doing hammer curls, in between a concentration curl-off, around the long lineup waiting for the flat bench, and found my way to the gym’s two squat racks, which were, surprisingly, being used for squats.
I found my squirrely little sophomore getting himself psyched up with his workout partners. He had just finished his final warm-up set and was ready for a work set of 325 pounds. He crawled under the bar, hands out wide, spotters on both sides of the bar, one bear-hugging him from behind. He grunted the bar out of the rack, knees buckling in, and proceeded to shakily take two steps backwards towards the bench behind him. Spotters shadowing him all the way, the kid broke at the knees and lowered himself toward the bench that was placed 6 inches below, slammed off the bench a few times, hunching forward, pushed upwards, and finished with a shaky lockout, which he walked back into the squat rack with the help of his partners.
The kid smiled, congratulated by his peers for a job well done and applauded by his coach for being closer to making the “record board” hanging on the wall. The kid walked over to me, looking for encouragement, still glowing with personal achievement about his impressive squat poundage. I patted the kid on the back, looked him in the eye, and said, “There was a lot of effort in those squats, kid. Now, let me tell you why they sucked.”
“You see, the squat is meant to work all of your lower body muscles—including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. When you only squat down part way, you’re causing problems for yourself for a couple different reasons. First, a partial squat only activates the quadriceps, so the hamstrings and glutes get left out. So, over time, your quads are going to get stronger and stronger, while your hamstrings and glutes get weaker. Now, imagine the issues that could cause for your knees—your quads are going to be pulling on those guys hard, while the hamstrings are left behind. So, doing partial squats causes the potential for many, many knee issues over time. Weaker glutes are also going to cause lower back problems, but because of a different issue—your lower back is going to be forced to do the work that the glutes can’t. Over time, this stress is going to build up until your back breaks down.
Another reason why those partial squats are messing you up is because you can squat A LOT more weight that way! Work equals force times distance. So, if you cut your distance in half, you’ll be able to move twice as much weight! Sounds great for your ego, but bad for your spinal cord! You’re loading your shoulders with such a heavy bar, that your spinal cord is not capable of handling yet. So, your vertebrae are getting smashed together under that heavy load. This is BAD for your back!”
“So, you’re saying I should stop squatting?”
“No, don’t stop squatting…just start squatting RIGHT. I’ll be back for your next workout, and I’ll teach you the basics of proper squat form.”
I walked into the weight room two days later to find our hyperactive sophomore shadow boxing in the corner. Avoiding the masses of bench-n-curlers, I walked back to the squat rack to see how he was doing.
“I’m good, Mr. G, I’m all warmed up and ready to go.”
“That’s good,” I responded, “because a proper warm-up is essential, for reasons we can talk about at another time. Are you ready to learn how to squat?”
“Sure am. Let’s get to work!”
“Ok. First things first—You see that doorway over there? Leave your ego outside that door. We’re going to be doing a new movement for you today, and you can’t be comparing yourself to those around you. Got it?”
“Ego at the door. Got it.”
“Good. Now we’re ready to start. We’ll try to do this in five easy steps. First, step one. I want you to stand with your feet about shoulder width apart and your feet turned slightly outward.”
“Like this?” he asked, showing his lack of body awareness.
“Not quite. Here’s what I want you to do: jump up in the air three times, in succession.”
He jumped three times and landed with his feet in perfect position.
“Look at your feet–that’s where they need to be. Now, step two. And this one is important…it’s one you weren’t following before. You see, on the athletic field and in life, we live on the balls of our feet, right? We do this so that we’re ready to spring into action. Well, in the weight-room, we need to live on our heels. We want to keep our weight on our heels throughout the entire squatting movement. Practice that, so you get the feel of it—curl your toes upwards, so they’re off the ground. This way, you’ll have to fall back onto your heels.”
“Like this?” He asked again, this time performing the task perfectly.
“Wonderful. You’ll want to be on and push through your heels for just about every exercise you do in the weight room. And rule number three is just as important. You can think of it one of two ways. If I place my finger in between your shoulder blades, how would you break it?”
“Umm…well, I’m not sure?” the kid asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“Here, pull your shoulder blades back tight, and squeeze them together. See how you could break something back there? Good. Or you can also think of it this way—imagine you’re on a beach, and three cute girls walk by. How would you stand?”
The kid automatically stood tall and puffed his chest out.
“That’s perfect! You want to keep that throughout the squatting movement. Step four is another important one. Remember why I said doing partial squats was so bad? Now, we need you to squat to parallel. This means that your femur, or your thigh bone, is parallel to the floor. Mr. L taught you what parallel means in geometry, right?”
“He sure did, Mr. G. Like this?”
“A bit lower…and that’s good. Stay in that position—you’re weight is on your heels, you’re chest is up, head forward, you have a nice arch in your back, and you’ve gone down to parallel. The last thing we need to do is push your knees out. So, I want you to take your elbows and use them to push those knees outwards, in line with your toes.”
“Wow! That burns!!” the kid replied, gasping for air.
“Yea, you’re not used to this position, so it will burn for a while. Here, let me help you up. Let’s do three sets of five of those, without any weight, and hold that bottom position for a second to get used to it. After that, we’ll start doing some goblet squats, where you’ll hold a dumbbell in front of you, at your chin. Then, when those get easy, we’ll move to front squats. Finally, we’ll let you do back squats again…this time with less weight, but a lot better form and function. Sound good?”
“Sounds good, Mr. G! Looking forward to it!”
Chris has been certified through NASM and the IYCA and currently holds a certification as a High School Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He has worked with several athletic teams: including running a “dryland” program for a local swim team the past four years, working with track and field throwing athletes, and developing a strength and conditioning program for a growing basketball program. He is constantly looking for new material and owns several dozen books on fitness, listens to the fitcast in his car, and surfs the internet for new information from the great minds in the fitness field: Eric Cressey, Dan John, Mike Boyle, Gray Cook, and Todd Bumgardner, to name a few. Chris currently lives in the Harrisburg, PA area and works as a teacher at a local high school. Some of his hobbies include lifting (of course), basketball, music, and motorcycles.