I have worked in the fitness industry since 1978, and have owned a gym since 1984. Since I went into business for myself, I have approached the teaching of strength training from a completely different perspective than the industry’s standard model — I have taught all my members to lift barbells, as opposed to the machine-based exercise paradigm used by the commercial fitness industry at large.
During my time as a gym owner I have made several mistakes, none of which had anything to do with my decision to teach everybody how to use barbells safely, efficiently, and productively. Rather, my biggest regret was not doing so, once, when I should have.
Dr. Coleman came to the gym on the advice of his doctor. He was in his late 60s at the time, still a working cardiologist, but he was not terribly robust even for a guy his age. He was a very nice man, excruciatingly polite to everyone and generous to a fault. I remember the first question I asked him, being one of the first doctors we’d had in the gym and me being curious about lots of things: “How is it, Dr. Coleman, that a dog can drink nasty water out of a puddle in the road and be perfectly fine, but if I did that I’d get sick — as a dog? Haha.” He regarded me momentarily, as if deciding how to respond to a curious but dull child (not an altogether inappropriate assessment), and calmly explained that there were profound differences in the digestive environment between that of myself and my little bulldog girlfriend Dumplin. He was a patient man as well.
My friend Cardell ended up with Dr. Coleman as his personal training client. Cardell and I had trained together for years, starting at the YMCA in downtown Wichita Falls, Texas, in the early ‘80s. This was the same weight room in which Bill Starr, former editor of York Barbell’s Strength and Health and one of the first strength coaches in the world, had started out in the late ‘50s – the room had history. It was important to us too, as a place where we honed our skills and grew as lifters and men. When I bought Anderson’s Gym in 1984, we moved our training headquarters to the renamed Wichita Falls Athletic Club, and I began the task of applying barbell training to a commercial gym’s clientele.
Following the prescribed industry methodology we had both been taught by the then-becoming-mainstream National Strength and Conditioning Association, Cardell used a machine-based approach in his work with Dr. Coleman. It was perfectly congruent with the thinking at the time, and it still is: the client was old, free weights are dangerous, we mustn’t hurt old people — we mustn’t even entertain the possibility of hurting old people — and Dr. Coleman skated through his workouts with Cardell unscathed.
He also failed to make any significant progress toward a more robust physical capacity. Dr. Coleman joined the gym as a frail older man, never walking with the aggressive, confident stride of a fit person, and never assuming the positions of sitting, standing back up, or getting in and out of the car without carefully and deliberately measuring his position. He left the gym many years later a still-frail, even-older man.
And I let it happen. My fault for standing there, watching but paying no attention, as the potential for reversing the effects of age and a sedentary lifestyle slipped through our fingers.
The “New Year’s Resolution” must be one of the most ridiculous of human customs. You identify a problem you’re having, and then you wait until January 1 of the next year to address it, in the spirit of a group-participation event that nobody completes and nobody approaches seriously. You decide that you’re going to quit eating chocolate or stop scratching your feet. You stop until January 5. You’re typical.
In the gym business, New Year’s Resolution business used to be a bigger factor than it is now. Twenty-five years ago, fewer people participated in the fitness industry during the regular course of the year, so more people were free to buy memberships in January they weren’t going to use. Back then, New Year’s business was a significant percentage of the year’s gross, and the leveling off of this spike is really a good thing for everybody. The gym isn’t as crowded with amateurs for the three weeks after their hangovers are gone, and more people are using the gym more of the year.
But if you fall into the category of die-hard NYRers that insist on giving it a shot this year — again — let me suggest a different approach this time: strength training.
Training is the systematic approach a person employs to improve a physical ability. Preparing for a marathon, a football season, or a weightlifting meet are examples of training. They require an analysis of the specifics of the task, an assessment of where you are now in relation to where you want to be, and a plan for getting there. The plan and its constituent components are the training. The constituent components are the workouts, and each workout is important because together they produce an accumulation of increasing physical capacity. The plan that controls and directs the process is what makes training different than what you did last year.
Exercising is what you did last year.
Time is money.
Money is scarce these days, everywhere but D.C. You want to be stronger, so you go to the gym. The best use of your time there is the simple progressive barbell training program we have discussed before, one that drives an upward strength adaptation with a programmed increase in load over a full range of motion using as much of your muscle mass as possible. This approach allows you to lift a gradually increasing amount of weight, thus making you stronger. Stronger means only one thing: you can apply more force with your muscles. The process of getting stronger improves the capacity of every aspect of your physical existence. So, getting stronger in the gym is the best reason to go there.
But it is incredibly easy to waste precious time once you’re inside.
Here are the top three ways:
Long regarded as the first thing you should always do inside the gym, stretching — for most people, and by “most” I mean you, probably — is not only unnecessary, it may be counterproductive.
What a way to start an essay, eh? The most fashionable aspect of modern fitness is the newly rechristened “mobility.” Same thing as “flexibility,” except that it sounds more Californian.
And here I go again, pooping on the most popular thing in the gym. It is a part of every trendy approach to fitness in existence, from CrossFit and “functional training” to Pilates and yoga. In fact, Pilates and yoga are mobility/flexibility/stretching, and that’s about all.
It has been assumed by almost everybody for the past 40 years that every workout should begin with the physical preparation known as “stretching.” Stretching is an attempt to increase the range of motion (ROM) around a joint, like the knee, hip, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or around a group of joints like the spinal column. The common method used is to force the joint into a position of tolerable discomfort and hold it there for a while, thus hopefully increasing the ROM.
More recent approaches to increased flexibility have used techniques that affect the muscles themselves, which actually control the ROM around the joints. Massage, Active Release Therapy, “foam rolling,” and other techniques applied to the muscle bellies themselves are actually much more effective for increasing a tight ROM than stretching. The Hip Bone’s Connected to the Thigh Bone, the Thigh Bone’s Connected to the Knee Bone, etc. So stretching is really all about the muscles, anyway. Every operating room professional knows the truth here: perfect “mobility” is obtained only under general anesthesia.
The assumption is always that your current ROM needs to be increased. Here are some Facts, cheerfully provided without citations, so that you can look them up if you want to:
1. Hypermobility is a medical condition – a Pathology, in fact – that often involves defects in the proteins that form the ligaments, the connective tissues that connect the bones to each other at the joints. The problem with being too flexible is that it results in unstable joints, which can assume positions they are not anatomically designed to occupy. A subsequently injured joint is not healthy: it is injured. This is not good. And here you are, trying to become hypermobile.
2. Tendons and ligaments do not “stretch out.” You cannot make them longer, and it would not improve their function if you could. Their function is to transmit force; in the case of tendons, which connect muscles to bones, the force of muscular contraction is transmitted to the bone it’s attached to, thus moving the bone. Tendons are indeed elastic, in that a sudden dynamic load causes a very small temporary change in length and a subsequent rebound, seen typically in the Achilles tendon complex. But during normal muscle contraction, if the tendon stretched excessively not all of the force would move the bone — some would be lost as the tendon changed length. Like a chain, a tendon pulls the bone with all the force of the contracting muscle because it does not stretch during the contraction.
Ligaments behave likewise. They anchor the joint as it moves, so that the bones which articulate at the joint change their relationship only with respect to their angle. This allows the joint to serve as a fulcrum in a system of levers. When ligaments move enough to allow the joint to change from its normal inter-articular arrangement, it is said to be “dislocated.” You’ve heard of that, right? When tendons and ligaments are stretched excessively, they rupture.
Most importantly, you cannot change the length of either a tendon or a ligament with stretching of any type, massage of any type, or therapy of any type. And why would you want to? Tendons and ligaments are force transmission components. They are very very tough, and they cannot be permanently lengthened by non-invasive means. The only connective tissues that you can affect with stretching are the fascias, the thin “silverskin” that covers the muscle bellies. If they become a problem, usually caused by tiny scars called “adhesions” that form between them and their underlying muscle or between adjacent fascias, they can be stretched with the previously-mentioned forms of therapy.
3. Since neither ligaments or tendons are designed to stretch, an increase in flexibility primarily involves the muscles that control the position of the skeletal components they operate. Sometimes, but not that often, the muscles behave in a way that requires you to teach them to lengthen more readily. And the best way to do this is with the aforementioned Full Range of Motion Barbell Exercise. Since full ROM is, by definition, all you need to do, anything beyond that is either a simple waste of time, or a counterproductive waste of time.
4. Stretching does nothing to a.) prevent soreness, b.) alleviate soreness, c.) or improve strength or any other measure of fitness. In fact, the vast majority of the studies done on stretching not only support this summary, but also indicate that stretching prior to either training or performance produces a significant decrease in power production. That’s right: tighter muscles can contract harder and faster, and even you can see the application for this in performance athletics.
The upshot is this: if you are already flexible (okay, “mobile”) enough to operate efficiently within the ROM of your required training and performance movements, you are flexible enough (your “mobility” is sufficient). And you don’t need to stretch. If you want to, go ahead and enjoy yourself, but you are not using your time wisely.
I read the comments on these articles, you know. “Rip’s a fat guy. Don’t believe anything he says about fitness.” “Fit people don’t look like Rip’s fat ass. Run awaaaaay!!” As I sit here finishing the last of an unclaimed birthday cake from Kroger, listening to Chicago’s “Free Form Guitar” on repeat, this harshness brings a tear to my chubby, piggish little eyes. People are so hateful sometimes. Usually they’re just stupid and ignorant, and that can be interpreted as hateful.
But not by me, Nosiree. I know how people are, and they just haven’t thought clearly about several important aspects of human existence. First, I’m not a model, although my rugged good looks qualify me for such work (I was kidding about the birthday cake and the eyes). I’m a coach, a lecturer, and an author. I’m paid for what I know, not how I look. Tom Landry didn’t look like Randy White, but that didn’t keep him from being effective. My job is not to have abs, and it’s not even to show you how to get them. My job is to teach you how to get strong with barbell training, and why you should, and I’m quite good at it.
I have been doing this since 1978, and I’ve forgotten more about strength and conditioning than many coaches will ever have an opportunity to learn. But I’m 58, I’ve accumulated a lot of injuries, I can’t train as hard as I used to, I like to eat and drink, and I have a little belly. That doesn’t keep me from being an effective coach, lecturer, and author. And it’s amazing to me that I actually have to explain this to people who haven’t thought about what a coach does. They’re not hateful, just slow.
This is important too: I’m no longer primarily concerned with my appearance, and many of you in this particular audience aren’t either. Vanity is a luxury we don’t have time for — a costly, unnecessary luxury for truly mature individuals who are content to be merely strong, healthy, and physically competent. I’m not interested in being a fat slob, and as long as I’m training and thinking clearly about what I eat and drink, I won’t be. My primary interest now is that my continued physical existence be such that I’m still having fun.
Ladies and gentlemen, that doesn’t require “abs.”
I’m 58. Granted, I’m pretty beat up these days. I’ve had my share of injuries, the result of having lived a rather careless active life outdoors, on horses, motorcycles, bicycles, and the field of competition. People my age who have not spent their years in a chair have an accumulation of aches and pains, most of them earned the hard way. And for us, beat up or not, the best way to stay in the game is to train for strength.
The conventional wisdom is that older people (ah, the term sticks in the craw) need to settle into a routine of walking around in the park when the weather is nice, maybe going to the mall for a brisk stroll in the comfort of the air conditioning, or a nice afternoon on the bicycle, checking out the local retirement communities — at a leisurely pace, of course. For the more adventurous, a round of golf really stretches out the legs. Maybe finish up with a challenging game of Canasta. Your doctor will tell you that this is enough to keep the old ticker ticking away, and should you choose to rev the engine like this every day, you’re doing everything you need to do to maintain the fantastic quality of life enjoyed by old people at the mall.
Standards, unfortunately, are low. Your doctor often assumes that he’s also your fitness consultant. When you get sick, go to your doctor. When you are deciding what to do to extend your physical usefulness, how about taking a different approach than asking his permission to get up off your ass? How about asking yourself whether your current physical condition is as good as you’d like it to be? If it’s not, what would be the best way to improve it?
Training with weights produces muscle soreness. Many people don’t like to be sore, and that’s why they won’t train for strength. Running also makes you sore, but not as bad and not all over the body, like weights, so running is more popular. Other people have noticed that riding a bike doesn’t produce sore muscles, so they ride a bike for exercise instead of lifting weights or running. But to some people — and this may come as a surprise to most of you — getting sore becomes the whole point of exercise. They wear their soreness like a badge of honor, and regard sore muscles as the price they must pay for continued self-improvement.
Here are some facts.
Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a phenomenon associated with certain types of muscular work. It can occur as the result of exercise or manual labor, and is a perfectly natural consequence of unaccustomed physical exertion. There are a couple of different theories about its actual cause at the cellular level, which are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that DOMS has nothing to do with lactic acid production during exercise, and that it is an inflammatory response to certain types of muscular work which therefore responds to NSAIDs like naproxen, ibuprofen, and aspirin.
Not everybody who wants to train for strength can fit a gym membership into their lifestyle. Scheduling problems, the cost, travel problems from home or work, the absence of an adequately equipped facility in the market, or simply the dislike of a commercial gym environment motivates many people to invest in a home gym.
A serviceable home gym for barbell training need not be a gigantic investment, and in fact should be very simple. A bar, some plates, a rack of some type to facilitate the squat and the pressing exercises, a simple flat bench for the bench press, and a platform for deadlifts are all that is absolutely required. For power cleans and snatches, a few bumper plates are quite useful but not absolutely necessary.
The equipment is simple, and need not be expensive, but there are a few tricks.
1. The Bar
This is the wrong place to save money. Of all the pieces in the gym, the quality of the bar is the most critical. The plates just hang there, the platform just lays there, but the bar is your connection to the force against which you lift — gravity.
Saving money is a good idea. Generic drugs are cheaper than the name-brand products, and they are essentially the same product. This is not true of Olympic barbells. In most cases, you get exactly what you pay for. Unless you get lucky — and these days of rapid expansion in the interest in barbell training, such luck is hard to come by — and find a good used bar cheap, expect to pay around $300 for a good bar.
Why? Because steel is expensive, competent manufacturing is expensive, and warehouse space costs money. A cheap bar will bend, and a badly bent bar is junk. A bar within about 3mm of perfectly straight is useable as a straight bar, while a bar bent more than 4-5mm out of straight is considered bent. When loaded with plates, a badly bent bar will rotate to a position of stability — it will “right” itself, with the ends of the bar pointing down and the bend in the middle pointing up. This is fine for a squat, if you have marked the bar so that you can take it out of the rack in this stable position. But if you unrack the bar for a squat, press, or bench press, or pull it from the floor in its unstable configuration, the bar will spin in your hands or on your back to right itself. This is not good, and can cause safety problems during the lift.
Most commercial gyms have a few bars, and usually all of them are bent, because they bought cheap junky bars not knowing any better or not caring about it. Bars get bent in commercial gyms by being dropped on benches, or inside the rack by jackasses that aren’t invested in the equipment. Even expensive bars will bend when 315 pounds is dropped across a bench. But cheap bars will bend if left loaded in the rack overnight.
You can check a bar for straightness by placing it on the floor and spinning it in the middle with your foot (if the revolving sleeves aren’t frozen, which is also bad). If it wobbles, it’s not straight. Or, you can see the wobble when you rotate it in the rack — the end of the bar will describe a circle in the air larger than the diameter of the sleeve, and the middle of the bar will move back and forth, the greatest deviation being at the point of the bend. One of the advantages of a home gym is that you get to work with a straight bar every time you train.
Bars are available in several diameters. The Olympic weightlifting federations specify a 28mm bar, while the International Powerlifting Federation wants the diameter to be between 28 and 29mm. The standard bar length is a little over seven feet, has “2-inch”/50mm diameter sleeves for loading the plates on, and weighs 20kg/44.1lbs. The thicker the bar, the stiffer the bar, so Olympic lifters doing the faster snatch and clean & jerk like the whippiness of a 28mm bar, and powerlifters need a stiffer bar because they handle heavier weights more slowly. Olympic lifting uses a 25mm bar for the women’s division (smaller hands need a smaller bar), and a competitive lifter will need one of these. For home gym purposes, a 28.5mm or 29mm bar will be the most durable and provide the best service over time.
Never buy a 32mm bar. They are either junk, or a specialty squat bar that a home gym doesn’t need. Usually they are junk. Scrap metal.
If you are a competitive distance runner or cyclist who is serious about your sport, this article has not been written for you. This highly informative discussion is intended for those people who have taken seriously the advice of doctors, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, and the popular media’s dutiful reporting on these sources of common misinformation about what kind of physical activity is best for your long-term health and continued ability to participate in the business of living well.
Endurance exercise is the most commonly recommended form of activity for health and “wellness.” Every time you see an exercise recommendation denominated in minutes, you are seeing a recommendation for long slow distance exercise — LSD, or “cardio” in the modern vernacular. Running, bicycling, rowing, or their health-club analogs on machines at the gym are what they mean when they say “exercise.”
Depending on who you listen to, 20 minutes per day, 3 hours (120 minutes) per week, or any permutation thereof as a prescription for fitness/health/wellness is the standard in both the fitness and health care industries, and getting stronger is always of secondary importance.
The endurance exercise approach ignores several basic facts:
1. Strength is the ability to produce force with your muscles against an external resistance, like those with which we interact in our environment as we go through our days, living our lives productively. And endurance exercise is directly antagonistic to strength, because an endurance adaptation occurs at the expense of strength.
The body’s basic response to a stress of any type is to recover from that stress in a way that makes it less likely to be a stress when next exposed to it. In other words, we adapt to stress by becoming better able to withstand it. This means that the adaptation to the stress is specific to the type of stress. An endurance stress is low-intensity and highly repetitive, meaning that each of the individual physical efforts that make up the run is easy — none of them are physically difficult from a strength perspective. If they were, you couldn’t do them over and over again for an hour. This means that the hard part is the cumulative effects of the run, not the strides themselves, which are easy.
Since the individual efforts that compose the run are easy, they do not depend on, nor are they limited by, the runner’s strength. Therefore, running cannot make you stronger, since it does not stress your ability to produce increasing amounts of force. Rather, it only depends on your ability to keep producing small amounts of force for an hour.
But more importantly, since running for an hour requires a different adaptation from the muscles, that adaptation will be favored by the muscles and will actively compete for precedence over a strength adaptation — especially if you’re not doing any strength training, or doing it wrong.
Quite literally, the more you run, the better you are at running and the worse you are at being strong.
“Physical fitness.” “Physical activity.” “Working out.” “Exercise.” “Training.” These are all terms that get haphazardly applied to the things we do when we intend to make some type of improvement in our body’s physical capacity. They all have separate and very specific meanings, and understanding them is important if you are to make the right choice about which one to apply to your situation.
“Physical activity” is a rather low standard to hold oneself to, since it merely means movement. Physical activity, according to the American Heart Association website, is defined as “anything that makes you move your body and burn calories.” The world is full of unhealthy people, some of whom are sedentary and some who move all day. Mere movement does not correlate with a significant improvement in physical capacity. It may be a step in the right direction, but a look at its specific recommendations indicates that any steps would be tiny ones.
“Physical Fitness” has a more specific definition. By Kilgore and Rippetoe in 2006 in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online [9(1):1-10]:
“Possession of adequate levels of strength, endurance, and mobility to provide for successful participation in occupational effort, recreational pursuits, familial obligation, and that is consistent with a functional phenotypic expression of the human genotype.”
This is a description of what fitness entails, and describes a reason to be fit based on the genetics we possess. But it doesn’t say anything about how to accomplish this task, either the process or the components thereof.
Most people decide that the thing to do to get fit is something called “working out.” A “workout” is a term that refers to the period of time spent exercising — the exercise event. Us guys go to the gym for the purpose of “getting a workout” before we know much about it. To most of us guys, getting a workout means hitting the bag, running a few laps, getting sweaty, tired, and maybe doing arms a little. A few curls.
That makes “working out” the same thing as “exercise.” The term “exercise” best describes a physical activity performed for the sake of the effect it produces on your body today — right now — or immediately following the workout. If you’re just exercising, the workout itself is the point. Yoga, Pilates, cardio on the treadmill, a group class of any kind — basically punching your time card at the gym is “exercise.” For most people, “exercise” probably involves doing the same thing in the gym every time you go, because the effect is predictable. You want to get hot, sweaty, and tired, because it makes you feel that something positive has occurred. And it has. For many people, the acute effect of “exercise” is all that is necessary for an improvement in their physical wellbeing.
The modern fitness industry is built exclusively around the “exercise” model.
Pressing a barbell overhead is one of the oldest exercises in the gym. It might well have been the first exercise invented after the first barbell was discovered. Since it is performed while standing with the bar in the hands — after the bar is cleaned from the ground to the shoulders, or taken from the rack at shoulder height — the entire body is involved in the exercise. From the floor to the hands, the job of pressing the bar overhead is shared by all the muscles in the body.
But for some bizarre reason, the press has acquired the entirely undeserved reputation as a dangerous exercise for the shoulders.
Due to a poor understanding of the mechanics of the movement, doctors and physical therapists commonly advise against performing this perfectly natural and perfectly safe exercise. The alleged problem is an injury known as “shoulder impingement,” and nothing could be further from the truth. The correctly performed press (incorrectly-performed exercises do not count) is not only perfectly safe for the shoulders — more importantly, the press is the best exercise for keeping shoulders strong and injury-free. Here’s why.
The deadlift may be the simplest and easiest exercise to learn in all of barbell training. You pick up a loaded barbell and set it back down, keeping the bar in contact with your legs the whole way. There are a few subtle complications — the bar should move up and down the legs in a vertical line over the middle of the foot, the bar should start from a position directly over the mid-foot, and you should keep your back flat when you pull. But that’s really about all there is to it. The deadlift is one of the basic movements of which strength training is composed.
Pulling things off the ground is a part of your human heritage, and bending down to pick them up is what your knees and hips are for. With the bar in your hands and your feet against the floor, your whole body is completely involved in the exercise, which means the deadlift makes the whole body strong. It would be very difficult to invent a more natural exercise for the body than picking up a progressively heavier barbell.
“Kinetic chain” is an exercise term that refers to the musculoskeletal components (the “links”) of an exercise between the load (the barbell) and the base of support (your feet against the floor). The kinetic chain in the deadlift is essentially the entire body, and everything between hands and floor is doing its anatomically-determined proportion of the work of moving the bar. This means that your legs, hips, back, lats, arms, and grip contribute the fraction of the lifting that their individual positions on the skeleton and their relationships to each other permit.
Here’s the best part about barbell training: if you use good technique, your anatomy sorts out each bodypart’s contribution so that you don’t have to.
These large exercises — essentially normal human movement patterns loaded with a barbell to make them progressively heavier — eliminate the need for dozens of smaller exercises, and the strength you obtain is directly applicable to your job of being an active human.
Deadlifts are important, and you should be doing them. Here’s 3 reasons why…
(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)
Not everybody that goes to the gym wants to lose weight.
This may come as a surprise to some of you who either need to lose a few pounds or think everyone wants to be skinny. Many underweight men would love to be bigger, stronger, and more physically imposing, and gaining muscular bodyweight is a simple process.
Popular culture is currently at war with the notion that a man should be big and strong, because popular culture is at war with the idea of independence and self-sufficiency, and a big strong man literally embodies the concept.
We are inundated daily by print and video advertising, as well as by essentially every non-action/adventure film, with images of men who weigh about 150 pounds at 5’9” (that’s 10 stone 10 for the Brits, and about 68 kg at 175 cm for the rest of Europe). The image of Obama’s “Pajama Boy” is burned indelibly into the national conscience, but it made a very small blister.
But many of us believe that a grown man weighs 200 pounds. He just does.
Bigger and stronger is better than being underweight for your health, your athletic performance in the vast majority of sports, and your longevity, as well as for your appearance.
Many regard this perception as petty and superficial, believing that intellectual pursuits are the true crowning glory of humanity, and that brutish size and strength belongs in the past, with animal skins, stone tools, and sloping foreheads.
But they are wise enough not to say this in our presence.
In reality, the typical human reaction to a well-behaved larger man is a positive and respectful one. More importantly, anyone who has gone through the process of gaining muscular bodyweight will attest to the benefits of having done so, completely aside from the difference in the way he is perceived by others.
This article – and my upcoming PJ Media series — is for those of you for whom this makes sense. Since this might be the first time you’ve read such a thing in the media, listen up.
The process is simple. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy; it’s just not very complicated.
(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)
The idea that below-parallel squats are bad for the knees is complete nonsense that for some reason will not go away. This mythology is mindlessly repeated by orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, registered nurses, personal trainers, dieticians, sportscasters, librarians, lunch-room monitors, and many other people in positions of authority with no actual knowledge of the topic and no basis in fact for their opinion.
I have been teaching the below-parallel squat for 37 years, and have taught hundreds of thousands of people — in my gym, through my books and videos, and in my seminars — to safely perform the most important exercise in the entire catalog of resistance training. Yet here in 2014, well into the 21st century, we still hear completely uninformed people — who have had ample opportunity to educate themselves yet have failed to do so — advise against performing squats under the assumption that they look scary or hard and are therefore “bad for the knees.”
Here are four reasons why this is not true, and why you should immediately start squatting correctly if you entertain the notion that you’d like to be stronger.
1. The “deep” (hips below the level of the knees) squat is an anatomically normal position for the human body.
It is used as a resting position for millions of people everywhere, and they squat into it and rise out of it every time. There is nothing harmful about either assuming a squatting position — whether sitting down in a chair or into an unsupported squat — or returning to a standing position afterward.
If you look at the knees and hips, you’ll notice that they seem suspiciously well-adapted to doing this very thing. Infants and children squat down below parallel all the time in the absence of pediatric medical intervention. These things should indicate to the thinking person that there is nothing inherently harmful in assuming this anatomically normal position. The fact that you haven’t been squatting is no reason to seek justification for not having done so.
The world powerlifting record for the squat is over 1,000 pounds. My friend Ellen Stein has squatted 400 at the age of 60 at a bodyweight of 132 pounds. Everybody seems to be okay.
Yes, friends, we’ve been squatting since we’ve had knees and hips, and the development of the toilet just reduced the range of motion a little. The comparatively recent innovation of gradually loading this natural movement with a barbell doesn’t mean that it will hurt you, if you do it correctly.
You don’t get to do the squat incorrectly and then tell everybody that squatting hurt your knees.
Disclaimer: This discussion refers specifically to the strength training version of the movement, the one designed to make you progressively stronger by lifting progressively heavier weights. If you are doing hundreds of reps of unweighted squats, your knees and everything else are going to be unavoidably and exquisitely sore.
The application of stress, the recovery from that stress, and the subsequent adaptation that results from the process is the central organizing principle of everything that has to do with physical improvement. From physical and occupational therapy to preparation for the Olympic Games, the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle is not just a good idea, it’s the law.
It is May 15, and you decide that this year you are going to get a suntan — a glorious, beautiful, tropical suntan. So you decide to catch some rays outside at lunchtime. You lie on your back for 15 minutes and flip over to lie on your belly for 15 minutes. Then you come in and eat lunch, and go back to work. That night, your skin is a little pink, so the next day you just eat lunch, but the following day you’re back outside for your 15 minutes-per-side sunbath.
You are faithful to your schedule, spending 30 minutes outside every day that week. At the end of the week, you have turned a more pleasant shade of brown, and — heartened by your results — resolve to maintain your schedule for the rest of the month.
The critical question: what color is your skin at the end of the month?
If you ask a hundred people this question, ninety five will tell you that it will be really, really dark. But in fact it will be exactly the same color it was at the end of the first week. Why would it be any darker?
“Stress” is that which causes a perturbation of the steady state of a system — in this case, your physiology. If the stress is mild, it causes no response. It doesn’t disrupt the situation enough to be noticed. If the stress is too great, it can kill you. This is what happens when you fall off a building or get mauled by a bear.
(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)
Strength training is quite popular these days, and is getting more popular as people realize the benefits of approaching their exercise program with a definite goal in mind. Stronger is more useful. Stronger is better. Stronger even looks better. And stronger is a straightforward process — lift a little more weight today than you did last time, and keep doing so for as long as possible.
But as simple as this process is, it can become unnecessarily complicated without a basic understanding of the nature of the exercises that make you strong most efficiently. The best exercises to use are the ones that involve the most muscle mass, the greatest number of joints, and that require you to balance yourself while you’re doing them. Put a bar on your back and squat below parallel, press a bar overhead, pick a bar up from the ground and set it back down. These are normal human movement patterns that can be turned into progressively heavier exercises that make you strong the way your body moves naturally.
You normally use your strength while standing on the ground and applying force with your hands and upper body. The hips and legs generate the force, it is transmitted up your torso and out through your arms. The press and deadlift are perfect examples of this precise application, and the squat is the best way to build strength in the hips, legs, and back. Add the bench press for upper body strength, and chin-ups for arm and upper back strength, and you have all the bases covered.
But if that’s true, why is it that when you go to the gym you are immediately shown two hours worth of movements that are not deadlifting, pressing, or squatting?
Why are you shown an array of exercise machines that divide the body into small groups of muscles to be worked separately, when the body actually uses them all at the same time? And when the Certified Trainers move you over to the large colorful balls and have you do balancing tricks on them, one foot at a time, is it really an improvement?
No, it’s not. Here’s why:
(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)
When you consult a medical professional about exercise, the standard recommendation amounts to a prescription for a certain number of minutes per day or per week. The conventional wisdom equates “exercise” with “cardio” — endurance exercise performed at a low to moderate intensity for a continuous period of time. We call it LSD (long, slow distance). The assumption seems to be that as long as your heart is capable of working at 65% of its assumed maximum capacity, that’s about all you need to do.
The fact is that a properly designed strength training program constitutes a much better use of the same amount of time a “cardio” workout takes, and provides far more benefits to your quality of life.
This is especially true if you are older.
Assuming you are not a heart patient, strength training provides enough cardiovascular work to serve the purpose, and produces an increase in strength that endurance exercise cannot provide. Here’s why:
1. Not doing the things that make you strong has its consequences.
Increased strength is produced by activity that requires you to use your muscles to produce force — more force than you normally produce in daily activities, and more force than LSD requires. When you use your muscles in an effective strength program, sugar fuels the activity, and efficient carbohydrate metabolism is necessary for your health. A lack of active carbohydrate metabolism is very closely correlated with the development of Type II Diabetes and other unpleasant things. Type II Diabetes shortens your lifespan, in addition to making your shorter life a lot more trouble.
This cannot be emphasized enough: using your muscles in a way that makes them stronger also improves the way your body handles the sugar that can cause metabolic problems like diabetes.
When the human body is allowed to sit on its ass instead of doing the muscular work that keeps it strong, it is being placed in a situation that its physiology is not designed for. Muscular activity is natural. Inactivity is not. Intellectual pursuits notwithstanding, doing the things that keep you strong may well be the most important things you do.