Full Squats for Strength & Development
By Keith Wassung
When you hear the word “SQUATS” do you think of an early eighties Dutch punk rock band, or of one of the most demanding, resulting producing exercises known to man? Hopefully you associate with the latter, but in any case the full squat is one of the best overall movements for producing both strength and development not only in the legs, but for the overall body.
Full Squats are something that you must learn to do with the mind as well as the body. A proper combination of mental and physical energies will ensure that you will be able to squat using a total effort and nothing less. I often look back at my training log of 25 years and I observe an exact correlation between squat progress and overall progress, meaning that I made the best overall gains in strength and development when my squat was progressing the most. Another thing I have always found to be true about squats is that you can almost always make increases, for example, I have often gone into the gym, totally confident and ready for my session--and I load the bar to do upper body work, such as bench presses--and there are some days, when no matter how hard I try, no matter how hard I push, the reps that I am attempting to make just wont happen. But with the squat the desired reps almost always came. I think that is because the legs are so much stronger than we even imagine and there is always some reserve strength to get another repetition.
Squats and Systemic Growth
You may be wondering, "Just exactly how do squats promote growth throughout the body?" To begin with, the squat involves multiple joints and muscles which in turn increase the level at which the nervous system must coordinate movement in conjunction with the lifter's muscle-skeletal system. In the squat there are numerous muscles of the body working simultaneously to provide the stability and mobility needed for this exercise. It has been estimated that there are up to 200 muscles involved in the squat.
The hormonal or endocrine system combined with the nervous system makes up what is known as "neuroendocrinology". This term describes the relationship of chemical substances that have both neural and hormonal functions. The endocrine glands are stimulated to release hormones by a chemical signal received by the receptors on the gland or by neural stimulation, which is what occurs during weight training. Ever wonder why you feel particularly upbeat and euphoric after a hard workout, even if you are physically drained? It’s because of the increased presence of hormones in your body, hormones that also influence our moods. This is similar to the “runner’s high” experienced by long distance runners.
The increase in anabolic hormone levels observed after a hard workout can increase hormonal interactions with various cellular mechanisms and enhance the development of muscle protein contractile units. On neural stimulation from an alpha motor neuron to initiate a muscle action, various signals (electrical, chemical, and hormonal) are sent from the brain and from activated muscles to a number of endocrine glands. Hormones are secreted during and after the workout in response to the physiological stress of resistance exercise. This simply means that the nervous, muscle-skeletal, and hormonal systems are responsible for the effects promoted by exercises like the squat.
There are various hormones, which produce this effect, and the one that most people are familiar with is testosterone. It's been demonstrated that testosterone serum concentrations can increase with exercises such as the squat.
Squats can increase growth throughout the entire body because they use numerous muscles and this means they stimulate more muscle fibers than say an exercise such as a leg extension or a leg press. The greater the fiber recruitment, the greater the process for potential growth and development in the muscle. Only muscle fibers that are recruited by resistance training are subject to adaptation and the more muscles used in an exercise like the squat the more the muscle fibers are stimulated.
Your squat workout should begin about an hour after the completion of your most recent squat workout. Take the time to sit down with your training log and some good post workout nutrition, and enter your last workout’s sets and reps into the log, along with any particular training notes for that day. Then, begin outlining some training goals for the next workout. You have to set specific goals and have a game plan to achieve them. Once your next workout outline is done, write it on a post-it note, stick it on your day planner or your bathroom mirror, any place where you can glance at it a couple of times each day and by the time your next workout arrives, you will be mentally prepared to complete the required sets and reps. Try to eat a high complex carbohydrate meal the night before a squat workout—whole-wheat pasta with a ground turkey and marinara sauce works very well. Take the time to properly warm-up, which can consist of some stretching and mobility exercises such as five minutes on a stationary bike pedaling at a moderate pace.
If you are going to make decent progress in the squat, you have to be properly equipped and probably the most important gear is a decent set of shoes. I often see people lifting in shoes that provide little in the way of support for the foot and ankle, in fact most “running shoes” are mushy and cause the ankles to buckle slightly inward as the lifter is descending with the bar. Buy a pair of high-topped training shoes, preferably with the ability to tighten the lace around the ankle. If you use the shoes only for your training, they should last for years. Using a lifting belt is a personal decision, though it should be used sparingly and mostly with heavy weights/low rep type sets. The last vital piece of lifting equipment is a strong abdominal region. Having a strong, well-developed trunk region will do wonders for your overall strength. Train the abs in order to make them functionally stronger by doing exercises such as weighted crunches, side bends and frog kicks.
Squatting is a very natural movement; In most of the world—especially Asia and Africa—people squat to rest, to eliminate, and to perform many tasks including giving birth. I was in the gym last week and a guy approached me and told me he was frustrated with his lifting, etc. I asked him about squats and he told me that he was unable to squat. I told him that must be really tough when you have to have a bowel movement! Human bodies are designed to squat! Having said that, there is a certain learning curve associated with the full squat and it’s very important to learn and implement the technique correctly. There is an abundance of squatting technique information available in books, videotapes and websites, but the best way to learn is in person. If you need to improve your squat form, find an experienced lifter somewhere near you and ask them for help and advice. You may have to drive several hours to find someone, but it will be time well spent. The experienced lifter does not have to be a world-class athlete to give you quality instruction. You will find that the majority of experienced lifters are very generous with their time and will gladly help someone who truly has the desire to learn. Be sure you listen and take notes on the instruction you receive. You may even want to offer to pay for a steak dinner afterwards.
I advocate the full barbell squat as one of the core exercises in most any weight-training program. If you are an aspiring powerlifter, then you will need to spend some time performing squats in a powerlifting style in order to prepare for competition. I believe that the full squat will be of tremendous value in laying down a proper strength foundation. There are individuals who may have structural problems (knees, back, etc) which prevent them from squatting at the present time. If this is the case, then those problems need to be properly evaluated and some type of corrective or rehabilitative action taken. When it comes to your health, don’t be afraid to get a second or even third opinion. I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in health care professionals whose only advice is to avoid exercise or activities as I fail to see the positive benefits of physical atrophy of the human body.
Many fitness experts warn against performing squats past the point of parallel for fear of potentially damaging the knees. As a general rule I disagree with those experts though there are certainly individual exceptions. When the full squat is performed correctly and with total control through a complete range of motion, the knees are strengthened, not weakened. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, an estimated 50 million North Americans have suffered or are suffering knee pain or injuries and six million of them will visit a doctor for knee problems each year. The majority of these problems are degenerative in nature and are the result of disuse of the knee joint. Squatting keeps the knee joints mobile and free of pain. There are several joint facets on the inside of the kneecap that are all used only when an individual squats.
When the squat is performed to a parallel depth, it is the knees, which take the majority of the stress involved in stopping the downward momentum of the squat. When the squat is performed to a full depth, this same “braking” stress is transferred to the larger, powerful muscles of the hips, hamstrings and buttocks. It is obvious that the squat must be performed with a great deal of control and that any type of rapid “rebounding”, whether it is done at parallel or at full depth will be detrimental to the knees.
The full squat is very similar to the way a baseball catcher squats down to receive a pitch, with the exception that your feet are flat on the floor, rather than on your toes. I keep a baseball mitt in my gym bag and I often take it out and have people practice the “catchers squat” when instructing on squat technique. To perform the squat, take a medium stance with your toes pointed slightly outward. Place your hands on the bar at approximately shoulder width, get underneath the bar, take a deep breath and expand the chest and stand up with the bar. Take small steps backwards until you reach the place that you wish to squat. Your head should be looking straight ahead with your eyes fixed on a point directly in front of you. If you begin by bending at the knees, your knees will go beyond your toes, which can put them at risk. Sit back, keeping your upper body as upright as you comfortably can, and keep your knees over, but not beyond your toes. Descend into a full squat, staying tight and controlling the weight all the way down without bouncing at the bottom. Then stand up strongly, pushing against the weight and exhaling as you rise. . Keep your abdominal muscles and lower back tight and contracted throughout the movement. Whether you are doing 5, or 20 reps, think about doing “5 sets of perfect singles” or “20 sets of perfect singles” this will help you maintain proper form throughout the entire set.
One final technique tip: The toughest part of the squat is from about 30 degrees to the bottom. One method to help get through this is the use of your arms to assist the lower body in driving the legs past this sticking point. As you are descending with the bar and reach approximately the 30 degree point, begin pressing upwards with your arms just as if you were doing a behind the neck press. Continue to push upwards as you reach the bottom and begin driving upwards. At about the 30 degree mark (this will vary from one person to another) you can relax the pressure as you feel yourself getting past the sticking point. I only use this on the last few reps of a heavy set or when I was squatting in competition. I know this sounds a little odd but give it a try.
Squats and Flexibility
The primary reason for problems with squatting is lack of flexibility in the hips, knees, soleus, calves and ankles. This can easily be resolved by performing high repetition deep knee bends (another word for squats) with bodyweight only. When I began incorporating high repetition bodyweight squats into my training regime, I immediately noticed a difference in my lower body training. I recovered more quickly from leg workouts, all of those little “pops and cricks” that have been with me for years disappeared and I was able to run and play sports without discomfort in my knees, ankles and feet.
The second thing you can do is to develop a habit of squatting instead of sitting whenever you can. Obviously, you cannot do this at a business meeting or at church, but you can work it into daily habits such as petting the dog or picking up something from the ground. Do this a dozen times a day for about two months and you should notice a marked increase in your comfort and confidence in the bottom portion of the squat.
High Repetition Squats
I first became aware of the value of high repetition squats (20 or more reps) when I was serving aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. We had very limited space and my workout area was in the missile compartment, between two ICBM tubes and a set of forward storage lockers. There was just enough room for a loaded Olympic barbell with perhaps four inches of clearance in the front and in the back. There was no room for any kind of squat racks, so I would round up 2-4 guys to work as spotters and would deadlift a loaded barbell to lockout, then would have my spotters grab hold of the ends, then I would let go of the bar, crawl underneath it, assume the squat position at the bottom, stand up with the weight-then do my set of squats, then reverse the procedure to set the bar back on the deck. This process obviously limited the amount of weight I could use, so I had to settle for high repetitions. At the time, I figured that although the high reps were “better than nothing” I would still lose ground in terms of strength and development. Much to my surprise I found that my legs, my overall strength and my overall body grew like they never had before. From that moment on, high rep squats became a staple in my training program
20 rep squats are tough and demanding, both physically and mentally. They require total focus and concentration and an all out effort. When I am doing 20 rep squats, I find that when I hit number 13 or 14, it is impossible to think about doing another 6-7 reps. I can only focus on getting just one more rep, then one more, then just another one until all of the reps are completed. You may have to use certain mental tricks such as counting the reps backwards or mentally grouping the reps in two’s or three’s to complete the entire set. As tough as they are, your body will eventually grow accustomed to them and will actually thrive on them. I have found that when people can break through the pain barrier on 20 rep squats, they are then able to train harder on other exercises—probably because they finally are aware of what hard work and intensity is all about.
You can perform high repetition squats alone or you can combine them with low and medium rep programs. Just about any routine will work provided you work hard and give it time. The key to growth is progression and overload. I don’t care how a workout makes you “feel”, how pumped you get, how much your thighs “burned”, etc. if you are not adding weight and reps to the exercise over a period of time then you will make little if any progress. My first recorded squat workout was 65lbs for eight reps and it was hard and heavy. A little over thirteen years later, I did 600 for eight reps and it was just as hard and heavy—weight is a relative issue.
The majority of people reading this could probably take their best squat for 4-5 reps and with some goal planning, hard work and determination, squat the same weight for 20 reps by the end of the year. This would be more geared to the beginner to intermediate lifter. This will change your entire body, and not just the legs--this will of course take adequate food, water and rest. A 160lb guy could easily add 10-15 SOLID, lean pounds of muscle after a year, and there is a HUGE difference between gaining 10-15 pounds and gaining 10-15 lean pounds. You will also find that 20 rep squats will change your base metabolic rate, which should allow you to burn fat more efficiently 24/7. There are not many people who are willing to do this, but the rewards will be worth it.
You have to develop and maintain the proper mental toughness and discipline which is necessary for you to reach your own potential. This toughness is largely the ability to deal with pain, fatigue and discomfort associated with hard and progressive training. There are tens of thousands of people who want better strength, development and conditioning and they are totally committed to spending two or more hours a day, six days a week in training, they are willing to buy supplements, equipment, they are willing to do just about anything……except to include and embrace pain, fatigue and discomfort as necessary in their training. In fact, everything they do, everything they buy, every excuse they make is to avoid pain, fatigue and discomfort at all costs. The closest thing that I know to a "lifting secret" is this: Once you are willing to be uncomfortable at times in your workout, it does not take long for you to get used to it, in fact you may look forward to it and thrive on it. This is when you will embark on the journey to achieving the potential that lies within you.
I hope a few people take this challenge.
TOM HANKS: “Why are you quitting”?
GEENA DAVIS: “because it just got too hard”
TOM HANKS: ‘It’s supposed to be hard, if it was easy,
everybody would do it…it’s the hard that
makes it great”
“A League of their Own”