(This is a follow-up article to "Squatting in 2005" and covers the mental aspect of squatting)
JOE VERSUS THE SQUAT RACK
By Keith Wassung
Joe Myers anxiously glanced at the clock on his office wall. The hands read 4:40pm, which meant another twenty minutes until the workday was over. Though it was a crisp Thursday in late October, and though the Dow Jones was up today and prime interest rates were down by a quarter percentage, the only fact that mattered was this was a training day and in less than an hour, Joe would be standing in front of the squat rack, ready to do battle with the steel king of the gym. Joe was 26, a loan officer for a prestigious bank and also an avid lifter. He had begun training in college, 6 years earlier and had made much progress, transforming himself from a 170lb guy with barely an athletic build to a solid and well developed 215lbs.
There were three main places to train in Joe’s city. Duke’s Hardcore Iron Gym was on the edge of town, wedged in between an automobile repo yard and a factory. The gym advertised itself as catering to the “hardcore” lifter. Joe had trained there a few times and was not impressed. The place was filthy, the equipment was not maintained and after all, any gym that had to refer to itself as “hardcore” probably was not that hardcore. The gym also had a lot of chemical commerce transactions, something Joe wanted no part of. The second gym in town was a bright, upscale fitness center that had all the trappings of a 21st century health club including countless exercise classes, fancy machines and personal trainers, all of which catered to the white collar business types. Joe had trained there for a month on a free pass. It was an ok place to train, but very annoying—especially the swarm of the personal trainers who resided there. Most personal trainers were like telephone psychics, you paid them a lot of money, they told you what you wanted to hear and all you got for your money was a temporary ego boost.
Joe currently trained at the Coldwell Recreation Center, an athletic and recreation facility that had an indoor basketball gym, a softball field, a pool, tennis courts and a free standing building that housed the gym. The gym was divided into a weight training area, a cardio room and an aerobics class that was also used by a couple of marital arts classes. The place was run down and understaffed, but the price was affordable and it was a fairly good group of people who used the facilities. The weight room was mostly frequented by guys sporting either a “Big Dawg” tattoo or a “Big Dawg” logo on their lifting belt.
Joe had a goal of squatting 375 for ten reps tonight. During his last leg workout he had squatted 370 for ten reps, but it taken just about everything he had to complete the set. His goal was to squat 405 for 10 reps by Christmas, so if he could hit the 375x10 reps tonight, he would be on track to reach his yearly goal. He alternated his leg workouts by performing sets in the 10-20 rep range on some days and other times he did reps in the 3-7 range. The type of squats he performed were full “ass to grass” squats. He had only begun doing full squats instead of parallel squats about 18 months earlier upon the advice of Rex, a powerfully built 55 year veteran lifter that he had met at a banking convention. Full squats had done more for his overall strength and development than anything else he had ever done. He loved doing them at the fitness center which always invoked the personal trainers to warn him about knee trauma. As Rex had explained it, 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.
Joe pulled into the facility and was glad to see that the parking lot was nearly full. It was not that he wanted to show off when lifting, but having a bunch of people around always provided extra incentive and tonight Joe needed all the help he could get. He opened the door and was met by the blaring sound of the stereo. The room was full, but not crowded. Joe quickly walked to the locker room and began changing into his workout clothes. Walking out into the cardio area he found a quiet corner and began ten minutes of stretching and mental rehearsal. From his vantage point, he was unable to see the squat rack in the next room, but he knew it would be there waiting for him. Following the stretching was 5 minutes on the exercise bike which produced a mild sweat. Ready to commence his lifting, Joe walked into the weight room and was greeted by several people. He looked over at the dumbbell rack and bench press station and saw the same group of 4-5 guys who always train together. They loved bodybuilding exercises, using bodybuilding terminology and they avoided heavy back and leg work like the plague. All of their workouts were the same, 5 sets of every conceivable type of press, dumbbell fly or curl interspersed with boastful tales of their previous night of bar hopping and partying. The weight that they use in their exercises never changed and the only benefit they get is a temporary muscle pump. Similar groups are present in just about every gym and though they are decent guys, they have a tendency to draw others into their group, which kills any type of training progress.
Off in the corner stood the power rack where Joe would perform his squats. The rack spoke to him as he looked over at it. “Hello Joe, I bet your going to try to exceed your last squat workout….it’s not going to be easy…..you look a little tired…….you probably haven’t recovered from your heavy deadlifts earlier this week….why don’t you wait a few more days….get some rest and it will be a lot easier then.” The squat rack could not stand to be challenged and it hated to be beaten. It kept most members from ever taking the challenge merely by the thought of the pain and discomfort of the squat. Those who did challenge the rack were quietly discouraged by the constant planting of seeds of fear and doubt. Joe glared at the rack and silently proclaimed “ 375 for ten solid reps…..TODAY.”
Joe began his workout with incline presses and followed that with narrow grip bench presses, standing overhead presses and dips. The reps were hard, but solid and Joe felt strong. Finishing his last set of dips, he walked over and stood directly in front of the squat rack and began stretching out his hamstrings. His heart began to beat faster in anticipation of the upcoming sets. The gym was abuzz with activity. The rack whispered “Hey Joe, look who’s in the cardio room” Joe turned around and saw Ashley, an attractive brunette walking on the treadmill” She was a customer at the bank and Joe had talked to her a few times and even considered asking her out. “Go talk to her…she likes you…..ask her out.” Joe wanted to get a drink of water and the fountain just happened to be near the treadmill, so he figured he would get a drink and say hi to Ashley. .Joe started in her direction but then caught himself and turned back towards the rack. Nothing was going to distract his focus on the squats. He loaded the bar to 135lbs for his first warm-up set. He positioned himself under the bar, backed out of the rack and began squatting. 135 always felt strange, almost too light to really get into the proper groove. His right knee made a slight creaking noise on his 3rd and 4th rep. “Knees bothering you a bit Joe?.......its probably from that time you injured your knee playing baseball in high school…it probably never healed properly……..some tight knee wraps would take care of that……you should hold off on your squats today and go buy some…..come back on Monday and do your squats then. The rack knew that if it could install just enough fear and doubt into a challenger to get them to postpone their squats, then it would be much easier to get them to postpone it again the next time. “375 for ten full reps…no matter what it takes” replied Joe. He loaded 225 and did 5 smooth reps followed by 275 for a solid triple. His technique was precise, just like a well maintained piston.
“Joe, you are really looking buff these days……. you know that squats destroy the aesthetics of your body, you would get much better development from super-setting some leg extensions with leg presses.” Joe did not even respond, he knew that the rack was getting desperate to try to throw him off with that lame excuse. He loaded the bar to 315lbs for a warm-up single. He often judged his upcoming set by how the 315 felt. Joe squatted the weight powerfully, but it did not feel quite as light as he had mentally pictured. “See, I TOLD you that you were not ready…..its those deadlifts you did, your fatigued, over-trained…..do go some isolation movements and come back and squat next week” Joe gritted his teeth, trying hard to ignore the goading whispers of the squat rack. He added a 10lb plate to each side for his last warm-up single with 335lbs. He paced back and forth in front of the rack, his rage growing. He gripped the bar tightly even shaking the bar and plates a few times. Stepping under the bar, he un-racked the bar and stepped back. He heard someone exclaim “Watch this guy squat. He’s an animal!” He descended into a full squat and stood back up with as if there was no weight at all on the bar. He triumphantly returned the bar to the rack, slamming it down with a loud bang. He was now ready for the big set. Nothing was going to stop him from reaching his goal. Joe pulled off the ten lb plates and replaced them with a pair of twenty-fives. He then added a 5lb collar to each side bring the total weight on the bar to 375lbs. He centered the bar on the pins and then went and sat down on a flat bench to tighten up the laces on his high top shoes. His mind was totally focused on doing these ten reps and he began mentally rehearsing the set. This set would be very difficult, it would be a tremendous battle, but he would win. All of a sudden, Joe realized that the gym had become very quiet, had everyone stopped their training just to watch him squat? He turned around and realized that the gym was empty, apparently everyone had just up and left in a mass exodus. Crap, thought Joe, there goes my added motivation. “Joe, this just isn’t your day…….even if you succeed with this weight, no one will see it…….come back Monday……… it’s not safe to try that weight all alone in a gym……put it off for a few days” the rack suggested. Joe stood and marched towards the rack with fire and determination in his eyes and in his heart. “STEEL ON TARGET” he yelled in a determined voice, borrowing a favorite phrase from his Uncle Jack who was an army artillery officer. Taking several deep breaths, Joe charged the steel cage, un-racked the ponderous barbell and stepped back into his squatting stance. The rack tried made one final attempt to thwart Joe’s goal, “Hey Joe, why bother with those full squats, do what everyone else does and just go to parallel……why, if you did that, you could already hit the 405 for ten with no problem.
Joe ignored the voice and began the first rep. ONE….whew that was tough, but the first rep in a set of ten is always tough, just focus on getting the next two in the bag, TWO…..THREE. Ok, now I’m in the groove, one-third of the way there, FOUR….FIVE, half-way done…take a few deep breaths, get mad…….SIX….that was the toughest one yet. Only four reps to go, the last rep is the hardest, but you know if you get nine, you will get ten, so don’t worry about the last one, just get these next three. SEVEN…..damn that was tough, ok, stay tight, and focus on the technique checkpoints. The next repetition stalled at about 30 degrees above parallel. Joe stayed tight and fought the weight through the sticking point. EIGHT. He took several breaths, growled and muttered a few choice words. Just two more reps, I’ve gone this far, no turning back, here we go. NINE…..the 9th rep was extremely tough. If he had been listening he would have heard the rack gently try to talk him out of attempting the 10th rep. He was far too focused and determined to think about anything other than the completion of the last rep. A low, guttural sound escaped from his mouth that was a cross between a growl, a snarl and a caveman scream. Just like the previous nine reps, he squatted all the way down and came up with every bit of effort he could muster. He fought through two sticking points just below the parallel position and then in the blink of an eye, he stood up, completing the tenth and final rep. He let out a triumphant yell. No one had witnessed the set, it would not be on ESPN sports center, it would not be in any magazine or even the local paper, but Joe had just beaten the squat rack by achieving his all time personal record for ten rep squats and the feeling was absolutely euphoric!
He replaced the bar back into the rack which remained silent as it sulked in defeat. Joe took a few steps back and then the physical effort of the set caught up with him as his legs buckled, his chest pounded and he felt dizzy. After walking around the gym to clear his head, Joe returned to the rack where he reduced the weight to 315lbs. Ignoring the desperate suggestions of the rack to skip his remaining sets, he squeezed out 16 reps. He reduced the weight to 295 and ground out 20 reps. Those two sets were physically harder than the set with 375, but mentally they were a breeze. Once you have conquered mental fear and doubt, you barely notice the physical demands that are required. Joe reduced the weight down to 245lbs and performed a set of front squats for 10 reps, then immediately went to 225lbs and squeezed out another 9 reps. When the bar went back on the rack, Joe knew his workout was completed. His legs felt heavy, as if they each weighed 500lbs. He knew that upon waking the following morning, they would be tight and painful and would remain so for at least 2-3 days, the pain being a constant reminder of his victory. Joe showered and changed his clothes, eager to get home to a 16oz T-bone steak with all the trimmings. Maybe he would even give Ashley a call. As he walked out of the gym, he passed the squat rack. “Nice workout Joe…..but your going to have a tough time doing any better next time……after such a tough workout you should take a few weeks off from squats” Joe smiled and confidently said “ I will see you next week”