When it Comes to Squats, Easier Doesn't Work
One of the best ways to waste your most important training opportunity – the one you have when you're just starting out, and the one you don't ever have again – is to make yourself believe that it isn't going to be hard.
The appeal of arriving at the gym and going straight to the dumbbell rack instead of the squat rack is undeniably huge, and just as unproductive. The basic, heavy nature of an effective program is such that your brain wants to deny its effectiveness based on its simplicity – it doesn't think it can actually make rapid progress that fast on such a simple program.
You can, for a while, if you work on the basic movements.
But you also end up denying, with your ass, the fact that hard work is the key. Basic heavy movements are hard, and easier sure is more fun. At least easier isn't as unpleasant.
Exercise variety is not only unnecessary for a novice lifter – and yes, this probably means you – it's a counterproductive distraction. For a novice, exercise selection is not the variable to manipulate. Loading is the variable; you have to lift increasingly heavier weights on the same few exercises that cover all the bases until you reach a point where a simple program isn't enough.
And that may never happen, if you don't stay motivated to train by making good progress at first.
This means not doing a bunch of stupid shit that might possibly be appropriate for an advanced lifter (but probably isn't), but is never appropriate for a novice. It means working hard on the very few things you have to do to make progress, like getting your squats deep enough to make them actually work, while continuing to add weight every time you train, for as long as the process of novice adaptation can continue.
The Broke Motherfucker
If I had a thousand dollars for every squat I see in my gym done above parallel, I'd be a broke motherfucker. This is because we don't allow partial squats on the premises.
I had a drop-in just a couple of weeks ago that showed up on a Saturday night while I was trying to train. Wichita Falls not being the sort of place that still fascinates a 55-year-old guy with its nightlife potential, I was training, as usual, by myself. The guy shows up, pays his 8 bucks, and proceeds to warm up.
My hope was that the guy had read the book and was going to be on autopilot so that I could maintain my often-compromised training momentum, but I could tell pretty quick that I was going to be interrupted.
He started off with 135 – not the empty bar – and most folks that look like him don't have a training history that justifies skipping the empty bar. I sure as hell don't, I squat the empty bar for 4 sets before plates get loaded. If a competitive lifter wants to start with 135 or even 225, that's fine, but the first indication that we're about to have to perform a squat intervention is when a skinny guy starts with 135.
He walked it out and did one set of five that was about 3 inches high [3 inches above parallel], racked it, and loaded 185. With unwarranted optimism I watched the first two reps of the next set, hoping against odds to see below-parallel perfection –mostly because I didn't want to stop my own squat workout (which requires about a 30-minute warm up) to triage the guy's situation.
Unfortunately, they were the predictable 5 inches high, leading me to quickly speculate about what 405 was going to look like (a subtle unlocking of the knees?). I walked over before the third rep and suggested that he rack the bar.
I asked him if he'd like to learn how to actually squat with correct form, and he readily agreed, no doubt out of concern for my feelings.
I went through our standard squat teaching progression, with no bar, then the empty bar, 65, 85, 95, and then 105 x 5 x 3 sets. And that was about all he had left in the tank when he got his squat down to proper depth. In other words, the guy had overestimated his squat load by at least 100%.
But, BY GOD, I got him to squat deep at the Wichita Falls Athletic Center, even at the expense of my delayed workout, because we don't squat high at WFAC.
Easier Doesn't Work
Squatting high is easier, but easier doesn't work. You actually know this already, even if you keep the secret buried down below your brain stem. Easier has never worked, and you figured this out in about the fifth grade, provided you weren't in some remedial program mandated by your state.
When you memorized all your multiplication tables, arithmetic was a lot easier, wasn't it? When you diagrammed all your sentences, the next semester's writing assignments were easier, right? When you actually did all your homework, the test was easier. That type of easier does work.
Squats below parallel are your homework. The result of doing them is that you get stronger on all the other exercises, even the pressing movements, because squats make your whole body stronger – if you do them correctly. I know it's harder that way, and one of the ways you know it's wrong to do them high is that everybody else does them high. When was the last time that thing everybody else was doing turned out to be the right thing to do?
Deep squats done with a weight that's a little heavier each time you train affect your body in a way that no other exercise can. And believe me when I say that "other methods" have been tried. They just don't work. And it's not that they don't work as well, they don't work at all.
You can quarter-squat or half-squat as much weight as you can load on the bar and growth will not occur at the same rate it does when you finally stop being a pussy and get below parallel with every rep, with a constantly increasing load on your back.
And I'm not sure why squats do that. We know that the accumulating effects of the increasing load cause the accumulation of adaptations to those heavier loads. We speculate that loading the whole body causes a systemic hormonal response, and that deadlifts don't because of the shorter range of motion and the lack of a stretch reflex at the hardest mechanical position.
But the truth is we don't know exactly why it's the squat and only the squat that produces this effect, and we're not likely to find out anytime soon because the exercise "science" community thinks you can do a squat study with a Smith machine. Really. Look it up.
I – however benighted I may be concerning peer-review, academic rigor, and double-blinding – know what works and what doesn't. The way I know that deep squats work this way and that nothing else does is because I've been doing this for 35 years.
I'm actually not a dull person, and I've seen firsthand the differences in attempting to gain weight and muscle with and without deep squats.
Progression in Weight, Not Depth
Many of you guys have been attempting to piss uphill for quite some time, and have never gotten any real progress out of your time spent in the gym. If you've been stuck at the same bodyweight while your "squats" continue to progress upward in weight, I can guarantee you that your depth has progressed upward as well.
Squats done above parallel can't be quantified – their performances can't be compared because they use different amounts of muscle mass, different amounts of stretch reflex, and calculate to different amounts of work (the force-times-distance kind).
If the same depth, just below parallel, is used for every rep of every set, then you know that if your squat goes up, you're getting stronger.
It may be that your intentions are wholesome and honest, and if so, the lack of objective feedback is your problem. There are many ways to deal with this, and I'll not insult your intelligence by suggesting video or coaching. Just get the damn things deep.
But the problem, as I mentioned earlier, is really twofold: it's hard to train this way, and people don't like difficult things – yet it's simple, and people don't think simple things can work.
This program separates the men from the boys because it takes balls coming to the gym three days a week knowing that every time you show up, your squats are going to be heavier than last time.
"It would be easier to do a new PR on a different leg machine," you think. "Maybe I'll try to max out the Hammer Strength iso-lateral leg press today. That's hard, they say. Then Friday I'll fry the shit out of my quads on the linear hack press. Monday it'll be the squat high pull machine, Wednesday the V-squat, and then I'll just cycle through the leg circuit, maxing out a new one every time. Yeah! FUCK yeah! That'll be better anyway, muscle confusion, conjugate method, all that shit. More variety means better gains, I've heard."
Except that it doesn't work this way, especially for a novice. We don't want your muscles confused. We want them to know precisely what they have to do the next workout: squat more weight than last time, below parallel.
The squat leaves nothing out – there are no holes in its kinetic chain to patch up, unless you squat high. And since a guy that squats 405 x 5 deep is a bigger, stronger guy than a guy that squats 185 x 5 (or a guy that half-squats 405), the goal seems rather clear. Until you can do that, everything else is just a distraction. Hard and Simple are the keys to Big and Strong.
The Key to Big & Strong
Don't be distracted. We already know how this works. It's worked for tens of thousands of guys for decades. Just squat below parallel, sets of five, and make sure that every workout is a little heavier than the previous workout. The rest of your training will follow suit, and you'll have learned the most valuable lessons of the weight room: a simple, hard program works best, and that you get out of your training – and your life – exactly what you put into it.