I had a dream the other night. In the dream, I was squatting.
That’s it. That was the whole dream.
To be clear, in my wildest subconscious fantasy I wasn’t a kung fu master who lives on a passing comet made of solid gold fighting off a pack of flying space-hippos with a 40-foot pitchfork. No. My dream was being able to rock a deep air squat. SHUT UP IT WAS AWESOME.
Getting a good squat is a big deal for me. I’ve learned a great many things in 2012 regarding fitness, and chief among them is that I need to squat better — a lot better. When I started CrossFit in December, my squat was me bending over at the waist. That’s not a squat. That’s bending over. You can tell from the video above that I’m embarrassing myself every time I squat. With practice, my squat has improved, even since we shot this video — but it’s still not consistently good.
It’s not just me, either. Nearly everyone needs a good squat. I’ve become evangelical about this. I designed a simple Cosmo-style quiz to determine if you should be doing squats of some variation.
Question 1: Do you currently have legs?
a) Yes, I have both legs
b) Yes, I have one leg
c) No, I have zero legs
d) All of the above
OK, we’ve reached the end of the quiz!
If you answered d), fuck right off.
If you answered c), don’t do squats. You will fall down.
If you answered a) or b), like I did, you should do squats, and you should become good at them.
What I mean by ‘a good squat’
This is a photo I found on About.com labeled an example of a good squat. It is not. This is almost, but not quite, a half-squat or a “hams parallel” squat, meaning the bottoms of her hamstrings are parallel to the ground. Except they aren’t, because this is so fucking terrible. Believe it or not, this is actually worse than what I do now, and is not at all what I’m going for. She’s not getting the full range of motion when exercising, or the full amount of power should she lift any amount weight. If you put a barbell on her shoulders, she’d plow face-first into the mat, knocking her teeth up into her sinuses where they’ll rattle around like the last two aspirins in the bottle. Good squats should be much, much deeper than this — quads way down past parallel, feet wider apart and angled outward, chest up, ass to grass.
This picture I found online shows a good squat. Her thighs are way past parallel, her center of gravity is inside her body, not out in front of it, and her weight is on her heels and midfoot. Her feet are angled outward slightly. This is what I’m going for — except, you know … male.
When squatters talk about going ass-to-grass, this is it. This is more like ass-to-topsoil level. He actually might be resting his cheeks in a hole in the floor. This would be good too.
A few words about squats form and bullshit: I’ve had some trouble learning good squat form partially because I have to unlearn bad habits and forget bogus information. I’ve heard many people who don’t do squats assert that you should never drop your thighs past parallel because “something something I heard it’s bad,” or that letting your knees go past your feet will cripple you. According to my coaches and loads of good quality science-based information I’ve read, this is full of shit. Not dropping past parallel means you’re not doing much of value except waving your ass in the air a little — which has its own value, but it won’t make you strong. And the no-knees-past-your-toes thing is mostly nonsense, and is often unavoidable and dependent on factors like what kind of squat you’re doing (like low-bar back squat vs. high-bar back squat), or how long your torso is, how long your femurs and tibias are, and so on. I trust the people who lift heavy weight at the Olympics, and I trust “Starting Strength” by Mark Rippetoe, who says this about squats and injuries:
“The squat, when performed correctly, not only is the safest leg exercise for the knees, but also produces more stable knees than any other leg exercise does. Correctly is deep, with hips dropping below level with the top of the patellas. Correctly is therefore full range of motion. Any squat that is not deep is a partial squat, and partial squats stress the knees and the quadriceps without stressing the glutes, the adductors, or the hamstrings.”
So there. If we do them correctly there won’t be a problem.
Why I, you, and everyone we know should want a good squat
This isn’t just for CrossFit purposes. Again: Everybody needs a good squat. At some point in your life, an object you need will be on the ground at your feet and you’ll have to pick it up. If this object is heavier than a breadbox, and/or cannot be picked up with tongs or your prehensile toes, you’ll have to squat to lift it, because your legs are stronger than your back. Or you’ll be a chump and bend over at the waist. Do this enough time times with heavy enough objects, and you’ll be grunting like an old man trying to piss around his inflamed prostate, possibly throwing your back out, and you’ll have to be on pain medication and regular chiropractic visits and get addicted to pain medication and hobble around from bed to toilet to couch to toilet to bed flinching in agony every time you have to shift slightly, being co-dependent on and/or resentful of others, when you could’ve just squatted for Chrissake.
If you’re trying to get or stay fit, it seems to me that without a good squat you could be doing better. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Squats work your abs, back, calves, quads, hamstrings, and your ass. These are all body parts that people want to be stronger, shapelier, tighter. I don’t know of any sport that prefers weak hamstrings and a fat ass — if you think of any, answers on a postcard to the usual address.
Dear runner friends: Squats will improve the power in your legs, which is what most of you use to run with, if I’m not mistaken, and they will improve your posture and abs. Dear cyclist friends: You need powerful legs and a strong back to ride hard and conquer hills. Squats can help you get those things. Dear everyone who covets and desires a “strong core”: Do squats.
For my purposes, I want to be able to lift a decent amount of weight properly, do CrossFit and not embarrass myself, run smoothly, and ride my bike faster. Squats will help me achieve all of these goals. Squats seem to be the foundation of most compound-movement weightlifting exercises. Squats with weight make you tough, strong, and build balance. Until I get my squat developed properly, I’m not getting the full range of motion and not getting the full potential effect of my workouts. I’m paying an awful lot for CrossFit. You’re goddam right I want the full effect.
Listen: I have the following issues. All of them could be corrected or improved if I had a better squat.
- Running: I don’t pick my feet up very well and I don’t bound the way I should. If I had stronger posterior chain muscles, I could.
- Climbing: You climb a rope with your legs, not your arms — you hold on with your arms, do knee-tucks with your legs, and stand up on the rope to go higher. Yeah, so I can’t get off the ground.
- Jumping: Doing a box jump is basically a mid-air squat. I can’t do box jumps higher than 20 inches, or broad jumps longer than 6 feet. I don’t yet have the power in my posterior chain muscles or consistent knee-tucking ability.
- Front squats: Not very heavy or consistently deep.
- Back squats: Not much heavier and of meh quality.
- Overhead squats and snatches: I was told by a coach to put away the 45-pound Olympic bar for these, and to go back down to a 15-pound training bar.
- Thrusters: I can’t go heavy on these either.
- Wallballs: Without a good squat I tend to wobble and fall over, and I can’t chuck the ball high enough to hit a 10-foot-high target.
- Cleans: Not as heavy as they could be.
- Burpees: I get tired after about four measly burpees, and I can’t spring back up out of the plank. I have to climb back up out of the plank position like a groveling peasant, rather than bouncing up powerfully the way you’re supposed to.
The squat is the No. 1 single most vital movement I can learn. I need work.
The road to the bottom
I want a consistently good, deep, stable squat. But the hardest part is that I can’t really see what I’m doing, and squatting in front of a mirror isn’t much help — and often discouraged, because looking into the mirror can fuck up your form. One of my CrossFit coaches, Josh, caught me hams-parallel squatting a few weeks ago, took me aside, and while I was squatting he pushed down on my shoulders. I nearly fell forward. The point, he said, is to squat so that you can bear weight without tipping over.
Josh made me sit my ass down onto his cupped hand so I could get a sense of how far down I’m supposed to sink — nearly at the floor. I’m not sure how many of you have sat into another man’s cupped hand. I’m sure some people would dig that. Josh is a nice guy and it was actually very helpful. But I’d rather not have to do that again. I’m sure he’d rather not ever cup my ass again, either. So I’m trying to learn on my own.
Moving right along, he has me practicing squats every day to improve my squat depth and form. Here’s some of what I’m doing. You could try some of this too, if you wanted to. If not, don’t. That’s fine. But don’t come complaining to me when you need something heavy carried up the stairs and your weak legs and back can’t manage it.
- Air squats. I practice squatting without weight. I do a handful (a Josh handful) of these wherever I can, whenever I get a minute.
- Wall squats. I practice squatting without weight directly facing a wall. This teaches me to keep my back straight and chest up. If I don’t, I’ll smack my face into the wall. I often practice 10 of these in the shower. It’s the perfect spot for them — I’m limited by space so there’s no inadvertent cheating, and I’m not wearing any shoes or constrictive clothing.
- Pole squats. I squat without weight while holding onto a pole, so I can practice keeping my weight on my heels and midfoot without falling backward. At the bottom of the squat, I pause for a few seconds to hold it, and try taking my hands off the pole for a second or two. These feel good — they’re a great stretch.
- •Squat holds. That’s air squatting and sitting at the bottom for about a minute or so. Another CrossFit coach, Brian, loves to chuck these into a warmup, but I can never last the whole minute. After about 20 seconds my quads catch fire and I have to stand and shake them out. That happens because I’m not squatting correctly.
- Squats on a box. I just did a Murph at CrossFit the other day, which is a one-mile run followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups, and 300 squats, followed by another mile run. Doing that many squats in a short period of time will make my form sloppy. So most of those were onto a box about 14 inches high. I squatted down onto the box, tagging it with my ass, and stood up. These were helpful because it gave me a physical target to hit. I’ve also done these on a slightly higher box with a barbell racked on my shoulders, sitting down on the box fully and then standing back up (a move described creatively as “box squats”).
- Back squats and front squats. About once or twice a week at home, I try to do some squats with the barbell and weight. I was doing a 20-rep progression for about 8 weeks or so, increasing the weight by 5 pounds every week. Lately I’ve been doing simple 5x5s — 5 sets, 5 reps, decent weight for me.
- Pause squats. Probably the most successful squats I’ve ever performed have been these — back squats with a barbell and a 3-second pause at the bottom. These are very difficult, because you have to sink down very low and just fucking wait there, with weight bearing down on you — when I did these I had 155 pounds on the bar, which isn’t a lot of weight for me backsquatwise but felt tough when I tried to move it — just hanging out at the bottom of a squat for what seems like four or five days with the bar pressing down on your shoulders before you somehow have to make your quads and hamstrings perform labor and stand up. For some reason these have been my best effort so far, when they should’ve been the hardest. Hell if I know why.
Are these enough squat variations for you? No? How about pistol squats? Great for teaching balance. More? Figure-4 squats are also a good warmup for balance and they’re a good stretch. Jump squats for explosive hip power. Had enough? If you want to squat with weight (and you should, because that’s how muscles happen) and don’t have access to a barbell but you do have access to dumbbells or a kettlebell, do goblet squats. Too easy? Get a heavier kettlebell or heavier dumbbell, and continue until it’s not as easy anymore. Need more variations? Jesus Christ — don’t worry about it. Just do some fucking squats with me so we can all stop complaining about our fat asses and do something to fix it.*