The 4 rules of the SQUAT

 

I had an epiphany a few days ago.  Thanks to time, rehab and mobility training, I have recently been able to perform back squats for the first time in 11 months.  I knew that I was going to lose strength in squat…and I sure did.  What surprised me, however, was how much my technique had gone to sh^%.  So I called M,  our coach, powerlifting guru/evangelist and all around nice guy, and asked him to meet me at the powerlifting club.

Using experience, the naked eye and a bar tracking app on his Iphone, M confirmed what I already knew; that while I wasn’t back at square one, I was definitely on square 2.  On a bar tracking app(which draws a line on your video denoting the bar movement), a textbook squat should appear as 1 straight vertical line.  The squat should travel the same path going up as it did going down.  In the beginning, my squats (via the app) looked like skinny ovals, but after a few hours and many reps later, they began to resemble really skinny “V”s.  They felt a little better, too, more in the “groove”.

This should not have been that surprising as a powerlifting squat is an athletic move.  One would not jump back in a boxing ring after 11 months off and expect to spar at the same level as a year ago.  You can shadow-box and hit the heavy bag all you want, but nothing replaces that 3 minute round with a real, live opponent.  Similarly, all the deadlifts and safety-bar squats I did in the interim helped to keep me in shape, but maintain my squat they did not.

The squat is not just an athletic movement, it’s a test of character.  I know a lot of people who are freakishly good bench-pressers or deadlifters.  While they do need to work hard to improve these movements, they generally have certain physical attributes that give them a certain advantage.  I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I’ve never seen anybody walk off the street and almost automatically squat impressive weight.  Rule number one of the squat:  you must put in the work.  95% of the people you see squatting impressive or at least heavy weight have plodding their way, slowly and methodically, towards lifting more kilos.

Rule number two of squat:  Technique is paramount.  Most trainees who weigh between 80 and 100 Kgs can rep out 130 or 140 kg squats after about 4 or 5 months.  This proves that, yes, they’ve put in the sheer work.  If, however, they also emphasis training for correct form at some point their squat weight will make huge jumps – from 140 to 180 kgs in a relatively short space of time.  This is because they’ve applied their strength to a more efficient way of moving the weight.  A highly trained welterweight boxer hits a whole lot harder than some 100 Kg slob throwing haymakers.

Rule number three of squat:  Confront your fears.  First, you need to confront your fear of hard work.  You need to confront your ego, and make sure you’re up to sucking at something in the short-term.  And, finally, when you do finally start lifting some considerable weight..it’s scary.  It shouldn’t be, if you squat in a squat rack, have learned how to bail by this point and are not attempting a weight 40kgs above your PR.  Nevertheless, taking some pretty heavy weight out of the J-hooks…there is something sort of crazy about it.  6 months later, that “crazy” weight has become something you do for 5×5.

Rule number four of squat:  Ain’t no half-repping.  Only squat that weight which you are able squat slightly below parallel and back up again.  You may argue that quarter squats or half squats are valid training movements (er, and I’d disagree). If you half-squatted 200kgs with aid of knee-wraps, smelling salts and your gym-bro posse yelling encouragement and filming you for the “IGs” than kudos to you, old boy.  You did not, however, squat 200 Kgs.  You did something else.

 

 

 

Why is this so popular? Rant o’ the day

Today I’m going to bend one of the golden rules of this blog  The gym should be a judgement free zone,  not in the infantile, disempowering “here, have a donut” Planet Fitness sense, but rather a positive place where you do challenging things.  Mirin’ is encouraged, but haughty disdain of one’s fellow gym-goer is the penultimate gym foul.  Rest assured, though, that this rant is not about hatin’ on the playa,  it’s about hatin’ on the game.

To whit, my friends, we need to talk about this “bench-pressing with the feet-up” trend.  Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a valid accessory exercise and/or a good variation for people with lower back issues.  However, I am completely mystified that a good 80 percent of the guys (it’s always men) I see bench-pressing in Globo gyms do the “feet up” thing.  WTF, y’all?  Was there a memo that I didn’t get?  On any given evening in the Globo gym I’m surrounded by legs in the air gym Bros benching away with the smug air of insider traders.  It’s not being used as accessory exercise, we’re talking feet never touching ground, ever.

“Feet in the air” benching is a good accessory exercise precisely because it’s less stable and takes leg drive completely out of the equation.  One can therefore only use sub-maximal weights  but it provides a good chest/triceps workout and underlines the importance of a tight back/retracted scapulae.  Actually, it’s pretty gangster if you see somebody bench serious weight with “feet in the air” because it puts the athlete at a disadvantage.  But you never see that in the Globo gym because people aren’t getting that much stronger, really.  The only way to get a lot stronger is to lift some heavy-a@# weight, and the only way to do that is with the normal bench press.

I get it, I get it.  Most of the guys bench like this simply because when they walk into the gym and they see 4 gym bros benching away like dead cockroaches and 1 apparently clueless dude benching with feet firmly planted.  If you don’t know any better, your best bet is to do what everyone else is doing.  Going to the gym and using the equipment is important, but so is having sufficient knowledge about things like technique and programming.  The Globo gym business model isn’t about education or quality coaching.  It’s all about novelty and catching the next trend.  Even if one were to hire one of their overpriced personal trainers, he or she is more likely to have their client doing bosu ball kettle-bells swings than teaching them proper compound lift form.

Germany Competition Recap – stuff happens.

So last weekend I competed in the stand-alone bench press event in the 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation.  It was an interesting weekend in many ways, I learned a lot about what I should, and should not, do for my next competition, how I feel about “stand-alone” events vs. the traditional 3 event powerlifting.  In a subsequent post I’ll post my impression/observations about the powerlifting sub-culture in deep, semi-rural Germany.  Half of my family are semi-rural Midwesterners of relatively recent German descent so suffice it to say it was strangely familiar at times, whilst completely foreign at others.

I was off my visibly off my game on Sunday (more about that later) so I didn’t do as well as I should have.  I improved my competition bench-press PR by 2.5 kgs, but given that I trained and planned to increase it by an ambitious 10kgs, I’m disappointed.  I made a number of mistakes that are linked, I think, to the fact that I only had one event, not 3, to worry about.  I warmed up too early and lifted weights close to my “opener”.  Big mistake, of course, but after a week of laying off the weights I always start to doubt myself.  In addition, I was had very little sleep and was fairly burnt-out on powerlifting after having stayed with my team as they competed until 2AM the same morning.  Finally, (and, yes, more about this later) I understood next to nothing most of the time as my German is very poor, and the “competition plate” phenomenon only heightens this.  (Basically, it’s very easy to do “plate” math in the gym so you always tell how much somebody is lifting.  Even with color coding of the plates, the fact that they are slimmer (denser) and bar collars themselves weigh a combined 5kgs throws me off at first.  Also, the most used plate in competitions in a red 25kg plate.  In the gym 180kg on the bar would have a cool four 20kg plates on each side.  The same 180kg much less impressive looking in competition.)  So I got white-lights for my opener but is looked far uglier than it should have.  With such a poor showing, my coach was OK with only increasing the next lift by 2.5kg instead of 5.  I made the next lift too.  It looked good, nice and smooth, but I knew that I wasn’t at my best.  My coach told me to add 5kgs for my final lift, instead of the 7.5kgs we were planning on.

Even though my 2nd lift looked nice and smooth, I felt that I could only handanother 2.5kgs for the 3rd lift.  Some people can grind out a bench-press but I am not one of those people.  When the weight gets really heavy on a lift – i.e. heavier than your previous 1RM (one rep maximum) it’s crucial that your form and technique is impeccable.  I might have been able to have done another 5kgs on that day, but my concentration was not what it should have been.  As the bar reached my chest, my bracing wasn’t what it should have been so I wasn’t able to explode out of the hole after the pause.  I missed my third lift.

In the powerlifting gym I belong to there is a white-board where the team members can list their PRs in the different lifts(provided that lifts are relatively heavy for a given lift) and, in most cases, only competition lifts are accepted.   So I had done, more than once,  a legal competition bench-press in the gym (pause on the chest, wait for the “press”command, press up in a controlled manner(feet on the ground, butt on the bench) and then wait for the “rack”command) at the weight I had just failed in the competition.  Powerlifting competitions are weird in that I don’t really get nervous because of the competition or lifting in front of a fair amount of spectators and peers.  Rather, the pressure I feel is all about not reaching my goals, of not making the months of hard work pay off for me personally.  I failed that last lift because I felt my goal was in jeopardy and I wasn’t mentally strong enough on that day to keep my focus.  This is what makes a succesful lift in competition the gold standard for lifters.  Gym lifts don’t count, bro.

In the end, I came in 2nd in my age/weight class.  The guy who came in first was 10kgs better than my best lift. Even though I should have done 5kgs better, there is no chance in hell that I could have lifted more than him.  Kudos to him, it was a sight to see.  One of the best things about power-lifting competitions is that you’re excited to see big lifts, period.  I fully appreciate what this competitor did at his age and weight so it’s not like “he’s kicking my butt” but more like “respect, dude”.  I did better than some others, ok, but that’s neither here nor there.  The missed lift is what sticks in my craw.  Had I done the lift, I’d still be in 2nd place, but I’d have felt really good about it.

I learned a few things about the “stand-alone” events, which I had never participated in or even seen before.  This is because typically the 3 event Powerlifting competitions are typically on Friday/Saturday, and the 1 event competitions are on Sunday.  Firstly, wow, the stand-alone bench event is popular.  In this competition, at least, there were many more competitors in my age/weight category than in the traditional 3 event competition.  Not surprisingly, some of these guys were straight up bench-press specialists.  While it was a fun, educational experience, I don’t think that I will do it again simply because I miss the “long game” aspect of the 3 event powerlifting.  A bench-press competition goes by very quickly, 3 lifts and you’re done.  And while my bench is pretty good, I don’t think it’ll ever be “stand-out” in a field of bench press specialists.

The bench-press: It’s not just for meatheads any more…

In honor of Monday (aka International Chest Day) and my upcoming competition this weekend, this post will examine why the bench-press is so misunderstood, why you should do it and some surprising tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped me improve my bench-press.

As I sit here alternating between sips of black coffee and apple cider vinegar/cinnamon/lemon juice/cayenne pepper detox drink, I contemplate my upcoming Powerlifting meet this weekend in Germany.  I will only compete  in the stand alone Bench-Press as my jacked -up left biceps/shoulder area preclude me from the traditional 3 lift powerlifting competition.  I haven’t been able to low-bar squat for a few months now and have only been able to seriously train the deadlift recently.  For this competition there is a pretty deep field of competitors for the Bench event in my weight/age category,  much more so than in the 3 lift event.  I think this might be testament to the popularity of the bench-press and also that a number of my “older gent” competitors might have injuries like me.

Bench-pressing is, in some ways, a victim of its own popularity.  Most people think that since it’s so popular amongst “gym bro” meatheads that it’s to be avoided like dodgy sushi in an all you can eat buffet.  Never fear; the first thing to know about the bench-press is that performing the exercise will not lower your IQ or give you a man-bun.  If you had told me, my friends or my family 10 years ago that I’d one day I’d compete in a bench-press competition you’d have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism if not outright hilarity.  I would have thought, above all, that I was absolutely incapable of seriously competing (albeit in a very amateur federation) and, besides, I wasn’t macho and hairy-chested enough.  Wrong on both counts, it seems.  Even if you never compete, here’s why I think you should do this exercise – and some tips to do it better.

  • The bench-press is the single best compound movement for the upper body.  If you do it correctly you’ll give your chest, shoulders, arms and, to some extent, your back an excellent work-out.  Pair it with overhead presses and you have a very comprehensive upper body training regimen.
  • The bench-press is not macho:  Really, trust me on this.  It’s an exercise like any other and should be treated as such.  For dudes – don’t treat it as a test of your manhood…that’s just plain silly.  Besides, I’ve found that the vast majority of guys that brag about how much they can bench are, how shall I put it, “mistaken”.  A real 1 rep max of a bench-press involves controlled descent of the bar until it lightly touches the chest, a slight pause (i.e. no bounce off the chest), pressing the bar back up and then re-racking.  This is harder than sloppy YOLO bounce off the chest,  spotter helping you on the ascent style of bench press so you need to completely check your ego.  Therefore, train intelligently using weights that you can do with good form.  Always respect the weight – if possible do all of your bench-press training in a squat rack or bench that has “safeties” to catch failed lifts.  DO NOT intentionally train to failure with the bench-press.

A blog post is too short a format to discuss all the finer points of bench-press and, besides, here is one of the most comprehensive how-to videos I’ve seen on the subject:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FWDde2IEPg

Excellent though that video is, I feel I can add some additional hard-won tips/cues:

  • For the first half of the bench-press, treat it like a pull-up:  Above all, retract your scapulae.  This will recruit your lats, give you a strong base and put your arms/shoulders in correct position to push-off, utilizing your triceps, shoulders, lats and, yes, your pecs.  Retracting your scapulae is fundamental to all of powerlifting, squats and deadlifts included.
  • Tuck your elbows in as much as possible:  This cue is also known as “bend the bar”.  I like to imagine that I am trapped on the ground with a heavy object on top of me.  Flaring my elbows just won’t do the trick.
  • A spotter is not a training tool:  The very best lifters don’t fail a lot of lifts in training because they train methodically.  They train to peak exactly at the time of their competition.  They may be doing a lot of heavy triples and doubles but rarely wildly attempt new PRs.  For one, failing too many heavy lifts, especially in the bench-press,  trains your brain to equate really heavy weight with a “panic” response.  So I don’t wildly attempt unrealistic PRs even when I’m benching in squat rack with the safety bars correctly set up.  Secondly, an excellent spotter is a very rare thing, capable of judging when to grab the bar, neither too early nor too late.  Finally, I’ve seen far too many bad spots, including some that almost resulted in accidents, to think that one should rely on spotters.  The only spotters I somewhat trust are the two spotters you get in competitions – and that’s only because there are two of them and, in case they screw up, the competition bench has safeties.
  • Assistance exercises that have worked best for me:  I use a fairly wide grip for my competition bench.  During training, however, I like to vary the widths I use to recruit muscles differently as well as avoid over-use injuries.  Floor presses, I feel, help to improve that crucial sticking point i.e. pressing off of your chest from a dead stop.  For me the bench-press relies heavily on the triceps so I do a lot of additional triceps training.  Finally, pulling exercises such as pull-ups and Pendlay rows help develop the back musculature which is crucial to balance out the shoulders, pecs and triceps development.

Anyway, wish me luck.  Hopefully this time next week I’ll be posting with some good news such as I made the podium.  Either that, or the silence will be deafening.  Just kidding, if things don’t go as planned, I’ll try to honestly analyze why they didn’t.  My opening lift will be my previous competition PR.  This weight is now my “any day, any time” weight so provided I make that lift and a subsequent heavier lift I should at least have a new competition PR at the very least.

 

 

The dark side of the Gym

 

 

This blog is about to get real.  This morning I read an excellent post from Awkward Brown Guy (https://theawkwardbrownguy.wordpress.com/ – I highly recommend his blog) in which he describes his motivation for going to the gym, and how it’s changed over the years.  It got me thinking about how we all like to post about the myriad benefits of going to the gym, but we very rarely touch on the less than salubrious aspects.  It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, folks, so let’s have an honest discussion about some of the more disturbing trends in gym going behavior.

  • Balance is the key:  Nature seeks equilibrium; too much or too little of anything is not good.  Physical activity is required for one’s physical and mental hygiene. The question that many people struggle with is “how much?”.  Some people see some of the less than healthy behavior of some “fitness” trends and use it as an excuse to avoid exercise.  Still other seemingly think that engaging in physical exercise will solve all of your problems.  I think all of us are somewhere on this spectrum, and where we are at any given time depends on external factors.  Personally speaking, I’ve had couch potato periods, somewhat exaggerated periods of heavy training and more common work/life balance “trying to find time to train” periods.
  • Motivation vs. Pathology:  The modern fitness world is addicted to motivational stories to an unhealthy extent.  It’s very simple, if you don’t train and then start training, you will notice many improvements.  Better mood, sleep, weight loss and/or muscle gain, reduction of anxiety, the list goes on.  And I think it’s great this engenders a feeling of empowerment in people.  I don’t think, however, that pushing stories of how people have seemingly conquered all of life’s ills by physical training is a positive trend.  We all know a few 1 dimensional “gym is life” types and, admit it, it’s a bit sad.  Sadly, many of us have a seen a few pathological cases which literally make you wince.  At the Globo gyms I go to, for example, there is  one guy who is so hyper-ripped that his muscles actually interfere with his mobility.  He waddles from machine to machine and occasionally the dumbbell rack.  It’s kind of disturbing.  There is also this extremely anorexic woman I’ve seen at gyms around town for years now.  It always makes me nervous to be in the gym with her because I honestly expect her to keel over at any moment.  She’s literally a walking skeleton and all she ever does is cardio.  I have a family member who struggled with this disease, I know it’s a desperate attempt to exert control over one’s life,  so I don’t take this lightly.  The gym is the last place she should be and nobody should be enabling her to burn any more precious calories.
  • Performance Enhancing Drugs:  I used to be very naive and thought steroid use was rare.  10 years ago I might have even thought that the behemoth I described above was a “natural”.  The reality is that most of the shredded guys and gals at your local gym are on “gear”.  Most of us don’t have the genetics  it takes to resemble a Comic Book hero, so, surprise, surprise, many people resort drugs.  I understand if a professional athlete or movie star does it because the risk may be worth the monetary reward.  It’s pathological, however, for  your average gym goer or amateur competitor take the same hormonal health risks.
  • Body Dysmorphia:   Sure, body dysmorphia exists outside a gym environment.  It’s also true that physical training is conducive to developing a limited degree of body dysmorphia in most people.  What I find most interesting is how the condition manifests itself depends on what type of training you are doing.  This is logical because depending on your chosen activity you’ll spend a certain amount of time around phenotypes best suited to that activity.  For example, when I ran semi-marathons I used to think I was too bulky at 66 Kgs for 1m79. I now weigh 30KGs more after years of strength training.  Honestly, some of that is fat, but a lot of it isn’t.  It’s not an abnormal body type to find in a powerlifting gym but I am sometimes reminded, by people’s reactions, how outside the norm it is.  The interesting thing is that in my mind’s eye I’m “normal” size and I don’t really dig the “getting bigger” aspect.  It’s a side effect of the sport, not the raison d’être.

The point is that we need to apply the same critical regard to physical training as we do to other parts of our lives.  I often liken it to stages of “culture shock”.  When you first arrive in a country you often “love” (or detest) everything about it for a period of time.  Then, abruptly, that feeling completely changes to its polar opposite.  So now you loathe every stupid aspect of said country/culture.  Within a few months, however, you’ll reach a more reasonable mindset and begin to see the culture for what it is, neither perfect nor horrible.  Physical training is, for me, an essential part of life.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide an answer for all of my problems.  Sometimes, it even causes a few problems such as my recent injury or getting bulkier than I’d like.   At my age, though, I’m not motivated by vanity.  I like how it makes me feel and I get a kick out of achieving goals and getting stronger.   Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.