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.

 

 

 

Return of the prodigal Hamburger

People with German ancestry are the single largest ethnic group in US.  Yet, it’s a testament to their ubiquity that it’s often not understood by Americans themselves just how subtly German popular culture has influenced their own.  My mother’s family are typical German-Americans as they live in Midwest in a semi-rural setting. German-americans largely live in “fly over” country, not the coasts.  My great grand-parents immigrated to the US shortly before World War 1 and made a bee-line to Midwest and it’s promise of relatively cheap farm land.  My Grandmother spoke a dialect of German (similar to Luxembourgish or Blatt in Alsace) with her parents and 14 brothers and sisters.  While she continued to speak German with her sisters into old age it was very much a private, behind closed doors activity.  The last thing she would have ever considered was teaching her own children to speak German.  World War 2 comprehensively denatured a whole generation of Germanic Americans.

In the Americas (aka the New World), the word “European” is used almost as a snobby superlative.  There is common delusion, for example,  that all Frenchmen are chain-smoking philsophes with 3 mistresses and a fine wine cellar.  Germans are coldly efficient techocrats, and so forth.  OK, there is some truth to stereotypes, but most “culture” is low-brow, and Europeans are no exception.  I put forth to you that much of Midwestern US “redneck” culture is German popular culture, crudely grafted to a new location.

The most obvious vestige of this German heritage is food.  Much of what we think of as generic “American” food is German; Hamburgers, sausages (including the ubiquitous hot dog), inordinate fondness for bread, dill pickles, potato pancakes, fried fish and beer to name a few.  If you’ve eaten at a State fair in the US and then attended a similar event in Germany, the parallels are obvious.  Home style baking in the US is largely influenced by German, not British or French, tastes.  The German fondness for big portions arrived in America and immediately took steroids.  The apfel doesn’t fall from the tree, y’all.

In my last post I mentioned that I took part in a 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation last weekend  https://wordpress.com/post/expatpowerlifter.com/1438.  The competition took place is a smallish town in a beautiful semi-rural setting to the north-east of Cologne.  In short, it was the German equivalent of the community that my mother’s family hails from in the US.  And, yes, it was a powerlifting meet, not post-doctorate symposium on String Theory.  It was a perfect setting to observe German popular culture in action.

First, however, a quick word about me and the German language.  I’ve never failed so completely to learn a language.  Experience has shown that give me a Romance or creole/pidgen language and I’m off to the races…so I’m not a language dunce.  It was therefore with quite a bit of hubris that I began my study of German…and failed spectacularly.  My kids speak (amongst other languages) German and my daughter has a special fondness for it, maybe because it confounds her parents.

Nevertheless, when I arrived in the parking lot of the facility that was hosting the competition, I couldn’t help but feel at home.  There was just a very familiar red-necky vibe…if I squinted a bit I might have been in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Literally,  as in some of them looked like cousins of mine, dark hair, stocky compact builds.  Beer, check, fried food, check, baked goods, check.  Talk about sports, check, talk about cars, check, crude jokes, check.  “Unique” grooming and vestimentary choices, check.  The attitudes, the facial expressions were uncannily like a backyard BBQ in Michigan.  Good people, for the most part, but with a pronounced insular streak, just like back home.  The event was only in German so good luck to the non-Germanophones.  I was the only non-European at the event and people couldn’t have cared less except for a few odd grumbles about my lack of German.   Again, just like you know where.  (The ironic part is that I am 1m80, fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.  So I while look the part in a central casting sort of way, the reality is most Germans don’t seem to fit the blond hair/blue eyes mold.  In my experience, it’s much more common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.)

I wish I could describe this feeling better.  I feel more comfortable in a similar situation in the UK or France, Belgium, etc because I speak the languages.  Yet, in spite of my profound ignorance of the language, this felt more “familiar”.  It felt like home.  Take that as you will.  Home is often far from perfect, but it undeniably informs who you are.

The reasons that absolutely nobody should be intimidated by strength training

We’ve all been there.  Most of us mere mortals have been in lousy physical shape at least once in our lives.  At some point we think “hmm, I should really go to the gym” but we hesitate.  A quick perusal of social media, YouTube videos and blog posts reveals that a big reason many people are reluctant to make that first step is intimidation.  Many people are intimidated by gyms in general and barbell training in particular.   Here’s why nobody should be intimidated by strength-training:

  • We are all beginners once:  Congratulations, you’ve made it to the gym and you want to train compound barbell movements.  There are many things to learn, but that is also why it’s so much fun.  Trust me, nobody is sneering at you.  If an experienced lifter does happen to notice, he or she is probably thinking “Hey, that’s cool”.  Here’s another thing you probably didn’t expect, experienced lifters are even a tiny bit jealous because they remember their own “beginner gains” period.
  • The gym is for everybody:  Literally, every part of the gym is for everyone.  The old stereotype is that the weight room is for guys and the cardio area/classes are for women but that’s silly.  You are not intimidated by going to the park, the supermarket or the cinema, so don’t be intimidated by the gym.  It’s a public space.  It should be selfish thing, it’s where you indulge in some much-needed “me” time.  You have as much right to deadlift or do a spinning class as the next person.  You may come across some poor deluded souls who think they have a right to judge, but see this behavior for what it is – truly pathetic.
  • Anybody can train with weights:  Those guys and gals you see lifting that serious weight started just like you.  They are not genetic freaks (well, most of them aren’t), they have just been lifting for a while and have gotten to that stage by slowly increasing the weight they lift.   Anybody can do this and everybody should, in my opinion.
  • Serious lifters are some of the nicest, most chilled out people you’ll ever meet:  I know, I know, this seems counter-intuitive.  In many gyms, most women and more than a few guys, feel that the free weight area is the preserve of aggressive anti-social hard cases.  The weird truth is that lifting heavy weight chills people out better than Xanax.  Yes, there’s chalk flying everywhere, AC/DC cranking, people grunting under heavy loads or yelling encouragement but don’t let that fool you.  Most of those “big, bad” lifters are totally chill and friendly, the opposite of aggressive .  Serious lifters really dig meeting people who share or are interested in their passion.  To give you an example, when I travel I often do my research to find the most serious gym in the area and, if possible, a powerlifting gym.  So I go into the gym, explain that I am in town for X number of days and ask if I can pay a “day rate” to train.  In a serious gym, the staff are usually lifters and more often than not they’ll find a way that I can train for free or pay a “promotional” rate.  As for the few powerlifting gyms I’ve found while travelling , I’ve never had to pay – people are literally that friendly.  Last year,  I visited a big powerlifting gym outside of Ottawa, Canada.  The staff was stoked that some random guy visiting from Europe took the time to look them up.  They hooked me up with a free 2 week pass and were super friendly.  I met the owner and some of the powerlifting team members, they offered to spot my squats and bench, we took pictures together, etc.  It’s like being in a big social club.
  • Weight training is not very macho:  True, you can see people lifting some impressive weight, but that’s only because they’ve been working at it slowly and methodically over a long period.   This isn’t sky-diving, MMA or Formula 1 racing.   You don’t need to be particularly courageous. (OK, at more advanced levels you may sometimes attempt weights that scare you, but still… ) On the whole,  it’s not as macho and hairy-chested as people believe.

 

Been down so long looks like up to me

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To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).

 

 

 

 

The Safety squat bar – the best exercise you should, but don’t, do

safetybar

Pros:

  • It will straight up make you stronger for squats and deadlifts
  • You’ll be the vegan of your powerlifting crew, that condescending dude who has staked a claim on the moral high ground (could also be considered a “con”)
  • Physique gainz, son

Cons:

  • Really hard
  • Not for beginners
  • When coming out of the hole, all bets are off, just brace like you never braced before
  • Ego killer (could be considered a “pro”)

In Globo gyms, the low bar squat is the king of exercises; everyone talks a lot about them but very few people actually do them…and only a small subset of those people do them to depth.  Similarly, the safety-squat bar is the 2 ton elephant in most powerlifting gyms.  Everybody knows it’s there but everyone does their best to act like they haven’t seen it.  It’s the best thing that you should be doing that you probably won’t do…and for  good reasons:  it’s really, really hard, technique is secondary and it’s an ego killer to strain under far less weight than you can low-bar squat.

I am the first to admit that I first picked up the safety squat bar under duress.  I injured my left shoulder/biceps in November of 2017.  The last time I squatted significant weight was on November 11…my injury is healing, albeit very slowly.  I realized quickly that the only thing worse than safety bar squats would be to resume squatting after 8 to 9 months of no squat like training.  3 and 1/2 months of squatting with the safety bar has taught me the following:

Safety bar squatting is very, very different from low bar squatting.  The way the bar sits on your shoulders changes the leverages radically from a low bar squat  As such, it shouldn’t be taught to beginners unless they, like me, have injuries that preclude them from low bar squatting.  There is no “sweet spot”, nobody has ever said “that felt really good, it moved well” after a heavy safety bar squat.  Technique, such as it is, consists of bracing absolutely everything and grunting it “out of the hole” with a sort of hybrid squat/deadlift/ dog taking a **** technique.  “Hip drahve”, as the Starting Strength community like to call it, just won’t cut it.  Unorthodox, to say the least, so you can see why it’d only confuse beginners.

The cambered bar means that your entire lower body and back are constantly fighting to balance the load which means gainz of all sorts.  After a heavy safety bar squat session my hamstrings, glutes and abs are comprehensively fried in way that I never experienced with back squats.  The constant battle to balance the bar high up on the shoulders is somewhat like a hinge movement and consequently involves your “deadlift” muscles as well.   I’ve seen such activation in those muscles that I now understand why this bar has a following among bodybuilders.  I’d even venture to say that the “booty babes” at the Globo gym would be better served by dropping the hip thrusters and picking up a safety squat bar.

Another thing you need to wrap your head around is that relatively light weight will feel very heavy.  If your 1RM for a back squat is 190kg, don’t be surprised that 110kg feels really heavy on the safety bar.  It’s an ego killer to grunt and strain under a seemingly easy weight.  The ignominy is compounded by ignorance as not everyone has used this bar.  You might get a few incredulous looks like “Really?  It’s just 130kgs, man” from people who haven’t tried it”.  So it’s kind of lonely to be doing a hard, misunderstood lift for less than “glory” weight.  Soon, however, your growing realization that you are doing something harder than most people are willing to do will develop your condescension muscles to near vegan levels.  You will struggle to keep your disdainful sneer in check when interacting with the low bar squatting hoi polloi.

Seriously, though, safety bar squats have been the silver lining to my injury.  Like low bar squats, they really suck at first.  After a while, however, you begin to savor the challenge. When I finally return to low bar squatting I anticipate that the safety bar will be my go-to accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.

Ain’t no half reppin’

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Something miraculous happened on Friday night.  I got out of work late so I went to big Globo gym because, well,  its nearby.  Say what you will about this gym, it does have 8 power racks and plentiful benches.  I’ve only had to wait for a bench once in 3 years and I’ve never had to wait for a power rack.   So you can imagine my surprise when I strolled out of the locker room and realized that all 8 power racks were taken.  Not only were they in use, they were all being used for squatting!

“What the hell”, I thought, “is there some new social media challenge craze?”.  To say this was anomalous behaviour for this gym is pure understatement.  Sure, there are a few lifters at this place that powerlift or Olympic lift, but we never all train at the same time.   I was training deadlifts so the lack of free power racks was no hinderance.  A bigger issue was that I forgot my chalk.  Globo gyms don’t do chalk so I was sh*t out of luck, grip-wise.

As I warmed up I took a gander at the power racks.  2 of the racks were being used by these Oly lifting guys who were doing front squats.  The other 6 racks, however, were being used by gangs of youngish dudes, not really teenagers but let’s say they aren’t pushing 30 either.  And these guys were making every rookie error possible save one.  J hooks set way too high, backing up blind to re-rack the bar, using the silly foam bar pad, wearing gloves, using too much weight, knees way forward and, it goes without saying, not squatting to depth.  I’m not talking missing depth by a little bit, more like quarter squats.  So I didn’t see “knees caving in” because nobody was squatting deep enough to make that error apparent.

While it’s easy to lampoon a bunch of foam pad using young guys who quarter squat not terribly heavy weight and enthusiastically high-five each other, let he who is without sin throw the first wrist-wrap.  Honestly, I thought it was cool, but remain slightly baffled as to why the sudden popularity.  In an earlier post, I discussed the taboo of giving advice in Globo gyms.  At a rack right next to where I was deadlifting these 2 guys set the J hooks noticeably higher than their shoulders (!) and had wrapped a towel around the bar as there were no more foam bar pads(cringe).  The first guy who un-racked narrowly missed dumping the bar in my direction so I felt it was OK to point out that putting the J hook far lower and not using the towel would make for an easier, more stable lift.  Didn’t say a word re: form, though I was dying to do so.  Squats are not exactly enjoyable at first.  If you compound that with doing the lift wrong, you’ll probably quit after a few weeks.  Time will tell, I guess, if there are legs to this squat craze.

Without chalk, my deadlifts didn’t exactly go as planned.  My grip strength is a weak point, and my deadlift form tends to go to hell when I feel the bar slipping from my hands.  So instead of working up to heavy weight, I stuck to sets at 70% for volume and then did accessory work.  Note to self – keep some chalk in the car as well, and maybe get used to lifting straps or hook grip.

Good to see all those guys giving it a go in the squat rack.  I’m more than a little jealous since it’s been 3 months now since I’ve done a low bar squat.  My rotator cuff is not getting better so I have yet another ultra-sound scheduled for next week.  My physical therapist, sports friendly though he is, would freak out if he knew I still bench and deadlift heavy.  I’m 8 weeks out from the next competition.  I had registered for classic powerlifting as well as stand alone bench, but it’s fairly apparent now that I’ll only be able to do bench.  The record for for this federation in my age/weight class is 10 kgs heaver than my best competition bench, however I have bench pressed that weight “touch and go”, and can now bench within 5kgs with strict competition form.  I’m certainly going to give it a shot.

 

Age/Injury, women who lift and who’s that fat f*%$ in the video?

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Yesterday I filled out an entry form for the first powerlifting meet I will do in 2018.  It takes place in early April.  I had to grapple with the fact that my nagging injuries will, barring a major miracle, have not healed so I while I enrolled for the traditional powerlifting (i.e. the 3 events) I also will compete in the stand alone bench press.  Therefore if my injuries still preclude from me competing normally I can still compete for bench press.  It also made me realize that, damn it, at 51 years old I shouldn’t train like a 25-year-old.  Maybe all those world-class powerlifting coaches with decades of experience knew what they were talking about after all.  I can say this, while I cranked volume, weight and intensity of my training to 11 last fall, there was a good 6 week period that I felt bullet-proof.  I was hitting some serious numbers in squat and bench, and finally edging towards not embarrassing in deadlift.  Weighted dips, pull-ups, overhead presses, heavy rack pulls,  etc…I was going to town.  Until, of course, it all came crashing down when I seriously f’ed up my left rotator cuff –  3 weeks before the competition.  I could not lift my arm above my waist without pain for a few days, and then it eased quite a bit.  So naturally I didn’t bench any more but continued to squat which, in retrospect, was really, really stupid.  So here I am a few months later, with no real end in sight regarding my rotator cuff.  The silver lining is that I am doing a lot of safety bar squats but, damn, I miss low bar squats so much more than I’d ever imagined. The take-away lesson from this is while I may be immature, I need to respect that my physical manifestation on this mortal coil is indeed beginning its 6th decade.   Sigh.

Women who lift:  I love women who lift.  I really respect a woman who has realized that getting stronger is where it’s at.  I think any woman who picks up any weight is a rock star, but I especially love those who go for it and test their limits by lifting heavy.  When I see a woman in a squat rack and she’s loading some weight that is not just for “booty” purposes, I’m intrigued.  If she then hits the bench press and proceeds to challenge herself with some real weight, my jaw just about hits the ground.  If she proceeds to then pull respectable deadlift numbers, I’d probably look away, do an embarrassed cough and try to find some way to repair my fragile male ego.  Seriously, though, every woman I’ve ever known who’s applied herself in the weight room ends up looking awesome and, better yet, feels awesome.  That combination is very, very attractive.  You know what, I respect the dedication, etc of figure and/or bikini competitors, but it’s not the same.  I want to know what you look like when you’re strong and not starving yourself.  A few years ago I dated a former female bodybuilder.  She was from the era when female bodybuilders were not roided out monsters but definitely had some muscle.  She was more about definition than bulk.  You can be feminine and still be noticeably strong.  I’ll be honest, there is a limit, at least for me..  Huge shoulders, a big back, and bulging quads, NO.  Luckily, that wasn’t her case.   (Full disclosure – I don’t think over-developed dudes look great either).  Bottom line, athletes, with the exception of marathon runners, are sexy.  Food for thought.

Last night I took a few videos of myself was I was lifting alone at the powerlifting club.  I did this for 2 reasons.  Primarily, I was going for a bench press PR so I wanted proof for them gym haters (kidding of course) that I hit those numbers, but also I realised that, post holidays and birthday, I was carrying a few extra KGs, so I figured seeing myself on video would provide the motivation I required to shed that flab.  (NB:  the powerlifting club has benches with “protection arms” to catch failed attempts so benching alone is not as risky as it seems.  If you don’t have these at your disposal, please, please do not bench press alone.  It’s the single riskiest thing you can do in the gym.)

Result – I hit that PR and, daaaaamn, the form was on point.  It looked silky smooth, on video, easier that it actually was.  On the other hand, I looked like a God-damned beached whale.  Bench press angles are far from flattering, and this one was no exception.  However, there was no escaping that if would have been a bit less egregious if my belly wasn’t spilling out of my t-shirt.  #fatold*%$k#landwhale#layoffthebeer.  Not into body shaming, but you got to be honest with yourself.