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

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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.

Negativity as motivation

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As we ease into the 2nd week of 2018,  I contemplate my upcoming workout.  Rotator cuff issues mean that I still can’t low or high bar squat so my workout today will feature safety bar box squats and the Wenning belt squat station for a reasonable amount of weight and volume as well as working up to some heavy triples on bench.  On the bright side of the injury report, my hamstring seems to healed to an extent that I can start easing into some more meaningful lower body training.  2 days ago I did my first deadlift training in 7 weeks for light to light/medium weight as the objective was to see how the hamstring felt and above all concentrate on form, form and more form.  I did snatch grip DLs, conventional DLs and then high rack pulls and barbell shrugs with a bit more weight.  I also did glute ham raises and some farmers carries.  The surprising result is that my legs feel fine (perhaps because I have been training them continuously with light weights and/or body weight) but my upper back and traps are feeling it.  My rotator cuff injury means that a lot of back/shoulder exercises are out of the question for now which makes exercise selection a bit of a challenge.

Two simultaneous injuries suck, but powerlifting is life so off I go to the powerlifting gym.  It’s a bit of a hike from my house but I will go there today primarily because it has the specialized bars and stations I need to do the exercises listed above.  Also,  we can blast music at improbable volumes and use healthy amounts of chalk all in a pleasantly mirror free environment.  The best things about this gym, though, are  the people and overall vibe.  It’s overwhelmingly positive (much of this is thanks to M, the gym’s inimitable owner and head coach) and it’s a blast to be surrounded by motivated, like-minded people. It’s sort of like Cheers, everybody knows your name.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I still go to a commercial gym about half the time as it’s close where I live and work and therefore convenient. One of my team-mates recently told that she avoids this (commercial) gym like the plague because, even though it’s very well equipped, because it’s awash in negativity and gym haters.  She’s not wrong.  Many commercial gyms, and this place is no exception,  have the social dynamics of a middle school playground – cliques, rampant gossip, dirty looks, the works.

In a weird way I enjoy the dysfunctional ambiance which is useful as I’m obliged to train there so often.  It’s a dose of Yang to balance out the Yin of the other gym. There are a lot of type A personalities and some inflated senses of entitlement, both in the locker room and out on the floor.  It’s a struggle to stay Zen sometimes.  I find that it’s almost a form of moving meditation as I try to block out the extraneous foolishness and focus on training.  I just navigate around the gym in my ratty t-shirt, Chuck Taylors and track suit bottoms with the tell-tale heavy-duty wrist-wraps and chalk bag in my pockets.  (Chalk is sort of frowned on but to the gym’s credit, they haven’t hassled me about it.).  And, yeah, there are the odd fun moments when you quietly install yourself on a bench next to a bench being used by some Instagramming, lycra clad bros and, slowly but surely, use their 1RM for paused-rep triples.

A certain amount of stress is required as a catalyst for growth.  This is the underlying principle of strength training, of course, as well as one of life’s greater truths.  As the French say, to make great wine the grapes must suffer.  As a man, you will not meet quality women or do anything else of note if you fear rejection.  You have to really embrace rejection or failure before you can see that it’s your fear, and not failure itself, that is holding you back. Fear is the mind-killer, the gains-killer and the get me some of that fine booty-killer.

So, boo-hoo, I’ve got 2 simultaneous injuries that are the direct result of me having enough time and resources to train in an activity I really enjoy and – gasp – I sometimes have to do such training in a big well equipped gym surrounded by the terminally shallow.  First world problems, to say the least.  If confronting your fears is important, so is gratitude.

 

That time I did a Strongman contest

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About 18 months ago I did a very, very silly thing.  I participated in a local Strongman contest on a whim.  I just signed up a week before the contest and then I participated.  “How hard could it be?”, I thought naively.  I should preface this by providing some context at this point:  I know the organizer and for some mistaken reason I was under the impression that the contestants would be mostly my fellow Powerlifting (PL) team members and maybe a few other people.  So I thought it would be fun afternoon with a bunch people I basically know.  At the time I was doing a fair amount of overhead press, Atlas ball and some weighted carries in addition to squat, bench and deadlift so I thought I had an advantage.  Well, an advantage in the sense that I did more of this than some people in my PL gym so, since I thought they would be my main competitors.  Did I bother to learn about Strongman rules, strategy or do at least minimal contest prep?  Of course I didn’t.

I should also explain that at this point in time I was a strength-building “bulking” phase which is just a cool way of saying I was eating a lot (clean, yes, but a lot) and getting, well, sort of thick around the middle.  So, yes, I was relatively strong but my cardio capacity was even worse than usual thanks to the additional weight.  Additionally,  I had badly sprained my ankle 2 weeks before the event.

Sunday morning comes around and I nonchalantly roll up to the parking lot where the contest is being held.  First thing I noticed is that event looked a bit more “serious” than I was expecting – nicely set up, TV cameras, the works.  Second thing I noticed is that there weren’t many people from my PL team in attendance.  Those that were there were helping the organizers, not competing.  OK, I thought, no big deal.  Then as the other competitors arrived I realized that they were all Crossfitters and I easily had a good 18 years on the next oldest male competitor.  The horrible realization dawned on my that I had made a very foolish and potentially embarrassing decision to compete in a sport I know next to nothing about against a bunch of young guys with the strength and cardio fitness of race horses.  However, the only thing more mortifying than actually competing would have been to chicken out, especially in front of people I know.  My goals were clear – finish the competition and, for my self-esteem, not come in dead last.

Things got real even before the competition started.  The organizers took the competitors through some warm up stretches and light cardio.  In my “fuscular” bulking state, I was winded from the light cardio, and hobbling around to boot due to my sprained ankle.  It occurred to me as the events and rules were explained that Strongman is a lot more cardio intensive than I had anticipated and that, dear reader, did not bode well for yours truly.

The first event was the yoke carry over a 100 meters which I, of course, had never practiced.  Guess what, it’s harder than it looks, much harder.  Carrying a very heavy yoke over 100 meters takes a great deal of cardio.  (Strongman in general demands more cardio conditioning than people (or maybe just me) suspect)  After my carry I discretely went over to the side of the parking lot so fewer people would see me retching into the bushes.  I was the last to do the yoke carry so of course I was first up for the next event – farmer’s carry.   I was already winded to the point of seeing stars and now I was expected to pick up two weighted frames and move them 100 meters.  Ugh, my grip strength is my greatest weakness in the best of times, but in my tired state and with a sprained ankle, it wasn’t pretty.  I was dead last, by a country mile, in that event.

Two of the crossfitters were just absolute beasts, strong as hell and in all around excellent shape.  They were literally running away with the competition.  As the competition progressed I saw that the rest of my competitors were young (20 somethings), in much better cardio shape than I was but for the most part not as strong as your average powerlifter.  I did fairly well in those events that required upper body strength and/or resemble squatting or deadlifting.  So I placed well in one event that required us to pick up a 70kg ball off the ground and throw it over our shoulders for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) during one minute.  I came in second in the log press (pressing a weighted metal cylinder overhead for AMRAP during one minute) and probably would have done better if I knew how to do a push/press (i.e. utilizing your legs to help push the bar overhead).  People were screaming at me to stop doing a strict Overhead Press (which does not use the legs) but it was the only technique I knew.  Yep, a little contest prep would have gone a long way.

So I stumbled from event to event in an exhausted, hypoglycemic, trying not to retch daze.  Then, almost magically, the competition was over!  I had managed to get points in all of the events (not a given – some people, for example, couldn’t do even 1 rep of the log press and therefore got no points for that event).  Lo and behold, I managed to not place dead last.  OK, I was 6th from the bottom but on the other hand, I was old enough to be everyone’s father.  Aside the public humiliation that was my farmers carry attempt, I didn’t completely disgrace myself.

As I hobbled back to my car, every muscle and sinew in body was crying out in pain.  Uh-oh, I thought, this going to be even more sore tomorrow.  And indeed tomorrow was not kind.  I staggered into work and grimaced in pain every time I did radical things like get out of a chair or walk down a few stairs.  I am a manager in a conservative bank, where the sport of choice for people like me would be golf, tennis or running.  I am always the weirdo nursing some sort of injury like torn-up hands (due to deadlifting) but for the most part these injuries fly under the radar.  Impossible to remain un-noticed with the DOMS I was feeling from that competition.  I have never felt that physically trashed after a sporting event.  So big, big respect to all you strongman and strongwoman competitors out there.  You’re crazed masochists, the lot of you.

As I reviewed the video from the event I also came to the realization that there is a fine line between bulking for strength and looking like you’re wearing one of the tires you’re supposed to be flipping.  I also realized, in rather dramatic fashion, that I had an appalling lack of cardio conditioning.  I learned some honest to goodness respect for crossfitters.  It’s fashionable in some circles to talk trash about crossfitters because they are the jacks of all trades but masters of none.  You know what, if taught well and practiced with strict form, crossfit turns people into beasts.  If I was 20 years younger, I might be tempted to search out a really top-notch crossfit box.  Any sport that gets masses of people excited about compound barbell movements is all right by me..And, finally, it was fun to push the envelope a bit.  Wish I had done some contest prep and actual training for the events, but hey, hindsight is always 20/20.