Squats; it’s all in the details

I’ve probably done 10,000 squats in my life, maybe even hundreds of thousands; there’s just no way to know. I squat everyday. I squat to demonstrate movements for my clients. I squat in my own workouts. When I’m around the house doing chores I squat. Squatting for me is the most basic foundation of everything my fitness routine is built on. Without it I am weak, crippled, feeble even. I use squats as the first assessment of a person’s physical ability when they come through my door. I don’t much care if you can press a ton overhead if you can’t squat we have a problem. I know that a lot of coaches and athletes feel the same way I do, so why is squatting one of the most avoided least understood, most poorly practiced movements in exercise? Mostly because people hate doing it.

I’ve coached elite athletes and couch potatoes new to exercise and all of them learn to squat first. It’s also the one movement all of them seem to want to get past as quickly as possible. When you’re first starting out a simple squat can seem like a herculean task and I’ve witnessed more than one happy client’s face take on a mask of fear and dread when I announced that day’s workout would feature squats. Ironically I can see the same look in practiced experienced athletes. Seasoned athletes look at a simple squat (air squat) like it’s beneath them sometimes, as if to say if there’s no weight involved it’s a waste of time. They often rush through the squats I put in our warm-ups paying little attention to their positioning, knees,, spine flexion, or torso. Strangely enough I notice those who rush through air squats with abandon often fail miserably in their barbell squats once the weight gets serious. It’s not a coincidence.

We used to be a nation of hard workers and in some ways we still are. In my field though I’m noticing a trend towards cutting corners and constantly seeking the next level before our time. Many new athletes don’t want to pay their dues so to speak. They don’t want to put in hours and hours of repetition to master a movement. Most want to just be good enough to move up to the next thing. They watch things like the CrossFit games and want to learn muscle-ups before they can even do pullups or dips. They want to throw up some plates in a Snatch before they’ve figured out an overhead squat. Let me tell you something you can’t overhead squat if your air squat looks like shit.

To me squatting is all about the details. Details can and often do get missed when we rush through a movement. Add some weight to that and instability in the joints and core and lack of detail can manifest into serious injury. In the CrossFit world we like to blame many injuries on poor coaching. And in some ways this is true. A good coach needs to be unafraid to hold an athlete back and send them through the basics again and again until they are mastered and can safely proceed forward. Unfortunately too often we don’t put enough of the blame where it belongs; with the athlete their self. I’ve known more than a few aspiring athletes who actually left one program because their coaches wouldn’t let them do the “fun stuff” and kept jumping gyms and coaches until they found one that was wiling to let them do what they wanted not what they needed to, learn to squat.

When it comes to squats I often hear the question “how many, or how long.” I think from now on my answer will be: “As many as it takes, or as long as t takes for you to get it right.” I’ve been doing this for 18 years now friends and I have yet to perform the perfect squat. I keep working on the basics, I keep going back to my Air Squats. If you want to increase your back squat weight and really see some big numbers work on shoring up your air squat until you can perform dozens with crisp solid form. Use pause squats to build power out of the bottom, use tempo squats to build control and practice keeping those knees out over your feet. Finally give yourself the 10 minute squat test. See if you can descend into the bottom and hold that position for 10 minutes with an upright torso, keeping your knees out, and glutes engaged. You’ll find out real quick where your weak spots are with this test. The best athletes in the world are good not because they’ve moved past the basics but further into them. They’ve embraced repetition and practice. So should you.

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