A Semi-Objective Rant About that One Exercise You Have to Do or the Internet Will Yell at You
Ah, back squats. The King of All Exercises, according to some. Not me. In fact, I just posted on my Facebook page that I would be giving up back squats for good. The reaction was predictable:
Now in fairness to Innis, he’s obviously being facetious and poking fun at the expected response. A lot of people seem to think that you need squats. Well, need is a strong word. And you don’t need squats–but I’m not writing an anti-squat rant. I’m not even really going to make a compelling case for an alternative. I’m just going to tell you why I personally am not going to back squat any more.
But first, some history.
I squatted for the first time in my lift at age 14. It was my first year on the high school wrestling team, and my coach–Pete Kopecky, who, I believe is still the coach there–was all about squats.
The first time he put me under the bar, I did 135 for 8 reps. He gave me some tips, and by the end of our first team workout, I did 185 for 6 reps.
I was good at squatting. With a low center of gravity, short ROM and generally high concentration of fast twitch muscle fibers, it was an exercise I excelled at. Resultantly, I liked it. (For an understanding of why, check out this post.)
I continued squatting, and quickly became enthralled with adding more weight to the bar. In just three weeks, I got to two plates. During my sophomore year, I hit three plates–more than anyone on the team. Some time around the end of my senior year, I weighed in at a chubby 185 and was squatting 405 for 6 reps, and 450 for 3 (both with a belt). Felt good.
Eventually I got lean and found bodybuilding; I learned how to squat ass-to-ankles instead of just going to parallel, as I had been previously. I had to drop my numbers back a bit, but I worked on both full squats and parallel squats for a few years.
By the time I was 24, I had built up a lot of strength and–between squats and various training programs–a decent physique. At my strongest, I was able to squat 525×3 and full squat 335×8.
That year (2006), I suffered my first knee injury; I tore the medial meniscus in my left leg during, of all things, a game of paintball. Obviously, I had to back off off the leg training for a while.
Sadly, it wasn’t long enough; I came back in just 6 months, and somehow wound up tearing both the medial and lateral menisci in my right leg. I’m not even sure how it happened–after about two weeks of pain and being unable to train (or, in fact, get in or out of my car without extreme effort) I went to the doc.
Now two surgeries in, I spent a year taking it easy on the ol’ knees.
Although I worked back squats in after a long break, they always made me very nervous. Perhaps it was because I could actually feel the instability, perhaps it was because I was always using pretty heavy weight. Whatever it was, I just felt nervous.
Not wanting to re-injure my knees, I started trying to train around my injuries–for longer than I needed to. So, I mostly avoided back squats, using them primarily in complexes and the like, but never as part of a muscle building program. After about 4-5 years of successfully building size and strength without squats, I added them back in. I found that I didn’t really care for them.
At first, I thought maybe I didn’t like them because I wasn’t good at them–my long lack of practice had taken it’s toll, and 315 was a challenge. I reasoned that things would change as I got better. However, it was the opposite: the more I did squats, the less I liked them.
Although I was lifting heavier weight and making progress with my strength, I didn’t experience the surge of awesomeness that I had always fantasized would occur when I was finally able to squat heavy again. I began to dread my squat workouts.
This has continued until now. Although I’ve been able to squat heavy for the more than a year, I really don’t care for it. Recently, I did my Century Sets experiment with back squats, which really sealed it. After 400 reps over a period of 8 weeks, I’d pretty much settled it: I hated squats.
Eventually, that hatred led me to my decision: I’ll probably never do them again. For me, it’s not really “risk vs reward” – I don’t feel nervous about getting injured, at all. Rather, let’s say that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze–the benefit simply doesn’t measure up to the misery.
All of which I’m removing squats from my programming, because I make it a policy not to do things I don’t like.
Now, we’re just talking about me here, and my experience. But, I do want to make this post useful to you. I want you to think critically about squats, and any other exercise you might be on the fence about; consider whether you actually enjoy it, and what you’re getting out of it. Try to be objective about why you feel you “need” to do certain exercises.
To help, I’ve compiled a list of the Top 5 Reasons you should consider putting squats or any other exercise into your programming. Here ya go, slick:
All of those are great reasons to squat. Actually, they’re great reasons to do anything, really. But, since none of them apply to me, I’m not going to do it any more. In the interest of giving you a complete picture, I’ll just go down the list.
First and foremost, I just want to get the Mike Boyle bullshit out of the way. Without question the fact that I said I am not back squatting any more is going to cause a bunch of people to say shit like this:
In the interest of context, for those who don’t know, Mike Boyle came out a few years ago and said ‘we don’t need to back squat.’ He happens to be right, but that has nothing to do with my decision. This stirred up a big internet controversy, as you might imagine. I paid attention peripherally, but neither side had any arguments that changed my opinions drastically.
Controversy notwithstanding, Boyle went so far as to say that with regard to squatting, because you can get the benefits from other exercises, you shouldn’t do back squats. Instead, he favored unilateral exercises like the Bulgarian split squat–which, for some reason beyond human comprehension, he labeled rear foot elevated split squats. I suspect it’s because he hates Bulgaria.
EDIT: Mike was cool enough to reply, and has a good sense of humor. Here’s what he said:
Anyway, here’s a video, if you’d like to watch–
Based on what he said in that clip, it seems he meant ALL bilateral squat movements; he mentioned front squats but may also have been including things like goblet squats, Zercher squats, etc. He may also have amended some of his statements or reached new conclusions in the past few years.
I’m not certain about either and can’t be bothered to do any further Googling it because as it turns out I don’t give a fuck.
So, there’s that.
Anyway, as mentioned above, my reason for abandoning has nothing to do with that Boyle or his arguments, for a few reasons. Firstly, I don’t compete in sports, so I don’t really take high level performance into account when I design my programs.
Secondly, I happen to disagree with the half of Boyle’s point. Athletes don’t “need” to back squat, but that doesn’t mean they “should” avoid it. Can they have comparable results with single leg exercises? Very possibly. Will I abandon back squats for my athletes? Of course not. I think some can benefit from squatting, and others don’t need to.
Thirdly, Boyle says “the squat isn’t a lower body exercise, it’s a low back exercise.” If that’s how you want to think of it, great. I still want my athletes to have strong low backs, so we squat; we also do heavy unilateral training.
I haven’t written them off for people who want to use them for performance. I don’t train for athletics, though, so I’m fine not back squatting.
That actually brings me to my next point.
At this point in my life, I train for general health and all around secksinezz. I am interested only in looking and feeling good, and so my training is geared around that.
This is a contrast to how I trained in my early 20’s — at that point, I wanted maximum size, maximum strength, maximum leanness, and all that other stuff that young guys want. I wanted to be as strong as possible in the general sense, but I also wanted some specific numbers.
Now, I just like having a balanced physique, which includes a decent set of legs. And as anyone who knows me can tell you, although I have naturally huge calves and my upper body grows just from looking at weights, my quads have always been the one area where I have to work my ass off to gain size.
Naturally, as nice wheels are a priority for me, my selection of leg exercises is based on my observations of what works for me and has worked over the past decade and a half that I’ve been training seriously. Back squats have always added size to my booty, but weren’t amazing for leg growth.
It seems my posterior chain fires aggressively on back squats, but they’re not great for my quad development. On the other hand, front squats, hack squats, trap bar deadlifts, and lunges have historically been great for sexy legz.
In fact–and I know I’m going to get lambasted for this by some fucking barbell purist–I’ve found that from a sheer aesthetic perspective, I get more out of the leg press machine than barbell back squats.
For those interested in such things, the perfect set up for me seems to be one of two things:
Obviously, these are high volume, but that’s what works for my quads. There are variations of course, but the best quad growth I ever had was when I was alternating these two workouts, with the occasional Century Set thrown in.
My quad workout today was this:
(In this workout, the leg press and leg extension are alternated. Out of interest, I do the leg extension unilaterally because when done bilaterally, the leg closest to the machine will do more work; I do them one at a time and position each leg in dead center of the pad to alleviate this issue.)
Now, looking at that, you’ll see that three of my five exercises are on machines. Why? Because my goal is to build and maintain a set of reasonable large, well-developed quads–not to impress a bunch of bros on the internet who are going to judge me because I use machines.
Of course, just because I don’t train for strength doesn’t mean I’m not strong. When you’re pulling trap bar deads from a deficit for 20 reps at 375-450 pounds, you’re gonna stay strong. Which is great. But it’s not the primary goal.
Anyway, that’s just what makes my legs grow, particularly my kwadz. If my legs responded better to squats, I’d do them. But, they won’t, so I don’t. (Hat tip, in Bruges.) If you want big legs and you notice back squats do the job, have at it.
Next up: I don’t need or even really desire to have a “good” back squat. As far as squat skill, I have no need to either build or maintain a high level of proficiency . I’m not going to compete in powerlifting, and as far as I know, there is no other activity that requires me to be good at back squats specifically.
Given that, there’s really no reason to practice them in an effort to build technical skill. People who compete in powerlifting should squat, because they need to have a high level of technical proficiency. So squat. People who compete in the CrossFit games need to have a high level of technical proficiency in the overhead squat.
If you’re not going to do either of those things, and you don’t enjoy either of the exercises, then fuck it.
I’m also past the point of wanting a big squat number for any reason at all. When I was younger, I liked having a big squat; I liked chasing numbers in the Big Three. I wanted to bench 400, squat 600, and deadlift 700. I never got to do any of those. I topped out at 385×1, 525×3, and 660×3. Then I started chasing other goals that I enjoyed more, like learning Elvish.
Not having hit those numbers doesn’t make me feel like a failure or want to go back and relive my glory days. I enjoyed training for those things, and it was fun at the time. Now, it’s not. Again, I don’t want to be weak, but I have no interest in quantifying my strength with an exercise I don’t really like.
Which brings to me my final and, perhaps, most important point: I don’t like back squatting.
I just really and truly don’t enjoy it. Some people love squats, and I understand that; I’m just not one of them.
I can’t tell you the reason I don’t like them. Can you explain your tastes? I can’t. I can’t tell you why I’m an ass man instead of a breast man. I can’t tell you why I prefer my steak rare instead of any other temperature. I can’t tell you why I prefer bourbon to gin. I just know what I like.
I also can’t tell you the reason I used to hate brussels sprouts and now love them. Your tastes and preferences just change. And as it happens, I used to enjoy squatting quite a bit. This was before I fell in love with the deadlift, which I prefer in every way. And to me, yanking a heavy barbell off the ground is infinitely preferable to squatting with one on your back.
Squatting no longer brings me pleasure of any kind–so why do it, when I can get the results I’m seeking elsewhere?
In my article that outlined my Rules for a Successful Life, one of the most important items I listed was pretty simple: say no to shit you don’t like. It is one of the hardest things you can do, and one of the best things to learn.
We all invent these ideas in our heads, requirements and obligations and qualifiers. We do things we don’t want to. We say yes when all we want to do is say no. We go to dinners with people we don’t want to break bread with, say yes to telemarketers because we’re too polite to hang up, and all these other endless nonsensical things.
In the context of fitness, we do this with exercises; we follow these unspoken rules enforced by the Internet Police, because we don’t want to face the implied consequence of being branded a certain way. If you use machines with your clients, you’re not a good trainer. If you don’t use the FMS, you’re not a movement specialist. If you don’t do Oly lifts, you’re not functional. And on and on and on.
We attach unnecessary importance to concepts because we don’t want to lose face in the eyes of people we don’t even fucking know. Somehow, specific exercises play into our estimation of people in terms of how dedicated or qualified they are. Have you ever stopped to think how absolutely ridiculous that is?
Even the highest level coaches do this.
Here’s the quote that I think sums it up best:
Well, people of the Internet, I have a new quote for you to plaster all over your feeds:
Fuck squats, I’m out.
If YOU happen to be in my coaching program, or doing one of my various workout programs…then that’s because I decided they WERE necessary for YOU. You are not me, and we may have different needs.
The point of this is definitely not to convince you not to do back squats, and it’s definitely not to give you a reason to email me and ask me if you can/should stop doing them.
The point is to give some very specific insight a very specific situation (mine) and to foster DISCUSSION.