We’ve all seen those guys (and increasingly women) at the gym in the squat racks lifting several times their body weight. They hold the bar behind their neck (back squat) or over their collarbone (front squat.) It can be intimidating to watch this, and we might easily conclude “that’s not for me.” But I’d like to convince you otherwise, based on my own experience.
First, let’s look at the squat and why it is considered by most strength and conditioning coaches the most complete strength exercise. For starters, it’s a multi-joint exercise involving at least the hip, knee, and ankle joints. The squat also builds our balance and flexibility. In total, you get more bang for your buck – the squat is efficient! In addition, the involved muscles get a dose of concentric, isometric, and eccentric contractions. And speaking of muscles all of the big ones in the lower extremity are engaged: quads, hamstrings, calves, front and back leg muscles, as well as those in the ankle and feet. And the back gets a quality workout too, assuming good form and depending on the type of squat done.
With this kind of payback, why do most runners avoid squats? It’s based in part on misconceptions that squats are bad for our knees and back. We see the butts of those weightlifters crouching below their knees and think “ouch.” But the reality is our joints are lubricated by weighted movement and if we keep a neutral (straight) spine, and we build up progressively, squats won’t hurt us.
So, progression is key. You wouldn’t jump into deep squats with heavy weights any more than you would begin doing speed work with all-out sprints. Our bodies are designed to respond to an overload by building up over time. Technique is vital! Those lifters have probably been coached or prompted along the way. We can’t see ourselves as well as someone looking at us. This is especially true if you’re using a bar. Which is why I suggest starting (and maybe sticking) with goblet squats, named because you hold a free weight or kettlebell in front of you with both hands as if you’re holding a goblet.
To develop proper form, start with bodyweight squats. Watch yourself in the mirror and ideally have an experienced lifter give you feedback. Don’t be shy – people are willing to help! The important thing is to evenly distribute your weight as you descend so you maintain your base of support. If you find yourself rocking up on your toes, this will impair your ability to lift and likely have you falling forward, feeling foolish, and possibly hurting yourself. On the upward return, push up from/through your heels. At first you may find it difficult to go deep (thighs at least parallel to the ground) but keep at it. It may take three to four weeks to get really comfortable with your form. Work your way up to 12 reps and do two or three sets with ~60 seconds rest in between sets.
Once you get the hang of bodyweight squats, start holding a dumbbell against your chest. Start light, say five pounds. Notice how even that amount of weight changes your center of gravity and how you must adjust to keep your balance. Same deal – work up to 12 reps with 2-3 sets and do this at least three times per week. Ideally you have a gym with dumbbells going up in 2.5 lb. intervals up to 25 pounds. Above that the increments are usually five pounds. That type of increase – from 5 to 7.5 to 10 to 12.5, etc. is a good way to progress. There’s no hurry to get there. You will likely find adding 2.5 lbs. per week about right. Do not progress until you find 12 reps comfortable with perfect form!
I was a skeptic when I started doing squats. But perhaps over time you too will find yourself looking forward to this exercise. While you will not likely be lifting the heavy stuff in the racks, it’s cool to watch and feel yourself go deep into your squats and feel all the muscles working and the joints getting internal grease. My guess is you will find it helps your running, enabling a smoother and more powerful stride and leave you feeling less stiff afterwards. We’re unlikely to show up at a weightlifting contest (unless to watch!) but those weightlifters probably won’t be present at our next road race.