Fatherhood & Fitness
The Art of the Squat
By Dale Barr
Our little man, 8 months old, is up earlier than usual today. I get him up, feed him, and dress him before I get out the door to the gym. Normally I’d get to the gym about 90 minutes before my first client so I can take my sweet time waking up and warming up. However, on a day like today, which is fast becoming more typical, I’ve got about 35–45 minutes to get something in.
What do I do, and what do I recommend for you if you are pressed for time? Should I run, do a lightweight/high-rep circuit, ab work, elliptical, maybe some machines? On days like these when I’ve got a small window to get something in I choose weightlifting and more specifically, barbell back squats. Why? Because no matter what your goal is—losing weight, gaining weight, toning up, fat loss, getting stronger—the squat uses the most muscle through the greatest effective range of motion. More than any other movement pattern and when loaded (with a barbell), the squat requires the highest production of force. That’s what we’re after. Using as many muscles as possible and requiring them to do as much work as effectively possible.
Let’s take a quick glance at what we’re working: almost every back muscle and abdominal muscle is fired to stabilize the spine, then our lower body muscles, the glutes, quads, hamstrings, adductors all work in conjunction to get us up and down. We are effectively using every muscle from the feet to the shoulders.
The caveat here is that the squat, and any barbell lift, is technique dependent. I recommend finding a certified trainer or strength coach to teach you how to do them properly. This doesn’t mean you have to have a personal trainer doing 1:1 sessions for the rest of your life, but to avoid injury, it’s definitely worth the investment to do a few sessions and get your form correct before you decide to add any weights.
I have seen squats transform many clients, especially one whom I will call “Derek.” His starting point was bodyweight air squats—actually bodyweight air squats to a target (a box). His initial limitations were lack of strength and mobility. We started by squatting down to a 24-inch box with only his bodyweight. We made some adjustments, and, after a few weeks and lots of repetitions, his strength and mobility increased and we were able to lower the target (box) and eventually took the box away. The general goal for squat depth is slightly below parallel. What that means is the top of the hip crease is just below the knee. Once that range of motion can be done and the movement pattern embedded, we can start to load the squat with a barbell and weight.
In Derek’s case this took awhile. He’s a bigger guy, both in height and weight, with little-to-no lifting experience, so getting him down that low was terrific. He’s now able to squat his bodyweight plus 105 lbs. If I ask him how he feels after doing 5 sets of 5 reps with the barbell he’d say he’s completely wiped. He is wiped but much healthier and stronger.
There’s no need to be a hamster endlessly running on a treadmill. Cardio and conditioning have their place, but if time is your limiting factor I say ditch the cardio and grab yourself a barbell, some weights (a coach if needed), and take full advantage of those precious minutes.
* Trainer Dale Barr, who demonstrates the squat in these photos, teaches the squat based on the Mark Rippetoe method as outlined in his book Starting Strength.
Dale Barr, owner of d3 Fitness, is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE), as well as a Certified Venice Nutrition Coach and CrossFit Level I and CrossFit Endurance Coach. Dale and his wife Risa are raising two lively young boys in Annapolis. For more information, visit d3fitness.com.