The Work of Squatting

In late 2017, squatting—that most basic of human movements—drove me into a state of analysis paralysis. Years earlier, I had squatted, rolled, and jumped with what seemed like the greatest of ease. The back squat, which I performed once or twice a month as a mere accessory to sports-specific training, gave me little concern.

But when I commenced serious powerlifting training in my late 20s, that changed. I realized that my squat form sucked. Each part of the movement suffered from significant mechanical flaws. No squat could go low enough; no repetition struck me as true, pure, perfect.

When I was a child, I trained like a child. I trained for wrestling the way my father had taught me, by repeating sport-specific skills. Everett Lake, a turn-of-the-century Harvard football player who went on to become Connecticut’s 67th governor in 1921, refined his vaunted gridiron technique not by sprinting or lifting weights, but by spending hours each day holding training partners at arm’s length, thereby strengthening his feared stiff arm.

I learned to wrestle along similar lines: fighting for underhooks until my forearms became coated with bruises, tossing around grappling dummies until they came apart at the seams, Granby rolling to my heart’s content, and otherwise merging practice and competition. Weights, at most, served an auxiliary function. While I posted some impressive numbers on the bench and deadlift, at least by teenage-meathead standards, my form remained sloppy and untutored. Then again, I wasn’t trying to be the best at exercising, so I didn’t care.

 

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Oliver Bateman still does his sport-specific training, including neck bridges with a 100-pound dumbbell.

Flash forward to 2009, when I began committing significant time and effort to powerlifting and strongman training. I had already dabbled in CrossFit, helping to launch the University of Pittsburgh’s Panther CrossFit affiliate, yet grew to detest the so-called “sport of fitness” and the nagging overuse injuries that went with it. Eager to try something else, I turned to my dog-eared copy of strength coach Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, an entertaining albeit logorrhea-afflicted work, and decided to see how far I could get by following Rippetoe’s methods.

The form corrections and interventions Rippetoe recommended for the bench press and deadlift yielded immediate results. True powerlifting fans and stans will, of course, no-rep every single lift they’ve ever seen—nothing is ever good enough for them—but my deadlifts and bench presses earned their fair share of thumbs-ups and white lights from the judges. These lifts might not have always been things of beauty, but I had no serious doubts about my ability to complete them. Even on my worst day, at my lowest body weight, I could pull 600 pounds off the ground or let 365 pounds rest on my chest. Perhaps I could move more than that with chemical assistance, but those numbers seemed plenty heavy to me. 

 

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Oliver Bateman squats 415 pounds for reps.

The squat was another matter. I had grown up high-barring the barbell, which necessitated an exceedingly vertical back angle to accommodate the bar’s placement higher atop my shoulders. This limited the impact of the spring from the hamstrings on my recovery at the bottom of the lift, placing all the effort on my glutes and adductors, so my working sets were frequently performed with weights little better than what I used on the bench press. I hadn’t even considered the low-bar position until reading Rippetoe’s book, although its advantages became immediately apparent: by recruiting the posterior chain and the hamstrings, I could apply greater force and thereby lift more weight. 

At least initially, this seemed like a panacea. But Rippetoe’s body of work, and the work of the innumerable other strength coaches pawing around in this realm, went far beyond matters of bar positioning, hip angle, and knee angle. No, even as I progressed to working sets with 405 pounds, and then 455 pounds, I began to suffer shoulder pain—I had naturally tight shoulders, kept my hands in too close on the barbell, and consistently missed the “shelf” between the rear delts and the spine of the scapulae on which the bar rests. As my shoulder pain intensified, I began going through months-long periods during which I would either cease benching and overhead pressing or desist from squatting. 

With the assistance of able powerlifters such as Rendy Delacruz and Johnnie Jackson at Dallas’ world-renowned Metroflex Gym, I ironed out most of those imperfections between 2013 and 2015. But more problems arose: excessively deep squats exacerbated hip pain that originated during years of pointless endurance exercises like half marathons and 20,000-meter rows, and duck-footed squatting, still the optimal method for moving maximum amounts of weight, placed too much of an oblique load on my flat feet.

When I interviewed Cal State Fullerton bioenergetics professor Andy Galpin, he recommended I keep my feet straight but externally rotate my hips, thereby aligning my heel with the Achilles tendon and my heel cord with the calf. And YouTube powerlifting coach Alan Thrall directed me to a video he had produced about his own decision to arrest the descent of his squats as soon as his hips passed his knee crease, rather than going “ass-to-grass” and in spite of possessing the anthropometry to easily achieve extraordinary depth. 

No Utopias in the Gym

If this sounds like a lot of inside baseball . . . well, it is. There’s no getting around it. And this wasn’t even related to something as serious as Olympic lifting, merely my obsessive overthinking of the most technical of the power lifts. In the midst of these form corrections, all of this videotaping of myself squatting, I deemed myself not so much inadequate as incompetent. I could flip 1,000- and 1,200-pound tires with no trouble at all. Why, then, was I struggling in my pursuit of the perfect back squat, the back squat that existed only in some kind of Bro Plato’s “heaven of good lifting form”? 

Of course, I also understood that anthropometry equaled destiny; I had read the literature on the subject. My dimensions weren’t ideal: I had a 34-inch inseam, on a 5-foot 11-inch frame, and much of that inseam length could be found in my femur bones. On top of that, X-rays taken for unrelated reasons showed that I lacked the thin femoral neck and slight femoral anteversion that allowed people like Alan Thrall “drop it like it’s hot” without any injury risk and to occasional “oohs” and “aahs” from the dozen or so people, usually otherwise-disinterested friends and family members, who comprised the peanut gallery at most local powerlifting events. 

In 2017, I called a halt to all this navel-gazing, all this whinging about what did and didn’t constitute a perfect squat. Such a line of thought led inevitably to utopia, a “no-place”: “the real squat has never been tried, and it never will be.” Instead, I returned to the Enchiridion of Epictetus—drawn to it during my teenage years after reading James Stockdale’s equally brief and similarly poignant Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior—and considered the opening sentence: “some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” Among the former were “opinions, impulses, desires, aversions—whatever is our own doing.” Our bodies, by contrast, were not up to us. “If you think that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset.” 

I was all of those things: thwarted, miserable, and upset. To make matters worse, I had recently changed careers and was settling into a corporate job light years removed from my prior career in academia. Many years earlier, I took pride in running fast and jumping high, realizing my spontaneity and proving my powers in athletic competition. I could still do all of those things, in some cases even better than I had done them decades before, so why did the squat bedevil me? Why couldn’t I let this lift go? I could squat 500 to parallel if my life depended on it; wasn’t that sufficient? 

As I considered all this, I finally understood many strange practices I had previously ignored and laughed off. Why did old men gorge themselves with steroids and growth hormones to resemble the jocks they never were? Why, for that matter, would other old men sacrifice everything to recover their lost or receding hairlines? And, weirder still, why were people willing to spend vast sums of money to align their bodies with whatever identity they wanted to flaunt before the world at large, such as “cat man” or “trans-species reptilian?”

I was miles removed from descending this slippery slope, but I had drifted far enough down that I could see into the slough of despond below. Why, I had once wondered, did mentors of mine like law professor Richard Stith devote so much of their lives to addressing questions of bodily integrity, acceptance, and wholeness? I now understood why, for Stith among others, maintaining this emphasis on a single human identity shared from the moment of conception—rather than indulging myriad a la carte identities an inescapable marketplace culture impelled us to purchase—represented an issue of paramount importance. 

The Weight of Nature

For a brief moment in my consideration of the back squat, that hardest and most technical of the power lifts, I let my mind wander to unwelcome places. I entertained the thought that I might gladly sacrifice everything, and for no clearly intelligible reason, to squat 1000-plus pounds with the skill and savvy of 400-pound super heavyweight lifter Ray Williams. That would prove something to my own harshest critic—myself—at whatever costs I had to pay. 

This was a new development. Through all of the stages on my life’s way, I had never grappled with insecurity like that. Everything I wanted to do came easily enough, or could be ignored and left alone. I focused my attention on what was up to me and let go of what was not up to me. But here, with regard to the back squat, I had desperately wanted to do better—to “be best,” in the words of our previous first lady. 

Fortunately for me, this was still a small matter, overcome with modest difficulty. I centered myself, chose to recommit to functional athletic strength training over powerlifting, and moved on with my life, which has only improved since this crisis of confidence. 

I couldn’t be a perfect powerlifter, even if I had been a perfectly fine one. Perfection wasn’t up to me, yet I grasped why people would pay to make it so. Wouldn’t it have been just peachy keen to see videos of myself squatting 1,000 pounds “ass-to-grass,” impressing a bunch of nobodies on social media with my efforts? These hypothetical nobodies, of course, were literal nothings in and of themselves. They couldn’t be real people even if this weren’t a hypothetical; they could serve no purpose besides notification-creators whose “likes” transformed my timeline into a mirror reflecting the greatness of my custom-built self back at me. 

To me, alas, it wouldn’t have been at all peachy keen—it would’ve been hell on earth, full stop. My decision to squat will always be something that is up to me, but what my body can do with the squat after that decision has been made is not up to me. In this time of Build-a-Bear selves, with every superficial quality or quantity available for purchase in the marketplace, I’d much rather stay at home and load a heavy barbell on my back, screwing my feet into the ground while accepting the weight of the natural constraints under which I must labor, for as long as I live. 

About Oliver Bateman

Oliver Bateman is a journalist and historian who lives in Pittsburgh. He is a contributing writer to the Ringer, MEL Magazine, and Splice Today. He also serves as co-host of the “What’s Left?” podcast. Visit his website: www.oliverbateman.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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