A Strong Base: They’re Counting On Us (Part 2)

by Jonathon Cabot:

“I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”
–Bruce Lee

We can learn a lot from children. One lesson we can definitely afford to learn, or rather relearn, is natural mobility. Have you ever watched the way a toddler moves, one who has just mastered getting around on his own two feet? The next time you have the chance to observe children at this early stage, pay particular attention to the way in which they squat down. Without any coaching, they know instinctively to keep the knees lined up correctly, back straight, and go hamstrings all the way down to the calves deep. They can pretty much do this all day, even comfortably remaining in that seated position for quite a while, and then they just stand back up whenever the spirit moves.

Quick quiz, and it doesn’t even require a #2 pencil. Go ahead and stand up. Now, while keeping your legs straight, bend at the waist, and lower yourself down until you touch your toes. Stand up straight again, spread your feet a little wider than shoulder width, and squat down as low as you can, until the back of your upper legs come to rest on your calves.

There is no reason that any of us should be unable to do either of these tasks, barring serious crippling disability. Yet so many of us in the free world can’t. Why is this? What happened to us between infancy and our present state that caused us to lose this capability? This is a much bigger deal than we might think. Maintaining our basic mobility and full range of motion as we age is probably the best insurance policy we’ve got when it comes to preventing injury and strain, and to echo the main theme of the last week’s article, it’s one of those fundamentals that might just make us less of a liability when the world comes crashing down.

Now then, how are we going to incorporate some good leg-specific training into our lives, and what sort of equipment are we going to need to get started? If we were to return to that standard commercial gym at a peak hours, what would we see our fitness contemporaries doing in order to work their lower limbs? It’s entirely possible there would only be a handful of them hitting up the legs, if there were any at all (this tends to ring especially true for the male of the species, as the lower body takes a distant backseat to the pursuit of pumped up biceps and a big bench press). There might be one or two gym members hitting their quads on the leg extension machine, and maybe one other performing hamstring curls on another rig in the vicinity. If we’re really in luck, there might be a Spandex-clad gym bunny seated on the overgrown Thigh Master, repeatedly bringing her knees together and opening them up, often to the discreet approval of any of her fellow gym-goers with a direct line of sight. There’s a veritable smorgasbord of these contraptions to choose from. Curiously, the simple and sinister looking squat rack stands alone and vacant, with the possible exception of the occasional doofus standing inside of it, performing bicep curls with a barbell.

Here’s what it pretty much boils down to. We can go the machine route, and attempt to “isolate” each muscle group in our lower body (once more, the notion of “muscle isolation” is neither possible nor desirable), or we can do the efficient thing–working all of these big muscles at once and developing their coordination as a unit rather than a collection of unrelated hunks of meat by learning to squat properly.

Once again, I’m not going to attempt to reinvent the wheel here. This gent does a pretty good job of demonstrating what we’re after.

As for any additional commentary from me on this video, I would encourage trainees to follow a slower cadence than this particular demonstrator. As suggested previously with pushups, I’d recommend the two seconds down/one second pause on the bottom/two seconds back up pace. Slow and smooth is the name of the game for this kind of strength building. Also, I would ask that the trainee either wears a very thin soled, non-giving pair of shoes (wrestling shoes, Chuck Taylors or similar styles, or even some of those trendy “5-Finger” thingees that are so en vogue these days), or else works the squat barefooted. As a guideline, “the smarter the shoe = the dumber the foot.” Our fancy sneakers have a tendency to cause injuries during strength training sessions that would likely not have happened without them. As simply as I can put it, the extensor reflex interacts with our legs muscles in a specific way, and this depends on the feedback pressure we get from the floor. Thick soles tend to redirect this pressure to the wrong places, and it messes with the way the system should be firing.

How far can we take the bodyweight squat? Pretty far. Seems that back in the early days of mixed martial arts competition, 500 consecutive reps was a standard expectation from the fighters. For our purposes, I’d suggest building ourselves up to the point where we can nail 50 good squats at that 2-1-2 cadence. Once this is doable for a couple sets, it’s time to up our game and move on to a harder variation of the drill. From thighs parallel to the deck, progress lower, ultimately hamstrings to calves at the point where we can no longer descend. While some folks may shy away from doing so, unless there is some sort of pre-existing condition in the trainee, the harsh truth is that if we are afraid to train our joints through their full range of natural motion, they’re going to stay weak.

Our daily TV viewing would be an ideal time to get our numbers in. We could start by repping out during the commercial breaks. Each time, aspire to keep squatting at the slow proscribed cadence until the show returns (or 50 good ones have been reached, whichever comes first–no idea how long commercials run for these days…..). When we reach the point where we can knock off three sets of 50 during a half hour show, resting during the commercial breaks, we’re ready to move on up.

For those who may be worrying about bulking up, fear not–this plan isn’t going to do much, if anything at all, for hypertrophy (increasing the size of a muscle). To the handful of folks who may be aspiring hugeness and are willing to hear me out on the matter, I wouldn’t recommend this pursuit in the case of our legs. The upper and lower body just don’t play by the same rules on this one. There comes a point when we can still add mass to our leg muscles, but we won’t really be gaining in the actual strength or speed departments any longer. Granted, some of us might be totally okay with that, if our primary motivation is purely aesthetics. But for the majority of us, unless each additional ounce on our frames is making us faster or stronger, it ain’t quality weight. Superfluous mass with no benefit can not only be a hinderance to us (think of our pullup numbers for one thing, and for individuals that need to do a lot of hiking, chafing thighs are absolutely no fun), but it’s also liable to make things even tougher for our would-be rescuer if we ended up being the one in need of saving. You can ask any soldier that found himself having to fireman’s carry one of his bodybuilder comrades plus all of his gear from A to B.

After mastering the full range of motion squat, where do we go from there? How do we keep improving our lower body strength and resiliency while adhering to the conceit of having nothing to play with but our own weight? At this stage, we’ve developed the strength base to start mastering single leg squatting.

When you achieve this strength feat (and keep at it), you will never lose the spring in your step. When even single leg squats become easy, maybe once you’re busting out 20+ good reps each leg, the motion can be made challenging once again with the addition of holding a weight in your hands, if you feel so inclined. Still, I would suggest working up to a long set of 50 per leg (it’s achievable–dedicated men have been known to break into tripe digits), and putting those newly earned hot wheels of yours to use in events like sprinting, jumping, or kickboxing rather than chasing a certain external poundage. Once more, the upper and lower bodies just don’t play by the same rules here. Nearly all competitive powerlifters are plagued with chronic aching sooner or later. I’d much prefer my charges not have to learn to live with constant pain.

Need to run faster? Jump higher? Kick harder? Contrary to the implications of the sneaker commercials of my day, it’s not “da shoes.” For across the board strength and quickness, get squatting already. If you’re hesitant to start, due to some type of old injury, get yourself fixed up already. In a lot of cases, it can be as simple as a same day, in and out surgical procedure or a few days/weeks of physical therapy. GET IT DONE. Someone is counting on you.

Let’s be careful out there.

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