By Coach Geoff Ballard CSCS, Head of Strength and Conditioning
At East Side, whether you are a seasoned lifter, or a novice to Strength and Conditioning Training, the first lesson you will undergo is proper form in the Barbell Low Bar Back Squat. There are many reasons why a person should implement the Barbell Squat into their workout regimen, the most prominent being:
1) The Barbell Back Squat creates a stressed environment on the body that forces adaptation on both the muscular and neurological systems.
2) The Barbell Back Squat is the safest and most effective way to place the entire body into a stressed state while providing the most adaptation.
The sole purpose of exercising and lifting weight is to force the body into a stressed environment to elicit recovery responses that lead to adaptation and change. Whether your exercise of choice is running long distances or picking up Volkswagens, these adaptations occur both muscularly and neurologically. When we choose to run long distances for our exercise, our end goal is either to burn fat or increase cardiovascular thresholds. The response we see is a direct relation to the stress provided—we run 5 miles every day and eventually it becomes easier to run 5 miles. This happens for two reasons 1) the muscles of the leg used for locomotion become stronger and more prepared for long term stress 2) the neurological system becomes more efficient at utilizing fuel systems. The problem here in lies that the only stress we are placing on the body come from impact (foot striking the ground) below the hips and the spine. Running, while providing adaptation in the lower body, does not elicit response in the upper body (excluding the cardiovascular system).
Without becoming too scientific, the fastest way to force adaptation to the entire body is to force adaptation at the source of all movement, the spinal cord (Central Nervous System, truly). The spinal cord is the bridge-gap between what we want our body to do and how the body is going to do it, it is the input- output mechanism that controls every system in the body. Because it is the central component in change (hence the name Central Nervous System), stress must be placed directly onto it in order to force change to occur. If we want stronger muscles or a stronger heart, we must stress the target area in a manner that also stresses the Central Nervous System, CNS.
Continuing our talk of lower body and cardiovascular training (long distance running), if we want to strengthen our legs and heart, we must do so in a manner that also stresses the CNS. The Barbell Back Squat places load at the highest (safest) point possible on the CNS, the upper back. Being that the CNS stems from the brain, and we want to stress as close to the source as possible, it only makes sense that we try to place stress as close to the origin of the CNS as possible, right?
So, placing the bar on the top of the back is going to elicit the most response possible on the CNS, but how does it provide the most stress on the entire body? When done properly (keyword- properly), the barbell placed on the back becomes an extension of the body itself, an extra link in the chain. Our shoulders are engaged on the bar as a shelf for the load, our hands are engaged as a clamp forcing the bar tighter on our back, our low back is supporting the weight from the bar, and our legs are now forced into a position of holding more load than normal—this is known as Kinetic Chain. All of this external stress applied to the various components of the body allow us to place extreme amounts of load onto the CNS at the same time, placing the body in the most optimal and efficient of situations for change. The more efficient the Kinetic Chain, the more efficient the body adapts to the stressors.
What about the cardiovascular aspect? Again, without getting into too much science behind Ventilatory Thresholds and Energy systems, if we simply wish to increase cardio-respiratory response (breathing heavy during activity), we must apply stress to the CNS as well as the cardiovascular system. Running, yes increases VO2 max (if you don’t know, you don’t need to know), but most people do not need to worry about their VO2, instead they should worry about heart rate zones and training in optimal zones for cardio-respiratory response. What this truly means is that most people, in order to reap cardio-respiratory benefits, need to merely work out for sustained periods at an elevated heart rate. Squatting with a barbell on your back does this. We are already under the impression that we are stressing the CNS in the most optimal way possible just holding a bar, but as we begin to move this bar, every muscle engaged (all of them) now has a higher demand for blood and oxygen supply. There are very few different activities that the body in such a high demand. Because of the nature of the squat engaging the entirety of the CNS below the bar, and all of the recruitment of the body’s systems, we are now able to elevate the heart rate to high enough levels to elicit incredible cardio-respiratory responses, in a shorter time period and much more energy efficient manner (i.e. work smarter, not harder).
But let’s not forget the muscular benefits of squatting. Squatting with a barbell, like we covered earlier, places the bar in a manner to make it an extension of the body. It is now an extra body part that we can manipulate to make us stronger—it is a part of our Kinetic Chain. Now, every portion of the body that we just discussed as being stressed in the placement of the bar is under load. Every muscle of the body is completely engaged when we properly squat. Again, the Kinetic Chain: our hands are wedging the bar down onto our shoulders, our arms are contracting to create a solid lever helping the bar remain a solid unmovable limb of the body, our shoulders are retracting and contracting to provide the shelf for the bar, our chest is being elevated by a contracted diaphragm, our abdominals and lumbar spine are contracting to maintain a stable unit for hip hinging, our hips and legs are contracting to actively lower and raise the bar. Every single muscle below the head is being engaged, IN ONE EXERCISE. Now as we move this bar against gravity, each and every muscle engaged is forced to respond through the CNS and elicit change. This change occurs because the body want to remain at rest, or in this sense, a state that is unstressed—i.e. it wants to feel normal and have a balanced Kinetic Chain. As a more stressed environment is placed on the CNS, or we simply add weight to a bar, the CNS wants to make this “feel” as normal as possible, so it adapts to the stress and becomes more efficient at dealing with it. What does that mean in terms of squat? It means the body adapts itself to become stronger simply for the sake of making it easier to support the bar you have placed on your back.
Now, as we increase technical prowess, strength increases and our squatting ability will increase. This is why we teach the squat first: We set up the body at the very beginning with the best chances of success by placing it in the most optimal of situations. We teach each person how to actively engage every muscle in one movement, this way, more technical movements become easier to learn. We will discuss later on the proper form that we teach and how we go about actively engaging every muscle in the squat, but this is why we do it. It allows us to apply the most stress to the body, in the safest and most effective way possible, utilizing the most amount of muscle to move the most amount of weight, and creating the most adaptation and change.
We teach you to Barbell Back Squat first because it gives you the best foundation to enact change to your body. We teach the Barbell Back Squat first because it helps you optimize your potential to reach your goals.