Starting Strength: Figuring out the Back Squat

starting strengthI’ve had Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Ed on hold at the local public library for months. Somehow, it was always checked out or otherwise unavailable. My wife says that people who hold a book at their local branch get preferential treatment. Technically, because I live in nearby Meridian, the Meridian branch of the library is my home branch and this book resides at the Boise Main branch.

Oh well, after waiting a very long time and almost giving up hope, I received an email notice late yesterday that it was ready to pick up and today, over my lunch hour, I laid my hands on the book and checked it out.

I went through Chapter 2: “Squats” looking for something specific (pg 43).

The key to learning the correct position for the lower back is to assume a position that is correct, and then memorize the way it feels so that you can reproduce it every time. The best way to do this is to lie down on your belly on the floor, put your hands behind your head, lift your elbows, and raise your chest up off the floor.

The instructions go on from there. I was momentarily tempted to try this at the library, but thought I’d probably draw some stares. Actually, in a number of ways, Rippetoe either mentions things about squats that the Starrett book omitted, or flat out contradicts Starrett.

For instance, Starrett has the person doing squats point his/her feet straight forward while Rippetoe insists on a 45 degree angle outward. Starrett recommends but doesn’t insist upon moving the knees outward, while Rippetoe says it’s a must to get them out of the way and promote the correct back angle.

Also, Rip hates the idea of having a mirror directly in front of the person squatting and says that looking down (not straight down, but at a shallow angle) also assists in correct positioning of the back.

With my lower right lumbar arguing with my squats and deadlifts, I’ll take all the advice I can get.

The single most useful thing in this book so far is what I mentioned above about finding the correct position of the lower back. Rip says that it’s impossible to see and nearly impossible to feel the correct position, which is why you have to practice and then memorize that feeling first. He says mirrors are useless because you can only see your front, which is the least useful angle to view and, the reflection of what’s going on behind you can be incredibly distracting (and boy, don’t I know it).

starting strength squat
From Rippetoe’s book “Starting Strength” 3rd Ed.

Another interesting thing is that the angle of the back changes depending on the type of squat you do, which means it should be different for back squats and for zercher squats (in his example, he compares back and front squats). The barbell should always be over the center of the feet during the entire progression of the squat.

This is something that I can’t tell while I’m squatting, but I suspect that I suffer from form problems and I’m hoping Rip’s suggestions help correct my deficits.

Since I lifted on Monday and since that resulted in my re-injuring my lower lumbar region, I wisely decided on cardio and light ab work today. I could tell I’d been neglecting my cardio because my heart rate went up a little higher than expected and didn’t get quite back down as low during the five-minute cooldown at the end.

I did 3 sets of Captain’s Chair leg lifts followed by 3 sets on a Weighted Ab Crunch machine to spare my lower back of too much strain. I’d forgotten to eat before going to the gym, and doing cardio first emptied my blood sugar reserves. As a consequence, I started to feel a little puny, and only did a 15-second shoulders engaged body hang followed by a 15-second dead hang. That was all I had in me this morning.

Captain's Chair
Captain’s Chair

Because of a number of commitments, I’m taking tomorrow off of work, which means I’ll probably sleep in a bit (hopefully) and either do abs and cardio again or just skip the gym altogether. I’m still planning on lifting again on Thursday, back be willing and I might even risk a few deadlifts (hopefully forcing myself to keep them light). I’ll probably substitute dumbbell bent over rows while bracing myself on a bench for my usual barbell bent over rows, again to spare my back.

Before Thursday, I’ll read Rip’s chapter on deadlifts to see what he suggests relative to lower back strain. The next chapter is on the overhead press and I can’t wait to see if there’s anything in those pages that’ll help me lift more weight (besides time, practice, and patience).

But before I do any of that, I have a dentist appointment after work today to remove a worn out crown and put a temp on until a permanent one can be made, and to replace an old, leaking silver filling (who knew I had one left) with ceramic. 70 minutes of fun-filled anxiety punctuated by piercing, shrieking pain (I’m exaggerating, but not by much).

Change has to come for life to struggle forward.

Helen Hollick

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6 thoughts on “Starting Strength: Figuring out the Back Squat

  1. I am glad you mentioned Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength. I have the book and his other book Practical Programing Edition 3. I have read the first book and find The PROGRAM is geared for novice lifters that plan on gaining strength on a linear progression system. After stalling there are many different programs described .I really have not done the program as it seems to be geared for younger people interested in gaining body weight. It promotes the drinking of a gallon of milk a day. I do frequent the forum at http://www.startingstrength.com, and even keep a log of my workouts there. What I have got from reading the programming book is elders need more time to recover. I am sure you will see that many of the followers WO much less than you have been doing,either doing less lifts and/or working out less often.I hope the back feels better. I have found after taking a week or so of rest,doing light weight SLDL have helped.

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  2. LOL, James 😊
    I have both books, anytime you want to borrow either or both, just stop and pick them up.

    KStarr/Rip have very different personal/writing styles. Rip posses a very dry sense of humor. KStarr is an energetic kind of guy that is infectious to be around.But the technical details are the important part. When they both agree on something, I take it very serious. When it’s a lumbar issue, I default to Dr Stuart McGill. Lately I have been doing some research on the ‘RehabPraque” also.

    Now let me say a couple of things you won’t like . . .

    1)All of them will tell you to stop weight lifting that soon after getting out of bed.

    2)All of them will tell you that you must stop the descent into the squat just before ‘butt wink’. I know both Elliot Hulse and Allan Thrall have said some butt wink is ok. I respectfully disagree based on these experts.

    You mentioned possibly the most glaring of the disagreement between Rip/KStarr. And the jury is still out for me.
    KStarr is adamant that the feet be parallel for the squat. He seems to be the only expert that says that.
    Btw, if you ever want to see an awesome front squat with toes REALLY pointed out, watch Svetlana Podobedova come up out of the hole during her clean. Or watch Dan Green doing Sumo DL’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @Jerry: Thanks for the link and advice. Had to Google “SLDL” since I’m not used to thinking of “stiff-legged deadlifts” as an acronym. 😉

    @Ono: Might be a long commute to pick up those books depending on where you live (no where near Idaho). The library’s working out for me pretty well.

    As far as not lifting so early, it’s the only time I have. I was talking with my dentist yesterday (I took the Rippetoe book with me to my appt) and the only time he gets a chance to lift is early morning as well. In his case, he works long days, and if he waited until after work, he’d get home after 9 at night. While that’s not exactly my problem, I’m pretty tired after a day at work, and after supper, I’m ready to wind down.

    Next time I squat, I’ll attempt to adapt Rip’s recommended style and see if that helps.

    @HSampson: You’re welcome.

    I just saw a short video of a 70 year old bodybuilder. He started lifting when he was 44 without any sort of training or idea of what he was doing. 11 months after first entering a gym, he was competing. Watching this guy lift at age 70 makes me wish I hadn’t slept in this morning.

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  4. As for the70 year old body builder, much of that has to do with genetics. I remember when I was a young kid about 12 I would go to my uncles commercial laundry in Brooklyn to work in the summer. One ting they did was wet wash,wash clothes for Chinese Laundry Services,and return them in cloth bags wet. One of the drivers Charlie Wilson,was built like the guy in the video. He sure never lifted weights, didnt eat good and drank plenty of beer. The other guys did the same work and looked like crap. So I guess it was genetics that made Charlie look like he did.

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