The Return of the Back Squat

Thanksgiving aftermathI’ve noticed that when I sleep on my stomach, my lower right lumbar area gets sore. Even sleeping on either side can aggravate that tender area, but sleeping on my back doesn’t produce this effect.

So this morning, in the awful aftermath of Thanksgiving dinner, I woke up on my stomach and my back didn’t feel so good. I rolled over for a while and it felt fine enough for me to doze. But then I woke up and stayed awake for about an hour before deciding to get out of bed.

I kept tabs on my back’s condition as I went through my early morning routine, trying to decide between cardio and weights. Weights won. I’d already decided that last night when I outlined this morning’s workout in the weight room.

It was 18 degrees F (about -7.77778 degrees C) as I drove to the gym through the utter darkness. I pulled into the parking lot with 3 minutes to spare and saw that the gym’s lights were already on. I noticed some of the regulars had arrived but not all of them.

New gal at the reception desk. Guess that explains the extra mercy of not having to wait until right at 5 a.m. to get inside. Of course, the wall clocks in the gym do run a few minutes fast.

I’ve been referencing Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength, particularly the part that’s supposed to teach you how to “feel” when you have achieved a neutral spine and continuing to “feel” it when you squat and deadlift.

It’s still harder than it looks.

I’ve also been watching videos of people squat and deadlift who have good spinal mechanics, attempting to see how they change their head position throughout each lift. Sure, I can start out with a neutral spine, but the moment I start moving, I lose the continuous feel of how I’m supposed to move my body in a coordinated effort to maintain spinal neutrality.

That’s why I decided to give the back squat another shot this morning, to see if I could pull it off without another “tweak-attack”.

Let’s have a look at what I did, then, as usual, I’ll give you the blow-by-blow.

Back Squat in Squat Rack

8x 115lbs/52.1631kg
5x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 155lbs/70.3068kg
3x 185lbs/83.9146kg

Rack Pull in Squat Rack

10x 45lbs/20.4117kg
10x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 185lbs/83.9146kg
5x 205lbs/92.9864kg
5x 225lbs/102.058kg

Barbell Bench Press

8x 135lbs/61.235kg
8x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 155lbs/70.3068kg
5x 165lbs/74.8427kg
3x 175lbs/79.3787kg

bent over rows
Photo credit: sportsscience.co

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

10x 22.5lbs/10.20583kg
6x 25lbs/11.3398kg
6x 25lbs/11.3398kg
5x 30lbs/13.6078kg

Bent Over Barbell Row in Squat Rack

10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
6x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 155lbs/70.3068kg
5x 165lbs/74.8427kg

Spine-Supported Ab Crunch

x40
x40
x40

As you can see, I began light and remained relatively light throughout my 4 sets of squats. I wanted to start things out conservatively while attempting to use good (or at least adequate) spinal mechanics while getting down into the squat.

I think things went relatively well. I didn’t feel any pain during the squat or afterward as I pulled myself out from under the bar. But then again, at lighter weights, I might not be feeling the impact of inadequate form.

I also determined to do fewer reps in order to retain endurance, however, I was surprised at how difficult 185 pounds felt when I got to the bottom of the squat. I think this is telling me, in part, that I haven’t been going deep enough to become accustomed to how it feels at the bottom of the well, so to speak, and doing a fuller squat teaches me I may not be as strong as I think.

I figured I wouldn’t push it. This is the first week in a while when I’ve lifted three times between Monday and Friday instead of two.

On to rack pulls. Same goal. Start and maintain a neutral spine. My experience watching someone do deadlifts well the other day showed me that I need to use my legs more at the bottom of my rack pulls rather than try to ratchet the weight up with my lower back.

I practiced with just the bar at first, but going up to 135 pounds almost didn’t make a difference. By the time I got to 225 pounds though, it felt plenty heavy and I made myself stop rather than adding more plates. Time enough to return to building strength.

Although I don’t believe I have spinal issues while doing my bench press, I do want to be able to get the barbell closer to my chest at heavier weights. Although I can do 10 reps per set at 135 pounds, I restricted myself to preserve strength for later sets.

I was in for a slight surprise at the max weight of 175 pounds when, having lowered the bar toward my chest, it felt really difficult to push it back up again, hence limiting myself to only 3 reps.

I figured if I used my regular weights but fewer reps for my dumbbell shoulder press, I might have more left in me when I got the weight up to 30 pounds in each hand. Sure enough, I managed 5 reps on that last heavy (for me) set.

Actually, as I look back on Monday, I did 2 more reps on my first set, and the same number of reps and the same weight for the second and third sets. And yet, I was able to do one more rep at 30 pounds. I think because I wasn’t as tired by the time I got to this point in my workout, I had more muscle endurance.

I still had time to burn and my lats felt neglected, so, since no one was using the squat rack and there were only one or two other people in the free weight room, I went back and did “rack pull” style bent over rows.

I know, I did them just two days ago, but what the heck.

dumbbellsThis was the only one where I let myself go heavier than I did last time, well, besides the bench press, hitting a max weight of 165 pounds for 5 reps rather than 145 pounds for 6 reps.

I still had a few minutes left on the clock, and since I don’t want to make neglecting my abs a habit, I squeezed in 3 sets of spine-supported ab crunches. Yeah, my back still felt sore, but just like Wednesday, it wasn’t any better or worse at the end of my workout than it was at the beginning.

When I walked out of the gym into the frigid morning air, I wasn’t nearly as tired as I’ve been after other lift days. I broke a sweat by the time I was into rack pulls and was still sweating through my shoulder presses, but when I got home and looked in the mirror, my shirt seemed dry. I don’t know if I should be disappointed or not. Maybe I’m taking it too easy.

Where Do I Go From Here?

I like strength training. I like the idea of it. I like the promise that even a guy over 60 can become physically stronger, maybe a lot stronger, than most of my age-mates.

But I want to do that without continuing to risk another injury. I can avoid injury, apparently, by using fairly moderate weights, but that defeats the purpose of strongman lifts.

I’ve returned to the back squat but I’m still not sure if my form is actually better or not. For all I know, going beyond 185 pounds may yield undesirable results. Also, I’m using rack pulls instead of deadlifts, and I’m still not up to my max deadlift weight of 250 pounds, which should be (relatively) easier than deadlifts.

Options.

Return to the Mutant Strength plan.

I can go back and do what I’d been doing when I became injured, with the difference of using rack pulls instead of deadlifts, at least until I can do really heavy rack pulls in week five of the circuit. I might also continue substituting seated dumbbell shoulder presses for standing barbell presses to protect my spine.

Return to My 5×5 Routine.

I could go further back in time, so to speak, and do 5x5s with progressive overload, just to see where it would take me. I left 5x5s because I had hit functional limits on hack squats and deadlifts, but this time I wouldn’t be doing deadlifts, and I’d be doing back squats instead of hack squats.

Hack squats are heavily dependent on grip strength, and I was always in danger of losing my hold with my right hand when lifting a heavy barbell off the floor. With back squats, that’s not a problem, although it presents other challenges. My functional limit for hack squats, back in the day, was 205 pounds and for deadlifts it was 225. I’ve since done better with both.

I got the idea for the specific lifting exercises for those two routines from LeanItUp.com. Is it time to really change my game or maybe just clean it up a little?

Consulting Stronglifts.com, I could try their 5×5 plan, which is more basic than the one I’d been using. Of course, that would mean returning to doing the overhead press, and I’d still want to substitute rack pulls for deadlifts, for the time being anyway, so I wouldn’t get hurt again.

Regardless of which program I selected, I’d have to decide on my “starting” weights for each lift. If I go all “mutant” again, that means starting Circuit Four at Week 1 going slightly heavier than the following:

Barbell Back Squats in Squat Rack

10x 135lbs/61.235kg
10x 160lbs/72.5748kg
10x 175lbs/79.3787kg
10x 175lbs/79.3787kg

arnold squat
Photo credit: outlawfitnesshq.com

Barbell Bench Press

10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 125lbs/56.699kg
10x 140lbs/63.5029kg
10x 140lbs/63.5029kg

Barbell Bent Over Row

10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 125lbs/56.699kg
10x 140lbs/63.5029kg
10x 140lbs/63.5029kg

Cable Triceps Extension w/Rope

10x 55lbs/24.9476kg
10x 65lbs/29.4835kg
10x 75lbs/34.0194kg
10x 75lbs/34.0194kg

Pull ups (Bodyweight)

5x
5x
5x

Barbell Close Grip Bench Press

10x 95lbs/43.0913kg
10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 125lbs/56.699kg
10x 125lbs/56.699kg

Barbell Bent Leg Deadlifts

10x 145lbs/65.7709kg
10x 185lbs/83.9146kg
10x 205lbs/92.9864kg
10x 205lbs/92.9864kg

Barbell Overhead Press

10x 55lbs/24.9476kg
10x 60lbs/27.2155kg
10x 65lbs/29.4835kg
10x 65lbs/29.4835kg

Barbell Standing Curls

10x 55lbs/24.9476kg
10x 65lbs/29.4835kg
10x 75lbs/34.0194kg
10x 75lbs/34.0194kg

overhead press
Photo credit: buffdudes.us/

If I return to a 5×5 routine but using the same lifts, I’d probably need to start at the same or slightly heavier weights than the following, well, more or less:

Barbell Back Squats in Squat Rack

5x 155lbs/70.3068kg
5x 175lbs/79.3787kg
5x 200lbs/90.7185kg
5x 200lbs/90.7185kg

Barbell Bench Press

5x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 145lbs/65.7709kg
5x 160lbs/72.5748kg
5x 160lbs/72.5748kg

Barbell Bent Over Row

5x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 145lbs/65.7709kg
5x 160lbs/72.5748kg
5x 160lbs/72.5748kg

Cable Triceps Extension w/Rope

8x 60lbs/27.2155kg
6x 70lbs/31.7515kg
5x 90lbs/40.8233kg
5x 90lbs/40.8233kg

Pull ups (Bodyweight)

5x
5x
5x

Barbell Close Grip Bench Press

5x 115lbs/52.1631kg
5x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 140lbs/63.5029kg
5x 140lbs/63.5029kg

curls
Photo credit: YouTube.com

Barbell Bent Leg Deadlifts

5x 165lbs/74.8427kg
5x 205lbs/92.9864kg
5x 225lbs/102.058kg
5x 225lbs/102.058kg

Barbell Overhead Press

5x 60lbs/27.2155kg
5x 65lbs/29.4835kg
5x 70lbs/31.7515kg
5x 70lbs/31.7515kg

Barbell Standing Curls

8x 60lbs/27.2155kg
6x 70lbs/31.7515kg
5x 80lbs/36.2874kg
5x 80lbs/36.2874kg

Since I’d be doing 5 sets of 5 reps each at my working weight, I might have to adjust those weights downward a bit.

If I do a more “pure” 5×5 as suggested at Stronglifts, then I’d “only” be doing Squats, Bench Press, and Barbell Rows for Workout A and Squats, Overhead Press, and Deadlifts (or Rack Pulls) for Workout B. Absolutely no isolation work of any kind. No triceps extensions, curls, or even pull ups.

But none of these plans means that I’ll eventually become tremendously stronger or even marginally stronger than I am right now.

Frankly, lumbar tenderness aside, I can tell that even my modest workout from this morning made me sore. I can feel it in my traps, biceps, pecs, lats, glutes, quads, and hams.

And that’s another option. Stick with “Zero Circuit” and see where it takes me, going lighter when I feel like it and going heavier when I feel like it.

But practically everything I’ve read about both bodybuilding and strength training says that it’s important to have specific plans and goals. That doesn’t fit very well with “do what you feel.”

I’ll have to think about it. I need to land on a definite plan and work it for a while, seeing where it takes me. I need to figure out how to handle heavier weights and get stronger while not getting hurt.

Men are like steel, when they lost their temper, they lose their worth.

Chuck Norris

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5 thoughts on “The Return of the Back Squat

  1. I am far from an expert or even a good lifter but from what I have been reading in Mark Rippetoes books, the Eldery forum on the Starting Strength website and the book I bought Gray Hair and Black Iron by Brooks Kubick as we get to be men of a certain age we can lift with intensity but need to watch the volume and make sure to recover before the next work out. I am guilty myself of doing too much and not making progress. Some of the programs I have read about suggest doing squats and deadlifts once a week alternating each week. I may give this a try.

    Like

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