I May Not Know Diddley,
But I Know Squat!

A Primer for Beginners in the Squat

written by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D., MSS, International Sports Sciences Association

My youngest son, Beau, has a sign in his room which reads Beau knows Squat. I like it! ĎCourse, itís a play off the olí Bo Jackson thing, but I donít care. I know Beau, and I donít know Bo. And, Bo doesnít know Squat!

Humor me once more. See, I used to be pretty good at squatting. Eleven hundred pounds ainít a bad squat, no? You might say that I too -- ahem -- know squat!

Ok, ok! Iíll spare you. Problem is, the doctors donít care, the coaches donít think, the athletes donít have time, the bodybuilders donít want to know, the sports scientists writing about squatting donít have the in-the-trenches experience to really know.

And I donít understand. Why someone just doesnít TELL them why squatting is the one exercise that EVERYONE (bodybuilders, athletes, kids, your Mamma) ought to do. I tried to do it once back in Ď85 with an article in Sports Fitness, a magazine that I launched for Joe Weider. That magazine metamorphosed into what is now known as Menís Fitness. In that ten year old article, I wrote about a few myths associated with squatting that seemed persistent back then:

Myth #1: Squats are bad for the knees.
Myth #2: Squats are bad for the spine.
Myth #3: Squats are dangerous to the heart.
Myth #4: Squats slow you down.

Well, these four myths, it seems, are still somewhat alive. However, others have arisen that are even more troublesome. And, you know what? This time, the sources and perpetuators of the myths are from the ranks of several muscle mags!

Well, itís a tough job, but Iím gonna give it my best shot. Iíll tackle these myths -- and the old ones -- one by one. You pencilnecks out there who disagree with me (anyone who disagrees with me on the issue of squatting has GOTTA be a pencilneck) on these squat issues, do me a favor. Put up or shut up. Letís see some science for a change, not just jabberwocky and claptrap.

And, please! Get this once and for all! Marketing fitness to the masses does NOT have to include making it palatable for the newly initiated by saying things like, "Beginners shouldnít do squats, or any of the other myths listed."

I know better. More importantly, the 42 ladies who participated in a 12 week research project I conducted all LOVED squats. All were chronically obese, 40-70 years old, and none had ever trained before in their lives. My son, Beau -- heís six -- loves to squat. Every athlete Iíve ever coached squatted and loved the outcomes. How come it is that elite weightlifters, powerlifters and shot putters -- all of whom squat -- vertical jump higher and run a 5 meter dash faster than any other class of athletes in any sport? Including high jumpers and sprinters?

Myth #1: Squats are bad for the knees.
Just as calluses build up on the hands with the application of stress, ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues thicken in response to the stress imposed upon the joints during weight training. Also, strengthening the muscles that move the knee joint improves its stability, and thereís some evidence that even the portion of the bone into which the tendons insert becomes stronger, further improving the jointís integrity.

Relaxing the muscles while in a rock-bottom position is improper and hazardous. The relaxed muscles allow the knee joint to separate slightly, placing the ligaments and cartilage under stress that may exceed their tensile strength. While proper stress produces adaptation, overly stressful exercise can cause breakdown of bodily tissue.

Myth #2: Squats are bad for the spine.
If performed with a relatively straight back, the weight is borne directly over the spinal column, and torque as well as shearing force is minimized. Weight training is supposed to strengthen the supportive tissues of the body (bones, muscles and connective tissues). So wear a belt when the weight is heavy and reps are low, but stay away from such supportive devices otherwise.

Beginners often find squats uncomfortable for the neck (the cervical spine) because of the pressure of the bar resting there. Youíll get used to it. In the meantime, it doesnít hurt to pad the bar with a towel or piece of rubber. Me? I prefer the padded yolk of the Safety Squat Bar. Ok, so Iím a whimp! I donít like unnecessary discomfort!

Myth #3: Squats are dangerous to the heart.
Many weight-training exercises restrict blood flow because of prolonged muscular contraction. The result is elevated blood pressure. The condition isnít dangerous and itís temporary. The heart, like every other muscle in the body, responds to stress by adapting to it. In time, the cardiovascular system is strengthened through weight training.

Squats can sometimes tax the heart to dangerous limits, however. My blood pressure rocketed to 220 over 130 or more during a set of squats. That can be rough on the olí ticker if your ticker needs tinkering! People suffering from coronary disease will find heavy squats more taxing than beneficial. In most cases in which a prior condition existed that would have precluded heavy training, a qualified sports physician could, with careful screening, prevent these kinds of accidents. All athletes as well as fitness enthusiasts who want to train with weights should see a good sports physician before embarking on a stressful training program.

Myth #4: Squats slow you down.
Itís well known among exercise physiologists that the stronger the muscle is, the faster it contracts, particularly against resistance. An athleteís running and jumping ability can only be enhanced through the development of great leg strength.

There. That takes care of the old myths that I wrote about a decade ago. Look back, and youíll see that very little has changed in my rebuttals to these early myths. Some science is as good today as it was yesterday.

Here are some of the more recent ďopinions I read and hear about squats. The really funny thing is that many of them contradict one another! At least ten years ago perpetuators of myths were together in their belief that squats were bad for you. Nowadays, there are so many new ďchiefs (self-proclaimed gurus who, in fact, arenít qualified or well informed enough to hold an opinion on much of anything, let alone squatting!) that one wonders where all the Indians went!

New Myth #1: Only powerlifters need to do squats.
There are many forms of squatting, each having unique benefits and applications. The powerlifting style of squatting is the best way to lift limit tonnage. Itís also the most dangerous because of the immense shearing forces placed on the lumbar spine. For your information, though, itís only dangerous for those powerlifters who never learned how to periodize their training. The ONLY time I ever did powerlifting style squats was right before a competition (6-8 weeks out). Otherwise, I did several of the other varieties of squats, depending upon where I was in my cycle and what my training objectives were at the time.

Here are the noteworthy variations to the squat movement that have been employed over the years:

All are good, all have their unique benefits, and at least one or two should ALWAYS be incorporated into all mesocycles of your leg training regimen, regardless of whether youíre just an average Mrs. Jones looking for fitness or Quadzilla. It just depends upon what your objectives are.

New Myth #2: Since no athlete in any sport moves vertically up and down with a load on their shoulders, thereís no reason for athletes ever to do squats. Theyíre just not sport-specific.

Good observation, although not entirely logical. Any good strength coach knows that there is a general movement away from general movements to more specific movements as the competition season gets nearer and nearer. Straight up-and-down squats are done in the off-season. They give way to lunge squats, side lunge squats, Bear squats and finally the ultimate form of squatting for most athletes -- twisting squats.

Didnít know that? It doesnít surprise me. You donít know squat!

New Myth #3: Bodybuilders will get bigger, more cut quads with leg extensions, and theyíll get bigger, more cut hams with leg curls. So they donít need squats.

I recognize the need for other leg exercises in a bodybuilders routine. Leg curls and leg extensions are great, but donít get the idea that they are how bodybuilders get cuts! DIET provides the cuts. As for squatting, well, let me give you words of wisdom from Jeff MADDOG Madden, the ISSA-certified strength coach for the University of North Carolina.

Down the road, in a gym far away
A young man was heard to say,
"No matter what I do, my legs wonít grow!"
He tried leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses too.
Trying to cheat, these sissy workouts heíd do!
From the corner of the gym where the big guys train,
Through a cloud of chalk and the midst of pain,
Where the big iron rides high, and threaten lives,
Where the noise is made with big forty-fives,
A deep voice bellowed as he wrapped his knees,
A very big man with legs like trees,
Laughing as he snatched another plate from the stack,
Chalked his hands and monstrous back,
Said, "Boy, stop lying and donít say youíve forgotten!"
Trouble with you is you ainít been SQUATTINí!
ĎNuff said.

New Myth #4: The ONLY way to get big legs is to squat.

Squatting provides the greatest amount of adaptive stress to the greatest number of major muscles in the upper leg. That simply means more bang for the buck. More effect for the effort. But donít get the idea that squatting is all you have to do to get big legs!

Thereís many other exercises (listed already), that are necessary, but theyíre to be regarded as auxiliary to squatting! Why? Read Maddogís poem again!

New Myth #5: Narrow stance for the vastus lateralis sweep.
While the inner and outer quads are activated via separate neural input, they function as a single unit for most intents because 1) the origin points of 3 of the quads are so close together, 2) they share a common insertion and 3) the quads span such a long bone. There may be a bit of differentiation possible through foot placement, but not so much that overall size takes a back seat to whatever meager shape changes you can effect.

Get big, and hope that the good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, gave you the genes necessary to have that pleasing "sweep" bodybuilders favor.

New Myth #6: Squats will give you a broad butt.
First, re-read my response to New Myth #5. Add to that bit of wisdom the fact that gluteal development is more often a genetic thing. Look at Tom Platz! No hammer there! Lots of guys and gals squat without getting big butts. Wide, intermediate or narrow, it doesnít really make that much difference.

On the other hand, no advantage is ever gained by going real wide (beyond, say, 24-36 inches wide) for anyone other than powerlifters. So keep your stance somewhere inside 24 inches or so, and youíll do great.

New Myth #7: Hack squat machines, Smith machines, leg press machines and the amazing plethora of other leg machines the past 30 years have witnessed are all safer than squats, and just as effective. So why even bother with the old fashioned squat?

Folks, squint your eyes and watch as someone does hack squats. Likewise for leg presses. Tell me what you see! Visualize that person standing on the floor and doing the precise same movement with the precise same body position. What do you see?

An unbelievably funky lookiní squat that isnít much good for much of anything.

Now, thatís not to say that while in the machine (instead of standing on the floor doing the same movement) itís a worthless exercise! Hack squats have value. So do sissy squats. So do leg presses. Most you us who live in the trench know them all. But donít tell me that they can take the place of squats! They are to be considered auxiliary to squats. Only during injury are they ever to be considered replacements for squats.

Proper technique for the Bodybuilderís Squat

Squatting Technique

In disproving the more persistent myths about squats, weíve exposed some of the more important points off proper technique. For example, itís clear that there are several ways to perform the squat, but you must identify your training objectives for the cycle youíre in before choosing the technique.

Powerlifters, for instance, use a technique during competition that in no way resembles the one bodybuilders or athletes should use in training. But non-powerlifters are often guilty of mimicking that contest technique because more weight can be hoisted. The feet are spread beyond shoulder width, and the thighs barely break parallel when the lift is completed. The bar is carried as far down the back as rules permit, just below the deltoid muscles, and a considerable amount of forward lean is used to allow the legs to share the load with the gluteus and hamstring muscles. The weight distribution and better leverage afforded by the bar position and wider stance allow the powerlifter to squat with as much as 20 percent more weight than the upright technique allows.

Athletes have their own particular way of squatting, although the difference is not so much in position as it is in speed of movement. Athletes interested in developing explosive power (for jumping, running, kicking, tackling and the like) typically use explosive movements in their weight training, particularly in squatting.

This is referred to as compensatory acceleration training, and it requires that maximum effort be exerted against the bar throughout the entire range of motion. For example, near the top of a squat movement, the weight is easier to move because of improved leverage. Athletes compensate for the improved leverage by accelerating the bar, thereby applying maximum overload in the full range of motion. Such explosiveness also leaves you with an amount of learning-- training explosively literally teaches the athlete to be more explosive.

So what constitutes good squatting technique? This booklet sets down the important points of proper squatting form for athletes in all sports. But the theory behind the technique tips isnít all that simple. For example, what about the isolation principle? This important theory states that it will be easier to apply adaptive overload if a muscle is isolated. Implicit is the notion that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Relating this analogy to anatomical terms, if a group of muscles act to move a weight, the strength of the movement can be measured by the strength of the weakest muscle in the group. While the stronger muscles in the group may get some benefit, the overall gain to the group will be minimal.

This would appear to be a strong argument in favor of the leg curl and leg extension exercises over squats for overall leg development. But is it really? Because of the peculiar arrangement of the leg musclesí insertion and origin points (three of the quadriceps and 2 of the hamstrings span two joints, the hip and knee), itís impossible to get sufficient intensity of effort during maximum isolation movements, such as leg curls and leg extensions. The leverages involved in squatting generate more intensity of effort than do the isolation movements, and overload is more easily achieved. It takes both intensity and isolation to maximize the benefits of overload. The squatís efficient mix of isolation and intensity will yield improvements in both size as well as strength much faster than will any other leg exercises.


Despite the fact that they have been much maligned by (pencilneck) physicians who rarely have the opportunity to observe "healthy" people (they usually only see sick people), squats are the single most effective leg exercise ever conceived. This is true whether your training goals are those of a bodybuilder, power athlete, endurance athlete or fitness freak. For powerlifters, they're obviously an integral part of the sport.

In all honestly, however, and in deference to the good docs who eschew squats, they have to be done VERY carefully.

So, without disregarding those of you who squat for basic leg strength or size, I shall direct my attention to off-season squat training for my brothers and sisters of Irondom, the powerlifters.

High-Bar Squats
To work best -- with the utmost safety and effectiveness -- your off-season squats must be done with an upright torso, with knees not extending beyond your feet in order to protect the integrity of the tissues comprising your knee joint. Despite what some of the purists among you may believe, I strongly advise you NOT to "bury" your off-season squats so deep that you inflict trauma to your knee joints rep after rep. Remember, your contest style squats are performed in such a way that your knee joints are as close to 90 degrees as possible. So why train beyond that during the off-season?

You should go to a depth necessary to stimulate maximum quadriceps contraction, but not so deep that 1) your knees are traumatized, or 2) hyperflexion of your lumbar spine exposes you to serious back injury. Descend to a depth where your thighs are approximately parallel to the floor.

Well before contest day -- around 6-8 weeks out -- you must turn to the more effective contest technique of distributing the weight to your hips, hams, back and quads.

Despite the fact that your off-season training requires them, conventional straight bar squats (called "Olympic" or "Bodybuilding" squats) have several inherent disadvantages:

  1. The chance of leaning forward or rounding your back under heavy loads is always a problem
  2. Falling off balance forward or backward also jeopardizes your safety during heavy squatting
  3. Your shoulder girdle, shoulders, wrists and elbows often take a beating holding the straight bar firmly in position
  4. Missing a squat attempt is something which happens to all of us from time to time, often with dire consequences
  5. Discomfort to the back of the neck (typically at the 7th cervical vertebra) where the bar sits is a problem we all shrug off as part of the game
  6. Individual anatomical peculiarities often make it extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to assume the most efficient stance in order to derive maximum benefit from squats
  7. Not being able to squat because of the lack of competent spotters has been one of my personal gripes
  8. Perhaps the most dangerous part of squatting is the need to take several steps backward to set up, and then return to the rack after squatting. This factor alone accounts for over 75 percent of all squatting-related injuries!

Despite these problems, all of us put up with them and get on with the business of learning good technique, taking proper precautions, and doing what we know is best for us. We squat no matter what, because, it has always been thought of as best to do so. That we've gotten by and made progress with conventional squats is due in no small measure to the fact that squats are a necessary part of our training. It's what we do.

Of course, the ubiquitous pencilnecks who suffer an injury will opt to completely eliminate squatting from their training. But impassioned powerlifters -- those of you with more than half a brain and more than your fair share of heart -- will find a way around whatever injuries you may have until the problem is solved. The best way around problems with squatting is to find other means of training your legs that eliminate trauma to the injured area.

Here are a few leg exercises (including some unique squatting techniques) which may provide both protection from and ways around injuries:

Lunge Squats
Here are many variations to the squat movement. One extremely important one is the "lunge" squat. Lunge squats can be done to the left, right or forward, placing the weight on the lead leg. The quad muscles of the lead leg are targeted with both front and side lunges. Side lunges also target the groin muscles (especially the adductor gracilis of the opposite leg).

Twisting Squats
From a front lunge position, you can "twist" to the opposite side of your lead leg while ascending from the lunge position. This is an exercise which I had originally developed for athletes like down-linemen or shot putters who are required to explode laterally out of a lunge or squat position. Powerlifters benefit too, in that fuller leg development is achieved in the sartorius and adductor muscles of the upper leg.

"Twisting squats," as they're called, require a special harness to wear on your chest and shoulders to hold the short bar in place. DO NOT attempt to do twisting squats with a long bar, or with the bar placed on your shoulders! Loss of control in this exercise can mean groin, knee and low back injury.

Hack Squats and Leg Presses
Hack squat machines and leg press machines come in handy if 1) you haven't learned how to do squats properly yet, 2) you don't have a safety squat bar, 3) you don't have a spotter to help you do squats, or 4) if your back is tired or injured and you can't do regular squats. They're good substitutes for regular or safety squats, but NOT a replacement for them.

Hack squat machines come outfitted with a weighted sled that rolls up and down on tracks or slides on linear bearings, and shoulder pads so you can support the weight while squatting. Leg press machines' padded shoulder supports are stationary, on the other hand, and a sled device similar to those used on hack squat machines is pressed upward at varying angles, depending upon the design of the specific leg press machine.

Stiff Legged Deadlifts
A lot of powerlifters ill-advisedly use stiff legged deadlifts to exercise their lower back. Because your lower back is more efficiently and effectively developed with back extensions, there is no need to do any other off-season exercise for your lower back, and ESPECIALLY not stiff legged deadlifts!

However, stiff legged deadlifts are particularly effective for developing your hamstrings (the back of your upper legs). The traditional way of performing this exercise is to lower the weighted bar all the way down to your bootstraps while standing on a platform or bench with stiff legs (or knees slightly bent). In this way, it's believed, you'll get maximum effect on your hams. This may be true to a degree, but you're also going to unnecessarily expose your lumbar spine to injury. Those intervertebral discs down there come loose all too easily!

I submit that there's a better way. With barbell in hand, poke both your butt and belly outward. In this position, you look kinda like one of the "Keystone Cops" you see in the 1920s movies. This variation of stiff legged deadlifts has thus become known as "Keystone Deadlifts."

This seemingly strange position will prestretch your hamstrings because of the forward tilt of your pelvis the position entails. Then, while maintaining this position, slowly lower the barbell to around your knees, keeping the bar close to your legs during the descent and ascent.

You must NOT go more than an inch or two below your knees. By the time you reach your (slightly unlocked) knees, your hip joints have fully flexed, and any further lowering of the bar is accomplished ONLY through eccentric hyperflexion of your spine -- a NO-NO!

You will feel a decided "burn" in your hams and glutes when keystones are done correctly. You should feel virtually no discomfort or stress in your lower back. If you do, experiment with the movement until you feel no discomfort at all. Invariably, a slight adjustment in your position will correct the problem.

The nice thing about doing stiff legged deadlifts this way is that you can use a far heavier weight, thereby getting better adaptive stress applied to the targeted hamstring muscles. All without any low back trauma at all!

One more important caution: NEVER do this exercise explosively! You'll risk pulling a hamstring or blowing out a lumbar disc.

Leg Extensions and Leg Curls
These two exercises are favorites of bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts. While they may be "ok" for them, they are decidedly useless for otherwise healthy powerlifters. Eliminate them from your training except during times when, due to injury, they're the only movements you can perform safely and pain-free.

Squatting With The Manta Ray
The Manta Ray is a shoulder girdle support manufactured from indestructible hi-tech molded plastic. It clips to a straight bar and completely eliminates the discomfort of the 1" round bar pressing on your 7th cervical vertebra, or the sharp knurling ripping your flesh. I personally LOVE this thing, and if I donít have a Safety Squat Bar (see below) to use, I ALWAYS have my Manta Ray. In fact, it is a device I instruct all ISSA-certified personal fitness trainers to use for their clients. My belief is that ANYTHING that makes squats more comfortable is great because a perennial problem with squatting has always been that people just donít like them! Theyíre uncomfortable to newcomers and ironheads alike! The Manta Ray solves this problem exquisitely.

Safety Squats
There's a training device called the "Safety Squat Bar" (sometimes called the "Hatfield Bar") which can give you a new lease on effective off-season squat training. Some of you may have seen it collecting dust in the back of the squat platform. Pick it up! Put it on the rack and use it!

The exquisite isolation the Safety Squat Barô provides for your quads will be a truly unique experience, I assure you. Let's go over the good points of the Safety Squat Bar one by one.

Your hands are not holding the bar. This allows you to grasp the handles on the power rack. Because of the heavy loads involved in squatting, there is a tendency to "round" your back and place unnecessary stress on those easily displaceable intervertebral discs. This is avoided by exerting pressure against the power rack handles and thus maintaining a perfectly straight back throughout the entire squatting motion. Using your hands to spot yourself prevents you from falling forward or backward.

Squatting with a straight bar, you're forced to use a load that you can handle in the weakest position. This results in using an inadequate amount of weight in the strongest position of the squatting motion.

This problem is solved by use of the hands in the Safety Squat Barô. When the "sticking point" is reached, the hands can be used to help you through it. This unique feature allows you to work with heavier weights in the ranges of movement where you are strongest and gives you help when you are weakest. You are exerting closer to your maximum effort through the entire range of motion.

The padded yolk that the Safety Squat Bar is equipped with effectively eliminates neck and shoulder girdle discomfort. And the fact that you needn't use your hands to hold the bar on your shoulders eliminates wrist, shoulder and elbow discomfort.

By using your hands to regulate body position, your posture under the bar can be adapted to suit your own anatomical peculiarities so that you can literally "tailor" your squatting style to afford maximum overload.

Conventional squatting places the weight behind you, fully four inches behind your body's midline. That caused you to lean or bend forward for balance. With the Safety Squat Bar, the weight is distributed directly in line with your body's midline, and completely eliminates the need to lean forward.

Finally, because you are holding onto handles build onto the squat rack, you do not back up before squatting, and you are not obliged to walk back into the rack after squatting. This element alone has the potential of eliminating up to three quarters of all squatting-related injuries.

As a final note, remember that your off-season training is NEVER meant to be a time for impressing your training buddies by seeing how much weight you can squat with -- or "still" squat with after your long layoff, as the case may be. It is a time for establishing a solid foundation for the high-intensity pre-season training to follow. It is a time for eliminating weaknesses. It is a time for establishing a high degree of limit strength in all muscles of the body in preparation for the highly ballistic speed-strength training that must be incorporated into your precontest preparation.

And remember this. Explosive strength, which can only be maximized by first establishing a supernormal level of limit strength in all of your synergistic an primary muscles, will give you your greatest squatting ability come contest day. There is no way that you can get away with being explosive before you've adequately prepared your body for the tremendous stress such training entails.

Before I give you an integrated training plan to increase your squat, let me first explain what strength is, where it comes from and how you get it. Only then will you see the wisdom of the following training programs.


Strength. Most of you use this word every day. It's a word you've grown comfortable with because of your intimate relationship with it -- it's what you do. But it's an infinitely complex concept that cannot be adequately imagined in a single fleeting thought process. So many factors interrelate to produce it. If there were a single sentence that could describe strength it would be as follows:

"Your ability to exert musculoskeletal force, given constraints stemming from:
1) structural/anatomical factors,
2) physiological/biochemical factors,
3) psychoneural/psychosocial factors, and
4) external/environmental factors."

As you read this booklet, you will begin to understand strength and all the factors which affect it. You will learn how to manipulate them at will as part of an integrated approach to scientific training.


Even a marathon runner needs tremendous strength. But it must be of a very specific nature in order to express it footfall-per-footfall under the extreme metabolic conditions inherent in that sport. A world-class powerlifter wouldn't even be able to put one foot in front of the other at the end of a 26 mile run, let alone being able to exert record-breaking force with each footfall! Nor should he ever try! On the other hand, that marathon runner would crumble into a pile of bones if he were dumb enough to climb under the half-ton of pig iron that the powerlifter plays with.

Strength is the universal requirement of all athletes in every sport. But you have to be careful to distinguish exactly what kind of strength you're talking about.


In fact, there are at least 5 different categories of strength, and all sports require more or less of each and every kind (see Tables One and Two). The worse mistake a powerlifter -- or any other athlete -- can make is to neglect strength training. The second worse mistake would be to train for the wrong kind of strength!


LIMIT STRENGTH: How much musculoskeletal force you can generate for one all-out effort. Limit strength is your athletic "foundation." All of your muscles should have a good level of limit strength. It's like building your house on a rock instead of in the sand. For most athletes, limit strength is what you try to achieve during your off-season training. Only powerlifters need to maximize their limit strength for competition. There are three kinds of limit strength:

  1. eccentric strength: how much weight you can lower without losing control.
  2. static strength: how much weight you can hold stationary without losing control
  3. concentric strength: how much weight you can lift one time with an all-out muscle contraction.

ABSOLUTE STRENGTH is the same as limit strength with one important distinction -- Limit strength is achieved while "under the influence" of some form of work-producing aid (supplements, hypnosis, therapeutic techniques, etc.), while absolute strength is achieved through training alone -- "au natural." That makes "limit" strength more important for athletes. All athletes should take every available advantage science has to offer, short of using drugs or other illegal/against the rules techniques. "Absolute" strength is still an important concept for fitness enthusiasts, kids, and weekend warriors however. Usually, they aren't as "scientific" or as "dedicated to excellence" as are athletes, and may wish to train "au natural" for their fitness or sports goals.

SPEED-STRENGTH: Your coach may refer to this kind of strength as "power." Speed-strength, however, is a more descriptive term. There are two types of strength under the general heading of Speed-Strength: 1) starting strength and 2) explosive strength (explained below). "Speed-strength" is how well you apply force with speed.

STARTING STRENGTH: Your ability to "turn on" as many muscle fibers (muscle cells) as possible instantaneously. Firing a 100 mph fastball requires tremendous starting strength. So does each footfall in a 100 meter sprint, or throwing a quick knockout punch in boxing.

EXPLOSIVE STRENGTH: Once your muscle fibers are turned on, your ability to LEAVE them turned on for a measurable period is referred to as "explosiveness." A football lineman pushing his opponent, or a shot putter "putting" the shot as far as possible are examples of explosive strength in action. Olympic-style weightlifting (snatch and clean and jerk) is perhaps the best example of maximum explosive strength in action.

ANAEROBIC STRENGTH: The word "anaerobic" means "without oxygen." So, if your activity is performed without your muscles having to be supplied with oxygen in order to allow them to perform that activity, it's "anaerobic." Of course, you need oxygen to stay alive, and you'll have to "repay" your muscles the oxygen "debt" you owe after performing anaerobically. You do this by breathing hard once you stop. Scientists classify movements in sports as being "driven" by the "ATP/CP" energy pathway, the "glycolytic" pathway or the "oxidative" pathway. The first two do not involve oxygen and are therefore considered "anaerobic." ATP/CP refer to the biochemicals inside your muscles that produce energy for your muscles to work (adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate). Glycolytic refers to the sugar stored inside your muscles called glycogen. When you run out of ATP and CP, you have to begin using that glycogen to re-synthesize the ATP and CP so work can continue. Neither of these two muscle energy processes need oxygen for them to work.

LINEAR STRENGTH ENDURANCE: Your ability to sustain all-out, maximum running speed is an example of linear anaerobic strength endurance. Believe it or not, even Carl Lewis begins to slow down during the last 40 meters of a 100 meter race! The extent to which he is forced to slow down because of fatigue during the last half of the race is his measure of linear anaerobic strength endurance. The word "linear" simply means that the same movement is repetitively performed, such as your running strides. Marathon running, then, is an example of linear aerobic strength endurance.

NON-LINEAR STRENGTH ENDURANCE: Your ability to play with exceeding explosiveness play after play for four quarters is an example of non-linear anaerobic strength endurance. A powerlifter in competition must perform 9 maximum lifts on the lifting platform, and perhaps as many as 20 near-maximum warm-up lifts during a three or four hour competition. That also requires tremendous anaerobic strength endurance. And, because the lifts are performed with intervals of time between each (as opposed to rowing, running or other "linear" sports movements), it's called "non-linear" anaerobic strength endurance. Playing a particularly fast-paced basketball game or soccer match for an hour or two would be examples of non-linear aerobic strength endurance, with intermittent bursts of speed-strength (jumping, starting, dodging, etc.) also being displayed.

AEROBIC STRENGTH: The word "aerobic" means "with oxygen." The efficiency with which you get oxygen to your working muscles and remove the metabolic wastes that are building up there is called cardiovascular endurance, which is the key to exerting force under aerobic conditions. There are two kinds of aerobic strength: 1) linear and 2) non-linear. These two terms are described above in the discussion on anaerobic strength. Measures of your cardiovascular efficiency are 1) a low heart rate (how many times your heart beats each minute), 2) a high stroke volume (how much blood you pump out of your heart with each beat), 3) a high ejection fraction of the left ventricle (the percentage of blood in the left ventricle of your heart muscle that's pushed out with each beat, and 4) a high maximum oxygen uptake ability (how much oxygen your muscles use during exercise).



1. muscle fiber arrangement
2. musculoskeletal leverage
3. tissue leverage (interstitial and intracellular leverage stemming from fat deposits, sarcoplasmic content, satellite cell proliferation and the accumulation of fluid)
4. freedom of movement between fibers and between gross muscles (scar tissue and adhesions can limit muscles' contractile strength)
5. tissue viscoelasticity
6. intramuscular/intracellular friction
7. ratio of fast-, intermediate- and slow-twitch fibers
8. range of motion (must be normal)
9. freedom from injury
10. connective tissue (tendinous/ligamentous) mass and structural characteristics


11. stretch reflex (muscle spindles)
12. sensitivity of the Golgi tendon organ
13. endocrine system functions (hormones)
14. extent of hyperplasia (cell splitting) (?)
15. extent of myofibrillarization
16. motor unit recruitment capacity
17. energy transfer systems' efficiency
18. extensiveness of capillarization
19. mitochondrial growth and proliferation
20. stroke volume of the left ventricle
21. ejection fraction of the left ventricle
22. pulmonary (ventilatory) capacity
23. efficiency of gas exchange in the lungs
24. heart rate
25. max VO2 uptake (ml/kg bwt/min)
26. freedom from disease


27. arousal level ("psych")
28. tolerance to pain (pain of effort, stress or lactic acid accumulation in the cells and blood)
29. ability to concentrate ("focus")
30. incentive system installed (motivation)
31. social learning (effectiveness of deinhibititory efforts in overcoming learned inhibitory responses)
32. coordination ("skill" involving the efficient sequencing of activation/inhibition of prime movers, stabilizers and synergists; sequencing efforts involves factors of position, direction, timing, rate, speed and effect of force application)
33. "spiritual" factors (acknowledged but unexplained)
34. the "placebo" effect


35. equipment (use of "the best" available tools)
36. external environment (temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind, altitude)
37. effect of gravity
38. opposing and assisting forces (e.g., opponent's efforts may add to your force output vis a vis Newton's three laws of motion)


TYPE OF STRENGTH CRITICAL SOMETIMES RARELY FACTORS IMPORTANT IMPORTANT ____________________________________________________________ ABSOLUTE* 1 2 3 4 7 5 6 8 11 14 19 20 21 22 AND LIMIT 9 10 12 13 17 18 28 32 23 24 25 STRENGTH 15 16 26 27 33 34 36 37 29 30 31 35 38 ____________________________________________________________ SPEED- 1 2 4 5 7 9 8 17 18 19 3 6 14 20 STRENGTH 10 11 12 13 27 28 32 33 21 22 23 24 15 16 26 27 34 36 37 38 25 29 30 31 35 ____________________________________________________________ ANAEROBIC 2 4 7 9 15 1 5 8 10 11 3 6 14 STRENGTH 17 18 19 26 12 13 16 20 28 30 31 35 21 22 23 24 25 27 29 32 33 34 36 37 38 ____________________________________________________________ AEROBIC 4 7 9 17 18 1 2 8 13 15 3 5 6 10 11 STRENGTH 19 20 21 22 16 29 32 33 12 14 27 38 23 24 25 26 34 36 37 28 30 31 35 ____________________________________________________________ MUSCLE 3 13 14 15 4 7 9 10 16 1 2 5 6 8 MASS FOR 18 19 28 17 27 29 30 11 12 20 21 BODYBUILDING 31 33 34 36 22 23 24 25 32 35 37 38 ____________________________________________________________

* Note: Absolute strength is an "obsolete" concept in the trenches of elite competitive sport. Limit strength -- strength while "under the influence" of some form of ergogenic aid (substances and/or techniques) -- is more germane. However, beginners, kids, weekend warriors and fitness enthusiasts who have little need or interest in a highly disciplined approach to strength still work out "au natural" and therefore the concept of absolute strength still has relevance.


1. Weight Training: Dumbbells, barbells, fluids, pressurized air, elastic devices, springs, and the host of devices designed to provide "heavy" external resistance to one's musculoskeletal effort all constitute "resistance training."

Tradition has it that exercises designed to be performed with dumbbells and barbells (and the technologies designed to simulate traditional dumbbell and barbell movements) constitutes "weight training." The existing categories of weight training technologies are 1) constant resistance devices, 2) variable resistance devices, 3) accommodating resistance devices and 4) static resistance devices. New technologies will be developed in time.

2. Special Forms of Resistance Training: Running, swimming, calisthenics, aerobic dance, plyometrics -- there are many more -- all are special forms of "light" resistance training. When bodyweight alone is the source of resistance, tradition and reasons of clarity dictate that they be referred to by their individual names. Cycling, rowing, stair-climbers, and similar forms of training which utilize "light" external resistance collectively constitute a second category of light resistance training which are also referred to by their respective names.

3. Psychological Techniques: Self-hypnosis, mental imagery training, transcendental meditation and a lot of other "mind games" can help improve your strength output capabilities in sports and training.

4. Therapeutic Modalities: Whirlpools, electrical muscle stimulation, massage, ultrasound, music, intense light, and a host of other therapies can have a very positive effect on your strength training efforts, both indirectly (how quickly you can recover from your previous workout), and directly (greater force output).

5. Medical Support: Periodic checkups, exercising preventive care, chiropractic adjustments, and even clinical use of prescription drugs are sometimes indicated for athletes in heavy training when medical problems arise. Only qualified sportsmedicine specialists are able to prescribe such support.

6. Biomechanics (Skill Training): Performing your skill perfectly will almost always result in greater force being applied, whether it is applied to an object, opponent or the ground. Good skills execution involves the efficient sequencing of activation/inhibition of prime mover, stabilizer and synergistic muscles. Your sequencing efforts involve factors of position, direction, timing, rate, speed and effect of force application.

7. Dietary Practices: Athletes don't eat only to stay alive and healthy; they eat to excel at their sport. Their eating is designed to assist in achieving specific sports/training objectives. There are many nutritional techniques that will ensure greater force output capabilities both immediately as well as over time, thereby improving your training and competition efforts. Despite your most dedicated efforts, however, you will not be able to gain ample nutritional support from food alone, a point which has been supported time and time again in sports nutrition research.

8. Nutritional Supplementation: Most often, eating is not sufficient to give you all the nutrients you need in order to achieve your sports/training objectives. This point is widely disputed among sports scientists and nutritionists alike, who would have us believe that eating "three square meals" per day is ample fare for athletes in heavy training. They overlook at least three important points: 1) many state-of-the-art supplements are designed to take your body beyond normal biochemical functioning, 2) no one on Earth consistently eats "square meals," and 3) myriad research reports clearly show that deficiencies most often exist in athletes' diets for many well-documented reasons.


(Graphic did not reproduce)
1. This is the beginning of your movement. Rear back to throw, foot hits the ground and your knee bends, or squat down to jump. All involve "eccentric" strength.

2. You make the transition from backward to forward, from down to up. "Static" strength is required.

3. Force is applied in hitting, throwing, jumping or the push-off in each running step. Involves "concentric" strength.

4. It takes a fraction of a second usually to exert your maximum amount of force. Speed-strength is required.

5. This is the maximum amount of force you impart while throwing, hitting, jumping or running.

6. You never quite equal your "limit" or "absolute" strength levels in sports movements (except powerlifting) because the movements are over with so quickly.

7. The ONLY reason for EVER training for sports is to make the gentle, easy strength curve on the left look more like the CHECKMARK on the right.


"Gotta go train" is a phrase heard by powerlifting spouses everywhere. What does it mean? Save for the crafty pencilneck who uses it as a convincing excuse to go out carousing (his wife is easily duped because he's in desperate need of training), it typically means going to a gym to lift weights.

Tch tch! Lifting weights is NOT training! It's certainly an integral part of training, but there's so much more. So far we've identified what strength is and where it comes from. Now we have to lay down some simple guidelines as to how each of the factors affecting strength can be augmented. Remember that there are at least 38 factors which affect strength, and these factors are classified into four main groupings.

Some of the factors listed under "sometimes important" may indeed be important some of the time, especially among beginners who have no background in high-level training for strength. But, let's concentrate on the "critical" factors, as they are the ones that will give most of us the greatest returns in limit strength and speed-strength for both immediate and long-term powerlifting excellence.

Your job -- which I've done for you -- is always going to be to identify -- and apply -- those technologies which BEST augment each of the respective factors, and arrange them into a coherent, integrated training program for your sport.

1. Muscle Fiber Arrangement
Sorry folks, nothing you can do about this one. You can, however, take advantage of your knowledge about how the fibers of each muscle are arranged. We're talkin' "new concept" here! Some are made for speed, some for great limit strength, some for stability and some are made for all three. Train them that way! (Once in awhile, at least.). The technology of choice: biomechanics (skill) training.

2. Musculoskeletal Leverage
Again, nothing you can do short of radical surgical procedures will change your leverages. But, by knowing how best to take advantage of your leverage systems' structure, efficiency in lifting techniques (and thus your strength output) will be optimized on the platform as well as in the gym. The technology of choice: biomechanics (skill) training.

3. Tissue Leverage
Interstitial and intracellular leverage stemming from fat deposits, sarcoplasmic content, satellite cell proliferation and the accumulation of intracellular fluid all provide a sort of "bloat" factor to your body. Aside from certain androgens (highly illegal and dangerous), the best way to improve this is through sheer gluttony!

That means the big boys in the sport -- the guys in the 275s and supers. I believe the phrase is "pig out." For the rest of you, it's not a tenable source of improved limit strength, except for the small amount of tissue leverage improvement you may be able to muster after weigh-ins (just before the contest begins). The technology of choice: dietary and supplementation manipulation.

4. Freedom of Movement Between Fibers
Adhesions and scar tissue between muscle fibers and between gross muscles can limit your muscles' ability to contract fully. Neuromuscular reeducation, post-workout rolfing and other forms of deep fiber massage (often called "sports massage") are the best therapies. Post-workout ultrasound treatments and post-workout whirlpool or hard-beating shower on your just-trained muscles also helps tremendously in eliminating or avoiding these strength-limiting adhesions and scar tissue. The technologies of choice: biomechanics (skill) training, various therapeutic modalities, and medical support systems.

5. Tissue Viscoelasticity
All of your muscles have a certain amount of "elasticity." That is, when you stretch them, they tend to return to their resting length. This tendency can be dramatically increased by rapid stretching, much the same as rearing back sharply before throwing a punch. If you rear back slowly, the muscles' natural viscoelasticity will not aid in the return movement. Sound nutritional practice (which goes far beyond the pencilneck fare recommended by the FDA) and ballistic training under controlled conditions are the best methods of improving or preserving tissue viscoelasticity. The best way to lose it is to use androgenic drugs. The technologies of choice: various therapeutic modalities, biomechanics (skill) training, and dietary and nutritional supplementation strategies.

6. Ratio of Fast-, Intermediate- and Slow-Twitch Fibers
It used to be believed that heredity controlled your fiber ratios. True to a large degree. However, you can indeed make white fiber a bit more "pink" (a no-no for serious powerlifters), and red fiber a bit more pink (a yes-yes). Engaging in VERY explosive training will accomplish this task nicely. The technologies of choice: biomechanics (skill) training, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

7. Freedom From Injury
Obviously! An injury can keep you from your goal of greatness. Even minuscule ones can nag you enough to prevent you from exhibiting your maximum strength output. What's the best way to treat injuries? Avoiding them in the first place! That means following excellent technique and integrated training principles. The technologies of choice: medical support systems, various therapeutic modalities, biomechanics (skill) training, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

8. Connective Tissue
Tendinous and ligamentous mass and their structural characteristics all contribute to your potential strength level. Did you know, for example, that the collagenous matrix comprising various ligaments and tendons are susceptible to change through highly specialized training? Check into it! Herein is not the place to discuss this VERY overlooked element of strength output. The technologies of choice: various therapeutic modalities, biomechanics (skill) training, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

9. Stretch Reflex
Your muscle spindles -- highly specialized muscle cells which detect stretch -- react when stimulated by making your muscle contract involuntarily. This involuntary contraction can, if applied correctly, augment total force output to a small but significant degree. The technologies of choice: various therapeutic modalities, biomechanics (skill) training, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

10. The Feedback Loop
The sensitivity of the Golgi tendon organ is set unquestionably high. That is, your force output potential far exceed the critical threshold at which shutdown (cessation of contraction) occurs. The technologies of choice: various therapeutic modalities, biomechanics (skill) training, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

11. Endocrine System Functions (hormones)
Your hormones. They ebb and flow according to some little-understood circadian rhythm. You can indeed control many of them, and doing so requires a full understanding of that circadian rhythmicity. The technologies of choice: dietary and nutritional supplementation strategies, various therapeutic modalities, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

12. Extent of myofibrillarization
These are the actual contractile elements within your working muscles. Old technology had it that all you had to do was increase the number of myofibrils inside each cell to increase your limit strength. Sure. If you want to remain in the also-ran group. Their critical importance is acknowledged. The technologies of choice: dietary and nutritional supplementation strategies, biomechanics (skill) training, weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

13. Motor Unit Recruitment
Firing as many muscle fibers as possible instantly is the name of the game in speed-strength (both starting strength and explosive strength). It's also the name of the game in limit strength. The technologies of choice: several psychological and psycosocial strategies, biomechanics (skill) training, "controlled" ballistic weight training and various other forms of light resistance training.

14. Freedom from disease
'Nuff said! The technologies of choice: dietary and nutritional strategies, various therapeutic modalities and medical intervention.

15. Arousal Level ("psych")
'Nuff said! The technology of choice: Psychological and psychosocial strategies.

16. Ability to concentrate ("focus")
Your mind is said to be the master of your body. My experience tells me that with a great majority of powerlifters the reverse holds true. Tch Tch! The technologies of choice: Psychological and psychosocial techniques, dietary and nutritional supplementation strategies and biomechanics (skill) training.

17. Incentive system installed (motivation)
In short, you've gotta WANT it! The technologies of choice: Psychological and psychosocial strategies.

18. Social Learning (effectiveness of deinhibititory)
Efforts in overcoming learned inhibitory responses can be a monumental undertaking, especially in light of the fact than your Mamma scolded you for years not to lift something, run too fast or whatever -- because it'd hurt you. The technologies of choice: Psychotherapy and hypnotherapy.

19. Equipment (use of "the best" available tools)
Are you able to take full advantage of your body's leverage with crummy shoes? A bent bar? Poor equipment? A cold gym? ...the list is endless. These external factors render your force output efforts less than efficient, and it's time you did something about it! That is, IF you aspire to greatness! There's only one thing that'll accomplish that for you...PASSION!


The theory behind cycle training (or "periodized" training as the former Soviet Sports scientists liked to call it), is basic. There are three major concepts involved:

  1. You can't train heavy all the time (you'll overtrain if you try), so you have to balance periods of high intensity training with periods of low intensity training.
  2. As you career progresses from being a youngster or beginner through your most productive years, your body changes, your goals change and your abilities change.
  3. 3) By breaking conditioning routines into discreet time periods, you can more efficiently establish the types of strength you need first, in order to prepare you for the more intense training techniques that will come later in your pre-competition training.

For instance, you must first develop a basic foundation of limit strength before you can move on to training for any of the other types of strength. Or, using another example, You don't try to sprint at full speed before conditioning your leg muscles to withstand that kind of punishment. In cycle training, you train for only one (or very few) objective(s) at a time before finally integrating all the different aspects into a cohesive whole at the end of your cycle, when it's time to compete.

Cycle training must be planned carefully and undertaken only with a complete commitment, because it's a program that builds to a conclusion and each part of the training must be completed in it's proper sequence for the overall effort to have the effect you desire. If you let up in one phase of your cycle, you won't reach the level you're shooting for in the next phase, and so on.


If you are an explosive athlete, and in the beginning phase of cycle training, your greatest outputs come in the categories of:

1) amount of work done (or, a high total number of pounds lifted per workout)
2) moderate oxidative and glycolytic strength endurance
3) limit strength
4) general fitness

These areas are where you should attempt to push your body to the max. Your lowest output, at the start, should come in:

5) Intensity of effort (no limit attempts with the weights)
6) maximum anaerobic strength endurance (glycolytic)
7) Skill/Body control
8) Speed-Strength (starting strength and explosive strength)

These are the areas where you should attempt the least, while concentrating on the other four factors. But the key to the cycle training program is to reverse this order of output GRADUALLY, so that factors 1 through 4 begin to decrease, while factors 5 through 8 begin to increase. At the end of the cycle, you should see a complete turnaround, and your greatest efforts should come from factors 5 through 8, and the least of your work occurs in factors 1 through 4.


Glycolytic athletes require almost the same approach to their initial training cycle as does the ATP/CP athletes. The difference is that they have to really hit the anaerobic strength endurance aspect hard -- without neglecting their skills, their explosiveness and their limit strength -- as they approach their competition.


If you're an endurance athlete just beginning a training cycle, limit strength training and general fitness are still the most important elements of your initial training. Then, you get into speed work, hill work and finally into high-level cardiovascular (oxidative) work. It's that simple, as far as the basic philosophy of cycle training goes. Of course, each sport has its peculiarities, as does each athlete in them. These peculiarities notwithstanding, there are some very tried-and-true methods of training for these three classes of sports that apply to all athletes within each category.

Anaerobic and aerobic athletes train very similarly, actually. The principle difference is that aerobic athletes train while in severe need of oxygen for very long periods of time. Anaerobic athletes in explosive ATP/CP sports don't. Glycolytic sport athletes train while in severe oxygen debt too, but only for short, intermittent periods. Below, you will note the strikingly similar schedules for anaerobic versus aerobic athletes. But don't overlook the important differences either!


            TUESDAY                  SATURDAY
         %   X R/S   LBS         %   X  R/S  LBS

WEEK 1  80%  X  2/5  560        85%  X  3/5  595

WEEK 2  80%  X   "   565        85%  X  4/5  600

WEEK 3  80%  X   "   570        85%  X  5/5  605

WEEK 4  80%  X   "   575        85%  X  6/5  610

WEEK 5  80%  X   "   580        90%  X  2/3  650

WEEK 6  80%  X   "   585        90%  X  3/3  660
Eliminate all assistance exercises after this date...

WEEK 7  80%  X   "   590        95%  X  2/3  700

WEEK 8  80%  X   "   595       100%  X  2/3  740

WEEK 9  rest day               105%  x  1/1  775

Notes: Each week sees an increase of 5 pounds in your 80% level. This is arbitrary, and will vary from athlete to athlete and from muscle group to muscle group. Also, since there is a 5 pound increase assumed for your 80% level, there will be a commensurate increase in your ongoing weekly 85, 90, 95 and 100 percent levels respectively. This basic scheme of periodizing your training intensity relative to anticipated increases in strength is applicable to any other exercise or muscle group. Assumed is a starting max of 700 lbs., although you must begin with your own current maximum.



       % Max X Reps/Set/Wgt   % Max X Reps/Set/Wgt

DAY 1   80%  X  2/3   560      85%  X  3/5   595

DAY 5   80%  X   "    565      85%  X  4/5   600

DAY 10  80%  X   "    570      85%  X  5/5   605

DAY 15  80%  X   "    575      85%  X  6/5   610

DAY 20  80%  X   "    580      90%  X  2/3   650

DAY 25  80%  X   "    585      90%  X  3/3   660

Eliminate all assistance exercises after this date...

DAY 30  80%  X   "    590      95%  X  2/3   700

DAY 35  80%  X   "    595     100%  X  2/3   740

DAY 40  30%,  50%,  90%.  100%
or one rep each as a warm-up

105% x 1/1 775

For the sake of illustration, I've assumed a starting max of 700 lbs. in the example program above; you must begin with your own current maximum.

Each workout sees an increase of 5 pounds in your strength level. This is arbitrary, and will vary from athlete to athlete. The easiest way to estimate your strength increases from workout to workout is to:

  1. Add 5 percent to your best all-time squat;
  2. Multiply this amount by .80 (80 percent);
  3. Assume a 2 1/2 percent increase in your 80 percent level for each successive squat workout;
  4. Based on successes (or failures) in performing the required number of reps, you can "fine tune" your strength increase for the next workout.

Shown here is the plan for squatting every fifth day. Younger athletes may be able to fully recover after four days, and older athletes may take as much as six days. If you don't know your recuperative ability, simply start with this five day plan for the full forty days, and if you find it necessary, you can modify the rest time between squat workouts the next time you use this system.

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