I’ve been going through some foot and ankle rehab, which includes getting the bones adjusted by a podiatrist, and strengthening exercises for me to practice. This has started to change my structure – I can feel it, it’s a bit strange but ultimately very satisfying.
And of course, changing your structure means changing your structure. Consequentially, my knees don’t feel fragile as such, but perhaps vulnerable in a different way. So as much as I’m doing a lot of work for my leg muscles below the knees, I haven’t been squatting or deadlifting in any conventional sense.
You don’t need to look very far if you want to be told you’re a weak girly-man for not training squats or deadlifts. But using misogyny and shame as motivational tools is nothing new when it comes to meaningless standards in fitness. We are used to standardising things. And comparing ourselves, because if it’s not obvious that I’m the strongest person at the gym, how will anyone know that I have worth as a human being?
Truth is, building up my squats and deadlifts over time has made for some of my most satisfying and interesting training experiences, but ultimately all they amount to are a couple of lifts and a bunch of techniques. They don’t mean anything, unless I’m being tested on them for some athletic goal or somesuch. But I did start to sink my teeth into them years ago – my background in martial arts gave me strong legs, and when I studied for my personal trainer qualification, all the muscular dudes in my class could bench press more than I could, but I was strongest on the leg press, and the most agile. I always enjoyed having strong, capable legs.
Having said that, my recent experiences in rehab remind me – a friend of mine with bone-related hip issues has struggled to build up her squats and deadlifts, especially in a world where people like to prioritise depth and loading above quality of movement and structure. But what’s it for, in the end? I do concede – the heavy work is more fun, more satisfying, than the rehab work. But all the dude-bro-ishness of squats these days. The status? Not to mention the ableism?
Despite my personal experiences with weightlifting, the vast majority of my clients do not squat or deadlift, at least not in a conventional Powerlifter style. Why not? Mostly because they don’t value the same things as I do, and there are many different ways to train for strength and learn to pick something heavy up from the floor.
Also, most people I know do not have the shoulder flexibility or stability required to hold even a light barbell on their back (as pictured above). And frankly, as much as we can and do work on shoulder mobility, there are more ergonomic, less risky ways to exercise the muscles of the legs and torso.
Some coaches have observed that training the squat is not the most effective way to build your buttocks, yet I know others have asked “why squat at all? It only gives you a big ass”. So who can agree on these things anyway? What is a squat good for, that cannot be achieved through some other means? And if you want a bigger or smaller ass, do you squat, or avoid the squat?
Why do we buy it? The propaganda – as if one size really could fit all? Not all athletes are the same, not all sports are the same, and even if they were – an athlete is judged by their success at their chosen sport – not by other standardised measures – but all too often critics are quick to point out – if she built up her deadlift, she would have been more successful – but what would she have sacrificed to achieve that? You can only do so much, and you can only work with what you’ve got.
But this isn’t really a blog for athletes either. And an athlete may be judged by success at their sport, but if you are not an athlete, why is anyone else judging your ability to squat in the first place?
You notice it, on social media, when someone talks about how you have to train this way or that, or about how one exercise is more meaningful than another, making you worthy of respect – but when you stop to think about it, it’s pretty clear when someone hasn’t really trained anyone other than themselves. They value their own thing, with little thought to what might actually benefit another individual. And ultimately – training should be about what benefits you, rather than what improves your social standing. But that might not quite be the world we live in at the moment.
We have ways of getting caught up in things. Popular training concepts. The buttocks vs quadriceps imbalance. The benefit of foam rolling. The “knees out” cue for when you’re squatting. They’re good, or perhaps important issues for many people, but then it goes too far, and you start to see articles emerging about why foam rolling sucks or whatever – it’s overused. Over-applied. No simple catch-all saying really applies to – and catches – all.
It reminds me of a story I heard while doing a massage workshop – about the use of leeches and bloodletting in the past. They were used by folk medicine practitioners sparingly, then the establishment picked up the practice and went nuts with it, overdoing it like crazy. Now the establishment looks back and says – woah, don’t trust those folk medicine practitioners, they believed in bloodletting, they went way overboard with that. But who were the ones who went way overboard? I don’t know, it’s just a story, maybe little more than rumour. But I notice these patterns today – someone goes overboard with a good theory, applying it inappropriately to everyone and everything, then we have the inevitable fallout from people training hard with inappropriately prescribed exercises.
At the risk of getting flamed, squats are not always useful. Neither are deadlifts, and if you train the hell out of them, and find you need to foam roll every day – maybe take a look at why you need so much soft tissue work. There could be something else to focus on there. Or maybe, in a world where massage is a rare and expensive skill, additional self-care practices really are just good when you train a lot?
So at the moment, I’m forgoing the “big” exercises in favour of useful ones. Sometimes the big exercises are the useful ones, but often not, or if so – maybe for certain periods of time, or in a certain context.
And currently, I have a feeling for progress, even if it isn’t the bells-and-whistles kind of progress, even if it isn’t anything spectacular that I can video or post on facebook.
The thing is, you can’t train the same way day-in, day-out, if you want to stay healthy. Not if you’re into heavy lifting. You need to either periodise your training in some way, go heavy then light, or swap between different methods – the body needs variety and change, as much as it needs consistency. Always, it’s about striking a balance between opposing concepts, it seems. As you are practicing a movement to become better at it, you need to remember that the body needs more than a few prescribed patterns, and I guess for me, at least, I’m not responding well to heavy lifting at the moment.
But I am responding well to moderate lifting. And that’s interesting. Because when I was weak, moderate lifting didn’t help me to get strong. But now that I’m strong, moderate lifting seems to be useful to keep my joints and muscles happy, and I feel strong. But heavy lifting – it’s easier to overdo it than it used to be, maybe because I’m better at pushing the limits of my capacity, but then where does that get you in the end? Apart from the dubious status of being “one who is not afraid of hard work”, what does it achieve that cannot be achieved in other ways?
For a while I’ve been feeling my way through the idea of changing how I train, but it hasn’t clicked into a place of structure yet. And perhaps it won’t – maybe that’s the point. It’s okay to have structured periods and unstructured periods – it’s okay to feel it out, follow your intuition, and commit to as much or as little as you want, while in the long term, you pursue things that interest you, that are hopefully good for you, or that challenge you, in ways you like to be challenged.
All things change in time. What’s useful for you now may not be useful in the future, and if it really is about health – why the rush? All that matters is that, in the long term, you’re looking after yourself in ways that you can. Training, and injures especially, have a way of teaching us patience and perseverance – these qualities really are not innate, they’re learned, and only through necessity. And they aren’t character traits, they’re skills.
It’s easy to talk. But in the long term – I remember feeling like I was lifting heavy in the past, and then, over time – taking a weight you can lift only two or three times, and building that weight up to a set of ten reps – it’s a perspective changer. What I thought was heavy doesn’t seem heavy now, even though it was, and strength is only relative. In part it isn’t strength, instead it’s being better at leverage. And now approaches to training that were not helpful when I was weaker – now they are useful. It’s hard to write about. Regardless of your objective, it takes longer than you’d think, but in time you feel like you’ve achieved something. And no approach is invalid; all of them teach you something.