Barbell Squats - A Journey Of Size And Strength Gains
The 80's were a great time for bodybuilding. Why? Because Tom Platz came around. Platz, he of the greatest legs the world has ever seen. Tom Platz always had great legs, but from 1980 to 1981, he made massive gains in both upper body size and his already otherworldly legs became even bigger and more defined and the quads and hams became more insanely separated. His legs were mountains of muscle. How did he grow these best ever legs? Squats! Barbell back squats, and plenty of them. Platz was known for his squats. Seeing him squat on film was poetry in motion. Platz was strong and possessed amazing endurance.
From Simplyshredded.com: Tom Platz: "He reports that while weighing less than 230 pounds, he squatted eight reps with 635 pounds and 52 reps with 350 pounds. On numerous occasions, he squatted for 10 minutes straight for more than 100 reps with 225 pounds. This might seem like hyperbole, if not the fact that Platz is seen in a video shot in 1992 squatting 495 pounds for 23 reps with his thighs going below parallel."
I have seen Tom Platz in person, and I spoke with him. I went to a seminar that he was holding in Maryland, around 1984 or 1985. Genetically, he's not a huge guy, relatively narrow clavicles, one of those guys that if they stop training, they just get smaller, not fat. I was in high school at the time, and at the end of the seminar, he takes his sweatpants down and shirt off and hits some poses. His legs? I have never seen anything like it. The first word that came to my mind when I saw his legs was, "Jellyfish." They were like the consistency of a jellyfish, that's what I thought. Like they came from another place, like they were just hanging there, ungodly looking when unflexed.
Then he hit some leg shots and the cross striations appeared, like feathers across his quads. The whole crowd was awestruck. It's not that they were tremendously big, they were just... they were just from another planet or something.
The first muscle magazine that I ever borrowed was an edition of Muscle Up! and Platz was on the cover. I started to read all that I could on Tom Platz. Every time that he was in a magazine, I bought it. And although I wasn't a bodybuilder, per se, I thought of myself as an athlete, it was different back then. Bodybuilders were cool back then, every one of my friends knew who the top guys were, it seemed like less of a freak show than it is now. And most of them still looked athletic. So, for me to emulate Tom Platz even though I wasn't a competition bodybuilder wasn't that unusual back then.
And I began squatting in earnest. I had Osgood Schlatter’s disease, and my knees were pretty inflamed, so my doctor told me not to squat. But I squatted anyway. And as I kept squatting, my knees started to feel better. They never were an issue again.
Honestly, squats never felt like a natural movement for me, like say, deadlifts did. I had to do hundreds of reps before I felt comfortable. But Platz was touting their benefits, and Platz was the man, so I was diligent about it. I was too high with my depth at first, and I wasn't the strongest out of my friends, that's for sure. But I kept at it. At the same time that Platz was making the muscle news, Fred Hatfield, Dr. Squat was also big on the scene, touting squats as necessary for strength and size. I read everything about Hatfield also. I was pretty determined to get better at them, and I squatted frequently, sometimes every day. I was going to force my body to love the squat, to feel comfortable with it.
It wasn't until I got to junior college that I seemed to get a lot stronger at squatting, probably because I pushed my bodyweight up for football, and I finally squatted 500 x 3 as a freshman in college. During that time, I was squatting a few times a week (once a week during the football season), but running a lot also, so the squats got somewhat strong, but it wasn't until I graduated college that I really could push the weights. I started coaching and stopped the running. All I did was lift, eat, coach. Heavier squats started feeling like they were a skill that my body now recognized and felt comfortable with performing. I squatted 600 pounds about 5 or 6 years after graduating from college and then I pushed my body weight from 240 pounds to 312 pounds in about 6 months a few years later and squatted 700 at a Gold's Gym while I was coaching in Melbourne, Florida.
By this time, I had also discovered powerlifting, and I also discovered the Almighty Squat God, Kirk Karwoski. Kirks was the man who squatted 1000 x 2, and 800 x 5 with just a belt, and was from my part of Maryland where I grew up and coincidentally, we actually played football against each other in high school and junior college. I found videos of Kirk and studied them, and then called him on the phone, got him to do a seminar for my football kids and he stayed at my house. I picked his brain with all kinds of questions. First and foremost, what Kirk speaks of all the time is technique, technique, technique. And the squatting technique didn't begin when you went down with the bar, it began when you approached the bar. And everything had to be the same all the time and everything had to be perfect all the time, the hand placement, where the bar fit on your back, taking the bar off, the steps to get your stance, all of it. I never knew that somebody could talk so much about the squat or that there was so much involved in the technical aspects of the lift itself. Reminds me of this guy I interviewed for a strength coaching job one time and I asked him to teach me the squat and he said, "What's the big deal? You just put the bar on your back and start squatting ." Kirk would have slapped him for his naivety. Yes, that's why squats get a bad name. No instruction, actually, no proper instruction.
By this time, squatting had become an obsession for me.
I remember one day having a shitty squat work out and I was upset, I mean really upset. Everything felt off, like crap, not right. And I got my reps, but they were ugly. I remember pulling up to the house and my ex-wife seeing me get out of the car and her seeing my face all distraught and her in a semi panicked voice asking, "What is wrong?", she was like, are you ok? Did somebody die. I remember putting my head down in shame and saying to her, I had a bad squat workout. She looked at me like, what the hell have I married and then she was like, oh it'll be okay, it'll be okay. She probably thought that I was nuts, which I was.
Another time, I had a bad squat workout that day and was sitting in front of the television watching Sponge Bob and replaying the workout in my head. Then, I had an epiphany! I wasn't sitting back enough! There was this spot, when I felt my groin tighten up when I knew that it was a good squat. It was when I sat back and then down that the squat felt the best. So, I stood up, told my ex-wife that I was going to the gym again (maybe that's why she's my ex-wife) and left. I put some weight plates on the power bar and then, I felt that magical tightness in the groin, and it was moving super-fast and I was in a very good mood at this point. I ended up squatting 405 for 21 reps that night without a weight belt. Not bragging, I am just trying to point out my obsession with the movement. I remember this guy came up to me and said, “That’s the greatest thing that I have ever seen!” Which was cool.
I reckon that someone put it in my head that squats make you a real man also, and I was basing some of my self-worth on my squat performance, so I had to have good, productive squat sessions.
Besides getting to know Karwoski, I was also fortunate to work under Rob Wagner at Penn. At the time he was a crazy squatter, 799 at 198, 777 at 181, I mean ridiculous weights, and he was little. He had tons of muscle, and some crazy leg power. He taught me to descend fast, he taught me that speed was the key, he widened my stance, and he critiqued my reps. Nothing like having a world champion watch your sets to accelerate your progress. We’d stay in the office late, discussing programming, technique and ins and outs of every damn thing in the lifting world.
At the time, I was using the Russian Squat program that I copied from Fred Hatfield's book, Power. It was a bunch of volume and it was always over 80% of your one rep max. I got tremendous gains out that program, going from 700 to 740 pounds in my squats in a few months. And the volume, my first time doing so much volume, seemed to be a key for strength and growth for me. My top sets one time during my "heavy" day was 610 for 5x6, and I puked my way through all of those sets, but that workout made me stronger, for sure. I eventually used a similar program written by Boris Sheiko to squat 820 in competition.
What I realized was that I preferred squatting versus other forms of leg exercises. I knew that squatting was a key exercise for growth after a few years of doing them. When I decided to lose all of the blubber, I bumped my reps in the squats up even more, even doing sets of 20 at times. Hell, I did all kinds of rep’s schemes. In a year and a half, I got down to 198 pounds from 312 pounds and squatting high reps was a mainstay of my program. I added in some fast walking and it really helped me get tighter. It seemed to me that squats were so hard on the body that it forced your body to grow or die. Sometimes, I would skip a smaller body part workout to go squat, just because I felt soft doing curls and triceps. On my most productive training cycles, where I finished squatting 820 pounds, I pushed my squats, doing high volume, but on the deadlift, I just pulled a single once a week. And my deadlift actually got stronger with the increased squatting volume. And I hardly ever did anything for hamstrings. My god, is anything more boring than a leg curl?
So, I would just squat a bench of sets and leave.
After I got done powerlifting, and I did a few bodybuilding shows, I used barbell squats exclusively. I remember the first day that I was training legs for a show and I did my squats and did some leg curls and I was like, why am I doing this? My legs are already smoked from squats. So I would do ten sets of six reps in the squat once a week, and then I’d rest and do it again a week later. It was all that I needed. In fact, for every bodybuilding show that I have done, all of my leg work was either squats, hack squats, front squats or safety bar squats.
I have been squatting at least once a week since 1979. That’s a bunch of squatting. What I found out through all of the years of squatting is that it is truly an exercise that is essential; it can be used to improve strength, body composition, cardiovascular conditioning and to improve overall health. With all of those positives’ attributes going for it, it means one thing: Get under the bar and get to work!
About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.