Fear Is the Squat-killer
‘I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.’ (Frank Herbert, Dune)
The psychology of weightlifting, and especially the place of fear, is a topic that does not receive the attention it deserves. It should go without saying that how much weight you can lift is as much a matter of how much weight you believe you can lift, as it is a question of muscular strength or anything else.
Of course, our minds are subject to the constraints of physical reality – nobody is going to walk into a gym and deadlift 500kg simply because they believe they can – but the essential truth remains: if you don’t think you’re going to be able to complete a lift, chances are you won’t. At the very least, you’re making things much harder for yourself.
That said, fear is unavoidable – even for the most accomplished lifter. Tom Platz, a bodybuilder famous for his freaky leg development and strength, admitted in a fairly recent video that fear dogged his squat workouts. ‘I was scared to death every workout!’ Remember that this is the man who, in his legendary duel with ‘Dr Squat’ Fred Hatfield, managed to squat 525lbs for 23 reps with perfect form.
Compensatory Acceleration Training
This concept was popularized by Dr. Fred Hatfield. It is one of the simplest methods to quickly drive up strength & power. The premise is simple:
Accommodate for improved leverage on the bar by actively accelerating through the entire movement pic.twitter.com/SgzzPjRwlu
— Alan Bishop (@CoachAlanBishop) June 19, 2019
For Platz, the fear appears to have been primarily related to the insane intensity he demanded from every leg workout; on occasion he would squat 220lbs for 100 reps. (Look up the video of Platz doing forced reps on the leg curl machine with a partner, screaming ‘kill me!’, if you’re looking for a decent scare.)
SQUAT OR DEADLIFT: WHICH IS SCARIER?
For the beginner and the intermediate lifter, fear usually arises from the risk of failing a heavy rep. Of all the most common lifts, it’s a toss-up between the deadlift, bench and back squat, and probably between the deadlift and the back squat, for the scariest lift.
One of the problems with deadlifting is that you can’t get a feel for the weight before you try to lift it. The weight has to be moved from a dead position off the ground: the Golgi tendons, which control muscle tension and provide feedback, cannot tell you anything about the weight until you’ve actually got it off the floor – if indeed you do get it off the floor.
As intimidating or daunting as this is, and as important as it is to have the right mindset when you’re approaching the bar for a heavy deadlift, it’s not quite the same as the very primal fear having a big weight on your shoulders will elicit. Nothing feels quite as kill or be killed as a heavy squat. After all, you can just drop the bar if you can’t lift it off the floor. Things become rather less simple when the bar is on your back. If there are safety bars or you’re using bumper plates, you can dump the bar safely, but you need to know how; a spotter can help too. If you have none of those things, the prospect of failing a heavy squat can become much more worrying. In my home garden gym, I squat on the patio from a basic squat rack using concrete plates I’ve made myself. For the health of my patio and the weights I’ve made, dumping the bar is never really an option. As I got up to a 400lbs squat, the fear of failing a rep became more and more debilitating. Finally, I bought two carpenter’s saw trees, which sit at just the right height to function as squat safety arms. Much better: now I can squat confidently, without the fear of where the bar will go if I go too heavy.
Even with safety equipment in place, the feeling of fear never quite disappears though. The answer, I believe, is to build confidence in two ways: by familiarising yourself as much as possible with the movement; and by familiarising yourself with the feeling of having large amounts of weight on your back.
TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO BUILD CONFIDENCE IN THE SQUAT
Here are two different approaches. The first is most suitable for beginners and intermediate lifters, whereas the second may be put to good use even by advanced lifters.
SQUAT EVERY DAY
The first approach is squatting every day. I don’t mean that you should squat heavy every day, but that on the days when you aren’t normally squatting, you should squat with just the bar or with a very light weight on the bar.
If you aren’t able to get to a gym or don’t have a bar at home, you can use a broomstick or a piece of PVC pipe; doing an air squat with your hands to the front or at your side is not the same movement as having a weight, even a broomstick, on your traps, and you want to mimic as closely as possible the actual movement you’re trying to improve.
So: every day when you aren’t squatting as part of your normal routine, do five sets of ten squats. Use the opportunity to focus on the form of the movement, how it feels when you squat and reach the correct depth.
Try different tempos: a slow descent, pause and then a slow ascent; a slow descent and ascent without a pause in between; a slow descent, pause and then a fast ascent; a fast descent, pause and then a slow ascent; a fast descent and fast ascent with no pause.
Pay close attention to how you breathe and brace your core. Try doing bursts of three or even five fast or slower reps on just a single breath.
When you’re descending slowly, you’ll be able to get a much better understanding of your flexibility and, over time, you’ll be able to push further with it. You’ll also get a good idea of what it feels like for your butt to ‘wink’, that is, for the lumbar spine to round under you as you descend. This is a dangerous habit that puts excessive strain on your lower back.
As the ancients knew, repetitio est mater studiorum – repetition is the mother of learning. The more you squat, the more confident you will feel about your ability to do the movement correctly.
The second approach is one you will see Olympic, especially Chinese, weightlifters perform. You put more weight – sometimes significantly more weight – than you can squat on your back, walk out and hold the weight for time. Then you walk the weight back in. Look up the Snakepham Youtube channel to see a number of videos of Chinese weightlifters of all sizes doing this.
As well as providing you with a wicked isometric contraction – you’ll realise just how much muscles like the traps, upper back and even the lats and biceps are involved in the squat – you’ll also become more confident with the feeling of having a big weight on your back. No, it’s not going to squash you flat. You are Atlas, holding the weight of the world! Try doing a couple of sets for 30 secs at the end of your normal squat workout and work up from there.
Sometime in the future, if you stick with it, you’ll be walking that weight out again, but instead of just standing there feeling strong, you’ll descend powerfully, hit the bounce and come back up out of the hole like a cruise missile.
Hold that thought.
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