If I had to pick the one exercise that I felt was the best in giving bang for your buck, I would pick the barbell squat. It’s a compound exercise, meaning that it strengthens the whole body. No matter what sport or activity you’re interested in, I would say the squat can greatly benefit you. Yes, even runners, who typically aren’t interested in developing muscle.
I began squatting about a year ago in August. I had returned from a two-week vacation in Greece and I wasn’t pleased with what I was seeing in many of my vacation photos. Not that I gained weight in Greece. Nope, I went to Greece weighing close to 150 lbs on a petite 5’4″ frame. Signs of good living with lots of rich food and fine wine lounged on my bones. Although pixelated evidence can disappear through a single click, the physical evidence would take more work.
I dreaded the prospect of going back to the gym because I was already bored. I suffer from what I call exercise ADD. I discover something, love it, obsess over it, and then I lose all interest in it. My past was littered with failed attempts of finding something I loved doing. Aerobics in grad school. A different type of aerobics in the Great White North. Zumba the first couple of years in New York.
Then in late August last year, I discovered Fitocracy. I stumbled onto an entirely different fitness world that had no use for aerobics and cardio. No, they’re focus was on weightlifting. Now weightlifting conjures ideas of meatheads and steroids, but I found a supportive and friendly environment of people who were passionate about fitness and getting strong. With their encouragement, I commenced my journey in barbell strength training
I read about barbell strength training in Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, which provides you with the foundation of basic strength training. It explains why the Big Three (squat, bench press, and deadlift) are the three best compound exercises you can do. Proper form is demonstrated and a basic beginner plan is laid out. You can preview the book by seeing the wiki here. I love Rippetoe because he emphasizes the importance of good form, why it’s important to go parallel, and why squats will not hurt your knees.
I taught myself how to do the barbell squat by reading a lot and watching youtube clips even more before attempting to do it at the gym. Admittedly I was a bit terrified of squatting. Not because I thought I might hurt myself, but because I was worried that I was going to develop gigantic thigh muscles not unlike the German cyclists at the 2012 Tour de France. This is the reason why the Fitocracy community was so great. They reassured me that 1) women don’t have the testosterone to develop huge muscles like men (the ones who do are taking steroids), 2) strength training is necessary for fat loss, and 3) it’s good for my health because I’ll be getting stronger. Plus if I somehow do have some genetic variation that bequeath me with the ability to develop huge muscles, if I stop, the muscles will atrophy. They pointed out that men have difficulty achieving massive muscle gain. It takes huge amounts of calories and training to develop those muscles, so why do I think I’ll be able to do it even when I’m not eating for hypertrophy and I’m not lifting anywhere near what the weightlifters and powerlifters are.
I always knew I was weak. I had absolutely no upper body strength. I couldn’t even do a flexed arm hang when I was a schoolkid. My first foray into the weight room was a bit amusing, mostly because my heart was beating a little faster from the imagined fear that I had about what the other people (you know, the weightlifters) would say to me. They said nothing. They barely looked at me. My fear that they would try to kick me out was unfounded. Mentally I knew they wouldn’t do this, but deep down inside I had a small irrational emotional angst. I went to the squat rack so I could perform my first barbell squat with the 45-lb barbell.
I almost fell over. When I deracked the barbell, stepped backwards, and then tried to squat, I stumbled and almost fell from what was to me an enormous weight on my shoulders. I had great sympathy for Atlas. Yeah, I was too weak for an empty barbell. So I left the weight room and wandered around until I found a 20-lb body bar that I used to practice squatting until I became stronger.
For a few weeks, I used the body bar and the small fixed weight barbells (that I think of as baby barbells) for squatting. Then I went back to the weight room. Back to the squat rack. I faced the 45-lb barbell. Taking one deep breath, I did my squat set up and had the barbell on my back. When I successfully squatted the barbell, a huge smile of victory was on my face. In a matter of a few weeks, I went from a little weakling to someone who could actually squat. A few months later I saw proof my new-found strength, when I easily swung my carry-on to the overhead compartment when I was flying home for the holidays. Before I struggled and had to ask for help to get my luggage overhead, but now I could handily take care of it on my own. And as for that fear of getting too “big” and “muscled,” ha, I lost inches. I lost an inch and a half around each of my thighs. Slimmer and stronger? Yes, please! I’ll do more squats.
Weightlifting is the foundation of my training. I generally do weightlifting three times a week. Out of the Big Three, the barbell squat is my favorite. Currently I can squat 110 lbs, but I have squatted 120 lbs before. I’m working on strength gain, while losing fat, so the strength gains are happening very slowly. I love what weightlifting has done for me and I hope that if you haven’t tried it yet, that you’ll give it a go.