Squatting Alternatives

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I believe that the Squat is unquestionably the most effective exercise for increasing muscle bulk in all the major lower-body muscles. I also believe that the Squat will develop overall strength and power, and is one of the most effective exercises to improve knee stability and rehabilitate knee injuries. The problem is, for some individuals the stress (or more precisely, compression forces) that the Squat places on the back makes it uncomfortable to perform the exercise for prolonged periods. Also, some people r v

A Effects of Smith Machine on the Knees.

The illustration on the left shows the shearing forces placed on the knee during a Smith machine squat. These are caused by the lack of involvement of the hamstrings. The illustration on the right shows how the force dissipates throughout the lower leg when performing a Squat.

get just plain burned out on the Squat and are looking for alternatives to keep their interest piqued. For these individuals, there are several devices that may provide the variety to keep your legs growing big and strong with minimal stress on the lower back—and without resorting to geek exercises like knee extensions.

In regard to machines that attempt to duplicate the Squat, the basic problem is that many of them can reduce the pressure on the back and place significant stress on the knees. Take for example the ever-popular Smith machine. The Smith bar makes it possible to squat in a manner that allows you to lean back against the barbell, thereby supporting your back and minimizing hip extension during the exercise. What this does is take the hamstrings out of the movement. The hamstrings, however, are the muscle group that helps stabilize the kneecap. The result is unnaturally high shearing forces that try to pull the joint apart, as well as tremendous stress on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), one of the primary ligaments in the knee capsule that provides stability to the knee. For this reason I would discourage you from using the Smith machine, or at least only use it on an infrequent basis.

All the squatting-alternative devices have this factor in common: they displace the center of mass of the resistance in order to reduce the stress on the skeletal and/or muscular structures. Let's examine a few other alternatives to traditional squats.

Barbell Hack Squats. This exercise was brought to the bodybuilding world by Russian wrestler Georges Hackenschmidt. Make a note of that— few people know why a hack is called a hack. A very low-cost alternative to back squatting, the Hack Squat will promote top-level growth in the vastus medialis.

The Hack Squat I'm talking about is performed with a barbell, not the so-called Hack Squat machines. As in the Smith machine, because the back is stabilized in this exercise, the hamstrings are not recruited to stabilize the knee.

In order to perform a true Barbell Hack Squat you need a barbell and an adjustable rack to place the barbell at the optimal height for picking up and racking the bar. Your heels should be elevated by at least a two-by-four board so that you can squat with a straight back with your hips placed under your shoulders in the bottom position.

Set the two-by-four about four to six inches in front of the power rack. Set a barbell on the rack so that it's about four to six inches lower than your gluteal line. Standing with your back to the bar, grab the barbell, preferably with straps. Walk forward until your heels rest on the board. Initiate the squatting motion by allowing your knees to travel as far as possible forward without allowing your back to move. Once your knees have reached this point, lower your hips to the bottom position of the squat. Be sure to keep

an upright back. Do not allow your shoulders to round forward, and be certain your hips are under your shoulders in the bottom position.

Buffalo Bar. Some trainees will complain of the following when using a straight bar when squatting: sore wrists and shoulders, and uncomfortable pressure on the neck. The Buffalo bar is in fact just a very stiff, slightly cambered bar that makes squatting more comfortable for people who have a hard time supporting a straight bar. It provides a more comfortable variation of the back squat for those who are trapezius challenged (i.e., pencil-neck geeks, in politically incorrect English.)

The Buffalo bar is also great for high-rep squatting. Bodybuilding programs tend to work in cycles, with so-called revolutionary new programs evolving every five to ten years. One of these programs is high-rep squatting, often supersetted with pullovers to expand the ribcage. This method was first promoted in the 70s by Ironmciris founding publisher Peary Rader, and then by the late-great Don Ross in his many books and articles, and most recently by Randall Strossen of Milo magazine in his book SuperSquats. Although there is still no concrete evidence that the pullover will expand the ribcage any more than will breathing hard after exercise, for short-term purposes this can cause extreme soreness and serve as a nice introduction to non-bodybuilders about how hard weight training can be.

Superseding pullovers aside, there is still some merit to high-rep squatting. The downside is that most bars will undulate when you perform multiple reps, which can hurt the tempo and place some jarring compressive forces on the lower back. Because the Buffalo bar is stiff, there is no undulation of the bar when doing fast, multiple reps. I recommend the bar for high-rep squatting, or even high-rep lunges. The stability also makes the bar ideal for the Good Morning exercise.

The Buffalo bar and the Magic Circle (below) can be purchased from IronMind Enterprises, Inc., P.O. Box 1228, Nevada City, CA 95959, tel (916) 265-6725, fax (916) 265-4876.

Magic Circle Squats. The Magic Circle came to life as the Douglass Frame. It was a rectangular frame draped over the shoulders with supporting harnesses. Later on, its inventor, James Douglass, further refined his invention by shaping it into a circle. The new design was popularized by then-publisher of Ironman Peary Rader, who sold it through his Body Culture Equipment company. It has been resurrected periodically by various authors, such as American weightlifting coach Carl Miller in the mid-70s, and by Randall Strosssen in the late 80s in his book SuperSquats. Compared to barbell squats, the Magic Circle lowers the center of gravity dramatically,

A A wide array of bars and apparatus are available to help you enjoy the benefits of squatting, even if traditional squats are beyond your capabilities. These innovative bars also add variety to your squatting routines. (Robert Russo)

"The Safety Squat bar was developed in Germany over 40 years ago and is very good for individuals who have encountered injuries in the lower back."

thus reducing the stress on the lower back. It is another favorite of those authors who endorse high-rep squatting for bulking up.

The Magic Circle is a toy that can be used for the home gym owner, but it will never become a popular item in a commercial gym because of the space it would take up to be a permanent station, not to mention the liability of squatting in a circle of steel with no safety supports. Plus, it takes time to get in and out of it. This is definitely for the home trainer with a good sense of balance.

Front Harness Squats. Manufactured by Power Atomic, Inc., the Front Harness Squat is strongly advocated by the Bigger, Faster, Stronger crew. It allows you to squat without struggling to hold the bar. Some people like to use the harness in the Smith machine, but as you've already learned, 1 hold a poor opinion of any work done on the Smith machine.

The Front Harness is good for people with weak rhomboids that limit their squatting poundages. People with large arms (over 18 inches) may still find it hard to use. The Front Squat Harness can be purchased for $149.99 from Power Atomic, Inc., including UPS shipping and handling, P.O. Box 271, Swampscott, MA 01907. Write for a brochure or call (617) 581-6929 and ask for Susan Silverman.

Manta Ray. The Manta Ray was designed originally for pencil-neck geeks to protect their upper vertebrae. Powerlifters who strain their shoulders or their brachialis muscles by doing scores of reps with low-bar squatting will benefit enormously by shifting to Manta Ray squats until their injuries recede. Says one of Montreal's top personal trainers, Denis Dionne, "It really helps a person to squat with an upright position." It is different than just a pad, as a pad will place unnatural stress on the neck.

The Manta Ray provides at a very low cost (around $40) an effective variation for the back squat. By displacing the center of mass of the resistance, you change the motor recruitment pattern, thus fostering further adaptations in the squatting muscles. People with ample trapezius development will find it awkward to use at first. For these people, I would recommend only high-rep work with this device. Kim Goss, a former strength coach at the US Air Force Academy, said that most of his bigger linemen could not use it because it dug into their traps, and his was a program that emphasized power cleans. Because military schools don't produce big linemen, it would be even worse for other schools with big men. Perhaps in the future a larger size Manta Ray bar will be developed for these individuals. The Manta Ray can be purchased by calling Mark at 800-563-1000.

Safety Squat Bar. The Safety Squat bar was developed in Germany over 40 years ago, yet people in the US have claimed to have invented it about 15 years ago. Bobsled superstar Pierre Lueders has used this bar to improve his squatting poundages. It is very good for people who have encountered injuries in the L-5 vertebra region, as it lowers the distance between the center of mass of the resistance.

There are basically three ways to use the bar:

a) Holding on to the racks in front of you b) Using locked arms, parallel to the ground in front of you, with the fingertips brushing against the racks. This style ensures that your back stays as upright as possible c) Holding on to the yoke.

There are some flexibility restrictions with this bar. Some people complain of pain in the wrists, elbows or shoulder girdle. However, the Safety Squat bar has many advantages. When using a straight bar, there is always a chance that you will lean forward or round your back, exposing the lower back area to serious injury potential. With the Safety Squat bar the center of mass of the resistance is lower and more in line with the midline of the body. This prevents the excessive forward leaning associated with straight-bar squatting.

In some instances, trainees have lost balance forward or backward, greatly compromising their safety. Once again, since the resistance is closer to the center of gravity, it is much easier to balance high loads. The padded yoke eliminates compressive forces by redistributing the load.

With the Safety Squat bar you can spot yourself if you get stuck in a position by simply pressing on your own quadriceps or pulling up on the racks since your hands are free to help you go through the sticking point. There are varying degrees of quality in the Safety Squat bars available, and I would recommend the one made by Jesse Hoagland (609-989-0211).

The Zane Leg Blaster. This device was first introduced to the bodybuilding world as the Moore Leg Blaster; however, it didn't begin to gain popularity until it was endorsed by Mr. Olympia Frank Zane. I guess nobody had ever heard of Moore. In a short time (and a few issues of Muscle and Fitness), it became known as the Zane Leg Blaster.

Whether it's called the Moore or the Zane Leg Blaster, it is still a toy. If you have access to it, it can provide variety to your leg workouts; but it is certainly not necessary to ultimate leg development. And, if it allows anyone to get down to full squats, all the better. Like the Magic Circle, it is more likely to be bought by the home gym fanatic than by the gym owner. Zane can be contacted at 800-323-7537.

A Bronch Warren, 1994 NPC Junior Nationals champion shows off the results of a diligent and intelligent leg training routine.

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    Where can you buy a Peary rader magic circle?
    3 years ago

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