by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
We train these movements because they are the building blocks of human physical performance. We have to use them.
(This essay was later produced as a video, which can be viewed below.)
In our system of training for the Athlete of Aging, we emphasize four big compound barbell movements: the squat, the press, the bench press, and the deadlift. Together, these movements train the vast majority of the muscle mass in the human body, and they work synergistically to improve strength, power, endurance, mobility, balance, and body composition. That's why these four barbell movements are the keystone of our exercise prescription for older adults.
But these movements are not created equal. You can move more weight with a deadlift than a bench press. You need a longer range of motion for the squat than the deadlift. The squat and press require more technical finesse than the dead and bench, in my opinion. And so on.
This is part of the reason why the program requires individualization for older adults, and this tailoring is brought to bear more often for the squat and the press. I have found that almost anybody who can walk can perform the deadlift and the bench. Most can perform the squat and press, too, but shoulder mobility issues, knee pain, and hip pain are endemic in Masters, and many require very careful prescription of squats and presses or their variants to begin. Some even require substitution.
These limitations can and usually do extend beyond the gym, and in particular with the squat. Most people bend over to pick things up or lift things overhead into a cupboard. But I have found that even those who squat heavy in the gym avoid this movement pattern the rest of the time.
I think that is a big mistake.
Case in point: Some of you will be aware that about a year ago I had surgery on my right knee for calcific tendinitis of my quadriceps tendon, the connective tissue that allows my quad to yank on my kneecap. I was aggressive about rehab, and within a few months I was squatting in the 300-lb range again. It was anxiety-provoking, and often uncomfortable, but I did it, because I was determined not to be held back by my injury. This approach was carried out under the supervision and guidance of a phenomenal coach and physical therapist, Major Will Morris, US Army, to whom I am eternally grateful. And it was successful.
But about 9 months ago, I took note of a curious phenomenon. I was squatting heavy in the gym again, to my enormous relief. But outside the gym I didn’t squat at all. In my daily life, I unconsciously avoided anything even resembling a squat. If I needed to retrieve something from the floor, I bent over at the hips to pick it up. If I had to stand from a seated position, I pushed away with my arms.
And my daily prostrations before the Altar of Sauron? Fuggedaboutit.
So I asked myself: How long has this been going on? I’m not sure it began after the surgery. In fact, I’m fairly confident this has actually been going on for years, and has nothing to do with my knee issue. I think so because it seems to be a ubiquitous by-product of aging in developed countries: At a certain age, most people, especially men, just stop bending their knees and squatting down on a daily basis.
The more I reflected on this, the more outrageous it seemed. It is outrageous. Here I am, squatting 325 lbs or more on a regular basis, and yet I avoid the movement in daily life as if it will somehow mangle and cripple me at bodyweight. Yes, of course, my knees bug me, and I’m sore half the week from working out, and if I have to pick up a dropped object, bending over at the hips will certainly work, albeit not as efficiently. But that's no excuse.
Crazy. Why train the squat movement if I’m not going to use it?
So I did something about it. I started adding bodyweight squats to my morning movement drill of tai chi and stretches. Then throughout the day I started looking for excuses to squat down: a package under the mailbox, something from under the sink, a dropped pen, plates to change for a client. At first, my brain rebelled, but I forced myself to quickly take my stance, stick my knees out, and sit down into my squat position, every chance I got. Sometimes it felt creaky. Sometimes it hurt. But every time I did it, my inhibition against doing it again got a little weaker. Even when the movement wasn’t comfortable, it was more natural and fluid.
And a couple of crazy things happened. First, I noticed that my heavy squats, in the gym, with a barbell, weren’t as uncomfortable anymore. The knee was more on-board with what I was doing. Second, I started squatting down in daily life more often without thinking about it. The gym had made my squat strong, but using my squat in daily life made it more fluid, more comfortable, and more spontaneous. The squat is no longer just a special something I do twice a week on the platform, as part of a program, with a bar on my back and safeties at my side. It’s something I do all the time, day in and day out, just as a normal, useful, living movement pattern.
Using the squat movement every day keeps me—and my knees—supple and in a state of readiness. It sends a constant message to my brain that there’s nothing special or phenomenal or risky or particularly uncomfortable about bending at the knees, sitting down on your haunches, and then standing up again. The neural pathways, muscles, and ligaments don’t just do the work twice a week and then stiffen up the rest of the time. Twice a week I make the movement strong, and the rest of the week I use that strong movement. The result has been transformative for the way I move out of the gym, and done a lot to make me feel more vigorous and mobile and supple than I have felt in a long time.
It’s also left me a bit embarrassed. Consider this an essay of contrition. Because here I am, preaching the gospel of movement and strength, and yet for a long time I somehow failed to see a huge gap between training and life that was right in front of me.
We train these movements because they are the building blocks of human physical performance. Squatting down and standing up, bending over to deadlift a load, lifting something overhead, pushing something away—these movements are the brick and mortar of our physical existence. We must train them diligently. We must make them strong.
And then we must use them.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.