Looking Forward to Squat Day

I noticed something wonderful this morning: I found myself looking forward to my squat workout. This has not typically been the case for me.

I started training with a barbell a couple years ago and immediately showed some talent with deadlifts.(1) On the first day with a barbell, I repped deadlifts at twice the weight of my first squats, and I don’t recall adding any weight to the bar at all for bench. (I couldn’t yet do a single overhead press with an empty bar.)

This comparative deficit set me up for less than stellar enthusiasm for squat day. Not only did I not feel especially confident in the numbers, the movement felt wrong. I’d done relatively heavy goblet squats for years before I picked up a barbell, but the weight on my back felt alien and scary. I knew I could move more weight than I was demonstrating, but it required me to brace, to balance, to think about my knees, all in new ways. It required a lot of focus and even a year into it, it never felt natural.

I was working with a trainer at that time; a woman who was a competitive powerlifter, and I went to her to learn the barbell lifts. Reading between the lines, my sense is she assumed my problem with squats (and any challenging lift, really) came down to confidence. I just needed to believe I could do it. I’m sure confidence always plays a role in what we can do in the gym, but I also knew that what helped me build confidence wasn’t pushing myself to the limit every week. I needed the boring, rote practice of somewhat challenging but totally within my abilities, vanilla squats. But instead, she had me pushing new weights week after week, and I failed my lifts over and over again.

Mid-COVID I decided to stop working with the trainer and began doing my own programming. I started with a purchased program, but over time, I listened to my body, my stress levels, and my feelings, and I just let myself adjust the plan to fit me. I’ve shared an example of that here when I cut back on my training at the start of the school year. I started with relatively lighter weights and did lots of practice reps. I slowly added heavier sets of 2-4 reps to get comfortable with it feeling heavy, and only added weight when my form and body felt good at that weight. Now, perhaps 8 months into doing my own thing, I can say I’m finally looking forward to squat day. I’ve let go of the dread and discomfort I associated with it and instead I feel accomplished and strong.

Would I be stronger if I’d followed more aggressive programming and toughed through it? Maybe. Or maybe I would have burnt out. In the last year, I’ve had some little niggling pains in my low back and right hamstring, some weird nerve symptoms on my right side,(2) and the usual exhaustion of teaching exacerbated by a pandemic. I’ve been responsive to these stressors and adjusted my training, and as a result, I’ve managed to not only keep lifting, but to continue to add weight to the bar. My squat max is approaching my deadlift max, but more important to me, I like squatting now. I get to be in my meathead happy place and feel strong and capable.

I want lifting to be fun. Squat day has become fun for me because I’ve let go of aggressive training and embraced what was seemed to be “right for now.” And I’m happy to say, I’m looking forward to my next squat day!

Do you have a lift that you dread? What might help you to get to a better place with it? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or contribute to the evil empire and find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook.

(1) I’m far from bragging. There is nothing impressive about my strength levels unless you practice avoiding ableism and only compare my strength levels to myself and my own accomplishments.

(2) It’s always my right side. That’s the side they’ve had to open up over and over and over again to do surgery on my lung.

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