Squats After 50? Are you crazy?
I guess the first answer to that is, maybe!
But the reality is that from my experience you can get stronger and fitter learning how to squat properly and you will get the same benefit that I have in only a few months (assuming you stick at it).
I have seen many articles on the Internet saying that no one over 50 should even attempt to squat and that it will ruin your knees.
With experience under my belt I disagree with these assumptions and would recommend anybody, regardless of age and gender, to incorporate this move into your workout if not currently doing so.
I outline what a squat is and why a barbell should be used to increase strength. I detail more on learnings I've discovered along the way from being a complete rookie to an intermediate lifter.
I hope that this information will be valuable and interesting, whether you squat regularly or are just starting out.
Who am I?
So I am an average Joe who started this journey at the age of 51 and am now 52 at the time of writing this article.
After being 7 months in and I have not missed a single day of training.
I was even in Spain on vacation in the summer and found a local gym with a squat rack. That had its own challenges, and I may do a separate article just on that!
The key point though was to be dedicated enough to keep on schedule and always go forward. Consistency is key to results.
What is a Squat?
So I turned up for my first session with my trainer for him to show me.
Well it turns out that I have been squatting all my life!
Every time I go to sit in a chair or go to the bathroom for number 2 I'm squatting.
Just as you are (although the ladies do it for number 1's as well and have further training advantage on guys!!)
Essentially it is the act of moving from a vertical to a position where your knees and hips form a parallel line.
The difference with a powerlifting squat or barbell squat is that you put a loaded barbell on your back!
Additionally most powerlifting federations will require the crease of the hip to be below the kneecap.
The squat is known as a compound movement in that it differs from a concentrated single muscle exercise and exercises pretty much every muscle in the body.
For this reason the squat has become known as "The King of Exercises".
Rather than pound out miles on the treadmill, from my experience, I can highly recommend focusing on doing squats every workout to shed those pounds in much less time - regardless of your age!
I cannot stress enough that every time before you begin to squat - especially as an older lifter - please warm up correctly to reduce soreness as well as being able to achieve the flexibility necessary to perform the movement correctly.
Don't say I didn't warn you!
Benefits of Barbell Squat
I'm not going to sugar coat it but doing barbell squats can be difficult. Whether it is handling the weight on your back, trying to hit depth, keeping your knees out there is so much to think about.
I beleive the major benefits of barbell squats are rooted in the fact that it is difficult:
Best Form for a Squat
When looking to work on your form you should start out with an unloaded bar as you want to focus on the correct technique first.
Once you start adding weights you're going to be taxing muscles that you may not have used before or at least for a long time.
You want to position the bar around neck height on the squat rack causing you to dip a little to get under it, but you don't want it too low that you're stooping.
You need to be able to move the bar up and off the rack but you don't want it so high that you end up on your toes - your feet should always be flat on the floor.
Grab the bar with an overhand grip.
The width of your grip will of course totally depend on your own physical anatomy; are you short, tall, average, do you have long arms, short arms etc.
Pick a spot that is comfortable but not too wide.
I'm 5' 10" and I usually put my hands where the outer ring is on a standard power bar (as opposed to an Olympic bar, which has the rings out wider).
Make sure your thumb is over the bar, unless you wish to do a high bar squat.
Setup under the bar
Squeeze your shoulders together and move under the bar to wedge your back into the bar.
You can do this by moving your back from side to side, starting from the top of the shoulders and moving the bar down as you wedge yourself in.
If you are squeezing correctly you should find a ridge from your muscles that will act as a perfect support for the bar as you go through the squat move.
You should then move your elbows up behind you and this should lock you in a tight position.
It may be uncomfortable the first times you try, but trust me that it becomes pretty natural the more times you do it.
The important thing is to keep you shoulders squeezed through this entire set up process so that you are as tight as possible.
Once you are set up and locked in take a deep breath and push the bar upwards with your back so that it is now suspended on your back.
Keeping your breath held and everything all tight take two steps backwards so that you are now in the free space of the squat rack.
Position your feet so that they are turned about 30 - 40 degrees outwards, or 10 and 2 on the clock.
You can breathe again. But keep your shoulders tight!
Importance of Bracing (Valsalva maneuver)
It is extremely important to brace your torso to be as rigid as possible through the entire squat.
This is done by taking a big deep breath to fill your internal cavity with air.
You need to hold this breath and rigidity throughout the squat to maintain perfect bracing, and therefore the angle of your back.
Now start descending while moving your butt backwards as you do when you go to sit on a chair, and move your knees outwards.
Moving your knees outwards will help you open up your hips so that you can sit back with the weight on your back.
You do need to make sure that your knees don't go forward of your feet.
This will be a very natural thing to do but is how you end up putting too much pressure on your knees and can be an easy way to hurt them.
Hinge on your hips and your knees will be fine.
It is not recommended to drop your hips any lower - commonly known as 'ass to grass' - as the hamstrings will lose their tightness to do this.
If the hamstrings are tight and at maximum stretch then we can utilize the so-called 'stretch reflex' to being the ascent.
A squat that doesn't reach parallel isn't a squat!
How many times do you see (mostly guys) unrack a heavy barbell and then only do a 2/3rds squat?
Not being able to squat correctly to depth just means that the weight has to be lightened and a focus is made on doing more volume to build up the flexibility (assuming form is correct and the knees are pushed out wide).
Tools like a box underneath your butt at the correct height can be used - as soon as it is touched it is time to reverse direction.
Keeping consistent will allow greater weights to be used all the while making sure depth is hit every time.
Once you've reached the position where the crease of your hips are at, or just below, the height of your knees you can then start to move back up.
Push up with your hips, keep tight and braced and think of pushing up from the shoulders.
The quads should then naturally assist you on the way up to stand up and lock out.
When you've returned to the vertical position you can let your breath go and start breathing again.
If you're doing a set of reps then repeat this entire process again from the deep breath to brace again for the descent.
Just remember that the travel of the bar should be as close to a vertical line about mid-foot.
How to Start Out Learning to Squat
The easy answer to how to start out learning to squat is to start off with no or light weight.
The key is to get your form correct and down pat first.
When I started out I started on 145 lb with three sets of 5 reps.
With the standard powerlifting bar weighing 45lb that is 50 lb on each side.
The move is seemingly simple but there are a lot of things you have to remember at each step.
I made sure I didn't rush through any of the reps and indeed took them quite slowly.
At first you're trying to go through the steps in your head but after a while and enough reps it becomes more natural.
I would also pause for quite a few seconds between reps to gather myself and allow me to prepare for the next rep.
Most of my muscles were not used to doing this move, and sticking your butt out with weight on your back is not very comfortable, so this time was useful to regroup.
The program my trainer put me on a program called 'novice linear progression' that is three times a week - in my case Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Unlike other moves the program calls for squatting every workout and is the first exercise I always do.
With this program 5lb weight is added on each workout.
At first this isn't too bad, but it doesn't take long before things start getting heavy!
Safety First when Squatting
Being safe is absolutely paramount.
You do not want to put yourself in any unnecessary jeopardy or cause yourself any unnecessary injury.
Preferably always use a squat rack, or power rack.
Always make sure that you have put the safety pins, or spotter arms, into the rack at the correct height.
The height will be dependent on the person and can be easily found.
You should be able to do a test squat with no weight on the bar and the pins should be just slightly lower than the lowest point you'll squat down to.
If you use the same rack for each workout just make a note of the positioning of the safety pins so you know to check and adjust accordingly every time you squat.
Having the safety pins set correctly becomes very important once you're squatting weight that is challenging to you.
If you fail to go back up and lose your balance then you need to tilt forward until the bar is held by the pins.
This is the safest way to dump the bar and the weight load without causing any injury.
Remember that this isn't the time to be macho - you need the 'safety net' provided by the pins so always ensure you use a rack with them and place them correctly.
What is a Belt for when Squatting?
I'm sure most people would say you wear a belt to support your lower back.
I certainly thought the same when I started out, but couldn't understand why I was getting lower back pain.
I mentioned this to my trainer and he said "No, the belt is to assist you to brace".....
Indeed it is true.
The belt should be worn so that you have something to push onto when you are breathe and hold it for your brace.
The idea is to make your abdominal cavity as rigid as possible.
Once I realized this my bracing improved and I no longer had issues with my lower back.
Best Footwear for Squatting
If you are squatting with lighter weight then you can probably get away with regular gym or running shoes.
If you want to seriously incorporate squatting into your workout regimen then you need to get some non-cushioned shoes.
With cushioned shoes as you'll get in sneakers you won't be able to balance correctly and this will compromise your form.
There are specialized squat shoes that are more built up in the heel, but these can run quite expensive and will probably be unnecessary in the beginning.
My trainer advised me to switch to Chuck Taylor's, so I purchased myself a pair of all-black high tops.
I've been very happy with these shoes and the high tops allow for tight binding so that the shoe doesn't move internally while exercising with weight.
After about nine months of squatting I purchased a pair of Do-Win squat shoes, also known as weight lifting shoes or lifters, and they allowed me to be more stable with higher weights.
Aches & Pains when Learning to Squat
I won't lie and say that you won't feel anything uncomfortable...
but we need to first separate out good pain and bad pain.
The good pain is when you've had a good workout and you've created the tears in the muscles necessary for them to be regenerated stronger - it's the natural way the body builds muscle and makes you stronger.
The downside is that it can be difficult to move for the next two days with the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
The good news is that the more you squat the more you can tolerate and the less the effects of DOMS becomes.
As an aside, don't let anyone tell you that you cannot get stronger and fitter in your fifties and that it's the preserve of younger people.
I am in the best shape of my life and most of these gains have come since doing the compound moves of squat, press, bench press and deadlift.
Of course I'm now kicking myself I didn't start this earlier in my life, but at least I have made the change and am feeling the benefits of it.
For the bad pain I did develop a shoulder issue on my left side, although in all honesty I think it was caused outside of my training.
However it did alter my training to train around the issue, but affected squatting the least -- especially after using wrist wraps to support my wrists, which in turn stops excessive strain on your shoulder.
I also developed a pain in my inner thigh, especially once my squat depth was improving.
This was just a mobility issue.
I solved this by doing slow walking lunges during my warmup to help stretch out those muscles and tendons prior to beginning to squat.
Once I started squatting over 200 lbs regularly and deadlifting above 225 lb on the same day I was getting severe lower back pain requiring some serious stretching to relieve it.
Aside from having to focus on some form modifications my trainer diagnosed the cause to be my upper back was too weak.
With weight the lower back, which is naturally stronger, was picking up the slack and the extra strain was causing pain.
We added some extra back strengthening accessory exercises, especially regular face pulls and rear dumbbell raises.
This worked and the pain disappeared.
This was an interesting lesson that pain may be caused by something else.
I personally had a nice benefit from squatting that I didn't expect.
For a number of years I had been suffering from plantar fasciitis in my left foot.
Amazingly the pain caused from this condition started to go away and now I have practically no pain from it at all.
I did some research and I understand the condition is aggravated by weakness in the achilles tendon and the glutes.
Both of these are exercised and improved by squatting, so it makes sense that my symptoms went away.
Even better was that it cost me absolutely nothing!
Knee Support when Squatting
I started off without any support on my knees but as I progressed to heavier weights I really needed some support of my knees.
My trainer recommended getting some knee sleeves from SBD, which I did.
The instructions were to measure around the knee and use the chart to find the best size.
I was a little nervous when they arrived with fingers crossed that the sizing was correct.
I was relieved when they arrived and they fit well.
Was a little strange using the knee sleeves to start with but after a few times you get accustomed to them.
The support they give is exceptional and it is night and day squatting with the sleeves, and squatting without.
Now I always wear them for all my exercises, except deadlift as they add extra unwanted friction as I drag the bar up my legs.
The SBD knee sleeves are made of a thick neoprene material that also helps to warm your knees up.
When you take them off you'll probably notice a lot of sweating so they should be washed regularly.
However you can only wash them by hand.
Do I recommend them? Yes I do.
I'm sure there are other knee sleeves on the market, but I haven't tried anything else.
Wrist Support when Squatting
Once you start squatting heavier weights you may put your wrists under extra strain, especially if you're still trying to perfect your bracing.
To keep your wrists from bending you can wear wrist wraps bound tightly to protect the wrist joint.
I purchased my wrist wraps from Elite FTS and chose the constrictor 60cm wraps.
These have good elasticity to get a tight binding, and have length enough to go three times around - first up at the palm of the hand, the second below the wrist and final going around the wrist joint.
You should wear these as tightly as you can stand to ensure the wrist has no possibility of moving.
Due to the tightness I wear them only for the set I'm doing - put them on just before the set and take them off when the set is complete.
As a side note, for my wife and other female lifters I usually recommend to them to purchase the 'normal' wrist wraps, as the constrictor type tend to be too tight and uncomfortable for them to wear.
High Bar Squat vs. Low Bar Squat
The conventional powerlifting squat is called the low bar squat because of the position of the bar is lower down the back.
An alternative is called the high bar squat where the bar is placed on the shoulder, or traps, which is certainly an uncomfortable feeling when you first try this.
Due to the higher location of the bar on your back you are going to be more upright, and your hands are going to be closer together.
For me I use a full around grip rather than the overhand grip I use on low bar.
Because of the more vertical position you probably won't be putting your butt out as far as with low bar, and so knee slide will be inevitable.
You will be able to squat much more weight with low bar squat than with high bar.
My trainer gives me high bar when I'm doing higher reps to improve my conditioning.
Although I wouldn't consider myself unfit my age definitely works against me and so i have to work harder at being able to do reps.
This means better conditioning and so the weighted high bar squat is excellent at getting the heart rate up and get the circulation going!
We will then switch to low bar when we're going for weight rather than higher reps.
Best Foot Stance when Squatting
Foot stance will vary from person to person, but in general you will want to have a fairly wide stance.
If you turn your feet outwards, say about 30 degrees (10 and 2 on the clock) then this will assist when you push your knees out and allow your hips to open up so you can stick your butt back.
When I started doing high bar squats I did bring my stance in somewhat - it does make the move more quad dominant so is a good thing when trying to strengthen these.
It can then become more difficult with more weight.
If this is the case then the feet should be further apart.
It may take quite a bit of practice and trying multiple distances for you to get the stance that is right for you.
How Often Should you Squat?
My training schedule is three times a week; Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
At first when my trainer said I'd be squatting every workout I thought he was crazy and that my body just wouldn't hold up to that.
As I write this I'm now eight months into my training and indeed I have squatted every single workout, with no bad effects whatsoever.
Indeed my strength has improved significantly.
I have lost weight around my mid-section and on my videos I see that my back looks totally different from when I first started.
The question shouldn't be how often, but rather what mix of squatting will you do?
You don't want to get into the ritual of doing exactly the same thing each and every workout.
Aside from being boring your body will just expect it and you won't get any gains.
You also don't want to go so heavy that you're not able to squat correctly with good form.
Variations can include:
If you progress to an intermediate level it will become impossible to add weight every session and expect the body to make the necessary adaptations in time.
This is especially true the older you are.
In this case you can switch to a four day split where you may only be squatting twice a week;
the first session will be higher volume at a lighter weight,
and the second session will be maybe a single set but at heavy weight.
The principle is that the first session will drive the adaptation allowing you to hit a solid heavy weight at the end of the week.
With this process your progress will improve weekly as opposed to each session.