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The Squat: Greatest Single Exercise

By Peary Rader

The squat is absolutely and without exception the greatest single exercise known to man, for conditioning the entire body, improving the health and energy, strengthening the function of the internal organs, giving the most rapid gains in bodyweight, adding to all-around athletic ability. That’s quite a large order, but it’s true.

There was a time in the history of American bodybuilding when the squat was given very little consideration. It was thought that the arms and shoulders were most important to either a bodybuilder or a lifter. However, in time, that way of thinking was changed, largely by certain teachers who had found the squat to be very valuable, and also by bodybuilders and lifters who used it. Lifters found that the only way they could become superior to other lifters was to develop great power in the legs and hips.

In the days of Alan Calvert’s and George Jowett’s teaching, the squat was thought to be just another exercise of average importance, like the curl or rowing. Because it was hard to do, and little importance was attached to it, many lifters and bodybuilders never included it in their programs. By this omission they greatly limited their progress and ultimate possibilities, although they weren’t aware of it.

Old-time wrestler and strongman Henry Steinborn came over here from Germany and brought the squat with him. He had practiced it a great deal with crude, homemade barbells while in a prison camp in World War I and had reached a very high standard in poundage used and found his other lifts had greatly increased so that he was able to snatch and clean and jerk record poundages. He was a man with a very rugged physique and for many years was a top wrestler.

Another young fellow, who, although a lifter, had always been quite slender, caught a spark of enthusiasm from Steinborn and began practicing the squat. This man’s name was Mark Berry. He succeeded in gaining about 50 pounds of bodyweight in a short time through use of the squat. He later became editor of the old Strength magazine and through it encouraged others to adopt the squat for greater progress in lifting and bodybuilding. Some unbelievable gains were made at that time by men who had totally failed to gain before. These men were written up in Berry’s magazine, and the fad for the squat exercise started.

One man in particular made astounding progress—doing nothing but the squat and presses behind the neck. J.C. Hise gained 29 pounds in one month, probably a record up to that time. It was about here that the sets system began to be used effectively by a lot of men, for Hise used about three sets of the squat. Of course, they weren’t called sets at that time, so in recent years others have claimed to have invented them. Actually, sets were probably never discovered by anyone in particular, as is the case with most of what some call modern methods. Sets have been used more or less since barbells were invented, though their real value wasn’t recognized until more intensive bodybuilding was practiced in recent years.

Up until the time of Hise’s experiments with the squat, I spent about 12 years in fruitless effort trying to develop a physique or gain weight. I weighed 128 pounds at a height of 5’10” during those years, and training methods at that time didn’t alter my physique even slightly. On publication of the gains of Hise, I decided that this might be what I needed, so I wrote him, and in his characteristically enthusiastic letter I felt I had at last found the secret of gains, so I immediately started working out with squats, chins and behind-the-neck presses. I worked out twice per week and used one set of 20 reps in the squat part of the time and two sets of 10 to 15 reps part of the time. I gained 10 pounds of good muscle the first month. Not much, perhaps, by today’s standards, but a lot for a fellow who hadn’t been able to gain a pound for years and in fact was even too weak and run down to hold down a job for any length of time. In two years I gained 70 pounds of bodyweight. In addition to this I had become heavy weight lifting champion of the Midwestern AAU district, including South Dakota, Nebraska and western Iowa.

I’m not alone in praise of this exercise, for virtually every weightlifter to ever reach his maximum lifting ability has used it as his key power-producing exercise. Most of your top bodybuilders have at one time or other specialized on some version of the squat and owe much of their physical development to it. What is more important to most of you who read this, thousands of fellows just like you who found it almost impossible to make desired gains discovered, as I did, that the squat was the secret to fast and certain progress. Many years ago Bob Hoffman was opposed to the squat as an exercise for lifters and classed it as just another exercise. Yet during the intervening years he has gradually been converted to its benefits and now admits that it is the king of exercises.

For many years Iron Man was almost alone in promotion and publicizing of the squat as the best exercise, and yet it finally forced its way to the recognition it deserves. There are those who feel that we overdid our pushing of this exercise, but such methods often have to be used in order to get the public to accept even the best of new ideas. We don’t recommend that bodybuilders and lifters do nothing but squats, or that they train to excess on it, as some of our critics would have you believe, but we do feel that too many bodybuilders neglect to do even a minimum amount of work on this exercise. It is especially necessary and valuable in the early stages of a bodybuilder’s training. An advanced man can often cut down on his squatting work after he has gotten the desired bulk and use other leg exercises for obtaining the definition and shape he desires, but in the early training programs every man should work very hard on the squat.

Editor’s note: This article was published in the July 1955 IronMan Magazine.

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