The Squat Paradox

Squat rack with safety bars

I’ve noticed something a little odd about my training over the past couple of weeks…

I train at both a CrossFit gym and at a standard commercial gym.  In CrossFit, we do squats pretty frequently.  You can rack the weight to start and to finish, but there aren’t any safety bars or rack spotters – once the weight is out of the rack, you are doing free-standing squats in open space.  Conversely, at my commercial gym, I typically use the squat racks where you can unrack the weight and take a few steps back, but are still enclosed by safety bars on either side.  These are there in the event you get stuck at the bottom of a squat – you can just drop out from under the barbell and the safety bars will catch it.

I have been a bit perplexed because I am able to squat heavier at my standard commercial gym than I am at CrossFit.  I may struggle with front squatting 110 lbs at CrossFit, but then knock out 135 lbs at my gym.  What gives?

The difference is…I squat lower in CrossFit.  This is so counterintuitive to me because I have the safety bars in the rack at my commercial gym – shouldn’t I feel more comfortable doing deep squats in a squat rack than I do in open space?  I also have a mirror in front of the squat rack, which I don’t have in CrossFit, so in addition to the safety bars, I have visual cues to tell me how low I am going.  And yet I find myself playing it safer in the rack than I do when squatting in open space.

Isn’t it ironic that the very things that should give me more confidence to squat deep actually somehow make me feel less comfortable doing so?  There is something that feels restrictive to me when I’m in the rack that makes me feel as though I need to limit myself.  Squatting in open space feels scarier, but mentally, it gives me the freedom necessary to squat deeper than I do in the rack.

I think this paradox can apply to life in general as well.  The very things that are supposed to make us feel comfortable and safe can also be the very things that hold us back from going balls-to-the-wall in life.  They can limit our trajectory and ultimately, our progress.  Your familiar and comfortable life structure – daily routine, relationships, expectations – should embolden you to take risks, but instead, you may find yourself settling for less.  When you are in the rack, you are confined to that 3X3 square, which is the price you pay for having the safety bars.  And if you are me, the very presence of safety bars discourages me from going far enough that I ever have to use them.  However, once you step beyond the rack, you can squat anywhere, albeit, without that guaranteed safety.

To be clear, I am not advocating that you use insanely heavy weight with no spotter or safety bars.  If I am squatting outside the rack, I am making smart decisions about the weight and reps.  If I am in the commerical gym, my trainer is still spotting my squats.  In CrossFit, we use bumper plates (which bounce), which means I should be able to safely ditch the bar if I get into trouble when squatting.  However, I have now starting squatting outside the rack at my commercial gym, and my strength and confidence in the lift has never been better.  Last night, we did high bar back squats: 95 lbs X 8, 115 lbs x 8, 135 lbs X 8, and then 155 lbs X 6.  Not only was I able to perform better quality movement, but ultimately, I was able to do more weight and more reps than I ever have inside the rack.



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