History of the Squat…Kind of


Bench Press, Deadlift, Squat. What could be easier than that? For most people it makes up the brunt of their training programme, yet we rarely stop and ask where did these exercises come from? I mean after all, if you’re going to spend countless hours in the squat rack, at some point you should question how the Squat became popularized. Right?

So who did invent the Squat?

Well perhaps unsurprisingly, considering human beings bend down quite a bit, the squat has been around forever. Don’t believe me? The Squat has been used as part of jnana yoga for thousands of years. So yeah, it’s an old exercise.

What’s new however is an emphasis on heavy squatting amongst your average weight trainer. Whilst we have records dating back to the 16th and 17th century of strongmen performing exercises similar to the modern squat, it’s rare to find evidence of heavy squatting amongst the general fitness populace. This is in stark contrast to modern times, when almost every athlete, weight trainer and bodybuilder is encouraged to squat heavy. Nowadays, telling a fitness fanatic you don’t squat is possibly one of the most heinous crimes known in the gym. But why is this the case?

Marketing of the exercise and the effectiveness of the squat. Heavy squats were promoted at the right time, by the right men. Our story begins with a man nicknamed Milo. Henry ‘Milo’ Steinborn, a European immigrant in the United States, is often credited with the creation of the barbell squat and whilst basic history would show this is false, Steinborn can be credited with helping to popularize the concept of squatting heavy. Before Steinborn came to fame as a wrestler and as a strongman, squats were  performed in the gymnasium, just without heavy weights. Steinborn helped to change this. Not only did he prove squatting heavy was effective, he proved it could be done safely. Milo regularly squatted over 500 pounds and what’s more, he did it without any assistance of any kind.

No power racks, no cages, no nothing. Steinborn would take a loaded barbell from the ground, mount it on his back by lifting up one end and quickly getting underneath it as seen in the video below

Now just imagine that with 550 pounds. Impressive and scary at the same time.

But this isn’t a one man story. Whilst Steinborn did popularize heavy squatting, others marketed it around the United States. Soon after Milo came to fame other fitness enthusiasts such as J.C Hise and Mark Berry began to popularize the squat. In the 1930s and 40s both men achieved incredible results performing short bursts of high rep, high weight squatting. Neither were shy about promoting this fact. In 1936 Berry wrote that

“I believe myself justified in claiming some credit for the dissemination, during the past few years, of correct information relative to the sport of weight lifting…Our widespread publication of lifting photos, showing low squats and wide splits must have had something to do with the advancement this sport has made in America during the past thee years.”

Soon squatting became in vogue with gym goers everywhere. Peary Rader of Ironman Magazine would wax lyrical about the benefits of 20 rep squatting in the 1950s. It entered the fitness consciousness. For anyone interested Rader would recommended training programmes along the lines of

1. Bench press 3 x 10 -12

2. Barbell bent-over rowing 3 x 10 -12

3. Breathing squat 1 x 20

4. Very light breathing pullovers 1 x 20

It wasn’t until the 1960s when a scientist named Klein conducted a study into the effects of deep knee squatting that people began to shy away from the squat. Klein argued that  olympic lifters that performed deep squats increased the likelihood of injuring their knees.  His work was so convincing at the time that American Medical Association cautioned against deep squats due to their potential for severe injury. This led to the idea that deep squats were unsafe, an idea that has only really been challenged in the last few decades.

So there you have it, a brief history of the squat. Sort of…

The problem with any history of this kind is that the fitness industry is a) American centric and b) often based on myth. There’s a reason Randy Roach labelled his work on the fitness industry as ‘Muscle, smoke and mirrors’. What we can say is that thanks to the likes of Steinborn, Berry, Rader and countless others, heavy squatting became popular in 1930s-1950s America amongst strength athletes. After that, the picture gets a lot, lot murkier.

44 thoughts on “History of the Squat…Kind of

Add yours

  1. Great article. Do you have something similar on the history of the dead lift? I ask because bodybuilding books and articles from fifty years ago don’t seem to discuss it much.

    1. Hi thanks so much for dropping by. I’ve been trying to draw up something on the deadlift but each time I begin to write, I find something new. Picking up heavy things has been a human sport for millennia but I am planning on an article in the future. If you’re looking for early 20th century dead lifters I recommended reading about Hermann Goerner. I’m currently trying to look at how older lifting methods fed into new ones. Jan Todd’s article on George Windship may be of interest as it depicts old strongmen lifting heavy weights from platforms (a pre-deadlift deadlift?) http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0301/IGH0301c.pdf

    1. Reilly, this is absolute gold thank you for sharing!

      I’m blown away by this revelation:

      ‘ I complained loudly that his testing methods were extremely shaky. In the first place, the study design wasn’t blind. That is, he would ask the lifters whether they did full squats. As we were all Olympic lifters, we did full squats as part of our training. Then he, not an unbiased assistant, would apply pressure with both hands to the sides of an aluminum gadget that he had designed and that covered the upper and lower portions of the leg around the knee joint. Then he would take a reading from a dial similar to a blood pressure gauge.
      In effect, he could get any reading he desired, He pushed so hard that many complained that he was hurting their knees and didn’t let him test them again. Further, he ignored the fact that the weightlifters were also doing heavy snatches and cleans, exploding to a very deep squatting position. If he was looking for a culprit for knee problems, he should have been testing those two quick lifts.’

Tell Me What You Think!

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: