Peary Rader’s Magic Circle

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Loved and despised in equal measure, the squat has long been the iron game’s go to exercise for maximum leg development. A cornerstone of most trainee’s leg routines, there is certainly no doubting the exercise’s popularity.

Yet despite the fact that the back squat in particular has enjoyed a decades long dominance amongst gym rats, this does not mean that it’s position has not been challenged. Indeed for every man and woman who swear by the traditional squat, chances are you’ll find many more who curse it.

Owing to individual body mechanics, many individuals have found it difficult to perform the back squat with the form necessary to produce maximum development. This is not a new problem either as today’s post attests.

Adapted by Peary Rader in the 1960s and promoted heavily during the 1970s through Rader’s own Ironman magazine, the ‘Magic Circle’ was advertised as a new venture for squatting enthusiasts. By redistributing the weight throughout the body, the ‘Magic Circle’ promised to provide all the benefits of the back squat without the need for precision like form.

Furthermore, the ‘Circle’ could be used for a variety of exercises as this 1971 advertisement for the product attests

The most satisfactory device yet found for doing quarter, half and full squats — for doing Hise Shoulder Shrugs and other heavy poundage exercises where weight is held on shoulders. It has made squatting a pleasure by removing the agonizing and sometimes paralyzing pain and discomfort of a heavy bar across the shoulders cutting into the flesh and putting pressure o the spine.

The “Magic Circle” gives a freedom for deep breathing in the popular and result-producing “Breathing Squats” for the exerciser can stand erect and breathe normally with a high lift of the chest at every breath, and is not compelled to hump over forward and breathes it the abdominal area as with a bar.

In use, the “Magic Circle” is loaded up on the side pegs (unless you go over 700 lbs., in which case you have front and back pegs to load on), step in the circle (which is supported on side horses or boxes), lift shoulder straps onto shoulders, center straps, stand erect and walk away from stand and begin squats in normal manner. When finished, walk back to stands and lower ring to supporting rack. While squatting it helps to grasp ring in front and pull slightly toward you. If you get stuck at bottom you place hands on legs and push upward to recover. No more getting stuck at bottom 1200 lbs. or more. Priced at only $44.50 f.o.b. Alliance, Nebraska 69301. — No C.O.D. please.

So who invented this device and how did Rader come across it?

Writing in 1967, Rader revealed that his beloved Magic Circle had first been invented many years earlier by a Utah lifter named James Douglass. Suffering from a back injury, Douglass found conventional squatting techniques were playing havoc with his spine. Out of desperation, he set to work on a new way to squat heavily and safely. Hence the ‘Magic Circle.’

Clearly pleased with his rather ingenious invention, Douglass reached out to Rader, who from 1964 sold the device through his magazines.

What did you do with it and how was it used?

While first and foremost used to mimic the effects of back squatting, the Magic Circle was not a one trick pony. Something which Rader was often keen to stress. Returning once more to his 1967 article we are told that

It can be used for all types of squatting: full squats, quarter squats, half squats, squats on toes – and it is especially valuable for the heavy breathing shoulder shrugs. Readers have also found other uses for it when weight is needed across the shoulders.

Regarding how to use it, Rader’s advice centred on tough but simple high-repetition approaches:

We recommend that you use 20 repetitions of the squat for the best results, although it is also possible to obtain excellent results from several sets of 10 to 12 reps. 20 repetitions will improve the metabolism much better than several sets of 10.

Regardless of how many sets and reps you use, you ought to work to your maximum limit once you get broke in, for both poundage and repetitions. When you get halfway through a set you will often think you can’t make another repetition, but if you just keep fighting you will be able to make more. I know, because I have done this for years.

Why isn’t it more popular?

Though the Magic Circle has at times gone through surges of popularity within the lifting community, its absence from the majority of gym floors is no real surprise. While the device was safe and efficient, it was also unwieldy and cumbersome to manage. Take for example the instructions attached to the advice

Now, in order to take the proper position in the Magic Circle, we usually recommend that you step in and between the shoulder straps, squat down and lift the straps on and into proper position on the shoulders. Place the straps well up toward the neck so they won’t tend to slip down during the squats. Be sure that you have them position so the ring rides level. Some men with very tender shoulders will use a sponge rubber pad under the straps, but this is seldom necessary. The straps are soft enough that they cause no appreciable discomfort.

Compare this to a back or front squat in which you simple get under the bar and lift. Nevertheless, this device was once a popular and trusted training tool amongst Rader’s readership.

While fitness devices come and go with impressive regularity, the squat remains a constant. There’s probably something in that…

Sources

Peary Rader, ‘The Magic Circle and its Uses’, Ironman Magazine (1967). Available here.

 

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