Category: Biographies

The Harmful Squats Myth: Dr. Klein Klein and the Back Squat

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When I began lifting in my teens, the coaches and older men in the gym floor seemed like fountains of indisputable knowledge. Don’t bring the bar all the way down to your chest on the bench press. Stability work on Bosu Balls worked your core and brought muscle gain. Drink a protein shake within 30 minutes of your workout or your anabolic window will shut. The most sacred of their dictates revolved around the back squat.

When learning how to squat we were told two simple things. Never go below parallel and under no circumstances should the knees track over the toes. These rules were so infallible that none of us dared to cross them. Even when we realised their advice on other lifts had been misguided to say the least, we adhered to their squat advice. It wasn’t until I changed gyms that I realised squatting with a full range of motion, even letting those knees slip over my toes, wasn’t going to kill my knees.

Where had this idea about the squat come from? Whenever we asked we were told about vague scientific studies that ‘everyone knew about’. It wasn’t until I dug into the history of the back squat for a recent article on Barbend that I became reacquainted with this subject.

Our goal today is simple. Who first promoted the idea that squatting below depth was harmful and how did this theory become so prevalent? Our story today revolves around Dr. Karl Klein and his followers.

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Sarah Pileggi, ‘The Pleasure of Being the World’s Strongest Women’, (Sports Illustrated, 1977)

Katie Sandwina was a professional strong woman who performed in John Ringling’s circuses in the early 1900s. She was celebrated for great feats of strength, such as carrying a 600-pound cannon on her back, and lesser ones, like executing the manual of arms with her 160-pound husband Max instead of a rifle. Sandwina was a handsome woman, standing 6’1″ and weighing 210 pounds. She had a narrow, corseted waist, in the style of the day, and well-rounded thighs filling out her white circus tights. Some people think Sandwina was the strongest woman who ever lived, but because very few strong women have thought it prudent to advertise their strength, the matter is difficult to judge.

In a genealogy of the spirit, Jan Todd would be in a direct line of descent from Katie Sandwina. The day four years ago when Jan first heard of Sandwina was also the day she began to turn over in her mind the possibility of shedding a feminine physical ideal that was not of her own making. Until that day she had been a naturally strong, athletically talented, intellectually well-equipped schoolgirl who took her strength for granted and worried, off and on, about her height (5’7″), her weight (165) and her posture (round-shouldered).

Joe Weider, Why I Entered the Mr. Universe Contest, Your Physique, February 16: 7 (1952), 7

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UP UNTIL a few minutes ago, I had not the slightest intention or expectation of writing this article. Since my return from Europe, my mail has been flooded with letters asking my why I entered the contest. “How good are the European bodybuilders compared to our boys?” asked one reader. “What were your experiences, and how was the show conducted and organized?” inquired another. I read a score of letters and as the pile of mail slowly grew higher and higher before me, I realized the futility of answering separately each piece of correspondence. So after a few minutes consideration, I decided to make an article take the place of a letter to those many fellow enthusiasts who have congratulated me, and have expressed pleasure and surprise that the editor of a physique culture magazine had the courage to show the world he practised what he preached.

Notes on John Grimek, Brooks D. Kubik, Dino Files (2000)

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Grimek’s Workout, 7 November, 2000

I reprinted a terrific article on Grimek’s training in an early issue of the Dinosaur Files. The author was Joe Berg, and the article was titled, I believe, “The Greatest Physique Story Ever Told.” It originally ran in S&H in the early 50’s. The premise of the article was as follows:

Bruce Lee’s Workout From Warm Marble: The Lethal Physique of Bruce Lee by John Little (1996)

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After much research, and with the help of two bodybuilders who were also his close friends and students in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee devised a three-day-per-week bodybuilding program that he felt fit his strengthening and bodybuilding needs perfectly. According to one of these men, Allen Joe, “James Lee and I introduced Bruce to the basic weight training techniques. We used to train with basic exercises like squats, pullovers and curls for about three sets each. Nothing really spectacular but we were just getting him started.” This program actually served Lee well from 1965 through until 1970 and fit in perfectly with Lee’s own philosophy of getting the maximum results out of the minimum — or most economical — expenditure of energy.

The every-other-day workout allowed for the often neglected aspect of recovery to take place. Lee coordinated his bodybuilding workouts in such a way so as to insure that they fell on days when he wasn’t engaged in either endurance-enhancing or overly strenuous martial art training. The program worked like magic; increasing Lee’s bodyweight from an initial 130 pounds to — at one point — topping out at just over 165 pounds!