Production year: 1993
Running length: Slightly over 1 hour
Order from: Elite Fitness Systems for $29.95
As this review is written, it over a decade since the first official Westside training video, Squatting Secrets, was released in 1993. Westside being the innovative and living system it is, it is no small wonder that a lot of things have happened since then, such as relying less on kneeling squats and starting to calculate box squat percentages from the actual competition record instead of from the box max. Still, the foundation remains and this video is an excellent gateway to the Westside system.
The video begins with Louie Simmons setting the Westside Barbell methods into context by introducing his Elite and World Champion Squatters through pictures on shelves at the club. This gives the viewer a good idea what had been achieved by the club by 1993.
Proper and improper squatting technique
Next, Chuck Vogelpohl enters the stage to show proper and improper squatting form with Louie explaining the do’s and don’t’s in the background. Louie emphasizes that a correct squat is essentially about pushing back against the bar preventing it from forcing the upper body down, i.e. arching the weight up instead of pushing it up with the legs. Proper technique boils down to pushing the stomach hard against the belt and driving the knees apart on descent, then coming up by pushing the chest out and driving the head into the bar. The shins are kept vertically straight throughout the movement. As a result the bar pretty much moves straight up and down without the all too common forward dip. Louie explains that keeping the feet pointed straight forward will allow more power to be generated from the hips, although it makes breaking parallel somewhat more difficult.
Chuck then demonstrates three common mistakes: carrying the bar too low, pushing the knees forward and pushing with the legs first instead of arching the back.
This 5½ minute section alone should be worth much more than the modest price of the tape for people who haven’t gotten their form down. For myself this turned into a big revelation, and I did finally understand concretely how the box squat will teach you proper squat form by sitting back. In essence, the form for the box squat is the same as that for the normal squat.
Now turning to box squats, Louie begins by briefly touching on the history of this foundational Westside movement. A very interesting detail is that the box squat was originally known as the “rocky box squat” in the 1960s due to the fact that the lifting shoes with elevated heels then in vogue forced the lifter to rock back and forth to generate enough momentum to actually get off the box. The completely flat soled shoes used today allows the lifter to come straight up, while moving the stress off the quadriceps to the actual squat muscles (hip, lower back etc.).
Louie and Chuck then show a useful technique for teaching beginners how to box squat. Many novice lifters have difficulty continuously sitting back on lower boxes without at some point dropping straight down. To cure this the trainee begins by squatting off a high box. When he has good form an inch is pulled off the box forcing him to sit back further. Once his form is good at this level another inch is taken off, and so on until a very low box height is reached. When squatting with proper technique, form will actually improve the lower the box. This is because lower boxes force the lifter to sit back more and will put more stress on the hips and buttocks. Thus, Westsiders prefer to squat off fairly low boxes.
Continuing to cater for the budding box squatter (although Matt Dimel used this method to break the 800 pound squat barrier), the four box levels are introduced. Chuck first does reps off his 17 inch/43 cm high box, where Louie says one should be able to handle about 10% more than one’s maximal squat. He then proceeds to a parallel box (15 inches/38 cm), then to just slightly below parallel (apparently 13 inches/33 cm) and, finally, to a very low box. A beginner would use this cycle to first build up to a max on the high box, then drop some 50 lbs/23 kg for each lower box (naturally, with low weights smaller jumps should be used; I think Louie is just giving an example of what weights commonly need to be deducted).
Capping off the discussion about box squats, hassock squats, or soft cushion squats, are introduced. An original Simmons invention from the early 1970s, this box makes the lifter sink in without a solid base making it tougher to get off and hitting the muscles differently. The hassock would usually be trained for three or four weeks and then either a new max would be attempted or the box switched to a hard box of the same height for another three or four weeks. Since the hassock squat more closely resembles a competition squat than the box squat, it is especially used a few weeks prior to a meet.
Usually 65-80% of the box max would be used in speed box squatting, with Chuck doing 8 to 12 doubles with loads in the 70% range and 6 to 8 doubles if using weights in the 80% range.
Power good morning/arched back good morning
Now 22 minutes into the video, the focus is switched to the arched back good morning. Simulating the beginning and end of the squat, this movement is done in pretty much the same way: push the knees and buttocks out and arching the back while bending over close to parallel with the floor and then coming back up. The feet width should be the same as for squats. Sometimes the lower position would be held for 4 seconds to train the static contraction needed when squatting heavy. Adding to his previous gems, Louie notes that Mike Bridges’ squat basically was an arched-back good morning which broke parallel. Finally, he talks about the importance of strong hips and obliques (heavy side-bends are the ticket).
Hassock squat workout
Next an actual filmed dynamic hassock squat workout is shown featuring Mark Borda and Chuck Vogelpohl doing 465 lbs/210 kg and 505 lbs/229 kg respectively with a cambered bar. To increase muscle tension short rest periods (45 seconds to 1 minute) are used, which makes it possible for two people to finish a squat workout in less than 20 minutes.
The workout opens with the Guns N’Roses track Welcome to the Jungle echoing through Westside Barbell Club. Matt Dimel and Louie are changing weights and shouting encouragements for the two lifters who take turns in the rack. The training pace is indeed very fast; Louie and Matt hurry to change weights, then immediately the lifter is changed and the bar gets moving for an explosive double. By the time Welcome to the Jungle is finished Mark has done 4 sets and Chuck 3 sets, in less than four minutes!
AC/DC’s Highway to Hell starts to come out of the speakers. If there are any signs of fatigue it is not from the lifters but from the tape viewer watching set after set fly by. If you like to be stressed out, try viewing the workout with fast forward!
After just under 12½ minutes both lifters have done a total of 10 sets, the last set with heavier weights (Mark 505 lbs/229 kg, Chuck 600 lbs/272 kg).
A variety of special exercises used to build up the squat are then presented. First up is the belt squat, which is done to hit the quadriceps pretty much neglected by the box squat. Done on deadlift day, this movement is done with a weight hanging from a special hip belt that puts the weights in front of the body (a dip belt will not suffice!). Standing on a platform to allow the weights to hang straight down, the trainer performs a normal squat. According to Simmons, a normal working weight for a 700 pound/317 kg squatter is 500 lbs/226 kg for five reps! Handle squats, a variation of the belt squat where the weights are held from handles, are then shown.
Next squats in an isokinetic machine are demonstrated by Mark Borda at two different force meter positions. This is followed by Louie demonstrating pull-throughs done for the glutes (bent legs) and the lower back (straighter legs, heavy forward lean). Louie says to use sets of 10 to 15 reps with heavy weights.
Moving on to abdominal training, Louie first shows heavy side-bends (or side deadlifts) which he recommends for strengthening the obliques (weights up to bodyweight are used at Westside). The controversial sit-up is then discussed. As Louie puts it, crunches are safe, but “most exercises that are perfectly safe don’t have much use for strength”. Crunches leave out the hip flexors, which are precisely what need to be developed for lifting heavy iron. If the back hurts while doing sit-ups it is simply because the back is too weak. Straight-legged sit-ups on a flat bench with a lower pulley are shown, both in a dynamic and static form (where the movement is held for 6 seconds at the top for 5 reps).
Louie then turns to a discussion of different forms of leg raises, including hanging, lying and bent and straight-leg leg raises (the last two shown in a leg raise rack). To alleviate a stiff back caused by squatting, Louie recommends doing hanging leg raises with the toes touching the bar on every rep. Since the lower abdominals are harder to develop, leg raises should always be done first in an ab workout.
Taking a sudden unexpected move, Louie proceeds to hit himself over the stomach with an iron pole to help the abdominals contract individually and build up the abs for pushing out during the squat. Not only looks impressive, it sounds impressive too!
In between exercises how to use knee-wraps are discussed and how to wrap them for a lighter man (figure eight crossing) and heavier men (straight around). At Westside, knee wraps are only used in meets, never in training. Louie also very briefly talks about erector shirts.
Partner assisted neck bends while lying on a flat bench are then introduced. A strong thick neck is essential for heavy squatting since, as mentioned, the neck must be driven into the traps on the ascent.
Next Chuck reappears, now in the power rack. He demonstrate high bar squats with a moderate stance (to increase the pull in the deadlift), short-range good mornings (to strengthen the beginning and end of the squat), straight-legged good mornings (for hamstrings, buttocks and lower back) and bent-legged good mornings (which simulate a conventional deadlift and is great for building great erector strength). Chuck then demonstrates the Zercher squat, which is basically a squat with the bar held in the crook of the elbows. Louie explains that this exercise is great for teaching people proper squat form. Kneeling squats (for the hip flexors) are then shown, which Louie claims will in combination with the Zercher squat (for the abs, hamstrings and glutes) easily put 50 pounds on anyone’s squat and deadlift. Then safety bar squats are shown, which Louie says are potentially detrimental for the shoulder and knees but a great tool to build a very strong back.
Now stepping out the rack, Chuck does a few reps of the variety of partial deadlifts similar to Olympic power pulls. This exercise is credited for having helped Matt Dimel squat 1010 lbs/457 kg for a world record. This movement build the glutes and hamstrings while taking out much of the stress on the lower back.
Next exercises on the calf/ham/glute machine are shown. The first one is back raises, which in America are commonly known as “hyperextensions” (the European name is used since the back should never be hyperextended). The second exercise is the calf/ham/glute raises, which involves raising the upper body up from the bench by essentially performing a leg curl. At Westside about 100 lbs/45 kg is used on this exercise attesting to how difficult it is to perform even one rep. Lastly straight-legged sit-ups are performed (aka hyper sit-ups [note: the pictures behind this link of the zercher and sit-ups are taken from the video])
Matt Dimel’s box squat workout
After a short summary of some important points and a warning about psyching up in workouts (should be saved for the meets), the last minutes of the video is dedicated to the dynamic box squat workout of Matt Dimel. At a bodyweight of 390 lbs/176 kg at 6 feet/183 cm, Matt prefers to take two minutes between sets. A 13 inch/33 cm hard box is used for four sets at 630 lbs/285 kg, one set with 670 lbs/303 kg and finally a set with 705 lbs/319 kg. As Louie says, the speed is essentially the same on all reps in spite of the weight raise. AC/DC seems to be the big guy’s workout music of choice. Despite his size, Matt’s form seems flawless.