Worshipping at the Temple of Squat


Greetings Dear Reader,

As you may have noticed, I have undergone a prolonged absence. It has not been because I have been doing other things; rather, an extraordinary occurrence overtook me a month ago and completely sapped me of the desire to write. It wasn’t negative, but so profound I haven’t been able to do much other than go to work. Nothing painful; just dazzling. I may write about it at a later stage.

I am getting back on the horse and starting to produce some essays and the like. In the meantime, I thought I’d post this chapter from the novel I’ve been working on for the last nine months. I’ll have it finished soon and will publish more of it accordingly. I thought to post this today because I went to the gym and engaged in one of my absolute favorite activities; squatting with a barbell across my back. Perhaps you share my enthusiasm. Otherwise, perhaps this piece will give you a doorway into it.


The Spartans used to have a saying, ‘Come home carrying your shield – or on it.’ This was always a positive thought to me, and not bleak at all. If you think about it, thousands of years ago when people fought to the death, failure would have been at the forefront of their minds.

To fail didn’t just mean death or slavery. It meant witnessing the rape and murder of the women they loved and the mutilation, blinding and slavery of their children. Their options would be victory, which would repel the threat, or death in the pursuit of it. Victory meant survival and freedom. Perishing meant complete release; ignorance of consequences and knowing you had given your literal all.

I often thought about that when I stepped under the bar to squat. Squatting is the most poetic of exercises, because of the way the bar sits across your shoulders like a yoke. There are connotations of beast of burden, and maybe that’s what a beast is; a creature whose sense of self evaporates when it passes between the poles of absolute success and failure.

Those poles are literal when squatting. If you can stand up and bear the weight, you have succeeded. If you can’t and you fail, the weight literally drives you into the ground. I used to blu-tack a photocopy of Blake’s illustration of God taking the measure of man to the mirror sometimes, but it weirded people out and the gym manager asked me to take it down.

I went to the Prahran gym to squat for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the members, so they wouldn’t interrupt me. Secondly, the facility had just spent a whole lot of money on new Olympic bars, plates, and a fabulous squat rack. The cups could be set six-and-a-half feet in the air, which made it the appropriate height for me. I loaded a couple of ten-kilogram plates onto either side of the bar and positioned myself under the load.

Many people squat with the bar down their back, across the musculature. I liked to have the bar across the bones of my shoulders. When the bar is positioned across the shoulders, the skeleton conducts the weight through it like a circuit. That stress, over time, increases the density of the bones. My grandmother’s broken pelvis from her fall was testament to the fact everyone needed their bones to be as dense as possible.

I lifted the weight away from the rack, stepped back and squared my feet. I took a deep breath and lifted my chin. Prahran has a window high on the wall in front of the rack, so I could look out at the sky to focus. I sat back and descended, shifting my balance back onto my heels. Squatting is about strengthening the posterior chain of muscles, which are the real seat of strength and power. While you have to observe all kinds of cues, the essence of a good squat is sitting as far back as possible before you topple over. That’s no small feat when you’ve got one hundred and twenty kilograms on your back.

After ten repetitions, I returned the bar to the rack. I stretched and threaded another forty kilos on the bar. The first three sets were high repetitions. I found I had to start slow, as my nervous system was slow to come on-line. My first working set was at 140 kilos for five reps. I wrapped my knees to support the joints and set my shoulders against the bar. When I stood up under that weight, it felt electric. I ground through those five reps and did a second set at 145.

No matter what else is going on in your life, the weight is always the same. A twenty-five kilo plate is always twenty-five kilos. When I shouldered the bar, gravity asserted that the changeable, malleable factor is me. That truth is as stark and dependable as that cold steel shaft across your back.

I hadn’t squatted 160 kilograms for reps before. Many years ago I had squatted 170 for a single, but there was something about today that made me feel capable. I threaded a total of one hundred and sixty kilograms onto the bar. I set my shoulders to it and as the weight came away from the rack, my legs shook a little. I positioned my feet and the load drifted forward. I gripped the front of my shoes with my toes and felt pain shooting through my calves. I looked out the window, took a deep breath and descended.

The nerve-racking part of the squat is the nadir. A half-squat is when the hip is fractionally lower than the knee, which means the femur bone of the thigh is parallel with the floor. Experience lets you know when you’ve reached it. I wore knee wraps to take the stress out of the joints, which had the added benefit of stretching to full extension at the bottom of the squat, effectively preventing me from going any deeper. The first four repetitions were relatively smooth, but I started to slow at the top of the fifth. I descended for the sixth and as I came up, the bar slowed.

“I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive!” I said, thinking how it was easier for me to squat one hundred and sixty kilos than it was for my grandmother to make her way to the toilet without suffering a fatal injury. At the top of the squat, I leaned forward and let the momentum of the weight return the bar to the rack. Spots danced in front of my eyes. My feet hurt from the tourniquet effect of the knee wraps, so I sat down and loosened them off.

God wants us to suffer. If you suffer, you become strong. This is your one true obligation; survival. Training is like any religion. Sometimes, you go to church to be close to God. Then there’s the times you need to compel yourself to believe.



2 Responses to “Worshipping at the Temple of Squat”

  1. Clean and succinct.

  2. Glad to have you back mate. I also love the squats, good for avoiding the office lower back pain by strengthening everything up down there.

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