While no obligatory exercises exist for trainees, there is little denying the popularity of the back squat, deadlift and bench press amongst lifters of every ilk. Having previously covered the latter exercises, the time seemed right to discuss the history of the back squat. Cited by many as the ultimate mass builder, the back squat’s history is short but nevertheless impressive. From its mass popularization in the 1920s and 30s to the thousand pound squats of the 1980s, squat aficionados have used the exercise in a variety of ways.
The motivations for this article squat are two simple, but tricky questions. Who invented the back squat and how did it become so popular? The answers bring us across several states and several centuries.
Who Invented the Squat?
Astute observers have noted the fact that children are frequent and enthusiastic squatters, so in a sense, everyone inadvertently invents the squat in their developmental stage. A more pertinent question would be who first used the squat for health practices?
Here we can go one of two routes. First we can look towards the foundation of squat poses in yoga, known as Malasana. Or we can attempt to trace the rise of squatting for health purposes in predominantly Western medical texts. I have decided to go down the latter route owing to the fact that the Malasana pose tends to be a static hold and is oftentimes connected with loftier ideals about spiritual enlightenment.
Furthermore, although some individuals have traced the use of squatting for health purposes to the pre-classical era, in this piece we will content ourselves with beginning the investigation in the early nineteenth-century, a time generally agreed to have spurred on the modern interest in health and fitness.
Though it would be foolish to credit one man with the invention of the squat, one school of thought has cited the Prussian gymnastic teacher, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn as one of the earlier proponents of the exercise. Opening his first gymnastic academies in the 1810s and coming to great fame in the 1820s, Jahn’s institutions combined nationalist fervor with vigorous exercise in a bid to create a formidable army for the Motherland.
[Read about Jahn’s involvement in the surprising history of the kettlebell here.]
Some have credited Jahn’s system with the inclusion of a knee bend exercise(1), but this is rather difficult to substantiate. A more plausible story revolves around Phokion Heinrich Clias, who briefly trained British military troops in the 1820s. Citing Jahn as one of his inspirations, Clias became the talk of London before an injury cut short his military career. Travelling to France in the 1830s, Clias ran gymnastic classes for men and women, even publishing a training manual for women at this time. As detailed by Todd, said manual included knee bends and one legged squats(2). A contemporary of Clias, a Mr. Beaujeu in Ireland likewise included knee bends in his regimen(3). While we cannot say who invented the exercise, we can say that it was being used in a series of countries at this time.
From the mid-century onward, squats or “knee bends” as they were more popularly known had begun to infiltrate even the medical profession. Writing on a host of lay and medical treatments in America, Whorton noted the popularity of knee bends as treatment for constipation(4). Anyone who has ever squatted with an upset stomach would perhaps attest to this treatment, although that’s another day’s story.
Similarly, Cunningham noted that the prominence of knee bends in training and health manuals for women(5). The existence of the knee bend in the nineteenth-century in particular is an important point to look at. Previous accounts have traced the squat to the beginnings of the 1890s with the advent of physical culture. As we’ve seen, the reality is a little more complex. That withstanding, physical culturists brought squatting to a new level of interest.
[Read more: Is being strong low class? A historian’s perspective.]
The Back Squat in Early Bodybuilding
While ‘physical culture’ as a phrase has largely left the Western vernacular, the interests of physical culture still permeate our lives. Originating in the late nineteenth-century, the physical culture movement can be understood as the forerunner to our modern interest in weightlifting, dieting and questionable health trends. Physical culturists such as Eugen Sandow and Bernarr MacFadden have been credited with initiating the first bodybuilding competitions whilst others like Herman Goerner or Louis Cyr have been cited as early powerlifters or professional strongmen.
It should come as no surprise that the men and women of the early physical culture movement, that is the 1890s to 1910s, were influential in the promulgation of the back squat, albeit with two significant differences. Unlike modern trainees, physical culturists were encouraged to use light dumbbells rather than heavy barbells. Coupled with this, exercisers were told to squat on their tippy-toes as opposed to squatting flat footed. Such advice was found in the training manuals of Louis Attilla, Eugen Sandow, and Bernarr MacFadden amongst others.
The reason for this was simple. In the first instance, access to heavier weights was incredibly rare. Most trainees had to content themselves with dumbbells weighing anywhere from two to ten pounds. Squatting on the tippy-toes increased attention on the thigh muscles and made these light weights challenging. It wasn’t until a change in material and imagination that the back squats of today became a reality.
Keeping Our Feet on the Ground
The popularity of squatting on the tippy-toes of the feet should not be underestimated. When the Milo Barbell company began selling barbells to the American public in the early 1900s, they too advocated this method. Contrary to Sandow’s advice, they recommended using a barbell across the back and not a dumbbell in each hand. The shift towards the modern back squat was beginning to make way.
There was still one problem however: squat racks as a concept were not yet realized. Hence, even if a desire to lift heavier weights existed, it was difficult to imagine how such weights could be placed across the upper back. Enter Henry ‘Milo’ Steinborn.
Coming to America in the post-WW1 period, Steinborn brought with him a love of heavy lifting and an eye for promotion. Beginning with a loaded barbell, Steinborn would lift one end of the bar in the air before quickly loading himself underneath the bar. After a quick balancing act, the bar would be perfectly distributed across his back with Steinborn squatting underneath it. Was it pretty? No. Was it effective? Jake Boly’s article on Milo was titled, ‘Milo Steinborn Is the Reason We Squat the Way We Do Today’. That should answer the second question.
The reason Milo’s squat was so influential was twofold. In the first instance it opened the way for heavier poundages in the lift, a point greatly appreciated by Sig Klein whom Milo tutored in this lift. Secondly, Milo’s strong physique and remarkably rounded athleticism put an end to any fears that heavy squatting could be dangerous or make a lifter muscle-bound. Milo may not have invented this technique but his actions greatly popularised it.
With heavy back squatting now a possibility, lifters wasted little time. Though light barbells and tippy toes squats were to be used well past the mid-century mark, a change was taking place. Seeking to add the greatest amount of weight to their then fragile frames, men like Mark Berry and Peary Rader began to experiment with heavy repetition, heavy squats. Eventually settling on 20-rep squats, Berry and Rader claimed remarkable transformations on the programme. Rader’s influential Ironman Magazine was set to use to spread the gospel while Berry’s did the same in Strength Magazine.
Though not outrightly cited as inventing the squat rack, several bodybuilding chroniclers, including Randy Roach, have noted Berry’s role in the development of the squat rack stemming from his enthusiasm for 20-rep squats(6). Others, like Todd, have noted the importance of Joseph Curtis Hise’s supposed 29-pound weight gain from Berry’s programs as the catalyst behind the squat’s and the racks’ popularity(7).
By the 1940s the back squat, practiced flat footed and not on the tippy toes, had become a cornerstone of bodybuilding and weightlifting programs. Twenty-rep squat programs were commonplace with advocates like John Grimek at the helm(8). Barbell manufacturers like Bob Hoffman and later Joe Weider made squat racks and promoted the inclusion of heavy squatting in the workouts of trainees of every level of experience. It was at the mid-century mark that the back squat took hold of the iron community. This was to bring a wealth of change, not all of it welcome.
In the 1960s, two new developments changed the course of the back squat for the following decades. Powerlifting as a formalised competitive sport came to be in 1964. With an outlet for heavy squatting, the road was paved for men to push the back squat to its zenith. The culmination of this was perhaps Lee Moran’s thousand pound back squat in 1984. While many have since squatted a thousand pounds, Moran was the first to break the physical and physiological benchmark.
If powerlifting was a welcome development, the published experiments of the Texas researcher Dr. Karl Klein in the 1960s were most certainly not. Studying the knee laxity of 128 weightlifters who regularly squatted below parallel and 360 college students who squatted before or to parallel, Klein concluded that regular, full squats (often called “ass to grass” or ATG) were harmful to the knee joint.
First published in 1961 and picked up by Sports Illustrated the following year, Klein’s conclusions rocked the strength and conditioning community(9). The back squat, the previously undisputed king of lower body development, was potentially harmful. So damning was Klein’s finding that in 1984, Terry Todd noted the prevalence of Klein’s opinion amongst great swathes of the lifting community(10). Heck even today many people still regurgitate this view despite the overwhelming evidence against it.
Notwithstanding the often loud critiques against Klein’s study, his finding ushered in the popularity of squatting to parallel from the 1960s onwards. While bodybuilders from the ‘Golden Age’ of the sport in the 1960s and 70s like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane and later Tom Platz continued to squat well below parallel, a precedent had been set by Klein’s findings. Even today if you ask someone to perform a back squat you’ll get a variety of forms, from the infamous quarter squatter to the vaulted ass to grass veteran.
[Read more: Why and when the half squat can actually be useful.]
What, I sense you asking, happened to squatting on your tippy toes? It arguably never went away, only changed. The advantage of squatting on your tippy toes as opposed to flat footed is that you can overload the quads and minimise the involvement of the glutes and hamstrings. Additionally it can help with issues of flexibility, or lack thereof.
The only problem was that heavy back squats on your tippy toes are a recipe for disaster. To compensate, lifters from the 1970s onwards began to squat with either a 2 x 4 or plates underneath their heels. Raising the heels allowed lifters to both mimic the effects of squatting on their tippy-toes and lift heavy weights. Such as method was used quite famously by Arnold Schwarzenegger and promoted by writers such as Bradley J. Steiner. Olympic weightlifters also got in on the act. From the 1970s onwards, led in America by Tony Kono, Olympic Weightlifters began to use larger heels in their lifting shoes. The shoes soon became popular with the general weightlifting community meaning that a large proportion of us regularly pay homage to the tradition of tippy-toe squats on leg day.
While squatting is itself a natural movement for humans, the act of squatting with a barbell on your back is a relatively new phenomenon. Popularised in the 1920s and 30s, back squats are one of the most varied, but nevertheless effective exercises available to trainees. Though this article weaved between tippy toe and flat footed back squats, trainees today can choose between narrow, regular and sumo stances. They can choose between safety, zercher and hack squats. They can lift light, moderate or heavy weights. Squatting may be a natural movement, but gym goers have elevated it to an art form.
Featured image via Bodybuilding.com on YouTube.
1. Herold, J. C. (1963) The Age of Napoleon. The American Heritage Library : New York, USA.
2. Todd, J. (1992) The Classical Ideal and Its Impact on the Search for Suitable Exercise: 1774-1830. Iron Game History, Vol. 2 No. 4.
3. Todd, J. (1998) Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women 1800-1875. Mercer University Press : Georgia, USA.
4. Whorton, J. C. (2000) Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society. Oxford University Press : New York.
5. Cunningham, P. A. (2003) Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art. Kent State University Press : Ohio, USA.
6. Roach, R. (2008) Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors. Volume 1. AuthorHouse : Indiana, USA.
7. Todd, T. (1984) Historical Opinion: Karl Klein and the Squat. Strength & Conditioning Journal, Vol. 6 No. 3.
8. Rader, P. (1967) IronMan, Vol. 26, No. 3.
9. Underwood, K. (1962) The Knee is Not for Bending. Sports Illustrated, March 12.
10. Terry, T. Historical Opinion: Karl Klein and the Squat. Strength & Conditioning Journal: June 1984 – Volume 6 – Issue 3 – ppg 26-31