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Sean McCawley, Fit for Life: Knackered by squats?

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Sean McCawley 

We start the first 90 days for new personal training clients by building foundational levels of strength with compound resistance training, such as the squat, push-up and rowing exercises.

In one instance, after a beginning client performed three sets of 10 squats, she exclaimed, “Man, these squats really get me huffing and puffing. I did 10 reps, and I’m knackered.”

As a coach who has taught more than a thousand individuals how to perform squats correctly, this came as little surprise to me. However, for the novice exercise participants, this can be a shocking sensation.

Compound movements cover a wide area of muscles and joints. Squatting exercises stress the glutes, hamstring and quadriceps as well as the abdominals, calf and ankle muscles,which act as stabilizers. The push-up works the pectorals, triceps and muscles of scapular stabilization in the shoulder blades and rotator cuff. Rowing exercises target a large network of muscles in the posterior torso, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, muscles of scapular stabilization and biceps. The push-up and rowing exercises also activate forearm and wrist muscles.

We emphasize mastery of compound movements because the first adaptations to a training program are neuromuscular. This means the signals sent to the brain, nerves and muscles are broken up to improve coordination and understanding of how the body moves.

The muscle cells go through a significant amount of adaptation before an individual sees significant improvement in strength, coordination and endurance, but it’s important to invest time in these compound movements in order to proceed to more advanced ones.

“When I compare this to playing 18 holes of golf, I would have thought 10 reps would be a breeze in comparison to the compound of distance I would be walking on the course,” a client commented.

It’s true that walking for a prolonged period of time will demand the heart to pump faster and the lungs to gather more oxygen, ultimately leading to heavier breathing. However, if the lower body is performing more work against a significant amount of resistance, the demand for oxygen-rich blood increases to the working muscles to produce this strenuous movement.

What happens when a significant amount of force is applied to a large group of muscles? What must the muscles do when a more challenging task is asked of them? And when more muscles are engaged, what are the energy demands to your body?

When compared to long-distance walking, more muscular engagement in various planes of motion are involved. The gluteal, quadricep, hamstring muscles are attached to the hip, ankle and knee. These muscles must exert 10 times the amount of work produced than that of upright walking.

This means an increased blood flow travels to the working muscles. An increased amount of carbohydrate must be broken down in the body to use as energy. Overall, with a compound lower body movement like a squat, more work is demanded, leading to more exertion in 10 simple movements than just walking.

This expends more energy and utilizes more oxygen to help break down carbohydrates and fat. It triggers the heart to pump more blood to the working muscle in a shorter period of time.

If you are looking for a simple and effective way to improve cardiorespiratory endurance, decrease fatigue, improve overall strength and decrease the likelihood of injury, compound resistance training techniques are a great place to start.

Not only will these compound resistance training exercises help with energy throughout the day, but mastering them offer improvements to many movements we utilize in our everyday lives.

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Sean McCawley, the founder and owner of Napa Tenacious Fitness in Napa, welcomes questions and comments. Reach him at 707-287-2727, or visit the website

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