Squats, Deadlifts and Diligence – What the Big 2 Say About Your Character

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steelhouse squat rack

“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that provides the level of central nervous activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.”  These words by Mark Rippetoe, although not a powerlifter, hold the single greatest truth in the lifting community. The squat is considered the king of all lifts. Nothing outside of this one movement is an overall test of mental fortitude, physical demand and true test of overall power.

Along with the squat, we have the deadlift. Almost it’s equal, the deadlift requires a physical demand unmatched to any other movement and the words of strongman legend Jon Pall Sigmersson hold an equal if not more comical truth; “there is no reason to live if you cannot do the deadlift!”   Yet many gym goers refuse to do squats and deadlift. They prefer bench, abs and arms, the proverbial glamor muscles. The excuses I hear most often are that it’s simply too hard, or their knees and back hurt.

Both statements are true. Like anything else in life, these lifts are hard and if  not done correctly can cause discomfort, stress and/or injury; like giving an 8 year old the keys to your car.  To me, the squat and deadlift are character movements; they exemplify inner strength and drive. They force us to dig deep in order to grow. These lifts are the great burden that must be carried in order to truly progress in anything strength related.

ty phillips deadlift

Like our negative habits and patterns, we choose not to confront them. It’s easier to stay within our all consuming ego and insecurities and just work on our glamor aspects. We want to believe that our insecurities hold less sway over us than they actually do. Just like gym time, when it’s time to squat or pull, we often make excuses. I’m too tired today, I didn’t eat enough, I’m still sore from my workout two days ago, etc. ad infinitum. With this mindset locked in, we instead go sit on the preacher curl bench or do pec dec and or flys, (not to say that these exercises don’t have a place…but they are simply accessory movements).

We often have this same attitude in life. When it comes time to look within, we see only what we want to see and when suffering comes along, instead of taking the time to understand it, we make excuses, point fingers or demand that someone else pay the burden for us. The Buddha said, “no one can save you but you. No one ever could and no one ever will. So strive on with diligence.”

Just like in our physical pursuits, no one can win for us. No one can train for us or instill within us the fortitude to dig deep enough to break plateaus, set new PR’s or simply make us get up off the couch and get into the gym to create a body that is equally strong with the mind.

Like mindfulness and meditation, correct training takes practice, time and diligence. We start small and build our way to greater heights of awareness both physically and mentally. With meditation and mindfulness students, I often encourage starting with simply a few moments of being aware. Start with making a cup of tea or pealing an orange. Try and be fully aware of that one single, simple aspect of your day. There is no need to sit down and tell yourself you are going to meditate for hours on end any more than there is to say you will conquer a true squat with 900 pounds on your back.

With new gym clients, when I taught squat, they didn’t get a bar, they got a six foot broom stick and their face in the wall. We worked stance, form, depth, breath and every simple aspect over and over again until that broom stick felt like it weighed 800 pounds. The same applies to mindfulness practice. Even the greatest masters come back to the same practice 30 years down the road; the breath. Breath awareness is the beginning of mindfulness.

Like breath for squat, bench or deadlift is vital for big weights, so too is breath vital for our mindfulness practice. In both powerlifting and mindfulness, everything comes down to our breath. Every hurdle we face can be brought into focus by calming and centering the breath; bringing our focus back to the essence of all life.  As with our squat and deadlifts, we can have all the power in the world, but without mindfulness of form and breath, each lift will falter and fail to be complete.

When you approach these lifts, don’t tackle then with fear and frustration; irritated by the effort and exhaustion. Face each lift simply with the breath. Don’t over breath or under breath, don’t force weights over form and don’t quit because it’s hard, running back to bench and biceps in order to be pretty on the beach. Character and beauty are at the center. They should be your core not your coat.

Fake tans, fake size and fake character fade with age and truth. Strive on with diligence. Build up your inner character as you build your outer character. The weight on your back and the weight in your hands will mirror the weights you must carry in life. Do you crumble and drop them, or do you find your center, fill your belly and bring it all back to the breath?  It takes little more than vanity to create beauty from the waste up but it takes diligence and fortitude to create true strength; to rise to every challenge not with pride or fear but with simple mindful diligence.

The next time you feel too tired to squat or deadlift, or you simply don’t want to…ask yourself “why?” Be honest and open. Sit with your inner experience. Be aware of your doubts and concerns and start where you are…even if it’s only using a broom stick!


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