I Took a Two-Hour Squatting Class in Port Richmond. Here’s What I Learned.

Cedar Street Barbell Club hosts free Squat School workshops on the last Saturday of the month.

Photograph of Cedar Street Barbell by Melissa Aram.

You may think you know how to squat. I certainly did. But after spending two hours at Cedar Street Barbell Club’s Squat School, I realized just how much I had to learn.

Cedar Street Barbell Club (CSBC) is a newish powerlifting gym in Port Richmond, run by Nicholas Pasquariello. It’s Pasquariello’s goal to spread safe lifting techniques and to help newbies get more comfortable with the sport. For that reason, he’s run free Squat School workshops on the last Saturday of the month since he opened in May.

When I showed up outside his gym this past Saturday, I wasn’t sure how the following two hours would go. While the gym itself is a little tricky to find — there’s no sign on the door outside — after buzzing L2 on the keypad, winding through a deserted building, up two flights of stairs, I found myself inside CSBC’s sunny, brick-lined space. Rubber gym mats coated the floor, and bright orange squat racks took up a chunk of the space, along with weight benches and two padded platforms for deadlifts.

Saturday’s class was small — there were only three of us — but this is by design. Pasquariello likes to keep the Squat School sessions intimate so he can do what he does best: watch each participant’s form like a hawk.

After admitting that I’d actually never lifted a barbell before, Pasquariello grabbed the five-pound training barbell for me off the wall, setting up the 45-pound barbells for the participants with a little more experience. I wanted to protest — five pounds? Really? C’mon, I can do more! — but I’d soon see why Pasquariello wanted me to start light.

When it comes to lifting safely, form is everything. Before we even touched a barbell, Pasquariello had us demonstrate “air” squats for him, just to see where our hips, knees, back, and feet aligned. And this is really where our first lesson came into play: There’s no “rush” in powerlifting. Doing 100 “air” squats to perfect your form is honestly better than maxing out once with bad form and risking injury.

After a few suggestions — making sure our ankles weren’t caving in at the bottom of the squat and that our hip crease (where you bend at the hip) was lower than our knees at the bottom of the squat, we moved to the squat rack. We started with an empty barbell, and it was amazing to see how even the addition of that small weight could nudge our perfected form askew.

Photograph by Melissa Aram.

The next lesson I learned is that when squatting with a barbell, you want it to be resting on the muscles along the back of your shoulders — definitely not on your spine. Once I’d ducked under the barbell, had it resting comfortably on my shoulders, Pasquariello guided me to lift the bar off the rack, then back up carefully.

Once again, we weren’t rushing — setting up the proper position before I started to squat was crucial. Only after my feet were a hip-width distance apart, toes pointed out at 11 and one on an imaginary clock, and my knees pressed out did I begin the squat with the five-pound bar.

Pasquariello watched me carefully, checking to see if my legs and ankles were shifting as I lowered to the ground. While my ankles stayed steady, Pasquariello did notice that instead of keeping my spine straight all the way down, I was bending over at the waist halfway down. According to Pasquariello, this is one way people compensate when their knees or lack of flexibility make it hard to squat all the way down. While it didn’t hurt my back when I was just holding five pounds, bending over like that could have some serious consequences with more weight added.

The rest of the workshop was spent with us each taking turns squatting — with small additions of weight each time, doing three to five reps — while Pasquariello critiqued our form. This was super helpful, as we not only got feedback on our own mistakes, but also got to see the small tweaks in form  during each other’s turn at the bar.

By the time the class ended, I’d worked up to squatting 85 pounds, but more importantly, I now had a grasp and feel for good squatting form. While the workshop was very useful for beginners, I’d recommend even those who feel comfortable squatting to give it a try. For one thing, it’s amazing what  a pro can spot that you can’t see just from looking in a mirror. For another, the workshop is free, and it’s on the schedule every month. Why wouldn’t you go?

To sign up for the next Squat School on August 25, email Cedar Street Barbell Club at CedarStreetBarbell@gmail.com. Cedar Street Barbell Club is located at 3211 Cedar Street, L2 in Port Richmond.

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