Tom Platz became a legend by perfecting the squat and developing the greatest pair of legs in bodybuilding history. Here’s a brief history of the Golden Eagle and his signature exercise.
Golden Era great and OSL Contributor, Tom Platz is so identified with the squat, that some may mistake him for inventing it. He didn’t, of course, but he did take the foundational exercise to its ultimate potential.
While the squat has been called “the king of exercises” by elite weightlifters, there was a period in the Golden Era when it fell out of favor. As a teenager in the 1970s, Platz remembers being warned off squats.
“Some friends told me that squats weren’t good for you, that they hurt your back and made your butt big,” says Platz. “So I didn’t squat much at first.”
That changed, to put it mildly. Raised in the Detroit area, Platz, barely out of middle school, joined a hardcore gym where he came under the influence of traditionalists who schooled him in the basic compound exercises that build mass and strength. Genetically inclined to have huge legs, Platz took to the exercise.
“I was built to squat,” he says.
But while he may have been genetically disposed to build huge quads, it certainly didn’t start that way. “I did not come out of the womb with cross striations on my legs,” he says, laughing. “I learned to squat heavy due to a lot of hard work.”
PERFECT THE FORM, THEN ADD INTENSITY
If you’ve ever seen video of a vintage Tom Platz squat workout, you know the visual definition of extreme intensity. Up and down he goes, hundreds of pounds loaded on the barbell, as he grinds out dozens of reps—30, 40, 50—until he collapses in a sweaty heap. This is a man who once squatted 525 lb for 23 reps. Hard to believe he started like everybody else, struggling under a bar not quite 100 lb.
“My first squat workout was 95 pounds for what felt like a very hard set of 10,” he says. “I really didn’t like the exercise that much. I mean, I sort of just did it to do it. My leg day at the time was only a 15-minute workout. I was more concerned about upper body. Legs were trivial. That was my attitude.”
That changed when he learned to squat from career athletes, particularly Olympic lifters like Bob Morris and Freddie Lowe. Platz noticed that Olympic lifters had better leg development than powerlifters.
So Platz’s early lessons in perfect squat form were in the Olympic style, instead of the powerlifting style. He was taught a technique that allowed for a smoother ascent, with adequate ankle flexibility, but still butt-to-the-floor intensity.
“In Olympic squatting your knees are in front of your toes, the bar is very high on your back, and you go down to the point where your butt is touching the ground or your heels,” he says. “Olympic-squatting technique is more of a straight up-and-down movement in which the stress is directly on the quadriceps. It helps to look at an imaginary spot on the wall or ceiling to stay in the right position. It made the exercise more difficult, but more effective.”
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Platz became proficient at the exercise and began building up to huge poundages for his lifts. It became a central part of his workout.
But when Platz made the move to California and joined Gold’s Gym in Venice in 1977, he discovered that the squat rack was hidden in the back of the gym collecting dust. Even in bodybuilding’s Mecca, he encountered the same knocks against the squat that he had heard as a teen: It will thicken your waist, widen your butt, and throw off your entire physique. He paid no attention to the comments and went to work.
It was about this time that he also learned to love the hack squat. He would put his heels together close on the platform, while pointing his toes out, kind of like a duck. This stance develops the lateral part of the quadriceps, and it worked beautifully. These type of hack squats along with his standard Olympic-style squats were the perfect complement.
Now all you had to do was add the legendary Platz intensity.
NEVER LEAVE THE GYM A FAILURE
The reputation of Platz’s squatting prowess spread quickly, and seeing the Golden Eagle perform one of his jaw-dropping workouts became a spectator sport in itself.
“I did have a lot of grueling workouts on the squat rack to the point where my life would pass in front of my eyes,” he remembers. “I would lay on the floor at Gold’s and my heart would be racing so fast that I couldn’t breathe or see. After resting for about 10 minutes and drinking some water, I would get up and go, ‘Next set.’”
Platz was driven by a desire to compete—compete against himself. “The people who can self-motivate—in any field—are usually the ones who win regardless of talent. I thought, I refuse to lose and be a failure. It’s much more desirable to leave the gym saying, ‘I won!’”
He says some of his workouts may have been a bit over the top, but that was where his mindset was at the time. “Not everybody is psychologically equipped to be a pro athlete,” he says. “I wanted to change the way people thought about the gym experience and training.”
Platz also employed visualization techniques. “I would do the workout in my mind before training. I thought of myself as a piston in a cylinder, going up and down with power.”
He also added a few colorful touches, like a deep roar when raising from his crouched position, or making sure the 45-lb plates were loose enough so you could hear them jingle as he moved the massive weights.
But he also fed off the energy in the gym, and it became kind of a performance.
“Arnold used to enjoy my intensity. He’d comment on the amount of energy I’d create. But I played off the other people, too.”
PUT IN THE WORK—GOOD THINGS WILL COME
Platz is still in demand all over the world for his squatting clinics, and if you ever get a chance to see one of his seminars, take advantage. While he can teach you a lot about exercise form and workout technique, Platz stresses that you have to put the hard work in, to push yourself to places you never thought your body could go.
Even today’s pros can learn from him. Platz recently trained an up-and-coming IFBB star, and put him through a squat workout. “I used my personal bar with him, which I bent slightly on purpose,” explains Platz. “This way the bar doesn’t roll down your back, and forces you to stand and squat erect. This allows for the quad-dominant squat to occur with more comfort and precision. One of my old tricks!”
And, yes, this young pro finished the workout slumped on the gym floor, gasping for air. Lesson learned.
Platz certainly has learned his lessons over the years. “The things I learned in the gym and bodybuilding have helped me in all other areas of my life,” he says.
The bottom line: To get the job done, do the job. These aren’t lessons you learn in a classroom—you learn them in the squat rack, challenging yourself to beat last week’s personal best. Put in the work and the rest will come. As Platz says: “I don’t believe in luck. Luck comes to men of action.”
Have you seen a vintage Tom Platz squat workout? How important do you think the squat is to overall bodybuilding development? Tell us your thoughts below.