Squats, Corrupted by BodyPump

– authored by Katja Lariola

So I happened to say the magic words “What in my opinion makes women squat with a bad form is BodyPump” to my coach and that led me to write about the very topic… Be careful with what you say around him, people! But let me introduce myself before I get all excited and start saying things I will later regret. That tends to happen when I get excited – this article itself is a proof of that, haha. I’m kidding. I enjoy writing and I was very honored to be asked to write for Brute Force Strength! Though I really did not see it coming when I said what I said…

Who Am I?

In addition to being Ken’s Finnish trainee with nothing to say and a sense of humor of high quality (haha), I work as a Personal Trainer in a commercial gym chain. Being a powerlifter and a commercial gym PT is not the most typical combo, at least not in Finland, but I like teaching the main lifts to “ordinary” people, help them with their goals, and make their training effective, simple and safe. And I help them get stronger if that’s what they want, of course.

Of all the lifts, I love squats the most. It’s maybe not my best lift in kgs (or lbs) but it’s what I enjoy the most. Squatting makes me feel strong and empowered! If I were asked to choose one thing to do at the gym, it would be squats. Consequently, as a PT, I make almost everybody squat… Wanna build muscles? Let’s squat! Wanna lose weight? Let’s squat! Wanna get stronger? Let’s squat! Wanna improve your mobility? Let’s squat! Wanna do functional training? Let’s squat! Wanna improve your overall health? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that…  Ok, Ok, I have had clients who have wanted, for example, to bench press with me. We haven’t squatted… And the type, intensity and volume of the exercise vary, too, of course.

The typical member I meet at the gym is a woman, 30-50 years old, no experience at the gym but loves group fitness classes. Oh boy they love their classes! Not that there’s anything wrong with that but typically they think that they don’t need resistance training for anything because of them. Yes, they have almost all done strength training when I ask them (I believe everybody needs some strength training and you can learn Finnish and read an article I wrote about it recently in my own blog – Life Worth Lifting)… They have taken BodyPump classes.

These women I work with have learned to squat in BodyPump classes, too. Or should I say they have not learned to squat in the BodyPump classes? Many of them say they have experienced knee pain. When I see them squat, their technique is bad. However, I believe Ken is working on an article about knee pain, so I won’t go there more profoundly. But I would go as far as to say that it’s because of BodyPump that their squats look terrible. They have taught themselves a wrong way to do it there.

Before going any further, I should probably explain what BodyPump is. Many of you have probably heard the term and have a general idea but to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, I will tell you about the concept. When we get to the critique part, and we will get there, you will notice that most of it could be said about any type of group fitness class and about any technical lift, or about just not having squatted ever. The problems are not unique to squat or to Bodypump. But BodyPump has been what I have come across the most.

Before continuing, I also want to add that I don’t intend to bash BodyPump. I will question some things they say about BodyPump’s benefits but I do think it can be fun (if you like that sort of things, I don’t) and it’s a way to get people moving – and that’s a huge thing nowadays when the rate of obesity and other health problems is alarming! For that I’m grateful.

What Is BodyPump?

According to the Les Mills site (http://www.lesmills.com/), BodyPump is a weight-based group-fitness program. Classes are 60 minutes long and contain eight separate muscle-group specific songs or tracks: warm up, squats, chest, back, triceps, biceps, lunges, shoulders, core and cool down. BodyPump classes use both compound and isolation-based exercises and in addition to squats, deadlifts and presses are used. Participants choose their weights based on the exercise and their personal goals but they are performed using plates, barbells, dumbbells and an aerobic step. The classes are exactly the same all over the world, wherever you go the program is the same and not modified by the instructor. The focus is on muscle endurance using several repetitions.

And what are the claims I mentioned they make on their site? I know, this might seem like I’m getting sidetracked and more about BodyPump itself than squats and BodyPump. However, this is an article about BodyPump, too, and I do want to say a few words about that. I’m sure you BodyPumpers out there think when reading this that maybe I won’t learn to squat but I will get the other benefits… Nope, you won’t. So let me tell you what the claims are and how they are not working.

“Build strength, get lean & toned, work all major muscles. Get lifting with BODYPUMP™ and you’ll tone and shape your entire body, without adding bulky muscles.  This full-body workout will burn calories, increase core strength and improve bone health. This program is based on THE REP EFFECT. THE REP EFFECT throws traditional thinking about lifting heavy weights on its head. It is a proven formula that exhausts muscles using light weights, while performing high repetitions – this is the secret to developing lean, athletic muscle. Choreography in each area is specifically targeted so you’ll burn fat, burn more calories and achieve more meaningful fat loss and muscle fatigue to build strength without building bulk. In a typical BODYPUMP™ class you’ll perform 800 reps in a single group workout. That’s more than four times the amount a person can achieve when training alone.”

I did promise to question them, didn’t I? Yes, you will burn calories and work all your muscles, that is true. But lifting heavy weights with proper technique would be more effective for building strength! Or have you heard of a strength athlete using only the rep effect? As they said, focus is on muscle endurance. And that is probably why I don’t find it fun – with my attention span SO MANY REPS is boring… But fortunately we are all different! Lifting heavy weights is more effective for shaping your body, increasing core strength and improving bone health (I won’t go there now, otherwise this will become too long of an article, but as I said before: you can learn Finnish and read about in my own blog – it’s all in the Why Everybody Needs Strength article).

Getting lean, on the other hand, is mainly about your diet. If you want to lose fat, you need to pay attention to what you put in your mouth. It’s as simple as that, although finding the best diet for you might not be a simple task. Develop lean, athletic muscles and not adding bulky muscles? Let’s get this straight: all muscles are lean. That’s what they are: muscle, not fat. If you look bulky, however, it’s often about fat on top of the muscles, not the muscles themselves, or about your how you see yourself. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to have a distorted body image.

The shape of your muscles is genetically determined, too. They have a certain origin and a certain insertion. You might be able to affect their length a bit but you can’t change those facts or grow longer bones. So you can’t get significantly longer muscles with a certain type of exercise. Not Yoga, not BodyPump. Furthermore, quantity does not override quality. Doing 800 reps or four times the amount you can do on your own is somewhat pointless in my opinion. Do quality workouts aimed at your goal, and if training alone is a problem, get yourself a good trainer.

Why Does BodyPump Make Women Squat with a Bad Form?

What a squat SHOULD look like

As I said in the beginning, the problems are not BodyPump-specific or exercise-specific and they are not gender-specific, either. It just reflects my experiences: I have met many women who have done BodyPump classes and do not know how to squat.

The main problem is that there are so many people in the class. If you have 50 people doing the class and the squat song lasts 5 minutes, you cannot possibly teach everyone how to squat or go correct their form. The instructor is supposed to show the participants what to do, too, and as far as I know, getting off the stage is limited in the BodyPump concept. So basically what you can do is try to get an eye contact and tell the participant to keep their heels on the ground (or whatever it is you want to tell them). All the instructors do not have enough knowledge to correct people, either, but that can be said about trainers and coaches, too. And there are good instructors, too!

As the lifts are performed to music, some reps are really fast. When you squat to every beat (fortunately you don’t do that throughout the whole song), the movement might not be controlled anymore. You are just going up and down and sweating and hoping for the track to end. Technique is not what you have in mind anymore and quite likely your core will get loose, too.

Furthermore, when a trainer/coach works with people and sees them lift, they can spot weaknesses that need to be addressed. It might be related to muscle strength and they might have to work on posterior chain or core (although squatting is a good cure for that, too: you can get better at squatting by squatting). In BodyPump classes it is not possible because of the concept: the instructor is not allowed to change anything. In group fitness classes in general it is not possible because of the amount of people. You cannot address one person’s individual issues while the 49 remaining participants have different needs.

Sometimes the attitude is also a bit towards “thank god these weights are so light that participants won’t really hurt themselves”. And in a class like this, where you can’t teach and correct, the weights do need to be light and in that sense I think the rep effect is a good one to use. Though bad form even with light weights can lead to injuries or at least to back or knee pain. In addition to that, once you learn to do something, it is difficult to change the pattern. So trying out heavier weights at the gym with that form might lead to an injury even if it doesn’t happen in the class. This can be said about anyone who doesn’t know what they are doing, though, whether they have taken any group fitness classes in their life or not.

What Are the Most Common Problems I Have Encountered?

And to finish this short and compact article off, I’ll summarize briefly (yeah right) the most common squat problems I have encountered. However, this is not a comprehensive list; it doesn’t cover all the problems and certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. It doesn’t give definite answers, either. They are not the only ways to start correcting. So even though I will name a few things I often do with my clients, it’s not all we do. It always depends on the person and their problems and weaknesses, and they are often more complicated. We probably need to fix more than just one thing. And I won’t even go to muscular weaknesses or mobility issues! So this is just a quick overview and I will only talk about basic technical aspects.

First, when we get to squatting with a barbell, I need to teach people how to unrack and rack. That’s not where we usually start, though; many of them cannot handle the 20kg bar yet, so we use lighter bars/ kettlebells/ dumbbells or do bodyweight or assisted squats. But when we get there, if I let them just try it out without showing them first, they quite often lift the bar from the rack with their hands, press it up and then put it down to their shoulders. Similarly, racking starts with a version of a behind the neck press. That’s what they have done in BodyPump classes with those light weights. There are no racks or squat cages there. However, it can get dangerous with heavier weights! And as legs are stronger than arms, especially when it comes to women, you cannot even use a heavy enough weight for really working your legs if you need to press it up first. But that is a more advanced problem, when the squatting technique is good enough for adding more weight. Myself I cannot press overhead even half of the weight I can squat.

The second problem is the placement of the bar. It is often on their neck, pressing the spine and vertebrae. Maybe that wasn’t a problem with lighter weights, but having heavy weights on your spine will hurt you for sure. The next issue is that people believe the right stance is a narrow one, toes pointed directly forward. While it may work for some, many of the people I have squatted with have not had the mobility for that. So when I tell them to widen their stance a bit and turn their toes a bit outwards, I hear the ‘this is not how they told us to do it in the BodyPump classes!’ comment. The surprise is even bigger when I tell them to push their knees out. However, when I ask them ‘Did it hurt your knees now?’, the answer is usually ‘No’. And that is a surprised ‘No’, too!

It is also common to lift heels up from the floor and lean forward, or to be afraid of going low, even if strength and mobility would allow that. The range of motion is very short. What I have found effective is doing front squats and box squats. Front squats are kind of self-corrective and prevent leaning to a certain extent. It is easier to find the pattern with front than back squats. When people shift their weight forward, box squats help, too, as people need to hit the box behind them. If it is about a mental block, about being afraid of falling down onto the floor, or about not finding the depth, box squats are beneficial again. The box is there to catch you, though it’s rarely needed, and tell you the correct depth. These are not the only reasons to use box squats or front squats, so if you see people doing them, don’t expect they have above mentioned problems. They are effective exercises on their own, too.

Summary

So, in a nutshell, what I wanted to say with this article is that if you don’t know how to squat but squat anyways, you won’t get the benefits and may injure yourself. While BodyPump can get you up from the couch, it is not the best way to strength train, tone, get leaner or build muscle. And it is definitely not the best place to learn to lift! Quite the opposite, if you do it wrong, the instructor cannot really correct you. They cannot help you to address your weaknesses. You will quite likely learn it wrong. That is why in my opinion BodyPump makes women squat with a bad form.

It’s like the old question ‘How many times a week should I train?’ If your way of training is bad, the less you do it the better. Learn to lift and definitely learn to squat but do it with a good PT or coach! Then, when you know what you are doing, you can do BodyPump every now and then if you want to work on endurance.

 In addition to being a Personal Trainer, Katja is an up and coming Elite Raw Powerlifter in Finland. She holds regional records and has won the Southern Finland Regional Championships. She has placed 4th in Finnish National Championships. 


15 Comments on “Squats, Corrupted by BodyPump”

  1. Max Berest says:

    Hi, all the things you said about a proper squat (where to place bar, leg, and foot placement, etc) are the exact things all my BodyPump instructors have said. Also, I’ve never met anyone in a BodyPump class who thinks it will make them as strong as heavy weight lifting. I take the class to improve muscular endurance, and it’s fun.
    Maybe I’ve just been lucky and had really good instructors.

    • The Ripper says:

      What is the most important aspect of a good workout? That is kind of a trick question, the best answer is “one that you enjoy doing”. Generally speaking, if you’re not doing something stupid and dangerous, if you enjoy doing it, you’ll continue to do it. That is very important.
      The author of the article says:
      It is great you have had good instructors. A class such as body pump, however, is not the best environment to learn sound fundamentals and good lifting technique. Even with the best instructors the class moves at a very fast pace, and there are too many students to adequately instruct and correct technique.

  2. Peter Verbeke says:

    Hi, I happen to enjoy BP quite a lot and on top of endurance it has definitely helped increase my strength and muscle size (as I like cycling in the mountains I am even a little worried about the addtional weight). However, I squated already a little bit (110% of my body weight) before I started with BP, so that may have helped.

    Anyway, I have a squatting problem on which I would very much appreciate your advice. When going down, I am clearly not going down symmetrically. My butt shifts to the right. I don’t think it is a difference in strength between both legs. Could it be a mobility problem? How would I diagnose and fix it?

    • The Ripper says:

      What makes you believe you don’t have a muscular imbalance? Have you had any injuries to your hips or lower body? Do you have a trusted chiropractor – a good chiropractor can take measurements and determine if you are ‘out of alignment’ or have imbalances in your body’s leverages. Without digging into your specific case, I would guess that injury or alignment issues are more likely than muscular imbalance.
      You may find it interesting that we’ll soon be offering technique assessments as a service on Brute Force Strength.

      • Peter Verbeke says:

        Hi, thanks for your response. I also think it is an allignment issue as I have never had any injuries. I do have fallen arches though and my left foot is much worse than my right foot. So that might also have some impact. Anyway, as I do occasionally see a chiropractor, I will ask his advice as you propose.

        I am pretty sure it is not a muscular imbalance as a bicycle test did not reveal a significant difference between both legs.

  3. Kevin says:

    When I take BP I can’t keep up with the music while doing squats. I found myself not squatting fully. I recently lowered my weights and begin concentrating on my form as opposed to keeping up with the music. I feel I am getting much better results and my knees don’t hurt. I am a 56 year old male who’s only weight training has been BP (started 3yrs ago).

  4. Maddy says:

    I started doing powerlifting squats about 3 months ago and I’m now able to do 30 kg.
    My friend asked me to come to body pump and I really enjoyed it. I’ve gone a few times now but now I’m suffering from sore knees. I know my form is correct in squats but when I addressed it with the trainer she thought I was going to far down?
    I’m convinced it’s from pulsing a squat and now I think I may need to give it up. I do really enjoy it though and think it has helped with my general fitness.
    Any advice would be great. Thanks

    • The Ripper says:

      If you’re squatting correctly, sore knees is rarely from going too far down. It’s more frequently from either poor form, or too much volume, or both.
      What makes you believe your form is correct?

  5. Dina says:

    As a Bodypump instructor, I am trying to relearn my squats! You are completely right about the difficulty trying to keep so many people safe. Every so often I offer a 20 minute techqnieue class before my BP class.

    I use the rack outside of my classes and I do have great form, but I realized my training has mentally limited my ROM. In class we teach to bring the butt down right above the knee line (for safety) and now that I am squatting on my own, it’s difficult for me to hit parallel or go into a deep squat. My muscles and my brain are not willing to go the extra inch in part due to the muscle training and in part due to fear. Any specific tips to fix this aspect of the BP squat? How deep should I be going?

  6. Sharon Thorne says:

    I would welcome your advice. I damages my knees in a fall a few years ago, they often crunch when walking upstairs and I get a twinge of pain in most squats/lunges but not always. I also had plantar fasciitis for 10 months last year and was almost unable to walk. I put on weight and even though it has now gone I want to exercise but cannot do too much cardio/things that pound my feet so started body pump 3 times a week plus abs classes and the gym and have lost a stone and feel a lot stronger and toned. I should mention I have piriformis syndrome which kills me on the squat track of body pump but I persevere. It is now 7 weeks since I started body pump and I find my hip/pelvic and back area ache constantly. I wake aching, I ache when I move about. My feet ache. My upper arms ache. The only part that does not ache are my legs! I’m 51. Any advice please? Thank you

  7. Schelly Wilkins says:

    I do pump and have dropped two dress sizes – I do it because I enjoy it and it keeps my mental health also in check!

  8. Lisa says:

    Everything you said in this article is the absolute truth according to my experience. The bar hurts my neck, the squats are taught hip width them wider then wider. My cross fit instructor hates hip width squats as well and also said your knees should go outwards to avoid injury. The shoulder track sucks really bad. This was the confirmation I needed to get a trainer (Cross Fit is too expensive) thanks for the article.

  9. Est says:

    This!!!! Ive been a bit anti-bodypump (for myself, personally i prefer powerlifting and bodybuilding style training). Mainly because people rave about it but i think there are better ways of getting the same effect. I did a class today and it was awful! Like the workout itself burnt calories/got me sweating but at the same time.. she corrected my squat form (from doing full ROM to barely parallel) and my bench/chest press form (to the completely wrong form for benching i.e. back completely flat, elbows straight out in line with shoulders etc), the bicep curls were by far the worst because she basically had her body swinging with the bar and instructed this as correct form. I came away with the feeling that my wrists, rotator cuffs and ligaments in my elbow creases were busted simply because i refused to use momentum like everyone else in the class! I may have just been unlucky but i can see how it can lead to overuse injuries; Especially if youre a beginner lifter and dont know what bad form looks like. I had a friend who slipped a disc in body pump a few weeks ago because she had her correct form ‘corrected’ into what was actually wrong form. Although i think its great to introduce people to weight lifting, i know so many people who have told me about the injuries theyve obtained…and even in the class people were saying how theyd injured their knees or their arms or wrists during a previous class so were having to take it easier. So personally i wouldnt do it again and i wouldnt recommend – at least not the instructor in my gym – but each to their own! I suppose there are other classes out there with great instructors with great form!

  10. evei says:

    I liked this article. I’ve been doing body pump for a few years, not always very frequently. I always got annoyed with the speed of some of the squat tracks as it effects the form and I had not progressed. This year I started a beginners power lifting course, absolutely loved it and it make me relearn my squats, lower and knees out, plus a LOT heavier. Went to a body pump class after not going for 4 months and it seems so easy! Power lifting is clearly the way forward as technique is so important when you lift heavier that you really focus on the method behind the lifts. Would recommend it for anyone that loves the gym classes but hit their limits. Don’t be scared and get someone to teach you the techniques.

  11. davo says:

    I agree with all points raised in the article. I would go so far as to say that Body Pump is more about a commercial product than a highly effective workout. It might be better than doing nothing and good for those who need the group class setting, but that is not how it is billed. In my gym, it is is advertised as a “strength training class … that shapes, tones, and strengthens your entire body.” The posters depict men and women with powerful, chiseled bodies. One thing is for sure: Those bodies were not a result of Body Pump! I have given it a chance in the past (months at a time) and never found the results matched the same time put into the weight room, for example. I do not believe that the low weight, high speed, high rep principle has much basis. It contradicts the principle that workout movements should match the tempo of real-life moments. The set line-up is also static, which results in decreasing benefit over time through muscle adaption. However, it is not just a question of adding more weight to increase the challenge, because the tempo is too fast to achieve proper technique with heavier loads – and this is where the risk of injury comes in. To each their own, I guess, but I am just glad to see a good critique like this.


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