Spotting 101

When I was training for my first meet after a layoff, I remember looking in the mirror to see my spotter (who shall remain unnamed because my wife hates it when I criticize her) playing on her smart phone. After being crushed down to the cage’s safety pins as if I were in a trash compactor I asked why she didn’t give me a hand.

“I thought you had it.”

Don’t take spotting for granted. Even if you keep your lifter from getting killed or maimed, you may still kill a good rep or set.

Common Mistakes

Just because a lifter stalls or stops doesn’t give you the right to take the lift away from them:

Even if it’s a PR attempt, it’s better to jump in than to bounce the bar of your lifter’s head:

So what is the right amount of assistance?

Generally speaking, you should give the minimum assistance needed to keep the bar moving. Let the lifter take over once past the sticking point to lock out if they can. Unless it is the lifters final set, and you are trying to completely spend them, don’t keep your lifter struggling and burn them out. Help them keep the bar moving at the normal rate they would press (for that weight). This will allow them to continue to lift productively for future sets.

Here are some spotting tips for specific types of training.

High rep and failure sets

If your lifter is completing a high rep set, push them to complete the full set. This means you’ll start to assist lightly as the bar begins to slow, and may be giving them significant help by the end of the set. The key is to keep the bar moving at a normal rate. Exception: if the lifter is going for a rep PR, don’t assist until they fail.

Heavy Training

When doing heavy sets, generally speaking a lifter should only complete one rep once you need a spotter’s help. Unless they’re working on a PR, don’t make them come to a full stop before assisting. Again, keep the bar moving at a normal rate so they have something left in the tank to complete the training session. I realize some lifters don’t want any help before failing (heard a guy a few weeks ago tell his spotter ‘touch the bar and I’ll kill you’), but it’s not worth killing the volume remaining in the training session to complete that one rep unassisted.

Note: I do make an exception to the ‘don’t keep your lifter struggling’ rule. If I have one of those lifters who wants to do 8 reps after they hit failure I let them struggle as long as it takes to completely burn them out before helping them rerack the weight. It’s not my set.

Setting a new PR

Setting PRs come with their own rules, whether it’s a one rep max (1RM) or a rep PR. If your lifter is setting a 1RM PR, don’t touch the bar unless they hit failure and the bar comes to a complete stop or begins to descend. Since the lifter is at their maximum weight, you need to be ready because they can get into trouble very quickly. Stay under the bar to protect your lifter if they fail. If they do fail on the attempt they may be spent, and the weight will be heavy – be ready to take the bar away. Give as much assistance as needed to get the bar back to the rack.

If the lifter is setting a rep PR, don’t touch the bar until they hit failure. You don’t necessarily have to take the bar away from them, you can help them get additional reps. Depending on how spent they are at that point, how heavy the bar is and your ability to assist them you may past the failure point.

Side Spotting

If the bar weight is beyond your ability to assist on your own, add side spotters to assist in the event the lifter fails with a very heavy weight. Our team has threshold weights for benching and squatting where we automatically add side spotters, and I recommend this approach.

When side spotting:

–          Keep your hands under the bar and ready to catch in case of a sudden failure, but don’t touch the bar. If the lifter needs assistance let the back spotter provide it.

–          If the back spotter needs your help, don’t yank the bar up suddenly. Both side spotters need to bring the bar up evenly or you could injure your lifter.

–          Once the lift is complete, even on successful lifts guide the bar back to the rack without lifting more than just what’s necessary to re-rack.

Wrap Up

As a spotter, your job is more than just keeping a lifter from failing. A good spotter helps the lifter get the most out of their lifting sessions.


Give it Everything You’ve Got – A Practical Application of Dynamic Lifting

When I started lifting weights at 18 years old, I had no idea what I was doing. When I first strolled into the gym on Lackland Air Force Base, I may have been steping into a different dimension on some SciFi channel show (although at that time where I grew up in the sticks, we did not get the SciFi channel, we got what was known as ‘Channel 12’).

What does this have to do with strength training? For the past 26 years I’ve observed what successful lifters have done, tested it, adopted what works, and dropped what hasn’t. I’m not a West Side lifter, but if you know anything about powerlifting, you know that WSB is an authority on power and strength training. I have adopted a number of Louis Simmons’ teachings into my programming. This article addresses my application of Dynamic Training.

Why add Dynamic Training to your program?

Watch someone bench pressing, or think back to your last bench session. When you warmed up at 135lbs you pressed the bar up with 135lbs of force. When you got to your working sets at 315lbs (or whatever your working sets were), you applied 315lbs of force. You recruited the muscles you needed to lift the weight on the bar, you hit your lifts, and you had a successful training session, right?

Maybe, but what did you leave on the table?

To answer that question, I have another question. (You can’t answer a question with a question! Yes I can, it’s my article…). What is Power? For the purposes of benching more weight (or squatting, pulling, etc.) power is a product of strength and speed. If your training consists of only applying enough force to overcome the weight on the bar, you are training for strength. You are not training for power.

Ok, I’m starting to get it, how do I apply it?

I’m glad you asked or quite frankly this article would be a huge waste. This is where dynamic training comes in. The concept behind dynamic training is to move the bar as fast as possible regardless of the weight. If you can bench 300lbs in .5 seconds, you should move 150lbs in .25 seconds or less.

How you work dynamic training into your program is dependent on your program’s structure, but it can be quite simple:

  • Select an unrelated workout 2-3 days before or after your heavy session for that lift. For example, dynamic bench sessions can be done at the end of your heavy squat session, 2 days after your heavy bench session.
  • Start with a weight around 50-60% of that lift’s 1RM. If your best bench is 405lbs, start with 205lbs (I know you’re going to use 225lbs, aren’t you).
  • Keep the rep range low, 2-3 reps. Sets should short enough so that you finish before you begin to tire, and the bar speed slows. Concentrate on moving the bar as fast as possible, try to move the bar faster with each subsequent repetition.
  • Use between 6-10 sets, depending on how many sets you can complete before you begin to fatigue and the bar speed slows.
  • After mastering dynamic training at the lower weights, begin increasing the weight in later sets of your dynamic session. Work on moving the bar explosively with heavy weights as well as lighter weight.

Dynamic training results

  • You will train yourself to drive the bar up with all of your strength regardless of the weight. You will be able to rapidly activate all available muscle fibers. Even at your heaviest weights you will move the bar more explosively.
  • Because you are training your lifts more frequently, you will practice lifting technique at lighter weights that you can naturally complete with better form. Your proficiency in the lifts will improve.
  • You will lift more weight.
I like to break my dynamic training up into groups of 3 sets. I start light with a weight where I can really move the bar fast, and bump the weight up as long as the bar still moves relatively quickly:

Sets 2-3:

Sets 4-6:

Sets 7-8:

Wrap up and Results

When training for the 2013 USA Powerlifting Nationals I added dynamic benches to my back training sessions. I started with a modest 225lbs for 9×3. After several months of training I hit a high on my dynamic bench of 7×2@405, lifted a personal record (PR) raw bench in the gym, and a huge equipped PR of 562lb bench in competition. Dynamic training works.


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.