– 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?
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.
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.
The problem: Many strength trainers spend hours, maybe weeks, researching the perfect workout or trying out the latest lifting fad. More experienced lifters focus their effort honing in the technique for their squat, deadlift and bench press. Far too many, however, miss one of the most fundamental aspects to lifting big weights – perfecting the setup.
The solution: Neglecting your setup is a huge mistake. A proper setup leads to stronger lifts. The setup is the one point in the lift you have the time (and your wits) to enable you to do everything perfectly every single time. To set up correctly your entire body needs to be tight before the bar even comes out of the rack or off the floor.
How does a tight setup aid your lift?
- Efficiency: An improper setup leaves you expending more energy than necessary before even starting to lift.
- Stability: A tight set up allows you to control the weight easily, giving you greater stability with which to start your lift.
- The Weight Feels Light: Setting up tightly gives you a mechanical advantage. The weight feels much lighter coming out of the rack, or off the floor. Although it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels, the lighter the weight feels, the more confidently you will attack your lifts.
Squat Setup: The idea for this article came up while watching one of my lifters setting up to squat. Before unracking the weight she dropped down slightly, and then slammed up into the bar. Extra movements like this do not help with the lift and by doing so she loosened up before lifting the bar.
Keeping your body tight allows you to transfer all of your power from your legs doing the work directly to the bar on your shoulders and eliminates energy leaks. Done right, the bar feels lighter and moves more easily, wastes less energy, and mentally prepares you for your lift.
- Hand Position: Bringing your hands in closer to your shoulders on the bar increases the tightness of your upper back. Bring them in as closely as your flexibility allows, while still enabling you to drive your elbows forward under the bar as you lift the weight.
- Bar Position: Bring the bar down from on top of your traps (high bar position) to the shelf between the base of your traps and your delts.
- Tight Back: Once you have your grip on the bar, and have positioned the bar on your back, squeeze your shoulder blades together to contract your lats and tighten your upper back.
- Big Air: Take a large breath of air into your lungs, and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure, providing stability to your spine.
What is Big Air?
When I get under the bar very very tightly it feels like my body is a loaded spring. Let it go and it drives the bar up easily out of the rack, even with a loaded down bar. For more tips on your squat setup, read ‘A Perfect Setup Leads to a Bigger Squat’.
Setting up your squat
Bench Press Setup: You’ve seen a lot of guys do it, hell I used to this before I knew what I was doing: before unracking the weight, he pulls his body up off the bench and as his shoulders come back down onto the bench he unracks the weight. This is probably the worst thing you can do to prepare for your bench press. Before unracking the weight you want to have your body in the perfect position and completely tight. There is no way to properly set up with a moving target!
- Shoulder Position: Place your shoulders on the bench and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. Think about trying to squeeze a quarter between your shoulder blades and holding it there throughout your full set.
- Leg Drive: Place your feet under your knees with your toes pointed slightly outward. Push through the balls of your feet driving your hips towards your shoulders. This will push your lower back into a slight arch, and it will tighten your entire body from your toes through your traps. Maintain your leg drive throughout all reps in your set.
Note: If you have lower back issues, consult your doctor before benching with an ‘arch’.
- Lock Your Elbows: Squeeze the bar tightly, and try to lock your elbows before unracking the bar. You want to be able to bring the bar straight out over your chest, instead of lifting the bar up then bringing it out. This works best when you have a bench with adjustable height. With the perfect rack height you can nearly lock your elbows before coming out of the rack. Your spotter should have to just bump the bar up slightly, then help you guide the weight straight out, at which point you’re already locked out and ready to begin your first repetition.
Deadlift Setup: Deadlift setups are the trickiest. I watch deadlifters squat down to the bar loosening their entire upper body, and then jerk up as hard as they can to pull their new PR. Let’s look at this approach – loose upper back, heavy weight, jerking the bar with all their strength. Let’s say you’re going to tow your friend’s car out of the ditch with your Chevy. Do you connect the chains between the vehicles leaving 30’ of slack, then floor it getting your truck up to speed before the chain tightens and jerks the bumper off your friend’s car? My first thought is usually ‘well they won’t be wasting space in my gym too long’.
A proper deadlift starts with a tight upper body and a smooth, strong, steady pull:
- Big Air: Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine. This is best done before you drop your hips down into the starting position. Once you drop your hips you will be unable to pack your lungs full of air.
- Tight Back: Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightening your back. As opposed to your bench press technique, where you try and pinch a quarter between them, try and tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. This will reduce the shortening effect on your arms while still allowing you to tighten your upper back (shorter arms equals a longer range of motion).
- Pull the Slack out of the Bar: Pull upward on the bar before starting your deadlift eliminating any slack between you and the bar. You should have a smooth, strong pull when you start your deadlift, and not jerk the bar upwards.
- Don’t Squat to the Bar: Rock back bringing your hips down and your head and chest up. Keep your back tight and upward tension on the bar as you rock back, dropping your hips to the starting position. Don’t squat down to the bar letting your knees drift forward over the bar and loosening your back and arms.
A tight setup on the deadlift allows you to transfer all of your pulling power directly from your legs to the bar. It allows you to turn your upper body into a solid lever, minimizing energy leaks as you begin your pull.
I probably frustrate many of my lifters. When squatting I’ll make them rerack and start over several times before they even take their first repetition, but the setup is that important. A proper setup can easily be the difference between a missed lift and a new personal record.
I picked up a little flyer at one of the major gym chains the other day. It appears to be noob training advice for their 2012 Fitness Challenge. If I may quote:
Get the most out of each rep by contracting and releasing slowly. Aim for a 5-second count in each direction.
In which sport exactly do you train to function slowly? As a football coach are you going to train your offensive linemen to aim for five seconds to come off the line when the ball is snapped? The play will be over by the time he makes it out of his three point stance! Ok, that’s a bit generous, he’ll be flat on his CENSORED before he gets to 3…
Now, there are times and places to include slow-count work in your training program, but if you don’t know why you’re doing it, do yourself a huge favor – just don’t. This flyer spews one of the single worst pieces of training advice I’ve ever read (IMHBCO). I already spend far too much time training new lifters to speed up their lifts, and complete them explosively.
If I were to give advice to new lifters without knowing their training goals, I would go in the opposite direction:
- When learning a new exercise, perform it in a deliberate manner until you can perform it properly – deliberate does not mean SLOW, perform the movements only as slowly as needed to complete the exercise properly
- Control the bar throughout the range of motion on both the eccentric (downward portion of the lift) and concentric (upward portion of the lift) movements
- Lower the bar in a quick but controlled manner
- Raise the bar explosively, try to complete the concentric portion of the lift as powerfully as possible