You want to gain muscle mass but you’re not going to go through all the unhealthy avenues proven to cause more harm than gain. Ultimately it comes down to proper form. You’re not going to progress unless you’re keenly aware of how to execute a lift, exactly where you should feel it, and what proper from looks like. Don’t kid yourself, advancing is as psychological as it is physiological so why not arm yourself with knowledge? Mike Arlotto is a noted trainer with a decade at Equinox, one of the world’s most well-known and respected fitness chains. We asked Mike to give us three essential exercises and his tips on what helps and what hurts within these. Here are his responses with the unvarnished truth…and a dollop of inspiration.
For me personally, until I learned to squat properly, I was wasting a lot of time at the gym. It takes confidence to step onto the squat rack and doing so will not only give you a boost in how you feel about yourself, you will build everything from strength and power to balance and flexibility. Learning to squat properly takes some time, effort and practice. There are some key features to consider when you’re first starting out, and taking a Pure Strength class with me at Equinox is a good place to start, as I take the time to ensure that everyone is using proper form and learning how to perfect the movement at all times. It’s important too to remember that less is more, especially when you are just getting started. Using your own body weight to perfect the squat is not only sound and responsible, it provides enough challenge to help you gain strength through that range of motion, so you will see and feel results. For those looking to develop that six pack look, remember that when you squat (and deadlift) properly, you’re also working your core. Engaging your strong core throughout the squat movement will help you stabilize your upper body while keeping your low back protected, and strengthen your midsection, all at the same time.
It’s important to note that everyone’s ideal squat form may look a bit different based on the anatomical structure of your bones, specifically the length of your femur bone. Nonetheless, most people can benefit from these basic DOs:
-Stand with feet about hip or even shoulder width apart.
-Root your big toe, pinky toe, and heel (creating a tripod with each foot) into the ground and roll your shoulders up and back to get into neutral spine position.
-Inhale and start to push your butt back as you sink your bodyweight into your heels as if you are sitting back into a chair (Hinge but back, bend at your knees). Your chest will naturally lean forward slightly but work to keep your chest open and spine neutral. Also be aware here that your knees are not tracking too far over your knees, and work to keep them from collapsing in as you lower your way down. You know you’ve gone low enough when your femur bones/thighs are parallel to the floor and you are able to maintain a neutral spine with both feet still firmly rooting through the big toe, pinky toe and heel.
-Exhale as you drive up to a standing position by pressing into your heels and straightening your legs.
-Don’t allow your heels to come up off the floor, or allow your knees to travel too far forward or cave in when squatting.
-Don’t squat too low that you lose your neutral spine (“ass to grass” is unnecessary and causes strain on your joints, especially if your body doesn’t have that type of range of motion).
Don’t forget to breathe — I often recommend a big inhale as you lower and a big exhale as you stand up.
-Remember that some individuals have greater mobility/flexibility, and different limb lengths that all make a squat look unique to their body so don’t try to look like or do what others are doing. Take the time to discover your body’s squat depth and ideal stance for the best results for you. (Generally speaking, a wider stance will engage inner thigh and posterior leg muscles like the glutes, and a more narrow stance will utilize more anterior/quad activation).
-Don’t forget to keep engaging your core throughout the movement and avoid scrunching up in your shoulders or creating tension in your neck and upper back to maintain a long, neutral spine.
-When squatting, you really want to generate the power through your legs and keep the pressure out of your lower back. Rooting firmly from your feet and pushing the weight back and really driving back up from your powerful legs, so as to ensure they’re taking on the brunt of the effort is important. It is also important to resist the temptation to lean too far forward as this is a good indication that you’re effectively utilizing your core. It should never feel painful. Remember there is a difference between discomfort and pain and while it can feel challenging, especially once you begin to add heavier weight, it shouldn’t ever hurt. Pain is a warning that something’s wrong, and that could very well be your form.
To me, deadlift is king. Deadlifts are hip hinges, and require engagement throughout your entire posterior chain and well, pretty much every muscle in your body. It requires you to be mindful too, as you are asked to consider your body’s biomechanics, and demands your full attention to execute perfectly.
Start with your feet hip width or just slightly wider apart. Root down firmly with your big toe, pinky and heel (tripod feet) as you would with a squat. Finding a neutral spine by rolling the shoulders up and back, and bracing powerfully through your core, the deadlift/hinge movement begins by pushing your hips back before you begin to bend your knees and staying engaged in your back muscles to keep that neutral spine. (DO NOT SQUAT YOUR DEADLIFT) — bending too early and too much in your knees will turn your deadlift into an improper squat fast, so focus on your chest moving toward parallel to the floor as your butt pushes back, as the lowering phase, and not bending in the knees, when performing a deadlift. I like to tell participants to imagine they are holding a tennis ball with their chin and their chest throughout the movement as a way to maintain that neutral/normal curvature of the spine. I also find it very helpful to remind folks not to turn their deadlifts into a bow. The moment you begin to round out at the shoulders, you’ve lost form. You only need to hinge forward as far as you can while maintaining engagement in your back muscles to keep your shoulders up and back. Finally, drive up to standing by squeezing through your glutes while keeping your feet firmly rooted (tripod feet). Stand up to stack joints — shoulders, hips, knees, ankles. There is no need to overextend into a sort of back bend at the top of the movement, which I see a lot.
Remember that the deadlift is a hinge and not a bend. It’s also important to really elicit the upper back muscles throughout the movement and commit to that neutral spine position throughout the movement pattern, and especially when you add a heavy bar or kettlebell in. Your eye gaze follows the movement so it tracks down and then back up as you stand — if you can see yourself in the mirror the whole way through your deadlift, you’re compromising your form to check yourself out.
Pull ups are advanced, and require a substantial amount of upper body strength to execute. Generally speaking, the wider the grip the more challenging a pull up can feel. Conversely, a more narrow grip can make the pull up more accessible which can really boost confidence in participants. You can also play around with using an overhand or underhand grip (chin-up) which can also determine someone’s ability to perform the pull up. There are also many ways to progress into a pull up, beginning with a dead hang that allows beginners to get comfortable hanging from the pull up bars first and builds strength in the hands for grip. You can also work on the eccentric/lowering phase of the pull up only and build yourself up to a full pull up. Also, I use Large resistance bands around the pull up bars in Pure Strength classes (banded pull up) to absorb some body weight, which gives participants the feeling of performing a full-body weight pull up with less effort which is both exhilarating and confidence building (there are also specific machines in the gym that provide the same support). Overall, they are modifiable and accessible to all levels, and are formidable in developing back and shoulder muscles, grip, bicep and core strength — all at the same time — pull ups are the gold standard, and considered a staple in most strength training regimens.
Start by dead hanging, holding firmly onto the bar with both hands. Commonly, the hands are about shoulder width or slightly wider apart on the bar with an overhand grip. The movement begins by pulling yourself up by bending at your elbows to the point that they tuck in by your side ribs as you work to bring your chest to the bar. Be aware of overarching your spine, or straining your neck too far forward or back, which are common unnecessary errors. I always encourage a neutral spine whenever possible, and the pull up is no exception. Straightening your arms to lower yourself back down to the starting position will end the movement but remember, there is plenty of strength to be gained during that eccentric (lowering) phase so do your best to control yourself on the way down to maximize the strength gains of the pull up. Again, these are advanced so be patient as you work your reps up.
You want to avoid swinging through the pull up or using momentum to get yourself up. Pull ups can also be a lot on the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints so you want to progress in moderation and be patient as you build your way up. Finally, find the pull up that works best for you — be it neutral (palms facing each other), overhand, underhand, wide or narrow — a pull up of any type will develop your back and power up your arms, so find one that you like and power up!
These are 3 examples of the 4 basic movement patterns — a bend, a hinge, a pull. The fourth is a push and this includes things like a push up or a bench press. So, a well-rounded approach and proper routine will address each of the 4 movement patterns. Cardio is important as well for heart health and should be incorporated within a program as well.