Squats. Sitting down with a weight on your back then standing back up. They sound simple, but unfortunately they aren’t. Technique plays a significant role in your ability to move heavy loads. One of the biggest technique mistakes I see destroying what could be a great squat is where you place your hands.
Two Components of a Good Squat
Stability and tension are two key components to an efficient squat. The ability to brace your body from your little toe to your head is a must. When you lose tension in your upper body (your lats, traps, trunk, and lower back), you transition into an awful good-morning-type-squat, where the weight falls forward and your hips rise. You end up squatting just using your back muscles, or even stuck at the bottom of the squat.
A common cause of this loss of tension and subsequent dangerous position is your hand-width placement on the bar. I see an increasing number of people squatting with a super-wide hand position, their hands almost touching the weight plates. If you have shoulder issues, this may be the only way to squat. However, if you can get narrower in your grip, you should continue reading.
A grip that is too wide (left) is one of the most common squatting mistakes I see.
Why Your Hands Matter
When you place your hands at the extremities of the bar, you lose the ability to significantly engage your lats, drive your elbows forward, and keep your chest standing proud. With this lack of back engagement, the sheer weight of the bar pushes your chest forward and away from your center of mass.
A wide grip forces your chest forward and prevents lat activation.
Once you sink to the base of your squat, success becomes a question of how strong your lower back is, as it is obliged to bear the brunt of a heavy good morning. The bar has moved further away from your center of mass, so the hips rise to try and stop the weight from pulling you forward. You end up with back pain rather than leg and glute activation.
Instead of glute activation, you get what resembles a heavy good morning.
A Simple Solution
There is a simple fix for this poor squatting. Just bring the hands closer in to your body. Whether you can do this will be dependent on your shoulder mobility and flexibility. If you are unable to bring your hands closer together, you should be working on correcting your mobility anyway.
A narrower position allows you to drive your chest upwards, soyour lower back no longer bears the brunt of the lift.
A narrower hand position creates far more tension. This is because you can pull your elbows in towards your hips and push them further forward, which drives the chest upwards and maintains good form. This position will then allow your hips to come through at the right time, help drive your back upwards, and keep your chest nice and proud. Notice how the bar now sits over the center of mass and makes the weight feel lighter, too.
Congratulations, you are now squatting using your legs instead of just your lower back. Enjoy your increase in load and decrease in pain.
Over the summer, when we decided NYLON’s (not generally super-athletic) digital staff members would test out high-octane cult workout classes for a series called Boot Camp, I didn’t intend to participate in my chosen activity for more than a month. I’ve never been able to incorporate exercise into my busy adult life. I barely have time to sleep enough. But I had recently found myself a few inches squishier than usual thanks to a happy new relationship and the revelation that the impending end of my 20s means cheeseburgers have tangible consequences. As such, I figured a month-long commitment to movement might do me some good. I arbitrarily chose to test out Barre3, knowing literally nothing about it.
Six months later and I’m still going three to five times a week. But let me start from the beginning.
Barre3, as it turns out, is a combination of yoga, pilates, and ballet, none of which I’ve ever really done, because why would I do any of those hard, horrible things when I could just… not? Attitude aside, I entered the Barre3 studio in the West Village of Manhattan nervous but with an open mind. I was greeted warmly at the front desk, and after revealing that I was a first-timer, an enthusiastic instructor explained the idea of modifications: Through the class, she’d be offering different ways to do the moves, so that if something felt bad, I could figure out how to make it work for my body.
The small studio itself is mostly windows and mirrors, full of late-afternoon light and gazelle-like attendees in Lululemon. I grabbed one pound weights (I’m not crazy!), a ball, and a stretchy band, and went to the furthest corner where I’d hoped to be invisible. (Actually, it’s hard to hide in a room full of mirrors, but.) The hour-long class, I’d eventually learn, is different every time, as the founder of Barre3, Sadie Lincoln, works with physical therapists, a chiropractor, dancers, and yogis to improve it. It begins with some deep breathing and then moves into a warm-up. My first class, the warm-up was “toe taps,” which involves squatting, standing, leaning to the side and then extending one leg out, tapping your toe, coming back through center and squatting, and then alternating legs, all to a beat. This—supposedly the easiest part of the class, during which you’re just trying to get your heart pumping—was my first challenge. I don’t even know what I did.
After a warm-up combination of toe taps, sumo squats, and arm movements, the structure of a Barre3 class takes you through each major part of your body—legs, arms, butt, and core. The idea is to isolate each muscle group through very small motions, followed by large-range motions. The movements themselves aren’t too complicated, though through modifications you can layer up to get as complex as you feel up for. Those small motions are where the Barre3 “magic” happens: Squatting while on your toes, arms up in the air, you pulse up and down forever while your whole body shakes and an instructor rhythmically urges, “Down an inch, up an inch. Down an inch, up an inch. Smaller! Tinier! Smaller!” It is incredibly difficult, and very painful, but doesn’t last very long, and before you know it, you’re doing long-range motions which feel weirdly relieving, and suddenly you’re on to the next body part. The ballet barre is there for balance; very few of the moves require it, but it’s definitely helpful when you’re on your toes, getting low to the ground, throwing your weight in a direction it’s never gone before.
It took me about two weeks before I could even get deep enough into the positions to start to work out effectively. But then, a weird thing started to happen: I’d have to focus so hard on what I was doing, in order to do it correctly (and also not fall over—a lot of Barre3 happens while balancing), that 20, 30 minutes would go by and I hadn’t looked at the clock, or thought about work, or ruminated about something I said five years before. As an anxious and creative person, I’m used to my mind spiraling in every different direction at once. But as the weeks went by and I got more and more into the workout, it became the only hour of my day during which my thoughts quieted. An ongoing to-do list was replaced by “Down an inch, up an inch.” As my muscles shook and burned, I found the first true calm I’d felt in years.
Mind aside, the results on my body were astounding, pretty quickly. An interesting thing about Barre3 is that even when you get the hang of it, it never gets easier: In fact, the stronger I felt, the more I shook. The more confident I felt during class, the more my legs felt like Jell-o as I tried to walk down the single flight of stairs to leave the studio. After a couple of months, if I didn’t feel super sore the day after a class, I’d feel guilty, like I didn’t give it my all. And while planks stayed hard as hell, I switched my thinking to “I can’t fucking do this” to “there’s only a minute left,” and suddenly was able to get through each set without giving up. Meanwhile, my pants started to fit again. I eventually graduated to two- and then three-pound weights. Arm muscles appeared, the shadow of abs started to form, the backs of my thighs smoothed out, and parts of my body that I hadn’t even noticed had thickened—my lower back, for example—turned lean. My butt morphed into a, how do you say, booty. I also became more aware of how what I ate and how much I slept was impacting my body and my mind: There’s nothing like trying to do an hour of tiny squats after a night of drinking.
Several months in and I was totally hooked. I tried a few other kinds of ballet barre classes so that I could have something to compare it to, but nothing was as good: No other studio I tried encouraged me to listen to my body or spent as much time on each muscle group.
Eager to get to the bottom of why Barre3 is just so effective, I got Lincoln on the phone. “I think we’ve been trained to be pain junkies,” she says, of the no pain, no gain culture of other cult workout classes. “We’ve been brainwashed to think pain equals success. What we found is that pain actually sabotages results. When you work your body to that much strain, stress happens, and it’s not good. It doesn’t help you metabolize fat well, and it prevents you from using your body in an optimal way.” Barre3, she explains, is the opposite: Founded because of her own disenchantment with fitness, she and her husband sought to design a workout that was all about balance, not pain.
And, apparently, my initial experience of not even being able to get deep enough into the positions to complete the moves is not unique. “A lot of times people come to Barre3 and won’t ever come back because they thought it was easy,” Lincoln says. By the third class, if they stick with it, she says, they usually figure it out. And as for the fact that it’s never gotten easier, even though I’m getting stronger? Yeah, that’s a thing, too: “I think with Barre3, what we’ve built into this, is truly a practice, similar to yoga, where there are thousands of opportunities to go deep into the body. So much of it is about the mental part of it and being focused. The more focused you become and the more open you become in your body, the more challenged you become.”
Lincoln doesn’t claim that Barre3 is a be-all, end-all workout. In fact, she refreshingly expresses skepticism that any fitness routine can be. She says, “Exercise is a catalyst, it’s a place to practice and learn about yourself, so you do everything else better.” And she’s right. Things I’ve done better since becoming addicted to Barre3 include but aren’t limited to: sleeping, eating, thinking, relaxing, feeling good about my body, running up and down subway stairs, standing up straight, and—most importantly—feeling like there’s an actual connection between my mind and my body that I want to control, nurture, and improve every day. It’s a little woo-woo for the results of something that was supposed to be akin to “boot camp,” but hey: If just moving up and down an inch for an hour a few times a week is enough to change my entire outlook on life, consider this former fitness skeptic converted.
We’ve all been there. You workout hard and, for one reason or another, you don’t eat quickly enough afterwards. You start to feel shaky, hangry, jittery and maybe even anxious.
Eating properly after exercise is important not only to replenish the energy you’ve just burned, but also to make sure you get the most out of your workout — so you can see the results you want.
“Post workout nutrition provides fuel and nutrients for the body and helps prevent blood sugar lows and fatigue,” nutritionist Fiona Tuck told The Huffington Post Australia. “The body needs nutrients to help with muscle recovery and cellular repair.”
“Looking after yourself doesn’t stop at exercise — taking care of nutrition is critical,” Bingley-Pullin said. “Proper refuelling will also allow you to have more energy for your next workout.”
According to Alexandra Parker and Anna Debenham, accredited practising dietitians from The Biting Truth, whether you’re an amateur or a professional athlete, what you eat pre- and post-exercise is crucial.
“Following a workout, what you eat is vital in helping you reach your training and health goals and in ensuring you make the most of your workout,” Debenham said.
“Every time you exercise, carbohydrate stores (in the form of glycogen) are utilised for energy and your muscle protein is broken down. It’s therefore essential to replenish these stores afterwards.”
“Exercising actually makes your muscle tissues more sensitive to certain hormones and nutrients, which means that muscle is most responsive to nutrient intake during the first 30 to 90 minutes post-workout,” Parker added.
When it comes to post-workout recovery, always consider the three Rs:
Refuel your glycogen (carbohydrate) stores to avoid muscle tissue breakdown and low energy.
Lack of glucose to fuel the brain can lead to decreased alertness and concentration, and low mood.
Aim for high quality carbohydrates sources (think wholegrain breads and cereals).
Repair damaged muscles with protein.
Consuming protein post-workout will provide amino acids for the building and repair of muscle tissue. This will help you to recover more quickly.
Aim for lean protein sources (think lean meats, eggs, nuts, legumes, tofu and reduced fat dairy).
Rehydrate with fluids.
Most of us finish a workout at least a little dehydrated, and you will continue to lose fluids through sweating and breathing. It is essential that you replace these fluids immediately.
Your thirst is not the best gauge of hydration. The best way to tell how hydrated you are is to look at the colour of your urine. You want to aim for straw-coloured urine. The darker it is, the more dehydrated you are.
When we skip post-workout nutrition, the effects on the body are negative and quick to arise.
“While skipping a post-workout snack every now and then isn’t necessarily an enormous deal, it should never become a habit,” Parker told HuffPost Australia.
“If you don’t adequately replenish your stores following a workout, not only will you not make the most out of your workout, but your body can experience some other negative consequences.”
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels), which can make you feel disoriented and could even cause you to pass out
Increased fatigue (during training and at work or school)
Reduced performance at your next training session or event
Suboptimal gains from the session just completed — you won’t make the most out of your workout
Increased muscle soreness.
“Blood sugar can drop which can lead us to feeling shaky, tired, lightheaded and even nauseated,” Tuck said. “The brain relies on a constant supply of glucose to stay mentally alert, so our attention can wane and we can feel low in energy and mood.”
When it comes to actual post-workout food, Parker said the type and amount comes down to your fitness goals, more so than the exercise itself.
“Generally, the principles are very much the same, but exactly what your body needs most varies slightly depending on the type of exercise you’re doing and what your goals are,” Parker said.
“The time of day of your workout is also going to make a difference to the meal or snack you have (lunch food is very different to a snack).”
As a general rule, Parker recommends that all post-exercise foods should be rich in good quality carbohydrates to replenish muscle fuel stores, contain some lean protein to repair muscles, and include a source of fluid and electrolytes to re-hydrate effectively.
“The higher the energy intake (calories) depends on the intensity of the amount of physical exercise,” Tuck explained. “Long distance endurance training or weight training or body building would be different to a relaxing yoga class, for example.”
Here’s what to eat after different types of workouts.
1. Cardio work (e.g. running, endurance, cycling)
“The key is replenishing carbohydrate stores, and adequate hydration is essential,” Debenham said. “For example, a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter and banana. It’s full of potassium which soothes muscles, high quality carbs, protein and heart healthy fats.”
Other great post-cardio options include: a banana and a handful of nuts, or 1-2 slices of whole grain toast with either ricotta and fruit or cottage cheese and tomato.
“Athletes, such as endurance runners and cyclists, need specific sports nutrition to ensure adequate nutrients and calories are consumed for the body to be able to function at its optimum,” Tuck told HuffPost Australia.
“This may involve consuming nutrients and electrolytes during the actual exercise, as well as pre- and post-work out nutrition.”
2. Pilates or barre
“Again, it depends on your goal. Is the goal to lose weight, or perhaps you’re looking to boost core strength and increase your muscle mass,” Debenham said.
“If your goal is weight loss, then a nutrient rich meal within 60 minutes of your workout is essential as the meal will be more efficiently digested. If your goal is to improve strength, then protein is key.”
Try two hard boiled eggs with multigrain toast, or a slice of roasted vegetable and feta frittata.
“Your food choices post-yoga should aim to repair your tired muscles and replenish your energy stores,” Parker said. “To do this, your body needs a hit of protein, some low GI carbohydrates and fruits or vegetables.
“Try a small tub of Greek yoghurt with a couple of spoons of natural muesli containing nuts and fruit. Or for something savoury, a small can of tuna, four bean mix and some chopped veggies.”
4. Resistance or strength training
If your goal is to gain muscle, then an energy-rich diet with adequate amounts of protein is just as important as your well-developed strength training program.
“While an increased intake is essential for muscle gain, your intake should be low in fat and high in nutrients,” Parker said.
“Following strength training, protein should be consumed. Consuming carbohydrates in conjunction with protein allows the protein to be used for muscle growth and repair.”
“Smoothies are a great option and easy if you’re on the run. Simply blitz the ingredients together in the blender the night before (berries, low fat yoghurt, oats).”
Tuck recommends trying a delicious chocolate smoothie with protein powder, banana, cacao and milk.
“This provides carbs, protein, fats and important minerals such as potassium and magnesium,” Tuck said.
5. High intensity interval training (e.g. cross fit, HIIT)
After high intensity interval training, Debenham recommends opting for an egg omelette with sautéed onions and capsicum, plus a bowl of chopped fruit. Hint: include pineapple.
“Aside from their protein content, eggs are high in leucine which triggers muscle protein synthesis. The vitamin C in the capsicums is essential for maintaining healthy cartilage you need to cushion your bones,” Debenham said.
Let’s talk running. Wait, please come back. This time three years ago I bought a nice polyester T-shirt, laced up a crusty pair of trainers, started with tiny little five-minute jogs and worked up to 5K, 10K, half marathons and then the full marathon. The latter saw three of my toenails fall off and at one point was so painful it introduced me to the rare phenomenon of crying whilst moving.
I am 30, which if my friends group is anything to go by, seems to be the exact point in life us SEGA-addled kids collectively decide they definitely, absolutely must go and sign up to the London Marathon, a goal which proved even more motivating to my health than recalling the YouTube comments during my tenure as the fat one off GameSpot.
‘Reminds you of that fat kid at school whose face you just want to punch’ – Anonymous Internet Commenter, 2013.
Maybe the kids who grew up with the PlayStation 2 will have a completely different generational reaction, but it doesn’t surprise me that someone who spent childhood guiding a hedgehog around the world now seeks a similar sense of onward progression, although it’s a crying shame Hyde Park doesn’t have a loop-the-loop in sight. But I’ve found the objective-based structures of gaming in general translate particularly well to training for those famous distances – just a a few more speedwork sessions and you’ll level up dexterity!
It’s no surprise to see various developers seeking to harness all this in, you know, actual games. The most famous example here, outside of overly keen Pokemon Go players, is probably Zombies, Run!, essentially an audiobook metered out as you log mileage. There are more than a few hokey touches here, but it’s a very likable story – and you’ve got to hand it to them for the amount of ways they narratively justify the need for you, the mute protagonist known as Runner 5, to run.
On the other end of my scale: Burn your fat with me!!, a slightly creepy ‘moe’ anime partner who slowly becomes more enamored with you as you get better at sit-ups. I can’t tell you if the story ends with actual love, because I only bought the first chunk of the game while riding the night bus home after a heavy night and refuse to buy subsequent chapters because it’s rubbish. Still, I hope there’s at least one person out there who’s carved out a set of Cristiano Ronaldo abs off the back of it.
Most recent to the plate is Run an Empire, which just opened a second round of crowdfunding and is looking to launch globally in 2017. Perfectly placed for the onslaught of boxfresh trainers about to grace pavements in January, here you’ll be turning in mileage to ‘own’ real-world areas, which is sadly the closest most of us will get to the property ladder these days.
Regardless of which running game you pick up, you tend to end up in a similar place. My main haunt these days – and you’ll become intimately familiar with your nearest park when you pick up running – is Tooting Bec Commons. This little patch of ragged greenery in southwest London is poorly lit, cold and unwelcoming in the winter. In the summer it’s rammed full of roaming picnickers and mothers who treat their baby-stuffed prams with reckless disregard. This is my land and I, sadly, am its king.
It’s easy to see the potential appeal: Strava’s high-score leaderboards have been encouraging middle-aged cyclists to splat into the back of lorries for years now, so applying a similar idea (running loops both quickly and regularly) to an app makes sense. As someone who easily falls down the breadcrumb progression trail of virtually any multiplayer shooter, take it from me when I say it’s all too easy to gobble up this all-you-can-eat buffet of perceived progression. Give me a whiff of a shiny bauble on a virtual trophy cabinet and I’ll stay up until 3am repeating the same task endlessly for it.
Yet I find it hard to get attached here. The idea might be to gamify running, but running is surely gamified enough. Case in point: 23:47. 47:19. 1:50:54, 4:50:18. These numbers, my current personal bests for the 5k, 10k, half and full marathons, scroll through my memory like high scores from a 90s arcade cabinet. They’ve become my personal mental screensaver. Bettering them fuels the lacing up of trainers on a cold winter morning or bracing myself for a baking hot lunchtime lap in summer.
47:19 and 55:08. We both felt like champions.
Your numbers might be a lot better; if you’ve never run a day in your life you might think they’re quite impressive. Like many things I’ve discovered about adult life, it’s a case of perspective. What’s important is that they’re my times, and each one is the product of a lot of work. Beating those numbers, or just maintaining them, has become the game.
Some of my niggles with Run an Empire are similarly fundamental. It basically demands you run in a circular loop, for instance, and restricts you to an hour of running at a time, hindering any acknowledgement of progressing in distance training – I wanted to use the app to train for a half-marathon but couldn’t. Neither of these are a big deal until they are. I could natter on about other, basic technical failings, like the various instances it’s deleted my run because it suspects I’m cheating (which I take as a compliment), or the lack of integration with Strava and Runkeeper – the totemic holy grails of the hobby – but I’d forgive a lot of that if I was more hooked by the premise.
Run an Empire doesn’t complement the hobby of running, then, but running doesn’t particularly enhance the mechanics behind Run an Empire’s feudalistic ambition either – there’s no real sense of the ownership you’d get with, say, a game of Civilization or Clash of Clans. You’d be better off separating your two hobbies, darting around the park and then coming back to give Gandhi a good kicking.
My main problem with these games is that they make you go walking, running, cycling etc. on their terms, but to me running at least has never worked that way. A lot of people tend to waffle on about a jog like it’s some kind of meditative act, which is partially true; other common states are pain, hunger, and the frustration of really needing to poop when you’re thirty minutes away from the nearest toilet. When I’m stuck up against a mental wall, which is something generally triggered by exertion, boredom or repetition, I have to retreat deep into my head instead of my phone.
When I think about Pokemon Go, it felt like such a summery success (and no, I don’t play it any more either) because it helped people get outside and see more of the area around them, a canny little pairing of walking and the game’s mechanics. Running moves in broader strokes – you tend to appreciate the breadth of the park rather than the stories behind its benches, and I don’t get much extra from viewing it all in, say, hexagonal squares over a street map. I’ve yet to find a running game which fuses itself with the rituals and the habits it’s trying to supplement, but it probably says something about me that I keep looking.
The other main argument behind most running apps is that they help promote a social scene – leaderboards, friendly competition, camaraderie and so forth. I can see that: running is as social or antisocial as you need it to be. I always do my long runs solo, but over the past couple of months I’ve been running in the evenings with one of my best friends – we’ve been training to get our 5K times back under 30 minutes after, in my instance, months of inactivity and alcoholic excess. We jog around St James’ Park and catch up, talking about everything going on in our lives and slowly appreciating the week-by-week improvement, that gradual, unfolding realization that the laps of the park are coming in faster and faster. But that’s not something I’ve ever been able to find in a leaderboard, and when it comes to times, well, that’s what the races are for.
It’s hard for me imagine a world where any of these running apps are the answer to why somebody is running. Running is an awful, grueling slog the narrative of our society unfairly romanticizes, but also a wonderful act which helps suppress the gremlins roaming around my mind telling me I’ll never be able to do, well, anything. Running has helped turned the world into an adventure playground, my personal Green Hill Zone asking to be looped, climbed and leapt through, and that’s far more interesting to me than being the ruler of any transient hexagonal kingdom.