Dumbbell exercises, lunges and your opinion about bodyweight squats
February 4, 2015 7:33 AM   Subscribe

So I'm going to the gym - awesome. Cardio, weights, stretches, I am so there. I'd like to add things to my routine, but I'm a little bit overwhelmed by all the advice on the internet. I'm also uncertain about the importance of form for squats, given that I seem to see people whose form is all over the place. Questions inside!

1. What dumbbell exercises do you like? I currently do curls, lat raises, overhead dumbbell presses, bent over rows, tricep kickbacks and this sort of weird forearm thing with light weights that I saw someone doing. I'd like to add more but there's a bewildering array and so much advice about form and I just don't know anymore.

I do not come from a gym-going background and I don't always know the correct terms for things or how to evaluate contradictory stuff on the internet. Currently I go to the gym for weights four times a week - twice for "legs and abs day" and twice for "arms day".

2. I see people doing different kinds of lunge-based exercises all the time. What variations on the lunge do you recommend? I am particularly looking for very active or tricky ones that I can do quickly.

3. So I have been working on doing bodyweight squats....and I'm better at them, but I have really, really tight hips and my core is still only sort of strong and unless I use a pretty wide stance, I tend to fall over when I get to parallel. I have read that basically it's important to be able to do a bodyweight squat with correct form before doing anything else squat-based, but I see people doing weighted squats where they don't go down to parallel and I see people doing squats where they do go down to parallel but their form is not what I have been told is the Correct Form. And I see people with barbells doing squats where they don't go to parallel. Is this okay? Should I be doing weighted squats as best I can on the assumption that form will follow? Should I start with barbells on the same assumption?
posted by Frowner to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely nail down form first! Goofballs who aren't going to parallel -- and I'm sure I've been included here on occasion -- aren't really doing the full exercise. Ass to grass, man.

My go-to dumbbell routine is as follows: a circuit of
Bench press (5-10 reps)
One-armed row (5-10 reps)
Deadlifts (5 reps)
Squats (db's on shoulders - 5 reps)
Lunges (db's by front leg, arms down - 5 reps)

I really like Fitocracy for providing form videos and workout ideas.

Finally, drop me a line if you want to chat about weight lifting with a late-30s convert who never thought she'd get into it.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:43 AM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

1. I like the ones you do with a barbell. Heh. I started out with dumbells and enjoyed it and added more exercises and before long I had some ridiculous repertoire of curls and flys and rows that I could barely remember the form for from session to session. Then I signed up for Crossfit, got taught some barbell lifts and now my lifting goes barbell press, barbell squats, barbell deadlifts. So. much. easier.

I recently injured my knee and the fact that it hurt to press a barbell and I had to go back to dumbbells really underscored for me how much of your whole body youre using with a barbell.

2. Weighted step ups - dumbbells or a weight bag across your shoulders or a kettlebell. All the lunging action without getting low to the floor, I tend to wobble.

3. Ah well I'm of the opinion that I'll never get it just right so I'll settle for as right as I can get. I'm 40 and never been supple, I can only go so low. Wont stop me from trying.
posted by Ness at 7:47 AM on February 4, 2015

Re: #3: Even people doing proper squats are going to look vastly different due to the differences in articulation of the hip and femur. That being said, the most important thing is to keep your back straight. Work towards getting your squats to parallel or below. But remember it's a process. You're not used to squatting so don't expect to be perfect at it right away. It's a combination of flexibility and strength at the extremes of mobility that allow you to squat low. Ass-to-grass is only required for Olympic weightlifting. Stopping at parallel is only judged in power lifting. Anything between the two is just fine and dandy if you're not competing in strength sports. The reason people stress parallel or below is it allows the hamstrings and posterior chain muscles to start to help in the squat. This reduces stress on the knee from the quads, keeping the knee safer than if you only did quarter squats.

There are three main types of squats: high bar squat, low bar squat, and front squat. This image shows the difference between high and low bar. High bar lets you keep your back upright more; low bar requires you to lean forward more. In the front squat you place the bar across your shoulders, right up at your neck. You can view it as a continuum: the lower the bar is on your back the more you need to lean forward. The higher it is, to the extreme of being in front of you, the more upright your back can be.

In essence, you are trying to move the barbell in a path straight up and down, aligned over your mid-foot/ankle. This is why the different squats have different angles for the back: to keep everything in line. Form breaks down when the barbell moves in/out of this line. Keeping your back straight allows safe direct loading of the spine. Incidentally, this is also why back squats are generally not recommended on a smith-machine. The machine's guides force you out of the natural squatting path. If that's all you have available though, front squats generally work on a smith machine better than back squats.

I would highly, highly recommend experimenting with goblet squats. These are done with a dumbbell or kettlebell and will teach you proper squat mechanics. Since you are not loading your spine directly, they're pretty difficult to mess up. You'll get a lot of bang for your buck out of 'em. Heck, I squat 450#+ and I still warm-up with goblet squats. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you find it easier to do goblet squats than body-weight squats; the additional weight from the dumbbell should help you with your balance issues.
posted by swashedbuckles at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2015 [13 favorites]

I used to do barbell squats heavier than I do now, and didn't go below parallel. That eventually contributed to a knee re-injury as my quads were developing more than my hamstrings. Now, I'm lifting a lighter weight and forcing myself to always go down as far as I do in a bodyweight squat (which is below parallel).

So, while not everyone can go below parallel, if you have the range of motion, it's probably better to stay at bodyweight and edge up weight slowly using good form and full range of motion. It sounds from your description that you do have the range of motion, but don't have strong balance. If your balance is weak, it's a good idea to work on getting your core and balance stronger before loading up with weight.

A safer way to add weight to a squat is to do goblet squats with a kettlebell. If you lose balance doing those, it's easier to drop the weight without risking hurting yourself.

Bulgarian split squats are a great lunge variation that also helps with balance. They are essentially a lunge with your back foot resting on a bench. Try a few with bodyweight and then add dumbbells if it feels good.
posted by Kurichina at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Starting Strength is a very common recommendation around the internet; it focuses a lot on squats, bench press, deadlifts, overhead press, and cleans. It talks a lot about form, but for squats, the book I actually found to be more helpful was Becoming a Supple Leopard (the name is dorky, but it's a good book). It also talks a lot about mobility and flexibility, so it could be helpful for your hips.

The other things that helped me with squatting and flexibility were low bar squats (I'm tall, so I tend to start to tip if I try to high bar squat), and weightlifting shoes (I have poor ankle flexibility). Cheap weightlifting shoes can be found here (I don't know if you're a man or a woman):

Wei Rui Warrior (men): $70 + $8 shipping
Wei Rui Bombshell (women): $65 + $8 shipping

Sometimes people will tell you to put 2.5 plates under your heels to see if it helps your squatting flexibility; if it does, it's worth looking into squat shoes. (My fiance explained it as "You know how it's easier to get low when you're wearing heels? It's like that." I'm taking her word for it.)

I personally find it oddly easier to have good squat form with weight on me than without. In terms of how low you should go, I've been told that look, if you're not competing, don't stress yourself out going lower than your flexibility allows. (But the shoes definitely helped me get low with good form.) If you can do deeper squats with less weight, I would choose that over shallow squats with more weight.

stumptuous is aimed at women but I'm a man and I like it.

Oh, also I think I'd suggest exercises which target multiple muscle groups at once over isolation exercises unless you're going bodybuilder style.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:07 AM on February 4, 2015

My best friend discovered a method that works:

Pick ONE guy that knows what he's doing, and do what he says, and ignore the rest of the pack.
posted by Goofyy at 8:11 AM on February 4, 2015

1. bench press, pullover (you can do this on a flat bench too), rotator cuff prehab (lie on your side to use a light DB instead of an exercise band), YTWL figures. But of course, unless you're willing to put a lot of time into this, it's best to pick just a few, master the form, and do them consistently.

2. pistols, skater squats, Bulgarian split squats. Note that the first two are very difficult; I cannot do them with good form yet.

3. Most likely explanation is that those guys are doing it wrong. Small possibility that they're very knowledgeable, taking a calculated risk, and/or on a very specific program. Either way, if you're at the level where you're asking for advice on MetaFilter (as opposed to your coach or a specialized forum), you should probably stick to squatting below parallel.

Officially-taught-to-me-in-PT exercise for improving stability at the bottom of a squat: Put one of those big balloons (yoga balls, fitness balls, balance balls?) between your sacrum and the wall and lean back into a squat. Your thighs should be below parallel, your heels directly under your knees (if the wall went away, you should fall backwards), and hold for two minutes, accumulated over however many sets you need. If your stabilizers are weak, as mine were and still are, your knees will start to swing left and right. Do your squats before, because if you do this right you won't be able to squat afterward.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:13 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think I could write an entire thesis in response to your question.

It feels like I started lifting when I was a small child, and I am an old lady at my gym now.
When I first started, I was obsessed with this idea of form. I wanted to make the most perfect, most pretty squat that had ever been performed.

Over the years I have learned something: that everyone has a very different body and everyone will have a very different ability to move. Some of us have longer femurs, some have tight hips, some have loose ankles. The way you best perform a lift is different how others will best perform a lift.

Of course, there are some things we just do to stay safe. Those things will be pretty obvious.

When you say you have tight hips, I don't know exactly what that means for you, but it probably means that you don't have the mobility to go all the way down in a squat. Making that low, low squat your goal is probably a bad idea for you. I think the goblet squat suggestion is perfect, and you might want to experiment with overhead squats (hold a plate directly over your head, squat). I had good luck with overhead squats when my hip mobility was not giving me good results with a back squat. Tight hips do better when the weight is loaded to the front (goblet) or above (overhead).

You are looking for active or tricky lunges that you can go quickly. This makes me nervous. If you are in the weight room, you probably don't want to do anything tricky, or anything quickly. What's wrong with the lunge? It is putting pressure on your knees? How much weight are you using? There are endless variations, and you need to figure out what your body wants to do, and tie that with your goals. Lunges are a great exercise for hip mobility, but you need to do them thoughfully and carefully. Which probably does not mean quickly.

What are your goals? If you want to build strength and bones you want to do more weight bearing exercises. If you want more mobility, the bodyweight stuff is good. You probably need a combination. I have a hard time believing that anyone can progress a large motion like a squat or lunge without a pretty decent amount of weight. Doing these movements just with your own weight may improve mobility and some endurance, but I don't think it's going to give you a lot of new strength.

I also saw your other comment about your new big arms. Congratulations! It's unusual for a woman to put on a lot of muscle, and what you may be experiencing is the gain you see when you first start lifting, or this may also just be a "pump" (a muscle temporarily large due to post-workout bloodflow). But in future years of lifting, if you put on more than, say, 1 pound of muscle when you are trying really hard to gain muscle, that would be a large gain. Focus on leaning out and your muscle-y arms will soon look smaller than you would like in your shirts.
posted by littlewater at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks, everyone so far! I will definitely try goblet and/or overhead squats.

I do split squats, actually, but not weighted ones yet - I'm very wobbly, for one thing, and two sets of eight on each leg (I just made that up; I don't really know how many to do, but that seems to work) is all I can manage.

You are looking for active or tricky lunges that you can go quickly. This makes me nervous. If you are in the weight room, you probably don't want to do anything tricky, or anything quickly. What's wrong with the lunge? It is putting pressure on your knees? How much weight are you using? There are endless variations, and you need to figure out what your body wants to do, and tie that with your goals. Lunges are a great exercise for hip mobility, but you need to do them thoughfully and carefully. Which probably does not mean quickly.

The lunge question was badly placed - the things I've been seeing people do are not weighted lunges, they're just sort of dancey? But lunges done in sequence? My gym has has a barbell/bench area, a machine area and other stuff all sort of jumbled together and it's very heavily used, so you'll see people doing their stretches and non-weighted lunges and so on all amongst the machines and weights. (Which I think is less than ideal, actually - it doesn't feel like there's a safe place to do dumbell stuff, for one thing, and "between the chest press and the assisted pull-up machine" is not actually the best place to be doing lunges.)

(Big arms are, I assume, some kind of starting gain - they're there all the time, not just after I work out. I assume that it's just because I was fairly weak for my size to begin with, although I started out lifting more than I observe most Not Doing Serious Barbell Work women to lift. I am kind of a moose of a person, but also fat; sort of a moose-bear combination.)
posted by Frowner at 8:53 AM on February 4, 2015

If you feel wobbly, you probably don't want to be doing things fast (and fast usually means sloppy). You are asking a lot of your ligaments. Do each movement in a thoughtful and controlled way and you will get a lot more out of it.
posted by littlewater at 9:10 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

One option for reducing wobbliness during squats (and building up to more intense options) is the wall squat. It's exactly what it sounds like - put your back to the wall, sink down into a seated position, hold.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:16 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm just going to answer these as-asked.

Me: Been going to the gym regularly for 3 years; learning about lifting for 1.5 years. I'm not built/ripped/whatever, but I think I'm more knowledgeable than most random people you might meet at the gym who are just sort of messing around on machines or in the cardio room. I am by no means a professional. I have some joint issues so I have to be very careful about certain exercises.

1. What dumbbell exercises do you like?

My current plan, which I intend to follow for the next few months, uses dumbbells (hereafter referred to as "DBs") as support exercises for my barbell lifts. I do decline and incline DB bench press, seated DB shoulder press, one-arm DB row, super-slow DB curls, DB side and front raises, and DB side bends. When I'm unsure about form, I use bodybuilding.com's database as a starting point and do a little Youtubing to confirm correct form, focusing on people who look more athletic than built and who have good fitness credentials and who focus on not over-stressing the joints.

2. I see people doing different kinds of lunge-based exercises all the time. What variations on the lunge do you recommend? I am particularly looking for very active or tricky ones that I can do quickly.

Only do lunges quickly/actively if your knees are awesome. Lunges can be really rough on the knees. Personally, I recommend a simple split squat, slow split squat and/or split squat hold. I have on occasion done jumping lunges, but I would not do these with much weight at all. I don't do lunges at all any more; I work my legs by doing squats, deadlifts (which are the best), Romanian deadlifts, and hip thrusts, all with a barbell.

3. Is this okay? Should I be doing weighted squats as best I can on the assumption that form will follow? Should I start with barbells on the same assumption?

Don't do less-than-parallel squats unless you're using them with weight as a stretching exercise and holding at the bottom. Start with the bar alone, and add in extra bodyweight squats as well as stretching your hips regularly even when outside the gym. It takes more time to build flexibility than it does to build strength. When you can squat bodyweight slightly below parellel without feeling wobbly (you will want to build some core strength for this; I also recommend squatting in socks or otherwise shoeless) then you can start gradually adding weight. Form first, at or below parallel every time as much as possible; add more significant weight only once your flexibility allows you to go below parallel.

If your core is weak, you may want to add deadlifts to your routine. With proper form, deadlifts are one of the best core-builders out there.
posted by Urban Winter at 10:44 AM on February 4, 2015

You might also want to try some simple balance exercises, like standing on one foot for 30 seconds at a time (for ankle stability/strength).

If you feel unbalanced while lunging, you can also bring your feet a little closer together for more stability.

I think this is a good video on squat form (& troubleshooting).

Exrx.net is a good resource, if you don't know it. Exercises are listed for major muscle groups, with the ones most directly and effectively engaging the target area in bold (e.g. see for "thighs"), alternates in regular font, and assists in italics. Also check out exrx's information on programming and their workout templates.

Personally, I like
- partial co-contraction lunges (very controlled movement, more challenging than regular lunges, imo)
- step-ups, which engage the same muscles as squats, more or less, and various single-leg squats (with the non-active leg behind, in front, or dangling, if your working leg is on a box or step). I think it's good to mix up single-leg movements with bilateral ones, just in case (like most people) you have asymmetry in activation / strength.

This is more for the hamstrings and glutes, but I really like the single leg romanian deadlift (can do as a bodyweight movement or use a dumbbell to add weight). If balance is a problem, you can also let your non-working leg sort of drag or slide on the floor (but should not let it take any weight - it's just touching the floor). Glute bridges are also important for body mechanics (to help prevent knee problems, for example). Don't neglect the back end!
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:45 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

If your hips are tight, you may want to work on range-of-motion exercises for your hips. I'm a 54 y/o woman who is just getting into competitive powerlifting (as in I want to go to a competition, not that I think I'm going to be setting world records any time soon :)).

I work with a personal trainer -- in addition to working on the "big 3" (deadlift, squat, and bench press), she has me working on core strength and range of motion exercises. For the range of motion exercises, she has me especially focusing on hip range of motion to help me get depth in my squats.

Hope this helps -- sorry I can't go into more detail at this point since I am at work! :)
posted by elmay at 11:40 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Stop looking at other people in the gym.

Regular gym punters get up to all sorts of madness, and you shouldn't take your lead from them without talking to a coach or trainer first.

You've got a lot of really good advice in this thread, but it's of limited use until you figure out what your goals in the gym are. Drill down. Do you want to get stronger? If so, what does 'stronger' look like? Doing 10 unbroken body weight pull ups? Squatting your own body weight? Do you want to increase your mobility so you can comfortably get to parallel?

Once you've figured out your goals you can work with a coach or trainer to figure out a plan to get there. A coach or trainer is better equipped to answer your questions about form.
posted by nerdfish at 10:51 PM on February 4, 2015

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