The fitness industry is famous for its conflicting information and underqualified “internet experts,” and few topics within the community are as hotly debated as proper exercise form. “Form is important” a common idiom in the fitness world, but what is “good form” and what is “bad form”? Just this week I was instructing a client to move their hands closer together on a military press. “So was I doing the whole thing completely wrong?” she asked. Exercise technique is almost never that black and white. The answer to her question is “no” it wasn’t completely wrong, it was barely even a little wrong. Below we’ll talk about why, and how some coaches can’t tell the difference.
Performance vs. Safety vs. Competition
The first distinction that needs to be made when analyzing whether a person is exhibiting proper form is what the goal of the exercise is. Some techniques are used to ensure safety, and some are done to ensure maximum performance, and some are being done to a standard to prepare for competition. You might think that those things go hand in hand, and often they do, but not always. Consider a barbell front squat. It’s extremely important to keep the torso erect and the elbows up throughout the entire squat. If you drop the elbows three primary things happen:
- It becomes nearly impossible to hold the weight on your chest, and you’ll likely drop it in front of you (not good for performance)
- You’re going to have an extreme amount of flexion (rounding) in your t-spine (not good for health)
- You increase the risk of hitting your elbow against your knee, pinning your wrist between the bar and your leg, which often leads to a sprained/broken wrist (not good for health…obviously)
In this example, keeping upright posture in the front squat is ideal for both performance and health. The barbell deadlift, another extremely popular strength training exercise, goes to the other end of the spectrum. Much like in the front squat, we want to keep the spine as neutral as possible for health and safety reasons. Anytime you flex the spine and then load it, you increase the risk of herniating a disc. However, unlike the front squat, most people can actually deadlift more weight with a rounded upper back. In fact, this is the technique that some Powerlifters now employ and teach to other competitive lifters. As a coach it’s my job to make sure that my clients are aware of this fact. For example, if you are a client who’s primary goal is weight loss, and I have you training heavy deadlifts, and you want “A little more weight” but I don’t think you can keep your spine in a safe position, the answer will be no. If you’re a competitive Powerlifter, and we’re in a competition, the decision will rest on that of the client/athlete, but it’s my duty to ensure them of the risks (well head of time). With that said, good coaches will make sure that other measures have been taken to reduce the risk of injury, like building up the upper back to be strong and to withstand heavy loads.
The hand position my client was using on her military press falls some where in the middle. Being slightly out of position doesn’t mean you’re going to lose the entire training effect of that particular exercise. She was still extending her arms over head under load, activating the chest, shoulders and triceps, however her hand position didn’t maximize the use of her triceps, and could potentially lead to some achy wrists if that particular hand position had been used long term (multiple workouts at least)
Proper grip on the left. Too wide on the right.
“Good Form” is contextual. Another thing to consider is competition requirements. Some of us train to be healthier or perform better in a sport like soccer or volleyball, and some of us, the training we do is our sport. Some examples would be Weightlifting, Powerlifting, or CrossFit. It’s considered “good form” in a squat to reach, or go below”Parallel.” In other words, the crease of your hip is parallel to (or below) the height of your knee. But why? In most scenarios you will develop more strength by taking a joint through its full range of motion while under load. I’d rather someone squat 100kg with full range of motion than 120kg with a partial range of motion (note: there is a time and place for deliberate partial reps). But in Powerlifting competition, in order for a lift to be considered valid by the judges, the lifter must reach parallel, so if you’re training for that, it’s imperative that you go to that depth on every rep. But what if you’re training for health? In that case, squatting as deep as you can with good posture is the only thing that matters. Some people lack the mobility to reach parallel or below in the squat without rounding their back, or have some other body segment come out of position. In that case, we would want to decrease the range of motion, even if most people think it’s not “good form.” All of this serves as an example as to why proper technique is not a black and white issue.
Some coaches act like the moment a single rep is performed with less than perfect technique the client is going to implode and die. Incorrect form during exercise is kind of like drunk driving. It’s not recommended, but it doesn’t guarantee a crash. The two are also similar in that the more you do it, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong, and the more drunk you are the greater the risk increases…just like the worse your technique is, the greater the risk for injury. It’s common for “internet experts” to comment on a video of someone performing an exercise with less than stellar technique, often on a max effort lift. But you don’t get to see the whole picture. A good coach can spot the difference between someone who’s form broke down because the weight was heavy, and someone that hasn’t been instructed properly in the first place. Unfortunately bad lifts happen, and short of jumping in mid lift to try to stop the client (dangerous), there isn’t much you can do until it’s over. If you’re smart, you’ll stop there. A well trained client or athlete won’t suffer much harm from a single poorly positioned lift, no matter what load is being used. In fact, most injuries occur with sub maximal loads. It’s typically the constant repetition of doing something incorrectly that eventually causes your body to break. The human body is an amazing machine and has been built to have some leeway to account for one off incidents. Ever roll your ankle? I bet it hurt, and it probably put you out of commision for a little while, but even though your ankle isn’t really designed to handle load in that supinated position, you didn’t tear any ligaments or cause permanent damage. Jump up and down in that rolled ankle position every week…you’re going to need surgery at some point.
Bad Form vs. Bad Exercises
In general, what good form is all about is avoiding extremes. There are some exercises that even when done “correctly” have a poor risk vs. reward ratio. One that comes to mind is the barbell upright row. We almost never program it because you’re putting the shoulder into almost full internal rotation and then loading it through abduction, which can stress the joint tremendously. This is an example of an extreme: bringing the shoulder into full internal rotation. On the flip side, a military press from behind the head puts the shoulder into extreme external rotation and then loads the joint. We want to avoid extremes. The same thing can be said for something like foot position on the squat. We don’t use something very narrow, we don’t use something very wide. We avoid extremes. Going back to the deadlift example we used prior, the spine can tolerate some flexion. Now if your back flexes to a moderate degree, you’re going to be fine, if your back is flexed as much as possible, I cringe to think of the result. On the flip side over arching/hyperextending your back won’t lead to a herniated disc, but it can cause other injuries, like damaging a facet joint or injuring the spinal processes themselves. Certainly some people have idyllic proportions, mobility, and structure to perform these exercises. Likewise, there will be someone reading this thinking to themselves “I’ve been doing upright rows for years and I never had a problem!” Think back to our drunk driving analogy. Doing these exercises doesn’t guarantee injury, it just increases the risk.
Author Malcolm Gladwell made famous the idea that in order to become an expert at something you must put in 10,000 hours of practice. Whether or not that figure is true, there is definitely a learning curve for most exercises, even basic ones. Many people think of proper form as something you’re either doing or not doing, but in reality, it’s something you have to practice, and refine over time. Sometimes people cannot do an exercise correctly because they don’t understand how to do it, but more often, the individual literally lacks the capability to do it. The challenge is from a neurological standpoint like lacking the coordination, muscular control or proprioception (their own awareness of their body and its parts). Sometimes they simply are too weak to maintain a particular position or they’re too tired (::cough why new trainees shouldn’t do circuit training cough::). When fatigue sets in and form starts to break down, it’s time to either reduce the load, the pace of the workout, or stop altogether. When fatigue sets in, you begin to rely less on conscious effort, and more on habit. By allowing yourself to continue to work as your form breaks down due to fatigue, you are significantly strengthening the neural patterns, and every time you get tired you’ll immediately go back to those dangerous positions.
Check out this video of coach Katie doing as many reps as possible on each set of deadlifts (235lbsx14 an 242lbsx10 respectively). Despite going to near failure on each set, every rep looks almost identical. That’s because she’s a well trained athlete, with a lot of time building good habits in a slower paced/less intense environment.
A good coach will know the difference between someone who understands what they are supposed to do and are struggling to do it, and someone who doesn’t understand what’s expected of them. If the client does understand what to do, but they can’t quite get there, it’s important to let them to work through it. Most often the best way to get better at doing something is…doing it. This brings us to the next point of the idea that one shouldn’t use heavy weights on an exercise until they’ve mastered the technique. This is only some what true. Your brain controls your muscles, during an exercise your brain is learning how to move your muscles, the sequence in which they contract, how hard the contractions are, which muscle fibers being used, how much blood and oxygen is being shuttled to these muscles, etc…Your brain depends heavily on feedback from its environment to make these decisions…and one of the biggest feedbacks it can have is the weight being used. You can teach someone perfect technique with no added load (like using a PVC pipe vs. a barbell) but the neurological response to a max effort lift is going to be much different than say 60-70%. At some point you’re going to have to push into that heavier weight range, and the response from the body may not be perfect, even if someone had great technique with lighter weights.
This is not to say it’s okay for technique to go to hell in a handbasket on heavier lifts. I’m talking about SOME breakdown, like a slight hitch in a deadlift, or hips rising slightly faster than the chest in a squat, but if you see someone’s hips sway to one side, their back rounds, knees collapse, etc… you know the weight is too heavy, and they have some serious weaknesses that aren’t being addressed in their training.
Leaving the ego at the door
Quality of work should be paramount in your training. A 130kg front squat with perfect posture is worth more than 150kg without. Going to below parallel with less weight in the squat, will make you stronger than going half way down with more weight. But don’t think about technique as black or white, think of it as an ever evolving work in progress. Even advanced athletes will continue to chip away at their technique, whether it be in the gym or on the playing field to make themselves more efficient. To quote the great Vince Lombardi “Perfection is unattainable, but if we chase perfection, we catch excellence.” There is a lot more to training than the weight on the bar, and it’s important to remember that. You don’t have to be working at your maximum every day to get better, in fact, pushing 100% every day is a great way to get broken. The best athletes in the world know that there is a place and time to push hard, and a place and time to dial it back, but no matter what, the quality of the work is worth a whole lot more than the quantity. It sounds strange to say, but lifting the heaviest weights isn’t what makes you stronger. What makes you stronger is lifting enough weight the right way.