Worship at the altar of the goddess of form

OK, I admit it: I’m a form geek. I’m as much a stickler for technique as the average government employee is for correctly filling out forms in triplicate. When I see cheaters in the gym it makes me crazy (I don’t mean those cheaters who are trying to squeeze out a last struggling rep, I mean those all-out shameless cheaters doing such things as those swinging bicep curls, where they hurl their back and legs into it just to get enough centifugal force to swing that baby up at ninety miles an hour).

Anecdotal evidence from my own experience and reader emails suggests that women are less guilty of it than men, since some men seem to feel that if they don’t cheat, then they can’t lift a ton of weight, and they can’t impress all their idiot friends with what a manly man they are. Women tend to be more circumspect in their approach; usually their terrible form is due to not taking the whole thing seriously enough or being too scared to try something they think is risky. Well, enough of further building up gender barriers. Here’s why you should prostrate yourself before the bitch goddess, FORM. For those who anger her meet her wrath.

what is this thing called… form?

Good form is called good form for a reason—it’s the best way to do an exercise (I know you’re thinking, “Well DUH”, but this really doesn’t seem to be obvious to many people). It’s the most efficient and effective way for your body to execute a certain movement so that it is challenging yet safe.

Good form makes an exercise more challenging to do. If it was easy your muscles would eat it for breakfast and you wouldn’t make them stronger. So cheating ultimately costs you optimum strength gains, in that your muscles aren’t being forced to get off their fat butts and work. Common forms of cheating to make things easier include:

  • swinging the weight quickly to get cetrifugal force working
  • throwing your whole body into what should be an isolation exercise (for example, cranking your back in order to do a biceps curl)
  • rounding the back to pull or lift something, relying on your spinal connective tissue to do the work, rather than the spinal musculature
  • cutting the range of motion short (e.g. doing quarter-squats)
  • bouncing or jerking the weight (f’rinstance, some folks think they are very clever in getting that extra bit of momentum by bouncing the bar off their chests during a bench press–I doubt their sternum agrees)

A rep should be controlled and involve only those muscles targeted. In general, it should move through the entire range of motion, within the joint’s capabilities. Whenever I see guys in the gym thinking they’re Hercules because they can stack the calf machine although they only move up and down an inch, my pacifist nature snaps and I get a wild urge to duct-tape them to the machine while they do it properly, from all the way down to all the way up, crying crocodile tears of repentance for offending Her Form Holiness. Specialized strength trainers, or folks in physical rehab, do sometimes use partial reps for specific training purposes, but most of the time, the nimrod whose spine is vibrating under 400 lbs. of a weighted curtsey isn’t a powerlifter.

By the way, by “controlled”, I do not mean that every movement must always be slow. Simply because a movement is fast does not mean it is dangerous. There are many movements, such as Olympic lifts, throwing a ball, or executing a punch in martial arts, which are and should be done quickly. “Controlled” means that although you are deliberately accelerating a weight against resistance, you are doing it purposefully and with proper technique. If a pitcher is throwing a ball, she doesn’t just whip her arm around randomly and hope for the best; she executes a very specific and planned sequence of events.

Advocates of extra-slow weight training argue (wrongly) that any fast movement involves the use of “momentum”, and is thus inherently dangerous. This reasoning is erroneous and based primarily on misunderstandings of physiology and physics. If you are training to move slowly, then move slowly. If you are training to move quickly, then you must train at least some movements that involve the acceleration of a weight against resistance. If you’re just learning to move quickly, you can either start by moving slowly (going through the motions step by step, carefully), or by moving quickly with much less of a load (such as learning an Olympic lift with a broomstick). There is, as usual, a happy medium somewhere between these two poles that is generally appropriate for the average trainee.

But don’t be ascairt of speed. Humans are much more like quick, hyper monkeys than snails on Quaaludes and we do just fine when we move rapidly. I mean, c’mon, our ancestors would literally have been dead meat had they insisted on careful walking instead of running or scampering up a tree away from the sabre-toothed tiger. Think about this: what happens when you touch a hot burner by accident? Without conscious thought (and in fact, the signals don’t even make it all the way to your brain before your body responds), you yank your hand away. We have an entire peripheral nervous system whose job (among others) is to respond instantly to dangerous external stimuli with rapid movement, without even waiting for that lazy-assed brain to make a decision.

In real life, you often don’t get a chance to decide whether to move fast or slow. What keeps us injury-free is being prepared and conditioned for the speed, not spending our whole lives afraid of sprinting.

No-one likes being injured, and the majority of injuries in the gym (aside from dropping plates on your foot) are a direct result of bad form. Good form is intended to make sure that your musculoskeletal system is in optimum alignment. For example, when squatting, the lower back should keep a tight arch, and your butt should be sitting back behind your heels. This ensures that undue stress is not placed on the knees, and that the spine is bearing the load appropriately. Do it right the first time and save yourself the cost of that econo-bottle of Advil. For more on avoiding injuries in the gym, head to my injury section.

fundamentals of form

Each exercise is different, of course. But here are some general principles:

  • Neutral spine — there are very few exercises where good form while moving a heavy load involves hunching your back or tucking your tailbone under. Head up, chest up, and don’t sag.
  • Full, but not excessive range of motion — take the joint through its full range of ability. Don’t overstretch it till your sinews make crackling sounds. Don’t cut the rep short just to move more weight. Work within a range that is natural and pain-free. If you have an injury that limits your range, work within the range that is comfortable for you, trying to expand that range gradually over time.
  • Use the strongest muscles to do the most work unless you’re doing some funny little rehab exercise that targets some teeny weeny muscle. When squatting or deadlifting, use your glutes and hamstrings. When pressing, use your shoulders. If you find that small parts such as your grip or lower back are fatiguing, it could be that you just need to give them a little extra targeted work and let them catch up. Or it could mean you’re relying on them too much and letting the big parts get lazy.
  • Be controlled and mindful in your movements, whether those movements are fast or slow. (See above.)
  • Never sacrifice technique to move more weight. Leave your ego outside the gym. Nobody is impressed by a 1/4 squat except the ignorant. It’s more impressive to do a lift properly with less weight than to do it poorly with more weight. (Naturally, your goal is to do an awesome lift with awesome weight, but be patient, darling.)
  • For most goals, aim to integrate body parts rather than isolate them. (Again, for rehab, you may have to begin with isolation first if you have something that isn’t firing properly, or if you need to retrain the movement.) The body is designed to operate as a coordinated system. It performs best everyone works together.
  • When learning a new exercise, start with very light weight (or no weight at all) and practice the movement first. Add weight gradually.
  • If form breaks down, the set is done. Again, nobody is impressed by a bunch of ugly reps unless this is your one chance at setting a powerlifting world record. (Even then, the rep can’t get too hideous or the judges will fail it.)

form links

Of course you should start with the Dork to Diva page on this site.

Biofitness provides form diagrams for an extensive variety of exercises including many assistance exercises for the Olympic lifts. Personally I would ignore all their scary warnings about contraindicated exercises. Sure, I wouldn’t start a beginner on what the guy in the picture is lifting, but there’s no reason folks couldn’t learn these movements with no weight or a broomstick.

Bill Pearl has a good all-purpose information resource site for beginners.

ExRx lists exercises by type and muscles used. This is one of the best sites out there for basic anatomy, kinesiology, and exercise diagrams.

Exercise Armoury has a wide selection of exercises illustrated.

Exercise videos, lots of Olympic lifts and assistance exercises.

University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse Strength and Conditioning Centre has videos of exercises, including some Olympic and powerlifting lifts.

Bodybuilding.com Exercise Guide

Exercise Technique animations by body part