Form Follows Function (original post date 9/8/2012)

By Christopher Williams

Ever see someone at the gym lifting a heavy weight and think “Oh wow, look how strong they are?” Sure, we all have at some point. In the early days when I was a young IDon’tKnowNothins, my workouts were based on copying these people. After all, I just witnessed someone loft 5,000,000lbs over their head with one hand…I want to be that guy! These days I see things differently. Now I look at people and say “Oh wow, look at what great form they have.” It is far more critical to have good form than move a lot of weight and I’ll explain why.

When a person works out, we’re assuming they want to affect changes in their body. We’re also assuming we want those to be positive changes. Tearing a muscle or grinding down joints is not what you’re looking to do. When proper form is used, these injuries will not happen. The body is incredibly resilient but within a given range of motion. Once you begin exceeding the limits of that range, all bets are off. Some people exceed these limits because they simply were never taught how far to go. They read things like “Get a full stretch when rowing” in fitness magazines while waiting at the doctor’s office or a salon. So next time they go to the gym, they end up relaxing their scapulae completely and round out their back because they interpreted a full range of motion for resistance, with a flexibility exercise. Some other people exceed limits because their ego won’t allow them to switch to a lower weight. I’m concerned with helping the former (the latter aren’t going to listen until their arms fall off or they see the light for themselves).

The most crucial information you can be armed with (at least in relation to this subject) is knowing what a muscle group feels like when it’s active. This is something that is often glossed over, or explained in such a cursory manner that it goes misunderstood. If you really aren’t sure how something should feel, ask your trainer. If you don’t understand their description, ask them for a different one. Everyone one processes things differently. Hearing “Your pecs are gonna burn” is useless to a person who doesn’t know exactly where the borders of their pecs are located. Tell your trainer the parts of the explanation you don’t understand and they will help you.

I try to use whatever words or concepts it takes to get someone to understand. For trouble on the lat pulldown, I may tell one person to pretend to push their elbows through an imaginary arc as they pull the weight down. Someone else may need to be told to pretend that you’re doing a pullup and treat this exercise the same way (it really is just a seated pullup). Still someone else may need to hear the full checklist of set hips forward, lean back at the waist, elbows back with the wide grip, lift the chest and head slightly, etc. In the end, I’m looking to see that they can internalize the motion, feel it in the targeted muscle groups and know how to set it up themselves.

Body awareness is key in avoiding injury and maximizing return on your time in the gym. Checking your form is not difficult once you know what to look for. After all, those mirrors all over the gym are not for Johnny Crunchalot to pull up his shirt and verify that his abs are still on his body. They’re really there for verifying proper form while working out and making corrections when necessary. Once you become more aware of your body, you can essentially workout blindfolded. Why is this so important? Because sets and reps are useless if you’re utilizing the wrong muscle group. Because you run a higher risk of injury if you use other forces, like inertia to move weights. And because you’ll be that person at the gym who works out 5 days a week and after 2 years looks exactly the same. It takes time to feel it. Some people get it faster than others but don’t worry about that. And don’t be in such a rush to get a sweat going or move around that you gloss over the form. Get the form down and a lot of the other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.

Ballistic lifting, unless done as part of a specialized workout like kettlebells or Olympic style is a great way to put a weight through a wall, hurt someone else, or hurt yourself. You aren’t a rocket booster, so stop trying to send your weights into orbit. You need to be in full control of the weight at all times. Many people (usually guys) will pick up too much weight and then use physics to move it to the approximate finish position of an exercise and then claim credit for being strong. The best example is probably the single arm row. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the “lawnmower starting” move where guys lean over a bench, pick up a dumbell 4 times heavier than what they should be using and yank it skyward.

Now if you’re competing in an event where the object is to lean over a bench, grab a heavy object below you and hurl it skywards, then yank away. If your objective is to exercise your upper back and protect your lower back, then you need to reduce the weight and focus on proper form. When I first started weight training, I was determined to impress everyone so even though I was dumbell chest pressing 50lbs (with my shoulders and arms…where was my chest at anyway?), I was single arm rowing 140lbs with straps, chalk and whatever else made me look like a warrior. Alarm bells should have went off that there wasn’t even a remote chance I was doing it right but when “you don’t know nothins”, the less you know, the better.

There is also the other end of the spectrum I just alluded to and that’s using far too little weight. Because my chest press form stunk to high heaven, I couldn’t go heavy without hurting my shoulders and elbows. In order to save face, I went super light and pretended to be following some bogus cardio-explosion chest workout. By using ridiculously low amounts of weight, my pecs never bothered to operate (there was also the matter of me not engaging my upper back, which is something you hardly ever read about in exercise books, magazines or descriptions). Chest pressing very light weight is like calling the National Guard to stop a cat burglar. Sure they can call upon their tanks, helicopters and howitzers to catch a small time thief, but they aren’t going to.  They’ll forward the call to the local police and let them handle it. When your weight selection is too low, your “National Guardsmen” muscle groups are not going to get recruited (punintentional).

Proper weight selection is not just a matter of removing excess weight from your workout. It’s also a matter of adding adequate weight in order to activate the muscle within a reasonable amount of time. Sure, technically you can shoulder press 5lbs 40 times…your triceps will get tired around the 32nd rep of the 3rd set and your shoulders will finally start to help out. But you can also do 15lbs 12 times or 20lbs 8 times, save yourself a lot of hours and see better results. There is a time and place for high rep, just not every single workout for your entire life (same goes for extreme low rep).

There is also a condition called Instamusclephobia. This is an intense aversion to lifting anything heavy because of horrific and instant side effects. In other words, if they pick up more than 10lbs, they’ll bulk up to twice the size of Ronnie Coleman within a week, or their arms will explode, or they’ll go into testosterone rage, or their kneecap will shatter, or whatever. Therefore their only salvation is to pick up 2.5lbs and rep out 50 times. Sadly many of the afflicted are women who truly do believe that just deadlifting an empty bar is the same as a sex change operation. This simply is not true and again, as long as proper form is used, there is no way you can lift more than your body can handle. Concentration, knowledge and experience will be your best friends.

So there you go. Now you can spend less time at the gym and get more done while you’re there. To recap what you can do to make your form something to be proud of:

  • Ask a trainer to check and evaluate your form
  • Ask detailed questions
  • Remember the feeling of the proper muscle recruitment
  • Use the mirrors…push Johnny Crunchalot out of the way
  • Start with a low weight and increase the poundage until you feel the correct muscle group working when using proper form
  • Don’t use Isaac Newton as a lifting partner
  • Control the weight at all times
  • Leave your ego at home, on the internet, in the car, anywhere but the gym
  • Men: The cute girl on the treadmill won’t think you’re weakling if you reduce the weight on your bar
  • Women: The cute guy in the squat rack won’t think you’re a freak of nature if you pick up a 20lb dumbell
  • If you feel you aren’t able to do something or performance is lagging, do not make excuses. Make an evaluation to determine what the cause may be and correct it. Sometimes 0.5″ is the difference between pain and poor performance versus relative comfort and superb form
  • If something hurts, stop. Sharp pains, joint pains, etc are signals that either form is wrong, weight is too high or a combination. Quit while you can still walk and evaluate the movement

Comments, questions, sad stories, happy stories, please write them below.


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