One thing that I feel is constantly overlooked in the gym… well my gym anyway… is correct form. Correct form is something that is important if you want to see results in the gym, and absolutely crucial if you have any dreams of ever competing in any sort of bikini/fitness/bodybuilding competition. By always training with correct form you will ensure you are getting the most from your workouts and surely that’s what you’re in the gym to do right? We all want the best results possible, and how do you expect to do that when you’re not putting the maximum tension on your muscles? Yet time and time again I stand there in the gym and see people rounding their back on a deadlift, squatting down only 6 inches in a squat before powering out and screaming like a banshee or curling a 20kg dumbbell with a big arch in their back before letting it plummet back down to their side with no control whatsoever.
These people frustrate me; they make me want to stop what I’m doing and go over to them and slap the weight right out of their hands. Perhaps this all seems a bit extreme, but I am a self-confessed ‘form Nazi’.
When it comes down to people who train with incorrect form I believe there are two types of people -
* Firstly there are those that put their ego first.
These are the people that want to lift weight. Lots and lots of weight. Form isn't even a consideration for them. They don't care how they get that bar into the air, so long as there is lots and lots of weight on it when they do. These people don't feel manly or "macho" enough when lifting a slightly lighter weight in a controlled manner. These people often act this way because of a training partner, a peer they are trying to impress. These people frustrate me. They want results in the gym, of course they do, we all do, that’s why we train and diet so hard. But putting your ego first in the gym is a sure way to waste your time, not work your muscles effectively and risk injury.
Increasing the weight is a good thing don’t get me wrong, lifting heavier is often a great sign of progression, it's good to increase weight, but within reason and not at the expense of form. If you want to impress people in the gym then that’s fine, if you want to compete with your trainer partner then that’s great and a healthy way to push yourself, but not if you're risking injury to your body with terrible form in the process.
* Secondly there are those who simply do not know any better.
These people lack the knowledge. They think they are performing the exercise correctly. They may be self-taught, have had a bad trainer or may have observed others in the gym and copied their form, and in turn their bad habits. I find these less annoying than the first group but I still don't have any sympathy for them. I don't accept lack of knowledge as an excuse. By going to the gym these people have a responsibility for their own results and their own health. They have to be accountable. Along with that comes a certain level of knowledge that is required, you need to know what you are doing, and in this day and age with technology being how it is we now have more ways than ever before to educate ourselves in proper technique.
All you need is an internet connection (which you presumably already have if you’re reading this article in the first place) and just two minutes with a search engine or Youtube. There are countless websites and videos out there of people demonstrating correct form, and with a little bit of self-research I think that most people could correct 99% of their bad form. FitMag is a great place for beginners!
Take this as a key example of what I'm talking about. A couple of days ago I was in the gym and I saw a middle aged guy of average build working out. He didn't look particularly big or particularly experienced. Now of course, looks can indeed be deceiving, but he just seemed like an average guy training with a friend. I glanced over and saw him with a barbell at his feet, it was loaded with around 40KG along with a bar that weighed around 10KG, he bent down, grasped the bar firmly with both hands, and I prepared to watch what I was almost certain would be a deadlift. What happened next left me gobsmacked. He gripped the bar with an underhand grip, stood up straight and yanked the bar forcefully upwards in the direction of his shoulders, arched his back to at least 45 degrees in order to get the weight fully up, and then once it was level with his chest he let it drop down with full force back towards his waist. Yes, that's right he was barbell curling 50KG. I watched him for a few reps, grunting, screaming, arching his back this way and that way, throwing the weight about with every ounce of strength he could muster, until I saw on one of his reps he managed to arch his back in such a way that his left hand and the left side of the barbell reached the top point of the contraction while his right hand and right side of the barbell weren’t even halfway up. It was at this point I had to turn away and stop watching otherwise I feared I may be forced to smash my head against the wall in frustration.
This guy presumably thought he was working his biceps, but I assure you he was not. All he was achieving was the risk of a severe back injury. This guy let his ego get the better of him. Perhaps it was because he was training with a friend and wanted to show off? Perhaps he doesn't feel "macho" enough lifting lighter weights? Perhaps he is just poorly educated and believes that when doing an exercise the weight on the bar is more important than the form in which it is performed? Whatever the reason, this man was wasting his time and risking injury.
Muscles, especially smaller ones such as the bicep, respond much better with correct form. They GROW much better with correct form. Time under tension. The eccentric part of the movement or ‘the negative’. These are some of the keys to growth that are too often forgotten by the average gym goer. Leave your ego at the door, nobody cares how much you can lift, don't try to show off, you're only wasting your own time and putting your own body at risk. If you exercise with correct form you will see much better results and that's what you want right? That's what we all want. Results.
I promise that in time the increased strength will come and the weight you're using will go up. In fact it is important that the weight does go up, that's how you make even more progress and ensure you don't hit a plateau. However do not increase the weight at the expense of correct form. I say again, do not sacrifice form. It doesn't matter why you're in the gym, correct form is important for everybody. If you're training for aesthetic reasons or with the aim of competing in a bodybuilding competition, be it in the near future or a long term goal, then it's vital because it will give you that finished and complete look. You can't fully develop all the smaller muscles in your body if you're not correctly working them when you're training. Likewise if you're in the gym to train for a specific sport like rugby or to be a powerlifter, then again form is crucial to your workouts, because after all you are only as strong as your weakest link. No matter what your field, if you haven't got the complete package you will not excel in your given sport.
If that wasn't reason enough for you train with the correct form then perhaps this next topic might make you see the light. That topic is injury. Let's be honest, it sucks. Having the desire and passion to continue training but not being able to due to a physical injury is one of the most frustrating things you can experience when it comes to the gym. What causes injury? Well more often than not its incorrect form. By not performing the exercise correctly this can put unnecessary stress on joints/muscles and before long you'll end up straining something or pushing something too far and BOOM! - Injury.
Too often I have seen people workout thinking that more weight equals more muscle and in an effort to get quicker results they've pushed themselves too far with a weight they can't handle and injured themselves; which in turn has meant that they can't train for weeks, or possibly even months, which then sets them back even further with their fitness goals. Cruel irony.
Now that you hopefully agree how important correct form can be, let me tell you my favourite ways to ensure correct form and how to get the most from your workouts.
Understanding The Movement
Firstly, and most importantly, you need to understand the movement. As mentioned earlier there are various sources online where you can read articles or watch videos and study the form of an exercise. This is very important in ensuring you know how to perform the move correctly and what muscles should be being used throughout the motion. There are numerous ways you can check your own form to ensure you understand the movement correctly. You can try checking your own form in the mirror which can sometimes help with a simple movement like a bicep curl. However with larger compound movements like a deadlift or squat it’s not recommend to turn your head and watch the movement in a mirror as this can put the spine out of the correct alignment and is dangerous. The absolute best way to check your form would be to have a friend/girlfriend/training partner record you performing the exercise. Again this is relatively easy given technology nowadays as most people have the ability to record videos from their mobile phone. Only when watching yourself back on video can you truly monitor your form and find any weak areas or bad habits.
One of the most important aspects of correct form is having what is called a Mind/Muscle Connection. This is not something you can just walk into the gym for the first time and feel on your first workout. It’s something that comes from good old fashioned experience. Years and years of training. Over time you will start to learn how to really focus on the muscle you should be working. Almost as if your mind is within that muscle. You can single it out and concentrate on contracting that specific muscle. I personally am now up to a level whereby in a given exercise I can pull or push a certain weight and I can choose which muscle I want to primarily push with. In time you will get to you know your body well enough that on a bench press you can focus on pushing with your chest, with your shoulders or with your triceps, because you have such precise control over your muscles. Again, this comes with experience.
Once you have mastered such a thing it makes correct form a lot easier. You can feel the correct muscles working, and if for some reason you do not then you can focus on contracting that muscle and ensuring it is the primary one used in a given exercise. With this also comes the ability to adapt an exercise to make it more effective. For example you can try changing your stance or grip position and should be able to feel it working different areas of your muscles. Thought this isn’t something I’d recommend until you are relatively experienced as adapting an exercise could be dangerous for a beginner.
Time Under Tension
Another very important aspect in correct form is the time under tension. Ultimately your muscles don’t know how much weight you’re lifting. They don’t care how many plates you’ve loaded on the bar. Only your ego cares about that. Your muscles care about the time under tension and the contraction of the muscle. Rather than throwing the weight up in the air and letting it fall back down again, try controlling the weight more.
Take the Lat Pulldown as an example. I see some people using all of their might to pull the bar down and then immediately letting it go and watching it fly back into the air. Instead, once you have pulled the bar down and are at the peak contraction, try holding the weight there for two seconds, before slowly releasing the weight in a controlled manner through the eccentric (negative) part of the movement, this part of the movement should last around 3 seconds. The eccentric (negative) part of the movement is of huge importance yet many people in the average gym miss out on the entire section of the exercise by letting the weight drop after they’ve hit peak contraction. By slowly releasing the weight in a controlled manner you will ensure you get the absolute maximum time under tension from the exercise and as a result the maximum muscle growth.
This advice isn’t just aimed at those new to the gym, I’m talking about those of us who have years of experience as well. After all, nobody trains with bad form on purpose… everybody THINKS they’re doing it right, and they simply don’t realise that’s not the case; they don’t know any better. You could have been training for years; you might think you’re doing everything perfectly, when in reality you may be part of this group without even realising.
Some people may think I’m being harsh in this article, but I assure you I treat myself with this same level of discipline. I’ve been training for a couple of years and I’ve always thought that I was squatting correctly; I thought my form was exactly how it should be. Then I stopped for a moment and thought, ‘What if? What if my form isn’t perfect? What if there is room for improvement?” So I had my girlfriend record me while squatting, I went home and studied it, and then took some time to research the key principles of the exercise through various video sources. I came to the conclusion that my form was not perfect. There were one or two things that I could improve and a few bad habits I’d clearly picked up from somewhere along the way. As a result I went back into the gym a week later and practiced squatting, and I now feel that my form is a LOT better and as a result know that I have ensured I am getting the absolute maximum out of my time in the gym as well as having reduced the risk of injury. Now I never thought I was doing anything wrong to begin with so if it wouldn’t have been for that moment where I stopped and asked myself ‘What if?’ then I may have never corrected my form. I may have gone on with those same bad habits for years, and then who knows what? I may have even ended up injuring myself as a result.
So on that basis I urge people, regardless of your experience level, before your next workout just take a few minutes to study the form of the exercises you’re about to go and train. Really focus on the movements and visualise yourself going through the exercise. Then once you’re in the gym really focus on executing and maintaining correct form throughout. Concentrate on the negatives of the movement.
Look for these bad habits that we all pick up. Find them and destroy them. Train effectively and train safe.