Good form is not about performing better externally. Many trainees choose exercises and then adopt bad practices so they can pile on weight to impress others or deceive themselves. Instead, good form should allow you to stay safe, which also trains the muscles best.
You want to choose medium grips and stances. This will distribute the load over as many active muscles and joints as possible. Avoid extremes, such as by neither tucking nor flaring your elbows on the bench press and the row. Prevent your knees from caving inward and avoid spreading the floor too much for the squat. Reduce range of motion to work the muscles more effectively and maintain strong positions for the joints.
Despite understanding this advice, it may feel difficult for you to implement it. You struggle to evaluate your form based on self-perception alone. Trying to do so may feel dangerous by leading to some imbalance as you try to catch a glance directly or with a mirror during a tough rep.
You could just make a mistake too. As an example, while watching your elbows during the bench press, it may appear as if your wrists are inside your elbows, when video actually shows that the forearms remained perpendicular to the ground.
Modern technology has prevailed. In the past, monitoring your form through video was less accessible. Many trainees can now use their mobile phones to record their workouts and practice sessions, gaining valuable insight.
Keep in mind these tips when using video to improve your form.
Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.
– Marcus Aurelius
- Avoid poor mechanics.
This means roughly lining up key joints on your exercises. The elbows should align with the wrists at the bottom of the bench press and the top of the row. The knees should track vertically with the ankles on the squat. This will maximize compression, the safest type of force for your connective tissue to handle. This also improves performance since you transfer work from the muscles most efficiently.
This may require you to take video from multiple angles. A side view for the bench press will reveal if the wrists align with the elbows when you reach your endpoint, such as your chest, at the bottom. This depends in part on where you choose to touch on your body. A back view then will show if your wrists align with the elbows horizontally, to safeguard the shoulders and elbows.
Do not get overly consumed in mechanics though, especially if something hurts you. It is just a starting point. 45° for a release would seem ideal for throwing a shot put according to a biomechanist, yet these elite throwers release at 60°, recruiting the powerful chest better and easing the stress on the shoulder.
Free weights allow minor deviations in the bar path to suit individuals. Choose a path that feels best for your joints. While moving in a straight line on the bench press works best, many feel better with a slight J-curve. This has the barbell resting closer toward your head at the lockout and then traveling slightly toward the feet to reach the lower chest area at the bottom.
You should look for good posture, even while supine on the bench press. Imagine standing tall, with the shoulder blades back and the chest out. Does your posture and form in general stay consistent even as you fatigue?
- Reach at least 90° at the elbows, hips, and knees for the range of motion.
Active tension, the main stimulus for more muscle size and strength, peaks at this angle for the muscles attached to these joints. This is usually close to the midpoint of the fullest possible range of motion for them. This happens where your leverage is worst, so the body logically has your muscles operate strongest here.
For the bench press and the row, this will occur when the elbow aligns with the shoulder. On the squat, this angle occurs at both the hips and knees before you hit parallel, a common standard using for powerlifting when the crease of the hips lines up with the top of the knees.
Video can confirm when you reach this minimum. You may want to go a bit beyond this though to have enough range of motion. It will let you have some room to generate some power during your reps.
- Watch footage using both lighter and heavier weights.
The body will try to take the path of least resistance when challenged. This can lead to both good and bad effects depending on the circumstances. You need to use enough weight to find what your body considers the most efficient path.
When working on your form then, use a heavy enough weight, perhaps more than 75% of your target weight. Observe footage from your toughest sets as well.
- Watch out for bad habits that are specific to each exercise.
Here are some possible concerns:
- Do your elbows flare?
- Are your feet comfortably planted?
- Do you achieve a balance point at the lockout?
- Do you get low enough?
- At what depth does your lower back start to round?
- Do your knees cave?
- Do you hyperextend your knees at the lockout?
- Do you stay under the bar, using the knees as much as the hips?
- Where do you hit the weight plate on your torso? Many trainees make contact with the lower abdomen instead of the upper portion as they should.
- Do the weight plates allow enough or too much range of motion?
- Do you jerk your body and neck when approaching failure?
Using Video to Improve Your Form
Video allows for impartiality. It works better than getting help from faulty observers. Furthermore, you know how things felt during those moments better than anyone else.
Take note of the feelings you get and possible cues that maintain good form. Make them into a cue list and review before your sets. If you need to change, try something, note how it feels, and then confirm through video that a shift has achieved your intended effect. Since video only provides feedback though, you can only learn from it to make adjustments. Continue the cycle of experimenting and reviewing until you get it all right.
Compare only to yourself. Many people use too much range of motion to satisfy the ego. A deep squat looks elegant yet destroys the spine. Those that are lucky enough to manage it may then enjoy comparing themselves with others, or use it as an excuse to criticize someone much stronger and more sensible than they are.
Unless practicing for a sport, the standards used for powerlifting and other competitions are not special; they just allow these organizations to compare athletes. Let biomechanics and how you feel dictate your form, not the arbitrary guidelines for a sport.
Once you establish good form, keep it. Never change things up for the sake of variety. Your joints will feel much better and you will achieve greater progress.
Consider these tips for using video to improve your form.