I have lifted weights for nearly two decades. I still get frustrated with progress and therefore experiment regularly with form. Things change as you get stronger, and you will have to revisit form throughout your lifetime.
When you engorge endless food, rank yourself among the beginners, or fail to have ever gotten seriously hurt, you tend not to worry much about form. Gains come quickly and steadily. When your status changes or you attempt to prevent yourself from gaining too much weight, you find gains harder to achieve.
They eventually come to a halt. You start to analyze your program more closely due to this decline. Form represents a major area to examine in order to venture back onto the path of progress.
Compound, free weight exercises have instability and a lot of weight relative to your strength. Should you perfect them though, like a samurai mastering the odachi, you will reap incredible benefits. You will stay safe while maximizing the tension in your muscles for growth. Form depends on some basic mechanics, anatomy, and common sense.
If most focused on fewer exercises and perfected what remained, they would achieve far greater results. Proper form not only trains the muscles best, it prevents injury that can reduce your training forever. The best case scenario still causes a setback. This can feel catastrophic to any lifter, and reduce hard-earned results by months or even years.
The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.
- Avoid extremes.
- Keep your chest up and shoulder blades back.
Good posture helps on every exercise. It helps to actually overdo posture as most exercises actively force you out of it. This means to keep your chest up and shoulders back forcefully. For example, doing this on the squat helps keep your hips under you, which prevents the hips from pushing out of the bottom instead of rising with your back, which makes you bend forward. During the bench press, accentuating good posture will make you much more stable, which allows you to push efficiently.
- Avoid the extreme portions of the range of motion.
Despite trainees believing they have to use a full range of motion, this can hurt you. The same muscle fibers work at the mid-range versus the endpoints. The muscle fibers grow weaker as you move away from the middle of any motion. This happens because the muscle stretches or shortens too much. It either pulls apart or becomes a ball of yarn. This prevents the forming of sites for contraction. This can place stress on the joints in these weak positions.
During pull-ups, many trainees will relax their shoulder blades at the bottom to get that little extra inch. This can pull the shoulder out of its socket, and when combined with your weight and weakness, it can harm the shoulder horribly. Some trainees also descend too deeply on the bench press for their structure, which hurts the rotator cuff. Squatters that achieve a low depth while rounding the lower back take a risk for no good reason.
- Balance stress on all the working muscles.
Anything too wide, too narrow, or too extreme will stress specific muscles. This creates imbalances. It gives too much work to specific muscles. A close-grip bench press will irritate the elbows and shoulders, and a wide-grip bench press will destroy the shoulders. Powerlifters often use a very wide stance on squats and a low bar position that relies on the hip extensors, but this can often harm the outer hips and reduce the stimulus to the quadriceps and calves. If you could bench press or squat 500-600 pounds, regardless of grip or stance, do you think any of the muscles involved would look or feel weak? Choose the safest option. Get much stronger.
- Move at a normal speed.
Do not move too slow or too fast. Remain in control. Move as fast as possible when the reps grow difficult. This creates tension in the fast-twitch muscle fibers, even if you actually move slowly. The intention matters more than the actual speed. Moving too slow prevents you from using elastic tension stored in the muscles and worsens the strength curve. Too fast will create force spikes and make you lose tightness. Just move normally and these issues fade.
- Breathe normally.
Do not worry about breathing. Just breathe naturally without a schedule. Those that obsess over this do so to avoid hard work. Holding your breath occurs naturally during heavy lifting.
- Stay tight.
This allows the active muscles to work fully. Imagine trying to shoot a cannon from inside a canoe. This would make it tough to aim. The same concept applies to lifting weights. Brace the muscles outside the active ones to stay stable. Squeeze the bar and tighten your grip. Accentuate good posture. Move slowly enough to remain tight.
- The last rep counts too.
On dead-lifts, many trainees keep perfect form throughout most of the set, but then round their backs to set down the weight on their final rep. Other trainees will push the barbell toward the saddles on their last rep on the bench press, which can harm their shoulders. Every rep counts. The final rep does not excuse you from using good form.
- Avoid anticipation.
Many trainees dwell upon how many more reps they need to complete during the set. They allow this to have a subtle effect on their form. They may drop the weights too fast during the negative or twist and squirm to get the weight up faster. Instead, consider each rep separately. Do not try to make it easier on yourself to achieve your goal at the expense of good form. Perform each rep safely and patiently.
- Make personal tweaks.
On the squat, I started pointing my elbows down to keep my chest up. With heavier weights, I started to have problems reaching the depth required. This helped me achieve the minimum depth much more easily.
Although some sources mention this tip, many articles fail to address them. I discovered this tip on my own. I only later found that some sources offered these suggestions.
Sometimes you have to rely on feel before mechanics to determine proper form. Use mechanics only as a base. For example, a 45° release in the track & field event called the shot put of the arm relative to the ground makes sense mechanically, but instead athletes use a 30° release to recruit the powerful chest muscles. Although having your forearms perpendicular to the floor at the bottom of a bench press makes sense, do not force this if a slightly closer grip feels better for you without irritating your joints. Use tips as a base, but then experiment with what feels right for your unique body.
Form Affects Progress
If you ever feel frustrated with form or any other aspect of training, remember that every failure represents an opportunity to learn and grow or to use the same habits and fail again and again. In my younger days, I would do the same damn thing time after time again, and wonder why I continued to make no progress or feel pain. I now realize that a lack of progress indicates a need for change. Not just any random change, but a purposeful change. Evaluating your form and perfecting it is time well-spent. Form will make a massive difference in your strength and safety.