If you’re doing any sort of weight lifting workout involving free weight exercises, machine exercises, or body weight exercises, it’s important to always use proper form.
In this article, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about why form is so important, and how to actually learn it. This includes…
- Why proper form can be different for each person.
- Why form is so important.
- Injury prevention.
- Effectively training the target muscle group(s).
- The progressive overload problem.
- How to learn proper form.
- Getting taught in person.
- Learning from videos online.
- The problem with videos.
- How to get an evaluation of your form.
- An example form evaluation (video included).
Let’s begin with a fact that most people don’t realize…
Proper Form Can Be Different For Each Person
Despite what you may have been told, there’s no such thing as form that is universally perfect for every single person doing an exercise.
Sure, there are definitely some default recommendations that should be followed for every exercise, but when you get down to the specifics, you’ll often find that individual differences can alter things a bit.
I’m talking about differences like:
- Individual needs.
- Individual goals.
- Injury history.
- Body type.
- Limb length.
- And so on.
These factors can all affect how a person performs an exercise, or how a person should be performing an exercise.
Let me give you two examples of what I mean.
Example #1: Squats
Some people will consider proper form for squats to be going down to the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor. Yet others will consider proper form to be taking place only when you break that parallel point, ideally reaching “ass-to-ground” status.
So, who’s right? Both.
Because some people have the body type and flexibility/mobility needed to squat below parallel without any issues whatsoever, and some don’t.
And for those that don’t, they will start to round their lower back (among other dangerous things you don’t want to be doing) if they attempt to squat that deep.
So, for people fitting this description – which I’ve found to be the majority of people, by the way – proper form would mean squatting until their thighs are parallel to the floor, and not a inch below that point.
And for the people who can squat below that point without any problems AND find that it suits their specific goals to do so? For them, squatting below parallel would be proper form.
As you can see… it varies.
And there are tons of additional examples just like this of how factors such as body type, differing levels of flexibility/mobility, and individual goals can change things.
Example #2: Pull-Ups
Now let’s look at how injury history can affect things, and let’s use me as an example.
Pull-ups have always been one of my favorite (and strongest) exercises.
And for about a decade, proper pull-up form for me meant going down into a full dead hang at the bottom of every rep, so that my arms were fully extended and the stretch in my lats was as big as it could be.
Eventually, however, I had an unrelated elbow injury, and in order to recover from that injury and avoid aggravating it again in the future, I had to make a few changes within my workouts.
For example, I got rid of certain exercises (anything involving an underhand grip), replaced other exercises (straight bar curls with EZ bar curls), and adjusted my form on certain exercises.
And one such exercise I adjusted was pull-ups.
Now, instead of going into a fully-extended dead hang at the bottom of every rep, I stop just short of that point.
So for me, going forward, this is now my proper form for pull-ups. And it’s slightly different from the typical recommendation people give for this exercise, and it’s even slightly different from what was previously “right” for me up until this point.
Which just goes to show you, what might be “proper” for one person may not be for another… sometimes even for the same person at different points in time. And there are tons of other examples just like this.
2 Reasons Why Proper Form Is So Important
Now let’s take a look at why proper form is so important in the first place.
Above all else, it comes down to two reasons:
1. Injury Prevention
There are plenty of different ways you can injure yourself while working out.
- Bad Program Design
For example, doing too many exercises, or too many sets, or too much total volume, or not allowing for sufficient recovery, or lacking balance around the joints, or something similar. This all has the potential to lead to injuries over time.
- Bad Exercise Selection
Certain exercises can be problematic for certain people, in and of themselves. For example, dips bother a lot of people’s shoulders, and barbell skull crushers bother a lot of people’s elbows. Not everyone, of course, but some people. And for me personally, any exercise involving an underhand grip would bother my elbow.
Sometimes it’s a weird accidental thing, like getting stuck while bench pressing without a spotter (or squatting without safety bars), or an equipment issue (I once had an inclined bench collapse down to the flat position while I was dumbbell pressing… fun times), or perhaps just dropping a weight on your foot.
But one of the leading causes of weight lifting related injuries is just plain old bad form.
And “bad form” can happen for a lot of reasons.
- Most of the worst form you see at the gym is a result of the person never learning proper form in the first place, so they just have no clue what they’re doing.
- Other times, the person may have actually learned proper form, but they either A) learned it from a terrible source who taught it incorrectly, or B) don’t realize their form is as bad as it is… they assume they’re doing things correctly.
- Many other times, it’s a person simply using more weight than they should actually be using (or are actually capable of using), and form is suffering as a result.
- And then there’s fatigue… so maybe the set started off with proper form being used, but by the end of the set, fatigue has set in and form has gone to crap.
But whatever the reason may be, it’s likely to lead to injury at some point. And the better your form is, the more likely you’ll be to prevent that from happening.
2. Actually Training The Target Muscle Group(s)
Then we have the reason most people overlook, yet it’s a surprisingly common reason for why people aren’t getting the results they want from their workout.
And it all comes down to the fact that if you’re doing some sort of weight lifting workout for the purpose of improving the way your body looks (i.e. building muscle), then your goal isn’t to just lift weights. It’s to effectively train muscles.
Meaning, if you’re doing an exercise for a certain muscle group, but that muscle group isn’t doing the work, then you’re not effectively training that muscle group.
Here’s a few common examples of what I mean…
- If you’re doing a back exercise (rows, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, etc.) but you feel your biceps doing a ton of the work and don’t really feel your back doing anything, then guess what? You’re not effectively training the muscles of your back.
- If you’re feeling a chest pressing exercise in your shoulders and/or triceps but hardly feel anything in your chest, then you’re not effectively training your chest.
- If you’re doing squats for the purpose of training your glutes but you really only feel it in your quads, then you’re not effectively training your glutes.
- If you’re doing Romanian deadlifts to train your hamstrings/glutes but mostly feel it in your lower back, then you’re not effectively training your hamstrings and glutes.
In scenarios like these and the dozens of others like them, it’s extremely common for people to be consistent with their workouts for months/years and make a ton of progress in terms of strength gains but yet see little to no progress in terms of muscle gains.
And it’s entirely a result of doing exercises for a body part in a way that fails to effectively train that body part.
How does this happen?
Sometimes it’s poor exercise selection, where you’re attempting to train a body part using an exercise that simply isn’t ideal for training that body part.
But in most cases, this sort of thing happens as a result of improper form… be it the physical kind (just not doing the exercise correctly) or the mental kind (lacking a mind-muscle connection).
The Progression Overload Problem
And while the improper form in this context happens for the same reasons we covered earlier, one additional reason I see all the time is people sacrificing form for the sake of progression.
So you know how important progressive overload is to the muscle building process? And how you need to gradually increase the demands being placed on your body (by doing more reps, lifting more weight, etc.) over time?
Well, here’s the thing about that. We’re not just trying to move more and more weight from point A to point B. We’re trying to make the target muscle groups move that weight from point A to point B.
So the act of adding more weight to the bar – in and of itself – is not what stimulates muscle growth. Hell, I can add 10 lbs more to the bar tomorrow than I’m capable of lifting today and use much worse form during that set (cheating, momentum, less range of motion, etc.) to compensate and I’ll have seemingly “progressed.”
But that version of “progression” isn’t doing anything for us besides wasting our time and increasing the risk of injury.
Instead, we want to progress by placing the target muscles under tension… and then increase that tension over time.
So if your form gradually gets worse as the weight gradually gets heavier… you’re doing it wrong.
Reducing the weight to fix your form would be the right move to make (and I’ve made this move many times myself), followed by gradually progressing from that point on while keeping proper form intact.
How To Learn Proper Form
Now let’s figure out how to actually learn proper form for weight lifting exercises. Here are the 3 best options…
1. Get Taught In Person By Someone Who Knows What They’re Doing
By far, the absolute best way to learn proper form is to have someone who legitimately knows what they’re doing teach you in person.
Have them stand right there with you to demonstrate and teach each exercise. And then have them watch you perform those exercises while they correct any mistakes you’re making. And have them do this for a few workouts (or however long it takes for you to get it right).
This is the ideal approach to learning how to do an exercise correctly, and it’s the first option I recommend to everyone.
Unfortunately, it’s often the hardest option to make happen.
Why? Because few people actually know what the hell they’re doing.
Which means there is a very high probability that the person who ends up teaching you proper form may not have any idea what proper form is or how to teach it.
But what about a personal trainer, you ask?
Sadly, a significant portion of licensed/certified personal trainers in most gyms fit into this category as well. Many are just as clueless as the average clueless person in your gym.
This is something I’m reminded of every time I see one of the trainers at my gym working with a client. It would be funny if it wasn’t so damn sad.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of excellent trainers out there who know their stuff. They do exist. I’ve seen them. I know a bunch of them. They are real.
It’s just that for every 1 trainer like this, there are probably 100 that suck. And the trainers I know are the first to agree with me on this point.
So, what should you do? To be honest, this is one of the hardest questions to answer.
The best advice I can offer is that if you’re lucky enough to know, find or hire someone who is truly knowledgeable and capable enough to teach your proper form in person… then by all means… go for it!
But if not, or if you’re just not sure if a person actually fits that description, then let’s move on to option #2…
2. Watch Videos And Teach Yourself
Another way to learn proper form is to search around the internet for videos that demonstrate how to correctly perform each exercise, and learn from those.
Seems easy enough, right?
And there are plenty of websites out there – some of which are free, some of which are not – that contain anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundreds videos like this.
And of course, there’s also YouTube. You’ll find thousands of videos there for every exercise. And they’ll all be free.
Pretty perfect, right?
Yeah, sure… except for the fact that many of the videos you find will be crap.
Because like I said before, most people don’t know what they’re doing. And this also includes a lot of personal trainers, coaches, and internet fitness gurus with amazing bodies and huge followings on social media who look the part and appear as though they should be knowledgeable and qualified in this regard… but still aren’t.
Now that’s not to say you won’t find any good exercise videos anywhere. That’s definitely not the case. There are some excellent videos out there from some excellent sources.
The problem, of course, is that for every excellent exercise demonstration you come across, there will be many more that range from “not so good” to “terrible, laughable and dangerous.”
And if you’re not knowledgeable enough to know the difference… it mostly just comes down to luck, I guess.
If you happen to have a trusted person/resource that is putting out legitimately good exercise tutorial videos, then by all means, feel free to watch them and teach yourself.
Is there a specific resource I’d recommend for this purpose?
This is a question people have been asking me for over a decade, and my answer has always been no. There just hasn’t been a single resource I’ve come across that gets everything right and makes me feel comfortable enough to recommend to people.
And so, as I’ve been telling people for years, until the day comes when I create my own database of exercise video demonstrations, I don’t really have a recommendation.
But the good news is, that day is now here.
I’ve been working with a good friend of mine (another experienced fitness coach) to put together our own exercise video database as part of My programs.
We have dozens of video demonstrations there at the moment, and we’re adding 5-10 new videos every single month. We intend to have 500+ videos by the time we’re done.
So, if you don’t already have a trusted resource for this sort of thing, I’d highly recommend checking out the exercise video database we have inside My programs.
We’ve obsessed quite a bit to ensure we get everything right. 🙂
One Small Problem With Learning From Videos
Regardless of which videos you end up learning from, it’s still up to you to actually put what you’ve learned into action correctly.
And that’s much easier said than done, especially when it comes to the more complex exercises.
This is part of why the best option is to have someone who knows what they’re doing teach you in person and watch what you’re doing, see what (if anything) is being done incorrectly, tell you what adjustments need to be made, help you make those adjustments, and then watch you perform the exercise again and again to ensure you’re doing things correctly.
But since most people won’t have this luxury, you’re kinda on your own to figure it out yourself… which isn’t easy.
You have to:
- Be able to physically see what you’re doing.
This is where recording yourself performing the exercise from different angles comes in handy, as just looking in the mirror won’t show you everything, and doing so can be dangerous depending on what exercise is being done.
- Be knowledgeable enough to spot mistakes.
You may be able to spot the bigger, more obvious issues with your form. But will you be able to spot the smaller stuff that an experienced coach can sometimes miss?
- Be knowledgeable enough to know what’s causing the mistakes.
Is it an issue with flexibility or mobility? Is your stance or grip width too wide or too narrow? Is the bar path slightly off? Are you going too fast or too slow? Are you using too much weight? Or too much momentum? Are you lacking engagement of the target muscle group? Etc. etc. etc.
- Be knowledgeable enough to know how to correct the mistakes.
Sometimes it’s just one simple thing, but other times the fix may involve making multiple adjustments. Hell, sometimes it may mean switching to a different variation of an exercise that may suit you better.
- Be willing to accept that a mistake is being made.
We all like to think we’re perfect and always right about everything. That makes it hard for us to accurately judge ourselves and admit when we’re doing something wrong. So when you see something potentially wrong with your form, will you be able to admit it, accept it, and then fix it? Or will you think it’s good enough?
So, finding a good/trusted source of videos to learn from is really only half the job here.
The other half is properly putting what you’ve learned from those videos into action correctly, and that’s all on you.
If you are able to do this, awesome! Congrats!
But if not, that brings us to option #3…
3. Have Your Form Evaluated Online By Someone Who Knows What They’re Doing
One of the most useful features we provide for members of My programs is our comprehensive form evaluations.
It’s pretty simple.
You record some video of yourself performing an exercise, you show it to us, and we then watch every second of that video multiple times while taking notes.
From there, we provide you with a full evaluation breaking down everything you’re doing right, everything you’re doing wrong, everything that could be improved, exactly what adjustments to make, how (and why) to make them, and more.
Summing It Up
Now let’s sum up the major points of this article…
- Proper weight lifting form is important both for injury prevention and getting the intended training stimulus out of the exercise you’re doing.
- What’s considered “proper” for one person may be slightly different for another. It really depends on the specific needs of the individual.
- It’s common for a person to focus on progression at the expense of form, and this is something you want to avoid. This kind of “progression” isn’t beneficial.
- The very best way to ensure you’re performing an exercise correctly is to find someone who is legitimately knowledgeable and experienced, and have them work with you in person. Of course, finding someone who fits that description can be hard, as most people are pretty clueless (and this includes many personal trainers).
- If you’re not able to find someone to work with you in person, the second best option is to get your form evaluated online by someone who is legitimately knowledgeable and experienced enough to do so. We’re doing this for members of My programs on a regular basis, and they’re loving it.
- Learning from videos is the third best option, but you need to be sure you’re learning from a legitimately good source (many are terrible, unfortunately), and then actually putting what you’ve learned into action correctly, which is often harder than it seems. This is another scenario where having your form evaluated can certainly come in handy.
And regardless of which option you go with, always start extra light (even with just the bar in some cases), and slowly progress for there.
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