One of the joys of the fitness journey is setting a new PR (personal record) on a movement, whether you are finally able to do ten pull-ups in a row or hit a 200-pound back squat. Making gains is a huge accomplishment, but only if you do it the right way. Too often, exercisers load on weight or rush through high rep workouts without taking the time to think about their form. Using correct workout form is the number one most important part of any exercise. Using poor form is a one-way ticket to injury. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’ll also slow down your fitness progress.
Why Correct Workout Form Matters
Increases Chance of Injury
Performing reps with bad form is just asking for an injury. This is especially true as you get stronger and begin doing high rep workouts, or adding weight to barbell and dumbbell movements.
“Improper lifting mechanics will cause strength imbalances and poor joint stability,” says James Camastra, co-owner of Progressive Personal Training in an article for Aaptiv. “Whenever there is a weak link in a chain, you are susceptible to injury. Especially, when it comes to repetitive movements and sudden reactive stresses.”
For example, it’s common to see poor deadlift form in the gym. A person will start with their butt high and shoulders forward and then round their back during the lift. As a result, they’ll put incredible pressure on their lower back, which could lead to a strained back or even a slipped disc.
Works Out the Wrong Muscles
There’s a reason why every movement has a standard. Performing a movement correctly allows you to activate and work the correct muscles. If you use poor form or do the movement incorrectly, you’ll end up working the wrong muscles and possibly even missing the intended muscles altogether.
Here are two common examples you’ll see all the time at the gym:
Many exercisers don’t get low enough on their barbell back squat. Not only does this put painful pressure on the knees, which can cause joint pain, but also the lifter will never fully engage their glutes.
Another example is the lifter who flares out their elbows during a bench press. This shifts the weight to the exerciser’s shoulders, which can cause stress. It also takes the load off their chest and triceps, which is where they want it.
Holds Back Progress
It’s bad enough that performing reps with dodgy form can eventually land you on the DL list, but it could even slow down your fitness progress. Doing a rep correctly is designed to put your body in the ideal position to realize the best performance for that movement.
Let’s go back to our handy barbell back squat as an example. Two key aspects of squatting technique are to keep your chest up and push your knees out during the movement. This gives your hips the space they need to come through, which is incredibly important as the weight gets heavier.
Imagine you load up with a heavy weight but when you squat your chest comes forward and your knees buckle inward. In that position, not only are you putting strain on your lower back instead of the strong muscles of your glutes and quads, but you’ll also never be able to stand up with that weight. You’ll be left wondering why the guy next to you who’s 20 pounds lighter can squat weights you can’t even dream of.
It all comes down to proper form!
How to Get Correct Workout Form
Use Proper Form from the Very Beginning
If you’ve ever tried to change the way you do a certain movement in a sport you’ve been playing for years — like changing your grip on your tennis serve — you know how hard it is to switch things up after you’ve learned them a certain way. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. While it’s difficult to un-train your body when it’s already learned a movement, you can use muscle memory to your advantage if you are just starting out your fitness journey.
Make it a priority to learn good form from the very beginning. When you try a new move, focus on your form first before you even start to consider weight or a rep scheme. By teaching your muscles the right way to perform exercise reps, you’ll be building good habits for life. (Check out this great article from personal trainer Liselle West on “Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Fitness Journey.”)
Get Expert Guidance
How are you supposed to properly perform a deadlift, kettlebell swing, or even a pushup? Looking around the gym for inspiration is not the right answer. Any personal trainer will tell you that the gym is rife with examples of bad form. Speaking of personal trainers, they are a great resource for ideas. Personal trainers are certified professionals whose job is to know safe and accurate form for a wide variety of exercise movements. Consider investing in your fitness future by hiring a personal trainer to show you proper form or help improve your current form. You may only need a few sessions, and the cost will be well worth the value.
In a pinch, you can also request guidance from an experienced workout buddy or even search online for instructional videos from certified exercise professionals.
It’s hard to know if you’re performing a rep correctly in the moment. You can always have your workout buddy watch your reps and give you pointers, but there’s nothing better than recording yourself performing a movement. Set up your phone to catch a couple of movements or ask your gym buddy to channel their inner movie director. Once you’ve captured the recording, watch the video multiple times and even slow it down so you can pinpoint issues. If you’re working with a personal trainer, it’s not a bad idea to show them your videos to get some professional feedback.
Start with Low Weights and Low Reps
One of the easiest ways to fall into the trap of bad form is to try to lift too much weight or to perform high rep workouts before you’re ready. As your muscles fatigue, your body will try to compensate by using other muscles or joints to help. This leads to poor form. (If you ever see someone arching their back as they bench press, this is what’s happening.)
Instead, work with a light weight or perform a small amount of reps slowly. You can work on getting PRs after you’ve perfected your form. For now, you want to ensure that you can move through the movement smoothly and activate the right muscle groups. This is your time to build positive muscle memory.
Increase Weights and Reps Slowly
Only when you feel like you’ve achieved good form at lower weights and smaller rep schemes should you consider increasing the weight. Add weight slowly and only increase your reps by a small margin. Again, focus on good form. This may seem like a slow, arduous process, and you may even backslide in your results a little.
Be patient. Learning correct form is an investment in your fitness future. When you instill good form into your muscle memory, you’ll eventually be able to surpass your old PRs.
Good Reps Make a Good Body
It’s understandable that you want to hit the gym and get a PR each week, but be a smart exerciser. Performing reps with the correct workout form will keep you injury-free, ensure that you work the right muscles, and help you see better progress down the road.
Don’t be afraid to start off with light weights or to invest in a personal trainer. Those with bad form may outlift you in the short term, but when they’re on the sidelines nursing sore joints, you’ll be shattering your old PRs.
Want to get even more great fitness and nutrition advice? Keep reading our informative fitness blog.