Working out is all about putting your body under load, whether that means pedaling away on a bike, firing up those abs with a set of sit-ups, or hefting a barbell on your back for a round of heavy back squats. When you exercise with the correct workout technique, your body will reward your efforts by getting stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier. However, if you don’t use the proper workout technique, every rep or minute of exercise will lead you toward injury, plateaued results, and eventual burnout.
Ask any personal trainer, and they’ll tell you that the gym is filled with people performing exercises incorrectly. In fact, you’ve probably seen one of the numerous “gym fail” memes on social media. Don’t let that be you! Here are the three primary reasons good workout technique is critical for your fitness success and longevity:
1. Proper Workout Technique Helps You Avoid Injury
The biggest risk of using poor workout technique is that you are just asking for an injury. It may not happen on the first bad rep or even the hundredth bad rep, but eventually, your body will break down. Think of your body as a single kinetic chain: Every part is connected to the rest. When you perform an exercise incorrectly, the loading falls on the wrong place, throwing your body out of alignment. It will try to compensate, but this can eventually lead to a pull, tear, strain, or worse. Eventually, the weakest link of the chain in your body will break.
One of the most dangerous examples of poor form can happen on the deadlift. Too often, an exerciser will load too much weight on the bar. Instead of setting their back and pulling the bar up with their glutes and hamstrings, they lift with their back. If you watch a bad deadlift, you’ll notice severe rounding of the lifter’s back. If they’re lucky, a sore lower back is the only result of a bad lift. In a worst-case scenario, rounding your back on a deadlift could cause a herniated disc that requires surgery and months of recovery.
Likewise, you can hurt your neck of the GHD machine, injure your pecs with poor bench press form, or wear down your knees with bad running technique. Injuries can lurk almost anywhere, from strength training to cardio and even mobility training if you don’t use proper form.
2. The Right Workout Technique Hits the Right Muscles
Using incorrect form shifts the load of an exercise, which often means unintended muscles pick up the slack. Let’s go back to the example of the deadlift. A proper deadlift uses the massive and powerful muscles of your glutes and hamstrings with support from your lower back and a little help from your shoulders to stabilize the weight at the top of the movement. When you round your back, your poor lower back ends up pulling all that heavy weight off the floor by itself.
Not only do you risk injury, but your glutes and quads will be left wondering when they’re going to get a workout. You may also notice that the much smaller person next to you can somehow magically lift far more than your deadlift PR (personal record).
Proper form allows you to utilize the correct muscles. You’ll notice that each rep is easier and cleaner. You’ll also feel that good kind of soreness after a tough workout, rather than the throbbing pain of strained muscles and inflamed joints.
3. Good Form Improves Your Results
The whole reason you go to the gym in the first place and put yourself through grueling workouts is to improve your fitness. Newsflash, bad workout technique could be stealing all of your well-deserved gains! When you perform an exercise incorrectly, you can’t get the full benefit of the movement. You may not be moving through the complete exercise, targeting the right muscles, or able to use all the power your body possesses.
For example, many exercisers love throwing big plates on a barbell for back squats, but then they fail to squat below parallel (where your hips sit lower than your knees). Shallow back squats don’t engage the glutes, meaning all the pressure stays in the quads. That may make your quads nice and strong, but you won’t be enjoying any buns of steel. Also, counterintuitively, shallow squats put a lot of unnecessary pressure on your knees, which can eventually lead to injury.
Using the right workout technique means you can accomplish more with less work at the gym, hit your goals quicker, and see the full results of all your hard work.
How to Improve Your Workout Technique
Now that you know all the benefits of using proper workout technique, how do you actually improve your existing technique? Don’t just look around the gym and do what everyone else is doing. They may be using great form or have no idea what they’re doing. Even your friend who has been going to the gym “forever” may have some bad form habits that he or she doesn’t even realize.
Instead, here’s what you need to do to make sure your workout technique is on point every time:
Ask a trained professional
If you are trying a movement for the first time or are worried that you aren’t performing an exercise correctly, ask a professional trainer at your gym to watch your technique. They don’t want you to hurt yourself, so they should be glad to give you a few pointers. (Just don’t abuse their goodwill by expecting them to babysit you for your entire workout.) Many gyms offer a complimentary personal training session to new members. If you haven’t already used yours, take advantage of that time to work one-on-one with an experienced trainer.
Slow down and lighten up
Good technique requires practice so that you can train your body to feel the “right” way of doing a movement. When performing an exercise, move through it slowly, focusing on your technique every step of the way. Keep the weights low or don’t use weights at all. You can speed up and pile on the weights after you have good form down.
Working on form can feel frustrating when you want to power through your workout and tackle your fitness goals. Trust us, this extra time in the beginning is well worth your patience. Dialing in your workout technique will set you up for faster results and help you stay injury-free at the gym.
Watching yourself in the mirror is a good way to check your exercise technique, but nothing beats recording yourself. Even if you think you’re doing a movement perfectly, the video often says otherwise. Ask your friend or a gym attendant to record you for a couple of reps on your smartphone. Don’t be afraid to use the slow-motion feature and the zoom to check even the smallest aspects of the movement. If you aren’t sure how to assess your video, ask a personal trainer if they wouldn’t mind reviewing it and providing pointers.
We recommend recording yourself every few months just to check in on your form. Even professional athletes do this. There’s almost always some way to make your movements cleaner and better.
Work with a personal trainer
If you need more than just the occasional pointer on your workout technique, it’s often worth the investment to hire a personal trainer. Make sure to explain to the trainer that you want to focus on movement technique, and they should be able to guide you through the foundational movements of fitness. A good trainer will show you each movement and break down its components. They will teach you how to tighten your core, when to breathe, and give you cues through the movement. Don’t be surprised if they take out their phone and record your movements so they can show you what you’re doing right and where you can improve. If you want to improve your running, swimming, or weightlifting technique, try to find a trainer that specializes in those disciplines.
While a trainer will cost you some extra dough, you’re paying for a foundation of knowledge that will let you excel as you pursue your fitness goals. We think that’s money well spent!
Good workout technique is at the base of every fitness success. The next time you hit the gym, set aside your goals for big new PRs. Lower your weights, slow down your movements, and focus on good technique. Your body will thank you!