Exercise Form Doesn't Matter... At All
This is a hard article to write.
Why? Because it pretty much refutes every training article we've ever posted on the site and writing it may cause people to hurl excrement at me.
But before I don my fire retardant suit and plunge into what's sure to be a Red Adair inferno of an article, let me make one thing clear, perfectly clear.
What I'm about to write is based on experiential evidence. Not ideas, not concepts. I saw it. I lived it.
And I drew my own conclusions.
If you have other explanations for what I experienced, bring it on.
But first a short story, a story that provided the placental wall for my story to latch onto and gestate.
Larry was my training partner for about a year. I was stronger than him on every lift, but Larry never wanted to change the weight. Chalk it up to laziness, ego, or a fetid broth of both.
His form would go to shit and I'd constantly admonish him for it. He'd cheat like hell on every rep, his whole body struggling to move the weight whether it was a bent over row or a curl.
I wouldn't let him get away with it. It was a constant battle.
He made some gains in size and strength, but it wasn't substantial.
We went our separate ways. I started working out alone, but Larry moved to another part of town and started training with Chad, an aspiring heavyweight MMA fighter who outweighed Larry by about 75 pounds.
When I recently saw Larry, he was much bigger – much more muscular than he was when he trained with me – and boasted of using weights he never could have dreamed of when he was training with me.
Of course, given his penchant for cheating his ass off, I had to take poundages he bragged about with a grain of salt. Still, he was much bigger; there was no denying that.
At first I was puzzled. Why had Larry made so much progress under the tutelage of someone else?
It was then that it started to make sense to me. I came up with a theory, but to test it, I went through my memory bank.
The Theory from Experience
Some of you know my background. For those that don't, I was a bodybuilding "journalist" for years. I traveled from major contest to major contest in the early 1990's, reporting on bodybuilding events and celebrities for virtually all the newsstand magazines.
In addition to reporting, I interviewed hundreds of competitors and assisted in photo shoots. I also worked out for years in a gym that was considered a mini Mecca for top-level pro and amateur bodybuilders.
In short, I was exposed to a lot of lifters both in and out of the gym.
And I was almost always horrified by the way they trained. Every big or accomplished lifter I ever saw – man or woman – cheated his ass off on exercises. I'm not talking about just a few cheat sets or cheat reps; I'm talking about every f-in' set and rep.
It was ugly.
Whether they were doing triceps pressdowns on the cable machine, curls, pull-ups or pulldowns, they were downright spastic. Range of motion? Negligible. Tempo? Ha! They pumped out reps as they could, using as much momentum and body English as possible.
And they always used "too much" weight, at least 10 to 20 percent more than what would allow them to use "proper" form.
It's almost as if they were playing one of those imagination games you played when you were a kid, "If I can't shoot ten spit wads into the trashcan in the next minute, the world will end."
"If I can't curl this weight 10 times, Akron, Ohio will be blown up by terrorists."
And they'd use every trick in the book including lunging, lurching, or grimacing to save Akron, without even thinking about form.
As a lifetime stickler for doing exercises the "right" way, I'd smugly turn my nose up at them.
"Hrrumph! Using poor form! How droll! The only reason they make any progress at all is because of the drugs. Now pass me my cup of tea, Thornson!"
That's why Larry was bigger and stronger! Chad didn't give a shit about Larry's form or how much weight he was lifting, or rather, attempting to lift. Larry used more weight than he "should" have, cheated his ass off, and grew.
And that seem to be true of every big or accomplished mo-fo I see in the gym today; they're all, almost to a man, using way-more weight than they should, with horrendous form and ranges of motion that are minuscule.
I should quickly say that I've never trained with any of the T NATION authors, so I can't say if it's true of them. I've watched some of them train others, and I must say that they imposed strict form on their athletes and clients.
I have a feeling, though, that many of these clients revert to form (poor) as soon as they're free from their coaches' critical eyes.
Regardless, all the aforementioned experiential evidence has caused me to come up with a bold new theory. Maybe we were all wrong. Maybe form really doesn't matter, unless you're an athlete in some skill sport and you're trying to improve that skill.
Now I'm not talking about strength training, I'm talking strictly hypertrophy. I'm thinking that it might behoove a lifter, at least for a while, to use 10 or 20 percent more weight than he "should" and cheat his ass off on virtually every set, to lurch, lunge, grunt, put English on, do anything and everything it takes to row, curl, extend, press, or pull that heavy weight up, range of motion be damned.
How could this possibly work?
Almost every coach or knowledgeable trainer, when pressed, will tell you that when it comes down to it, it's virtually impossible to fully isolate a muscle. Train your biceps and only your biceps? Pretty much can't be done; other muscles – from your deltoids down to the muscles in your leg – kick in.
Don't believe me? Then why is it easier to do curls standing than it is sitting?
More Weight, More Muscle Gain
So, if we accept that muscles don't operate in isolation, why allow certain muscles – the target muscles – to determine the poundage? You're invariably using less weight so you can do the exercise with proper form, but if the muscles don't work in isolation anyhow, why not use a weight that gives all the muscles involved in the lift a workout?
This additional stimulus could be causing systemic growth!
And what about range of motion? Perhaps resistance is by far the overriding stimulus in growing muscle! The more weight you use, almost regardless of range of motion, the greater the stimulus!
I'm led to believe this might be a practical approach to almost any lift, with the exception of squats and deadlifts and the like, where using 10 to 20% more than you can do while keeping proper form might cause you to blow out your spine, knee(s), or other equally crucial body parts.
Like I said, it defies almost everything that's been written about bodybuilding since the dawn of protein. But I can't deny my observations. My theory, however, deserves some critical scrutiny.
Care to offer some?