When it comes to long-term joint health and physique improvements, proper lifting technique is essential. Unfortunately, determining whether or not your lifting mechanics are spot-on is never easy. It often entails hiring a competent coach with a keen eye for spotting technical deficiencies.
That’s neither convenient or, sometimes, affordable. However, here are 17 indications you can use to determine whether or not your form is due for an overhaul.
1 – Eyes-closed movements feel impossible and dangerous.
If you’re unable to do a couple of reps using substantial weights on squats, presses, pulls, and deadlifts with your eyes closed, more than likely your proprioceptive, somatosensory feedback, and kinesthetic awareness are greatly lacking.
These physiological attributes are critical not only for maximizing strength, force production, and performance, but also for optimizing body mechanics and minimizing injury. If closing your eyes on your heavy strength exercises causes you to feel disoriented and discombobulated, it’s time to work on your mechanics and improve your form before a serious injury sidelines you.
2 – You always wear thick-soled shoes when training.
Foot and ankle activation is an important component of neuromuscular efficiency and motor control. Without proper foot and ankle mechanics, it’s literally impossible to do any lower body movements like squats, deadlifts, and lunges correctly.
Unfortunately, most lifters stumble into this pitfall because they either wear thick-soled shoes (which act as a training crutch) or they do nothing to strengthen their feet and ankles. If this describes you, then it’s pretty much guaranteed that these factors are contributing to a variety of compensation patterns and movement dysfunction throughout your body.
Work on strengthening your feet and ankles and watch your body mechanics – particularly on lower body movements – improve almost immediately, resulting in reduced joint pain. The kettlebell swap a good drill to try:
3 – Your joints, tendons, and ligaments always hurt.
One of the primary roles of skeletal muscles is to absorb force. If the muscles aren’t functioning properly and the biomechanics are amiss, then they’ll be unable to perform their shock-absorbing capabilities.
Unfortunately, something must absorb these incoming forces. And if the muscles are unable to do this, then joints, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue are called in for the assist.
As a result, inflammation and structural trauma to the surrounding joints and connective tissue sets in. And regardless of what you’ve heard, heavy weight doesn’t cause joint pain, but lousy form certainly does. Learn to clean up your form and watch your joint pain disappear.
4 – You feel the need to foam roll and stretch frequently.
If you have to foam roll, stretch, massage, and perform various forms of soft tissue work on a consistent basis, it’s a strong indication your movement patterns are producing inflammation, tightness, and muscular spasticity.
Contrary to what the fitness industry would have you believe, this is anything but normal and should never be accepted as common practice. Doing these various forms of “therapeutic” modalities is a common case of treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Fix your movement patterns and watch the symptoms fade.
5 – You frequently contract upper respiratory and bacterial infections.
If you seem to contract a common cold or bacterial infection every few months, your muscle function may be a contributing factor. Although there’s limited research to support this claim, 15 years of hands-on training experience with a variety of athletes has shown me a very strong correlation between movement patterns and immune function. The better your mechanics, posture, and muscle function are, the more efficient your body is at providing immune support and fending off bacteria.
6 – You’re often plagued with indigestion that worsens after training.
It’s common for people who strength train consistently to suffer from indigestion. This shouldn’t be considered normal.
Research is clear that exercise should cause up-regulation of digestive enzymes in the gut. Faulty muscle function not only disrupts your body’s enzyme production and chemical environment, but it also contributes to an autonomic nervous system imbalance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions.
In these instances, the sympathetic nervous system operates in constant overdrive, which further disrupts digestion, breathing, immune function, and overall physiological function.
7 – You’re always sore.
Experiencing periodic levels of low-grade soreness is something every lifter gets accustomed to. However, consistent levels of extreme soreness that last several days or longer oftentimes indicates that body mechanics are amiss.
Proper movement mechanics involve heightened levels of motor control and proprioceptive feedback. When we lack these things, we’re more likely to collapse during the eccentric (negative) phases of exercises simply because we’re unable to maintain structural rigidity and intramuscular tightness.
As a result, this overstretches our muscles and musculotendon units, thereby creating excessive micro-trauma and muscle damage. And no, this does not lead to additional muscle growth. In fact, research is now showing that extreme soreness can actually lead to atrophy, not hypertrophy, due to our inability to recover from such inordinate levels of micro-trauma.
8 – You rarely feel or apply the mind-muscle connection.
The mind-muscle connection is real. It’s even been substantiated by scientific studies.
While this doesn’t require every lifter to use inordinately light loads and enter a Zen-like state of mental concentration to hone in on their targeted musculature, it does mandate that a certain level of mind-muscle connection be present during most lifts.
Ironically, the more dialed in your lifting mechanics are, the more likely you are to feel the appropriate muscles working. Proper technique inevitably produces a solid muscle-mind connection with strong neural connections.
If you mindlessly and haphazardly perform exercises with little focus as to what muscles are being worked or rarely feel the targeted muscles being stimulated, chances are your form and body mechanics kinda suck.
9 – You feel the secondary muscles more than the primary muscles.
If your secondary or assistance muscle groups tend to feel a greater burn, pump, soreness, and overall activation than the primary muscle groups do for a particular movement, then it’s time to analyze your form. For instance, it’s not uncommon for lifters to complain that their shoulders feel more engaged than their pecs when doing chest presses.
Similarly, many lifters will complain that their low-back muscles are exponentially more fatigued than their lower body during deadlifts and squats, or that their biceps rather than their upper back muscles feel pummeled after rows and pull-ups.
If this describes you, then don’t fall into the mindset that you have some weird genetic mutation that’s keeping you from honing in on the appropriate muscles. Instead, the solution lies in your form, mechanics, and mind-muscle connection. Lighten your loads and clean up form. Then watch your primary muscles get absolutely thrashed.
10 – You frequently train with lifting accessories.
If you typically use a lifting belt, lifting wraps, straps, weightlifting shoes, or any other training accessory other than lifting chalk, chances are you demonstrate various levels of dysfunction throughout your body.
These tools act as a crutch, offering support, tension, and assistance that your muscles should be providing. When the muscles forfeit these responsibilities even slightly, natural recruitment patterns are altered, leading to various forms of movement deficiencies.
11 – Your warm-ups last as long as your workouts.
There’s a common trend where so-called “advanced trainees” feel as though they’ve earned the right to program arduously long warm-up protocols that literally last as long, if not longer, than their actual workouts.
While many of these lifters are quick to highlight their need for such extended warm-ups as a means of preparing their bodies for heavy loads, it’s times a cover up. In reality, most of these folks are so stiff, tight, and sore, that unless they perform these extended warm-ups they’re likely to induce some form of injury.
In fact, if you watch them lift, you’ll notice that they rely on excessive levels of momentum, shifting, cheating, bouncing, and various movement aberrations to enable them to complete their heaviest sets.
But extended warm-ups are entirely unnecessary if your body mechanics and technique are good. If you need longer than ten minutes to warm up, chances are your form and body mechanics are amiss.
Stop adding more and more stretches, corrective movements, dynamic activation drills, and warm-up drills and start working on your technique. You’ll not only minimize the duration of your workouts, but you’ll save yourself from having to visit your local orthopedic surgeon.
12 – You rush your workouts.
Many lifters enter the gym with a sense of panic and hysteria because they feel they need to cram as many sets, exercises, and training stimuli into their ritualistic training time as possible.
They simply aren’t satisfied if they’re not huffing and puffing throughout their workout or aren’t plastered to the floor at the end of their session, unable to raise their half-dead carcass off the puddles of sweat they’ve so feverishly created.
If this describes you, it’s likely you’ve become overly obsessed with chasing fatigue rather than aiming for an effective training stimulus. While it’s certainly permissible to blow yourself out periodically, consistently doing so will increase the likelihood that your form and mechanics gradually break down over time.
Rather than trying to give yourself exercise-induced cardiopulmonary failure each time you enter the gym, try dialing in your body mechanics and concentrating on stimulating the appropriate musculature.
Not only will your physique improve to a greater extent, but you’ll be surprised at how wiped out you are from using textbook mechanics. Applying proper form to moderately heavy loads is one of the most intense forms of training you’ll ever do.
13 – You aim for quantity over quality.
Any athlete who focuses primarily on cramming more and more total volume of work into a given time block is going to be at greater risk for form deterioration, particularly when it comes to large, complex strength exercises.
That’s because they inevitably become concerned with numbers more so than technique, ultimately causing them to resort to any and all means necessary to get one more rep. With that said, there’s nothing wrong with periodically trying to push the envelope and improve your training density.
However, if you’re going to consistently implement this strategy, you’ll need to add phases into your program that emphasize technique as a means of cleaning up any form aberrations that may have developed during your time-constrained training phases. The best CrossFit athletes already implement such training blocks into their weekly programs.
14 – You’re obsessed with progressive overload.
Progressive overload – like always trying to add more and more weight to the bar – is a critical component of weight training. Without it, it would be nearly impossible to gain significant levels of strength or size. However, rushing progressive overload is a surefire way to develop form issues.
Sadly, this describes many lifters. They feel so obsessed with demonstrating tangible progress at each workout that they’ll go to any and all lengths necessary to grind out that extra rep or additional load, even if it means sacrificing technique.
However “strength progressions” that occur under the auspices of form degradation and bad mechanics is in fact pseudo progression – the lifter doesn’t gain true strength or size, but simply becomes more efficient at cheating his way through the movement.
It’s a false sense of progression. Remember that improving form and technical efficiency is one of the most effective forms of progressive overload there is. Focus on your form and watch how naturally occurring progressive overload becomes.
15 – You rarely perform single arm or single-leg exercises.
Many lifters believe that sticking solely to the basic compound movements is all they need. While going heavy on the big barbell movements and other bilateral exercises is sure to build significant mass and strength, there’s also the risk of developing asymmetries and imbalances.
If you’ve been using predominately barbell movements, chances are you’ve developed various asymmetries and imbalances simply from allowing one side of your body to dominate the movement. Periodically including dumbbell, kettlebell, or single-limb movements into your routines is important for not only exposing these issues, but also for correcting them.
16 – You’ve been using the exact same exercises for years.
Sticking to the same lifts year in and year out can lead to a number of imbalances. While endless amounts of exercise variety is unnecessary, periodically switching up your movements or even adding very small modifications can help uncover various weaknesses, imbalances, asymmetries, and dysfunctional mechanics.
For instance, many lifters unknowingly develop bad habits over the years on basic compound movements. Adding new or unique exercises into your routine forces you to move out of your comfort zone and learn the subtleties of that new exercise.
17 – Your form sucks on video.
Record yourself from multiple angles. Anyone who’s spent at least several years consistently pursuing their lifting goals will have a solid idea of what proper form looks like. In fact, lousy form will be obvious even to an untrained eye.
Look for glaring asymmetries, excessive momentum, postural aberrations (i.e., spinal flexion or extension), or any shifting and wiggling throughout the reps. Examine whether or not your form changes from the beginning to the end of the set. Also, find a video of your favorite trainer, athlete, or strength coach demonstrating proper form and then compare your video to theirs.
Yes, there’ll be subtle biomechanical issues you won’t pick up on, but you’ll most likely be able to address a majority of the larger and more obvious technique issues.