6 Uncomfortable Thoughts About Exercise Form

Perfect Form is a Newbie Myth

Yes, I know, you're a stickler for perfect form. Aren't we all? It's only the other guy who has crappy form!

But are you sure you understand what perfect form actually is? I'm not, and my lifting and coaching career spans 30 years. Let's break down this topic. Warning: You may feel uncomfortable, but hopefully that'll provoke some thought.

To start with, the very word "perfect" implies an unreachable standard. Perfect technique doesn't exist in the real world.

Bottom Line: Avoid the word "perfect." These terms are more useful when describing exercise form: acceptable, competent, safe, efficient, optimal, improved, good.

Paradoxically, optimal technique can sometimes look really ugly, and vice versa. The late, great Konstantins Konstantinovs comes immediately to mind. Arguably the greatest deadlifter of all time, "KK" pulled 939 pounds with no supportive equipment whatsoever, not even a belt.

Here's the kicker, though: KK lifted with a such a pronounced rounded spine, your own lumbar region aches Pavlovian style, in the same way that your mouth waters when you vividly imagine chomping into a fresh lemon.

No credible coach would teach, recommend, or condone KK's lifting technique (including me), yet he could pull your best deadlift max with one hand. And I can find no evidence that he ever suffered from back pain.

No, KK didn't die in the gym. Instead, he purportedly met his demise at age 40 in some type of underworld gang incident.

Bottom Line: Start with the established rules when it comes to proper technique, but don't be afraid to improvise if textbook form causes pain. And don't be too quick to criticize other lifters (especially if they're successful) if and when their technique doesn't meet your preconceived notions.

Sorry, but good technique doesn't eliminate the possibility of injury, nor does bad technique guarantee injury.

Can you actually define what "injury" means? The best definition comes from T Nation contributor Dr. Stuart McGill:

"Injury occurs when external forces exceed the tissue's ability to withstand them."

So even if you could define and use "perfect" technique, you'll be injured if you put too much weight on the bar or simply exert more force against a load than your tissues can tolerate. This gives rise to at least three under-appreciated truths:

  1. If you progress your training gradually enough for your tissues to successfully adapt to them, you'll avoid most common injuries – even if your form truly sucks.
  2. Adequate training variation reduces the likelihood of overloading any given tissue too frequently for successful adaptation to occur.
  3. If you do suffer an injury, simply resting the injured tissue(s) should be the cornerstone of your rehab strategy.

Anecdotal evidence confirms this hypothesis: We all know lifters who remain relatively injury-free, despite using super-sketchy technique, and we've also seen lifters with beautiful technique suffer serious injuries.

Bottom Line: While good technique won't guarantee your safety, it'll nevertheless stack the odds in your favor.

Although there are certainly well-established principles that dictate proper technique (for example, during any type of pressing, your hands should always remain directly above your shoulders), optimal technique varies considerably from individual to individual based on their unique anatomy, injury history, and so on.

Here's one example: During the conventional deadlift, conventional wisdom dictates that at the start, your hips should be higher than your knees. And while I agree with this recommendation, there's considerable wiggle-room in terms of exactly how high your hips should be at the start of the pull.

A tall lifter with long femurs, "iffy" knees, and a strong, healthy low back might do best with a higher hip position than the textbooks would suggest. On the other hand, a lifter with more advantageous levers, healthy knees, strong quads, and/or lumbar issues would be better served starting with relatively lower hips.

In another example, many old-school, grizzled lifters will roll their eyes in utter contempt if you don't squat deep enough to leave a stain on the carpet. However, deep squatting isn't always compatible with different people's leverages, past injuries, or circumstances.

Certain types of bony hip structures don't permit deep squats without significant lumbar flexion, which exposes the lumbar spine to serious injury risk. Similarly, short/tight Achilles tendons or ankles would require considerable forward lean during a deep squat, which may also expose the low back to unnecessary risk.

Finally, some people's unique characteristics preclude safe performance of certain exercises, even if perfect form could be identified and implemented. As one example of this, lifters with "Type III" acromions or who have significant thoracic kyphosis will likely find overhead pressing dangerous at best. More info on that here: In Defense of Overhead Lifting.

Bottom Line: Good form for me might be (and likely is) somewhat different than it is for you.

Bench Press

The most common training goals are strength acquisition and development of muscle mass, so I'll use those goals to illustrate the following point:

  • When the goal is to get stronger, find the easiest way to move the weight.
  • When the goal is to build muscle, find the hardest way.

While this sentiment isn't universally true, it's a pretty good rule of thumb. Let's look at the bench press: if your goal is to win powerlifting competitions, you'd use somewhat tucked elbows, a pronounced spinal arch, whatever your strongest grip spacing happens to be, and whatever eccentric (lowering) speed results in the easiest concentric force output.

You'd also be sure to conspicuously lock your elbows at the finish to persuade the judges that you deserve three white lights for your hard-earned attempt.

If you're benching for increased pectoral mass, however, the rules change. You'd likely use a wider than strongest grip spacing, little to no arch, a slower eccentric stroke, and you'd de-emphasize or even eliminate elbow lockout to keep tension on your pecs.

Bottom Line: Similar technique modifications exist for most common exercises, but the overarching point remains: Good form is determined, at least in part, by your training goals.

One of the most common things I hear from prospective clients is, "I'm a perfectionist when it comes to good form," only to later learn that what they mean by good form is slow movement speed.

There are at least a few problems with this common misconception:

First, proper execution involves both posture and tempo. These are distinctly separate characteristics. It's entirely possible to use terrible form and slow speed, and/or vice versa – one does not equate to the other.

Second, slow speed sometimes reduces efficiency, increases risk, or both. For example, if the final pull of a power clean is slow, you'll either miss the lift, get hurt, or both. Similarly, lowering a very heavy deadlift conspicuously slow can be dangerous, and best case, it will lengthen the time it takes you to recover from the effort.

Finally, if strength is the training goal, lowering a weight too slowly will prevent successful completion of the lift.

Bottom Line: While there can be distinct benefits to slow lifting tempos (development of better control, enhanced motor learning, and longer exposure to adaptive tension), it's useful to distinguish between posture and speed when developing your own standards for good technique.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook