Coaches say, "When the rep breaks down and is no longer technically perfect, the set is over." I say hogwash. Keep lifting. Here's why.
From research, we know the interactions between exercise form and force, stress, and muscle activation, but form is still subjective and defined by who's performing an exercise and who's teaching it.
Push-ups, for example, can differ widely in form – arms at 90, 45, or 0 degrees of abduction – but none are technically wrong. They're different in terms of muscle recruitment and joint stresses, and strength will still be gained with any variation if progressive overload continues.
So, if you agree that slight deviations of exercise form still serve a purpose and stimulate the body, then you're tacitly agreeing that form-degraded exercises still provide a benefit.
While a push-up with hips sagging is imperfect and stressful on the spine, it's still working the pecs, triceps, and core, right? While less than ideal, the exercise still works.
Here's my point: if there's a continuum representing great form at one end and poor form at the other, both of which will still stimulate some degree of muscular activity, where do we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable? And who gets to decide?
- Using weights that are too heavy
- Using movements that a person is incapable of performing
- Ignoring or neglecting to coach amid bad form
- Consistently pushing past technical failure
1. Many exercises, when form degrades, simply look like other exercises.
If we agree that an exercise is safe and/or beneficial, it's similar counterpart must also be safe. To refute the effectiveness of the second would be illogical. A great example is the Zercher squat.
The Zercher squat requires the barbell to be held in the crooks of the elbows. It produces greater forward lean, thus increasing core and posterior chain recruitment.
The Zercher squat, performed correctly, looks strikingly similar to a fatigued front squat. Both have a slight forward lean while maintaining a neutral or arched lumbar spine. So, if one agrees that Zercher squats, performed properly, are safe, must not he also agree that front squats with degraded form are also safe?
2. Stabilizing muscles get worked harder when they're thrust into a more prominent role.
When the prime movers of an exercise begin to give out and tire, other muscles and tissues get worked harder. This can be a very bad thing (i.e. lower back ligaments supporting a heavy squat) or a somewhat good thing, such as when the upper back gets put through a slightly larger range of motion when the lifter begins to fold forward during a heavy squat.
Although this example of increased thoracic range of motion is a sign of upper back weakness, it also serves to put more force on the weak link. Again, this can be crippling if too high a dose, or a positive stimulus in a small one.
3. Failure is the best teacher.
Say you read a great article talking about the bench press. It discusses what separates good benchers from poor benchers, the technique maxims that ensure good form and success, and the most common reasons lifters fail on a PR bench press attempt, complete with fixes for each reason.
After reading such an article, any cerebral lifter will have increased awareness of his shortcomings on future missed reps.
Then, armed with higher training awareness, he'd be more apt to diagnose his future struggles and missed reps. But if he never pushes himself to the point of technical failure, and perhaps slightly beyond, he won't have anything to diagnose – the knowledge is useless and irrelevant.
There's value in feeling imperfections in a set because the resistance is too much to maintain perfection, but not enough to injure the lifter or end the set.
Most, if not all, experienced lifters perform sets at the end of which some aspect of form breaks down. Smart lifters just ensure that it doesn't happen early in the set or too often in the training cycle, and form a game plan to go forward with the intent to improve.
4. Many cues can't be felt until weight challenges perfection.
Form degradation provides the only mechanism to figure out which cues actually work, because many of them are irrelevant at light weights.
Give a squatter a light weight and there may be zero conscious effort required for him to maintain a tight arch, a flat foot, or knees out. But load a near-maximal weight on him, and suddenly he can't lift the weight performing any of those three cues.
This is the point when cues become important, and the ones that actually work separate out from those that don't.
Does "spread the floor" work to elicit the desired behavior for a given lifter? We may not be able to tell until he's pushed to his limit. If it doesn't then we need to search for more effective cues, and thus the degradation of form provides the mechanism for more precise teaching and cueing in the future.
5. Much of form degradation can be controlled, if you're mentally tough enough.
There's tremendous value in feeling a weight that pulls you out of perfect form. When the deviation from perfect is small, athleticism and body control are often able to correct it. In doing this, body awareness increases.
In this way, pushing through form degradation teaches the lifter to focus more intently and summon all of his mental and physical dexterity to get back to proper form.
At lighter weights, front squats won't pull a lifter forward too much. But when that bar gets really heavy, conscious control and positive self-talk – "Let's go! Body-tension!" "Sit back, sit back, sit back!" – often makes the difference.
Many of us are too quick to judge only the physical, declaring fatigue the reason for form degradation when a sharper focus and better mental self-cueing could often do the job.
Have you ever missed a rep and reminded yourself that you shouldn't be missing that weight? If you've got some balls and a good mental game, you probably repeated that set, nailed it, then added some weight and nailed that set, too. Focus, athleticism, and mental toughness are only taught when loads get heavy.
6. The set has no value when the form breaks down? Why? Did you die?
I was once criticized by someone who didn't like the form degradation one of my athletes exhibited on a very long set of push-ups, something we do only occasionally. "What's the value?" he asked. Well...
- The pecs are screaming.
- The core is shaking.
- The triceps are quivering.
- The game face is on.
Is that not value?
The muscles we're targeting are getting worked, even while form becomes compromised. Two hundred years of military bootcamp training indicates that max-effort push-up sets aren't the greatest threat to physical well-being.
If anything, I'd say the fiftieth rep of that set was more valuable than any previous rep, both physically and mentally, even though it had the most degradation. If muscles respond to tension and bloodflow, wouldn't the fiftieth rep have the greatest tension and bloodflow? If not, why bother performing drop-sets, forced reps, or other common bodybuilding techniques?
I've begun reading a book by a coach who says that when neutral spine is lost, "You potentially shut down force production."
Shut down? I squat with an arch, and I'm pretty sure that if force production "shuts down," that weight would have sent me crashing to the floor. The fact that I rise up from the hole reminds me that my force tap is flowing.
I'm also sure that I won't all of a sudden jump to 600 pounds from my meager 425-pound squat if I adopt his view of perfection – a neutral spine.
Not surprisingly, there's no references in the book to back the claim. Such strong claims against imperfect exercise form would be difficult to support in research or practice.
If we can agree that slight form degradation in a certain exercise won't be enough to significantly increase injury risk, and the muscles are obviously working harder than on the first rep, it's easy to see the value of pushing to and through some degree of compromised form from both a mental and physical standpoint.
However, that doesn't mean we stop coaching. It simply means that slight degradation may be tolerable and even beneficial under the right circumstances.
Pushing a few extra reps out may be the best thing you can do for your lifting prowess.