A couple of years ago I started trying to learn classical guitar. A few of my friends were getting ready to take their RCM exams on the instrument, and after speaking with them, hearing them play, and listening to some of the great classical guitarists, I became interested in giving it a try.
I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and my playing is fine, but when I brought my modest little nylon string home I knew I was embarking on a completely different way of approaching the instrument; what I wasn’t prepared for was just how bad I was going to sound.
What was the difference? The strings are a different material, and the neck is a bit wider, but the main thing was that I now had to pay proper attention to how I held the instrument, how I plucked the strings, where my feet were, and more. My old technique, such as it was, had to be thrown out the window if I wanted to play this style of music on this style of guitar.
This ought to have been obvious to me, and not just because of my experience with guitars. A large amount of my time as a fitness professional is spent talking to people about their form, showing them that there’s a better, safer, or more effective way to move, in the same way that there’s a better and safer way to play a musical instrument. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently, and now you get to think about it with me.
The topic of what constitutes proper form can be a contentious one, with debates about specific movements or techniques, but in this post I wanted to take a broader look at the idea of “form.” We’ll examine what good form generally means and how we can ensure we’re using it, but first let’s talk about why we need to talk about this at all.
Why Form Matters
The most important reason to use proper form is that it reduces your risk of injury. We exercise to get stronger, but we can’t exercise if we’re hurt. If we hurt ourselves while exercising, we’re creating an avoidable setback that prevents us from reaching our goals.
The word “setback” doesn’t really do justice to the type of injury I’m talking about. Having to rehab something like a thrown-out back or a torn rotator cuff can be a long and painful process, and may not only mean weeks or months of rest for the injured area, but may also mean a reduction in any high-impact exercise while it heals. Over-use injuries can be devastating as well, and can be even more frustrating because they might never have occurred if proper form/programming had been used. Not all injuries are preventable, but we ought to do what we can to prevent the ones that are.
Many of us have busy schedules and find it difficult to make time to exercise, so another great reason to perfect your form is that you owe it to yourself to get the most out of your workouts. The exercises you do aren’t done by accident. They’ve been selected, either by you, your trainer, or whoever made the video you’re watching, because they will positively impact your goals. Do them properly to build real strength and endurance; life is too short to do bad squats.
How to Get it Right
“I bet this is the part where he tells me to spend money on a personal trainer...”
Well, maybe. A good personal trainer knows you, knows your body, knows what you’re trying to accomplish, and knows how to give you corrections in a clear and effective way. They’ll be focused on your form, your tempo, which weights you’re using, and how the workout has been programmed, giving you the best chance of success.
Hiring a trainer is not the only way, of course. Even if you have one you might not be with them every time you exercise, so learning the basics about good form & what it feels like is a really good idea (more on that in a moment).
Checking someone else’s form is a good way to learn more about your own, so doing form-checks with your workout buddy can be a helpful and educational activity. If you’re really serious about getting things right you can have them take photos/video so you can see for yourself (as long as this is permitted by your gym).
If you aren’t working out with a friend, don’t hesitate ask one of the other members for a hand. It’s as simple as saying “hey, do you mind telling me if I’m rounding my back at the bottom of my Deadlift?” You’ll find that most folks will be happy to help you out.
Don’t worry if there’s nobody around to help you, because I’ve discovered a fitness secret that not everyone knows: that big mirror in the gym isn’t just for selfies! You can also use it to see if your shoulders are down, if your hips are square, if your core is engaged, etc. The mirror isn’t perfect, since some angles will be obscured or difficult to see, but it’s one more tool at your disposal. This may seem obvious, but enough people use the mirror AND use bad form, so I feel like it bears mentioning.
With all the different types of exercise and all of the different movements your body can make, the idea of one blog post covering everything might seem a little far-fetched, but there are a few key points you can keep in mind no matter what you’re doing:
Alignment – This is the basis for all good form. One could almost use the terms interchangeably, especially with exercises like Plank where there is no movement. If your wrists are directly under your shoulders, and your shoulders, hips, and ankles are in a straight line, your form is perfect: you are in proper alignment!
This concept applies to all exercises, though perhaps not as simply as in Plank. With a complex movement like a Deadlift, the alignment of each joint and limb needs to be considered, not to mention that of your spine.
As if that wasn’t enough, we must also pay attention to the alignment of the equipment we’re using. In an Inclined Press, is the bench supporting you at the correct angle? Are you moving the weight straight up in direct opposition to the force of gravity pulling straight down?
Seeing how proper alignment looks and connecting with how it feels is an important and often overlooked practise. What does it feel like to have your arms at a 90o angle to your torso? Do you bring them up too high at first? Do your shoulders hunch up? Spend some time in front of the mirror, maybe even when you aren’t working out, to develop a good sense of what it feels like to be aligned correctly.
Range Of Motion (ROM) – This refers to the movement of our joints: the distance and direction a joint can move between the flexed position and the extended position. We can try to increase Range Of Motion through stretching or strengthening muscles, but we also must work within a certain ROM if we want to ensure proper form.
One example of this is The Good Ol’ Fashioned Pushup. It is possible to do a Pushup with your elbows splayed out at a 90o angle to your body, but this can cause damage to your shoulders. Similarly, when doing a Squat it is possible (and common) for the knees to come forward, past the toes. In order to prevent knee pain and target the muscles we’re trying to strengthen, the ROM needs to be controlled.
ROM also comes into play when flexibility takes over for strength. If, when doing a Pushup, your shoulder blades come together as you lower yourself to the floor, you’re using the mobility of your joints rather than the strength of your muscles. Maintaining control over this will result in better, safer, more effective work.
Breathing – I mean, you need oxygen to live, right? I know I do.
Generally, holding your breath as you exercise is a no-no, while exhaling as you move the weight on the contraction (the hardest part of the movement) seems to work best. If you find yourself unable to breathe properly because you’re straining to lift/push/pull the thing you’re moving, that may be an indication that the weight is too heavy, which is a common cause of bad form. Your ego has no place here: reduce the weight or the number of reps until you’ve built up the strength to do it properly.
Of course proper breathing doesn’t just apply to resistance training. Whether you run, swim, cycle, climb, train in martial arts, etc, find out if there is optimal way to breathe and work to incorporate that into your training. I’ll never get Olympic results in any sport, but there is nothing holding me back from using the same breathing technique as a top athlete.
“The ‘right’ way doesn’t feel natural to me.” Fair enough. Lots of things don’t feel natural when you first do them. Driving a car, playing a musical instrument, even walking; these all take time and practice before they feel effortless. You’re learning a skill using muscles you may not have used before, so it’s only, well, natural that you need time and practice to feel natural.
“This is just how I’ve always done it.” Cool, so you’ve always done it the wrong way, let’s fix it. Seriously, a bad habit doesn’t eventually become a good habit, and just because you haven’t injured yourself doesn’t mean you won’t.
“But I’m tall/short/thin/not thin/long-legged/top-heavy/whatever. This doesn’t apply to me.” It really does apply to you. Your body type or body composition may change what a movement looks like, and you may need to modify or avoid certain exercises, but the fundamentals of good form apply to absolutely everyone.
Some Final Thoughts
There is a lot of information out there about form and technique, and not only have I just scratched the surface, but I’ve spoken in very broad terms. Hopefully this will serve as a starting point for you, and you’ll take a closer look at what proper form means in the workouts you do. “If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing right,” so find out if there’s something you need to work on and get to it.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m slightly less abysmal at classical guitar than I was when I first picked it up. At the very least I’m holding the poor thing properly now; the rest is going to take some practice.
Ryan Casselman is a personal trainer, musician, and the founder of Real Trainers. Stay tuned as he finds out what he's going to write about each week or so!