Back when I was studying to become a PT, my Personal Training school was part of a Cambridge based gym and we would regularly visit the gym floor to receive lessons. During one of those lessons a middle aged gent was strutting around the gym floor making quite a song and dance about his training. There was a lot of theatre involved: weights were lifted in a dramatic fashion, form was ‘loose’ (to put it kindly!) and there were quite regular groans and shouts. I think he may have been better placed auditioning for a Broadway show rather than choosing to let his creativity out in the gym, but nonetheless the gym was his stage for today.
In the midst of this theatrical display of a workout he found himself being outdone - there was another gentlemen on the squat rack making his own song and dance about a set of squats. The first middle aged gentlemen was not happy about someone bettering his display and decided to walk over to the adjacent squat rack and throw in some squats into what had otherwise been a workout revolving around a few upper body dumbbell and machine exercises. We all watched with anticipation as to what was about to unfold.
The game of “I can do one more weight than you” ping-pong that followed was very entertaining to watch. Inevitably it ended with the first middle aged gentleman with 140kg on the bar, (given the man’s work-up sets and stature, this was very ambitious!). The whole gym seemed to pause in this moment; the distinct lack of clips pinning his weights down leaving me very worried. The bar was un-racked very shakily, and the set began. 2 reps of knee shearing quarter reps ensued and then all hell broke loose - balance had been lost and weights began to slide. The left side 20kg plate was the first to go. The see-saw motion that followed was mildly terrifying and ultimately resulted in all the weights crashing to the floor - one of which took a b-line for the nearest mirror causing a fairly hefty crack. Perhaps this was all a part of the show, the dramatic climax?… Or perhaps he just let his ego get the better of him on that day.
The importance of proper technique and form is quite well known within the fitness industry - ask the average gym-goer or fitness enthusiast if they think form is important and they will almost definitely say yes. The reasons behind why form is important are also quite easy to understand, with the fundamental reason being to prevent injury. Intuitively, I think we all know that if we see someone attempting to dead-lift with a very rounded back, eventually it will result in an injury. Executing proper technique and form is also the best way to ensure we are getting all the benefits an exercise has to offer. An individual who can squat 100kg through a full range of motion will always be stronger and a better-rounded trainee than an individual who can half-squat 110kg. I’m sure both of these points are quite obvious to most of us.
So why then do we quite regularly see people using ineffective, incorrect or injury-provoking form?
This is a multifaceted problem. There are many reasons why an individual who started training with an understanding of the importance of proper technique and form finds themselves 6 months down the line with form that has deteriorated. I use the word deteriorate because I don't believe all of a sudden one day a trainee walks into the gym and their form goes from being excellent to poor in one training session. It tends to be a progressive problem.
What are the potential reasons behind this deterioration in form, and what techniques can you use to sustain proper technique and form?
I think one of the factors at the forefront of my mind is the environment the trainee chooses to put themselves in. In the case of training, the environment is often a gym. If you go to your gym and you are surrounded by individuals who execute lifts with poor form, you're going to assume this is ok. After all, they don't get hurt, they come back week after week and they are fine - or at least they seem to be. You may not see any issues on the surface, but start talking to some of these individuals and you’ll find that the amount of trainees who live in constant pain but just ‘power-through’ is staggering. This kind of mind-set can have its uses. If you are an elite athlete, pushing through injuries can be a really useful trait. However, if fitness is your hobby, do you really want to be living in pain? I don't think so. Analyse your training environment, look at the individuals you are training alongside and don’t get caught into playing the same game as everyone else. Choose your own path. If your environment is affecting your ability to execute your training to the best of your ability, then change your environment and surround yourself with people who share your interest of training with good technique and longevity in the gym.
Environment can be of particular importance to beginners, as the feeling of being inadequate amongst a sea of seasoned trainees is a problem many face. By putting yourself in an environment where form is often sacrificed for weight, you become surrounded by a large number of individuals heaving around hefty weights, which may not be wise. Don't be intimated - remember, we were all beginners once so don't feel pressurised to increase weight just because of who might be watching.
As I mentioned deterioration doesn't happen overnight, so other than your environment, how can a trainee find themselves with sub-par form when their intentions were always good?
Well, we all want to progress, right? I’m sure we all join the gym to better ourselves in some way, and in order to do that we have to progress in some capacity. The measuring stick we always seem to apply before any other is ‘how much weight is on the bar?’ We have an obsession with being strong, or appearing to be strong. It’s understandable, strength is one of the most idolised traits a human can have. Name me one super-hero that was feeble and weak? Superman, Thor, and even Wonder Woman have all clearly been putting some time in at the super-hero gym! But for us mere mortals, is it wise to be obsessed with strength? Well, YES! Getting stronger is the most beneficial thing you can do for your body, as world record holding powerlifter Mark Bell would say “Strength is never a weakness”.
However, obsessing over how much weight you put on the bar can end up being your Kryptonite. You see, getting stronger is very important. However, the loads you attempt to lift should progress at a slow and steady rate. The progression we see in the early stages of training will not be sustainable. You may be able to progress by 2.5kgs per session in the early stages, but this will inevitably slow. Don't fall into the trap of trying to continue that progress by altering your form. We often see people adding more weight but then shortening the range of motion, or using momentum.
Find other ways to progress, such as using a “double-progression” system where you set reps for a given exercise in a range: e.g. 8-12. Begin with 8 and try to add 1 rep per week until you reach 12 and then increase the weight by a small increment and go back to doing 8 reps, adding 1 rep per week again. This will allow you to spread your progress out further, meaning you can keep improving for longer. This method also makes it far easier to progress whilst executing all your exercises with proper form. Also, look for ways to make your exercises harder, not easier. Instead of taking the easy route and decreasing range of motion, look to make the exercise harder - pause in the bottom position of your squat or bench press and your form will drastically improve.
My last point on how to help sustain proper technique and form throughout your training would be who you ask for advice. One of the smartest things you can do is ask for help when you are trying to improve. Seeking professional advice can be very wise and many people under-estimate the benefit a training professional such as a PT can bring. There are good and bad trainers but simply having a professional analyse what you are doing from their perspective can certainly be of benefit to you and your training efforts. Even simply having a like-minded training partner or filming some of your sets can give you a different perspective and be of great help. Although a word of warning, prepare to be surprised! The first time I filmed a set I was quite horrified by what I saw. Surely, that can’t be me squatting?! The horrible Valgus ankles, knees caving in, upper back rounded. To me, it felt like I was doing it perfectly. Like so many others, piece by piece I had let myself get carried away with chasing weight, my environment and massaging my ego. Thankfully I saw the error of my ways and decided to seek out different environments and people to learn from before I managed to rack up 7 years of bad luck…
Remember, an open-minded and well-rounded trainee understands that the starting point is meaningless; progressing towards your finishing point at the rate that YOU need to is all that matters. Choose your environment and the people in that environment carefully and leave your ego at the door when walking into the gym. Last but not least, take pride in executing every one of your exercises to the best of your ability more than you take pride in how much weight you place on the bar. If you can do these things you will be able to sustain proper technique and form, get the most from your training and have a long and enjoyable training life.