In the Hierarchy of Movement, Form is King
By Justin Cronk, DC
Have you ever caught yourself sacrificing form just so you can add a few extra pounds to the barbell? Maybe you’re gunning for a PR because your one rep max is SO important (but is it really? that’s a different article…). Or maybe you’re chasing that Rx because despite only being written in dry-erase marker, it feels like your coach spent 40 days on Mount Sinai and came back with a WOD etched in stone. Or maybe it’s just your ego. Because after all, you still remember the days when you could deadlift 500 pounds.
Plus heck, we’ve all done it. We’ve all sacrificed form in order to move a few extra pounds of iron around, myself included. Even the legend Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, despite being an advocate of near flawless form, said in his book, The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,
“…cheat just enough so you can continue the set…by cheating, you have forced [your muscles] to do more work than they could have done without help from the other muscles, so you have to put more stress on them, not less.”
It’s important to bear in mind, Arnold is talking about the good kind of stress, he’s talking about the mechanical stress that you choose to put on your muscles. The sort of stress that builds them up, not tear them down. Muscles are meant to be developed over time, not in one singular and devastatingly difficult workout.
But here’s the thing, that is Arnold the Terminator/Predator/Governor/Conan the Barbarian/Mr. Olympia x7… and this is you. I mean no offense, but you have to first master a movement before you can possibly figure out how to cheat without risking injury. Plus, Arnold’s cheat reps were NOTHING compared to some of the things I see on a [fairly] regular basis. If Arnold is the Kindergarten Cop of the gym, then we are still watching Baby Einstein videos on YouTube and getting excited when we see a new combination of colors. Which means that sadly, most of us don’t know how to (safely) push ourselves to our limits like Arnold and that’s when you wind up having to see someone like me.
Much of the time (especially when working out in larger groups) you might not have even realized that your form was bad in the first place. I see this a LOT. So many people have literally no concept of how their bodies are moving during a workout. This is where I suggest you take the time to practice movements in front of the mirror. Take pictures/videos/gifs/whatever – it’s accountability. YOU have to be accountable for your own movements. If you are having any pain at all, you should really dig in and do some self-analysis. You may be surprised at what you see.
When I first started out in practice I remember demonstrating the plank a LOT (too much actually). I did them all the time since back then I was still learning and I didn’t have some massive arsenal of [other] exercises to choose from. A few months into practice, I was working out by myself in an empty yoga studio with a few walls lined with mirrors. I was doing planks for time when I glanced over to my right only to see myself doing the worlds worst looking plank. I literally had no clue they were so bad. They felt perfect to me. Lesson learned.
Maybe people literally have no clue whatsoever that their back is rounding during a deadlift. They don’t really worry too much that their knees buckle during a squat. I have had a few people tell me (after I pointed it out) – “yeah, they always do that”, or, “yup, that’s normal”, or something to that effect. They’ve already accepted it as a normal variant of their own bodies. Wholly accepted. And for some odd reason, they often do not correlate whatever movement dysfunction they have with the pain they are experiencing.
Pop Quiz: Why didn’t your coach address your form?
a) 1-on-1 form critique is hard to do and an unrealistic expectation in a group fitness setting
b) they may be more concerned about quantity over quality
c) they don’t have enough training or experience to know how to properly correct you
d) all of the above.
e) this is a rhetorical question
The correct answer is E.
But here’s the thing. If your lifting technique disintegrated in order to finish a set or complete a particular workout, and you were aware of it… then you took a shortcut and you don’t deserve the numbers you got. Yeah sure, you knocked a few seconds off your previous time, or you added a few extra pounds to the bar, but you turned your spine into one big “C” shape during a deadlift and knocked your knees together while gutting out a heavy squat. So sadly, your numbers aren’t really acceptable because you overloaded your body and risked too much to get there.
When my good friend Addison Bain went to regionals in the CrossFit games, I asked him how he felt about it shortly before he headed out. Instead of talking about how much weight he was going to lift; or reps he was going to do – he said he was going to give his best and make sure that he didn’t get injured. And that is exactly what he did. In fact, he returned that following week already fully recovered from the competition. Like nothing happened. Believe me when I tell you that THAT is rare.
Admittedly, our bodies are resilient and strong. Our joints, tendons, muscles, ligaments, and other tissues can withstand an incredible amount of force before any damage occurs. Take another look at the gif of the guy above deadlifting. He’s young and healthy and strong. If he has above average genetics, he might even get away with this for several years before he notices or feels any obvious signs of damage. Maybe he’s a super freak and will never have a big injury. The variability from human to human is incredible. Better to err on the side of caution if you ask me.
One more request. Take a look at the squat gif below. If you allow your knees to go valgus (buckle inward) as she does (she is obviously faking it, her form is pretty much PERFECT besides the blatant knee thing), you put a significant amount of stress on the knee joint and ligaments which can cause significant damage over time. In this particular gif, the valgus movement of her right knee is subtle(ish). If her coach saw her doing this during a workout they may not even say anything. Yet despite the subtlety of it, it can result in some serious damage.
That valgus movement fault above can ALSO take torque and control away from the hips and glutes (where it belongs) and result in you shifting your weight forward onto the balls of your feet versus the heals, which places a lot more stress on your knees and quads while also significantly increasing shear forces in your lumbar spine. You’ll hear that pattern often described as “quad dominance”. To add insult to injury, this often causes you to excessively round your low back when lifting which can lead to increased occurrences of disk injuries or degenerative disease.
The sad truth is that if you sacrifice form in order to do more work in the gym, it’s only a matter of time before you are going to get injured. One fundamental question to ask yourself, is this: Do the numbers really even matter?
Try to remember why you started training in the first place. For most of us, that is simple – we want to feel good, have more energy, and look better naked (that can’t just be me). But don’t forget the single most important reason why we work out. Because we want to live a healthy, full, active life. Respect your body. Respect its limitations. If you want longevity in regards to strength training, then you HAVE to put form above all else. It’s a form of self-love.