How Strict Should Your Exercise Form Be?
By Lee Hayward
When it comes to weight training there are generally 2 schools of thought when it comes to exercise form. First you have the typical personal trainer "fitness experts" who say you should perform all lifts with light to moderate weights and use very slow and controlled movements. Then you have the power and strength athletes who like to use more explosive movements, looser training form, and lift heavier weights. Which one is right and which one should you use in your training?
Well like a lot of things when it comes to working out there is no right or wrong answer to this question. It all depends on the individual, the training situation, the level of training, and the fitness goals.
Obviously for beginners and people who are new to the gym, they need to learn how to perform the exercises with proper form using light weights. At this stage they just need to take baby steps, get used to the whole working out process, and learn how it feels to work their muscles with weight training.
But gradually as you get stronger and start lifting heavier weights in your workouts with the progressive overload principle. You'll find that your technique will have to change as well. The technique needed to bench press 100 lbs. is totally different then the technique needed to bench press 300+ lbs. As you get stronger different muscles come into play, you need to pay a lot more attention to body positioning, your set up, how you actually contract the muscles to lift, the mental preparation, etc.
If you have the opportunity to watch advanced lifters train you'll notice that more often then not they are NOT going to be using an exaggerated slow and controlled type of exercise form. In fact lifting slow and controlled is not really natural. It doesn't carry over into real world strength and it is not how our muscles are meant to work.
Now I realize what I'm saying here is going to piss some people off. There are those die hard "fitness experts" out there who insist that slow and controlled is the only way and that if you use any speed or momentum in your lifting that you are cheating and that you are going to hurt yourself. But the fact is our bodies are designed for fast and explosive movements.
Real World Strength
Before we move on let's just look at some activities from real world examples. Things such as running, jumping, throwing, etc. all require speed, momentum, and explosiveness. To prove my point, just stand up right now and try to jump as high as you can, but do it in a slow and controlled fashion... you won't even be able to lift off the ground. Have you ever seen a baseball player swing a bat slow and controlled? Heck NO! He'll use momentum, speed, and explosiveness in order to swing the bat and hit the ball as far as possible. How about a boxer trying to throw a punch in a slow and controlled fashion? He certainly won't have much knock out power.
And for a few examples from outside of sports, think of trying to pull start a lawn mower or kick start a dirt bike. You have to do both very fast and explosive or else the engine won't get enough RPM's to turn over and start. Bottom line is that real world stuff requires strength, speed, explosiveness, and even momentum. So why are so many people dead set against training this way in the gym?
Now I know some folks (usually young ego driven guys who have too much testosterone for their own good) like to go overboard and use too much weight with absolutely crappy form. You can see examples of this when barbell curls become reverse grip power cleans. And bench presses become a team effort push / pull exercise as the lifter drops the bar to his chest and his trusty spotter deadlifts it back up.
But there is that grey zone in the middle of the 2 extremes whereby you are training on the edge, pushing it hard, and also keeping relatively good exercise form at the same time. To see some examples of this type of training just go to YouTube and watch some videos from some of the top bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman, Branch Warren, and Johnny Jackson just to name a few.
In these workout videos you'll clearly see that the guys are powering up big weights and they are using a bit of "Body English" to handle such poundages, but the form is still pretty good. Even through they are not lifting "slow and controlled", they are certainly placing maximum workload on the targeted muscle groups. This type of training will stimulate muscle growth in ways that endless slow and controlled reps with the pink dumbbells will never achieve.
In Arnold Schwarzenegger's Encyclopaedia Of Bodybuilding (a must have read for all muscle heads :-) he refers to this as "Power Reps". Joe Weider calls it the "cheating principle". Basically it's just using a bit of umph in your movements in order to handle maximum workloads.
Power Reps For More Muscle & Strength
The use of any weight training technique will depend on the level of the trainee. So to keep it simple I'm going to cover all levels from beginners to advanced and outline how you can incorporate "Power Reps" into your own workouts.
Beginners (less then a year of training)
As I mentioned earlier, beginners should focus on simply learning proper exercise form. The easiest way to do this is to use light to moderate weights and really focus on feeling the muscles flexing and contracting with each rep. The best way to do this, especially at the beginner stage is by using slow and controlled form all the time.
Intermediates (more then a year of training)
As you progress with your training you will most certainly notice the naturally tendency to use more force and momentum to try and complete your reps as the weights get heavier. This is something you want to pay careful attention to. Used in the right way this can help you work the muscles harder. Used in the wrong way it will take stress off the targeted muscles.
My advice here is to start with a weight that allows you to maintain strict control for at least 6-8 reps. Then if you want to use a bit of "Body English" to power out a few more reps then that's fine. This will allow you to perform a few extra reps that you normally wouldn't have otherwise been able to do if you were "too strict" with your form.
Advanced (several years of progressive training)
Truly advanced lifters already know what works best for their body by the time they make it to this level of training. After all that's what it means to be advanced. However for the purpose of this article I'll outline some "Power Rep" guidelines here.
At the advanced stage you'll have developed your own unique exercise groove from years of lifting. You'll instinctively know if a little swing here, or a little leg drive there, will provide more muscle stimulation and deliver the maximum workload to the muscles. You'll also know if you are over doing it and using too much momentum.
Some common things that advanced lifters do to handle maximum poundages include:
A slight bounce off the chest at the bottom to help rebound the weight up and not fully locking out the elbows at the top. This tends to allow for more weight and / or more reps to be lifted and also provide maximum muscle stimulation.
A slight rebound out of the bottom (if doing full squats) will help you get the weight back up. Again sometimes advanced lifters will not fully lock out the knees at the top and keep going, almost like a piston type of up and down motion.
A slight leg drive will help move maximum poundages while actually cushioning the impact from the exercise. This absorbs some of the stress from the spine down through your legs.
Bent Over Rows
Like with the standing press a bit of leg drive will allow for heavier weights and can help move more weight and / or more reps.
A little swing at the start and even a slight back arch at the half way mark can help get past the sticky point in the middle of the exercise.
A little leg drive at the start and a slight swing in the middle will help you get more weight up. Also holding the dumbbells in the front vs. to the sides will help you lift more weight.
Lat Pull Downs
Arching your back will help you move more weight and actually help you fully contract your lats. Trying to keep your back totally flat when doing any pull down or rowing exercise actually prevents you from getting a peak contraction in the back muscles.
These are some common exercises that work well for "Power Reps". However, your own discretion is advised. This isn't a free for all to go out and use crappy form on all your exercises. It's just another tool in your tool box that can help you take your muscular development to a higher level.
If you are going to incorporate "Power Reps" into your training you should save them for the final all out work sets. Start off your warm up sets using perfect controlled form. Then as you work up to your top weight for a particular exercise you can give it that extra push to maximize the weights lifted and the stimulation placed on the muscles.
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