Poor Form

This article was first published on 14 March 2004

or What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

Aaaah! Sometimes you just want to scream or else you want to laugh. The form, or the lack thereof, displayed by weight trainers at the local gym is a constant source of amusement and horror to those of us who think we know better. Many an article — including one by resident lifter Ian Hales — has been written by those who just could not contain their frustration at what they see in the gym, day after day. Here I follow in that noble tradition.

When I’m training I like to go quietly about my own business. Never mind the personal trainers doing forced reps with some poor sod who looks like he, for it usually is a he, has never lifted more than a stubby or two at the local bar. Never mind the atrocious form that some of these trainers display themselves. I mean, who knows, perhaps they’re just using the latest technique devised by Jerry Telle of Tellekinetics™ fame.


Arnie Cheats
Who’s going to tell this guy he’s doing it all wrong?
The type of bad form that really bothers me the most is the ‘horror’ type that sets beginners up for injury. The other day I noticed an obvious newbie using the t-bar row. Now I’m guessing he was trying to work his lats but his back could have been no more rounded if he really, really tried. It certainly looked amusing but as a long-term sufferer of a stuffed low back I just had to say something. Now whenever you do this you’re taking a risk and this is the reason I normally don’t butt in. Are they going to tell you to piss off and mind your own business or worse still explain that what they’re doing is the latest techniques for building their semi spinalis dorsi and you don’t know squat?

What normally happens is exactly what happened in this case. The victim of your concern listens and watches patiently while you explain or demonstrate what you think is the correct form. Then they walk off to some area of the gym where you can’t see them to continue their workout. You are then left wondering, are they embarrassed, did they take anything in or are they just trying to put as much distance as they can between themselves and the maniac who won’t mind his own beeswax?

This is why I never approach people performing the ‘amusing’ type of bad form (and rarely approach newbies using ‘horror type bad form). I mean nobody’s going to get hurt are they? Last night at the gym I noticed a guy — most of the girls there were mainly on form, I assume, because they’d picked a weight they could handle — doing what could have been either dumbbell squats or side lateral raises. He had a pair of meaty looking dumbbells in his hands and to move these no more than six inches from his side he had to do a bit of a half squat every rep. His whole performance looked a little like one of those mating dances you see on the Discovery Channel or a bird trying to take off while trapped in a net. This bird wasn’t going anywhere.

The most recent form of mindless lifting technique that I’ve noticed are ‘drop reps’. That’s right drop reps, not drop sets. In the last week or so I’ve noticed two different girls doing this during their bench press, one while her boyfriend looked on. What we’ve got here is concentric only training, for the eccentric portion of the exercise the weight just drops. Remember the concentric part of a lift is where you have to work to move the weight and the eccentric part of a lift is where the weight will move of its own accord if you let it. Perhaps ‘drop reps’ are the latest way for women to train without building muscle! But, ladies (and gentlemen!), it’s the eccentric part of the lift that builds muscle and that believe it or not is what ‘toning’ is all about. During the eccentric portion of an exercise the speed can vary but you should be in control. Feel the muscle control the velocity of the movement. Don’t let gravity do all the work.

So good form is something we should all be thinking about. And thinking is as good a place as any to start. When you’re lifting think about what you’re doing! Try to feel the muscles work, imagine them doing the work and think about whether what you’re doing feels right. And don’t think that machines obviate the need to think about your form. If you want to see some serious strain put on the lower back walk on over to the leg press machine. Sooner rather than later you’ll see someone trying to press the sled back up with rounded back and their butt well off the back pad. You can almost see those poor old discs bulging out of the spine.

On my way home from the gym I was still chuckling about this performance when I realized there are probably occasions when my own form isn’t what it should be. Now sometimes we are prepared to make compromises to get the weight up, you know, like when nearly bend over backwards just to crank out one more rep of bicep curls. At other times it can be rather difficult to tell if our form is holding up, for example, during stiff leg deadlifts. However, I like to think that I’ve got a reasonable grasp on correct form and get it right most of the time. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was told the other day that my form on one common exercise was plain wrong. We’re talking about walking here folks. It turns out that I walk with lousy form. I walk with my hammies instead of my quads! As it happens my standing form isn’t all that good either. Locked knees instead of bent. Luckily, I was pulled up on this poor form in the privacy of a consultation at Total Body Tuning and not by some stranger as I walked down the street. You’ll all be pleased to know that I’m working on these areas of bad form but I guess the motto is ‘Check what sorta house you live in before throwing stones’.

If you’re planning on shifting serious poundage or performing Olympic lifts and you have no idea what proper form should be get an expert to show you how. At the very least check out the excellent information on proper form found at kinesiology section at ExRx.net and one of my favorites which is not just for women, ‘From Dork to Diva’ at www.stumptuous.com.


And if someone rocks up to you at the gym and tells you you’re doing it all wrong, think about it. If what they’ve said sounds reasonable, humor them and do one more set the right way! After all, just because it’s not a team sport, doesn’t mean there’s no room for teamwork.

John Breukelaar


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