pushups

In the fitness blogosphere, you often stumble over people preaching the importance of using good exercise form. I sure am guilty of this, too, especially when I talk about push-ups and squats.

But why the hell should you actually care about exercise form?

Lemme ‘splain why and read on.

Measurability

When I talk about an exercise and tell you how many reps you should be able to do before you enter the next progression step, it is crucial that we both talk about the same exercise.

Maybe you are a considerably strong individual. Let’s test that assumption: Go down and do 30 push-ups.

Ooh, that’s easy as pie, man. I could do 50.

But can you really? Because I mean 30 push-ups with perfectly clean form. That means, full range of motion, elbows are not flaring out, your core and quads are fully engaged to keep your whole body in a straight line, neck is neutral.

See, I don’t care how many half push-ups you can do. I care about the workload you can take when performing quality movement. If all you can do are a bunch of sloppy reps, I don’t want you to go do harder variations, like the one-arm push-up, because then you’ll just keep half-assing through every rep and develop bad movement habits. Which brings us to the next point.

Moving Well

We all have different motivations that drew us into our fitness endeavours. Perhaps yours was to look better naked, or develop greater performance in a specific sport you do, or to relieve stress and counteract all the sitting you do at your desk job.

I think the most neglected motivator for fitness is just moving well and feeling awesome. Not just because you look fit, but because you feel fit and functional.

You can help your friends moving furniture with ease, can go through the day without chronic back pain and feel a certain kind of lightness while you move your own body.

This feeling of awesomeness is to me much more beneficial than having sick-pack abs.

This feeling will only arise if you put careful attention to your form for every rep, teaching your body the right habits to move with quality and care. Your posture will improve if you keep a tight core in every exercise. The correct shoulder placement during exercises will make you look taller and feel more erect (in your spine, you dirty little pig!).

Proper movement mechanics make picking up and lifting heavier things easier and safer. Using full range of motion improves mobility, which let’s you move with more ease in general.

Body Awareness

Keeping a healthy posture during everyday tasks sure won’t work if you don’t know what good posture feels like. Also, when you pick up a heavy object, lots of muscles (abs, lower back, hamstrings, quads, etc.) should be engaged to minimize stress on the spine and joints. If you’re simply not aware of those muscles, because you never used them consciously, how the hell are you going to engage them properly?

handstand

Perfect examples for this dilemma are most exercises where your head is facing down, like the bridge or the the handstand. There is no way you can just turn your head and see if your body is in a straight line, because turning your head immediately affects your alignment in this position.

So, in order to nail the correct alignment for the handstand, you need to feel what’s happening with your body.

That’s what’s so awesome about yoga, calisthenics and strength training in general. I know, the term body awareness sounds a bit voodoo cliché, but it’s actually a very practical thing to have. Becoming aware of your physical self on a regular basis does wonders to your everyday movement.

Firing the Central Nervous System

Basic bodyweight movements like push-ups, pull-ups and squats were used thousands of years ago (ancient Greek comes to mind). So the characteristics of good form are not something we came up with recently. There seem to be some fundamental physical laws that dictate the ideal movement patters.

To some degree, this is influenced by the way the central nervous system (CNS) works. Let’s look at the push-up once again to illustrate this.

Do a push-up while looking to the side by rotating at your neck. Now rotate your neck even further and try to look at the sky and do another push-up. For comparison, do a clean push-up with neutral neck. Noticed a difference? For me, doing the crooked neck push-up feels way harder than doing them with a neutral neck.

Here is what happens: Forcing your neck into an unnatural position will limit the output your muscles can deliver. The reason is that you just placed yourself in a very disadvantageous position. If, for whatever reason, you fall or something else falls on you, your neck will probably be fucked.

Your brain, that smart little thing, makes the central nervous system shut down as a save mechanism, so fewer signals are sent to the muscles in your body, resulting in a smaller force production.

Your body automatically goes into save mode to avoid injury. It’s like “Nope, you’re not getting any power with that super dangerous body alignment, are you out of your mind?!”

In fact, your muscles are capable of much greater force than you can actually utilize during normal movement. People who were struck by lightning contracted their muscles so hard that they broke their own bones and ripped their tendons apart. The CNS is constantly regulating the force you can generate through your muscles depending on how safe or how important the current activity is to your survival. While running away from a hungry tiger, your CNS goes into power mode. Picking up a heavy object with a rounded back? CNS says no!

How to Take Care of Your Form

Ok, chief, I wanna improve my form. What can I do?

In order to effectively work on your form during your workouts, you need to get some feedback. Here’s a list of ways to get that feedback:

  1. Get a personal trainer (a good one).
  2. Participate in some kind of group workshop.
  3. Have a workout buddy who knows what the exercise should look like.
  4. Take short videos and photos of yourself.
  5. Use a mirror.
  6. Have somebody give you electrical shocks when your form get’s sloppy (kidding!).

I’ve arranged this list in descending quality. Your best bet is to be corrected by someone who knows what they’re doing. This will give you immediate feedback, so you can correct your form instantly.

Mirrors are not that great, because you have to look in the direction of it (again, bad for body alignment) and they are distracting. Go into any commercial gym and you’ll agree with me.

My weapon of choice is taking videos and photos of myself. I often discover sloppy form during shooting sessions for Neat Strength. Sometimes I can fix them immediately, sometimes I just have to live with my own flaws and make a mental note that I need to improve my form.

 

Keep in mind, though, that perfect form is just an idea. For any exercise, it is impossible to do every rep with picture perfect form. There is always a little nuance of the move that you could improve. And that’s the beauty of it. The goal is not to have perfect form some day in the future, but to be present while you’re moving. Keeping good form is not only about activating the right muscles, but also activating your brain.

-Silvio


Photos: Sabine A.

Credits for the creative spark for this blog post go to Frank Delventhal. I stole some of his illustrative examples from his explanations in his seminar at Hamburg Kettlebell Club.

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