When I posted an arm workout a couple of weeks ago, where I noted that I didn’t use perfect form and limited my range of motion, I received a couple of responses from people that seemed horrified I would do such a thing. In this post I want to clarify what my definition of “improper form” is, and show you the difference between training like a newbie and training like a bodybuilder.
Now, when I said my form was not perfect, I did not mean this. This makes my eyes bleed:
There is a big difference between bad form and imperfect form. Bad form will take you quickly down the path of serious injury. If your goal is to build some serious muscle, you will ultimately need to go beyond the fluff that is promoted in mainstream female fitness magazines.
A great example of one exercise which has reduced benefits if performed with perfect form is seated rows. The textbook way of performing a seated row is with a completely straight back. Nearly all the movement is limited to the arms. Um, hello, bicep exercise!
To really ensure that it is the back, and not the biceps, that are being targeted by a row, you have to move your back slightly forwards and backwards with your arms. I’m not suggesting that you should be throwing your back out on every rep, but don’t feel like you need to be so rigid.
This is a GREAT video that shows exactly what I mean when I’m talking about cable rows and pull-ups (which I discuss below). Brandon explains in detail how to target the back muscles properly, which many people struggle with:
One of the most common reasons why uneducated people – predominantly men – adopt bad form is because they’re trying to shift weights they are not truly capable of lifting. For example, when people perform bicep curls with a weight that is too heavy, they tend to arch their back and lean significantly to whatever side they are working, swinging the weight upwards. This is far from ideal.
While I sometimes perform bicep curls with perfect form, other times I won’t. But I never involve my back. Instead, I use a partial range of motion (about half of the full range) in order to keep blood in the muscle and obtain a greater pump.
When I first started training I performed assisted pull-ups with a full range of motion. Every rep was from a dead hang. After months of seeing barely any progress, I realised my problems all stemmed down to my range of motion. Performing a full range of motion for something as strenuous as pull-ups is going to tire you out very quickly, no matter how much assistance you have.
As soon as I shortened my range of motion to maintain a constant contraction in my back I immediately began seeing progress week-to-week. My strength increased significantly faster than if I would have continued hammering out full pull-ups.
You can also use partial reps to change the targeted muscle in the exercise. For example, performing half squats will enable you to lift a higher weight while emphasising quadricep over gluteal development.
If you are using a limited range of motion, the time the muscle is under tension will be reduced, so it’s common to target a higher rep range, such as 12-20 reps.
Over time, you will naturally reach a point where you can’t lift heavier on certain exercises without compromising form. For example, consider a tricep pushdown. When you stand so straight you look like you have a stick up your butt, you will eventually struggle to lift more than a certain load. However, when you adopt a less-perfect set-up, and place all of your body weight forward (so your centre of gravity is no longer behind the weight), on top of the bar/rope, you will be able to continue to increase the weight and completely isolate the tricep better than previously.
When you modify exercises like this, feel free to throw all your preconceived ideas about how much weight you can lift out the window. When I complete a tricep pushdown as I described above, I can press double the weight I could with perfect form.
When I started studying for my certification, I worried that it would set a bad example for me to preach one thing but follow something different myself. Rob’s response was: “As long as you’re buff, no-one is going to question anything you do!” It’s a nice idea, but reality might be a little different.
Of course, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. This article says seated rows should involve zero back movement. It also recommends that you should never do deadlifts because “it’s not worth developing muscles at the risk of causing a disc herniation”, so take it as you will.
Final points to consider:
- Unless you’re an intermediate to advanced lifter you should not even be thinking about not adhering to perfect form. If you’re still learning about weight training, throwing yourself around trying to lift heavier than you should be is a recipe for disaster. There is no doubt that training with incorrect form can lead to sprains, strains and even broken bones!
- There are several exercises, such as deadlifts, in which perfect form is paramount. It’s best to ask an experienced lifter for advice before trying it on your own.
- You should not adopt a partial range of motion during every workout. It is a good technique to incorporate periodically to help with breaking plateaus. If you permanently cheat, you risk creating permanent muscle imbalances.
Do you ever ‘cheat’ in your workouts or use a partial range of motion? If not, what are your reservations about doing so?