Form Versus Weight/Momentum
Currently in any gym in the world, a person can walk in and find a lifter, regardless of gender, weight training with an unrealistic weight; throwing the weights around instead of focusing on form and maximum muscle contraction. The purpose of this article is to hopefully, avoid some of the common pitfalls regarding weight training for muscular development. Unfortunately for many lifters, who are trying to achieve an aesthetic physique, are so consumed with hoisting the weight that they have lost perspective of the original purpose of lifting the weight, to stimulate the muscle into growth.
As stated earlier, one of the most obvious problems that I have encountered and witnessed in a gym environment, is the lack of proper form and weight utilization when executing the exercises. Most novice lifters are so consumed with hoisting heavy weights, thinking that their physique will improve along with the execution of heavy weights, with poor form. Unfortunately, hoisting heavy weights does not automatically improve your physique In fact, it can be very detrimental, not only to your muscular gains, but also to the body.
Perhaps the best example of hoisting heavy weights does not automatically improve your physique is Olympic weight lifting. Olympic weight lifting is a sport that demands tremendous explosiveness, fantastic technique and discipline. Day in and out, the former Eastern block country Olympic weight trainers lift and train with amazing poundages, yet do not develop what a westernized countries would consider a pleasant or a bodybuilder's physique.
The best/worst example (depending on your perspective) of a weight lifting physique is the former Soviet Union's Olympic weight lifting champion, Vasily Alexev. Alexev was the first Olympic weight lifter to clean-and-jerk 500 lb. overhead. A tremendous feat of strength and technique, however, Alexev's physique was far from pleasing or aesthetic But before Olympic weight liners get angry, I must clarify that Alexev's training was directed towards lifting maximum poundages overhead, not to build a pleasant physique.
Alexev had a bulbous "pear like" physique, with no definition and what we would call a "beer belly". However, no one can argue with his strength. The point being, hoisting heavy weights does not guarantee a good physique, thus the purpose of this article.
During my tenure as a personal trainer, I have noticed many novice and advance lifters commit the same errors. Quite honestly, I often have to check my own form to ensure that I am performing the exercises correctly. After personally experiencing many injuries, I decided to revamp my training and switch to a system that allowed me to tram continuously with little or no injuries, and for the past two years, I have yet to experience anything more serious than mild tendonitis in my left elbow. With that in mind, allow me the opportunity to share my so-called success with the reader.
Step One /// Leave Your Ego At The Entrance Of The Gym!
Whenever you step into the gym, forget about competing with the other lifters. The purpose of going to the gym may vary, either to improve your physique or release some stress, regardless, you are there to take care of the most important person: YOU. So forget about the ego and just concentrate on yourself arid your needs.
This may seem easy, but it is probably one of the most difficult things to do, especially when you are used to being the gym's "strong guy". That's why it is difficult for some lifters to leave their ego at the door. Not to worry, your strength gains will catch up with you eventually.
Step Two /// Slow Down!
One of the biggest pitfalls that contribute to bad form is executing the exercises too fast. For example, on the bench press, very often I see many lifters drop the weight to their sternum and pop the weight back up to the start position. In many respects, not only is this very dangerous for your sternum, but also for the ligaments and tendons.
First of all, the weight is being absorbed by the sternum, ligaments and tendons, and the associated muscle tissue, yet very little work is actually being performed by the pectorals. This is when bad form combined with excessive momentum can have an adverse effect upon the body.
The negative portion of the movement is being absorbed by the tendons and ligaments, and the pectorals are only working the positive portion of the movement, therefore, only half the benefit of what otherwise could be a very effective movement. Although I have used the bench press as an example, the use of excess momentum and bad form applies to all the exercises; The use of excess momentum in ANY movement, can be detrimental to the ligaments and tendons.
Step Three /// Use Lighter Weight!
Another factor that contributes to excessive momentum and bad form is using excessive weight. Exercises executed with heavy weight with good form will definitely improve your musculature, but excessive weight done incorrectly can have adverse consequences. Not only could the lifter experience some joint pain, but eventually suffer a muscle/ligament/tendon tear. The benefits of using lighter weight are threefold.
- First, the muscle is lifting a weight that it can manage, therefore, the possibility of injury is minute.
- Second, lining the lighter weight allows total arid complete control performance of the exercise.
- Third, the lighter weight allows the liner to totally focus on contracting the muscle to the fullest, rather than focusing solely on hoisting the weight to complete the repetition.
When given the option of using lighter weight with strict form or using heavier weight with a loose form, by all means, use the lighter weight with strict form. Although at first you may think that you are losing strength because of the difficulty of using the lighter weight with the strict form, arid not your usual heavier weight, but the truth of the matter is, the lifter is performing the exercise correctly for the first time, therefore the weight, even though lighter, feels far more taxing then performing the repetitions with the heavier weight.
The performance of the exercise with strict form doesn't allow the lifter to use momentum to lift the weight, thus unable to use momentum to compensate for hoisting the heavier weight.
Many times I have been asked what the speed of the movement should be executed. The best answer I can provide is to be able to 'feel' both positive and negative portions of the movement. This may seem like a vague answer but "feeling" the weight is to have absolute control of the weight at all times, without swinging the weight and always careful to maintain good form. In essence, the muscle should be "squeezing" the weight up and a controlling the descent, not just moving the weigh from start to finish of the movement. As I stated earlier, "swinging" the weight has no benefit other than feeding the ego.
Step Four /// Squeeze The Weight!
An example of "squeezing" the weight is performing a leg curl. Again, a common exercise that is very often performed badly. In my experience, I have seen many lifters use their lower backs to gain momentum to lift the weight to their buttocks. Not only is this harmful for the lower back, but the hamstring gets little or no benefit from executing the exercise in this manner.
The purpose of performing a leg curl is to stimulate the hamstring into growth, therefore, push your hips into the bench and forget you have any weight on the leg curl machine; simply focus solely on contracting the muscle until the pad, is touching your buttocks, or as high as you can lift the arm of the leg curl, then in a controlled fashion descend the weight to the start position. This is the essence of weight training in relation to muscle development.
Not to hoist weights from point A to B, but to contract the muscle through a full range of motion and complete positive failure has been achieved, until the muscle can no longer perform any more repetitions. Again, this is the essence of muscle development; to contract a muscle to its nil' positive failure with weight resistance acting as a catalyst, causing the muscle to achieve fill' failure, based on the number of repetitions the lifter is trying to achieve.
The goal of bodybuilding or muscle development is self explanatory, to develop the body/muscle, not to feed the ego. Once the lifter has shifted the focus on lifting the weight rather than focusing on working the muscle to its tiniest, the battle has been lost, Your gains will be stifled and your injuries will increase and eventually, your motivation for training will stop. With that in mind, let's move to the next step.
Step Five /// Performing The Repetitions Correctly!
I have read many articles regarding the number of repetitions a person should perform in order to achieve a certain "look." For example, performing high repetitions is regarded as the method of creating the "shredded" look. However, that's a topic for another article.
Regardless of the number of repetitions the lifter is suppose to perform, the primary focus should be to complete the number of repetitions without pausing. For example, I have noticed many lifters pause and rest several repetitions before completing the set because the pain starts to settle in on the affected muscle. This is perhaps one of the most difficult patterns of behavior to break.
The lifter encounters the familiar pain in the muscle and is scared to go beyond the normal pain threshold, therefore the lifter pauses a few repetitions before completing the set, waits for the pain to subside and finishes the set. This is one of the best opportunities the lifter has to improve their musculature yet it is being wasted because the lifter is scared to go beyond their "normal" pain threshold.
It is the last few repetitions that are the most important because this is when the muscle recruitment is at its highest. The greater the muscle recruitment, the greater the growth; the greater the growth, the bigger the muscle, therefore, the higher the person's metabolism (provided the lifter has the proper nutrition and rest).
Ideally, the lifter wants to perform all the sets in this manner, that's why the earlier emphasis on form, focusing and squeezing the muscle, so the lifter can achieve maximum muscle recruitment with every set and repetition.
How much pain is too much pain? This is another question that brings up an impossible answer. My best answer is to focus on the number of repetitions. If on the first set, you are able to complete the full set of repetitions, yet on the second set, the lifter cannot complete the repetitions even with sufficient rest, then drop the weight to where you can complete the frill set of repetitions.
However, if muscle is exhausted even with sufficient rest, then the pain threshold of the muscle and maximum contraction has been achieved for the time being, then perhaps you may have to drop sets, or change the workout to one which your body can work with without over training, which brings us to the next step.
Step Six /// Train According To Your Capacity, Not Your Goals!
Perhaps also one of the biggest problems with bodybuilding, especially with novice lifters is using workouts that are too advanced, especially for the novice lifter. This electronic medium, magazines, "the gym expert", all are great and wondrous achievements in disseminating information.
However, access to this information in the wrong hands, can be detrimental to the novice lifter/bodybuilder. For example, the young, aspiring bodybuilder reads an article, written by their favorite professional bodybuilder on how he/she trains to achieve their success, the novice lifter then assumes that if they also follow the same regimen, they too will achieve the same results. If that were true, then this entire world would be tilled with bodybuilders with 20 inch arms.
The truth of the matter is, professional bodybuilders are genetically gifted with the attributes judges consider advantageous to the sport. Attributes such as wide shoulders, tiny waist, and large muscle bellies, etc. However, the rest of us have to make due with what nature has given us.
Although it's not impossible to build a pleasant physique, it is impossible for 99% of the bodybuilders in the world, to build a professional championship level physique, even with the aid of steroids. The point I am trying to make is to stop using some professional's regimen, although it worked for the professional bodybuilder, it does not guarantee you the same results.
In truth, it will have the opposite effect; using an advanced bodybuilding program will lead to overtraining and eventually to disappointment. Therefore, train to your body's capacity, not your goals.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, that happy-go-lucky philosopher said it best: "One must learn to walk before one can run." Bodybuilding, muscle development is the same.
Although your goals may be to build a championship physique, the beginner must start with the fundamental movements and train according to what your body can adapt to, and if you have trouble doing this, go back to step one of this article (Leave your ego at the gym entrance).
Not only is this recommended, but necessary. A novice body will experience literally a physical "trauma", not one that requires emergency treatment, but one in which the changes the body is experiencing is too much for the body to adapt to, thus overtraining. If you have questions regarding what qualifies you as a beginner, intermediate, and advance lifter, ask a "qualified" person's opinion.
I know the word "qualified" is a subjective term, but I purposely leave it open for the lifter to search for someone whom the lifter feels he/she can get an honest opinion (spouses or significant others are excluded). Preferably, consult with a personal trainer or a bodybuilding judge.
Although this may he a blow to the ego, its better to hear the truth and work towards your goal, then to fill yourself with delusions and even greater disappointments. In essence, the gist of this paragraph is do not copy your favorite bodybuilder's regimen, start with a basic program and modify it as you make progress. In the future, I plan to write a column addressing the issue of how to develop a program according to your needs.
Step Seven /// Get An Independent Observer/Spotter!
The purpose of the observer/spotter is to ensure your form and technique is up to par. Obviously, you may want to consult with a personal trainer or a lifter with considerable experience for this task. Over time, it is easy to develop small and negligible bad habits, which are easy to overlook, but over time, those small bad habits can develop to a very big, and potentially harmful bad habit, therefore the independent observer/spotter.
For example, leaning too far forward when executing a squat. Although this may seem like a minor detail with the light weight, however, if the lifter is performing heavy squats, leaning too far forward can cause a severe back injury. Again, leave the ego at the entrance of the gym and let the muscles do the lifting, not your ego.
Step Eight /// Keep Track Of Your Diet!
First of all, let me make this clear, diet does not mean to starve yourself, it means the quantity and quality of the food you put in your stomach Unfortunately for many novices, they seem to focus solely on working out, yet neglect their nutritional needs, thinking that as long as the calories are consumed, their poundages and musculature will improve.
This is a gross and common error. This type of approach will perhaps increase your muscle mass, but it will also increase your bodyfat. The human body is an incredible machine but it has its limitations; generally speaking, the body can only absorb 30-40 grams of protein at one time, and dependant on the activity level, 30-60 grams of carbohydrates at one time.
(These are only generalizations, for more specific readings, consult a qualified nutritionist to receive an evaluation to match your body type and caloric needs). The fact is, nutrition is key to success. A person wanting to make progress will need to eat 4 - 5 small meals per day, of quality calories.
Currently, there is a paradigm shift in our country. The norm of eating three big meals a day no longer holds true. The fact is now most "experts" are now advocating eating four to five small meals a day. The rationale for eating continuously throughout the day, is to keep the body's metabolism high.
The body is being fed what it can absorb at one time, not what the stomach can hold, therefore the food digested goes to repair the muscle tissue broken down and aids recovery. There are very few calories left over to store as fat. As I stated earlier, the body is an incredible machine and we must be wary of feeding the muscles, and not our stomach. The stomach will contract and expand, to make room for the food ingested, however, the muscles can only absorb a certain number of grams of macro nutrients.
Some of the many benefits of having a healthy diet include:
- The body receives the nutrients it requires for muscle growth, therefore, the lifter's muscular gains will be faster and their lean body mass will increase.
- Second, the body recovers after from taxing workouts.
- Third, with faster recovery, the lifter can work with more intensity and more esoteric workouts.
- Fourth, it moves the lifter closer toward their desired goal, whatever the goal may be.
- Lastly, all the hard effort will not have been in vain.
Most often, I see novices join a facility and train with a fanaticism that rivals the most intensive weight lifters in the gym, yet three months later, they look at the mirror and don't see Mr./Ms. America and quit working out. Sorry folks, even with the best training, the best facilities in the world, and the best nutrition will not guarantee you first results.
Unless the individual has incredible genetics, the average beginner will only see some improvement in their physique, but nothing that suggest a future bodybuilding champion. Building an enviable physique takes several years of training and even more patience.
Instead of viewing yourself as a failure or your time wasted, view it as investing time in yourself, taking care of the stressors that make your life difficult. But do not give up, be patient and compassionate with yourself A famous Chinese proverb states,
"A thousand mile journey begins with one step."
My friends, fellow travelers, take comfort that you have taken a giant step in improving your quality of life, You may not become a bodybuilding champion, and actually very few will ever achieve that kind of success. But your life will be so much richer because of your ability to enjoy life's gifts, like hiking without your legs screaming in pain or able to scuba dive without the fear if you're in good enough shape to withstand the exercise. This is the essence of weight training, to help you attain your goals, not to set you apart from them.
In closing, I hope the reader finds this information useful and if you have any suggestions for future columns, please let us know. One thought before I sign off: This article is by no means the "bottom line" of information or the "Bible" that a novice has to adhere to, but merely gives the beginner some tools to which they may rely upon to help them progress.
But as a friend once said, "If it's stupid yet works, then it isn't stupid." Keep this phrase in mind when developing your bodybuilding/weight training strategies and philosophy.
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