Form For Fitness: Are You Using Proper Form?

What is the correct way to train, and how do you sort through the information? Learn some of the important aspects of form.

This is the correct way to perform a bench press. Wait! No, this is the correct way. You are doing your leg lifts incorrectly. Your crunches are all wrong. Does this sound familiar? What is the correct way to train, and how do you sort through so much information, some of it apparently conflicting? While it would be impossible to discuss all aspects of proper form for every possible exercise, this article will try to address some common elements of "proper form."

What Is Proper Form?

Proper form is essential for success when training for anything from general fitness to sports events and/or competitions. It is the quality of training that influences your progress, more than the quantity. Time under tension, angle of movement, range of motion, and many other factors all contribute to a particular resistance training session. It is important to understand the proper mechanics of training to get the most benefit from your time.

Kinesiology is the scientific term used to describe the study of human movement. Dr. Yessis wrote a book called The Kinesiology of Exercise that is highly recommended to understand proper form. The book not only addresses general concepts and techniques, but also explains specific exercises by body part and the proper way to perform them. If you are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Spinal Alignment

When thinking about proper form, you should be aware of alignment, range of motion, tension, and other factors. One of the first and most important elements to consider is your back. The spinal column is very prone to injury and proper back alignment is crucial for injury prevention and proper execution of exercises. Unless you are specifically targeting the lower back with exercises like good mornings or hyper extensions, the lower back should generally remain flat or slightly concave (this is known as lordosis).

To achieve this, you push your chest up and out and pull your shoulder blades together. This action of the shoulder blades is known as scapular retraction and is very important for almost all exercises. Peak Physiques programs provide a "control drill" that specifically targets your ability to perform scapular retraction.

When your chest is up and out and your shoulder blades pulled together (scapular retraction), you have the appropriate back alignment. For some exercises such as a stiff-legged dead-lift where you desire to work your hamstrings rather than your lower back, you should keep the back arched or slightly concave (lordosis) again by maintaining the chest up and out and shoulder blades retracted. For other exercises such as squats where torso alignment is critical, you can tilt the pelvis forward slightly to straighten the lower back.

This minimizes stress on the spinal column, but will place tension on your spinal erectae (lower back muscles) - this is tension we want because this will strengthen those muscles and help to protect your back. This is not thrusting your hips forward - this can round your back - the goal is simply to tilt the pelvis slightly so that the lower back becomes straight.

I mentioned alignment and this is also critical. Resistance training is effective because it forces your muscles to perform work. With free weights, this is done by gravity, so proper form is almost always with respect to the ground. You typically want to align all of your major joints in the horizontal or vertical plane, so that gravity is applying the most tension to your muscles.

As a few examples, consider the bench press. For a regular bench press grip, proper joint alignment is key. Grasp the bar and lower it towards your chest without touching. Either using a mirror or with a partner, lower the bar until your elbows are at the same level as your shoulders (elbow joint to shoulder joint alignment). At this point, your upper arms should be parallel to the floor.

To invoke the standard grip, simply make sure that your wrists are over your elbows (elbow to wrist alignment). When this is the case, your arms will form a right angle with your forearms perpendicular to the floor (pictured below). You'll find that this grip is slightly wider than shoulder width and that the bar is slightly above your chest (unless Dave Draper is reading this).

This is a great starting point to explore the exercise. When you pull your hands closer together, your forearms are now angled. This places extra stress on your wrist joint, as you no longer have wrist/elbow alignment. This also forces your elbow joint to perform more work, so the triceps become more involved (close grip bench press). If you pull your hands farther apart (than our starting position), you again lose wrist/elbow alignment. This time, the elbow joint is open. In this weak position, much of the tension is transferred to your shoulder joint. This can cause a slight rotation of your shoulder and promote rotator cuff injury!

As another example, consider a barbell curl. We can analyze the start position of the curl from the perspective of proper joint alignment. If your elbows are in front of your shoulders, then you are forcing the anterior deltoids to perform the work and shifting tension from the biceps to the shoulder. By keeping the elbows pulled back (elbow to shoulder alignment - elbows remain beneath the shoulders) you ensure that your biceps performs the majority of work. Keep your elbows close to your sides and grasp the barbell at this same width (wrist to elbow alignment).

Now, if you move your hands closer together, you will place tension on your wrists and shift tension to the inside of your biceps. Your upper arm is actually several muscles working together, and this shifts the workload to different upper arm muscles. By taking a wider grip, you again lose elbow to wrist alignment and shift tension away from the primary (major) biceps muscle to other muscles. Obviously, working a variety of grips can help work the entire upper arm without favoring any particular muscle. The correct form is shown below.

Joint Alignment

Joint alignment is also critical when considering range of motion. In the example with the chest press, if your primary goal is to work your chest muscles, you can stop at the shoulder-elbow alignment - in other words, your upper arms do not need to go below parallel. Does this mean that going below parallel is wrong? No! Not only is it necessary in bench-pressing competitions (and if you don't work that range of motion, you won't get stronger) but when you move below parallel, tension shifts to your triceps, so this a great way to work them as well.

This knowledge can be useful when designing your program. If you are doing a lot of triceps work (maybe you are specifically working on your upper arms) then you might consider limiting the range of motion for your chest press to allow more triceps recovery. On the other hand, if you are performing a balanced routine or even targeting the chest, performing a full range of motion will work more muscles and burn more calories.

Keep in mind, too, that once you go below parallel with your upper arms, your shoulders begin to rotate. This can impinge the rotator cuff and cause serious injury. The way to avoid this is to perform rotator cuff "control drills" and plenty of shoulder stretches, and to make sure your shoulders are strong enough to support the torque generated by a bench press. You should be able to military (shoulder) press 2/3 of your bench press weight. (Calculate this for yourself on my Shoulder Joint article.) If not, prioritize your shoulders and avoid near-max lifts with the chest press until your shoulders are back on track!

Sometimes joint alignment isn't completely obvious. Consider your shoulder joint. Your body is designed for your arms to hang naturally by your sides (elbow to shoulder alignment) with the elbows slightly outside of the shoulder joint. When you are performing a shoulder press, the mid-point is when your elbows are at the same height as your shoulders. Having your wrists directly over your elbows (so that the arms form a right angle, shown below) is a great reference grip for this and also pull-ups - anything outside of that should be considered "wide grip" and anything inside of that should be considered "narrow grip".

Common Mistakes

A common mistake is to think that working from upper arms parallel to fully extend keeps tension on the shoulder joint (similar to working the chest only to parallel). This is not true. In reality, once your upper arms move beyond parallel, the majority of angle change takes place about the elbow joint, making this mostly a triceps movement. It is the range of motion from the bottom (when your elbows are almost directly beneath your shoulders) to parallel (when your elbows are at the same height as your shoulders) that the most tension is applied to the shoulder joint.

Again, there is no "proper" range of motion to follow, but if you are working shoulders only and do not wish to involve the triceps, you can work the limited range of motion from the bar completely lowered (elbows below shoulder) to the bar at about the top of your head (elbows same height as shoulder; upper arms parallel to the ground).

As another element to consider, don't forget tension. We have seen how joint alignment can help explain tension. An incline bench press complicates the angle of the movement and shifts tension to the shoulders. A side raise for shoulders is a great example of how form can dictate the function of the exercise. If you perform a side raise with a rigid wrist (grasping the dumbbells firmly and keeping the wrist straight) your forearms actually assist your shoulders, and less tension is placed upon the shoulder joint. There is nothing wrong with this and it allows for heavier weight to be handled.

If you perform a side raise with a "limp wrist" where you allow the hand to "hang down" while grasping the weight, so that the wrist is bent at the top of the movement, the wrist no longer performs work, and tension is shifted to the shoulder joint. Try this with a weight you typically perform side raises at, and you'll notice the difference - you should get a pretty impressive burn! There is no reason why we wouldn't want to work the wrists, but if you are targeting the wrists with forearm flexions and extensions, letting them go limp during exercises like curls and side raises can help shift tension to the muscle that you are targeting so that the wrists are not the "weak link."

We have discussed alignment for free weights, but as a final note, I would like to discuss machines. Every joint helps define a lever on your body. There is a concept known as "open lever" and "closed lever". As an example, when you work your chest through the full range of motion, you open the lever. Once your upper arms go beneath parallel, tension is REDUCED in your chest and taken up by your triceps and other supporting muscles. If you stop at parallel, you actually keep more tension on the chest and the lever is "closed". This concept applies to machine workouts as well.

With machines, joints again play an important role. When you are getting into a leg extension machine, your knee joint should align with the "joint" on the machine - the pivot point. The knee should not be forward nor backwards of this. When the knee is properly aligned, your back should be flush against the chair - this is how you adjust the chair forward or backward. If it is too far back, you will "slide" backwards during the movement and possibly shift tension to your lower back. If it is too far forward, your knees will be ahead of the pivot and forced into a sharp angle that can traumatize the knee joint.

When positioning your feet for any exercise, including the leg extension, consider your body. Many people suggest, "point your toes forward" or "slightly angled" - this can actually result in injury! I had complete reconstructive surgery of my right anterior cruciat ligament (a ligament in the knee). When I stand "naturally" my right foot is angled sharply out. When I perform squats or get into a leg extension machine, this is also how I position myself - with my right foot angled out! The reason is that this is the proper form for my body. If I were to force my right foot to point straight ahead, I would actually be twisting my knee joint and set myself up for another injury! Stand comfortably and note your foot position, then use this position when training. Let your body be the guide.

Most people allow their ankles to hang directly beneath their knees at the start and end of each rep on the leg extension. While this is knee-ankle alignment, this also opens the lever - at the bottom of the movement, gravity lets your legs hang. Tension is completely off of your quadriceps! In fact, if your ankles go behind your knees, then when you extend your leg, there is tremendous force on your knee joint - another possible cause of injury!

If you close the lever, you will not only keep more tension on the quadriceps, but your will minimize your risk of knee injury. To close the lever, start with your ankles slightly forward of your knees. You'll notice that you have to maintain a slight contraction of the quadriceps to do this. Use that as your start and end position for each rep. You'll find that you must use much less weight than you are used to, because the quadriceps never "rests" during the set with a closed lever - however, even with the lighter weight, you will keep the muscle under more tension, and tension is what causes growth!

Since we are looking at the leg extension, allow me to mention joint alignment once again. Your hips should be at the same level as your knees (knee to hip alignment) as a reference point - some machines are tilted so knees will be higher, which simply imposes a different range of motion and is fine. More importantly, your shoulders should be directly above your hips - this is shoulder-hip alignment. If your shoulders are in front of or behind your hips, this can shift tension to your lower back. Don't forget the rule we mentioned earlier - chest up and out, and scapular retraction!

There are obviously many elements to consider when trying to practice "proper form." Consider the goal of the workout, where you wish to apply the tension and what muscles should be targeted. Use joint alignment as a reference, and then vary your grips and ranges of motion based on your goals. The quality, range of motion, and tension will dictate the success of your workout, so focus on that form for fitness!