My legs were on fire, and my heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest.
It was 6:50 am, and I was almost done with a heavy “legs” day at the gym. That morning’s workout had included heavy barbell squats, dumbbell lunges, leg press, and deadlifts (the grand finale for the day).
On the prior set of deadlifts, I had struggled to keep good form on the last few reps. However, I was thinking about adding even more weight to the bar for my final set. There was a lot on my mind that morning. I was still angry about something that happened the day before. So, I decided I’d take out some extra frustration on my last set of deadlifts.
I stacked 25 more pounds onto each side of the bar. Then, I gripped the bar hard, took a deep breath, and began my last set.
The first five reps were fine, but rep # 6 was a different story. As I raised up, I felt something slide in my lower back. If you aren’t a weightlifter, let’s just say that is not normal.
For the next week, I could barely move. Luckily, no serious long-term damage had occurred. However, it took a few weeks for me to get back to full strength again.
In a prior article, we covered the first rule for injury prevention. Here’s rule #2: never sacrifice form for weight, reps, or speed.
Walk into any gym or exercise class, and you will see plenty of people sacrificing their form to lift heavier, longer, or faster. Here are some of the most common and dangerous examples:
- Letting your back get rounded during a deadlift or rowing movement (instead of keeping your back straight)
- Arching your lower back during a bench press (instead of keeping your back flat into the bench)
- Using momentum during bicep curls (instead of controlling the weight and keeping your back straight)
- Dropping your neck or hips while doing push-ups (instead of keeping your neck and spine in a neutral position)
Your neck should never move, and you should never arch or round your back during a set (or when picking weights up or putting them down either).
A less dangerous and equally common mistake is to reduce your range of motion in order to lift heavier or faster. You see this a lot when people perform dead lifts, bench press, squats, pull-ups, and bicep curls, although any exercise can be corrupted in this fashion.
There was one guy at my gym a few years ago who was bragging that he could bench press 315 pounds, even though he weighed less than 150 pounds. I didn’t burst his bubble, but the reality is that he only moved the bar about one inch during each rep. He wasn’t bench-pressing 315 pounds; he was simply moving it one inch! If he had done the exercise correctly, he could probably have only benched 225-250 pounds (still impressive for a person of his size).
While form should always be your #1 priority, you do not need to limit your training to body-weight exercises or 3-pound dumbbells. You can and should still lift some serious weight and incorporate complex, explosive movements as you get stronger and more advanced. However, your form should always come first. That’s the best long-term strategy for getting and staying stronger, leaner, and healthier for years to come.
How can you guarantee that your form is tight at all times? Here are a few ideas:
- Get help from a credible trainer or knowledgeable friend if you are a beginner. Do NOT just watch people at the gym. Most aren’t exercising correctly.
- Use a spotter when lifting heavy, when lifting for muscle failure, or when maxing out.
- Take at least 1-2 seconds in either direction per rep (i.e. 1-2 seconds up and 1-2 seconds down for a bench press, squat, pull-up, or push-up). A slower cadence on a lift will help you focus on your form, while also making the exercise much harder and more effective than if you cheat by using momentum.
- Watch yourself in the mirror to make sure you aren’t using momentum or cheating your way through a set (i.e. arching your lower back while benching or throwing your body back and forth while doing bicep curls).
The temptation to sacrifice your form is normal, even for elite athletes and especially if you work out in a group setting where people are often praised for going heavier, longer, or faster. Think long-term. Always put your form first.
Until next time, remember that you’re stronger than you think…
-Pete Leibman, Creator of StrongerHabits.com
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