One of the many standout memories of my high school days is running cross-country. More than the grueling summer workouts, fartleks, long runs and even those glorious days when we took a break before a meet to play ultimate Frisbee, I remember what I learned about running. Many people think that running cross-country is all about moving faster than your competition. However, there are lots of technical details working in the background that allow one to be an effective runner. The little things, like relaxing your stride when going downhill or pumping your arms like a madman up a hill, can make a huge difference in your time. Like most things in life, how you do it matters just as much as what you do.
This is also true in the gym. Proper form is one of those technical details that can make or break the effectiveness of your workouts. In an effort to not be "that guy," I don’t go around saying, "Hey, you’re doing that wrong, and you’re probably killing your back," every time I see someone swaying back and forth when doing standing curls. But here, for the sake of informing the general public and maybe saving you a trip to the chiropractor, are a few suggestions for proper weightlifting form and technique.
I mentioned this one above, and it’s also the most common "bad form foul" that I see in the gym. It usually happens when someone is doing a standing upper body exercise—instead of remaining still, the momentum of the muscle flexion and extension causes the body to rock back and forth with each repetition. Not only does this usually put extra unnecessary stress on the back, the swaying reduces the effectiveness of the exercise on the specific muscle or muscle group targeted.
In order to prevent the dreaded "sway," make sure you are standing tall with your chest out. Your flexion and extension should be done in a controlled, almost rhythmic fashion. Also, looking at yourself in a mirror may help you correct this bad habit.
Think about it
At the risk of spouting off psychobabble, there is definitely a mental component of exercise, especially weightlifting. It’s easy to get caught up in a set and only afterward realize, "Hmm, for some reason, I feel the effects of those military presses I just did in my back, instead of my shoulders and triceps."
I often find that mentally concentrating on the specific muscle or muscle group that I’m working on during a set helps and even naturally corrects my form. If you’re primarily working your biceps, think about your biceps; if you’re working your lats, think about your lats, and so on. Of course, most lifting engages a wide array of muscles, but there’s usually a primary target you’re working. It may sound silly, but try it out. It works for me.
Don’t lock your knees
The No. 1 rule of standing for long periods of time is to not lock your knees. In fact, I’m sure that we’ve all seen tragically hilarious YouTube videos of people fainting at weddings for breaking this rule.
The same decree holds true when lifting weights while standing. Make sure to have a slight bend in your knees with your feet about shoulder-width apart. This strong lower body posture will help you form a stable base and prevent swaying back and forth, as mentioned above.
This seems like a no-brainer, considering that we all, well, have to breathe in order to live. Air is critically important, guys. But when you’re focused on lifting, it’s easy to "forget." However, holding your breath while lifting can cause dangerous increases in blood pressure. The simple rule to remember is to exhale as you lift the weight, and inhale deeply as you release.
Work that core!
I’ve already harped on the importance of core exercises in a previous article, so I won’t go into great detail here. But it’s crucial to understand that your core is essential to maintaining good form when weightlifting. This is where the majority of your stability comes from, so throwing in some solid core workouts is a pretty good injury prevention insurance policy and will peripherally help you maintain good form and posture.
Proper form and technique are essential for injury prevention and maximization of workouts. The tips described above are just a few examples of simple changes you can make to help yourself out in the gym now and in the future. Happy lifting, gym rats.
Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.