For those of you that have been reading my articles over the past twenty years, I have made it very clear that I am quite the “stickler” for using proper form on all exercises. That said, I also believe that as trainees become more experienced, it is important for each to find their own groove within each movement that best fits their individual body type and structure. After all, effective technique on squats for someone 6 feet tall will likely differ somewhat from a person barely pushing 5 feet!
However, there are a handful of exercises where particular form-points do need to be meticulously adhered to, not as much for isolation of the target muscle, but for prevention of serious injury. Here are 6 of them.
Injury Potential: Because of the great pressure exerted on the spinal discs from holding a BB on the upper back, as well as the natural tendency to lean forward under such heavy resistance, the greatest potential for injury is to the lower back. (Other issues can include the knees and hips).
Form Points: When squatting it is important to rest the bar on a portion of the trapezius muscle where you are most comfortable. Lower yourself slowly, under full control while keeping the head up slightly, with eyes fixated on a point on the wall in front of you. Keep your scapulae tightly retracted, and your lower back somewhat arched and locked tight. Never round your back. Squat to a point of parallel, or just below, and then use your glutes, hips and thighs to forcefully push back to the standing position.
Injury Potential: Because it is somewhat easy to use tremendous loads on this movement, there is quite a bit of potential to injure the lower back by over-rounding at the bottom. Knee injuries are also common because of improper placement of the feet on the platform. (Other issues can include the neck and hips).
Form Points: Set your feet about shoulder width apart with the toes pointed out just slightly so as to open up the hips. As far as height, the feet should be in a position where they are in line with the knees at the bottom of the rep. While lowering the platform, make sure to keep the torso tightly locked in place and the head in a comfortable position. Do not let your neck push forward as it is easily strained! Bring your knees slowly down to a point right before your lower back would be forced to lift and curl off the pad. Use the power of the glutes, hips and thighs to push to the top, but stop at a point just before the knees lockout.
Injury Potential: Because this movement requires almost constant contraction of the lower back to remain bent forward over the bar, improper technique can easily trigger an injury. (Other issues can include the biceps, forearms and neck).
Form Points: Take a shoulder-width foot stance, bend at the knees, and with either an over or underhand grip, lift the BB off the ground. Make sure there is a bend in the knees, a slight arch in the lower back, and that the torso is over the bar at an angle of just about 90 degrees. Look straight ahead while you forcefully pull the BB into the abdomen without moving the torso. Lower the bar under control to avoid losing the arch in the low back.
Injury Potential: The deadlift is an exercise where many major muscle groups must work in concert to properly lift the load. Done incorrectly, and without engaging the needed musculature, the potential for lower back injury is great. Additionally, because the smaller muscles of the arms, i.e. the biceps and forearms, must securely hold a very heavy barbell continuously throughout the set, they can easily succumb to pulls and tears. (Other issues include the neck and abdominals).
Form Points: Plant your feet firmly on the ground about shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider, depending on the “style” of deadlift you are performing. Grab the bar with either a double overhand grip, or a combination over/under grip. Note: If you prefer an under/over grip, it may be best to switch hands set-to-set or workout-to-workout to avoid over-pulling on just one bicep repeatedly. I also recommend the use of wrist wraps to take some of the strain off of the forearm extensors and flexors. Bend the knees to almost 90 degrees and bend at the hips so the chest is over the bar and the torso is parallel to the ground. Begin your pull by driving through the feet, then contract the quads, glutes, hips and lower back to smoothly, but forcefully, get the bar from the ground to near the top of the lift. To straighten the torso completely, you will thrust the hips forward, tighten the glutes, lift the traps and then retract the shoulder blades. From this tightly-locked standing position, carefully reverse the process as you lower the bar back to the floor. Begin the next rep from a complete stop and not by bouncing the bar off the ground!
Injury Potential: While many pec tears have occurred as a result of misuse of this exercise it seems that more often it causes issues to the shoulders and rotator cuffs. Not only does this manifest because of improper form and too much weight lifted, but also because many trainees perform the bench press far too often. (Other issues can include the elbows, triceps and neck).
Form Points: Begin this exercise by “setting your torso for success”. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, arch the lower back, raise the rib cage, and shrug the shoulders down and back into the bench. Take a shoulder-width grip on the bar and lower it slowly in line with your nipples. Some of us have the shoulder flexibility to comfortably touch the bar to the chest, while others will need to stop about an inch short of this position. Never ever bounce the bar off your chest in an effort to “lift more.” Carefully, but forcefully push the bar back to the top using the power of the pecs (primarily), anterior deltoids and triceps. Stop the bar just short of full lockout.
Injury Potential: This movement can be used to effectively target the mid-traps and deltoids when done correctly, but is quite hazardous to the rotator cuffs if the bar is raised too quickly and/or to high. (Other issues can include the neck and biceps).
Form Points: To primarily work the delts, your grip should be just outside shoulder width. When looking to hit more mid-traps, one should take a grip a couple of inches inside shoulder width. Keeping a very slight bend in the knees and your lower back tight, slowly “muscle” (do not jerk) the bar in a straight line upward right in front of your torso. Raise the weight no higher than to a point where your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Additionally, when done correctly, the hands should be lower than the elbows at the contraction point.