I'm sure many of you have heard the words: "Good Form." Or you've been told to “Practice good form with your lifts.” But what does "Good Form" really mean? Is it a subjective term that changes depending on who is speaking? Or is there something more universal that can be applied to every position, to every exercise, to every movement, and to every individual person?
In this blog, we are going to be discussing what good form means, what it means for you, and why it is so important to have "Good form." We will discuss how we can use a universal definition and apply it to all movements so you can be the judge on if your form is good or not. As Elite Physical Therapists, we have a saying at AVION PT and that's:
"It's not what exercise you do, its HOW you do it."
"Make sure you work good form!"
Another expression you may have heard before. How can you work good form if you do not know what good form is, and who determines what good form is? If you need to have "Good Form" every time you do any exercise, and the people judging that "Good form" range from you, a trainer, or a physical therapist, how would you begin to remember all of the specific details of every exercise's proper form. Exercising with proper form is critical because it ensures you get the most out of your movements and build the
muscle/strength you want, and more importantly, it helps to avoid pain or injury when doing a movement.
This seems almost like an impossible task like memorizing all the words to multiple books! Instead we should be focusing on the context and the principles that determine what dictates Good Movement, rather than regurgitating the details. It's just like how we don't need to remember the specific words in a novel, but we remember the story, theme, cause/effects, and mood/tone.
Lets break down what the words "Good Form" mean:
To be desired or approved of: AKA Approved by you or a third party (trainer/physical therapist)
A particular way in which a thing exists.
This can be open to interpretation, for example there are multiple variations of exercises such as doing bicep curls with the palms up or down. Regardless of the variation, we can all agree that a bicep curl is a bicep curl from the fact it works the biceps. Although the "form" may be slightly different, it still exists in the same manner to work the bicep brachii.
When we combine them, it means we approve of the way this thing is or exists. Meaning, when we do an exercise, we (or a third party) approve of the way it is done based on how it exists in our universe.
However, as we know this can be subjective depending on whose approval is determining the "Good" part of form. We have bias of our own and without the knowledge and experience of biomechanics, it may be difficult to ascertain the "Good" part of Good Form when doing an exercise if we are the judge.
Let's break down these words a little further to something that can be universally applied to every exercise:
Good form = muscle activation + mechanical advantage
Muscle activation refers to the motor recruitment patterns of our muscles.
What does that mean?
Is the muscle working for the movement we are doing? If you squat and feel your back and not your glutes, then we have poor muscle activation. This can lead to overuse on your back leading to pain! In that context, it can be said that we do not approve of this form due to the lack of muscle activation of the glutes, therefore is may not be "good."
In this case, you can define our exercise as having "bad form" as we (you and I) do not approve of using our back to do a squat.
In simpler terms, we can ask ourselves "What is the purpose of this particular movement and what are we trying to do with it?"
During a bicep curl, we are working the biceps brachii. If we feel our muscle in that area being "activate or recruited" we can agree that this is "Good." However, if we are using our upper traps to assist in the lift and feel that area being activated then we can agree that its "bad" strictly from a muscle activation perspective.
What is the purpose of this movement
Is it Good or Bad
By using the feeling of muscle activation to the movement pattern that is being used, we can now better understand the word "Good" for all types of movements and apply it universally to our exercise to every movement. If we are having difficulty understanding a movement or the purpose behind it, it will be difficult to get the benefits of that exercise in which case a simpler or less intense exercise might be more beneficial to use.
This is where the term "athleticism" comes into play. Someone who is more athletic has good movement patterns that can be easily adapted to multiple movements, even if they never performed them before! If you struggle with different movements, you may need to work on you athleticism!
What does the word "exercise" mean to our brain?
The word exercise at its core is: "A deliberate and structured endeavor that promotes the optimal functioning of the body's systems." To our brain however, it does not quite see it that way. To the brain it thinks: a Job that needs to be done, regardless of how the system functions.
How our brain performs exercise: Psychologically
The way this system works is we first place a demand on the body. We want to pick a box up from the floor, or a barbell with weight. We tell our brain that this is what is going to happen: I'm going to pick up this barbell up. I'm going to lift it, and then set it down.
Our brain goes: "Okay, I'll make this happen regardless of how its done." It does not stop us from doing things incorrectly, only our conscious mind can dictate that. If we demand our body to lift something beyond our capacity, it will find a way to do it, regardless of the resources (muscle activation, stability, mobility) of the body is used. That is when injury can occur and the pain that we feel is the alarm system telling us that something is wrong.
Another example of this is sprinting. In a primal state, when a lion or tiger is chasing you, the brain will pump hormones, blood, fuel, and resources to the body in a "fight or flight" response. In a life threatening scenario, the brain does not care about pain, it does not care about efficiency, and it does not care about what resources it uses to accomplish the task of "run to survive," it will worry about the "damage" later.
Although our lives are not at stake at the gym, our brain still interprets the demands as tasks that need to be done regardless of how it is performed. This is why having good form can make the difference between worrying about damage to your body later.
Mechanical Advantage: The Body's Perfect Positioning
In physic's terms, mechanical advantage "is a measure of the force amplification achieved by using a tool, mechanical device or machine system."
Our body is the tool, or mechanical device that we use to produce movement, based on a complex interaction between muscles, tendon, bones and neurological integration.
Let's make it a little simpler:
Mechanical advantage in reference to defining "Good Form," we ask ourselves:
Can the body get into the position we need and is that position the best to allow our muscles to work?
A good example of this is the deadlift. The further away the barbell is from the center the harder or more stress is placed on the back. The closer the barbell is to our center mass we are at a greater mechanical advantage. As a rule of thumb, the closer the weight or object is to the body the easier and safer it will be to move.
How Mobility is the key to Mechanical Advantage: Ask you Physical Therapist!
Mobility plays a key role in getting into the best positions for our body. This is important because this is where we can decide where the force should be transmitted that we are producing. We can either choose to have our muscles take on the force, which they can withstand the abuse due to their high ability to repair and recover, or our joints, ligaments, and tendons which is how tears, tendinopathy, and other injuries can occur.
Click here to read our previous blog on how trigger points lead to tears!
In our deadlifting example, if our hips do not have good mobility and we stop short of being able to sit into a squat to reach the barbell, we will use our spine to gain the rest of the distance. This is dangerous because as we talked earlier in the blog, using our backs to perform the deadlift is considered "bad form."
Mechanical advantage has a mobility component and a physics component. Sometimes creating good form is a matter of correcting your positions and other times its going to be fixing your mobility restrictions to allow the body to get into the best positions to perform lifts and movements.
Does all of this makes sense?
The elusive concept of "Good Form" in fitness and exercise is not as subjective or complex as it might initially seem. While it's true that individual perspectives and biases can influence our judgment, there is a universal definition that can be applied to every exercise, movement, and person.
"Good Form" boils down to two essential components: Muscle activation and mechanical advantage. Muscle activation ensures that the targeted muscles are doing the work they're supposed to during an exercise. If your back is doing the lifting in a squat instead of your glutes, it's a clear indication of poor muscle activation, and this can lead to pain and injury over time.
Mechanical advantage, on the other hand, refers to positioning your body in the most efficient way possible to maximize the effectiveness of the movement. This becomes evident in exercises like deadlifts, where bringing the weight closer to your center of mass reduces stress on your back, and in turn, ensures a safer and more effective lift.
When we shift our focus from the abstract notion of "Good Form" to the practical concept of "Good Movement," we gain clarity and purpose in our fitness routines. It's not about memorizing the intricate details of every exercise but understanding the fundamental principles that make movement effective and safe. By asking ourselves the purpose of each movement and assessing whether our muscles are engaged correctly and we are in the best mechanical advantage, we can universally apply the idea of "Good Movement" to all aspects of our fitness journey.
Remember that our brains don't always prioritize safety and efficiency during exercise, much like a primal survival response, and that's why mastering good movement is essential. It's not just about looking good or lifting heavy; it's about taking care of your body and preventing potential injuries down the road.
So, the next time someone encourages you to "work on good form," think instead of "working on good movement." Embrace these principles, and you'll not only enhance your performance but also safeguard your long-term fitness and well-being.