February 4, 2011

The importance of proper form

Recently, I’ve been considering writing a post titled something like, “too strong for my own good,” in which I’d write about how, for some exercises, I’m just too strong to keep doing them.

For example, under Rachel Cosgrove’s plan, one of my workouts involves three sets of planks. One of the main principles behind her plan is that every workout, you’re supposed to increase the weight/intensity of what you do – which with planks means going longer and longer. However, I’m now up to 2 minutes per set (three sets total), which means I’m planking for 6 minutes. Today, I was running really late and just didn’t have time – so I did 2:00, then 1:00, then 1:00. Still a bit of a workout, but I felt guilty that I didn’t push myself to the max like I usually try to do. But even when I do three sets of 2 minutes, that is a long time to just be lying there. Call me an ADD-ridden product of my generation, but I get bored doing that. I’ve found that if I line up my phone just right, I can check my email while I plank… but at some point, enough is enough. I like a quick, intense workout, so I can’t very well start reading books when I get up to 5 minutes per set (hopefully)!

Another exercise that I struggle with is the single leg bent knee deadlift. I’m up to using 50 pound weights for this one, because my legs are darn strong. Unfortunately, my arms just aren’t quite up to the challenge… particularly when I’ve already punished them with 20 pound alternating overhead presses and 30 pound dumbbell rows. While my legs aren’t yet shaking and sore from the weight, my arms/hands can’t hold the dumbbells anymore (even though all they’re doing is hanging there). Today, since I was at my gym in NYC instead of a tiny hotel gym, I experimented with using barbells for my deadlifts and that helped a lot (compared to dumbbells – somehow it distributed the weight so it was easier to hold), but it still wasn’t great. By my last few sets, my arms were more exhausted than my legs, and I was unhappy that I felt like I hadn’t really given my legs a complete workout.

But this morning, while doing my dumbbell rows, I got my comeuppance, and decided that my original post should most definitely not be written… or at least not with that title. A trainer had been in the weight room with two women while I was doing my workout, and after watching me do my rows, he came over to me for a quick minute, warned me that the way I was doing them might hurt my back, and told me I should put one leg behind me to brace myself. While I was mortified, I thanked him for the help and switched to doing it his way. I was almost disappointed to realize it was my last set – now it would look like I was skulking out of the weight room after he was nice enough to correct my form, when that wasn’t the case at all. I briefly considered doing a set of something else to “prove” that I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was running short on time (good thing, because I was being silly – there was nothing to prove).

Later today, I looked at Rachel’s book, and I wasn’t doing them exactly the way she had demonstrated… but she wasn’t using the approach of one leg behind the other (lunge position) either, so I wasn’t that far off base. Still – the difference between a flat and rounded back when performing a rep can definitely change whether you get injured or not. In this case, I wasn’t “cheating” and making the exercise easier in order to lift more weight, but my form had definitely changed from the form I used to use way back when I was using 5 pound dumbbells instead of 30 pounders.

Now I’m a bit worried. Without a personal trainer to monitor me, who knows what else I’m doing wrong? At some point this weekend, I want to sit down with the book and a full-length mirror and go through each of the exercises slowly, without weights, comparing my form to the demonstration in the book. I know it’s not quite as good as a personal trainer… but it’s a start.

What do you do to make sure you’re using proper form in your weight training routine?


13 thoughts on “The importance of proper form”

  1. I am a first time commenter but have been reading your blog since you were still trying to finish the 50 marathon challenge. My best friend & I are also following the Rachel Cosgrove program (I am only in week 3) and we always are talking about how we have no idea if we are doing things correctly and we are really needing some guidance! I told my husband about a few of the moves and he (experienced athlete/weight lifter) commented that all of these exercises sound VERY form-dependent. I am dragging him with me to the gym this weekend to supervise as form is so important!

  2. My form is consistently awful. I’m terrible at knowing where my body parts exist in space. So, I have a personal trainer. And it’s his job to tell me what I’m doing wrong, because otherwise, I’d have no idea.

  3. A trainer can indeed be helpful! But mirrors are useful too – you can really see whether your back is flat or rounded, check regularly and correct as needed.

    Gloves will help with the deadlift issue. And even more to the point, there are some ways you can mix up the plank so that it will be much more challenging. Try it holding a bosu ball upside down (i.e. the round side faces down, hold handles with flat side up); or with feet on the top of a bosu ball and forearms on a stability ball. This is a more effective way to improve fitness than holding a plank indefinitely!

  4. Yes, what Jenny said about planks. There are tons of ways to mix them up and make them harder, not just going longer. Like side planks, and alternating lifting one leg and the other, or one arm and the other.

  5. I am always embarassed when a trainer is in the gym,i was on the second day of Rachel this week and a personal trainer came by and gave me his card, I know the are helpful but it just makes me feel self-conscious.

  6. Form *is* important, but I’ve found that I generally know when I’m doing something wrong. In your case, the trainer is partly right – the lunge-style one-arm row is more stable, and will also help isolate the muscles you want to be using instead of letting your back help hoist the weight. Most people have weak cores, which you clearly do not, seeing that you can do a plank for 2 minutes, and keeping a stable position is safer.
    There are sometimes many ways to do the same exercise. Find what works for you. If it hurts in a bad way, stop.
    Have you seen http://exrx.net/ ? It has little videos or animated gifs of a bazillion different exercises and is very straightforward and simple. You can also look up videos on youtube, which is what I did when I started doing kettlebells, and ended up getting complimented on my form by one of the trainers in the gym. Keep lifting!

  7. Oooh I totally know what you mean! Have you tried wearing a weighted vest while you plank/lunge? We did that with R. Cosgrove and it does help burn you out faster so you’re not hanging around for 10 minutes waiting for failure.

    As for form – you are so right about the importance! I’m lucky in that a couple of the Gym Buddies are personal trainers:) Glad you were able to take the help when offered to you!

  8. CBK, keep up the great work! I am jealous that you can bring in your husband to help πŸ™‚

    Rose, maybe I should consider a trainer…

    Jenny, I’ve been using mirrors, but think I just don’t have quite the proper grasp of what’s okay and what’s not. I am bringing the book with me to hopefully remedy that!

    Sherijung, thanks for the plank suggestions!

    Lisa, I totally know what you mean… that’s why I was embarrassed to stop right after he corrected me! I wanted to “prove” that I could take the critique πŸ™‚

    Tess, I’m definitely going to check out that website – I like the idea of having admirable form πŸ™‚

    Miles, that’s what I was doing, but I guess it wasn’t working too well! Haha.

    Charlotte, I don’t have access to a weighted vest when I’m traveling, but will look into getting one for when I’m home.

  9. I am also doing Rachel Cosgrove and start phase 2 today. I considered hiring a trainer to just help with my form on the exercises I’m doing, but I don’t know how helpful that would be if the trainer isn’t familiar with the specific moves or if she is insulted because I don’t want a full program and won’t plan on being a regular client. So basically, I’m trying to just carefully read the exercise descriptions and not hurt myself.

  10. Also, for more variations on the planks, you can check out either the New Rules of Lifting for Abs or the Womens Health big Book of Exercises. I think both show a bunch of plank progressions you can do.

  11. Stacey, great suggestions! I actually just took BOTH of those books back to the library without even reading them (they were due back) but am planning to get them out again next time I’m back in NYC πŸ™‚

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