“Maintain proper form”, is a phrase that often finds its way into most exercise articles. It’s overheard day in and day out in fitness centers across America, but do you really know what it means, or how to achieve it? “Form” is a word that gets plenty of application but not nearly enough explanation. Your idea of exercise form could be the difference between breaking a personal record or sustaining a career ending injury. This concept is far too important to remain suspended in ambiguity. Considering exercise form in a different mindset can expand your understanding and opportunities for improvement.
Definition of Exercise Form
At present, your working definition of exercise form is likely, “The specific alignment of the bones and joints relative to each other in space”. This conventional understanding of form does not address the most important mechanical problems weightlifter’s encounter. Most recreational lifters believe that proper form can be readily achieved with the right amount of knowledge, this is not always correct.
We have all seen a squatter who cannot reach proper depth; an incomplete knowledge of form acquisition will produce the comment “go deeper next set”. This comment will only help a squatter who has the ability to preform the lift but chooses not to. Often, the squatter is plagued by tightness and improper motor control, making it physically impossible to squat deeper in their current condition. People use the term “bad form” to describe a dysfunctional movement pattern without acknowledging the functionality of the person (tight /lack of motor control).
Telling a dysfunctional person to move in a functional pattern is a waste of breath. This is like telling a short person to “be taller” in order to reach a shelf. The dysfunctional person cannot fix imbalances, tightness and motor control instantly, making the words “just squat deeper” not only ineffective but also dangerous. So, how do we address the improper form of a dysfunctional person?
Types of Exercise Form
To answer this question, I want you to start thinking about form as two separate types. The first type is the way you already perceive exercise form; I’ve named this type extrinsic form. This type of form will vary depending on the exercise; it concerns the functionality of the movement pattern. Your extrinsic form is a product of superficial changes you make to align your body in space, such as the distance between your hands and feet, the placement of the bar across your back, or the angles you make between specific bones. These adjustments can be made instantly within your body’s current condition
Unfortunately, these superficial adjustments are limited by the second type of form, which we will call intrinsic form. Intrinsic form is the alignment of the structures inside your body, and remains similar throughout most of the movements you preform. Intrinsic form is affected by the condition of your tissues and relates to the functionality of your body. Let us use the movement of the leg in a squat to understand the difference between these form types.
When preforming a squat, the adjustments in extrinsic form a squatter can make are the distance between the feet, the direction the toes point, and the position of the knee in relation to the hip and ankle. The intrinsic form of the leg during the squat is affected by muscle and tendon tightness. For example, the tracking of the patella (knee cap) is affected by tightness in one of the individual quadriceps muscles. This dysfunctional alignment in the structures of your knee will also be present when you are not preforming the exercise, such as when running, walking or standing. You can not get under the bar and tell a tight muscle in your leg to loosen in order to achieve the proper extrinsic form. Inability to achieve proper extrinsic squat form due to improper intrinsic form is a cold reality for many lifters. So what can you do to rectify your intrinsic form?
Changing Exercise Form
You need to impart change in specific tissues. The most effective way to do this is through stretching, strengthening and mobilization. Though they wont use the term the good news is that countless articles detailing ways to improve Intrinsic form have already been written. All you have to search are the terms “improve or better”, “squat, bench, pull up…etc.” and the terms “stretching, strengthening, mobilization or mobility”. Before you run off to stretch, strengthen, and mobilize, understand that proper form requires a harmony between extrinsic and intrinsic form. As your intrinsic form improves you will find it easier to achieve proper extrinsic form. As your extrinsic form improves you will reduce the creation of muscular imbalances and tightness, which would normally degrade intrinsic form. Proper form is not mastered in days; it is a learning experience which evolves over time. Thinking about these factors of exercise form separately allows you to compartmentalize your training so the proper attention can be given to each part. The next time you hear the words “proper form”, think about the extrinsic form of the exercise and the intrinsic form you must posses to properly execute it. This way, in addition to you learning the body position, you can address your unique weakness, tightness, and motor control problems.