Every once in a while, my many hours at the gym lead me to see something that eventually leads to the perfect blog post topic. Today was one of those days.
My current teaching schedule makes it somewhat challenging to get in weight workouts as often as I’d like throughout the week, so I decided to stick around for a bit after my classes this morning to fit in a little back and chest. As I was transitioning from one exercise to the next, I happened to catch a man out of the corner of my eye … which leads to my topic for today.
No, it’s not what to wear to attract a mate in the gym (trust me, I am NOT the best source for that … although I do make an effort to appear pretty put together despite the sweat). It’s not how to put your weights back where they belong (although also super-important), or remembering to wipe down your machines (ditto).
No, I want to talk (write?) about form. Namely, proper form, in which your muscle, not your momentum, helps you to power through an exercise.
I happened to catch a man out of the corner of my eye as I was transitioning from one exercise to the next, and it took every ounce of me to not walk over to him and ask if he had any clue what he was doing. He was sitting on a bench, literally SWINGING 30-lb. weights, in what I think was intended to be bicep curls. I’m quite confident every muscle from his waist up was helping him to lift the weights. They were clearly too heavy for him, but he just kept swinging along.
That said, I will admit to being a stickler for form. I’m one of those people who tends to stare intently at myself in the mirror when I’m doing … well … just about any exercise. And it’s not because I like to look at myself (though I am one who can’t walk past a mirror without a quick check) – it’s because I like to keep tabs on the alignment of my body as I go through a workout, because it’s so incredibly easy to not even realize when your body slips out of place.
I get that this is the age of crossfit, in which form is sometimes not considered the most important element. I get that not every lift will look perfect, and that sometimes there will be a little compensation from other muscles to make up for a weakness. What I don’t understand is the rationale behind flying through an exercise, literally throwing a weight, majority of the body in motion. This does not help you achieve anything. Except perhaps a trip to the chiropractor.
So, what makes for good form? First off, it starts with the core. I think absolutely everyone should do Pilates – and it’s not because I’m a Pilates instructor, but rather because Pilates is the most comprehensive program that has consistently shown to improve core strength. A strong core means increased stability throughout the entire body.
Here’s a little exercise to get you started: stand tall, with your legs about shoulder width apart. Imagine you are corseted – pull your bellybutton in tight, as if you are trying to get it to touch your spine. At the same time, think about tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets – if you’re doing it correctly, you should feel a little taller, with a relaxed upper body, the chest strong and almost pushed forward. Feel pretty stable? You should. Make a conscious effort to keep yourself aligned this way as you lift (or run, or cycle).
Once the core is engaged, take a moment to become aware of the rest of your body. I like to refer to it as using your “muscle vs. momentum.” In theory (though not always practice), you want to be able to stop the motion at almost any point. If you can’t, that means you’re using your momentum instead of your muscles – and getting a lot less out of an exercise than you could be.
Bottom line: don’t waste your time! If you have to use momentum, or recruit extra muscles to get through an exercise, lessen your weight, or try a modified version of an exercise. It will keep you safer from injury, and most likely you’ll start to see results more quickly, too. Not to mention, you look a lot less ridiculous when you take the time to do the work the right way!