Good Form: The Key to Quicker Progress

People vastly underestimate the power of good form. But it’s amazing how this one little thing can make such a big difference.

One of the most important things to focus on not only when you are new to exercise, but at any time, is the positioning of your body – what is commonly referred to as your “form.” It’s an easy way to make your workout more effective, lessen your chances of injury, and, quite honestly, keep you from looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a stickler for form. If you’ve ever taken a class with me, undoubtedly you’ve had to endure the repeated chorus of “use your muscle, not your momentum,” “tuck your bellybutton into your spine,” “drop your shoulders down into your back pockets,” “keep your heads up,” “make sure your arms line up with [fill in the blank],” or one of the many other form cues I have a tendency to throw out there. I can blame – and thank – a particularly fantastic trainer I worked with several years ago, who to this day I still credit for teaching me all the little form, routine and nutrition tricks that really do have a huge impact on my workouts today.

That said, here are a couple quick little fixes that can help you get the most out of your workouts, with less chance of ending up with an injury:

  • Stand up straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re lifting, running, walking, or doing something else upright. It makes me INSANE when I see someone crunched over a cardio machine (You know why it feels easier? Because it is. Don’t be lazy.) The more you focus on your posture, the better your body will feel both during and after. Remember: pick standing over seated when you can – it engages the core muscles for a little extra work.
  • Think about your joints. Keep your elbows tight to your sides for bicep curls. Focus on keeping your shoulders down and lifting with your wrists for lateral raises. And whatever you do, don’t let your shoulders creep up into your ears (it’s terrible for your neck)!
  • Be aware of your core. There’s a reason it’s called a core – it is the center of your body, the powerhouse for everything you do. A tight core means stabilized muscles … which are easier to control … which are easier to keep in good form. This is exactly why I recommend Pilates for everyone – it strengthens the core (abs, back, hips), which is only going to make it easier for you to strengthen everything else.
  • Don’t be afraid to start light. I know, women are constantly being told not to be afraid to lift heavy, and men aren’t going to be seen lifting 10 lb. weights. But it’s always best to lift a little lighter than you think you really need to if you are new to something (or trying to correct form). It’ll help you build muscle memory … meaning good form can come naturally from there on out.

Take a little time to focus on your form during your next workout. It may feel a little different at first – but that’s a good thing! And please, PLEASE … stop hanging all over those cardio machines and throwing your weights. You people make me nervous.

If You Pay Attention, You Have Your Answer (a.k.a. Don’t Take My Stuff)!

I’ve discovered there are two kinds of people when it comes to strength training: those who ask you if you are using something you clearly are not, and those that just try to pick up and walk away something you clearly are. If you’re in the gym as often as I am, you come across both at least once a week. For me, this morning it was the latter.

Let me start to explaining that all of my weight workouts consist of circuits and compound exercises. I spent way too much time in the gym to begin with, so the less time I can waste (by grouping exercises to reduce the amount of rest time I need to take) I do. So you’ll understand my confusion, as I was finishing up a set of kickbacks, to see this man checking out the weights I was using for the second exercise (which I was about two reps from beginning). And then trying to walk away with them. And no, he didn’t even ask if I was using them.

Now, I’m all for sharing (I made it through kindergarten with flying colors, after all), but why would a person ever think it’s okay to try to walk off with something that someone else is obviously using? I mean, I could understand if it was something that wasn’t so obvious – if I were using something on the other side of the gym, or perhaps even on the other side of the cables or something. But these weights were right next to the bench. Yes, the one I was, at the moment, actively using.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that I have a laundry list of gym pet peeves, but this one is pretty high on the list. I can think of MANY times I’ve moved on to a different exercise or changing my plan for the day, simply because something I wanted to use was currently unavailable. And let’s be honest – this happened at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. You aren’t going to have to wait for anything you need for long – if at all. Be flexible … and don’t be sneaky or ask stupid questions!

How do you deal with these sorts of situations? Comment below!

Friday Training … Had I Forgot How Tough It Should Be?

On Friday afternoon, I did something I haven’t done in quite a while … I let one of the trainers at my gym put me through the ringer. I have been feeling kind of stuck in my routine as of late – feeling like my workouts are the same thing, different day, or feeling like I’m a slave to my schedule (that said, I love my classes, but I strictly teach two days a week, and on the one day that I only teach one, it can be a challenge to head upstairs to lift once I’ve climbed off the bike). So when I got an offer for a beatdown from a pro? Naturally, I took it.

Having worked with a trainer consistently – and learned a lot of the lessons I pass along to my classes today from my trainers – it was really nice to get that tired-but-it-feels-good-even though-I-feel-like-crap feeling again (not sure a certain someone appreciated it too much when I showed up to his door looking spent later that evening, though…). As I was taking a few seconds to catch my breath, one of my regulars came up to me to ask why I was working so hard. I told her it was because “big man’s making me do it” … but the truth is, I’ve always had a thing for those breathing hard, dripping sweat kind of workouts. I don’t like to do things the easy way. That’s not how you get real results. And if I can’t get it right away? Well, I’m sure not going to tell you. But you’ll be able to tell in my eyes that I’m going to get it if it kills me.

I guess you could say that the monotony that has plagued my workouts as of late is just a byproduct of the rest of my life feeling like it’s almost stuck idling. You can’t really complain that there’s too much going wrong, yet at the same time, you feel as if you could do something great  if you just knew how. Perhaps a little change – albeit only this one day (please, my full-time job took away our fitness reimbursement last fall, I can’t afford training now) – can be the spark I need to get back to where I want to be. Have I gotten lazy? I don’t think that’s the right word. Content, perhaps? Maybe. But that’s not where I want to be. I am a believer that when you stop wanting more is when you stop making progress. So I guess this might be time to make a commitment to start picking things up a little bit again, because I miss that ache, that sweat, that exhaustion that follows a good, hard workout.

Ladies, Put Down the Girlie Weights and Start Lifting Like a Woman

I hear it all the time. “I don’t lift, because I don’t want to get big.” Ladies … please stop using this excuse. It’s invalid, and it makes you sound clueless.

It’s amazing that this misconception continues to run rampant in gyms all over the world. Ladies, picking up a weight over 5 lbs. (and that isn’t pink) is not going to make you “big.” As a girl with a body that puts muscle on pretty easily, I can honestly say that no matter how hard and how often I’ve lifted throughtout the last 10 years, I have yet to take on the shape of a bodybuilder.

Let’s sum things up like this: lifting weights does not make you huge. Eating protein will not make you start sprouting bodybuilder muscles. What will the two do? Turn you into a lean, strong, sexy, healthy, and yes, feminine-looking woman. So don’t be afraid of the weight room. Your muscles – and your bones, too – will thank you, especially as you age.

To debunk some of the myths that are out there:


Let’s Talk About Cleaning Up After Ourselves…

If there is one thing that makes me crazy in the gym, it’s people who do not put their weights back where they belong when they are done using them. But that’s not what this post is about.

I want to talk about using good judgement when you are cleaning up after yourself. Namely, being aware of the people around you and thinking about the impact of your actions on the people around you.

So, this morning, I went into the gym, ran about 6.5 miles (this was actually about twice as much as I thought I’d start with … but I felt really good this morning, so I just went with it), then made my way back downstairs for a little bit of light leg and shoulder work. One of the last exercises that I chose to do – mostly because I know I don’t do it enough – was the leg press. So I loaded up about 250 lbs., settled myself in, and got working on a three-exercise circuit (wide legs for 15, feet together for 20, then a little calf raise for another 20). About halway through, the couple on the machine next to me finished up with their exercises. Surprisingly, they started unloading the machine before they went on to their next exercise (let’s be honest … if there is one machine that people never unload the weights from, it is a leg press).

Which is where the little pet peeve of mine reared its ugly head.

One thing that I’ve always been really careful about is only returning plates to either the free-standing racks, or, if there isn’t one nearby, onto a machine that is not currently in use. Which of these did this couple decide to do? Neither. They decided to put them on racks on the machine that I was using.

Now, keep in mind that my gym is huge – and they take advantage of as much of the space as they can. Meaning that there are plenty of other machines with open racks on which to return plates. At about 10 a.m. on a Saturday, maybe 15% of the machines in that general area were actually in use (yes, this is why I LOVE a gym on an early-ish Saturday morning). So I fail to understand why my machine, albeit the closest to the one they were using, was the one they chose.

Here’s the thing … it wouldn’t bother me so much had the machine not started SHAKING as I was mid-press. It’s unsafe. How do they know that something couldn’t happen as a result of the shaking to send the 250 lbs. atop the machine down onto my significantly less heavy body? I could have been crushed. Luckily, I wasn’t, but still … I couldn’t shake the thought that the shaking machine would bring me to my untimely death (okay, that’s a little dramatic).

Bottom line: be aware of the people around you when you are cleaning up after yourself. You never know when your actions could lead to another person’s injury. And as always, put your weights back where they belong! Trust me, taking two seconds to keep your gym clean makes a  world of difference to everyone.

Your Momentum Doesn’t Impress Me. Your Good Form Will.

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!