When I lived in another city not too long ago, I can remember this guy who worked out at my gym who made a major impression on me. He wasn’t a terribly big guy, maybe 3 inches shorter than me, but he was totally stacked: Very muscular, very cut, and quite strong.
I also noticed two things about him as he trained. First, his form was impeccable. Second, he didn’t use huge weights much of the time.
In fact, many times there were people whose physiques were significantly less developed than his using weights a good deal heavier than what he used. We chatted about that for awhile, and I walked away with a conclusion: Form means almost everything.
I can tell you now that if there is one decision I do not regret in my training, it’s this: taking a look at my lifts, ascertaining my form, and scaling back the weight. And then, of course, doing the exercise as perfectly as I can.
It’s a humbling thing to do, mostly because other people in the gym just don’t. I’ll end up doing reps with weight that is less than what other fellas are pushing, but what I’ve gotten out of it has been pretty rewarding. Real strength. Symmetrical development. And, best of all, no injuries.
So there are some rules I follow when I lift. They are:
Watch your form. There is no sense “cheating” on an exercise just to get an extra rep out, or to be able to do more weight. When you cheat on an exercise, you’re cheating yourself. Any fool can kip a bunch of pull-ups or stack a truckload of weight on the bar and bounce it off his chest. You might look like a stud in front of people who don’t know any better, but it’s a waste of time and you won’t get stronger. Have a slice of humble pie, dial back the weight and do the exercise correctly. When you get to the point during a set where you break form, your set is done.
Forced reps are overrated. Having a guy pull a bar off your chest when you’re gassed is doing far less for you than you think. Help on a rep you can’t quite get up is one thing. Muscle failure has been achieved. Anything beyond that is doing very little, if any, good.
Muscle tension is your friend. Yeah, there is a place for explosive moves. But most weight training exercises are best performed in slower, controlled movements. This keeps tension on the muscles constant. That eccentric (elongating, negative motion of the rep) movement can be just as beneficial as your concentric (contracting, positive motion of the rep) movement. I find these most beneficial on the big upper body muscles like your chest and back. And if you’re looking to build up those calves, pauses when your calf is at its most stretched will make monsters out of those things.
Don’t be afraid of lowering the amount of weight you use. Seriously. Do I miss the clanging of 6+ plates doing reps while squatting? Sure. It makes you feel powerful. But I feel much better about doing the exercise right, going deep (top of the thighs below parallel) and keeping my back and hips in correct alignment. And as fun as it would be to be slinging around 50-pound dumbbells doing standing curls, I’d rather sit on an incline bench and go low and slow and really feel some work being done on the ole biceps. That said…
If you really want to get stronger, lift heavy. But lift heavy within your abilities. It’s pointless to get on a bench and crank out 20 or 30 reps. Do sets of 8 reps, and work up to your heavy set at 4 reps. But in doing so, make sure that you’re lifting correctly. If you break form, you’re going too heavy.
Hard work and ambition are needed in any successful training program. But these attributes need to be guided by humility. When I was using bigger weight with poorer form, sure, I could “brag” about this max or that, but I also battled shoulder, back and knee problems. Today, I lift as often and as hard as ever. I run more, too. And those injury bugs are way down. The conclusion: better form has helped me become stronger — and healthier.
What essentials do you go by in your training? Add to this list in the comments below.
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