As discussed in previous articles, your form is extremely important in achieving an effective workout. Improving and maintaining proper form is far more important than increasing how much you can bench, or how long you can keep going on the treadmill. Your form will determine how the exercises you perform imprint themselves on your body.
The number one rule in every single weight lifting exercise is to keep a straight spine. There is no reason to ever curve your spine or to angle it in any way. Think of your spine as a fixed mast that must remain upright during every rep and every set. This will allow you to reach certain muscles in your back and shoulders that cannot be reached with poor form. It will also prevent injury and will in time correct bad posture.
Another cornerstone of bodybuilding is learning to isolate individual muscles. This means that when you are working one particular muscle group, you should not be putting any strain on any other part of your body. This will most effectively target and develop the muscle group in question, and prevent over-training in the surrounding muscles. For instance, during the classic bicep curl, keep your shoulders back and down and relax your chest and neck as much as possible. Focus on keeping your elbows pinned at your side throughout the motion. Look straight ahead and focus entirely on completing the next rep as perfectly as possible. Breathe out on the way up, and in on the way down. Keep your legs shoulder width apart, with your knees slightly bent. This will focus your concentration and energy entirely on your biceps and give you the most efficient workout possible.
Choose weights that allow you to complete a set without compromising your form by even 1%. The moment you break form, you’ve effectively stopped your workout. It will not help you one iota to choose weights that force you to compromise on form. You may impress your girlfriend or your gym buddy, but in the end you will lose. Sometimes the hints are subtle that your form has been broken, and you must pay attention to every signal sent by your body. For instance, while doing leg curls, you will notice that if the resistance is too high your back starts to arch away from the back of the seat to try to accommodate for the strain. This is a sign that you need to decrease the weight. You need to keep decreasing the weight until you are able to complete an entire set with your lower back in full contact with the seat – nothing short of this is acceptable.
Another example of form-breaking is on the incline bench press. If you choose weights that are too high, your back will start to arch and lose contact with the bench. You will then find it easier to complete the reps, but this is not because you have suddenly magically become stronger. It is because you are turning the incline bench press into a regular bench press by straightening your back relative to the bar. Decrease the weight until you can perform the sets with full contact against the bench.
Do not allow yourself to perform any exercises in a fast or jerking motion. This is especially important near the end of a set when failure is close. You must not respond to muscle failure by compromising form. Finish as much as you can with perfect form, and stop when this form has been broken. Anything else is sloppy and will do damage. This is why there are mirrors at the gym – use them to gauge the symmetry of your motions.
When doing lat pull downs, make sure you lean back when you pull the bar toward you. Also make sure you engage the back muscles properly by beginning the motion purely with your shoulders. This means that the exercise is actually split up into two movements that eventually flow into one continuous motion. The first is the motion of the shoulders from a position high up next to your face, to one as low as they will go vertically downwards. The rest of the motion is completed by the arms and should end with the bar halfway between your collarbone and your nipples. Keep your thumb and fingers on the same side of the bar – this will avoid tension in your forearms. The most common problem with this exercise is that the resistance is poorly translated to the back muscles, due to the fact that a lot of the strain remains in the arms. This must be consciously fought, by pinching the shoulder blades together toward the end of the motion. Once again you should focus very deliberately on the muscle group you are targeting, and do your utmost to reach them during every repetition. The same idea holds for the seated row. The shoulder blades should be brought together at the end of each rep and the shoulders should start and finish every movement.