You probably already know this, but if not, I will simply say that performing exercises with proper technique is difficult. Any qualified fitness professional can walk into almost any gym in the country and point out form flaws in the vast majority of exercisers, regardless if they are beginners or have been training for years. The simple truth is exercising correctly is much tougher than people realize or want to admit and much of the time the biggest roadblock to proper technique is your own body.
People often make the assumption that their body will perform exercises correctly once they understand the proper technique. Knowing how an exercise should be performed is essential, but it is only the first step. Even if you know how to perform an exercise correctly, it does not mean your body will automatically do what you want. Exercise technique improves over time and each exercise will progress at a different rate, but it can take months or even years to develop great technique with some exercises.
However, just because someone exercises for years, it does not mean they have great or even acceptable exercise technique. The only thing it really suggests is that their movement patterns are probably heavily ingrained. This means that if they have bad form, it will take a lot of effort to improve their technique, because their movements have been repeated so many times that they feel correct, even if they are technically wrong.
It may sound strange that people who have been exercising for years can have bad form, but if people training in the average gym are any indication, it is probably true more often than not. The reason is because most people are never really taught how to perform exercises correctly, so they often end up repeating the same mistakes over and over until their flaws become ingrained into their movement patterns.
I believe these technique problems are so common, because other than those who have been educated in human physiology and biomechanics, few people really understand how muscles and joints are supposed to work and move. As a result, people typically try to learn correct technique by paying attention to how their body feels while performing exercises. Paying attention to how your body feels is very useful for many things, but learning to perform exercises correctly is not always one of them.
There is a common belief that if a movement feels right or seems natural, then the technique is correct. While this may be true in some cases, there is not a cause and effect relationship between a movement feeling good and the movement being technically correct. Correct form is the result of proper body alignment along with the right muscles contracting in the right sequence. However, when exercises feel right, it is generally due to something different.
When a movement feels correct, it is really just because that movement is what your body is used to. Take walking as an example; the vast majority of people would probably say they walk correctly, but very few people really have good walking technique. One of the most common form problems is people’s feet being turned out when they walk, instead of pointing straight ahead and staying in line with the hips and knees as they should.
When a person who normally walks with their toes turned out is asked to walk with their toes pointing straight ahead, they usually say things like “it feels strange” or “it feels wrong.” Even though it feels strange or wrong, it is technically the right way to walk. Fortunately, if the person continually works on walking with their toes pointed forward, it will eventually start feeling normal and walking with their toes pointed out will begin to feel strange.
As with walking, exercises also feel “good” or “normal” based on how your body is used to moving and which muscles typically contract. This becomes problematic when trying to learn how to exercise correctly, because your body will naturally guide your movements and muscle contractions towards the actions your body is already comfortable performing. This may not sound too bad, but it often has a negative effect on exercise technique.
This may sound strange, but the real problem is that when left to its own devices, the human body is very lazy. When exercising or doing any other activity, your body will naturally try to make the activity as easy as possible. This can manifest itself in various ways, but many common exercise technique problems result from an over reliance on your strongest muscles.
Everyone has some muscles that are proportionally stronger than others. The stronger the muscle and the more often you typically use it, the more likely your body will try to contract it while exercising. If you perform exercises primarily designed to work your strongest muscle, it may not be much of a problem, but a good training program should be designed to improve muscles that are relatively weak in order to minimize muscle imbalances.
When you try to perform exercises targeting weaker or infrequently used muscles, your body will naturally contract any stronger muscles in the area to help out. For example, many people’s muscles in the front of their shoulders are disproportionately stronger than the muscles in the back of their shoulders. If a person with this issue does an exercise to work the back of the shoulders, the front shoulder muscles should be kept as relaxed as possible, so the muscles in back can do the majority of the work.
The problem is that when your body performs an exercise, the natural approach is to go from the starting position to the ending position using whatever muscles will make it easiest. In this example, since the muscles in the back of the shoulder are relatively weaker, your body will try to use the stronger front shoulder muscles as much as possible, thus making the exercise easier. Of course this defeats the purpose of the exercise, which is to focus on the muscles in the back of the shoulder.
In addition to your body contracting muscles that you may not want to use during an exercise, it is also common for postural changes to occur. Body alignment is always an important part of proper technique and it is possible for your body to alter your position to make the exercise easier. Small changes in body position can alter the amount of leverage your muscles have, so they can move more weight with less actual effort. Other changes could result in your body being in a position where you could use more momentum or shift some of the work from your muscles to your joints.
These changes are all problematic, at least when it comes to learning proper exercise technique, because they shift the focus away from the muscle(s) you are trying to target during the exercise. They also cause you to learn incorrect neurological motor patterns, which ultimately have to be retrained in order to learn the correct form. All of these potential problems might make it sound as though it is almost impossible to learn correct technique, but it is not all bad news.
Throughout this post I have mentioned that your body will naturally do things, such as contract your strongest muscles or change your body position to make exercises easier. However, your body will only make these changes if you are not concentrating on your form and focusing on your muscles and body position. If you don’t think about what you are doing while exercising, then your body will do what it wants. You have the ability to prevent many form problems from occurring, but your mind has to be focused on what you are doing.
I should also point out that it is not necessary to have perfect technique, but you should always try to perform exercises with the best technique possible. It is the act of trying to use the right muscles and maintain proper body position that prevents your body from corrupting your form to make the exercises easier. Even if your form is not ideal, it will still be better than if you simply let your body do what naturally occurs.
Over time, your muscle contractions and movement patterns will become more consistent. If you have been working on developing correct technique, your good movement patterns will become more ingrained and your body will be more likely to have good form without as much conscious intervention on your part. When this happens, your body’s previously incorrect “natural” movements will be replaced by the new correct movement patterns that you have trained.
In other words, correct technique will be the same thing as your body’s natural or default movement patterns, which is the ultimate goal when learning new exercises, sports, or movements in general. On the other hand, if correct form is never learned in the first place, then the incorrect technique will end up being repeated over and over, potentially for years into the future.
Making the effort to practice good exercise technique will not only help you avoid the muscle and joint problems associated with poor form, but it will also improve the effectiveness of the exercises and give you better overall results. Since exercises are meant to be done throughout your life and you will likely repeat them thousands of times, it only makes sense that learning proper technique should be a main priority. The true benefits gained from exercising with proper form may not be experienced right away, but you will certainly notice the difference years down the road.