Ask the experts
I'm often confused about proper form and technique when lifting free weights. It seems as if everyone has a different technique at the gym. How important is it to maintain proper form when weight lifting?
Most people agree that "proper form" during lifting is important, but data to prove that proper form will prevent injuries, or improve performance, does not exist. In the American College of Sports Medicine position statement, "Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults," it is written, "It is important to note that proper technique is used for any exercise velocity in order to reduce any risk of injury," but no research is provided to back up this statement.
In children, the story is much the same. There is little evidence that proper form will prevent injuries. However, there have been several reports published indicating that few injuries occur in children enrolled in carefully supervised weight-training programs, suggesting that perhaps proper form is at least part of the equation. Reports like these, and a wealth of data demonstrating the benefits of weightlifting for kids, prompted the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) to team up and give the okay for kids' weightlifting. In June 2001, these organizations published a joint position statement titled "Strength Training by Children and Adolescents." In the statement, they write, "Strength training programs for preadolescents and adolescents can be safe and effective if proper resistance training techniques and safety precautions are followed," and they recommend the following for kids who want to lift weights:
- Close adult supervision by a competent professional
- Realistic expectations, based upon age and developmental stage (pre-, during, and post-pubescence)
- One to three sets, 12-15 reps with lighter weights to start, with progression to 6-12 reps with heavier weights, two to three times per week
- Single and multi-joint exercises should be included but started with light weights until proper form is learned
- Gradual progression of training loads: 5%-10% versus five to 10 pounds
There's another factor to consider when thinking about form. That is, if proper form were to be proven effective for injury prevention and performance improvement, what would the form look like? For instance, during biceps curls, you're supposed to stand up straight and keep your shoulders back, and weightlifting books contain suggestions like sitting up straight and relaxing your shoulders when doing leg extensions, but so little of this advice is evidence-based that it's questionable if it should be recommended universally. Perhaps more important is the fact that we all have different anatomy and biomechanics and so our bodies move differently when doing all sorts of activities. No one, not even professional athletes, throws a baseball exactly the same, or swings a golf club the same, or serves a tennis ball the same, and so why should weightlifting be any different? This is not to say that one should be reckless when lifting, but perhaps there is more to injury prevention than just proper form.
The consensus amongst strength-training professionals is that many weightlifting injuries are due directly to individuals who lift aggressively with weight that is too heavy for their musculoskeletal system and that improper form is only indirectly the culprit. For instance, if an individual is performing biceps curls with weight that is so heavy that they must lean way back to cheat the dumbbells up, then they might put tremendous strain on the lower back and end up injuring a vertebral disc or straining a lumbar muscle. The poor form may have put the body in a position of weakness and vulnerability, but it was the excess weight that was the root of the problem.
I agree that aggressive weightlifting with too much weight could be at the root of the problem and suggest the following simple tips when you lift:
- For beginners:
- Select weights that you can comfortably lift 12-15 times to fatigue. As the months go by and you get stronger, you can progress to heavier weights and fewer reps (eight to 12).
- Select simple exercises that target specific muscle groups and require less skill and coordination than complex, multi-joint exercises like squats, lunges, power lifts, and dead lifts. For example, seated leg extensions might be a better choice than giant lunges across the gym until you feel comfortable with your skill.
- For everyone:
- Stop lifting if you feel strain in a joint. Burning in the belly (middle) of the muscle is okay.
- Listen to your body. This is critical. Focus on the muscle group that you are working, and make sure you feel it there and not everywhere else. If you don't feel it in the muscle, then adjust the angle of your arms or legs or hands until you do feel it. If you need help doing this, then ask an experienced lifter to help or hire a trainer to instruct you. After all, if you're going to spend time lifting, you might as well maximize your workout.
In summary, if you (A) take your time and lift mindfully, and (B) feel it in the belly of the muscle you're trying to work, and not in the joints, and (C) you select weights that your body can handle without having to cheat or force the weight up, then the chances of injury are probably going to be reduced. Common sense in the gym makes good sense! Enjoy your workout.
Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine
"Physical activity and strength training in children and adolescents: An overview"