Even if we know what the proper form is for a certain exercise, that doesn’t guarantee we will HAVE proper form. There are several tips that can help with proper form for exercise. Even if you have been doing an exercise for years, it is helpful to have these tools under your belt.
Warm Up and Stretch Before a Workout
Warming up and stretching before you exercise can actually reduce injury. AND when your muscles are warm, you will find it easier to have proper form. We all know the feeling of trying to exercise with stiff muscles… it’s not very comfortable, and it just feels more difficult. You will do your muscles a favor by warming up and stretching for a few minutes before jumping into an exercise routine.
It is recommended to warm up and stretch within 15 minutes before working out. In other words, if you get distracted or taken away between stretching and exercising, your warmup and stretch will not be as effective during your workout.
When it comes to stretching, it’s important to tailor your stretches for the workout you are about to do. Make sure you are stretching to the full range of motion that will be required during the exercise program (source). For example, if you are going for a jog, you may want to perform stretches for your hamstrings, quads, hip flexors and calves. Without the ability to move your joints to the proper range of motion, you are not keeping good form, not performing the exercise effectively and may increase the chance of injury.
Be careful about which stretches you choose to perform. It is generally not recommended to perform static stretches (holding a stretch for 30 seconds to 2 minutes while the muscles are relaxed) before exercise. Static stretches are a greater benefit AFTER exercise.
Dynamic stretching involves some use of the muscles and, based on evidence, is the most optimal warmup and stretch technique before exercise. Many athletes use dynamic stretching during their warmup routine because it is a “twofer” (two for one warmup and stretch). One example of a popular dynamic stretch is the lunge twist. To execute this, one performs the lunge while slowly twisting the torso to one side, keeping the spine and neck in line. This stretches all the muscles along the side of the body and can be repeated on both sides. Dynamic stretching before exercise is ideal for improving performance and building strength.
Use a Mirror
Sometimes bad form happens because we can’t see ourselves! This is where a mirror comes in handy. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Right now, I use one of those five dollar vertical mirrors you can find at Walmart. Though its function is limited due to size, it’s much better than nothing.
If you don’t have an available mirror in your home workout room, you can always try filming yourself instead. You won’t be able to correct your posture on the spot, but you can watch the film afterward and take note on any bad form and make corrections for your next workout. This was actually how I discovered that I was hanging my head too low during pushups. I watched a video of myself doing the workout and noticed that my head was hanging. I knew you were supposed to keep your neck neutral with your spine, so how did I not feel that I was doing it wrong? It’s funny, because around that time, I went to the doctor for my annual physical and I told him I had been having this terrible neck pain and stiffness. Little did I know it was probably because I was practicing bad form during pushups!
This is a great example of how improper form can happen without us even being aware. The mirror I use isn’t quite big enough for me to monitor my form during floor exercises. I’m hoping to upgrade eventually to a bigger mirror.
Only Do Exercises that Match Your Fitness Level
Am I the only one guilty of trying to do an exercise that is beyond my ability? It’s natural to want to do the tough or unmodified version of an exercise because it seems like it will give you the best results. But without adequate strength and proper form, the “hard version” of a move is not going to be as beneficial.
Awhile back, I tried to jump into a workout I hadn’t done in awhile and I discovered that pullups weren’t as easy as they once were. (Kind of a bummer, it’s never fun to realize you’ve lost muscle.) Instead of struggling to perform the pullup anyway, I used a chair to help bear some of my weight. I performed the pullup that way until I built my strength enough to perform an unmodified pullup.
By easing into difficult moves, we are decreasing the risk for injury and working toward GREATER muscle growth. Don’t be like me in my early exercise days, trying to do all the hard moves with poor form.
Take a Breather When Needed
Whether you are having an “off” day, you are out of shape or you are just pushing it hard, there is always a time and place for a short break. Certain workouts, like strength training and HIIT, emphasize very short rest periods or no rest at all. But if you can’t perform the exercise correctly, just take a break! Come back into it the moment you catch your breath. There are times during HIIT routines that I am gasping for air and can barely move my muscles. That’s when I take a few deep breaths before coming back into it. When I do this, I find that I get more out of the remaining reps than if I had just pushed through.
Signs that you need a break are:
- If you are unable to perform the move without slouching your back or caving your shoulders.
- Your movements are sluggish.
- You are becoming clumsy with the weights or workout equipment.
Slowing down or simplifying the exercises is also an option when becoming fatigued. If you are doing pushups and need a break, you could just hold the high plank until you are ready to perform another pushup. This is a way to keep your muscles engaged while allowing you to catch your breath and maintain your form.
Dynamic stretching, utilizing a mirror or camera, and appropriate exercise modifications and taking a break can help improve form during workouts. I have noticed improvements in my exercise performance by implementing these strategies. Having proper form sometimes means you will not be able to repeat as many reps, but when it comes to exercise, quality always comes before quantity. Taking a needed break or slowing down is better than pushing through the set with poor posture.
If you are new to exercising and are not sure how to have proper form, I recommend starting with a personal trainer or workout video that demonstrates how to correctly execute the exercises. I recently wrote a review on Jillian Michaels’ Ripped in 30 and I recommend it for beginner level athletes.
What do you do to ensure you maintain proper form during exercise?