We hear the term 'form' being used a lot in the fitness industry, yet not many fitness enthusiasts pay enough time and attention to it. Many fitness professionals will shout about the importance of having good form to their clients and friends, but few delve deep enough and really practice what they preach.
First we'll start with a few pointers of what 'good form' actually means and how it can be adapted to suit different disciplines...
Having good form during an exercise basically means that the body is performing an exercise or movement in an optimal way, which results in maximal benefit and minimum chance of injury.
For the bodyweight athlete i.e. Gymnastics/ Calisthenics, exercises trained in a full range of motion is of the utmost importance to be able to deliver power from any angle or position. The reason is that this kind of strength translates to the advanced straight arm skills you may have seen being performed, such as the Front Lever, Iron Cross and Planche. These skills take many years of practice to be able to perform and require the athlete to be building strength correctly from day one of his/ her training.
An example – if an athlete was trying to build strength in his pull ups but had never trained pull ups from a dead hang starting position (arms completely straight and shoulders relaxed – before engagement) then he would have no chance of learning a Front Lever. A Front Lever requires immense back and scapular retraction strength, as the athlete is required to have completely straight arms and body line, which puts his body at a bio-mechanical disadvantage.
These types of strength skills can not be achieved if ones foundational strength has not been acquired with full range of motion.
But if we look at a person who is training solely for hypertrophy (muscular growth) i.e. a bodybuilder, they are generally not as concerned about how much they can lift or whether they will eventually attain powerlifting strength or gymnastic ability.
Therefore, when a bodybuilder trains pull ups for example, they generally do not train in a full range of motion and fully straighten their arms in the bottom of the movement. This is due to the fact that muscular tension within the biceps and forearms will be constantly higher throughout the set, resulting in more time under tension, thus more hypertrophy gains.
Although, this does not mean that muscular growth won't happen if you are training in a full range of motion, it just means that it'll take a bit longer to build. But meanwhile you will be building significant strength and be able to pursue more advanced bodyweight exercises in the future.
Another attribute to training in a full range of motion is that the athlete becomes less injury prone and increases their physical longevity.
If you can imagine someone who has trained weighted pull ups for a few years. They have steadily improved their load over time, but have only practised in a minimal range of motion. What do you think is going to happen when one day, after stacking the weight on and starting to train they accidentally step over this strength boundary they have built up? A tendon or ligament strain or quite possibly a tear.
If you are reading this and have experienced one of these issues, you will know when I tell you that this kind of injury will put you out of training for far longer than you expect.
Tendons and ligaments are avascular, which means they have few blood vessels, therefore a poor supply of blood. Less nutrients is delivered to the injured area so tendons and ligaments take far longer to repair than damaged muscle.
You can help to avoid these issues by including some mobility training into your weekly routine which will help improve your strength within higher ranges of motion. In addition you would want to start employing, if you aren't already, full range of motion into your strength training.
An area that needs to be addressed when talking about 'good form' is momentum. In Calisthenics this is called kipping. These 'cheat' reps are often seen in the world of Crossfit, where the movement has been manipulated in order to encourage an aerobic stimulus, i.e. cardiovascular training or to incorporate elements of core training. But the only result you get from this type of training is an increased risk of spinal injury, due to the unnatural nature of the movement - no real strength gains, poor overall form and most of all you look like a flailing fish. Hence the phrase - kipper!
A large proportion of athletes do not realise how much momentum they use during their training, whether it be with weights or using bodyweight exercises. This happens because the body naturally tries to make exercises easier in order to minimise stress on the joints and soft tissue structures. On the other hand you have egotistical athletes who want to hit high numbers in order to impress onlookers.
During a pull up, for example you will see many people kicking there knees up during the last part of the pull to gain momentum and get there chest to the bar.
Or when performing a dip, you see the athlete's head lifting up and backwards first and a flaring of the chest to complete the movement. Therefore stress is taken off the targeted muscle groups and other incorrect muscles are recruited in order to assist in the movement.
- Both possibly the result of bad habits having been ingrained or simply the person not being strong enough to cope with the load they are trying to lift.
Although... We are all guilty of cheating and using momentum from time to time to complete that last rep or movement pattern. As your body gets more fatigued, the more and more your form will breakdown. But the key idea to take away from this is to keep reinforcing form and the quality of your movements every time you train and not be ignorant of this. There are various ways of checking your form, for instance – Using a mirror, filming yourself or having a trainer, like myself, who can give you instant feedback whilst performing your exercises.
Lastly, as a tip to you guys who wish to start training with your bodyweight or already dabble in some Gymnastics/ Calisthenics training. The two most important area's to develop and improve (in my opinion) in order to have great form and the correct development of strength is -
- Posterior Pelvic Tilt (PPT for short)
- Scapulae (shoulder blade) control – Elevation, Depression, Protraction, Retraction
I won't go into too much detail as a whole other article could be written just about these two topics. PPT is the angle the pelvis has with the correct engagement of the core muscles (particularly the abdominals) and the gluteal muscles (buttocks). PPT creates a straight body line, a strong foundation and has to be applied in almost every exercise in bodyweight training. PPT is little known by most, but is fundamental in Gymnastics and Calisthenics.
The scapulae and surrounding muscles control and support all of the upper body movements, and it is imperative that a good understanding and good foundational strength of the different positions is built. This includes Elevation, Depression, Protraction, Retraction – all of which need to be mastered in order to have great execution in your bodyweight strength movements and all round better form.
I hope that after you have read this, good form and quality of movement will be at the forefront of your mind during your future training sessions. When focused on and properly implemented, eventually, it will become second nature and huge gains will be made! This includes -
- Consciousness in your day to day movement
- Better form and execution of exercises in your training
- Strength - in a full range of motion
- Injury prevention and ease of motion
- Faster progress in all of your strength and conditioning training
Good luck in your training!