The Principles of Proper Weight Lifting Form

When it comes to lifting weights, having good exercise form is crucial. Most think lifting heavy is the best way to get results, but lifting heavy with poor form will actually lead to ineffective results and the possibility of an injury! On the other hand, having good form will effectively target the intended muscle group which will lead to better results and reduce your risk of injury – so practice proper form!

Your form will slightly differ for every strength training exercise, but there are some overall lifting form principles that can help set you on the right track. If you want to maximize your weight lifting session and start getting better results, keep on reading to learn how to lift with proper form, plus common exercise form mistakes you should avoid!

How to lift with proper form

To start having good form for lifting weights, put these four things into practice...

Lift the appropriate weight for your fitness level

Oftentimes when people start lifting weights they want to immediately start lifting heavy. However most start lifting a weight that is too heavy for them thus sacrificing the most important thing – exercise form! This is working backward, instead of forward. Always start with an appropriate amount of weight that fits your fitness level.

But how can you tell if you're lifting the right amount of weight?

If you're able to complete 12-15 reps without your form giving in, but your muscles are slightly fatiguing in the end then that's a good weight to start with! Once your muscles are no longer fatiguing by the 15th rep, then go up 5-10lbs and decrease the number of reps. Now, if you feel yourself pushing or pulling the weight with your body instead of the intended muscle group and your form is getting wonky then it's time to take a step back and try a lighter weight. For example, if you're doing biceps curls, and you're swinging your arms up and down, breathing heavy, and your elbows are starting to flare then chances are the weight is way too heavy for you. Yes, you want to lift heavy, but if you're sacrificing your form you're not going to be hitting the muscles you want!

Another thing, if you're performing a new exercise, no matter how strong you are – start light! You want to work on your exercise form first before adding a heavy weight. For example, let's say you've been nailing your barbell back squats, but want to try something new and more challenging, like a barbell front squat. You may have been able to squat 135 lbs, but you wouldn't want to start out at that weight with front squats, despite them being similar. The barbell front squat loads the weight in the front and places a greater challenge on your quads and wrist and shoulder mobility. So, start by only squatting the barbell to help you get a hang of your form, and once you feel comfortable enough you can start adding more weight as you make progress.

Perform each rep slow and controlled

One of the best ways to ensure you practice correct form is by performing each rep in a slow and controlled manner. This also goes hand in hand with the technique above because if you're lifting too heavy chances are you're pushing through your reps as fast as possible. Lifting the proper weight will allow you to perform the exercise slowly and in control which in turn will prevent you from relying on momentum from your body or losing control to the point that you drop the weight.

Go through the full range of motion

Again, this one goes back to the first point of lifting too heavy. Lifting too heavy often leads to partial reps, meaning only moving halfway through the movement instead of moving through the entire range of motion. Partial reps lead to ineffective results.

An indicator of having good form when lifting is being able to move through the full range of motion. So, before you increase the weight on any exercise, make sure you're able to move through the entire range of motion first! For example, squatting leads to the best lower body results when your thighs are parallel to the floor (this is the full range of motion). If you're unable to get to that point, take a step back and practice your squats with a lighter weight or only your body weight and then move up to heavier weights.

Breathe properly

Breathing properly may seem like it has nothing to do with your form, but it does! Many new lifters (and even some advanced lifters) hold their breath when lifting weights, but doing so can result in a rise in blood pressure which can get in the way of your form. If you are unable to lift a weight without holding your breath then chances are the weight is too heavy, so again, take a step back and try a lighter weight.

Having a proper breathing pattern when lifting weights will ensure that your body is receiving the oxygen it requires. So, remember to breathe through the exercise! Here's how to breathe properly when lifting weights...

  • Take a deep breath in on the eccentric portion of the lift. This is the part when the muscle contracts while lengthening, so it's the down motion of bench presses, biceps curls, squats, etc.
  • Exhale during the concentric phase of the lift. This is the phase when the muscle is shortened, so typically when you're exploding upwards. Doing this will help fuel the movement.

Exercise form mistakes to avoid

Now that you understand the four techniques to practice to get you on the right track to proper exercise form... here are a few of the common mistakes many lifters (beginners and advanced) make and how to fix them:

Mistake #1: Arching or hunching your back

Not having a neutral spine, meaning your back is arched or hunched, during pulling and overhead exercises is a huge no-no! This typically happens with pulling exercises, like deadlifts and rows, and overhead exercises, like the bench press and shoulder press. It's not proper form and not only will it lead to ineffective results, it can also damage the discs on your back, surrounding nerves, and pretty much your entire spine!

How can you fix this?

Arching or hunching the back tends to happen because the lifter's core is either weak or not engaged when pulling and pushing weights overhead. So, the key to avoiding this is keeping your shoulders drawn back and down and learning how to engage your core. You do this by squeezing all of your muscles in your torso and holding them in that tightened position while still breathing. Basically, act is if you're about to brace yourself from a punch to the gut!

Mistake #2: Caved in knees

This one is common with lower body exercises, like squats and deadlifts. It tends to happen when the weight is too heavy, but it can also happen due to foot placement and your overall body position. Not only will this get in the way of you building stronger legs, but it will also hurt your knees and cause an injury to the joint.

How can you fix this?

When it comes to squatting or deadlifting, you want to make sure that your knees are tracked over your toes. So, with squats push your glutes back and down (don't bend at the knees) until your thighs are parallel to the floor making sure that your knees are naturally aligning with your feet and hips.

Mistake #3: Flaring elbows

This is a common mistake made in a lot of upper body exercises, and as always, it goes back to lifting too heavy of a weight! Lifting a heavy weight can lead to wandering elbows that point out and can lead to damage to the shoulders, neck, and back. It can also happen simply because a lifter doesn't know that their elbows shouldn't be pointed outwards. For example, a lot of beginners think you should have your elbows pointed directly to the sides when bench pressing, but this actually can put a lot of stress on the shoulder joint. Flaring elbows can even happen when doing bicep curls or tricep pushdowns!

How can you fix this?

When it comes to bench pressing, keep your elbows close to your rib cage. It should look like you're forming an arrow with your arms instead of "T". Doing so will help reduce the stress on your shoulder. With other upper body exercises, maintain an engaged core and move slow and in control to make sure your elbows are tucked into the sides. If your elbows begin to wander then take that as a sign to lower the weight you're using!

Mistake #4: Rowing without shoulder blades

Rowing exercises are a must on back day! However, doing these crucial muscle-building exercises wrong will lead to ineffective results and even damage your shoulders. This tends to happen if your elbow travels too far behind the rib cage because it's often mistaken as going through the entire range of motion, but it's not. It's just improper form!

How can you fix this?

When performing any rowing exercise, make sure that you let your shoulder blade glide inward over the ribcage. This may sound confusing, but you know you've done it right when you feel like you can pinch a pencil between your shoulder blades.

Mistake #5: Bad neck positioning

The last mistake is one many makes and it can cause an injury to your neck and cervical spine. Bad neck positioning tends to happen because lifters want to look at themselves in the mirror, look up because of the heavy weight they're lifting, or are turning to chat with their workout body – don't do this! Having your neck positioned badly while lifting any heavy weight can tighten your body in so many ways and lead to a serious injury.

How can you fix this?

Avoid chatting to your friend next to you when performing your reps or looking at yourself in a mirror straight ahead. Instead, pack your neck by pointing your chin down slightly. This will look slightly like a double-chin. This may not be needed for every exercise, for example, standing exercises (like bicep curls) can be done while looking straight ahead in a mirror. The key is to always have your body form a straight line, so when you're lifting make sure that your head and neck are aligned with the rest of your body!

Practice proper form for better results and to prevent injury

Your weight lifting form is important, so make sure you prioritize it when training! Follow the four principles we've listed and avoid those common weight lifting form mistakes to get you on the right track to better form and better results!

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The Principles of Proper Weight Lifting Form