Anyone who tells you to ease off of lifting heavy in order to make sure your form is solid is giving you incomplete advice that isn’t very helpful.
I concede that it’s impossible to maintain proper technique on any exercise while using weights that are beyond your capacity to control.
But, if you don’t know what proper form looks and feels like, you’re not going to be able master it. It doesn’t matter how minuscule the amount of resistance you’re applying is.
The majority of lifters – even moderately experienced ones – are failing on both accounts.
They’re using too much weight to effectively train the muscles they’re intending to target and they’re suffering from varying degrees of form contortion.
When this happens gains suffer and injury risk goes through the roof.
For evidence of just how detrimental sacrificing form for the sake of excessive resistance is, look no further than the backs of the lifters in almost any gym around the world. This is a great place to look for evidence of form being sacrificed because lifts that target the back offer endless opportunities to cheat on form for the sake of lifting more weight.
Bouncing on the calves to assist with shrugs, using the biceps for some extra “pull” when doing lat pull-downs (or pull-ups), and leaning the torso back for some added momentum during each rep while doing seated rows are all examples of ways we can drastically improve the amount of weight we’re able to move without realizing we’re only preventing ourselves from developing the intended muscles we would otherwise be stimulating.
But you can’t just lighten the load and expect weeks, months, or years of habitually training your muscles with terrible form to magically go away.
You’re going to have to perform each rep with an intentional focus on using the targeted muscles.
I’m telling you right now that you’re going to be surprised at how little weight you can actually manage while maintaining proper form. This isn’t a bad thing, though; unless your sole purpose of lifting is to impress others with how much weight you can move around while still looking like you’ve only been lifting for a few weeks.
I know as well as anybody that it takes time to build muscle. I also know very well that going lighter and actually focusing your training on the targeted muscles will do more for your development in three months than you’d get out of a year or two using too much weight with shoddy form.
Go ahead. Put me to the test. If you’re one whose form is solid, you already know it and can stop reading any further.
If you’re still here and there’s any doubt in your mind that you might be going too heavy on lifts intended to train your back (or any other set of muscles on your body), cut your weight in half, make sure your form is flawless, and increase your weight from there – never breaking form along the way.
How Do You Know When Your Form Is Flawless?
The easy answer is: you’ll just know. The more descriptive answer is that you’ll feel muscles being engaged, cramped, and pumped you didn’t feel before. You’ll also likely experience muscle soreness in new places, or in muscles that haven’t been sore for months, without changing anything except the amount of weight and form being used.
I must reiterate here that this kind of targeted muscle engagement requires an uncompromising, intense level of focus on specifically contracting the muscles being targeted.
If you’re doing lat pull-downs, for instance, squeeze your lats together at the shoulder blades to bring the bar down to your chin. And make sure the weight is light enough that you can bring your lats as close together with resistance as you can without it. Using some biceps to support the movement is unavoidable, but it must be minimized.
By the way, this is a big reason why I’m generally against prescribing pull-ups to anyone that isn’t an experienced lifter. Pull-ups are ineffective when used by anyone who’s not in tune with their muscles enough to feel when their form is good and when it’s not.
99% of lifters lack the strength in their back to do a proper pull-up, which is performed predominantly by engaging the lats. Their body weight is just too much for their lat muscles to handle while maintaining solid form.
Almost without exception, the biceps end up bearing the brunt of the movement. At that point, you may as well just do chin-ups and primarily use your biceps. At least then you’d be sufficiently engaging at least one set of muscles enough to induce growth and development.
Make no mistake. Every muscle group is susceptible to having its growth stunted due to form contortion. None are immune.
Correcting Bad Form Brings Up Lagging Muscles
A great way to bring up lagging muscles is to train them with increased volume and/or frequency. But increasing volume or frequency isn’t going to go very far if the reason those specific muscles are lagging has to do with insufficient stimulation stemming from bad form.
Doing more of something that’s already proven ineffective, and expecting it to correct the problem it has caused, isn’t my idea of a wise use of anyone’s time and effort. It’s absurd.
Yet, this is where far too many well-meaning lifters find themselves; working harder and longer, instead of smarter.
If you desire to make your training more effective by honing in your form, one of the best resources at teaching the application of tensional focus to maximize muscle development is Ben Pakulski’s MI40 program.
I don’t personally know Ben and you won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t pick up a copy. If you do, though, I know it will benefit your training and results for years to come.
His program is designed to help anyone who’s not experienced enough to know when their form is off (which describes most people). It also teaches the basic science behind why proper form and muscle growth go hand-in-hand.
The goal of lifting is to complete each set using as much weight as possible without breaking form. However, there’s a fine line between proper form and compromised mechanics that will impede your gains and put you at increased risk of injury.
If you continue to recklessly train without learning to recognize the difference between the two, you do so at your own peril.