One of the most enduring debates related to resistance training has been the subject of exercise form. How picky should you be? Should you place more emphasis on the amount of weight? Are you short-changing yourself if you don’t squeeze on the concentric portion of every rep? Does “cheating” have any benefits? What about feeling that mind-muscle connection?! Let’s examine the most commonly abused exercises often referred to the “Big Three” and how perfecting the technique on these movements can lead to substantial levels of new growth and development.
The Squat: If there is any one exercise that separates the serious gym rats from the recreational- abs and bicep enthusiasts, this is it. It would be a rarity to find a gym-goer doing heavy “glutes-to-calves” low bar squats just to “stay in shape for the summer”… that’s because it’s not easy. However when the squat is executed correctly, it becomes a movement that can easily change a person’s entire physique. In addition to building the whole lower body, the barbell squat is a movement that forces the entire body to work and thus, grow!
Correct common mistakes:
I often hear people say “squatting below parallel will destroy your knees!” However this all-too common utterance usually comes from ill-informed trainees because it just isn’t true. When your knee joint is fully extended or completely contracted it is at its strongest. Squatting above parallel places your joints in a semi-compromised position compared to full-squats. Furthermore, full motion squats strengthens your gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, and knees. Comparatively, partial squats only build up your quadriceps and knees which can cause imbalances and eventually lead to injuries.
Fix it: If you have knee pain from Squats, make sure you start light while perfecting your technique and work on developing hip flexibility. Squatting deep with correct form will not be the cause of knee pain!
Rounding your back in an effort to hoist too much weight is counterproductive and dangerous. Therefore, I recommend a slightly wider than shoulder width stance while squatting. This will give you a stable base to execute the movement with maximum intensity. You will be able to maintain proper form without relegating yourself to lower weights and your entire body will be working to lift the weight.
Fix it: Make sure to keep your chest up, always push from your heels, and find a focal point to help place your head in position. Keep your eye on that spot you pick out and do not force your knees inward, it is OK to extend with your knees out if it is comfortable for you. Just like anything worth developing, learning to squat with the correct from takes a great deal time and patience.
Variations: Front Squat, Overhead squat, high bar squat.
The Bench: The most common question asked in gyms everywhere has been “Hey, How much you bench? Many of you have probably been asked this at some point in your life, if not, you probably will. Consequently, the bench press has become the premier ego exercise in gyms all over the world causing athletes to sacrifice their form for a boost in pride. Little do they know they’re also sacrificing new muscle and delayed strength progression for a possible “personal record” to tell all their friends about.
Correct common mistakes:
In an effort to push as much weight as possible, athletes will use their entire body (legs included) to try and lift the load - doing this decreases the distance needed to complete the movement, but it does not help develop your chest.
Fix it: Always remember to keep your butt on the bench and heels on the floor. This will automatically place more stress on the pectorals and correct any potential cheating.
Don’t use too much front deltoids and triceps - the bench press is a primary exercise for developing the pectorals. Therefore, you should pay attention to the width of your grip and give yourself a solid base to push from.
Fix it: Find a place on the bar that is narrow enough to allow a full range of motion but at the same time places maximum tension on the chest. Contract your upper back and keep your shoulder blades down in order to further emphasize the target muscle group.
Having a little arch in your back is fine during a heavy attempt on the bench press. However, some lifters might end up exaggerating the arch in their lower back in an effort to use their lower body to help push the weight. Competitive powerlifters going for a 1-rep max may do this continuously, but for anyone else the risks of injuring your lumbar spine aren’t worth it.
Fix it: Use a spotter to assist you so you do not have to jeopardize your lower back in order save your own life during a heavy set!
Variations: Close-grip bench press, Incline bench press, decline bench press, floor press, reverse grip bench press.
The Deadlift: Second only to the barbell squat, the deadlift is another high risk-high reward exercise that can dramatically improve your overall physique. However, as your technique gets better, your risk of injury goes down and the potential for growth increases substantially. The deadlift allows you to use almost every major muscle group in your body to perform the movement. Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain control of your form and make sure you’re getting the most out of your time in the trenches.
Correct common mistakes:
Deadlifts are primarily a back builder, but the one offense most commonly seen while performing the deadlift is rounding the lower back. The deadlift should teach you to keep your lumbar spine straight while lifting a heavy weight straight off the floor in order to avoid disc injuries.
Fix it: Pull your shoulders back, lift your chest up, and focus on making sure your looking straight ahead. As you come up you should push from your heals and bring your hips forward… this will make it very hard to round your lower back.
Emphasizing a shrug at the top of the lift. - This is not needed because the proper execution of the deadlift will help yield enough trapezius development without any extra shrugging. In fact, it is easy to slip a disc while hoisting the heavy barbell into a forced shrugging position.
Fix it: Be mindful about which muscles are getting the most stimulation during the lift. You should feel plenty of tension placed on your upper back and traps. If you need more stimulation, try an isolation movement like power shrugs or cleans after your working sets to further develop your traps.
Variations: Power cleans, rack pulls, trap bar deadlifts (more of a squat-type lift)
Executing these three major exercises ultimately comes down to patience and focus. Perfecting your form on any exercise automatically adds another level of concentration to your training. Don’t just go through the motions. Be honest with yourself and make sure you are making the progress you should be. Tom plats once said of the Austrian Oak, “The gym could have burned to the ground in the middle of his set and [Arnold] would not have noticed.” You probably don’t need the greatest bodybuilder of all time to validate how crucial focus and concentration is in your training. But it helps to be informed, and some possible caveats to your focus may be those subconscious thoughts… Are you thinking about events in your life outside the gym? That upcoming exam? The parking meter about to expire? That girl in the corner on the standing leg curl machine?! I know from talking with many successful strength athletes and through my own personal experience that lacking absolute focus during a brutal session in the gym can have a significant hindrance on your progress. Harnessing the highest levels of concentration and intensity during each set will lead to less injuries and ultimately yield the greatest results in the end.
Written By: Connor LaVallie