Defining Good Form

If you talk to almost any trainer, coach, or therapist, they’ll all tell you that good exercise form matters. Good form is designed to keep you safe and move you closer toward your goals, but what is good form? For the purpose of this article I’ll define form as: the way a person looks and feels when performing a choreographed sequence of movements with their body. Defining what makes form good is far less clear.

Good Form is Safe

It’s very hard to reach or maintain your goals if you’re injured or in pain. Life and sports are unpredictable, but exercises can be done in a controlled environment. It makes sense to take extra safety precautions when you have those options available. It’s impossible to completely prevent pain or injuries from happening, but good form should stack the deck in your favor.

Good Form is Goal Specific

If you wanted to be a bodybuilder, then your main goal is to gain or maintain muscle. If you wanted to be able to lift heavy weights for a powerlifting competition, then your main goal is getting stronger.

For an aspiring bodybuilder it probably matters to be able to feel the target muscle group working as they perform their exercises. The powerlifter probably doesn’t need to care very much about what muscles they feel working as long as they keep being able to lift more weight successfully. Here, what’s bad form for the bodybuilder might be good form for the powerlifter and vice versa. No person here is either right or wrong absolutely. The way they do things is only more or less relevant to their goals.

How Do You Know What’s Safe and Effective?

The short and honest answer is that no one knows for sure. As I’ve mentioned before, much of the information in the world of sports and fitness is based primarily on anecdotes and inferences. This information is still valuable and it would be foolish to overlook it, but you can’t factually state that any one way is the best way to do something. If you adhere to the basic principles of physics and physiology while embracing the wisdom of the past, you’ll probably end up with pretty good form.

Good Form Embraces Variability

We are all the same species, but even those of us with similar bodies can move quite differently from another. To quote physical therapist Erica Meloe,

“If you look at something that is task specific like a squat, I can’t say that I have seen two people perform a squat alike. My gosh, I have seen so many variations of a squat I have lost count. Yes, there are certain things that need to happen in our knees and hips in order for us to squat, but I think we all get there probably a bit differently from one another.

Our brain assesses what we have to do to get there and based on the variability in tissues, pain, and biomechanics. We all get there one way or another or we don’t. If it’s meaningful for us, the brain will figure it out.”

It ceases to be called a squat if you’re doing a handstand, but who am I or anyone else to say that the way you move is any better or worse than another way as long as you’re moving toward your goal safely? There are more than a few schools of thought that claim there is an ideal way to move, and maybe they’re right. I just don’t think we’ve found it, and I strongly doubt that there’s an ideal way that applies to all people.

Mike Tyson vs Muhammad Ali

If you ask 100 people who the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time is, the two answers you’ll hear most often are Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. Tyson is 5’10” tall (which is short for a heavyweight) and would immediately close the distance on his much larger opponents to deliver powerful blows and finish fights early. Ali stands at 6’3” and for much of his career he would use his long arms and fast footwork to dictate when exchanges would or wouldn’t happen, often frustrating opponents in the process. Both were undoubtedly two of the greatest boxers the sport has ever seen, but their builds and styles could not be more different. If either one were taught that they had to box like the other, it’s unlikely that they would have had anywhere near the same amount of success. Great athletes know that it helps to look for clues from successful people before them, but trying to force themselves to be like someone else can also limit their abilities.

Why the Ballerina did Improv

Physical therapist Barrett Dorko convincingly argues the case that humans are constantly seeking positions and movements which give them more comfort, but that cultural and contextual influences can suppress these actions. In his course, Barrett tells the story of a ballerina who had pain when she danced ballet, but could find relief by doing improvisational dancing. Ballet is one of the most tightly choreographed forms of dance there is, whereas improv has no choreography at all. I don’t know if the ballet caused her pain, but the strict nature of the form would often prevent her from finding the relief her body knew how to find when there were no constraints.

Practical Applications

When I teach my clients an exercise, I start with what I feel is most important for the safety and performance of the movement for them. As clients improve their understanding of basic form, I offer new coaching cues that I describe as options to try. These cues are neither right nor wrong and if the client doesn’t feel they’re beneficial, then we try something else. In this way I view form more as a series of as suggestions rather than a set of rules.

If something looks different from how it was taught, then I may mention it, but unless I feel the differences are unsafe or inhibiting performance then I assume that’s just how their body prefers to move. I don’t want to force Tyson to fight like Ali, and I don’t want to keep the ballerina from being able to improvise.

Conclusion

A universal “ideal” form almost certainly doesn’t exist. Seeking to move like someone else may even increase risk and decrease performance. I think there’s a lot to be learned from the wisdom and experiences of everyone who has come before us, but we can’t let that knowledge prevent us from moving like ourselves.