Working out with proper form not only prevents injury but also allows your muscles to move efficiently and helps with oxygen intake so you can perform better. But not all of us have access to an ace personal trainer. Here are eight tips to perfect your form if you’re hitting the gym on your own.
1. Think About Your Posture
Most of us know what good posture looks like, and we often notice it in others; it makes them look taller and more confident, like they are totally owning their day. And, unfortunately, most of us don’t have great posture, which creates muscular imbalances, puts undue stress on ligaments and tendons, and can actually cause pain. All of this contributes to the way you move, which will carry over into your exercise. So, as you move throughout the day, think about how you stand and sit. Keep your shoulders back and down, and try not to round them forward, especially when sitting at your desk or computer. Try to keep your head centered over your spine, not tilting forward, backward, or sideways. Contract your abs. When standing, stack your hips over your ankles and shoulders over your hips, with the legs straight but knees relaxed to avoid hyperextension. Paying attention to your posture while at rest will create a body awareness that will benefit you during exercise.
2. Take Advantage of Social Media Channels
We live in a time where videos about any and all topics can be found on the internet. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of content to wade through, but reputable sources are not actually that difficult to find. Many celebrity personal trainers, and personal trainers who are not at all famous, have their own YouTube channels and post exercise videos on Instagram and Facebook. Select someone you admire, preferably with a personal training certification, and listen to their explanation of each movement. USA Weightlifting, CrossFit, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the American Council on Exercise all have instructional videos on their websites.
It is also important to note that following professional athletes and mimicking their movements is not always the best idea. Many pros are so genetically gifted that they can overcome poor mechanics, while most of us mere mortals are not so lucky.
3. Use the Mirrors
Mirrors. They are not just all over the gym so everyone working out can keep tabs on each other, or so you can admire the perfect flex of your own biceps. If you’re trying to perfect your form, they can serve a real purpose. Once you’ve watched all those online videos and learned about proper form, keep a few touchpoints or cues for each exercise in your head, watch yourself perform the exercise in the mirror, and make sure you hit each one.
And in between sets, remember what we said above about posture and use the mirrors to make sure you’re resting in an optimal seated or standing position.
4. Record Yourself Working Out
Be honest. You’re never without your smartphone on the gym floor, so you might as well put it to good use. Use the camera to record yourself performing an exercise from the front, side, back, and three-quarter angles, then compare your form to the correct form you found on Instagram. Watching yourself move from different angles in real time often helps to highlight areas of weakness. If you’re open to criticism, consider watching with a more experienced fitness buddy.
5. If You’re in Pain, Stop
The “no pain, no gain” philosophy can be downright dangerous in the gym because pain is often indicative of poor form. If your lower back hurts during deadlifts, or your knees hurt when you squat, you have some adjustments to make. But you also have to be honest with yourself. Are you feeling actual pain or just the good burn of a working muscle? A good rule of thumb: Pain in the joint is bad, while pain in the muscle is good.
6. Don’t Go All-Out, Right Away
When you’re first learning proper form for a new exercise, perfect your form with no weight before adding resistance, then progress to a weight you can lift comfortably 12 to 15 times. If you are adjusting your form in an exercise you are already familiar with, try cutting the weight by 50 percent until you can make the adjustments. Weight should be added in small increments, and only increased if proper form and range of motion can be maintained at the new weight. So again, use the mirrors and record yourself on your phone to ensure your technique is right before progressing.
7. Mind Your Head and Neck
As much as we’d like to believe it, looking up doesn’t help us lift the weight. Rather, hyperextending the neck and forcing the cervical spine to its end range of motion can cause a lot of problems with the rest of your back.
There are a lot of ways to think about remedying this. Don’t look at the ceiling or your feet. Tuck your chin slightly, possibly by pretending you have an apple or a baseball between your chin and your chest. If you are used to looking up, this might make you feel like you’re looking down, but your cervical spine will actually be in a more neutral position. You could also think about looking forward rather than up; pick a spot on the wall directly in front of you to focus on, or, if you’re far enough away, concentrate on the seam where the wall meets the floor. And if you must look up because you think if your eyes go up, the weight will, too, then try to look up with your eyes without moving your head. This is especially important if you are following the above mirror advice.
8. Go to the Gym with a More Experienced Gym Buddy
Using the mirrors and your phone to critique yourself is great, but a buddy will often be more forthcoming with criticism and advice. Try to find a more knowledgeable exercise partner, encourage them to give you advice, and be open to their cues. Or, if you don’t have a more fitness-savvy friend, try showing any exercise buddy a video of the proper form of the exercise you intend to do, and have them compare your movement patterns to the video.
When they tell you you’re rounding your back or locking out your knees or falling forward onto your toes, don’t argue with them because it doesn’t feel like you’re doing that; we often cannot feel our mistakes if the faulty movement pattern has become a habit.