Different Strokes & the Fallacy of “Correct” Form

The lay of the land:

~2,900 words (10-15 minute reading time)

Take-away points:

  • The idea that there is a “correct,” one-size-fits-all approach to any given lift (for every person, no matter what) is a flawed one
  • Instead, effective/safe lifting technique is largely dependent on characteristics of the individual, including limb and torso proportions, joint mobility, personal preferences, and specific strengths/weaknesses
  • Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that the “appropriate” manner of executing a lift is dependent on context (e.g. why you are training a lift and/or what you hope to accomplish with it)

“They’re not even using the correct form.” – Every guy that has felt the need to make it known that he does indeed even lift.

If you’ve ever watched a lifting video on the interwebz (which I’m assuming is pretty much all of you since you ended up here) and made the risky decision to look at the comments below said video, you’ve probably seen some stuff… Some stuff and some things, man.

Namely, you’ve probably seen a lot of people criticizing the lift’s execution, the worth of the lifter themselves, and maybe even the moral integrity of said lifter’s mother. The interwebz can be a mean place…

As a side note, I can’t help but notice the trend that a large majority of the ignorant comments I’ve witnessed myself have been males telling elite female athletes (who incidentally are often lifting more than most males can) things like “you’re gonna hurt yourself if you keep lifting with that form”.

…I’m just gonna go out on a limb now and say that these professional strength athletes will probably do just fine without the input of some guy that started training five months ago and read a blurb somewhere (or just another random comment by some dude that used a big word and totally seemed to know his stuff) about how arching your back on the bench is totally dangerous. Not every pretty little flower needs to be saved, and rest assured: those ladies are going to just keep smashing weights regardless of the resolute concern of their would-be knights in shining armor.

Anyways!

There’s a point I’m trying to get to, and the point is this:

The idea of absolutely “correct” technique for any given lift is really a flawed one to begin with.

Why?

Well, partially because we need to provide some context before we can define whether one’s technique is “correct” or “good”, but also—and this is a big one—because it turns out that human beings are not all perfect clones of one another.

Let’s flip it up and dive into that last bit first.

Attack of the Clones

If we were all built exactly the same, we’d have a much easier time deciding on what constituted correct form for all of the lifts. I’d also probably have a much easier time fitting into airplane seats and what have you, but that’s beside the point.

Unfortunately, it turns out that we’re all special little snowflakes (actually, not really, but I’ll get to that) when it comes to our individual measurements and proportions—enough so that it has merited an entire field of study, anthropometry.

Most of why this matters for us as lifters can be summed up in three words: center of gravity.

To elaborate, for any lift done from the feet, the lengths of our limbs and torsos (and the ratios between them) basically govern the path that we have to follow when lifting a weight to keep the center of gravity of the system (the body plus the barbell, dumbbell, etc.) lined up somewhere over our feet. If we decided to instead move the weight along a path that puts the system’s center of gravity in front of or behind our feet at a point when we need to control the weight, we are going to respectively fall on either our faces or our bums.

As a side note, the lighter the weight we are dealing with, the less of an impact it will have on the system’s center of gravity (and thus the further “off-path” it can move before causing a balance problem). However, as the weight becomes heavier and heavier, the center of mass of the system and the position of the weight will essentially become the same point, which is why the goal in the diagrams below (and in the lifts themselves) is to keep the bar centered over the feet.

To help illustrate this concept, here’s my recreation of a pretty common example of squat mechanics in two dimensions:

for the love of lifting

For the sake of simplicity, I gave these two stick people the same torso and lower leg (shin) lengths and also kept the angles at the knee and ankle joints equal between the two. In fact, the only difference between the two is that the stick dude on the left has femurs that are about 40% longer than those of the stick dude on the left. As you can see though, this single difference causes a pretty drastic difference in the torso angle required to keep the bar path over the foot.

I will point out real quick that the stick dude on the left could partially compensate for the longer femurs by allowing more forward knee travel (also lateral knee travel, but I’ll get to that in a moment). This would shift the femurs/torso forward as well, which would enable the lifter to maintain a slightly more upright torso while keeping the bar centered above the feet, but it’s also worth noting that most people just don’t have the ankle mobility to enable them to do this (which is one of the reasons a lot of people like squatting in Olympic shoes with a slightly elevated heel).

As a side note, this example might help you better understand why people are generally able to stay more upright in a front squat: the weight, and thus the system’s center of gravity, is simply shifted forward, enabling the bar path to stay over the foot with less hip flexion, or knee-towards-chest movement. There also tends to be a bit more forward knee travel in front squats, but hopefully you get the point!

If you want a more tangible example than the one diagrammed above, here’s a similar discrepancy demonstrated between two of my friends:

bart and john squat differences

True, this comparison is bit less “perfect” than the one diagrammed above as the differences are more numerous (e.g. more forward knee travel/greater knee and ankle flexion on the right than on the left), but you can pretty clearly see that the lifter with the larger femur-to-torso-length ratio (left) ends up with a less upright torso in keeping the bar over his feet.

So what if Mr. Long Femurs really wants to squat more upright? Well, let’s see what happens when he adjusts his torso angle to mirror Mr. Short Femurs:

luke mitchell

Timber!!! Down he goes as the system’s center of gravity begins to creep behind the foot.

Extra Dimensions

Of course, in reality, there’s more to it than what’s depicted in these diagrams. For one thing, we (appear to) live in (at least) three spatial dimensions, which cannot be overlooked here. The reason this matters is basically because with a lot of lifts, we can kind of (there is a catch) approximate the form that we could have with shorter limbs by allowing our limbs to travel along this third dimension.

One example of this would be taking a very wide stance and pushing the knees out accordingly on the squat. Looking at this scenario side-on in two dimensions as before, this would essentially make it look like the lifter had shortened their femurs by pushing the knees out and minimizing the horizontal distance between their hips and the bar. This sounds super advantageous at first, but what’s important to realize is that this just means there is going to be more knee travel in the third dimension (along the coronal, or front-on, plane in this case) with the new squat stance.

In a nutshell, the lifter hasn’t really gained some magical advantage so much as shifted some of the force demands required to move the weight into a different plane.

Basically, Shakira was on to something a decade ago when “Hips Don’t Lie” took the nation by storm.

That being said, using this strategy could still work really well for some people depending on their relative strength at the hips, quads, lower back, etc. as well as their mobility and anatomy, particularly in the hips.

If you want to delve a little deeper into this idea, check out this article by Greg Nuckols, which explores the third dimensional component of torque demands in the context of the differences between sumo and conventional deadlifts.

Now, some of you might have noticed that this center of gravity problem doesn’t seem to apply to things like the bench press in the same way. While it’s true that a lifter doesn’t have to worry about tipping head over heels if the bar slips off-path in the bench press, limb lengths still play a huge role in determining things like “optimal” grip width, bar path, and setup on the bench.

For instance, someone with particularly short upper arms (humeri) may be more comfortable with a narrower grip on the bar and/or more elbow tuck (i.e. lowering the elbows close to the torso rather than perpendicular to it) than someone with longer humeri probably would be. Additionally, someone with longer legs might be able to achieve more leg drive with a wider foot stance than with their legs hugging the bench. These things depend a lot on individual preferences and individual strengths and weaknesses, but the point here is that proportions also matter. A lot.

So does that mean that everyone should be doing their lifts totally differently than one another? Not exactly.

Of course, while everyone is technically slightly different, we can still determine general trends of things that tend to work well for lifters with key anthropomorphic features (e.g. long vs. short femurs, long vs. short arms, long vs. short torso, and all of the combinations thereof). Taking the time to actually measure (or probably just take a good look at) your own proportions could be helpful to understanding why you might have trouble doing movements certain ways and how you might be better suited to do them, but at the end of the day, the most surefire way to figure these things out is to just play with your technique and see how different things feel. Don’t worry too much what that guy on the internet said (…says the guy on the internet… Ha!).

In a nutshell, it is ludicrous to try to pretend as if there is such a thing as a “correct,” one-size-fits-all form for any single lift. People are built differently, thus people will move (somewhat) differently from one another.

square peg round hole   You know what they say about square pegs and round holes.

Wasn’t There Something Else?

Oh yeah. There’s also that thing about context. This is kind of a broad, all-encompassing topic, but the general feature I want to talk about is the choice to use different variations of a movement pattern within the boundaries of things you are anthropomorphically capable of doing. In other words, to throw out a few examples, I’m talking about the distinction between things like strict overhead pressing vs. push pressing, or arching your back on the bench vs. benching with a totally flat back.

Here’s the thing when it comes to these arguments: there is no right or wrong. ESEPCIALLY in the absence of context (e.g. why you are doing the lift and what you hope to accomplish with it). Everyone is free to train whatever way they want to (hopefully based somewhat logically upon their goals, but hey, whatever floats one’s boat). I would like to think that this goes without saying, but the sheer number of complaints I’ve heard both in person and on the interwebz suggests otherwise (although, on the other hand, people are obviously also free to complain about whatever they want, so I can’t exactly say that these complainers are wrong to do so).

Still, flaming on someone who benches with an arch in their back with arguments like “WTF! He/she only moved the bar like 6 inches. This is the bench press. You’re supposed to keep your back flat on the bench.” is kind of like walking by an ice cream stand and shouting at someone, “WTF! You’re eating chocolate ice cream? This is an ice cream stand. You’re supposed to eat vanilla.”

If the goal is to move the maximum amount of weight possible while adhering to the rules of the governing lifting federation, then, in response to inflamed commenters everywhere, why the hell wouldn’t you give yourself every possible advantage? If that means arching the back, go for it! If it’s not illegal in the rules, how is it cheating?

At the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just arbitrary rules that some dudes wrote down about how you are and aren’t allowed to try to move heavier things than your fellow dudes or ladies.

We’re all just trying to move heavy shit for the fun of it. It’s not intrinsically important.

If someone sees a video of someone else lifting more than them and their immediate reaction is, “yeah, but they looked like shit doing it,” then maybe—and this is just one possibility—that person has placed too much value when it comes to evaluating their own sense of self-worth on the ability to move heavy shit, and now it’s making them an unhappy person. That doesn’t seem good! We’re all in this together, for the love of lifting!

Steering back to the importance of context, when it comes to training to get better at a lift, there might be several reasons to change your strategy for some amount of time. Going back to the example of arching on the bench press, if you tend to struggle with, say, driving from directly off of the chest, it might make sense to heed the insistent demands of angry commenters and train with your back flat on the bench for a while (to improve your strength in that position, I mean, not to appease the angry people).

We could walk through dozens of other examples, but the point is this: on top of anthropomorphic (body proportion) considerations, the way that you aim to complete a lift can/should also change based on what your reason is for doing the lift (i.e. what training stimulus/adaptation you hope to achieve).

Powerlifter-Bob-Peoples

So What Constitutes an “Incorrect” Practice?  

If the concept of correctness is somewhat ambiguous, does that imply that the question of what we might consider to be incorrect technique/practice is equally ambiguous? I’m afraid my answer to that question is in itself ambigous: yes and no.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not saying there’s no such thing as bad (or at least, suboptimal) form, but even our most hard held beliefs about safe lifting form may not be quite as black and white as we often want to think. Bob Peoples, the first man officially recorded to have deadlifted over 700 pounds (725 pound deadlift at a body weight of 181 pounds in 1949, to be precise), deadlifted by first exhaling his air and then pulling with his hips high and his back deliberately rounded—pretty much the antithesis of what is normally considered “good practice” on the deadlift, but it clearly worked for him.

Without diving too deeply into it, suffice to say that while certain trends in human movement tend to be more associated with injurious outcomes, it is never a surefire guarantee that one way of lifting will be absolutely safe (or even the safest and/or most effective of the available options) for everyone, all of the time, no matter what.

That being said, I still strive to follow practices such as staying tight and keeping a neutral spine during most if not all of my heavy lifts, I’m just pointing out that the failure to do so wouldn’t necessarily, undoubtedly translate to instant spinal wreckage. If you want a good rule of thumb, the whole “if it hurts, don’t do it” thing is probably a decent place to start.

At the end of the day, even if you are moving well and maintaining good control of the weight, it is still possible to suffer injury while lifting (of course). I might liken it somewhat to driving down a road at night in deer country. As long as you’re careful and maintain control, you’re almost always going to be fine. But sometimes—every once in a little while—one of those deer might come hopping out right in front of you, and sometimes, there’s just not much you can do. We can probably greatly reduce the incidences by taking appropriate precautions, but sometimes, accidents can unfortunately happen.

To Put It Simply

You’ll do well to let go of the idea that there is a single “correct” way to complete a given lift—or to do pretty much anything, really. From diet and programming to exercise selection and execution, there are almost always going to be several “it depends” stipulations… errr… depending on your situation and your goals.

People who push press are not cheating (unless they happen to be in a strict overhead press competition), and people with tremendously long femurs and short torsos who want to back squat do not necessarily need to “just stay more upright. Head up, chest up, brah.”

Try things out and see what works for you. I won’t claim that we are all special little snowflakes that need equally special, unique approaches to training, but it’s also narrow-minded to assume unquestioningly that you must do something a certain way just because that’s the way most people seem to do it (or because you friend’s uncle’s doctor buddy who hasn’t ever lifted said it was like, totally bad for your back and stuff).

Oh, and probably also avoid comment sections on lifting videos with massive amounts of views unless you want your brain to hurt real good. Them interwebz, man… Them interwebz…

welcome-to-the-internet

As always, thanks for reading guys! Please let me know in the comments here (or on Facebook, etc.) what you thought of this post or if you have any questions or suggestions about what you would like me to write about next!

PLEASE!!! Sweet Jesus somebody talk to me!!!

You know, if you want… That would be cool, I guess.

Alright, guys. Take care, and if you liked the work, please be so kind as to share it around!

 

 

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  • Ryley McDuffie

    Loved it! You’re writing style is too funny. definitely got me thinking about some of my clients!

    • Luke Mitchell

      Hey, thanks, Ryley! Glad to see you checked out the site. It was fun meeting you the other night (or, ya know, the other week… haha)!

      • Ryley McDuffie

        Yah it was a great read! Always looking for continuing education/interesting topics to read about. Keep up the good work! Loved the cat on the unicorn haha