The Basics of Proper Form

Women Performing a Deadlift

“You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks”

While this may not be entirely true, the best way to break a bad habit is to never get started in the first place. Good form is something that, once learned, will stick with you for the rest of your fitness journey. If you never take the time to learn the correct technique, you’ll be stuck lifting improperly for the rest of your life, or at least until you get injured. In addition to the injury potential, bad form can also result in less effective training and put you on the receiving end of unwanted looks in the gym. If you’re just getting into weightlifting, it is important to start with lighter weight and get your form down early – your body will thank you.

Why it’s important

Injury Prevention

There are some nasty gym injuries out there, and while gory YouTube accidents may get the most attention, the most common injuries are actually the result of improper form. Back pain, joint damage, and muscular tears are examples of progress-shattering injuries that can be prevented with correct technique.

Muscle Targeting

Most exercises are performed to target specific muscle groups. Without proper form, you may be involuntary activating other muscles, and making your workout less effective. For example, bench press is meant to target your chest muscles (with secondary activation coming from your shoulders and triceps). If you feel stress in your biceps or lower back instead, the exercise is probably not having the effect you’d like, and you should check your form.

Women Performing a Deadlift

What Good Form Looks Like

While each and every exercise has its own criteria for ‘proper form’, there are a few broader principles that are common across all movement types: 

Spinal Alignment

Maintaining a flat lower back will help protect your spine and prevent lower back injury. When you’re setting up for an exercise, push your chest out and retract your shoulders back and then down (as if your tucking your shoulder blades into imaginary pockets on your back). This removes stress from your spinal column and moves the tension onto your stabilizing muscles. Maintaining this posture throughout your entire set is a great way to strengthen those support muscles and prevent future injuries.

Joint Alignment

Another common element of good form is parallel or stacked joints. All of your joints should be on the same vertical/horizontal plane and form an approximate 90-degree angle. For example, when you’re performing a bench press, you want to hold on the bar so that your forearms are perfectly perpendicular with your body, and point in a straight line up to the ceiling. If your grip is too wide, your forearms will be pointed slightly outwards, and holding this unnatural position will create unnecessary stress on your elbows.

Why Form Breaks

Lifting Too Heavy

When you try to lift weight that is too heavy, your body will compensate by activating other muscles. You see this most often during squats, as people bend their back to help get the weight up. This happens as your body shifts effort from your legs to your back, in an attempt to distribute the weight. Start light, and work your way up gradually. A gym injury will have a much greater impact on the amount of weight you’re lifting in the long run.


Your body wants to conserve energy and is used to performing movements in a specific manner. This is why you just reach down to tie your shoes, instead of performing a full squat. But picking up a barbell is much different than grabbing something off of the floor. So, when you start lifting heavier things, you will need to train your body to move differently and activate your larger muscles.

How to Correct Your Form

Save for a personal trainer, the best way to ensure you’re lifting with correct form is to record a video. Yeah, it may feel a bit awkward the first time you tape yourself in the gym, but it’s the only way to keep yourself honest. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, ask a (competent) friend for advice. Or, reach out and share your video with us on Instagram. We’d be happy to give you some pointers, just keep your shirt on.