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Why weight lifting form is more important than heavy weights

Weight lifting form

Hi, this is Rob guest posting today. Weight training offers numerous health benefits for people of all ages, but only if done correctly. Proper form is what matters, more so than the weight itself.

Not just bodybuilders, but anyone who wishes to build their muscles must follow a strict set of techniques when doing the exercises in order to see and feel the best results without injury.

Bad weight lifting form will not only reduce the benefits you get from weight training, but it will also increase your risk of injury.

No matter how many repetitions you do, which diet plan you stick to, how much weight you lift, or which gym equipment you use, if you don’t do the exercises with strict form your muscles won’t be properly stimulated. As a result, your improvements will be much less and not as aesthetically pleasing.

In this article, Robert Jackson of Minimal FiT in London explains why form is more important than weight for building muscle and how to implement the correct lifting techniques.

Weight lifting form vs. weight itself

The most common mistake many lifters make is trying to lift as much weight as they possibly can, without focusing on their form.

When the weight is too heavy, the body uses whatever means it can to lift it. That could lead to extra pressure on your spine or moving your body in a way that adds unnecessary stress to ligaments and tendons.

The best way to explain this is with an example.

Let’s say person A lifts a 30lb dumbbell while making sure his form is correct to isolate the bicep. His target muscle is under tension during the whole set, and therefore is maximizing the lifted weight.

Person B, on the other hand, lifts a 50lb dumbbell without focusing on his form. Even though his target muscle (the bicep) is still playing a part in lifting that weight, other muscles are also used to create momentum and distribute the tension to the surrounding muscles.

Unfortunately, the latter approach leads to inadequate muscle growth, potentially joint pain, and most importantly, an increased risk of a muscle or ligament tear if done to an extreme.

When the exercises are performed with the right weight lifting form, even lighter weights can seem difficult because of the target muscle working harder. This is what we want to achieve.

Proper weight lifting form helps maximize improvements

Many people look at weight training as simply moving a weight from point A to point B, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In order for muscle hypertrophy to be maximized, you need to work on your skills and neuro-biological adaptations of the exercises, and that can only be done by doing the exercises enough times and with proper form.

This will lead to an increased sense of coordination, which you can use to activate the desired muscle fibers and stimulate tension in the target muscle. All of this wouldn’t be possible if you focus on moving the weights instead of your muscles.

Jay Cutler, the four-time winner of Mr. Olympia, has explained this well:

“Do not think of the weight going up and down; instead, visualize your muscle tightening and firing during the contraction, then resisting and lengthening during the extension.”

When a four-time bodybuilding world champion focuses more on his form instead of the weight lifted, it’s hard to justify why anyone would do things differently, especially with the high risk of injury.

Personal trainer quote

How to use proper form in your exercises

The first step is to leave your ego out of the gym – you’re there to improve your fitness and build muscle, not to compete with others.

Next, make sure to stick to what Jay himself said, and focus on your muscles working while maintaining proper form. Take your time, and do all the exercises correctly without rushing through. 

A common exercise that many lifters rush through is the bench press – as soon as they drop the barbell to their chest, they pop it back up quickly. This causes tension to the tendons, ligaments, and the sternum, but not so much to the pectorals, essentially making this exercise only 50% effective.

You also need to make sure that you only lift as much as you can while still maintaining the correct form. As a rule of thumb, use around 80% of your 1RM or one rep max. Doing so ensures you get enough weight to build muscle, but still maintain proper form and maximize your muscle tension.

It’s important to start all the sets with strict form and maintain it for as long as you can. As you move through the set, things are bound to get difficult at the last couple of repetitions. Still, instead of completely ignoring your form on those reps, make sure to relax to some extent and finish the set correctly.

As for the number of repetitions, it’s best to stick to the 8-12 range in order to maximize your hypertrophy.

Still, how can you make sure that your form is correct for every exercise when even professional bodybuilders can sometimes lose track and perform the exercises with poor form? Especially when the tiniest details, like contracting your abdominals on a deadlift, can make a big difference in the long run.

The answer is to have someone qualified monitor your technique and correct you when needed.

A note on personal trainers

But, don’t just assume that all personal trainers know what proper form is. You need to ensure that you are familiar with each exercise before doing it, and there are plenty of resources you can use to do that.

Even having a training buddy watching you, noticing what you are doing well and where you need to adjust can help a lot. Start getting into the habit of watching your friends when they train and give them little cues as they exercise.

Cues like “tense your abs”, “pull your shoulders back” and “squeeze your glutes as you stand up” are to the point and easy to understand.

Concluding thoughts

Lifting heavy weights doesn’t automatically mean that your muscles will grow toned and beautiful. You need to make sure you’re using the right form above else and always keep the basics of bodybuilding in mind – focus on the mind-to-muscle connection instead of just throwing weights around.

About today’s writer

Robert Jackson is a personal trainer and owner of PT Pod, an independent PT and massage studio in London. He helps time-poor office workers get back in shape after spending years stuck behind a desk.

16 thoughts on “Why weight lifting form is more important than heavy weights”

  1. Your points are valid. I once injured myself under the supervision of a personal trainer. I did not report the injury or the PT, but the next time I was able to return to the gym, he was gone. I was definitely using too much weight and learned the hard way that it was not necessary.

    1. Oh that’s terrible, Peggy. I was just saying to another commenter here that I started with a personal trainer to avoid injury so I had proper form. You make a good point that not all trainers are of the same quality.

    1. Awesome! Do you notice that if you think about the muscle you’re trying to use while doing a stretch or doing weights that it’s more likely to activate? Mind-body link!!

  2. Interesting points here. I know weight lifting of SOME kind is good for us. I prefer using my own body for weight training, using yoga, stretch bands, and lots of planks. Seems safer, to me.

    1. Ohhh stretch bands are great for resistance training, Pam! My friend and I bought sets of them, some tighter and smaller than others. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

  3. Form is hugely important. I tried switching off of machines to kettlebells and free weights via YouTube advice. It ended in injuries. They were not very serious but did mean time off from training. Invest money and get someone to teach you properly.

    1. That’s exactly why I started with a trainer with free weights, Chris – I was worried about injury! Sorry to hear that happened to you and hope you’re doing well now :)

  4. petespringerauthor

    Thanks for the excellent points, Rob. When I retired three years ago, I made a commitment to get healthy. Most of my fitness routine occurs at the gym, and I see exactly what you are talking about all the time. We guys especially need to check our egos at the door. There are so many people trying to max lift who have horrible form. Slow and steady wins the race. When people push themselves to the max, they also turn to burn out faster than the people who focus on getting slower paced regular workouts in.

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