Form is honestly not nearly as important as many people think. This article is going to easily be longer than many of my other articles, so please bear with me until the end of it. I’m well aware that this basic thesis will be very controversial, and I don’t expect everyone to agree, but I’d like to hope that I can help some people understand why I personally think that form is often a red herring. Also, don't expect a ton of citations or links to smarter works. There are some to help support my point, but ultimately I'm a philosopher and philosophers are the broscientists of the world.
When it comes to form, people often attach a very mystical sense of power to it. Whenever any discussion of lifting videos is had (damn you, Youtube) there’s a tendency for people to write off world-record or near-world-record squats, olympic lifts, etc. with the simple analysis “oh, it’s all about form,” or some similar statement thereof. Now there’s certainly a grain of truth to that: bad form can increase the difficulty of a lift, making it much harder to complete. Imagine a person who tries to deadlift with the bar too far forward while rounding their back like a cat, or bench press with the bar up by their neck, and you get an idea of what I mean. There are absolutely examples of bad form out there in the world, and they can make it harder to complete a lift or more likely to injure you in the long run.
At the same time, achieving “perfect” form is a misnomer. The idea is often this: that perfect form either prevents or nearly completely alleviates the possibility of injuries, while also placing you in more advantageous positions that enable you to lift much more weight that you could otherwise. To people who believe in perfect form, the reason you can’t lift as much weight as the next guy is probably because he has better form than you. This means you spend endless time capturing video of yourself and others so that you can analyze it and figure out what you’re doing wrong. This neurotic attention to pointless details is generally useless, and does little to help improve strength or function that simply training doesn't do more of.
I’ve seen many personal trainers who are absolutely sold on this sort of philosophy, including one who personally made the statement to me that “we don’t get a lot of injuries here, because we’re good about watching their form” in reference to exercisers doing bodyweight lunges. It doesn’t help that the public at large buys into this philosophy, and in many cases this is one of the chief duties expected of a personal trainer.
The first argument I have against this idea of perfect form is the fact that everybody is different, and there is no such thing as perfect form. Because each person has different anatomical features, there can be no universal “good form” just as there can be no perfectly right way to train. Different people will squat, deadlift, bench press, etc. differently, and being a good coach and trainer is more about accommodating those differences than trying to force a one-size-fits-all approach on top of it. The reason I can’t do Olympic lifting competitively is that (aside from not having a good coach in my vicinity) I simply can’t squat the way most Oly lifters have to. My right knee gets angry when I squat anything below powerlifting parallel, so adding tons of weight to that on top of my bad overhead stability would be a recipe for disaster. I used to do a close-stance Olympic style squat - and my squat never improved for about a year. One needs only to look at videos of various hella strong guys to find extremely different variations on the same lifts: Klokov’s duck stance deadlift and Konstantinovs’ hella rounded back in his deadlift come to mind.
Oftentimes, people’s vision of perfect form aligns with another anatomical boogeyman: the myth of perfect posture. Since I’m no expert on posture, I’ll let Paul Ingraham say it much better than I ever could with his excellent article, “Your Back is Not Out Of Alignment”. In it, he points out that the scientific evidence for highly structural causes of pain, injury, and other dysfunction is minimal, and that static posture is likely to have little influence on that sort of stuff. Further, he argues in another article that “fixing” posture with corrective exercise is not only misguided but also extremely difficult to potentially impossible. Paul’s work is some of the best researched in the field, so I highly recommend taking a look.
I would also like to toss in a couple personal anecdotes that may help provide a little background. At the first powerlifting competition I’ve ever seen, there was a guy lifting in the masters division whose squat was absolutely horrendous looking. In fact, when he squatted the bar was so crooked that on his first attempt, the spotters freaked out and took it off him before he could even descend, thinking he was dropping it. Of course, he made a stink about it and got a retry on that lift, completing it perfectly. He did the same with his second and third attempts. His best? Close to 600 pounds. We’re talking a guy with zero pain and more strength than me despite also having a squat in which the right side of the bar was about a foot lower than the left. Since then, I’ve happened to notice many older, masters powerlifters with similar phenomena. Awful looking squats and deadlifts, extremely awful posture as a result of aging, and yet plenty of strength and no pain. One could argue that it’s possible that they’re putting themselves at greater risk for injury in such positions, but I think the more likely solution is this: that if I were to try and squat like that, I would easily hurt myself, but for them, squatting like that is a necessity: that form is dictated by their unique physiological factors, and if they were to try and squat “normally” they would probably experience pain, discomfort, and a higher injury risk.
Again, this isn’t to say that there are certainly cases in which form matters. We know, for example, that deadlifting with a rounded back places much greater forces on the spine, which means an increased risk of injury. Science has validated this fact over and over. Yet at the same time, lots of dudes lift with rounded backs, and become conditioned over time to grow used to such forces. Am I recommending everyone try and lift with a rounded back? Of course not. But I am pointing out that for some people, it’s not as bad of a thing. (Please don't turn around and use this as evidence for "this guy says I can deadlift with a rounded back all I want", because that's not the intention here.)
Many trainers who attribute injury rates to form don’t seem to know that much about the relation between form and injury, in my experience. I’ve seen many trainers insist that the reason injuries don’t happen with their clients is that they follow “perfect” form and thus have minimal chance for injury. The fact is that while certain highly deviating forms may exacerbate the potential for injury (rounded back deadlifts, squats without proper hip hingeing) minor deviations likely have no impact on injury rates. These trainers also attribute high level of injury rates to non-perfect form types, which is odd because we know for a fact that training with weights, in all of its forms, is one of the safest physical activities in the world.
When we look at injury rates for various sports, we find that contact sports such as football and even soccer have significantly higher injury rates than lifting sports. This makes sense: you can’t really control what’s going to happen on a sport field, and since you can’t be prepared for everything, you’re going to hurt yourself sooner or later when some unexpected force hits you in just the wrong way. By contrast, simple gym training has virtually nil in the way of injury rates. Machines, dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells are all devices over which we have a high rate of control, and can carefully measure the forces involved. Weight too heavy? Go lighter. Possibility of losing control? We’ve got pins and arms on our squat racks to catch runaway weights. In some exercises, such as bicep curls or lateral raises, the weights are so small that it would be hard to hurt ourselves with them unless we were to suddenly and spectacularly drop them on our toes, or clock ourselves in the face.
Of course, lifting sports have a higher injury rate than simple gym time. Since lifting athletes push themselves to the limits of their bodies, they tend to experience your usual roster of aches and pains, as well as muscle tears and even broken bones. See a video of a guy getting folded in half by a 700+ pound squat, and you know immediately the kinds of severe injury that can happen in a lifting sport. However, even in these intense sports the injury rates are much lower than the kind we see in contact sports. Even soccer players get a lot more beat up than lifters ever do. I seem to remember a figure by Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength as to about 15 gym-related deaths occurring in the U.S. each year, and the majority of those being idiots bench pressing without guards or spotters and then inevitably getting crushed.
So how do injuries occur? Well, it’s certainly not like this, the way Ido Portal seems to think that they do. While you can certainly hurt yourself when forces are applied to an area which isn’t ready to tolerate them, purposefully attempting to strengthen those areas is a bit misguided: there’s always going to be an unexpected movement when you slip or twist an ankle, and the reason your body can’t prevent an injury is precisely that it wasn’t ready, couldn’t mobilize your muscles in time to protect the joint even though it wanted to. Thus, purposefully strengthening them sort of misses the point, and constantly exposing them to unexpected movement is possibly more dangerous than useful.
This is drawn largely from my own research on the topic, which of course means I can’t provide sources and that I’ve drawn it from stuff like Facebook conversations and the like, but here’s the way I understand experts see injury: injury arises when the body isn’t prepared to meet an unexpected force. This can be the sudden and accidental application of a novel stimulus (ie., misstepping and rolling an ankle), when it’s too tired to mobilize forces (ie., when you push yourself very hard and fatigue the muscles to the point they can’t fire) or when you try to push yourself beyond your limits before your muscles are ready for such a movement (ie. taking a newbie who’s never squatted before and having him try a 1RM). Can bad form potentially contribute to any of these methods of injury? Absolutely. But in general, most of these problems can be better alleviated in other ways.
Unexpected forces can be alleviated with proper use of safety implements. Collar your weights so they don’t slip off, use guards on your squats and spotters on your heavier bench presses. Don’t Olympic lift unless you know how to get out from under the bar. With these simple safety measures, you can avoid most unexpected forces related to weight training. Don’t push yourself too hard - this is a skill that everyone learns as a result of training in the gym. Elite level lifters know their limitations much better than the guy who’s just walked in off the street, and thus are unlikely to push themselves too hard. Lastly, simply not loading up weights too quickly after learning a new exercise, and being careful and judicious in your use of 1RM attempts, you’ll be able to avoid accidentally pushing yourself over the edge.
The reason many perfect form advocates bother me is that they seem to have little comprehension of how this all fits together. Let’s examine the case of the guy doing lunges with his knees travelling a little too far past his toes, or the dude with the awful looking bodyweight squat. Have you ever heard of someone giving themselves a serious injury from a bodyweight lunge or squat? Probably not. I can knock out hundreds of bodyweight squats without stopping, and even though my form continues to deteriorate throughout the process, I’m never hurting myself from it. For me, someone who's practiced a lot of squatting over the years, a bodyweight squat is such a minimal intensity that the chances I would hurt myself doing it are also extremely minimal. Can a guy hurt himself from a bodyweight lunge or squat? Absolutely. If you take a guy who’s never squatted before and force him to keep doing lots of squats, chances are he’s gonna hurt himself sooner or later. However, this falls into reason 3 above (pushing him before he’s grown accustomed to the movement) more than it falls into an issue of form. But if you take a guy who knows how to do bodyweight squats with some reasonable level of competency, he’s probably never gonna hurt himself even if his form looks wonky, and I know plenty of guys like that. The fact of the matter is, there’s just not much weight involved (unless of course you’re a pretty heavy gal/dude).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, elite level lifters absolutely do have huge variations in form from each other. However, this form has been ingrained by years of practice and is likely the best for their bodies, meaning that it’s probably no more likely to injure them than perfect form would.
As a result, there’s a time when form doesn’t really matter very much: when you’re dealing with beginners (for whom the weight is negligible and thus unlikely to hurt them) or when you’re dealing with experts (who are so used to doing whatever it is that they do that changing any of it would be more trouble than it’s worth). Thus, the time when form becomes important is at an intermediate level: when someone wants to compete professionally, but doesn’t yet have the experience required to reach elite levels. At this level, guys can absolutely have issues with form which require correction, and they’re early enough in their growth that they still have the possibility of meaningfully changing it and developing new patterns. They’re also in a place in which they’re handling significant enough weights to potentially harm themselves, without yet having the experience and conditioning in place to protect them.
Being strict with perfect form in the early stages of a person’s training, as a result, seems pretty stupid to me. Many gym goers have no intention of developing to an intermediate or elite level, and many others will realistically drop out before making it to such a stage. You could have these guys half squat with ugly form from now until the day they die without hurting themselves, and many people do. It’s more likely that any injuries that do occur can be attributed more to violation of one of the above rules, or simply the process of decline that occurs with aging, than to form alone.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be teaching good form to clients. Clients should absolutely be learning to move better if possible, and that means cleaning up their major movement patterns. However, many trainers know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that some clients simply can’t be taught: endless years of inactivity or different postures make it very hard to unlearn those patterns and learn new ones. In general, the importance of form to each individual should be guided not by rote repetition across clients but rather by an individualized approach which takes into account their level of fitness and their intended goals. If a client has no desire to perform, I may not focus on improving form significantly until a couple months into training, focusing first on developing basic functionality of movement before then returning to perfect it. While there may be a certain template of form from which various good forms can be derived, there is no absolute, perfect form. Generally, the ability of the client dictates what final form will look like: if they can’t learn the form one way, variations will be tried until something sticks.
Provided that some basic functions are ensured (proper hip hingeing in the squat and an understanding of the need to maintain a neutral spine position, along with appropriate depth) people’s form will, over time, tend to migrate towards the best possible form for their unique physiology. Simply by nature of repeated effort, you’re going to make small adjustments until you arrive at the best possible form for your goals and physiology. Sometimes the jumps may be small, as you gain better stability in the knees and thus don’t tend to bow in as much, for example, but others might be large, like when you realize that a wider foot stance is less awkward for your movement. This is also a self-limiting process - if your squat is so bad that it might hurt you, you probably also won’t be able to lift much weight, and as a result you’ll be prevented from pushing it to that point. Above all, simply knowing when to stop and not push yourself too hard is a valuable skill that will save you a lot of injury.
People may point out that over time, people are going to hurt themselves. Well, absolutely. If you squat ten times, you have a ten times as high chance of hurting yourself squatting as someone who’s only squatted once. Likewise, people who spend a lot of time in the gym put themselves at greater risk. However, that risk is minimal and probably linear up to an extreme point, which is to say that if you squat 360 times in a year it’s maybe a bit more than 360 times the danger of only squatting once by nature of the fact that higher frequency means you’re more likely to be tired/imperfectly recovered from the last time you squatted.
Even with a small chance of injury, you’re going to hurt yourself eventually. It’s also highly likely that the inevitably of injury is linked only to the inevitability of aging. The real issue is likely more that as we age, we become less able to tolerate forces and thus more likely to injure ourselves in any given activity. I would argue that the inevitability of injury can probably be attributed to these two things alone (aging and repetition of effort) more than something smaller in importance, like form. Further, more people hurt themselves every year simply from sitting on their asses and not exercising!
It is my general opinion that while form matters, and is vastly important in some circumstances, it’s taken on an almost mystical quality, as if perfecting form instantly makes one both stronger and impervious to injury. I have endeavored to show that neither is the case, and I would argue that many higher-level fitness professionals agree. Certainly, when faced with yet another article breaking down the squat and how to do it properly, many higher-level fitness professionals just sort of shake their heads in disappointment. What we need isn’t more articles about how to squat. What we need is more people squatting, or as the saying goes, just shut up and squat!