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I saw this guy at the gym doing the most ridiculous excuse for a push up I’d ever seen.  My client and I wondered, what the hell does he think he’s accomplishing?  He banged out his second set of about 50 of these push ups and then strolled out of the gym.  I wonder if he went home to his boyfriend/girlfriend and bragged about doing 100 push ups.  Oh, and the guy was carrying about 30-40 extra pounds.

Ok, I don’t want to be TOO hard on the guy, at least he was at the gym, and what he was doing sure beats lying and the couch and eating potato chips.  But it was the perfect case in point of what drives me absolutely nuts every day at the gym:  people wasting their time because they have no idea what they are trying to accomplish with a given exercise.  I’m going to try and post videos of bad vs. good form on a push up.

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If you are a beginner, or if you’ve been doing machines and cardio for a long time and are ready to start doing more free weight exercises, your stabilizing muscles are going to be weak.  These are the smaller muscles that stabilize your joints:  shoulders, hips, knees, in particular.  You will have to start with lighter weight and REALLY understand what the goal is on each exercise.

For the push up, your hands are going to be just outside your shoulders, palms face down on the floor.  Your feet are together, toes touching the floor.  Your back is flat, naval is drawn in, and your head, shoulders, hips, and ankles form a straight line.  Lower your chest to the floor by bending your elbows, pause with your chest a few inches off the floor, then extend your elbows and push your body as far away from the floor as you can.  Place a tennis ball on the floor in front of your chest to mark where to touch the chest on the way down each time.

IF THIS IS TOO HARD (as it was for the man I saw in the gym), modify the push up by placing your knees on the ground and lifting your feet off the floor.  Be sure that your head, shoulders, hips and knees form a straight line.  Another way to modify this move is to place your hands on the side of a bench and use the same push up movement as first described (with feet on the floor).

RANGE OF MOTION IS KEY.  By range of motion, we can simply call say it’s the distance traveled each repetition from the bottom of the movement to the top of the movement.  It makes me so crazy when I see people cheating on the range of motion on many exercises.  Remember the old physics equation:  W(work) = F(force) x D(distance)?  Work is measured in Kilocalories.  We talk all the time about burning calories in our workouts.  If you only go 1/2 the range of motion, you are only doing 1/2 the work.  Multiply that through a full workout and it’s the difference between burning 400 and 800 calories!  That’s not to mention you are recruiting more muscle fibers, setting your body up to build more lean tissue which will speed up your metabolism overall.

Squats and lunges are another exercise that people cheat themselves on.  It’s even more crucial with these leg exercises since 60% of your body’s mass is below the waist.  I’ll get more in-depth with leg exercises in a later post.  Anyone who has worked with me knows how strongly I believe in strength training the legs as a crucial component to a lean, fit body that most people overlook.

So, good form is important.  To a point.  Once you have a solid foundation and are strong enough to control the appropriate weight through the full range of motion, then I give you permission to break some of the form rules.  For example, you are trying to break through a strength plateau on your bench press and you are going a bit heavier than you are used to.  It is okay if a few of your reps toward the end of the set aren’t perfect (maybe you give the bar a little ‘bump’ with your chest at the bottom).  You are trying to break through a strength plateau so you need to work with a weight outside of your comfort zone.  It stands to reason that you won’t be able to perform all the reps of the set goal with perfect form.  Your muscles will begin to fatigue before you reach the goal and you will recruit other muscle groups and other body parts just to help you finish the movement.  This is okay when you are working outside your comfort zone.

I talk a lot about balance.  The balance to achieve when strength training is between proper form and heavier weight.  You can’t increase the weight until you achieve a full set with proper form.  But you have to increase the weight once you’ve achieved proper form to avoid adaptation.  Once your body adapts (and the exercise becomes ‘easy’) your body stagnates and will not change.  What I see a lot of is people being afraid to venture outside of their comfort zone (ie. heavier weight) and stick to doing the same weight/sets/reps over and over and not changing.

But you have to understand the goal of a given exercise before you can know what the proper form is.  It’s like the old saying, You have to understand the rules before you can break them.  So, good for is very important.  To a point.  Then you want to push the boundaries of what’s comfortable and be okay if a few of the reps in a set being less the perfect.

Push yourself.  Safely.  With balance as your guide.

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