Exercise Form and Mechanics

Exercise Form and Mechanics

There are many things people are told not to do when exercising. Don’t round the back or shoulders. Don’t squat past 90 degrees. Don’t run, jump, or squat if you have arthritis. Don’t lift anything heavy. Make sure you have perfect form before adding any weight.

Sometimes the advice comes with good intentions (trying to help you prevent injuries) and sometimes it is sales-driven (try to sell a specific training service). Regardless, research doesn’t support these claims. Furthermore, research doesn’t support most claims about form and mechanics of exercise.

There is no “best” exercise or universal form for any movement pattern. We are all unique with differing body types, down to the shape of our bones and joints. Injuries are complex, resulting from a combination of training load (e.g., the rigors of sports, work, or raising kids), exercise intensity, stress, nutrition, and sleep.

You can safely exercise with a variety of body positions and movement patterns. The key is whether your body has adapted to that movement and can withstand the stress. If you don’t have experience with a type of exercise, such as lifting weights, don’t start maxing out and performing the exercise daily. But, if you build capacity, listen to your body, and put effort into good recovery and training habits (i.e. diet, sleep, and training frequency), you can perform any exercise you want.

Throughout your physical therapy plan of care, we are providing exercise guidance. Sometimes, pain changes the way you move. For example, if you have low back pain you may not lift objects from the ground due to back pain, forcing you to take a knee or widen your stance. Or you may keep your back stiff and upright, relying more on your legs for lifting. If you have shoulder pain, you may arch your back more to reduce have far you have to lift your shoulders. Or maybe you have a limp after spraining your ankle, allowing you to reduce the amount of weight you put on your injured ankle.

Those are normal responses, especially when pain is acute. As the tissue heals, the pain will reduce, and you will gradually return to moving the way you did pre-injury. The pain is a good guide for how far you can push your body. You may need to adjust the range of motion or the intensity of the activity.  Over time, you will expand the types, volume, and intensity of activity.

If you decide to try a new movement or exercise at home, build up gradually. You can consult with us if you have any concerns. If you want to try something after completing your plan of care, give us a call or stop by for some quick advice. Know that most physical activities are not inherently dangerous activities, despite what you may hear. 

For example, deadlifting, even with a rounded back, is safe. This doesn’t mean some movements don’t carry more injury risk than others or that the intensity and volume of the movement are irrelevant. Don’t try maxing out with Olympic weightlifting or try a triple flip of the 10-meter pool platform if you have never participated in weightlifting or diving.

Gradually ramp up your exercise volume. Running is not dangerous, but going from 0 to 10 miles a day will lead to an injury, regardless of your running form or shoe choice. So, does that mean mechanics don’t matter at all? Not necessarily.

Does Form Matter?

It depends on what you mean by “matter.” Movement form can enhance performance. Although, there is no universal form. Everyone’s body is unique. We have different bone lengths, amount of muscles, and joint cavity sizes and depths. Our muscles, joints, and ligaments have slightly different collagen fiber makeups, making some people more flexible than others. One person may squat more weight with a narrow stance while another benefits from a wide stance.

Look at any sport and you will see many different forms among the world’s elite. From complex pitching mechanics to simple distance running form, the variability is great. Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ideal positions for each person. Coaches thrive on finding the best training programs and mechanical breakdowns to give their athletes an edge.

Chances are, you are not a professional athlete. Your ability to maximize your body positioning is unlikely to be worth the time, money, or effort. The good news is you can be successful in many positions. Your physical therapist will help guide you. Your performance in athletic endeavors will help as well.

Sometimes you want to purposefully move in unfamiliar positions to train your body and build strength and control in those postures. Letting your back and shoulder round during deadlifts and rows can enhance muscle development and mobility improvements. Just make sure you are progressing gradually.

This leads to injury risk. Does form matter for reducing injuries? Only to a degree.

Injuries Are Complex

You can injure yourself by lifting with a rounded back but you can also injure yourself by lifting with the straightest back you can muster. Awkwardly carrying objects is a risk factor for low back pain, as is lifting heavy objects repeatedly. But body position is only one variable that contributes to injury risk, and it often is not the one to focus on.

Pain and injuries are multi-factorial and focusing on a single cause is rarely the answer. Research shows that work-related pain is driven by low job satisfaction, poor exercise tolerance, inactivity, and health issues. High levels of activity and poor recovery strategies (diet, sleep, stress management) lead to pain and injury, especially when the activity is work-related and not leisure time exercise.

The best strategy for preventing injuries is to gradually introduce your body to the specific activity and build in appropriate recovery. The primary drivers of injury are overload — acute such as an ACL tear or chronic such as tendinitis — and poor recovery.

If you have experience lifting weights, you will build up strength in those positions, making the tasks easier. If you rapidly increase the load or volume of exercise, regardless of your form, injury risk increases.

You need to account for your sleep and diet habits, stress levels, and contextual factors that influence training intensity. If you are training at a high intensity for a competition, pushing yourself to the limit despite fatigue, the risk goes up. If you want to integrate a new movement into your routine but keep the weight light, well short of a max effort, you are safe.

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