“Push your knees out as you go down.” I watch. “You are collapsing in. Push your knees out.” No change. I kneel beside the athlete and push my fist into the outside of their thigh. “Push against my hand as you come up.” They do. “There you go.”
My athlete just lost a precious 15 seconds in the AMRAP, but they are smart and know that improving their squat is far more important than winning the workout.
This mini story happens to me daily. It’s my job to correct form, to watch for movement patterns, and to teach when necessary. I love my job. It’s why I sit in my apartment at night, drinking tea, and reading articles debating proper knee tracking. I like what I do. I’m a fitness nerd.
When we talk about high intensity training, which is my jam, quality movement takes on an added importance. You never lose by having excellent form, but when you are training at your limit, your form is what keeps you safe. With the rise of competitive workouts (which is an extremely powerful way to drive intensity—“men will die for points”), I’ve started noticing a large percentage of athletes sacrificing form for score. This tradeoff is a lose/lose.
First off, if you aren’t doing a movement with full range of motion (the most common issue I see), you are scaling the movement and making it easier. If you are doing pushups and your chest isn’t reaching the floor or if you are doing pullups and your chin isn’t clearing the bar, you are doing a partial version of the movement. And that’s okay when you are building up strength, but if you can improve your ROM by taking a quick rest or slowing your reps, you should. Absolutely. You will be training harder even though you are going slower because those few inches or degrees add an incredible amount of intensity. If you can, you should. It will improve your fitness overall in a much more effective way than if you blow through 30 partial ROM versions. From my observation: pull ups, push ups, and squats are the most common partial ROM culprits. If you are struggling with body awareness (something that comes with training), use targets. Put a medball under your butt to squat to, take your chest all the way to the floor in your pushup.
To add on to the ROM discussion, if you need to scale to get full ROM, you should. If you are a tall person, lucky you, but pushups, squats, pullups, all of it, are going to be more challenging. It’s mechanical physics: your levers are longer, therefore workload is increased. This means that, to build your strength, you may need to do pushups on your knees. That’s ok. That’s better than bending your elbows 2 inches in a full plank and calling it a rep. Be humble and be precise. It will pay off.
The second reason, and the one nearest and dearest to my heart, is that if you are holding your form, you are doing all the things training is supposed to: building strength, promoting health, lubricating your joints, improving bone density, etc. If you are allowing your form to fail, especially at a high intensity, you are doing damage. You are hurting your joints especially. Now, I know that, when you are truly working at your max and you are in the heat of competition, your form gets a little messy. Your burpee might be a little ugly and your squat might get a little frayed. And that’s reasonable. And I don’t expect people to maintain pristine movement patterns throughout all portions of their training. In fact, you are perfect throughout, it means you aren’t at your maximum. But there’s an edge that is important. If you can do a full ROM push up, do it for the whole session even if you have to rest for a few seconds. If you cannot do 10 strict pullups, don’t do 50 kipping pullups where you repeatedly slam into your shoulder joints and fail to clear the bar. Be excellent and be humble. You should be able to hold form for 85% of the workout. When you master form, you master your body. If you can hold form, it means that you are likely going to stay healthy and continue your progress, for years and years. Injury should not be the rule, it should be the exception.
My last thought on this subject is that we all should listen to our coaches. They are our eyes when ours are blurred with sweat. Do not get frustrated when we adjust or scale. We are doing it because we know quality movement increases the intensity but decreases risk. And unless $1 million is on the line, it’s better to go for steady progress than winning a workout.
Intensity is powerful, I think it is the most effective way to train, but it’s only effective if it adds quality to your life. And if can only add quality if it improves your movement patterns. And it can only improve your movement patterns if you are precise.