What is “Correct” Form, Anyway?

Imagine for a second that you’re shopping for jeans. You want something comfortable, that you can move in, and looks good. Not too much to ask, right?

Ok, now imagine that you go to the Levi’s store, and there is one style of jeans, in one size.  That pair of jeans is most likely freaking perfect…for someone. The rest of us chumps will have to keep looking, and keep trying stuff on, until we

  1. Find that perfect pair of jeans we’re looking for,
  2. Get mad and go home empty-handed, or
  3. Start crying in the dressing room because the lighting is so unflattering that it makes us hate ourselves, and then retreat to lululemon for leggings instead because fuck jeans.

The other day one of my clients was doing a bilateral upper body exercise. She had her feet in a split stance for balance’s sake – I hadn’t cued that but I wasn’t going to mess with it (yet) because it wasn’t detrimental to the effectiveness of the exercise. When she got to the second set, she put the other foot forward in a very different split stance. But – again, she got the work done and how her feet were set up didn’t affect the quality of the work she was doing with her upper body. After the second set I asked her if she realized that she had switched feet and that the set up was different on either side. “No,” she said, looking somewhat surprised. “Which way is correct?”

The answer to that question is…neither. But also both. They’re just different and I thought it was worth noticing. “Correct” is a weird and nebulous term when you apply it to the way people move. I don’t like it because it implies that there is one right way to do things, and while that’s all very nice when you’re doing math problems, it just doesn’t work when you try and apply it to human beings.




conforming to fact or truth; free from error; accurate: a correct answer.

in accordance with an acknowledged or accepted standard; proper: correct behavior.

So let’s dissect this idea of “correct” a little bit, shall we? You don’t have to look too hard to find a virtual ton of information on how to exercise “correctly”. Handy little infographics detailing how to squat, how to deadlift, how to row, plank, run etc are everywhere – but here’s the thing: they won’t work for everybody. Our bodies are wonderfully varied as far as shapes, sizes, angles, and (most importantly) mileage are concerned, and trying to cram our bodies into someone else’s idea of a perfectly correct squat is just not going to go well. It’s also one of the reasons that people get weird about going to a gym and exercising where other people can see them – I mean, what if you’re doing it wrong? Are other people watching and laughing? (No they aren’t, they are busy doing their own workouts.)

To set the record a little straighter, here’s a checklist to refer to in case you’re worried about exercising “incorrectly”:

  1. Does it hurt? If the answer is no, then you’re doing ok. If the answer is yes, something needs to change.
  2. Is it effective? Are you seeing the results you want from it? Whether it’s weight loss, strength gains, or just a sick arm pump, if you’re getting what you want from your workout, then you’re doing it right. If you aren’t getting the desired results, then some course correction is in order.

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s look at the stickier stuff.

There are lots of fitness professionals out there who make a living by making sure people feel like they can’t do it. I’ve been through corporate sales training that teaches trainers how to prime new gym members to make them feel completely helpless and incompetent before hitting them with a sales pitch. I’ve been in courses that teach new trainers that their clients must execute exercises in the ONE CORRECT WAY and that you can’t possibly continue with that movement pattern or load it until it is textbook perfect. While in some cases (and to varying degrees) that’s true, most of the time you can just go ahead and train, because exercise is a skill, and skills take practice (some good instruction is also helpful if you need it). If you practice exercises consistently, you get better at them. You get stronger. More confident. You gain a more acute understanding of what your body needs and is capable of, and you grow more efficient at executing the movement patterns. So lift some weight, have some fun, get strong…and while that happens, our bodies will usually sort themselves out without exploding. Strength is corrective!

Case in point: one of my clients who started fairly recently has been posting about her (considerable) progress on social media. A personal trainer in her social network has been responding to her posts with increasingly nasty comments about her squat form and perceived incompetence on the part of her trainer. Now, because she is a human and her body has some mileage on it (as most do), she needed some practice in certain areas – squats weren’t hurting her; they were just not as effective as they could be in relation to the goals she had set for herself (remember the checklist?). She also needed to build some confidence and belief in her abilities in order to lift more weight. So, we started with an empty barbell and we’re slowly increasing the weight on the bar as her squat pattern gets better. And the best part is that she’s having fun with working out and enjoying documenting her progress….which is a huge step forward for her.

Here’s what I think: part of what’s fun and awesome about being a personal trainer is finding what WILL work for people. It’s about being creative and striking a balance between what needs work and what leaves our people feeling successful, fulfilled, and capable of handling whatever life throws at them. So what if you can grab that one pair of jeans off the rack and wiggle into them? If they gape at the waist and flatten your butt and squeeze in all the wrong places you aren’t going to want to keep wearing them – so it’s a damn good thing there are lots of different jeans out there. It’s worth holding out and looking for the ones that fit!

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