The Argument Against Optimal Exercise Form
As a Physiotherapist, Strength Coach and “semi-retired” Powerlifter I do get a lot of feedback; both from clients and colleagues; that I am very strict with form. I don’t apologize for that and I am a big believer in:
- Making sure technique is efficient to accomplish the task at hand whether that’s targeting a specific working muscle during a hypertrophy or rehab exercise OR moving a barbell in a strength movement from A to B
- Minimizing strain on a specific area
- Working around painful areas
That being said – there are situations where less than “optimal” form is definitely indicated and will be discussed during this article.
Just so we’re on the same page with definitions and contexts I will be talking about what a lot of conventional trainers and physios consider textbook form (i.e. feet shoulder width apart and back straight during a squat for instance). I still consider myself to be much stricter formwise than a lot of my biopsychosocial colleagues – but I also understand that there are some that are stricter with regards to form than I am.
Before we get into it, if this is a topic you like, then you will love the Masterclass Exercise Prescription in Sports Rehab by Dr. Teddy Willsey here.
1. Clients who have anatomical or mobility limitations that prevent them from doing an exercise through full ROM correctly
Cadaver studies have shown that people’s bones and joints are shaped and angled differently – allowing sometimes large variability in individual ranges of motion and necessitating variations in exercise technique. Some may have to squat wider with toes out and some narrower with toes facing forward.
Also some clients; particularly older and more sedentary ones; may be just overall limited in flexibility due to disuse, arthritis, or other factors.
If a client has to do a partial squat because their hip anatomy only allows them to go so far, or they don’t quite bring their arm to the floor on a deadbug due to a lack of shoulder mobility, that’s OK.
In reality my personal definition of “optimal form” is a much broader range than the one used above which encapsulates the fact that people’s stances, grip widths and joint angles are likely going to be different based on individual anatomy and potentially flexibility. In contrast to “feet shoulder width apart & toes facing forward” during a squat I have a whole bunch of definitions for optimal form in my ‘’Best Damn’’ Series:
2. Clients who’s form may be limited by a neurological condition
If working with clients who have conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, ALS, Supranuclear Palsy and others, factors such as tremors and ticks can create some shakiness and prevent a client from doing an exercise with what many consider to be “textbook” form.
3. People doing low level exercises
We’ve all had clients who have never touched a weight and never played a sport their entire lives. These clients are the ones who tend to struggle with learning every single exercise known to man.
As long as it’s not painful and as long as they’re not at risk of aggravating anything, in the case of low level exercises (think a bodyweight sit to stand for instance), I’m ok with “suboptimal” form for the time being and will slowly work on it over time.
Another big consideration for these clients is to pick exercises that are easier to pick up on and progress with over time. Quite often with these clients, particularly older ones with multiple health conditions, there can be many priorities and things to work on and spending all day trying to coach a single exercise isn’t a great use of time particularly when there are other options.
4. Individuals with chronic widespread pain where tissue pathology has been ruled out
In these situations quite often there has been so much avoidance and fear of activity that taking the approach of excessively focusing on form can be counterproductive. In addition – these clients are (in my anecdotal experience) horribly deconditioned and any exercise they can do is remedial at best.
In these situations there is a case for “just moving.” Again as with Point #3 there is a place for being more focused as the clients’ pain, activity tolerance, fitness, and confidence with movement all improve but if I have a fear avoidant client I’m not necessarily going to be the same as I would be with a client recovering from flexion aggravated back pain lifting a 600 lb barbell.
5. In cases where “optimal” form is actually more painful
An example of this was referenced by StrongFirst and FMS coach Brett Jones (1) where he detailed his own experiences with FAI which were aggravated by trying to squat in that textbook “feet shoulder width apart and facing forward” form.
I myself hurt my back trying to force my 6’5”, long legged and short armed body to squat and deadlift the “right” way until I met Stu McGill and learned how to do it properly for my body type. Sometimes optimal form is more troublesome and forcing it just creates more problems.
I don’t want this post to be interpreted as me giving you (or your clients) carte blanche to do whatever form you want – but there are situations where being the “stickler’s stickler” of form is not always productive. As always – thanks for reading.
If you want to take a deeper dive into exercise prescription I recommend the Masterclass Exercise Prescription in Sports Rehab by Dr. Teddy Willsey here.
Want to learn more about sports rehab?
Dr Teddy Willsey has done a Masterclass lecture series for us on:
“Exercise Prescription in Sports Rehab”
You can try Masterclass for FREE now with our 7-day trial!
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