“If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the present moment.” – Tsunetomo Yamamoto

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Perfect form for this manuever? I’m sure someone (who’s never skateboarded) has opined on what that is.

Things that make ya go, hmmmmmm….

If you’ve been in the iron game long enough, you’ve no doubt been struck deaf, dumb and blind by the inane babblings of the “perfect form” Nazis.  You know who I’m talking about.  Left exposed to the doomsday warnings of these types long enough and you’ll be drubbed into thinking you’re constructed of little more than balsa wood, gossamer and rice paper.

The good news is that the HIT jedis have faded into (relative) obscurity.  The bad news is that the Form Nazis have rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Let’s apply some common sense and a little evolutionary perspective on the idea of proper exercise form.  Because there are for sure a plethora of examples of bad form in weight rooms all across the land.  But it’s not nearly as egregious as the Form Nazis would have you believe.  Nor are the consequences as apocalyptic.

In regard to success in the weight room, and in fact, any aspect of human performance, there is no such thing as “perfect form”.  There is only the best form for your type, circumstance and situation.  In fact, attempting to emulate some nebulous notion of “perfect form”, regardless of the endeavor in question, will only act to put artificial limits on performance.  And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about hitting a curve ball, playing guitar, sprinting or heaving iron.  Michael Johnson’s “poor sprinting form” didn’t slow him from winning 12 World Championships and 4 Olympic gold medals.

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So let’s begin this discussion with the idea that there is only the task at hand, and the best, most efficient way to accomplish that task given the advantages and limitations of the apparatus performing that task.  The tasks that matter to us are those involving the human body.  Your human body.  Either alone, or in concert with any available / allowed / desired apparatus.

The first thing we need to consider, then, is whether or not the task at hand is even a good idea to begin with.  In other words, we need to apply a bit of risk vs reward logic.  But even this can get tricky.  Remember the old “Darwin Awards” parody that once circulated social media?  I personally wouldn’t consider either bull riding or high rep Oly lifts in a fatigued state worth the risk.  But obviously, many do.  And there was a time in my life where I considered football well worth the risk.

We can argue those points ad nauseum.  Risk vs reward is a personal question that only you can answer for yourself.  Let’s agree, then, to confine the discussion to the average Jane’s and Joe’s of the world who just want to be healthier, more resilient, and look good naked.

The end goal of any training program is ostensibly to make us a more robust, bulletproof (and more swole!) version of former selves.  Healthier, stronger, more muscular and less prone to injury.  And, in some cases, better “weekend warrior” athletes.  And, for the sake of this particular argument, let’s consider the rear foot elevated (or Bulgarian) split squat.

With that exercise in mind, check out the video below.  A video that has recently made the rounds on social media:

 

Now, what do you see here?  I’ll tell you what I see: a friggin’ strong-ass dude executing a tight lift with an impressive load. Something very few, even well trained people, could ever even attempt to pull off.

But I’m sure you can already see where this is leading.  And yeah, the first few comments outta the gate?  They look like this:

“One day, someone is going to get paralysed doing these”

“Won’t be me.  Quite a stunt”

Maybe I’m a purist but that posture and hip and pelvic position are garbage.”

Are you fuckin’ shitting me?  I could go on, but you get the point.  These guys are totally unimpressed.  They want to see a demonstration of “perfect form”.  Whatever the hell that is.

Reminds me of this inane post that made the social media rounds not long ago:

baby squat

 

May it rest in peace.  Nevermind that the only people who even begin to have the proportions of a baby (a long-ass torso, stubby arms and legs… and a watermelon head) are Olympic weightlifters.  Who, by the way, are lauded for their perfect squat form. Well no shit?  The fact of the matter is, they can’t squat any other way.  It’s not anatomically possible for them.  YOU, however, have to deal with limb lengths and anatomical variances that will in no way allow you to squat in this fashion.  The Form Nazis, though, would have you perform squat “drills” with a friggin’ broom handle on your back (don’t load disfunction!) until…

…fuck if I know.  I guess until you coax new limb dimensions into existence.

My guess is that this quest for “perfect form” stems from the assumption that everything in a dynamic system knowable.  That with the powerful laser of science, all can be reduced, plotted and vectored to perfectly calculable outcomes.  We ought, then, be able to understand the workings of any system and determine how to best optimize its function.  In a clockwork universe all we have to do is somehow figure out how the constituent pieces function, and we’ll then know how to perfectly fine tune it.

Problem is, it’s a wrong minded way to approach dynamic, variable systems (i.e., you).  Could such a predictive, instantaneously self-adjusting model be constructed someday?  Possibly.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on your performance gains…

And I’ll also point out that this binary, “all is reducible and knowable” mindset produces the same line of thinking that leads people to ask such dead-end questions as, “what’s the best diet?” or “what’s the best program for swole?” or…

… “what is the perfect split squat form?”

And you know what’s worse than asking (and assuming) there are actually definitive answers to those questions?  The fact that some people actually believe those questions can be answered definitively, and then attempt to do just that.

Vitruvian you?  Not so much.

Leonardo Di Vinci’s Vitruvian Man may have had idealized proportions, but odds are you don’t.  And neither does that bad-ass bro in the video.   It’s not slowing him down any though.  What you see in that clip is an obviously driven individual doing what anyone in search of bettering himself must do — use common sense to establish the boundaries of correct form, and push the limits of what the body can handle (risk vs reward) until the form deteriorates to unacceptable levels.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

vitruvian

And what’s “unacceptable” to the Form Nazis is the inability to precisely map, plot and vector what “unacceptable” form looks like.  To them, form is either “perfect” (again, whatever the hell that is) or it’s a no-go.  There’s no room for “coach’s eye” and variance in the world of the Form Nazi.  There’s too many floating variables to account for, no repeatability in coach’s eye.  No way to document, flowchart, or spreadsheet such a thing.  No way to perform RCTs!  Therefore, coach’s eye and acceptable variance is useless to them.   These are generally left brained, hard-wired engineering / academic types who can’t stand the thought of “fuzziness” entering their mechanical step-by-step wire diagram of how the human body should function.

In fact, this rigid, binary-only mindset reminds me of the lunatic 1980s war on drugs rhetoric.  Unfounded, and given to stereotypes, the intended audience (teen, young adults) smelled bullshit a mile away.  Of course we’d all known idiots who’d demonstrated their unrepentant idiocracy with or on drugs.  But we also knew scores more who used safely.  And we knew of the medicinal value of these substances.  There was — gasp! — a middle, gray area!  And who was the government to tell us what to do with our bodies and consciousness anyway?  The win/lose, black/white, no-middle-ground mindset was one already beginning to topple.  That, and we were just starting to see the emergence of “believe me, an an authority” slipping into it’s final death spiral.

This binary thinking didn’t completely die, though, and some of it seeped into the world of strength and conditioning.  First the HIT (and close cousin, Super Slow) jedis told us that anything beyond a single set (and done with anything less than  that “perfect form” thing) was an unmitigated waste of time (more on that, here).  These Scientologists of the S&C world would have us blindfold our senses to the preponderance of evidence otherwise.  And now the topic de jure for the binary minds of the S&C world has shifted to the idea of “perfect form”.

Seemingly this notion is an outcropping of the PT / rehabilitative world, where pinpointed motion / action is a legitimate requirement for targeted rehabilitation.  All fine and well; I dig it.  Correct modality for the intended result.  But just as quantum mechanics cannot be used to describe the actions of large objects, rehabilitative modalities cannot be used to produce adequate, productive stress to healthy bone, muscle, ligament and tendon.  In essence, the Form Nazis would have us attempt to fell a redwood with a coping saw.

Enter antifragility

The idea of antifragility comes from author Nassim Taleb’s book of the same name, in which he describes antifragility as a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. Antifragility is a property beyond mere resilience or robustness. The resilient system resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile system gets better as a result of the stress.

In the split squat example above, the athlete is actually made more robust (increasingly antifragile) as a result of the small, acceptable deviations in form while (and as a result of being) heavily loaded.  And why is antifragility a desirable quality?  Because life rarely comes at us in a measured, predictable way. Just ask yourself who would be in a better position to help maneuver a couch down from a third floor apartment: the guy in the video, or someone of the same proportions and potential, but who has never gone beyond 45 lbs in the lift because they’re trying to dial-in some notion of “perfect form” in the exercise.

In fact, the human body is the epitome of an antifragile (or potentially antifragile) system.  Those small deviations and deformities encountered under heavy load are exactly what we want to happen to the body.  But again, it takes a skilled eye, on the part of a coach or trainee, to know how much deviance is acceptable.  And no, that can’t be quantified.  You can either get over trying to quantify such a thing, or see your progress stall.  The choice is yours.

So in assessing allowable form deviation, one needs to first assess what proper form ought to look like vis-a-vis one’s limb proportions, unique anatomical features, training goals and injury history.  As stated before, you might aspire to “squat like a baby”, but how long your femurs are in relation to your torso will largely determine how far forward you’ll have to have to lean at the bottom of a squat.  Someone with relatively short femurs and a longer torso (babies and Oly lifters, with the watermelon head being mostly a non sequitur) will be able to stay fairly upright and have a strong bottom position with almost any squat form. Someone with longer femurs and a shorter torso (i.e., most of the population) will have to lean forward quite a bit more, with the bottom position appearing less secure.  Because, well, it is.

As well, hip anatomy has a huge influence upon squatting dynamics.  Factors such as the hip socket’s depth and placement on the pelvis, the very shape of the pelvis itself, and the angle and rotation of the femoral neck all influence what variations of squat form will be better or worse for each individual.

But even if you could determine the “perfect” squat mechanics, such a statement would still have to come with the caveat of what, exactly, you were trying to accomplish with the squat to begin with?  Different techniques, of course, being more or less appropriate for different purposes.  Squatting for muscular size won’t look the same as squatting to move the most weight possible. And both of those won’t look the same as the set-up for attempting to move a load as fast as possible, or develop the most instantaneous force or overall power output.

 

Okay, very well.  But  what’s the “practice” part of all this “theory”?

very simply this: do yourself a favor and quit wasting time seeking out so-called “perfect” form.  Embrace your personal individuality and genetic differences.  Strive for antifragility by pushing yourself, sensibly, to ever newer heights.  And know that you’re not the uber fragile being that some would lead you to believe.

We observe great Oly lifters, for instance, squatting in a certain high-bar, very upright way.  Is that because it’s the universal best way to squat for building Oly prowess, or because most great squatters have similar physical characteristics that cause a certain range of techniques to give them the best results?  That they may all be able to squat in a beautiful, upright fashion, ass-to-grass fashion in now way implies that everyone can.  Or even that they should.  Instead of chasing someone else’s strive for perfection, chase your own definition of “better than yesterday”.

And rather than chasing  some nebulous “optimal” technique or form, learn how to troubleshoot your shortcomings to achieve a desired goal.  Learn how differing angles and curl techniques and “cheat” produce different feelings within the biceps, for example.  And learn how exceeding those parameters diminishes that desired result.  Because the fact of the matter is that consistent, repeated action trumps knowledge, every time; troubleshooting and immediate and repeated implementation is the most important skill you can hone, both as a trainee and as a coach.

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Losing your pump, bro.  If your curls look like this you’ve gone beyond acceptable “cheat”…

The bottom line is this:  you have to experiment with various grips, positions and techniques.  If you try something, it feels better for you, and it lets you to move more weight or train the movement harder and better, produce more speed, feel or instantaneous force (depending upon the goal you’re shooting for) then that’s a better option for you.  It may or may not be better for anyone else (just ask Michael Johnson), but that’s irrelevant.  It’s better for you, and that’s what matters.  And striving for better than yesterday is exactly the name of the iron game.  It’s what you’re here to do.

So don’t allow some technotard to sway you with calculations, vectors and wire diagrams about what’s best when they have no friggin’ idea of your goals, or body’s unique charactoristics.  You have a perfectly functioning brain, body, CNS and feed-back system to tell you what’s right.  Listen to them.  Establish sensible goals, and acceptable parameters within which to push like hell to achieve those goals. And, every day, strive to be better than yesterday.

That’s the bottom line.

Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –

Keith

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