Training Tuesdays: On the Importance of Good Form (and the role our brains play in it)

If nothing else, I should win bonus points for the longest blog post title ever.

I’ve written already about how I’ve been doing strength training for years, but that I’ve also been doing it all wrong. The extent to which this is true has become glaringly obvious after just three personal training sessions. Over the course of these sessions, I’ve discovered several propensities that have counteracted any gains from my strength training efforts including (but not limited to):

1. My right hip “hikes up”
2. I “tuck” my tailbone
3. I hinge at my back instead of from my hips

In other words, I am a mess.  I’m not the kind of mess you’d see from a mile away, with the obvious and cringe-inducing bad form.  I’m the kind of mess that looks like she’s got her shit together until you start using dowels and yoga blocks to show her that she’s, in fact, a bit of a disaster.

My most recent demonstration of the critical importance of form was when I awoke with significant glute stiffness (i.e. my ass muscles hurt) after doing three sets of 6 single-leg dead lifts using 25 lb. kettle bells.  Yes, that’s right, a measly 18 dead lifts left me with more DOMS than I’ve experienced after doing 100 squat jumps, 50 dead lifts, and five minutes straight of walking lunges (side note: that’s a fun little superset if you want to give it a try–with proper form of course).  In short, it’s been sobering to see just what a difference proper form can make to engaging the right muscles.

You’d think armed with this knowledge and starting to get a feel for the “right” form that it would be easy to just get on board with this new way of operating. You’d be wrong. Turns out these damn brains of ours sure like to hang on to old habits.

See? That stubborn brain of mine just wants me to be tilted!
This may look like good form, but trust me it’s not. 

Changing my form is really an exercise in changing some very hard-wired, neural pathways. In essence, I am changing my brain.  On the plus side, I have always been fascinated by how we overcome bad habits and adopt new habits. It’s a large part of the work that I do every day, so I’m largely game for the challenge. On the down side, it is bloody hard.

I am amazed at how quickly I can shift from proper form to improper form. As soon as the muscles start to fatigue, as soon as I get distracted by shiny objects (which is often), or as soon as I get complacent and think I’ve “got it”, my lovely little brain goes on autopilot and my form goes to hell. My brain isn’t an idiot.  It knows the path of least resistance is always easier, and that path is poor form.  But it’s also fully capable of learning a new path that will, in time, become its new path of least resistance. All it takes is concentrated repetition.  That’s it.

Nerdy brain science moment: “whenever you repeatedly engage in any behaviour…the brain circuits supporting it strengthen and the behaviour becomes a preferred routine” (courtesy of a fabulous book called You Are Not Your Brain). There’s a little something called Hebb’s Law which basically says habits are created and maintained when nerve cells are activated in the same ways over and over again, because it causes them to form a brain circuit. That’s when we consider something to be hard-wired.

Seriously. Even if you think you hate science, that stuff is cool.

What this means for my training is that I have to notice and accept the discomfort of holding the correct form, and push through that discomfort anyway.  Over and over and over again.  Sure it’s easier to tuck that tailbone just for a second, but that is exactly the kind of action that will keep me from forming new patterns.  And I, for one, have never believed that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Take that, brain.



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