Lighten Up! Masters Fitness Requires Perfect Form, Not More Weight
With masters lifting, it’s about how, not about how much
We’ve all seen it, and guys are the worst, wildly swinging huge weights, bodies swaying all over the place, swayed back, half or even quarter reps, then banging the weights down hard, causing everyone in the gym to look over to see if an accident just occurred.
Yep, we’re talking about what I call ego lifters. These are the guys who boost their self esteem and try to impress others by loading up as much weight as they can lift off the ground or off the rack, and then make a ridiculous mockery of themselves and the exercise they’re trying to perform.
The whole intent of recreational weight lifting is to target specific muscles or muscle groups, to isolate them, and to make them work through their full range of motion to exhaustion that results in hypertrophy, or growth. To accomplish these goals we need to maximize the stress on our target muscles, getting the most possible from every single rep, and, like it or not, form is much more important than weight volume.
The important basics
When performing any given resistance training exercise, we basically have the following two muscle groups:
1) Prime Movers
The prime movers are the muscles or muscle groups we’re targeting for development, and the stabilizers are the muscles or muscle groups that hold everything else in place while we isolate the prime movers. A good example is the standing bicep curl because it’s one of the most popular lifting exercises and also one of the most abused.
Clearly, in a bicep curl the bicep is our prime mover. The only intent of this exercise is to develop the bicep, which means it must be isolated, or more simply not receive help from any other source. This is much easier said than done, because our brain and our bodies are programmed only to achieve the end result, which is getting the weight from a low point to a higher point, and by nature we typically use our bodies as a system to get this done, using several muscle groups and also leveraging to get underneath the weight. To achieve muscle isolation we must re-program our body mechanics.
So first let’s make an important distinction between isolation (or “iso”) moves and compound moves.
In isolation moves we primarily target a single joint movement, and we isolate the muscle or muscles that move only that joint. So from our bicep example, we may think of the bicep as a single muscle, but it’s actually a group of muscles that move the elbow joint to a closed position, like the quadriceps, a group of four leg muscles on the front thigh extending the leg at the knee. This helps us understand the role of “prime movers” by thinking of single joint movement.
Alternatively, compound moves involve several joints in a single movement, with the squat as a great example, involving joint movement of the knees, ankles, and hips, calling on all of the associated muscle groups that move those joints. In both isolation and in compound moves, we seek to isolate only the muscles in these joint movements as prime movers. It’s the range of these prime movers that we’re seeking to maximize throughout the full movement of the joint.
The important role of stabilizers
Think back to our bicep curl example. If we’re to isolate the bicep complex, everything around it must be stable. And lifters must build form from the ground up just like golfers build their swing from the ground up, so with lifting it all starts with posture, balance, and core strength. To understand the importance of the ground up approach, try doing bicep curls with your back against a wall so that your body can’t sway forward or backward. Notice how much harder this is. Without swaying momentum, the bicep becomes more isolated and must work harder, creating greater load and maximizing hypertrophy. Now stand away from the wall and do the curl, note the need for an upright posture, a balanced stance, and a strong core to keep from swaying. This is all part of the stabilization process.
In stabilizing, holding a strong core is critical, and we do this by pulling in our stomach and by squeezing our glutes together. This activates the torso core stabilizer muscles and will keep your body from moving at the waist and will also keep your spine and your back straight.
Now do the curl standing sideways next to a mirror and watch you elbow. Does it move forward and backward with each rep? If so, you need to engage your shoulder muscles to stabilize and stop the arm sway. Put a small piece of tape on your shirt at the bottom-most elbow position and watch to ensure the elbow does not move from this spot. If you’ve eliminated body sway and elbow movement, then you have successfully isolated the bicep complex and are maximizing muscle load with each rep.
Get your full range of motion and cadence
Another major sin we see created by ego lifters is limited range of motion. They load up with so much weight that their entire kinetic chain, much less their target muscles, can’t handle the weight, and they compensate by shortening the muscle’s range of motion, sometimes by over half. This misses the opportunity to develop the muscle’s full strength and mobility potential. Worse yet, shortened reps lead to shortened muscles, creating imbalances that effect everything from symmetrical appearance to potentially causing injuries.
Additionally, ego lifters tend to rush their cadence and focus mostly on the reps concentric, or contracting portion. This leaves out two important aspects of the rep: the isometric portion where we freeze and hold the fully contracted muscle, and the eccentric portion, where the target muscle is used as brake against gravity. All three repetition aspects best mimic real life application and, when used in resistance training, can best maximize the muscle-building potential of each rep. Besides, rushing through jerky reps using too much weight puts tremendous stress on the joints and connective tissues, and who wants to be forced out for weeks while an inflamed tendon or torn muscle heals?
We only have so much time in the gym and we only perform so many reps per set. Using proper form can maximize the strength and muscle-building impact of each rep. So assuming an exercise targeting a specific muscle runs 4 sets of 10 reps, lighten the weight so you can use perfect form on every rep, even when fourth-set failure comes. Especially for masters-levels athletes, form is key to avoiding injury to vulnerable areas like joints and tendons. Avoid the urge to force the rep by breaking form and watch your muscles grow. Remember, when it comes to lifting it’s how, not how much!