Body Composition Training 101: Exercise Form

Exercise form: The manner in which you execute/perform a particular lift

Recommendations: Use various tempo prescriptions, always with a controlled negative/lowering phase. Most common: 3-1-1-0, 3-0-1-0, 2-0-2-0, 2-0-2-1.

If I was forced to put a number on it, I’d say that 75% of the average gym population is exercising improperly. A good percentage of those people are just plain exercising dangerously. You know what I’m talking about. The heaving, limbo barbell curls. The sternum crushing, bouncing barbell bench press. The swinging, hip thrust pull-up. The knee shredding, lower back crushing rebound squat. The list goes on and on…


You see people do all kinds of body contortions to complete a lift, solely thinking in terms of moving the bar from Point A to Point B. This builds the ego, not the body, and predisposes trainees to injury.

Appearance-based training, as opposed to Power lifting or Olympic lifting, is all about stimulating and overloading the muscle, it is less about how much weight is actually on the bar. We are not trying to get better at various lifts for competitive purposes. The lifts are simply a means to an end. They are tools we use to achieve our ultimate goal — physique transformation.

Your muscles don’t know the difference between 50lbs and 500lbs (ok yes they do, but for educational purposes just bear with me), they only know if the workload they’ve been given has forced each and every motor unit and muscle fiber to fire to exhaustion. This is what causes muscular overload, and a resulting adaptive response (muscle growth). For some, that very well may be 500lbs, for some it may only be 50lbs.

Cheating, using momentum, etc. reduces tension and workload on the target muscle and allows it to shift to the other muscles and/or joints. At best this is ineffective for physique development. At worst it can predispose you to training injury.

Coach Scott Abel talks a lot about this in his various works on bodybuilding and fitness training. He advises body composition athletes to think in the following terms, “train the muscle, not the movement.” In other words, we are using the barbell biceps curl to overload the biceps and force biceps growth. We are not barbell curling just to get better/stronger at barbell curling. For physique development, you are better off using 60lbs with proper form (controlled negative, no rebound, etc.) than using 100lbs with improper form (dropping the weight, heaving it up with knees, shoulders, lower back, and everything else EXCEPT the biceps).

Now don’t misunderstand me. We DO want to get stronger. The hypertrophy process is somewhat dependant upon progressive overload and strength development. We just don’t want to see strength as the be-all-end-all (there are other factors involved in the physique development process), and sacrifice proper form for strength increases at all costs.


You should train for yourself, to develop our own body, not for anyone else. We all fall at various places under the strength spectrum. And I can guarantee you this. There is always someone out there who is stronger than you are. At the same time, there is always someone out there who is weaker and more uncoordinated than you are. So don’t even worry about it. Where someone else is at and what they are lifting in the gym makes no difference on what your body is capable of.

Besides, it’s not about where you are at; it’s about where you are going that matters. Feel free to give me a hug in spirit right now.

Despite this, there will always be the strong urge/inclination to ego train, especially when a hot chic (or dude, whatever you prefer) is training right next to you. “Slap a few plates on Joey. Gotta warm up.” So here are a few errors to keep an eye out for:

1. Using momentum/rebound to lift the weight.

The best example of this error is the barbell bench press. The person barely controls the weight down and rapidly and violently bounces the bar off the chest to lift it back up. Not only is this dangerous for the sternum and shoulder joint (most pec and rotator cuff injuries happen this way), it is ineffective for chest development.

The chest fibers are maximally stimulated in the stretch-to-midrange position. The top third of the movement is all triceps. By bouncing the bar off the chest, you are eliminating most of the lift that overloads the chest muscles. For physique development you are better off lightening the load, controlling the negative, and using pure pec power to lift the weight up.

2. Incorporating other muscle groups

The best example of this is the barbell curl. The biceps contract to flex the arm at the elbow joint, pulling the forearm towards the upper arm. What kinesiology tells us, then, is that only the forearm should be moving with a proper barbell curl, at least a barbell curl specifically performed for maximizing tension and overload on the biceps.

If any other body part is moving, you are incorporating other muscle groups to perform the lift, thus reducing tension on the biceps. You are starting to train the movement, and moving away from training the muscle.

Slight cheat would be upper arm movement. Muscles generally work on the insertion point, and thus initiate movement on the limb beneath it. Biceps contract and shorten to move the forearm. If your upper arm is moving, it is being initiated by shoulder contractions.

Major cheats would be lower back swinging, possibly combined with knee movement.

3. Not using a full range of motion

The two best example of this are the squat and leg press. Trainees will load up a bunch of plates on the bar, I assume to try and impress the rest of the gym crowd, and then proceed to barely budge the bar or sled ¼ inch. That does nothing to build the legs, and stresses the knee joints and lower back.

4. Letting gravity do all the work

People think of weight training as “lifting”, but research shows a lot of the structural damage that triggers the repair and growth processes occurs during the “lowering” or negative phase of the lift. If you lift the weight, and drop it down without using the target muscles to control it against gravity, you are missing out on many of the physique enhancing benefits of weight training. You certainly are not maximizing your development, and you are predisposing yourself to either traumatic injury (muscle, tendon strains) and/or chronic pain (join wear and tear).


If I could give just one piece of form/technique advice to the average gym-goer, it would be this — slow it down — just a little bit. Not excessively, as with super slow training, which is meaningless for physique development, but just a little bit.

Tempo training is one of the best techniques to teach people proper form without actually being there to correct all of the little technique errors. It’s also a great way to ensure you are overloading the muscles, and not using too much momentum or rebound to initiate lifts.

To get your beach bod, you gotta use good form. Tempo prescriptions (made famous in the strength training world by Charles Poliquin) help trainees accomplish this goal. There are four numbers in the system. I change tempos all of the time but I think a great one to start with is 3-1-1-0.

The first number (3) is the negative or lowering portion of the exercise — when you’re muscles are elongating and working to resist gravity. You should lower the weight under control in three seconds, instead of just letting it drop towards the ground.

The second number (1) is the transition phase between the negative and the positive (lifting) — bottom of the bench press. A one second pause eliminates momentum and forces the target muscle to initiate the movement.

The third number (1) is the actual lift. You don’t want to sling the weight up, but you do want to use some controlled force to stimulate fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. Super-slow training (10 second lift) reduces the workload too much and is ineffective for muscle development. That’s why they call it weight lifting, not weight budging. So power the weight up in a controlled fashion without cheating or using other muscle groups to get the job done.

The fourth number (0) is the lockout phase. A good example is the top of the bench press where your arms are extended. Most people lock out their joints, rest for a second between reps, and allow the target muscle to rest. This prolongs the set but reduces tension on the muscle — not what we want for physique development. Stopping just short of locking out and immediately starting the next rep without a rest is the best way to overload the target muscle.


If you can’t feel your muscles working during a set, you probably are not doing it right. Look at slowing things down until you can feel the target muscle(s) working, especially with isolation movements. Think slow stretch and controlled, but forceful contraction with each rep. Remember, you are there to train and develop your body, not just sling weights around.