The Importance of Form and Consistency in Setting PRs
By: Barbell Logic Team
TLDR; Form is as much a part of your program as the sets and reps you are supposed to do that day. And it must be as much of a priority, not just because your PRs don’t count if you cut your depth, not just because correct lifting is safe lifting, but because consistency of form directs the training stress, making the hours you spend in the gym more valuable, leading more directly to your goal.
Why Good Form & Technique Matters for your PRs
In life we celebrate special events, as lifters we celebrate the PR. The Personal Record is the measure of your success, demonstrating that the work you put in under the bar is paying off. It may take different forms, like the Rep Max (RM)—as in a 5, 3, or 1RM at a weight that is more than you have lifted before—or a new best for sets and reps, or even a form breakthrough can be a PR. The PR is the goal, a comparative measurement—you versus you—showing that you are now able to do something you couldn’t do before.
As with any measured quantity, before you can evaluate change, you must establish a standard or benchmark. Think of the most common grade-school measuring tool, the ruler. The term “rule” in English, meaning a principle of conduct to which people must conform, gave rise to the more figurative dual meanings of ruler: (1) A measuring device and (2) the embodiment of the standard of a society in the sovereign, the King or Queen, the ruler of a nation. Standards make measurement possible.
Because change is our goal, we should examine the standards for getting stronger. Progress requires an assignment of quantity for comparison, a ratio of comparisons that tell you where you started, where you have come to, or where you are going. For lifting, we recognize that the quantities we are concerned with involve both the standardized plates representing the mass of the loaded barbell and a standardized movement. Movement matters because as soon as you hit a PR, you check your video.
Was your squat deep enough? You know that half squats are not the same thing as a full range of motion. Did your butt leave the bench or did the spotter touch your bar and steal your rep? Did you lockout your press and your deadlift with form that you aren’t embarrassed to show your coach and won’t make your mother worry that you are injuring your spine? Movement rules your PR as much as the weight of the plates that you put on the bar. The standard of movement is a clearly defined model.
“The model” and why it’s important
The model for each lift is based on principles of biomechanics that are true for every lifter of normal anatomical construction. These principles give us a general model that defines correct movement. For example, in the low bar back squat, the lifter will hold the bar below the spine of the scapula; the lifter’s back will be held in rigid normal anatomical extension; she will assume a moderate, shoulder-width stance, keeping her balance on the middle of her foot throughout the movement; at the bottom of the squat, she will shove her knees out so that they track in line with her toes and the crease of her hip will be lower than the top of the patella. Everyone is build a little differently, so even meeting all these general principles, each lifter will look a little bit different in the execution.
As a measurement of effort, we can calculate the amount of work done against gravity for each lift. Work is a product of the amount of force used to move the load and the vertical distance travelled. This gives meaning to each repetition of each lift. The amount of force needed to move 200 pounds through an established range of motion is less than the force needed to move 205 pounds through the SAME range of motion. The range of motion and the load determine the work that we use to create a training stress. And the model defines the range of motion.
We control for unintended fluctuations in training stress by replicating, as close as possible, the same movement every single rep. Then, we make adjustments to the training stress by changing the load or the “force” part of the equation.
How each lifter accomplishes the work is slightly different and depends on the lifter’s unique build or anthropometry. Certain lifters will squat with a more vertical torso when compared to other lifters or will have lower hips at the beginning of the deadlift; T-rex arms are great for benching, but less great when they add several inches to your deadlift pull. Different builds change the expression of the model and the internal distribution of work for each lifter. Every PR is in the context of your unique expression of the model.
This doesn’t mean that you are a special snowflake who needs special exercises, but it should highlight that the standard for your progress depends on maintaining good form. The standard for your progress is, in part, non-numerical.
Strength is an objective standard: the ability to produce force against an external resistance. Its measurement depends entirely on outcome-based observations. (“How much ya bench?”) Taking us back to the PR, we accept that the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press represent tangible and adequate correlations for the individual’s ability to produce force. By this assumption, you measure progress PRs in each of these lifts, assuming a kind of balance between these expressions of strength that tell you something about our physiological ability to exert force against an external resistance in all contexts, not just these defined tasks or lifts.
While not perfect, these lifts have proven to be excellent approximations that we can easily observe in non-laboratory settings. Each of these lifts are (relatively) simple. And we improve the standard they set with clearly defined models for how to execute them and the acceptable range of motion.
Therefore, preserving the PR is one reason why form is so important. Another reason is “building” the PR, training effectively so you can celebrate your gains more often.
The concept of specificity
A principle of adaptation is that the stress that drives physical change determines the nature of the change. This is the concept of specificity. For example, after dozens of deadlifts, one of the adaptations you may notice is the hardening of the skin on your hands. This occurs in response to the friction and abrasive stress of holding onto the bar for dear life. This adaptation is not system-wide; your feet do not also grow calluses from deadlifting. Adaptive change is a protective mechanism—an improvement in the tissues’ ability to withstand that specific stress in the future. The stress itself dictates the adaptation.
Imagine that adaptation is like the bullseye of a dart board. Training stress is the intent with which you throw the dart, the calculated trajectory, release time, and focus of the thrower. Hitting the bullseye—a clearly defined goal—is the product of many variables, whose organization and execution—the training program—determine how well the intent leads to the goal, how effectively the program on paper leads to the desired adaptation. Since improvement in the four lifts is the target, these same lifts make up the majority your training.
Consistency as a lifter requires intent that includes more than just showing up. You need to show up with a plan, warm up properly, take adequate rest between each set, and execute each lift with as close to perfect form as possible. Form is as much a part of your program as the sets and reps you are supposed to do that day. And it must be as much of a priority, not just because your PRs don’t count if you cut your depth, not just because correct lifting is safe lifting, but because consistency of form directs the training stress, making the hours you spend in the gym more valuable, leading more directly to your goal.
If you have a coach, you have help. If you don’t have a coach, you need to get some feedback on your form as part of your training. Educating yourself on the details of the model, learning how to fix errors, and videoing your lifts every workout are useful. They do not replace the eye of the expert, but with patience and practice you can improve your form and make your workouts more effective. Consistent training and good form means you are aiming in the right direction. All other training variables depend on these two things. If you cannot measure your stress, you cannot expect the PR.