The Importance Of Proper Exercise Form

Today I want to talk about proper exercise form. A friend of mine just joined Crossfit and was telling me about an incident. Now before I start, I’m not bashing Crossfit. But I am bashing personal trainers who don’t teach proper form and who don’t modify exercises for beginners.

The Importance Of Proper Exercise Form

My friend is someone who is new to lifting…I personally don’t think she should be thrown into a barbell deadlift right away, but she was. The next day she was telling me how her back was killing her and she couldn’t even stand up straight because she was so sore. I asked her how much weight she did. She said she asked one trainer who said, “Ummm…just do 95 lbs,” which she knew would be too heavy, so she asked another trainer who said 70 or 75 lbs, I can’t remember.

There are some major problems here. One being, why is she doing a barbell deadlift as a beginner as opposed to learning proper form with lighter weights first? Two, what are those weights??? And why are these trainers just throwing around random numbers?? She sucked it up and did it, and then couldn’t walk up-right for a few days because her lower back was killing her, which usually means proper form was not used during the deadlift.

This actually happened to me once too. I went to a group bootcamp class and one of the exercises was a barbell deadlift. The trainer made it heavy enough for the strongest person in the class but it was way too heavy for me, which I expressed. But he told me to try it anyway. So I did (and couldn’t go down far enough either but he kept telling me to go all the way down), and I couldn’t walk for a few days because my back was killing me.

I’ve written about proper form cues for deadlifts before, but I want to talk about it again. Yes, the deadlift does recruit lower back muscles, but your lower back shouldn’t be that sore afterwards. You should mainly feel it in your hamstrings and glutes.

Here are a few key things to remember:

  • As you lower the weight, keep your core tight, which will keep you from only using your lower back.
  • As you lift the weight back up, focus on squeezing your glutes.
  • Keep your back flat throughout the exercise.
  • Keep your neck neutral, don’t look up and crane your neck. Look a few inches ahead of you or down – whatever keeps your neck in line with your spine.

There’s nothing wrong with starting with a lighter weight or modifying exercises. And that’s what personal trainers are for!! That’s what this rant is about. The trainers in the experiences above should have realized that the weight was too heavy, and also been there to provide form cues for my friend so that this didn’t happen. It makes me nervous that as someone who is a total beginner to lifting (she’s only really done exercise DVDs) she’s thrown into barbell exercises and Olympic exercises.

Here are a few glute/hamstring exercises that you can do as you build up to a full deadlift:

  • Glute/hip raises –> make it more challenging by adding a plate or barbell onto your hips
  • Romanian dumbbell deadlifts –> progress it by increasing dumbbell weight until you feel comfortable with this exercise
  • Romanian barbell deadlifts could be the next step from the above exercise.
  • Trap bar deadlifts are a good way to take some load off the lower back.

I’d say my favorite would be Romanian dumbbell deadlifts. Easy to progress and you’ll really feel it building strength in your hamstrings.

If you don’t have a trainer, just do some research on how to progress. Trainers I follow with great tips are Tony Gentilcore and Bret Contreras (“The Glute Guy”).

If you do have a trainer, make sure you hold them accountable. Speak up if you’re afraid something is too heavy or too challenging for you. There is no shame in that! Better to be safe than injured. Ask them questions about the exercise. What muscles should it recruit? Where should you feel it? What’s the point of doing it? What are some modifications?

Okay, rant over ;)

If you’re a Crossfitter, how does your gym help those who are totally new to lifting?

Have you had a bad personal trainer experience?


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  1. I am a personal trainer and a CrossFitter. From a CrossFitter point of view, when I started out, I had to take a 2-week course just to learn the basic movements using PVC pipes and empty barbells (15 lbs). Once they deemed me ready to join the group classes, I was still watched like a hawk and everything I did was modified. They were much more concerned with proper form than how much weight I put on the bar. From what I’ve read of other people’s experiences, I now realize how lucky I was to find such a qualified CrossFit box with reputable coaches…not everyone is as lucky and it’s incredibly dangerous.

    As a personal trainer in ANY fitness arena, our job is to modify or progress exercises safely and effectively for our clients. I think some people think “Well, if they don’t put any weight on the bar, that’s not a workout.” Which is not true at ALL.
    Molly @ Strong Girl Fitness recently posted…Best Post Workout FoodMy Profile

    • She did tell me she went through the beginner’s class too, but I think that going from PVC pipes to 95 lbs is too much! There has to be a gradual progression. Sounds like you had some good trainers/coaches!

  2. Form is SO important! You can lift as much weight as you want, but if you’re not lifting it correctly, you could be doing a lot more harm to your body than good. One thing I love about my CrossFit gym is that the trainers are on top of it! They come over to correct you if your form is wrong and tell you to go down in weight to master form first. Thanks for the post!
    Nicole @ Fitful Focus recently posted…Cooking for a CavemanMy Profile

  3. That’s terrible! You expect you can trust your personal trainer to protect you from injury not cause one. Deadlifts are one of the hardest exercises to do correctly I think. Thanks for the tips.
    Jen @ Pretty Little Grub recently posted…Every bit of protein counts & A Giveaway!My Profile

  4. This is so super important! Form is key to anything and you always need to learn proper, safe form before jumping into a new workout or exercise. Even if you need to lift lighter to begin, there is nothing wrong with that! If you end up injured then you won’t be doing much of anything anyway!
    Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine recently posted…The One Thing You Need To Advance Your Yoga Practice (And Your Life)My Profile

  5. I’m not a crossfitter and I’ve only had wonderful trainers but wow I see SO much bad form in the gym! Going heavier should not be the goal if it’s at the expense of good form Great post.
    Marcia recently posted…5 Keys to Staying MotivatedMy Profile

  6. I love this. I try really hard to have the right form no matter what exercise I am doing. I learned early on in yoga that you can really hurt yourself if you don’t do the moves correctly
    heather @ divas run for bling recently posted…4 Reasons to Run a Color RunMy Profile

  7. I am thankful that my husband who has been an avid lifter for years has taught me proper form for many of the weight training exercises I do. However, as someone studying to become a personal trainer, I will keep all of this in mind when I have clients.
    Stephanie recently posted…Four Things to Consider When Going MeatlessMy Profile

  8. I’ve always been told that its better to lift lighter weights using proper form than to lift heavier weights with improper form. Definitely better to be safe than sorry!
    Kathryn @ Dancing to Running recently posted…Tuesdays on the Run: MotivationMy Profile

  9. I’ve always been told that its better to lift lighter weights using proper form than to lift heavier weights with improper form. Definitely better to be safe than sorry!
    Kathryn @ Dancing to Running recently posted…Tuesdays on the Run: MotivationMy Profile

  10. Great post. Yes. The last (and final) time I hired a personal trainer he was more concerned about chewing his gum and checking out the ladies in the gym… rather than check my form/count reps. :sigh: THEN I saw him do the same working with other clients. No bueno.
    Rachel recently posted…The Weekly Plan: Staying HealthyMy Profile

  11. I have never done crossfire before, BUT it is not ok for a trainer to let someone continue or start with heavy weights without learning proper form first! Thankfully, I haven’t had a bad experience with any personal trainers, as they have always been on top of things!
    AJ @ NutriFitMama recently posted…Top 3 Movies To Inspire Your Fitness + Runners-UpMy Profile

  12. So so so important!! I can’t stress this enough to my clients!
    Jessica Hughes recently posted…How to Lose WeightMy Profile

  13. ugh, that is my pet peeve. i’m quick to speak up in a class when something hurts in a way i know it shouldn’t hurt. ugh. sorry for your friend. boooooo to bad trainers!
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  14. Ugh! I’m sure that is so frustrating for you, especially as a trainer. Deadlifts are one of my favorite exercises, although I think I could stand to up the weights!
    Kate @KateMovingForward recently posted…Healthy Living Hacks: Make It Fun!My Profile

  15. I’ve never had a bad experience, but I’m always worried that I’m doing things wrong. If nothing else (beyond not hurting myself), I’d like to actually work the muscles I’m trying to work…
    MCM Mama Runs recently posted…Tips to get moving when your motivation has left the building…My Profile

  16. SO glad you brought this up patty! I was so guilty of doing this a few months ago, and now I see why I found things so easy sometimes….I was cheating! Now I am learning to do it right, and its much harder, but gives many more benefits. Thanks for sharing :)
    Tina Muir recently posted…#RacetotheAltar Cake Testing and Menu SelectionMy Profile

  17. I rant and rave about form every single day. Working in a gym, I see it ALL. But my beef comes from the other end of the spectrum. We have lots of “older” members who have HORRIFIC form. I try to help and show them the proper form, they shoo me away and claim “I’VE BEEN DOING IT THIS WAY FOR YEARS!” and continue on with what they do. It hurts me to watch them!
    RFC recently posted…The Other Side of Active.My Profile

  18. A beginner should definitely be taught for before being thrown in to lift heavy weights whether they are training in a gym or a crossfit or with a trainer. My Crossfit has a whole beginners class you have to pass prior to even being able to take a regular class, then at the beginning of the regular class they go over proper form for each exercise and they don’t push you to lift super heavy weights that you are not capable of lifting! Sometimes it is about finding the right trainers that dothe right things for their clients.
    Toni @runninglovingliving recently posted…Running Keeps Me Calm, Cool, & ConnectedMy Profile

  19. My daughter recently started crossfit and part of the membership was 3 one on one sessions with a trainer to focus entirely on form. Your post reminds me of something my orthopedic doctor told me. He saw huge growth in his practice with P90X and crossfit becoming more and more mainstream several years ago.
    jill conyers recently posted…3 Movies That Changed My LifeMy Profile

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