Form. You can’t lift without it. Or can you? Really what is proper weightlifting technique?

In my mind it is about lifting a weight successfully in a safe manner. But let’s complicate the matter. If I didn’t this would be a short article.

You have strict form and you have not so strict form. So if you are doing a curl you can keep it strict to focus on the arms. Or you can cheat and swing the weight into place.

With a military press you need to stay ramrod straight. But if it’s a heavy weight you’ll end up doing some amount of side bend. At what point does is change from a military press to a natural press to a side press? Is one better than another? No it depends on what you’re going for. Plus for comparison these lines are useful. You can’t compare a strict press to a side press on equal terms.

Then there is talk of perfect form on many exercises. That is doing it and matching it to some ideal. The problem with this is that not everyone’s body moves the same. What works fine for one person may cause pain for another.

Perfect case in point. My girlfriend was doing kettlebell swings the other day. She had “good” form in that she was safely and effectively doing the exercise. In order to “improve” her form, specifically going for a certain training effect, I offered one piece of advice. “Make sure to get your hips fully locked out at the top.”

She replied “That hurts when I do that.”

My response, “Forget I said it then. Go back to what you were doing.”

Can your form be improved from wherever you’re at? Almost certainly. Should you seek to move towards an ideal? Yes, but only if it means improved performance.

Sometimes you need to take a few steps back in order to move forward. I understand that. In Olympic lifting for example you do need flawless form to put up really big weights. In fact there is such an emphasis on lifting technique that beginners will spend hours of practice with no more weight than a broom stick.

Other lifts are not so technical. How much do you really want to complicate the deadlift? There is no way to cheat this exercise. It is simply picking up a weight off the floor. Yes, but you need to follow these 17 points before you’re allowed to touch the bar; suck your abs in, keep the back straight, bend the upper back, pull your shoulder blades back, isolate the psoas, raise your hips, spin your right kneecap outward a quarter of an inch…

Don’t get me wrong. A well placed tip, at the right time, can make a big difference. A recent change in my head position helped in my pulls. But to overload a beginner or anyone for that matter with the 11 things they’re doing wrong is not going to help. After all you can only really pay attention to one thing at a time, and do it well. Paralysis by analysis is a real thing and it can stop your lifts from going up.

Many would say my deadlift form is not good. That my back isn’t straight enough. However this seem to work for me. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone starting, but I’d let someone who knows what they’re doing do it.

Bad Form Deadlift

Looks horrible in this still frame but it works for me.

The truth is if I deadlift in “perfect form” it cuts what I can do by about 25%. I don’t know why this is but it IS. So I’ll let the others do their 315 perfect form deadlifts while I increase what I can do every single workout towards record levels.

Is this going to hurt me? Unless I do something stupid, no. Think about lifting stones. You have to lift these with a round back. You can’t do your classic “perfect form”. Look at the greatest deadlifters now and throughout history. Many have far from perfect form. As long as I feel safe and it works for me I will keep going with it. Will it always be this way? Maybe, maybe not. In either case that’s not now.

For the most part your form will get better with time. And remember I’m talking about “your” form. Not someone else’s. Should you study others as well as books and DVD’s? Should you get coaching? Yes and yes. This gives you new things to try out. You practice it and see what works for you. You discard the rest. And at no time should you think you have it all.

Your weightlifting technique is yours. Seek to improve it where it can be improved. Refine it. But don’t worry if it doesn’t match someone else’s as long as its getting you the results you want.


  1. Awesome article man. I see about the same percentage drop in the weight i can pull with “perfect” form, plus a whole lot of excess tension. Look forward to seeing you pull 500 soon.

  2. You may be able to lift record amounts of weight but your risk of career ending injury goes up exponentially as flexion increases in the spine and the resistance goes up. You can lift more with poor form because you are creating anterior dominance that inturn creates a biomechanical “cheat”.

    Check out the research done by Stuart McGill. only a tiny degree of flexion is needed to cause herniation in a disk. You may have to step back on your weight, but when you do finally get up to where you were, you are going to be stronger and more effecient.

    Sure it works, but a cart and horse works too. We don’t use those anymore because we have better ways of doing things.

    1. @Chad Eisner: I have read articles by Stuart McGill, although I haven’t read any of his books. I understand there are risks involved. In fact I have hurt myself deadlifting before although that was many years ago. After that I avoided using a barbell, opting for the trap bar instead, in deadlifts for that reason.

      Why do I think I can get away with it now? I only deadlift when the movement feels good and tests well. If it ceases to do so I stop. And I do not go all out. Would I hurt myself if I avoided these two things? Yes, I very well could and likely would.

      Again look at the stone lifting example I gave and deadlifters now and throughout history. If you think any degree of back flexion will hurt you (as in you can’t squat all the way down as I’ve seen some research say) you’re limiting what you can do.

  3. Good stuff, Logan. I have hurt my lower back three times that I can remember and it was all during straight back deadlifts. I understand McGill researches the deadliness of loaded lumbar flexion constantly. I, however, have not had any back issues since I started deadlifting with a form that works for me…ie with some flexion of the lumbar spine.

    I test it, if it tests well, I pull in a fashion that feels the safest and strongest for me. I have not had a single issue since doing this. And imagine this, my pulls are bigger than when I did them with “perfect” form.

    Lifting more weight and not getting hurt. I MUST be doing something wrong…

  4. Thanks for the article, Logan.

    As a girl, I’ve always been told (and believed) that “perfect form” is crucial to avoid injury – of course, I’ve also been told to stick to 2 – 5lb. weights. Talk about ridiculous. A newborn baby weighs more than that, and most women carry their babies pretty regularly until they are at least 2 years old. And there’s no such thing as perfect form with a wiggly baby 🙂 That’s why core strength is so important.

    I did worry a bit when I got conflicting info, though, such as when you said to lock out my knees or elbows, while in the martial art that I practice, we are told to NEVER lock out the joints because it restricts the flow of energy. Now I won’t worry anymore. It seems much more effective just to do what works within the realm of good sense.

    1. @Julia Fucina: Right on. Form needs to adapt to the task at hand.

      If you never locked out your joints you’d have a hard time getting through life. Makes sense to me that you should also do that in training which will strengthen the end range of motion as well as the bones and connective tissues.

  5. Good article. I mostly agree with you, and I’d like to point out one thing:

    Lifting stones is more like doing a combo of a (sorta) clean and Zercher squat than it is a deadlift. The fact that you’re pulling with straight arms all the way up on the DL makes a big difference in the amount of stress transfered to your back, particularly your discs.

    You can get away with lifting a sandbag, stone, etc. with a rounded back because the weight is held tight to your body once it’s in place. Of course, the awkwardness of the stone or sandbag means you can’t lift as much weight, either. So just from looking at the physics, it’s pretty clear that there’s way less stress on the spinal discs when lifting a 200 lb stone than doing a 450+ DL with a bent back.

    Infortunately I speak from experience. I was pulling 500 for 5 in the DL when I was in my early 20s. Poor form and my own impatience led to a severe back injury that nags me to this day (I’m almost 35). And there is no way I could pull that now without another severe injury. I’ve worked around it with Romanian DLs,front squats, etc., *almost* perfect form, and not pushing my strength limits too much. Even then, my back goes out once a year. And I stretch, do lots of core work, lots of PT and foam roller work, etc.

    But the fact is I will always have this injury. Slow and steady wins the race, man. Persoanlly I’d rather be pulling 315 for 5 sets of 5 at 60 than sitting around talking about how I used to lift and be healthy.

    1. @Paul: You raise some good points. I am easing back a little although I do want to hit this goal quickly. The reason I think I can get away with this form now as opposed to in the past is by listening to my own body. By doing this I know when I can handle the stress and when it would hurt me to push the limits.

      Sorry to hear about your injury. I am also of the opinion that almost everything can be fixed in time with the right approach.

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