As a personal trainer, it's my job to make sure that my clients (and everyone else in my line of vision) are using proper form. It goes without saying that improper form you at risk for injuries—and, quite frankly, it limits your ability to get the most out of your workout. Those mirrors that line your gym? Some people use them to check themselves out, while others use them for their intended purpose: to check out their form. Trust me, that's why they are there. (Save the flexing and posing for your bathroom, mkay?)
So let's talk about proper form.
Let's talk about how to achieve it.
Start by using the mirrors. Watch yourself. Watch every part of your body perform the exercise you've chosen. Take it slow, and work through your entire range of motion. And then, check your breathing. It's what helps you get through the exertions of each repetition. To hold your breath is to make the exercise harder, which therefore fatigues your muscles—which therefore forces you to use other muscles not otherwise intended to be used in said exercise of choice.
Next, and this might be the most important part of maintaining proper form—CHOOSE THE RIGHT WEIGHT! Don't focus on the number, check your ego at the door. Focus on how the weight challenges your muscles. If you can't hold form through every repetition, odds are fairly good that you're using a weight that's too heavy. Which, in turn, means that you're not giving your muscles the workout they deserve. You're just straining them.
Never hesitate to ask for help from a spotter. That way, when the going gets tough, you can still complete your desired repetitions without overdoing it. Or getting hurt. Or breaking form!
Finally, it's really important that you focus on what you're doing. Going back to what I said about the mirrors, really thinking about what you're doing...really getting your mind into the game is what takes your workout to its rightful place. If we don't focus, if we don't concentrate...we get lazy, or we rush. Both of which hinder workouts greatly.
So now, let's talk about some common blunders. Things I see being done repeatedly that most definitely do not equate to "proper form." You probably know these exercise like you know your name:
1) BICEPS CURLS: Whether you're using a bar, dumbbells or the cable machine—do not let your chest tip forward and back. And keep your elbows by your side. Same goes for triceps presses, really.
2) BENCH PRESS: If you have to lift your lower back off the bench when you press the bar up, then you have way to much weight on the bar. To lift your hips is to call upon your hips and legs to get your body into a position in which you CAN lift the bar...and obviously, we're focusing on the chest muscles, so you should be in the right position if you can lay flat. 'Cuz that means your chest muscles are taking on the bulk of the challenge.
3) SQUATS AND LUNGES: Do not let your knee go beyond your toes. EVER. Period.
4) CRUNCHES: Your eyes should be at the ceiling, your elbows out to the side—and your fingertips should be the only thing touching your head. After all, the hands don't need to pull the head up to create a crunch. The abs should be creating the crunch. Right?
5) DEAD LIFTS: Don't hunch over! Keep your back straight and hinge from the hips. You'll keep the motion away from your lower back, which engages the hams and glutes as they should be engaged.
Remember, one of the greatest signs of improper for is pain. So pull back if you feel any and ask for help from the nearest trainer. They, after all, should know exactly how to do each and every exercise you're interested in. And if a trainer walks up to you and suggests that you tweak your form—please listen to them! They aren't picking on you, they're just looking out for your safety.
Oh, and because I can't write an entire post without a pretty picture OR something funny, I give you this:
Question: Have you noticed anyone using improper form at your gym? In what exercise do you have the hardest time maintaining proper form?