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Quality vs. Quantity

Posted by eric on October 31, 2011

We've all been there - working hard to get those last few reps pushed out toward the end of a workout, and potentially sacrificing form in order to complete the set. While it's commendable to have the desire to finish strong, you can potentially do more harm than good by doing this.

Here are some reasons why you should always maintain good form and some strategies for getting past the challenge of those last few reps:

First, a little about form in general.

  • Proper form is designed not only to focus the effort on the target muscle groups, but also to avoid unnecessary stress on other parts of the muscular and skeletal systems. Sacrificing form doesn't just limit the benefit of the exercise - it could result in an injury.
  • Form involves your entire body, not just the specific muscle targeted for exercise. For example, when doing a simple bicep curl, not only do you need to ensure your bicep is isolated, you need to make certain that you are not using your upper body as leverage to lift the weight.
  • If you learned "proper" form from your college work-out buddy, odds are you may have received some bad advice. Truth is, form is best taught by a professional personal trainer. If you can't afford to visit one regularly, it may be worth scheduling time with one for a consultation to have them evaluate your technique. And don't trust everything you see on YouTube.

Given that you understand form is important, and that you've made the effort to confirm your form is correct in general, how can you avoid those "cheater reps" at the end of a set?

  • Focus on quality, not quantity. If you're maxed out, don't try to push out another rep with poor form just to get to a number.
  • Lighten the load. It doesn't hurt to grab a slightly lighter set of dumbbells or pull a weight off the barbell - you'll still get a burn and may do some more reps. In fact, these types of sets - where you progressively lower the weights so you can continue to lift - can be very beneficial in building endurance and ultimately improving strength.
  • Get some help. If you're working with a partner, have them provide some assistance on the last reps, essentially lifting part of the load for you so you can focus on form. Similar to the second point, this one just relies on some outside help.
  • Hit the wall. In this case literally, not figuratively. For certain exercises, such as bicep curls, standing shoulder presses, or front shoulder raises, use the wall as a way to prevent yourself from arching your back during the exercise. Focus instead on keeping your butt and shoulders both in contact with the wall.
  • Learn from your experience and challenge yourself. You should be tracking the sets and weight your able to do from workout to workout. If you're feeling a little tapped out one day, write it down and learn from that as to how to improve the next day. Similarly, if you're feeling particularly amped and have a great workout, track that as well. Learning what works - and what doesn't - will help you to focus on the quality of your workout, not simply how many of what weight you pushed around that day.

So while there are certainly times where we will all cheat a little bit to get one last rep out, please take care to avoid lifting too much and putting strain on the wrong areas of your body just to be able to tell your friends how much you benched. In the end, you'll gain more through lower weights and proper form than through heavier weights with bad form.

Stay fit everyone.

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