Form or weight: Which one for lifelong performance?

A few weeks ago, I posted this simple image to my Instagram:

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With this post, I made the point that the key to lifelong performance rests more with the focus of form over the focus of increasing weight. After making this post, my phone, email, and social media blew up with comments and questions about the statement.

Some asked, “how can you truly progress without getting stronger?” Others agreed wholeheartedly with the simple post. Why do I believe this?

I think that increasing weight without the correct form to manage the weight is as waste of time.

The body is a master a compensating to achieve a goal. If you add more weight, more often than not, your body will find a way to move the weight. However, this mastery of compensation can lead to long-term issues. Long-term issues that were sacrificed at the hands of a short-term gain. Show me that you can move well with your bodyweight and then we will add load. Show me that you can move well with one load and then we can add more load or advanced positioning. It is not hard to move. It is extremely difficult to have the discipline to move well from the start to finish of a training session. Yes, it is nice to post that new PR for all to see. However, I find it much more impressive to watch someone move well when external forces are wreaking havoc on their sensory system.

Compare this to sprinting a 50 in swimming. You can be the fastest limb mover and not win your heat. The person that wins maintains the best body positioning while moving quickly. Strength without form is nothing. Speed without form is nothing.

Keep in mind, we are focusing on lifelong performance. We are not focusing on one acute moment in a career. If you have one short at Olympic gold and need to compensate to get it done, by all means. Hopefully, you laid a strong foundation of training and don’t even have to worry about compensations at your finest moment.

The other reason I think it is a waste of time is that, eventually, compensations could lead to injury. You might make it a week, a month, or a year, but injuries love to surface when compensations are present. While you make a short-term gain with compensation, you leave yourself open to take a major step back during the injury that could arise. An athlete who can train the longest without interruptions has a great shot a continued performance for life!

Focusing on form is not an excuse skimp on strength.

Let’s clear the air on this, you should still strive for improved strength. I’m talking about strength in all aspects of performance. We often think about #1, but strength is much more.

  1. Increasing the weight you can move for a variety of rep ranges.

  2. How well you can maintain body positioning throughout the duration of your sports activity and day-to-day life.

  3. How well you can maintain body positioning when fatigue sets in.

  4. How solid you are between the ears when you have to face adversity.

When it comes to #1, remember to let form lead your progression. Keep tabs on how well you’re moving and make small adjustments throughout your progression instead of making large changes that are focused on playing catch-up.

Here are three tips to help you build well-rounded strength to perform at your highest level for life.

1) Change your body positioning often.

We get caught up in always having our toes forward, feet shoulder width apart, and hands in a certain position. When does sport or life give us the same position over and over again?

You can make small changes to a movement and completely change the feel. For example, stop doing pull-ups with the same hand position each time. Complete one set with an overhand grip, one set underhand grip, and one set with a neutral grip. You took a vertical pulling movement and added a nice bit of variety through your shoulder girdle with a simple change.

Another way to do this is to change your foot positioning. Why do we always have to squat with our feet even? Try a staggered stance. Now you have a whole new pattern to master. This might point to additional limitations you need to work on as well.

2) Don't forget about positional movement.

You might be stuck at a certain weight and are feeling frustrated. Adding in positional work will help work out weaknesses that you might be struggling with at certain ranges of motion. One of my favorite movements for this is the 3-Position Deadlift. You'll quickly notice that you do not need that much weight to feel this movement kicking into gear.


3) Implement drop sets.

Drop sets are one tried and true way to build strength and build it quickly. A drop set involves working up to a heavy load for a movement (I'll aim for the 85%+ range.). Then you drop the weight by about 20% and complete another one or two sets at the decreased weight. Whenever I'm stuck in a plateau, this is my go-to weight to improve my strength while focusing on form.

Drop Set Cycle:

  • Work up to the heaviest weight you can do for one rep (aiming for 85%+ effort).

  • Complete 2x3 of -20% of the heaviest weight you achieved.

Remember, form drives your weight progression, not the other way around.