The Real Objective of Exercise

How you perform each repetition of an exercise is far more important than how many repetitions you perform.”

I’ve probably said it thousands of times over the past two decades. Whenever a client seems more focused on how many repetitions they perform than how well they perform them I remind them of the real objective of exercise – not to make the barbell, weight stack or their body go up and down, but to effectively stimulate the body to produce improvements in fitness without causing injury or undermining long term health in the process.

Both of these goals require understanding and correctly performing various elements of form like body position, path, range and speed of motion, breathing, and even proper mental focus and mindset.

For example, there is far more to a barbell squat than putting a bar on your shoulders, squatting down, and standing back up;

  • The bar must be set to the correct height in the squat rack or power rack – at approximately the middle of your sternum – for you to be able to get into correct position under it and safely load it onto your shoulders and unrack it.  Too high and you may have to come up on your toes to get it out of the hooks, too low and energy is wasted unracking the bar.
  • The bar should rest on the trapezius above the spines of the scapulae, not on the back of the neck over the lower cervical vertebrae.
  • The hands should be positioned wide enough to be able to assist with balance but not so wide you don’t have plenty of clearance between the hands and the uprights of the rack, with an open grip for wrist comfort.
  • The elbows and scapulae should be pulled back, creating more of a “shelf” for the bar on the upper back.
  • The neck and back must held be in the proper position, head forward, chest high, and lower back flat or slightly extended.
  • After unracking the bar the feet must be positioned roughly shoulder width or slightly wider with the feet angled out in line with the thighs, so you are able to squat down between the thighs, rather than on top of them.
  • The starting negative should be performed in a very slow and controlled manner, with a gradual reduction in speed towards the bottom of the range of motion, where the tops of your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
  • Movement should gradually slow to a stop, pausing and briefly holding the body motionless without bouncing or allowing the hamstrings to rest on the calves or the heels to come off the floor.
  • Positive movement should start very slowly, and a constant, controlled speed maintained throughout the lift, before gradually slowing to a stop again ten to fifteen degrees shy of lockout.
  • Throughout the exercise your breathing should be as relaxed as possible (much easier said than done) and continuous (no breath-holding or val salva), your shoulders and trunk should remain tight, and you should focus on continuous, intense contraction of the hip and thigh muscles.

Almost every person I’ve seen squatting in gyms gets most or all of these wrong. They set the bar high up on the base of their neck instead of their scapulae. They slump their chest and round their back. They barely lower the weight half way, then bounce back up and lock their knees, rather than working over the full range of motion in a smooth and controlled manner. They make the weight go up and down, but they don’t accomplish the real goal of exercise.

Sadly, this is not limited to the barbell squat. Most people perform every exercise in a similarly inefficient manner, robbing themselves of much of the potential benefits of exercise while unnecessarily increasing their chances of injury. Part of the reason for this is they focus more on lifting the weight or completing the repetition than on using the weight to effectively work the target muscles.

The problem with this is when a person is more focused on lifting the weight they tend to move in a way that makes it easier to do, which is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing during an exercise. Instead, you should be using the weight in a way that makes the movement harder for the target muscles to provide an effective stimulus for improvement.

To get the greatest possible benefit from every repetition of every exercise you perform and maximize the safety and effectiveness of your workouts keep the real objective of exercise in mind:

How you perform each repetition of an exercise is far more important than how many repetitions you perform.”

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