I came across a great article by Greg Nuckols about using perfect form, The myth of perfect form. and what it might be. It’s a great piece on why the perfect form that is often talked about really doesn’t exist as it is generally described. He uses the back squat as an example and talks about how chasing the mythical dream of squatting like an elite weightlifter might not be either desirable or even attainable. So lets look at how it might apply to other activities.When people are talking about perfect form they are using elite level athletes as an example of great or perfect form. This, unfortunately, ignores the big problem that there is a massive amount of selection that has taken place by the time we see them in the sporting arena breaking records. Your physical shape from limb length to how heavy you are will all have an impact on what your form looks like and trying to shoe horn yourself into a particular form based around some prescribed ideal that doesn’t take these into account is looking for trouble and a lot of frustration. In his TED talk David Epstien “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” towards the end of the talk he looks at how the shape of elite level athletes has changed to such an extent that they do not look like the average member of the general public. This is dramatically demonstrated when we look at the swimmer Michael Phelps at 6’4″ and 1500m runner Hicham El Guerrouj at 5’9″ where there is a huge 7in difference in height yet they have roughly the same length of leg as this suits the demands of their chosen sport.
Coming back to squatting, the shape and depth of our hip joint, femur length and ratio of the femur to torso will impact on what our squat looks like. Dr Stuart McGill has discussed what some of the anatomical issues are that will dictate what your squat will look like, how the shape and angle of the hip dictates how deep you can squat.
Weightlifters are likely to have relatively short femurs in relation to their torso length, at least at elite level, as this aids the ability to maintain as upright a posture as possible much more easily when they are in the deep squat position be it squatting, doing cleans or with the bar overhead in the bottom position of the snatch. Powerlifters on the other hand don’t have the same need for such an upright position but nor do they need to squat as deeply so can optimise their squatting stance so that they break parallel whilst lifting the most weight so there is more variation in what their squats look like and some squat with the feet very wide whilst others will look more like weightlifters. The reasons behind this variation can be be both goal driven and anatomical.
If we now take running as another example, as with squatting, we want to achieve a comfortable and safe form that allows you to move efficiently. Again we want an upright and stable torso, as this allows you to turn the power generated from your hips into forward movement which will be harder to do if the torso is moving about a lot. On the technique side you want your arms to be held by your sides and to be moving backwards and forwards rather than across the body. This helps generate better hip extension and reduces the rotation in your lumbar spine whilst increasing the rotation in the thoracic spine. With regards to your feet you want your foot to land close to the body as this avoids applying a braking force on every step that landing too far in front of the body would generate. Those two things form the essence of reasonable running form. The topic of where your foot hits the ground is a bit of a red herring and whether you land on the fore foot, midfoot or heel is more dependent on speed or fatigue than any preconceived notion of ideal foot placement. It is also worth noting that during the recent marathon world record, 2:02:57 set in Berlin, by Dennis Kimetto he was a heel striking whilst he did it. Another topic in where there is lot of talk about is cadence and it is thought that running with a cadence of around 180 strides/minute as the ideal stride rate yet there is great variation in this and at higher paces more elite runners may be running at 200+ strides/min so it’s easy to see how your ideal stride rate may actually be lower than 180.
So when you are trying to sort out your form when exercising it is wise to keep in mind that what is often thought of as perfect is perhaps based around a false premise that we will all fit into one form. Our specific anatomy, injury history, age all will play a role in what we can and can’t do and outside of some general guidelines we need to find our own “perfect” form.