Workout of the Day

The Irony of "Going Light to Work on Form"


There’s a common misconception that in order to “work on form,” the load must be light. This idea implies some disconnect between challenging/heavy weights and the ability to practice position -- that they cannot coexist. While I understand where this way of thinking comes from, it’s an overly-simplistic and misapplied understanding of what “form” is and how we develop it.

If we assume that our very general term “form” means something along the lines of the ability to move through and maintain safe and effective positions in specified movements, we are faced with an immediate need for some qualification and specificity. I can get most any untrained person to move through the archetypically “right” positions for a bench press in a matter of 60 seconds with no weight in their hands, but add a heavy barbell to the mix and all of their positioning and control will go out the window. This person does not by any means have “good form.” They can just follow basic instructions for how to move their arms with no additional stress on the system.

Form requires loading, and I would argue that it even requires heavy loading if we are going to be willing to slap the word “good” on there as a qualifier. An athlete who is able to perform squats with proper positioning while loaded with 15% of their max capacity does not necessarily have good form if their position and movement patterns fall apart when we get up to 60% of their capacity.

Form is, in fact, load-specific. Because we consider intensity in the relative sense (your 90% intensity squat may be 500lbs while my 90% squat is 300lbs, but both are the same relative intensity), our load-specificity refers not to exact pounds on the barbell, but to its weight relative to our physiological limits. And while training adaptations at lighter weights absolutely can and do occur, there is a point where the system must be stressed under a high intensity load in order to develop form at the high intensity load. Lifting a barbell loaded to 90% is, effectively, a different exercise than lifting a barbell loaded to 40%. While external mechanics may look the same, the distribution of weight between bar and body changes the internal mechanics of the movement. This is why performing a snatch with a PVC pipe feels massively different than performing a snatch with 90% of your max. Your body must act differently to move those different loads through the same ranges of motion.

On top of this, some exercises benefit from heavy loading as a tool for forcing proper movement. This tactic requires careful application (as it can be injurious or counterproductive if inappropriately applied), but in weightlifting or strongman, for example, a heavy implement will demand proper form. A heavy stone cannot be lifted from the ground and loaded onto a 52” platform if the athlete does not execute the movement with violent hip extension and proper position of the arms around the stone. A barbell cannot be taken from the ground and caught in the bottom of an overhead squat without speed under the bar, a strong squat position, and stable shoulders. The heavy load diminishes the margin for error, and leaves the athlete with two choices: perform the movement with good form, or fail the lift. While you may be able to get away with successfully performing the task demanded in a stone load or a snatch with poor form at a light weight, this is not possible at a higher relative intensity.

It must be made clear that the message here is not that we must train heavy all the time, or that there is no purpose in practicing movements and positioning at lighter loads, or that there is never reason to decrease load. I firmly believe that beginning athletes have no reason to be handling loads at their physical max capacity until they have developed some consistency with lighter loads, and when position is irreparably sacrificed at or above a particular load (i.e., your knees always cave in when you squat about 85%), it is a mistake to spend any time training at or above this load until the mechanical fault is corrected. Training at a load in which you are incapable (because of physical strength limits or neurological faults) of performing the movement properly is strictly counterproductive.

But let’s get the idea out of our heads that when the weights get heavy we’re no longer working on form. Form is trained at all ends of the spectrum, and neglecting one end or the other is leaving a massive hole in your game.

- PS


  • Log clean & press - 1rm


  • 2 rounds

  • In 3 mins, complete

    • 5 log clean & press (155/105)

    • 10 box jumps

    • AMRAP wallballs (20/14)

  • Rest 3 min