The internet can be a mean place, and the fitness community it seems for the most part are one of the most mean-spirited of all. Head over to someone like r/Fitness on Reddit, and you'll find a whole bunch of people being shot down for asking the wrong questions, or for posting videos of themselves using the 'wrong form'. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think they have all the answers online, and they get very defensive/aggressive when they see someone training in a way that doesn't match what they've been taught.
Thus perfect form will come up again and again, and you'll be told that you shouldn't go anywhere near a barbell unless you've received coaching in deadlifting from an Olympic coach.
Well sorry to burst your bubble internet nerd… but as it happens there actually is no such thing as 'perfect form'. The only time this term is even close to useful, is when someone wants to use it as an excuse for why they can't lift as much.
Note: Before I delve into this controversial subject, I first want to make it clear that I'm not condoning the reckless throwing around of huge weights without proper training. You'll see how injury can be avoided without talking about 'perfect form' later on.
The Myth of Perfect Form
The idea behind chasing perfect form is noble enough. In theory it makes a lot of sense to avoid lifting with bad technique, and especially for the more dangerous moves like the compound and Olympic lifts. Doing a deadlift or clean and jerk can and will put your back out.
The problem with 'perfect form' though, is that it presumes that everyone is the same. If we all had the precise same body type, then chances are that there would be an optimal way to lift a certain weight. In reality though, different people have different length limbs, they have different proportions when it comes to their torso and they have different strengths and weaknesses in terms of muscle development and even injury. Even hip anatomy alters the way you move and thus the way your lift will look. All these things will impact the way that they lift a weight and protect themselves against injury.
Ironically, if you are so focussed on using perfect form that you end up copying someone else's technique when it doesn't come naturally to you; this can actually be what leads to injury.
It's also important to bear in mind that goals can be very different too. If we are to assume there's more than one 'safe' way to perform certain lifts, then that means that you have a choice as to how you want to go about performing it. If you want to lean slightly more backwards in your squat then you'll move the weight more onto your hamstrings and that's your prerogative. It doesn't mean your lift was 'wrong' as long as you're still keeping your back straight.
People who walk around the gym tutting at everyone who they think is lifting 'wrong' are short sighted and missing the point that they might not be trying to get into the Olympics – they might just be trying to get stronger and have fun.
This is all even more true when it comes to isolation movements. Isolation movements are those exercises that target a specific muscle group rather than a combination of muscles. An example for instance would be the dumbbell curl which very specifically targets the biceps.
Some people will emphasize just how important it is to use perfect form on these movements to ensure maximum growth and avoid injury, but again they're missing the point. Did you know for instance that there is actually a type of exercise called a 'cheat' – wherein the objective is to 'help' your biceps with the movement by swinging your body or leaning backwards. This is used as a way to push past failure and as it allows you to lift more weight it can be a useful tool for triggering more growth when used correctly. If you used only cheat movements then you might find you don't train through the whole range of motion and you have weaknesses as a result, but the fact of the matter is that some people don't really care about that. Will leaning back a little damage your back though? It's unlikely unless you're using particularly huge amounts of weight and if you build up to it, it can actually strengthen your core.
How to Avoid Injury
So if we're throwing the idea of 'perfect form' out of the window, how do you go about continuing to train without causing yourself injury?
The first and most important precaution to take, is to make sure you start with a light weight and build up. By practicing any potentially dangerous weight with a light load first, you will a) learn your own natural technique in a safe environment and you will b) build up the strength and endurance in the required muscles and areas in order to avoid injury.
Also important is to listen to your own body. While building up to the move with lighter weights, you should be looking for signs that you're placing yourself under stress. That means avoiding the 'bad kind of pain' and adjusting your stance and form until you feel stable and nothing aches. Again, you need to start at a light weight for this to work or you'll find it's too late by the time you've finished 'troubleshooting'.
You should still use guidance where possible and listen to that as a way to get down the basics of new exercises. But the point is that you shouldn't be relying on these 100% and when it's a matter of doing what feels comfortable or what's technically correct, you're probably better off doing what feels comfortable. And stop worrying about what the fitness 'beaurocrats' say.
There's an element of risk involved in any lift and no amount of perfect form is going to remove that entirely. Just be sensible, start slow and listen to your body. And don't be afraid to experiment and stray from the beaten path!
To quote Sylvester Stallone: if rules weren't meant to be broken, then they wouldn't be called 'breakthroughs'!