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Is There Such a Thing as “Correct Form”?

In several of my conversations with four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler, one topic that has come up regularly is the constant critiques of his form. Jay himself has called it “sloppy,” but he’s quick to point out that what appears to the observer to be bad form is actually the style that he’s found to be the most effective over two decades of training.

“We all have our own individual structures, attachments and so on,” he says. “To think that there is one way of doing any given exercise that’s going to be perfect for everyone is just ridiculous.”

Even a factor as seemingly inconsequential as the trainer’s size has an impact on how form might be affected.

“A 300-pound man rowing 405 pounds is going to do the exercise differently from a 200-pound guy using 185,” he notes.

Not only is Jay’s observation significant, but the point he’s really making is that bodybuilders don’t train with the goal of demonstrating textbook form, as if we’re the stars of some training DVD. The goal for us is always to stimulate the target muscle to the max. That hit home for me recently when the following comment was posted on YouTube about a video in which I am shown doing a set of wide-grip barbell upright rows:

“I may not have a bodybuilder’s physique, but if you’re honest you’ll know that he’s not doing a proper shoulder row. He’s pulling it up and out and then back at the top. It should travel straight up and down. No, it’s not because of his chest—there’s tons of clearance room. Yes, he looks pumped after, but dumbbell presses will give you that pump. He has a good physique, but he’s not doing a true shoulder upright row. If you’re honest you can see the path the bar travels. You can’t lie about that.”

So let me get this straight. I have a good physique, and my shoulders in particular are well developed, but I’m not doing a “proper” upright row for shoulders? As it so happens, I discovered many years ago by tinkering around with my form on that exercise that pulling in more of an arc, as if I were trying to pull the bar or dumbbells over my shoulders, gave me much better stimulation in the side-deltoid heads than simply pulling up in a straight vertical plane.

By the logic of this critic, I should have forsaken better results in order to “stay true” to the so-called correct form. But wait, why do I train again? Oh yeah, that’s right, to improve my physique!

I urge all of you to play around with every factor possible in the way you do exercises: foot placement, types of grip on the bar or dumbbells, hand spacing, the path the weight travels, etc. Yes there are general guidelines to follow for any exercise, but never feel locked into performing any of them with a very specific form.

Always remember why you are training in the first place and what’s most important. Are you in the gym to impress others with how wonderful your form is, or are you there to build an impressive physique? It’s your body and nobody can know how subtle shifts and variations in standard form might benefit you by producing better results. And as I always like to point out, results are all that truly matter at the end of the day.

Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth from 25 Years In the Trenches, available at

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