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Proper Lifting Form to Maximize Performance and Decrease Risk of Injury

Learning proper lifting form for young athletes helps maximize the benefits of strength training and conditioning, which include developing improved:

  • Joint mobility, stability and control
  • Core strength
  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Proprioception (the sense that indicates whether the body is moving with required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other)
  • Neuromuscular development

The totality of the benefits of lifting properly translate later into sports-specific movement and improved outcomes with practice, experience, and as the young athlete matures physically.

Movement guidelines

The following are guidelines for simple movements to maximize the aforementioned benefits of good form with strength training and conditioning.


Learning to properly squat translates into benefits for many sports-related activities, as well as activities of daily life. Good squatting form will maximize the muscles to produce power, strength, and speed while engaging components to increase stability and control to reduce risk of injury.

1. Feet positioning.  Feet shoulder width apart, flat on the ground, and toes point straight ahead (if feet are naturally outward or inward significantly modify as appropriate and comfortable). Pressure should be through the middle to middle/back of the foot. Do not want to rock onto the toes when completing a squat.

2. Back positioning.  Back should be straight / slightly extended to ensure the lower spine does not do the lifting. The lower back is very strong when used as a stabilizer but is very weak when utilized as a prime mover.

3. Knee positioning. During motion of squat the knees shoulder be relatively in-line with the feet. The knees shoulder not point outward or "dive" in towards each other. If the knees start to rotate toward one another that is an indication of weak hip muscles which needs addressing to decreasing risk of knee injury. Mechanically, controlled knees in the natural plane of movement relay forces generated by muscles more effectively, thus, producing better movement.

4. Hips and shoulders level. No tilting to either side. Titling indicated weakness in hips or core strength.

5. Head/Eyes straight ahead.  The body goes where the head is pointing. Looking at the feet will cause the back muscles to flex instead of extend, decreasing the stability in the lower back.

6. Stick butt "way out."  Squat by maximizing motion at the hips, not the knees. The knees should never go over the toes. This is defined as the knee cap going past the tip of the shoe when looking straight down on it.

7. Depth of squat.  Lower to maximum of hips/butt being parallel to the floor and return to normal position.

Only complete with desired speed, depth of squat, and extra weight as indicated by addressing ALL of the previously mentioned instructions. Do not deviate from instructions, as compensatory strategies will develop, decreasing effectiveness of exercise and increasing risk of injury.

The motion of squatting also translates to all jumping movements, lunges, single leg balance and squats, and any closed chain leg movement (movements that have the legs fixed to the ground while the rest of the body moves).

Dumbbell, cable, and free weights

All lifting exercises for the upper body depend on control from the lower half and core to complete effectively. Too often, young athletes will alter lower body and spine mechanics to increase the amount lifted in upper half. While strength gains appear more, repositioning the body and taking advantage of the laws of physics only increases risk of injury with minimal to no benefit from "putting up the extra weight and reps." Teenage girl holding dumb bell

1. Head is always straight forward and controlled.

2. Single joint vs. multi-joint movements. Example: a biceps curl (single joint) is intended to only move the biceps.  Everything else shoulder remain still. Swinging the body or arching the back is poor form. Bench pressing (multi-joint) moves both the shoulder and elbows to complete the movement. Again, all other movement should be controlled, meaning, no arching the back or pushing through the legs to complete the movement. This alters the angle of the chest cavity, changing the line of pull for the chest muscles but overloading the spinal bones and discs. There is no benefit to this trade-off.

3. Slow and controlled.  Each repetition should take 5-6 seconds. Lifting in this manner decreases risk to joints while still providing benefits of muscular size, strength, and endurance. Power and speed, which are critical to sport, should develop mostly through participating in sport. Slow controlled lifts to fatigue (defined as inability to continue proper form) produce muscular benefits without increasing risk to joints. High velocity movements, if done and in limited amounts, should utilize light weights and maintain control at all times.

4. Maximize range of motion.  Maximize motion before increasing weight, reps, or speed. The shoulder exercise with lifting the arms out to the side should be conducted with elbows straight (not hyperextended) and out to the side to maximize motion. Bending the elbows or changing body/back position shortens the lever arm, decreasing the torque. This means that completing an exercise with more weight and the body in a "shortened" position does not mean that the exercise was more effective. The body learns to control heavier weights closer to the body but at its ends (where many athletic movements occur with the body stretched to its limits) are weaker, increasing risk of injury.

Abdominal/Lower Back Exercises

Core strength is critical to long term success in sports and maximizing performance. Too often, these exercises are done improperly, resulting in little benefits and overall just wasting time.

1. Do not hold your breath. Holding your breath during abdominal exercises increases internal pressures, acting as a temporary stabilizer. Depending on this system to maximally control the core muscles is unwise, as breathing is necessary to stay alive.   Inhaling and exhaling with a normal rhythm is appropriate (this all applies to all other exercises above).

2. Neutral spine. This is defined as the lower back being in a flattened (not extended or flexed) position. Laying flat on the back it is the ability to flatten the spine flush against the ground, with no "air" underneath which a hand could fit into. On the stomach (all fours position) it is defined as the ability to flatten the spine, as to lay a board across the back without it falling off.

3. Moving the arms and legs while controlling the spine.  The purpose of a strong core is translate, control, and focus the force generated through the upper and lower body. The core does add its own force to any given movement but control is most important. All exercise should be performed adhering to the neutral principle. The lower back should not twist, bend, or rock side to side. All deviations are indications that the core muscles are not strong enough to complete the desired exercise or movement.

Keith J. Cronin is a physical therapist in the St. Louis, Missouri area and a MomsTEAM expert.