Form is Fake
you don't have to do it that way + a case for rule-skepticism
It's amazing how popular the idea of "good form" is.
Every new lifter gets this advice drilled into them the first time they walk into a gym, and it continues for years. It might just be the only truly universal piece of gym instruction, which is a pretty impressive achievement in itself. The sheer variety in any other genre of advice (be it diet, programming, volume, recovery, supplements) is incredible in comparison.
There's a bunch of reasons why good form is preached, and we'll get into some of them later, but the main one is injury prevention. This might just be because negative consequences are usually the most effective way to get people to remember something. Most people aren't worrying about the optimal angles for unilateral force production, they just want to be sure they won't blow their back out.
Except...form won't save them. Here’s a list of ways you can get injured that have nothing to do with how good your form is:
You’re training under fatigue and a muscle that was playing an important supporting role gives up and the load goes to another muscle that isn’t ready for it.
You fail to brace your core tightly enough.
You fight for perfect form long enough for fatigue to build up, causing 1.
It’s cold and you move a muscle a bit faster than it was ready for.
You trip over a hole in the ground and twist an ankle.
Okay, the last one isn't a fair example, but it adds up to a non-trivial number of injuries. And it's the prototypical example of how injuries *usually* happen.
You see, there is only one real cause of injury: overload. Pushing your muscles past what they can physically take. That's it, that's all that matters. It might seem like a tautology, but it's surprising how little attention it gets for something so obvious. Instead we have debates about what really constitutes "good form", and whether or not people are achieving it.
A common anatomical analogy is imagining muscles as rubber bands. These break when they're stretched past a certain limit, it doesn’t really matter how you reach that limit. You could pull it carefully past the breaking point, or yank it to pieces, it breaks anyway. And so it is with overload, you can go tear something in any number of ways.
Another consequence that’s oft discussed when talking about poor form is the potential for long-term dysfunction, your muscles working in a way they aren’t “supposed” to. In my (admittedly amateur) opinion, this perspective is incredibly naïve because it ignores the human body's capacity for near-infinite adaptability. We do thousands of things our muscles weren't “supposed” to do, and get along just fine. We weren’t supposed to be painting with our feet (or mouths), typing with our thumbs, or flipping a surfboard, yet here we are.
This adaptability is what lets people lift without poor form for years without any signs of injury. It isn't "just a matter of time", it's a matter of overload, and that might never happen. Sure, they've trained the "wrong" muscles, but now those muscles are really, really strong, allowing them to keep training that way without any real problems. Form is overrated.
At this point, switching to a pattern that's better would raise the chances of injury more than continuing with the "wrong" one would, simply because they aren't ready for it. And if injuries do happen to be correlated with poor movement, it might just be because people who don't care too much about their form are also predisposed to imprudent loading.
Injury prevention is mostly fake too. Because the factors that cause injury are, almost by definition, outside of our control. Plain old recovery and responsible loading go further than any number of fancy ankle strengthening drills. But people don't like being told that they're not in control, so we have a million-dollar-a-year industry in pretending to protect against injury.
As for imbalance, that's simply inevitable, and maybe even preferable. If you have a favored jump foot, a dominant hand or a stronger arm, you’ve already lost symmetry. There’s a reason track atheltes run a counter-clockwise curve. Specialization is a trade-off that we make everyday, and one that usually leads to favorable outcomes. You don’t see many people learning to write with both their hands. The extra work required to develop a perfectly balanced body is just not worth it.
Then why care about form at all? Well, for one, there is in fact an optimal way to perform a movement. That is, optimal for a particular body shape, size, technical maturity and musculoskeletal development. And this changes for different uses of “optimal”. Do we want to lift as heavy as possible, as fast as possible, or as many times as possible? Are we targeting specific muscles or a particular range of motion?
The definition of good form therefore changes according to the desired outcome. And most of the time, there are other ways to get that outcome. Don't want to get injured? Just avoid lifting anything that's really heavy. Want a smoother sprinting technique? Make sure you meet the strength requirements to actually move your body the way the pros do.
Physics is real, but lifting a few hundred pounds isn't exactly testing it's limits. And you can always ignore it if you really want to. Because it certainly doesn’t pay attention to you. Have the prettiest running form ever seen? Physics doesn't care. Michael Johnson was a world record holder and De 3Grasse has a bunch of Olympic medals to his name, weird arm action notwithstanding. And let’s not talk about Bolt in the gym.
Musicians, especially those with classical training, are taught to play a certain way, often in an attempt to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, cubital tunnel syndrome, De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, and a bunch of other equally scary-sounding dysfunctions. In this case, good form can be defined as “whatever allows you to play without pain for the longest possible time”.
Which is an admirable goal, but is just one of the outcomes one could want. The true range of possible playing styles is larger than anything an academy might teach. Which is what allows us to have the virtuoso two-fingered guitarist Django Reinhardt, and Jimi Hendrix fretting strings with his thumb, along with a bunch of crazy ways to play the piano.
Things work how they work.
But thanks to the popularity of the "good form" meme, there's now a whole bunch of armchair critics who jump at the chance to point out the atrocious form of certain elite athletes. One of the more popular refrains goes along the lines of "Yeah, he's amazing, but imagine how good he'd be if he fixed his form". Fixing their arm mechanics, or landing technique, or squat form, is the obvious fix that their coaches, therapists and the athlete themselves are too dumb to notice.
What are the odds that, decades of training and dozens of victories later, a simple change in technique would create a step-size improvement in a professional athlete's performance? Any economist would laugh while waving the efficient market hypothesis in your face. Only the most naïve of audiences would consider such critique valid, yet we see it being made all the time.
It might be hard to accept that being a freak means that they get to play by completely different rules, but that doesn't make it any less true. In fact, there's a case to be made that their "imperfect" idiosyncrasies are what makes them the best in the first place. A case that's supported by the fact that...they're really freakin’ successful.
I'm using these examples to highlight a certain class of epistemic error (I'm not sure what to call it yet), where people are told that X solves Y, and refuse to believe that it doesn’t, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Y might not even be a problem worth solving!
As another instance of the idea, there’s a school of thought that believes the solution to the reproducibility crisis is open data. A change that would require researchers to publish all the raw numbers and specific methodological choices along with the finished paper, leaving no room for deception. Alas, honesty and transparency are not enough. Bad science finds a way to slip through, through poor design and the fact that statistics won’t save you. Or through surveys.
Sometimes this error is simply a result of starting with a tautology and extending it to a principle. “Unnecessary motion is wasted effort” is true by definition, but it doesn’t really ~mean~ anything. Who defines what “unnecessary” means? Does the “wasted effort” even affect outcomes in any meaningful way? If it doesn’t, should we even care? This sort of argument isn’t wrong per se, it’s just not worth making.
But most of the time, it's a consequence of underrating the irreducible complexity of the domain. You'd expect that having honest politicians would be enough to solve a bunch of political problems, because that’s just a painfully obvious idea, right? Except there’s a whole field of economics dedicated to explaining why that usually doesn’t work, thanks to the complicated interplay of conflicting incentives and diverse utility functions.
An unhealthy obsession with good form is what happens when reality's surprising amount of detail meets lazy choices. At the heart of which lies the desire for an optimal solution that is both simple and universally prescriptive. One of the features of cocktail party ideas is this disposition towards simple, often meta-level, solutions. "Why don't they just do the right thing?"
Well, maybe it's because the “right thing” is almost meaningless.
And this has consequences beyond just the futile chasing a non-existent panacea.
In The Case for Discontinuous Curricula, I argued for a pedagogical change that goes against...the very idea of a curriculum. Of course, I could never expect such a suggestion to be taken seriously by anyone but the fringe autodidacts. For one, it’s too uncomfortable to consider the possibility that we’ve been doing things badly all this time. But more importantly, nobody wants to risk being seen as incompetent.
Teachers, for example, cannot risk trying this alternate method. There's too much downside involved. Risking getting it wrong is no longer excusable once a popularly accepted general strategy is available. And their clients are fine with, and often even desirous of, going down a long, well-trodden path. Their value as teachers stems from their ability to guide people down this path.
This adherence to a local optimum is obviously self-limiting, but it also leads to the proliferation of a complementary class of error: the mistaken assumption that an agent operating without X is obviously incompetent. Instead of seeing the absence of X as a sign that X might be unnecessary, it’s seen as negligence on the part of the involved parties.
This is ultimately limiting on a societal-level, and makes it much harder for anyone to achieve legitimacy outside of established practices. It’s why interviewing practices are stuck in a bad place with almost nobody willing to do it better, why dress codes still matter so much, and the reason academic papers has a monopoly on intellectual authority. Attempting to ignore the accepted set of best practices is deemed too unprofessional for any sane person to risk.
Here’s a few examples where doing something without also doing “obviously good” X is frowned upon:
Good entrepreneur’s should tell the truth: I mean, yeah. But also no. It’s complicated, okay?
A good investor does their due diligence: Well yes, but how much? The bare minimum probably works best.
Rigor in intellectual thinking: We expect there to be a detached, professional approach to serious idea generation, but the most exciting work often comes from amateurish, interdisciplinary exploration.
Going to therapy: Not to abuse the meme, but we’ve reached the point where not seeing a professional is judged negligent. Maybe because it’s hard to accept the possibility that some people just do not want to be happy.
The truth is, of course, that wrongness in general is determined in comparison to the desired outcome. If you can get what you want without needing to jump through an arbitrary hoop, go ahead and walk right past it. There are always going to be people who believe a particular hoop is unavoidable, whether in self-interest or naivety.
“The prejudice that the scientist, as a seeker of the truth, is immune from the passions of the world and is capable of doing no wrong, a prejudice propagated for over a century by bigoted biographers, has done harm. One shudders to guess how many talented young minds have been discouraged from a career in science by reading such unrealistic portrayals of the scientist as a saint. Moreover the presumption that “good” behavior is a prerequisite for success in science betrays a lack of faith in science.” -Gian-Carlo Rota
There’s hundreds of coaches that think good form is a solution in itself. Even if it was, having the best technique is a function of enough independent variables that it becomes a goal instead of a solution. And one that takes a lot of chasing. But this is how it should be, good form should be emergent from winning. Instead we have it the other way around.
This progression from observed success to established ideal is obvious if we think about how any set of best practices are discovered: not through planning, but years of collective trial and error. Moreover, the dominant paradigm is established by the demographic with the most influence over a particular field, and is tailored to their own goals and specifications. Why does your coach have the basketball team run suicides at the end of practice? Probably because his coach did too.
There is immense alpha in knowing that there exist better personal optimums that lie outside of the beaten path. Sticking to good form often ends with you starving in the motte. There are far too many roads leading to a particular destination, and even more destinations to be visited, to limit our choice to the usual handful. But like any sticky meme, the idea of good form requires active effort to subvert. It takes a lot of pushing to move out of a socially-sanctioned local optimum. But knowing that it isn’t the final solution is a useful starting point.
You are not owed a solution.
No matter how much you systemize and formalize, you've also got to learn to live with the edge cases. In fact, you ought to embrace them. Learn all the ways to skin the cat. Relying on a simple, fixed plan is the classic case of drawing your own maps and blaming the territory for not conforming. There’s no extra points for effort if you’re driving into a brick wall.
Rationality likes to define itself as a philosophy that cares about being successful. As they say on the site: “rationality means winning!” Except, they haven't won in a long time. This isn’t for lack of trying, they have some of the most rigorous thinkers out there, and they positively invented the idea of cognitive biases. With the best form in the game, why aren't they winning?
For I do fear that a "rationalist" will clutch to themselves the ritual of cognition they have been taught, as loss after loss piles up, consoling themselves: I have behaved virtuously, I have been so reasonable, it's just this awful unfair universe that doesn't give me what I deserve. The others are cheating by not doing it the rational way, that's how they got ahead of me. - Eliezer Yudkowsky
Cedric Chen thinks it might be because they focus too much on epistemic rationality (how do you know that your beliefs are true?), and not enough on instrumental rationality (how do you make better decisions to achieve your goals?).
“...if you’re instrumentally rational, you don’t need to optimize for correct and true beliefs to succeed. You merely need a small set of true beliefs, related to your field; these beliefs can be determined from trial and error itself.” - Cedric Chen
This sounds an awful lot like the idea I’ve spent the entire essay trying to justify: good form doesn’t exist. The more accurate maps in the world won’t help you when you’re hunting for unmarked buried treasure, you just have to do a lot of digging.
Screwing on my internet writer hat, which allows me to make broad, dramatic statements while conveniently ignoring the burden of proof, I will make the claim that this example is indicative of a broader social phenomenon. A disappointing outcome where people neurotic about good form limit both themselves and the entire space of alternate possibilities.
People want to be able to say they did the right thing, nobody wants to worry about actually doing the right thing. Looking for a proxy for "doing their best'', when in fact, there is none. What you’ve done is all there is.
This tendency towards shame-avoidance and zero-blame is ultimately far less useful, and far, far less fun than choosing to be wrong. There’s a multitude of choices before you, and any regret after deciding is self-inflicted. Most rules are chosen to allow people to say “But I did the right thing” after the fact.
I often joke about the desire that smart people seem to have for being *ahem*…intellectually dommed. That is, having someone they respect/trust make their choices for them. A particularly amusing instance of this is the popularity of the 80,000 Hours career advice sessions, which need to be booked months in advance due to the unceasing demand. Why? Because smart young people really want to know what the best thing to do is.
This could be viewed as the classic case of save-the-world syndrome, but I choose to see it as yet another example of form neuroticism. Where the outcome is supposed to be “whatever lets me have the greatest impact”, but they want the way to get there to be a sure path. Wanting to do great things is an admirable goal, no doubt, but they could perhaps start with not letting someone else define it for them.
Games lose their point when we get caught up in the rules. Go do a sloppy push-up or something, I won’t judge.
2 million ankle sprains a year for the US alone.
There’s also differences in muscle fiber type, tendon length and strength, not to mention ever-changing environmental constraints.