There’s a lot of unnecessary anxiety out there regarding weightlifting and “perfect form.” While technique may be important to avoid injury and to maximize the benefits of a lift, I would encourage you to consider letting go of this particular worry.
There is no perfect form. There are a plurality of good forms, and they are dependent on the micro (and macro) differences in each of our unique physiologies. To illustrate this point, I would like you to consider breasts.
The presence, shape and size of breasts can change the pathway of motion for innumerable lifts, although I feel that they are most noticeable in how they impact back exercises. Take a seated, cable row–you are sitting on a bench (or perhaps kneeling on the floor), and your hands are extended straight out in front of you, gripping a cable attachment. If the distance between your hands is shorter than the width of your shoulders, it is possible for your upper arms to come in contact with your breasts. If your breasts are smaller and closer together, you may only notice a slight brushing against the inner arm; however, the larger and further out your breasts spread beyond your ribcage, the more likely you will find yourself adjusting your hand position to reduce mashing your breasts as you pull the cable towards your body. Or, another option is to adjust the pathway of your elbows so that they open “out,” away from your body instead of straight back. This is less desirable, but may be necessary, especially if you have a larger upper body in general. The “perfect” form for you is the one you can achieve consistently while targeting the desired muscles of your back and without causing undue breast squishing! If your breasts are larger and getting in the way, I would suggest a wider grip on the cable row so that you can pull back as straight as possible, aiming for a pathway of motion that allows you to squeeze your back muscles tightly without straining your elbows.
Some other examples of breasts changing a lift:
Anything “chest supported”: These exercises are performed lying forward on an incline bench. Regardless of the size of your chest, you will have to guide your elbows around the bench as you pull up. Find a cushioned bench, and pull dumbbells wide enough to get around squished breast tissue. For barbell variations, you may need to hold your hands wider than lifters without breasts.
Dumbbell chest press: Bench pressing with dumbbells gives you more freedom of movement than barbell. As a result, it is great for shoulders, elbows and other cranky joints. If your breasts extend beyond your ribcage when you are lying down, however, you will need to also move dumbbell weights a little further from your body than someone who does not have that physiology. I use a hybrid grip for these, with my hands about 45 degrees from my chest (rather than pronated, the more traditional hand position with palms facing the direction of my toes). This gives me more room (and therefore more power) to push up and also helps me avoid smooshing my breasts on the release downwards again.
Bicep curls: Two possible workarounds for these that I like–the first is to use dumbbells or single-hand grip on a cable and angle the lift slightly to the side of the body instead of to the front. The second option is to hinge your hips forward from a standing position, so that when the weight (dumbbells or barbell) is pulled all the way up, there’s about 30 degrees space between your upper arm and your chest.
These adjustments sometimes vary from what folks will claim is perfect form. However, chances are very good that the folks who make these claims are not people who have had to problem-solve lifting around one’s breasts. These variations do allow more diverse body shapes to access lifting and to make it a more comfortable experience. They also are only specific to one physiological difference–breasts!
Again, I want to stress that there is no one perfect form. I am using breasts as an exemplar of how each of our unique bodies will do lifts with good form differently, but they are hardly the only physiological difference that matters. The width and angle of your hips changes how you lift. The ratio of arm length to leg length changes how you lift. The proportion of your upper body strength to your lower body strength changes how you lift. ALL of these differences will lead to differences in your form, and none of them make you wrong. The goal is to lift in a way that does not cause you harm, does not cause you lasting pain, and helps you target and train the muscles that you are aiming to improve. Do these things, and you are using perfect form, for you!
I don’t have a good video of someone negotiating a great lift around their breasts (sorry!), but here’s one for your consideration. Watch Lamar Gant deadlift and tell me he isn’t using perfect (for him) form!
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found perfectly imperfectly picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, OR.