the joy of strength training


February 10th, 2008 at 1:40 am

Exercise technique

This is the fourth article in the series Getting into weight training: a female-friendly guide.

1. Why lift weights? 4. Exercise technique
2. Types of weight training 5. Training programmes
3. Starting out 6. Create your own programme

Exercise Technique

To maximise the benefits from weight training and stay injury-free, it is important to use good exercise technique. Sometimes there are minor variations in the techniques that different instructors use, but there are simple principles that can be applied across all exercises.

1. Always keep your back flat – never lift with a rounded lower back. This is the safest position for your spine to be in when lifting.
2. Take a big breath before lifting something heavy. This creates internal pressure against the spine, helping to keep it locked in place.
3. Keep your knees in line with your toes. Don’t let your knees collapse inwards, or lean outwards.
4. Lower the weight as carefully as you raised it. Many injuries occur through allowing form to collapse when lowering a weight.
5. Warm up and start lifting with a light weight. Your body and brain both need to get into the groove for what they are about to do, before you add a big load.
6. Use a spotter and/or set up safety bars. Never lift heavy weights when you don’t have a way out if you fail.
7. Be aware of what others are doing around you. You don’t want to dump your bar on someone’s head or get caught on the wrong end of a failed shoulder press.
8. Allow a day or two for recovery after a heavy lifting session. Ideally, do something light that will get you moving but don’t lift heavy.

When you first start lifting, you will probably ache for a couple of days afterwards. This is perfectly normal and happens because your body is not used to the exercises. So long as you don’t use bad technique or weights that are too heavy, your body will adapt and you will no longer get that muscle ache.

Exercise demonstrations online

There’s plenty of good information online on how to perform weights exercises. One of the best resources is the brilliant There’s a wealth of entertaining exercise instruction available on the site. I particularly recommend the series From Dork to Diva as a fun but informative introduction to both good and bad technique in some of the most popular exercises.

My own article series, Top 10 functional strength exercises, illustrates the technique of some of my favourite exercises in detail. At the time of writing I have completed articles on 4 of the top 10: deadlift, dumbbell snatch, dumbbell swing and handstand push-up. More to come over the weeks and months. My Links page also has links to a variety of sites with exercise demos and instruction.

For an encyclopaedic quick reference, many people use the Exercise and Muscle Directory on, with video demos by The Man In Little White Shorts. Sometimes his form isn’t spot on – for example, you’ll see him rounding his back slightly on occasions. But this is a very useful reference nevertheless.

Range of motion

You will get the best out of your lifts if you aim for full range of motion. You will often see people stopping short on their exercises; for example, not bringing the bar all the way down to the chest in the bench press, or only squatting a quarter of the way down. They are not getting the full benefit of the exercise and if they were in a competition, the lift would not be valid.

Generally, the greater the range of motion, the better the technique. However, on pressing movements be careful not to strain the shoulders. Range of motion can be increased if the muscles and joints are strong enough but do it carefully and only increase load gradually. If you are not flexible enough to reach full range of motion (e.g. in the squat), do as much as you can and you should gradually improve.

Squats and your knees

Many gyms advise their members not to squat “below parallel”, which seems to mean not descending further than the point at which the underside of your thighs is parallel to the ground, about halfway down. The reason given is that going below this point puts too much stress on the knees.

However, this parallel position is actually more stressful to the knee joint than being in a deep squat, so it is always advisable to squat below this point. You will also be working more of the leg as your hips and hamstrings come into play much more in a full squat than in a partial squat where all the emphasis is on the quads. Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters spend their careers squatting well below the point recommended by most commercial gyms.

‘Parallel’ squat Deep squat
parallel squat full squat

Checking your form

Even experienced lifters need to check their form on a regular basis as it is easy for aspects of the lift to get lazy. There are two good ways to check your form:

1. Video yourself lifting.
2. Get an experienced coach or friend to watch you.

If the above two options are not available to you, practice your form in the mirror without any weight so that you know how good form should feel. Then perform the lift without looking in the mirror, concentrating on recreating the same feeling. You shouldn’t look in the mirror when lifting with weight as it will pull your body out of proper alignment and distract you from focussing on the movement itself. Serious weightlifting gyms don’t have mirrors at all!

Next article: Training programmes

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