the joy of strength training


June 21st, 2010 at 12:11 am

Tied up with technique?

Peter squatting at workshop given by gubernatrix

Squat workshop by gubernatrix (Photo: Kate Pankhurst)

Strength. It’s 99% about how strong you are.

I don’t know whether it’s the circles I move in, but I tend to meet people who are more concerned with how good their technique is than how much they are lifting.

These well-intentioned students of strength are the opposite end of the scale from the idiots in the gym who load the bar up with more weight than they can handle and then proceed to invite maiming with appalling technique and absolutely no understanding of basic safety. But as far as I know, none of those people reads this blog (though they should!).

I’m known for being generous where technique is concerned, not a stickler for the perfect position so long as people are reasonably safe. I am willing to entertain other opinions but I tend to think not ‘is my technique perfect?’ but ‘is my technique good enough’?

When I teach workshops, such as the squat workshop pictured above, I focus on technique and strength. When you’ve got the basic movement, it’s time to stick some more weight on the bar and challenge yourself.

I didn’t get into strength training to do pretty moves, although that’s part of the fun. But I got into it to lift ever heavier things – that’s my own personal buzz. Will I sacrifice technique to lift something heavier? Yes, sometimes. Not all the time, not every day. I’ll train sensibly and then go for it on the platform, for example.

And before you raise the hydra of injury – yep, been there. In fact I picked up an injury just a couple of weeks ago while deadlifting in a strongwoman competition. Am I annoyed I got injured? Yep. Do I regret going for that weight? Nope.

Strongman is an interesting sport since many of the events are performed using what most people would think of as bad technique – rounding the back in the atlas stones, hyperextending the lower back for the log press and so on. But strongmen train specifically to perform the events like this. It’s in the nature of odd object lifting. It’s part of what it means to be a strongman – being able to lift in some very awkward positions.

And for you functional fitness fans, this is vital. In an emergency situation, are you likely to be presented with a finely crafted eleiko-bar-shaped object to lift? Or is it more likely to be some awkwardly-shaped heavy bastard of a thing?

Laurence Shahlaei lifts an atlas stone

Try telling Laurence Shahlaei he should lift with his legs not his back

In a very technical sport such as olympic weightlifting, technique is vital in as much as it allows you to lift more. If you can’t snatch properly you’ll never snatch very much because there is a limit to the amount of weight you can get from the floor to overhead by just muscling it up there. If you don’t have the technique in olympic weightlifting then you just miss…and miss… and miss…

But can great technique be an aim in itself? Maybe, if that’s what turns you on. Maybe you want to have the most beautiful moves in the gym and you don’t care how heavy the weight is.

But you also have to think about how you are applying the technique. Are you applying it with confidence? Are you diving under that bar with complete commitment? Or did you start lifting and think ‘christ, that feels heavy!’

In other words, having perfect technique with a light weight may not mean jack shit once the weight gets challenging.

How much mental energy should you spend worrying about technique? What would happen if you stopped worrying about technique and put some more weight on the bar?

Many people seem to think that they are not ‘ready’ to add weight until they can perform a lift perfectly. It’s a combination of fear of injury, fear of the weight and the desire to practice with something easy. I know these feelings all too well!

But adding more weight teaches too. Adding more weight can in some circumstances actively improve technique (a big heavy weight can force you into the correct position) and in other circumstances simply make you work harder to get it right.

With sub-maximal weights, you can sometimes make adjustments during the lift to compensate for deficiencies in the technique – for example, not having quite the right starting position, or not catching the weight in exactly the right place. With a maximum or very close to maximum weight, if you don’t get it right, you’ll probably fail the lift. So you’ll know damn well when you do get it right.

There are some lifters who are known as good technicians. These are the jammy bastards whose technique is exactly the same, lift after lift, never really deteriorating (eventually the weight just gets too heavy). Realistically, most of us won’t have this talent.

So as with most things in life, there is a balance to be struck. You probably don’t want to end up on the wrong side of either opinion.

If you agonise about your technique, take some time out and just think about lifting more weight. Don’t forget that all that time you are spending on perfecting your technique is time that you are not spending getting stronger.

Conversely, if you chase the numbers every day and you are just desperate to put an extra few kilos on your lifts, consider that taking time to work on your technique might actually improve your numbers in the long run.

For the vast majority of us, our technique could always be better but in strength sports, you don’t get points for style. If we allow this thought to paralyse us, we may not make progress or get stronger.

So where do you stand on the technique debate?

More from gubernatrix

gubernatrix on squat technique
Paralysis by analysis
Mystery of the squat

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  • 1

    I used to have beautiful technique… but now I am much stronger.

    sumoman on June 21st, 2010
  • 2

    Nice, innit!

    gubernatrix on June 21st, 2010
  • 3

    Sally, isn’t functional fitness already about not working with exercises and loads that are not perfectly balanced and symmetric? Working unilaterally, contralaterally, and hard to grip-ally? I think there’s a continuum from a barbell at the bottom to dumbbell to kettlebell to sandbag, and the further along that scale your implement is, ceteris paribus, the more functional the exercise is.

    Steven on June 22nd, 2010
  • 4

    I spend about 1/2 my time pushing my clients to lift heavier and find out what they can do. Surprising women who do not give themselves enough credit.

    (Yesterday a woman on the leg press machine thought she might be able to do 2 presses with a move up from 25# plates to 35#. Then did 12 reps with 45# as her final (4th) set. Of course today’s she’s cursing me… but she knows she’s stronger than she thought).

    I prefer form over weight – but there is a time when you have to go for it and let the weight tell the tale.

    deb roby on June 23rd, 2010
  • 5

    @ steven: I see what you mean, but there are different definitions of functional fitness around. Crossfit, for example, traditionally uses very little odd object lifting. Recently things like sandbags have crept in but generally they focus on skills such as olympic weightlifting and gymnastics. These are functional, but certainly don’t count as ‘odd object’ in my book. Kettlebells are halfway there, but still quite far from picking up an atlas stone. You are right that there is a scale, but I’m not sure that it is as simple as saying ‘the odder the object, the more functional the exercise’.

    @ deb: agreed – I can completely understand not everyone wanting/needing to go super heavy (we all have different training goals) but also agree that its great when people have the opportunity to achieve something they thought they couldn’t achieve (like lifting a certain weight), just because someone else has faith that they can. This can really open doors for people!

    gubernatrix on June 23rd, 2010
  • 6

    Yeah i really don’t push myself hard enough, I’ve spent too long in my comfort zone benching the same 100 without any additional weight for a few months or so, need a decent gym bud who can spot me

    PlymouthGymAddict on June 24th, 2010
  • 7

    The way that I see it, technique does a few things. First, it allows us to become stronger and it does that in two ways: it makes our muscles stronger and it teaches the body the skill needed to do more (whatever “more” might be). Then, technique protects the body from doing something that could hurt us.

    When it comes to developing-strength aspects of technique and form, that’s obviously negotible. If you have to modify both to make something easier on your body, or if you can get away with tweaking form to make something harder, then who can say that it’s wrong? It obviously works for you!

    The last one, protecting the body, is much more rigid, at least in my mind. Strongmen are physical anomolies. They’re built in ways that allow them to do shit that most others shouldn’t even think about. Bad technique and bad form are abusive on the body. Their abuse threshold, the point where they become too injured to continue, is higher than most of us.

    For the rest of us who have to do things that are bad for the body, our goals for training should be geared towards strengthening ourselves to deal with such abuse better. I’ve lifted heavy stuff with a rounded back quite often. I’ve done it because I had no choice. Sometimes I can do it without hurting myself. Other times, I’m not so lucky. Hopefully, my training has prepared me to push it past the limit when needed. Or, at the very least, it’s made me capable of bouncing back faster.

    Justin_P on June 24th, 2010
  • 8

    Nice article Gube.

    A lot of people take me for a squat form nazi – that’s not the case at all and I absolutely HATE IT when people say “I’m only squatting w. the empty bar until my form improves”… Every plate added is going to require a technical change whether that’s visible or not.

    Strength is a skill and technique is a part of that skill (as is “brute strength”). I could, for example, whine that a 110lb girl can do more kettlebell snatches than me because of “technique”, or I can just admit that she’s stronger and improve my own “strength” to best those numbers. Arm wrestlers, strongman, highland games, PL, OL, track athletes, you name it – technique is essential for any expression of strength much beyond the novice level unless you are extremely gifted.

    Boris on June 30th, 2010
  • 9

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    Great links for the weekend! on July 2nd, 2010
  • 10

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