Remember Grandpa Gustafson? He was the character that Burgess Meredith played in the movie Grumpy Old Men. He was 90 plus years old, and each day he smoked 2 packs of cigarettes, drank a 12 pack of beer, ate bacon for most of his meals and was never sick a day in his life. It seems that most everyone knows someone like this yet nobody in their right mind would want to emulate their lifestyle habits in hopes of achieving the same record of health and longevity. However, this is the exact same mentality that the majority of people use when following the workout habits of others and especially when copying exercise form and technique.
I don’t believe that the average person fully appreciates the skill and discipline that it takes to correctly perform most weight training exercises, particularly compound movements and especially when those exercises are pushed to the very limit. Swinging a golf club, tennis racquet or a baseball bat requires coordinated motor skills which take time and practice to develop. An Olympic weight lifter and a shot-putter require intense coaching and many years of practice in order to perfect their movements. Weight training exercises are no different. Some are more difficult to master then others, but all require some degree of skill to perform and this takes practice, time, discipline and attention to detail. I say this because often people make a decision to add an exercise to their program. The trainee performs the lift and it feels uncomfortable or even painful and as a result they either discard the movement or they adopt a very sloppy technique when exercising. In either case, there are virtually no benefits and if the movement is included and performed incorrectly, it often leads to injury. In my early years of training I made this error repeatedly, but I eventually learned from my mistakes.
Several months ago, I decided to add the standing dumbbell press to my training program. The first workout, I decided to start with a pair of 75lbers. I cleaned the bells and performed a total of 8 repetitions, but they were 8 of the sloppiest reps you could imagine. I felt nothing in my shoulders and my lower back and forearms ached and in disgust, I threw the dumbbells down on the mat. The first thought that went through my head was “This is a stupid and worthless exercise and I will never do it again” After getting over my pity party, I re-evaluated my approach to this particular exercise. Though I had been pressing barbells overhead for many years, this was the first time I had tried it with dumbbells and I had to learn how to do it correctly. I read everything I could on proper performance. I sought the advice of those who were proficient in overhead dumbbell pressing, I broke the exercise down into various parts and worked at improving each of those parts, including foot position, hand position, breathing, and the concentric and eccentric phases. I spent hours at home with a pair of 15lbs dumbbells, doing correct overhead presses, over and over again. Two weeks after my first experience with the 75lb dumbbells, I returned to the gym and did the same 75lbs for 15 solid and easy reps. I quickly progressed to using 100+ pounds for my overhead dumbbell pressing. But I am still learning and still working at perfecting this and many other exercises. Often the exercises that seem to be the most difficult for us to perform are exactly the ones we need to master in order to realize our individual potential.
It is beyond the scope of this article to describe specific exercise technique. You can learn that from books, videos, various web sites, personal coaching and strength and conditioning seminars. You might be thinking that exercise technique is an individual matter and that there is too much disagreement on what constitutes proper technique. Although there is some difference of opinion on certain exercises and topics such as cadence and range of motion, for the most part, there is a general consensus on correct technique. You may have to make minor modifications to suit your individual needs, but the general principles apply to just about everyone. Walk into any bookstore or library and select any ten weight training instruction books off the shelf and I would wager that 95% of the exercise techniques would be described in a very similar manner. The trouble is that very few people actually do the movements the way they are described. Visit most commercial gyms or health clubs and it’s a safe bet that almost no one is lifting with correct form. You see partial movements, bouncing, severe body english, fast slamming movements, cheating movements and a total lack of concentration. It’s no wonder that so many people are frustrated with their lack of progress. If you want to maximize your own strength and development, then it is important to develop near perfect technique in all of the exercises in your program.
I believe most people would be best served by selecting 6-7 core exercises and sticking with them for their entire lives. When you feel you need to change your program, simply vary the repetition scheme or even vary the style of the core exercise, but if you are constantly changing exercises, then it is difficult to get really good at performing them. Write down all of the exercises you use in your program and then create a list of “check-points” that are important for each lift. Develop a habit of mentally referring to those checkpoints on each and every repetition and eventually they will become second nature to you. Larry Bird used to do this when shooting free throws. He had a mental list of things to do when shooting and he would go through them over and over in his mind until he could make long strings of consecutive shots. There is a story that when Larry was playing still an NBA pro, he was hired to appear in some commercials for McDonalds. The first commercial called for him to shoot and miss a free throw in practice. The first 22 takes were failures because he was unable to miss the free throw. This is a good example of proper mental conditioning and discipline.
If your progress on a particular lift has stalled or reached a plateau, or if an exercise is causing some non-growth related discomfort, then consider analyzing and working to improve your form. Break down the lift into smaller parts and analyze any weaknesses or trouble spots and then work to improve them. This can be done via adjunct exercises, power rack training or simply fine-tuning the technique involved. You may have to experiment with variations of each movement in order to find what works best for you.
Even when you have developed extremely good form, it is very easy to fall into minor habits that cause form deterioration. A little bounce here, a slight heave there, you don’t notice them at first because they are subtle and because you are adding weight to the bar, but eventually it catches up with you either in the form on injuries or halted progress. The wise lifter is constantly checking and re-checking their form.
You can make a tremendous amount of progress by routinely having your workouts videotaped and then reviewing them later, either alone, or with someone that has the experience to critique your performance. You will always spot things on the tape that you just don’t see in the mirror during the actual performance. We can all learn from anyone with wisdom and experience, but I have always learned the most about exercise technique from individuals with whom I share a similar structure with.
When you are working at improving your technique or are adding a new movement, it is always best to work with a weight that is far below what you are capable of lifting. Remember, the idea is to improve technical performance, so that you can eventually make strength and development gains. When you are lifting, think of each set as a series of single repetitions, so that instead of “1x8”, you think of “8 sets of 1” this will help you to focus on performing each repetition with precision. The competitive powerlifter should always strive to perform each repetition as close to contest rules as possible. I have often watched guys who claimed to have deadlifted a certain number, say 500x5 in the gym, and then end up with only 505 or 510 in the contest. The five repetitions they performed in the gym were nowhere near being close to a contest repetition. I have not competed in powerlifting in over ten years and yet I still walk my squats out, set up, mentally hear the judges command to squat, perform the lift, mentally wait for the judges command to rack, and then walk the squat back in. I did this for so many years when I was competing, that I cannot get out of the habit of doing it.
A very common question that I get is what age a child should be allowed to begin weight training. I always answer that they can begin learning the proper techniques at just about any age. My son started lifting when he was 4 years old. His barbell consisted of a wooden rod with cardboard plates on each end. Whenever he wanted to lift weights, I would work with him on the proper form and technique and he was more than happy to learn. By age 7 he could do all of the basic movements with just about near perfect technique and could also tell you the purpose of each. I would occasionally take him to the gym with me and he would watch everyone train and later tell me in great detail what was correct and in-correct. He is now 14 years old and has gotten into regular weight training for his various athletic pursuits and is making rapid progress.
Focusing on proper exercise technique gives you the best chance of avoiding injuries which allows you to train longer and without forced layoffs. This will enable you to move towards progression faster and more consistently. Proper technique also enables your body to develop a balanced muscular structure so that you can not only lift weights safely and consistently, but will eventually allows you to lift more weight. And lifting more weight, is what strength training is all about.