3 years ago, i was smashing a set of trap bar deadlifts. The previous week I’d hit 455 for 5, and come hell or high water, I was going to get 465 for 5 this week.
I was squeezing every muscle in my body to stay tight, but at the top of the 4th rep, I got a little loose and felt a pop in my low back. By the time I lowered the bar to the ground, I couldn’t stand back up.
Now, I’ve been lifting weights for 25 years. I knew better than to try and grind out one more rep when I was at the wall. But my training log said 465×5, so I got so focused on setting a PR that I got hurt.
I was laid up on the couch for a week. Every day that week, I spent almost all day trying to stretch, lying on my traction table, and popping anti inflammatories. It sucked. And to be honest, my back still doesn’t feel right and gives me problems.
The worst part is that it was avoidable-I was an idiot and tried for one more rep, when in my heart of hearts I knew I didn’t have it in me.
Here’s the other extreme: Last week, I was in the weight room with my high school wrestlers. We’re in the 3rd week of our off season training program, meaning most of our guys have only really been strength training for 6 days. Some of them might’ve been to the gym in the past, but they were doing what high school boys do: plenty of quarter squats and curl variations, not goblet squats and full range chin ups.
All are great kids, who work hard, and were obviously there at 8 o clock on a Tuesday night after an hour and a half of offseason wrestling because they have lofty goals. They all listen and give it their all. But they’re wrestlers-they want to lift big weights, and they want to lift it yesterday.
In the process of learning how to dumbbell row and trap bar deadlift, there were a few rounded shoulders and backs, but after a set or 2 and some coaching, they were looking pretty good. By the 3rd set, they all had nearly doubled the weights of their first set and performed each rep nearly perfectly. By the 4th and 5th sets, I patted myself on the back and started setting up for the next tri-set as they were humming right along.
Perfecting technique is a process, and it needs to be practiced on every rep of every set, whether you’re a veteran of the iron game or a total newbie. By just slowing them down, giving them feedback and particular things to focus on, they got better from set to set. By no means are they perfect lifters, but they got significantly better just by hammering technique, and could start to use more challenging loads pretty quickly.
Whether you’re rotating in a lift that you haven’t done in awhile or learning something new altogether, it’s best practiced using moderate weights for a bunch of sets. This helps to ingrain not only the movement, but how to create the necessary tension to move heavier weights.
Traditionally, people learn a movement by doing a few sets with really light loads. That’s fine for understanding what you’re supposed to do, but doesn’t do much in the way of teaching you how to pack your shoulders on a press or bracing your core when you deadlift. When the weights are too light, you can move them so easily that none of these things are an issue.
This is why I’m a big believer in 4-6 sets of 5-8 reps when incorporating a new lift. This kills 2 birds with one stone.
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran, or a rank beginner, training with perfect form is absolutely, unequivocally, the most important factor in whether or not your strength training program is going to work. Just because your program says you’re doing a front squat, if your knees are caving in, you’re not breaking 90 degrees, and your elbows are down, then you’re not actually doing a front squat. And if you’re not actually doing what your program says, how do you expect it to work?
Chasing personal records is vital in the pursuit of strength and muscle, no question, but not at the expense of picture perfect technique. When learning something new, there is always a learning curve. Nobody learns to speak fluent Spanish after their first class, and nobody masters a hang clean after 3 reps. But, just as you’re probably not ready to move to Mexico and speak comfortably with the locals after one class, you shouldn’t load up that new movement like you’re Eddie Hall after just a few sets.
Whether it’s ego, or just lack of familiarity with how to train particular lifts, I see people leaving progress on the table and causing nagging injuries for themselves because of ugly technique. Training is supposed to improve your life, health, and fitness, not hurt it.
So start treating strength as a skill. The way you approach your training will totally change, as you’ll start using each rep to improve your technique. Joint position dictates muscle recruitment, so the better the technique, the more muscle you’ll be utilizing, and you’ll be moving more weight for more reps over time.
This is the not so sexy secret to how you build real, appreciable strength and muscle.