How Important is Exercise Technique Actually?

“Fit the exercise to the person, not the person to the exercise”

Like all things in the fitness and physical training world, there seems to be a varying degree of importance placed on exercise execution; opinions vary from extremely stringent “technique nazi’s” and “keyboard cowboys” that believe there is only one correct way to perform a given task, and even a small variance creates an instantaneous injury, to the “just lift heavy shit, then lift heavier shit” crowd that believes all these functional movement pansies just need to quit doing Pilates and grow some balls. As much as I enjoy watching these two opposing opinions debate on a daily basis, the importance of technique is not a clean cut, black and white, one side of the fence or the other, type argument; the importance of exercise technique actually fits along a continuum that looks something like this, first explained in easy to understand terminology:

SHITTY (you have no idea what you’re doing and you’re not doing it very well, consider signing up for the disc herniation olympics) —–>RISKY TECHNIQUE TO WIN (yeah, dive-bombing your squats and letting the knees come in slightly in the bottom of your squat isn’t great for the hips or knees, but you can squat more weight in the short term, you’ve spent years perfecting this competition technique, but chances are you will pay for this when you’re 40 though)—–> SAFE FOR YOU (no glaring errors that would cause joints to instantaneously explode or immediate dismemberment. Takes into account your own structure and ability, but you’re probably not as effective as you’d like) —–> MASTERY (you can do this in your sleep, you’ve done this 10 000 times and fixed multiple subtleties, some not visible to the eye. This is your perfect technique, things as small as a breath too shallow, a half degree off one way or another means the difference between winning and losing. Your technique will be unique, and may share some similarities with others, but is entirely your own)

For you sport science types (myself included), in proper terminology it would look more like this:

BIOMECHANICALLY DISADVANTAGEOUS (possibility of acute and instantaneous injury, poor leverage angles)—–> COMPETITION EXECUTION FOR MOST STRENGTH SPORTS (best possible performance execution, less possibility of acute and instantaneous injury but likely to produce chronic deficiency)  —–> SAFE FOR A GIVEN POPULATION (safe distribution of load, unlikely to produce instant or chronic injury) —-> OPTIMAL FOR A GIVEN POPULATION (advantageous distribution of load for desired outcome, unlikely to produce instant or chronic injury; mastery of technique determines outcome, variance from perfect form is marked by lower performance)

Today we’re mainly talking about strength training exercises; keep in mind when it comes to the continuum, just because you’ve mastered one exercise doesn’t mean you can do another; approach each exercise accordingly. So the question remains, how can you tell where you fit in this continuum and what should you do once you know? Let’s explain the categories in a little more detail.

Biomechanically Disadvantageous (aka shitty): 

Characteristics of this type of technique are:

  • Excessive shaking
  • Loss of balance
  • Jerky or stalled movement
  • Spinal flexion or excessive rounding of the back in vertically loaded planes
  • Pain
  • Load transferred to passive structures instead of the muscular system
  • Favouring one side more than the other
  • Excessively small range of motion or inability to hit key phases of the movement without compensation
  • Joints moving in planes that put them at risk of injury

Who should train in this range:

  • Total beginners and trainees new to an advanced movement
  • You should strive to spend as little time as possible, no one should intentionally train in this part of the continuum

How to Progress:

  • Reduce the load to as close to zero as possible while gaining confidence with the new movement. Keep the movement slow and controlled, this gives the central nervous system the time and ability to make mistakes in the motor pattern and determine the correct patterns of activation/inhibition of involved muscle groups. Wait for the movement to smooth out before adding load or velocity.
  • Locate the specific reason you may be having trouble with the movement, you simply may not be strong or stable enough for the movement you are attempting: I have yet to see someone capable of a full range body weight pistol squat or one armed pushup with zero training experience, but if the movement is relatively simple and you can’t get into position, try to find the stiff or unstable joint and improve it before integrating it into a compound movement
  • Regress to a simpler version of the movement or use a partial of the full movement. For instance, if you are trying to learn the full snatch (now a popular goal due to the rising popularity of crossfit) Instead of of trying to learn the full lift, learn the first phases of the pull, master the high bar back squat, front squat, overhead squat, high pull, power snatch from the knees, snatch from the knees, and finally the full snatch.
  • Hire a coach. Hopefully an educated and experienced coach that will deliver on their promises.
  • Find a different movement. Yup, sometimes it’s that simple; despite what some Crossfit coaches will try to convince you of, not everyone is built to snatch, or even to deep squat, no matter how much coaching or mobility work you do with them, certain structures will not allow the movement to be done safely. Maybe you can’t snatch, but you can probably still high pull from the knees. There’s always a way to train though.

Risky technique to win (competition execution for most strength sports):

Characteristics or this type of technique are:

  • Compensatory movements to lift a larger load that may have a negative long term effect
  • Only used with a near maximal load
  • Examples include, slight knee buckling in the squat or catch phase of the olympic movement, slight rounding of the back in the deadlift or truck pull, atlas stone lift, and other powerlifting/strongman movements. Cranking the neck back to shorten the lever in backloaded movements.

Who should train in this range:

  • Advanced powerlifters, strongmen, and Olympic weightlifters only in peaking or competition
    • This isn’t technique error, this is an intentional changing of leverage to lift more weight over a very short period of time, the lifter understands the increased risk, but considers it a necessary part of the sport. So no, the lifter bouncing out of the hole while lifting 800lbs isn’t “doing it wrong” and chances are he doesn’t do it all the time either.

Who shouldn’t train in this range:

  • Everyone else.
    • Seriously. I don’t care if you can bench more with your wrists folded back, or you squat more by pancaking, rising the hips fast and then lifting with your back. This will most likely lead to chronic injury and also impedes progress (you’re not actually doing the lift or using the correct muscles). In the long run you will be stronger and have a better physique/transfer to your sport if you commit to a more biomechanically sound form. It may mean initially taking one step back to make 5 steps forward.

Safe for you (safe for a given population):

Characteristics of this type of technique:

  • Smooth controlled movements
  • Full range (for you)
  • Pain free
  • Able to hit key phases of all lifts without compensation
  • Passes the “looks good” test
  • Feel the muscles that are supposed to be working
  • Using the best variation of an exercise for you; some modifications have been made to suit your individual structure, such as plates under the heels in the squat, using 3 finger or holding straps in the front squat, using partial range presses for compromised shoulders, using more knee bend in the deadlift for longer legs etc

Who should train in this range:

  • All recreational bodybuilders, people trying to improve their physique, beginner to intermediate athletes

How to progress:

  • Get stronger. Yup that’s about it. Use an effective written program.
  • Progress to full range movements and less assisting modifications, if possible. Learn to squat without the plates, improve shoulder and wrist mobility to get full grip on front squats etc.

Mastery (optimal for a given population):

Characteristics of this type of technique:

  • Small changes in form that allow an exercise to modified to a person’s specific structure and strengths
  • Most cannot be seen with the naked eye to most people and require an experienced coach, high speed camera, force plate, accelerometer, or other high tech monitoring equipment to implement
  • Examples include: the exact amount of breath to obtain maximal contraction in the transverse abdominus muscle to pneumatically stabilize the spine, learning to use the whip and bounce of the bar in the olympic lifts to create microseconds of zero gravity, hip flexor pinching in the squat to create a stronger stretch reflex, changes in head and eye position to activate different muscle groups in sequence, varying the speed and attention to a specific range of a movement to illicit more growth in a certain muscle group, sport specific transfer of skill

Who should train with this type of technique:

  • Strength athletes in 90% of their training (bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongmen, olympic lifters,  very high level competitive crossfitters)
  • Elite individual and team sport athletes that need an exceptional level of physical preparation and are already extremely strong

Who shouldn’t train with this kind of technique:

  • Everyone else.
    • There’s no need to confuse or over-coach people, some people just need more practice not more cues. If you’re not a competitive athlete or strength athlete then don’t worry about the minutiae.

How to progress:

  • Practice
  • Work with an experienced coach
  • More effective programming and self education

So there you have it: the exercise technique continuum. Hopefully now you realize that the olympic weightlifter dive bombing and caving in their 500lb snatch isn’t doing it wrong, the guy benching with bent wrists and bouncing the bar off his chest isn’t actually getting “mad gainz bro”, and the person who’s squatting slightly above parallel may or may not be “cheating”, so don’t be so quick to point the finger. You need to adapt the exercise to you, not try to force yourself into a cookie cutter technique because so and so on the internet told you to. The more advanced you become the more the technique becomes uniquely your own; this can take years to decades to develop. You’re never done learning. If you’ve made it this far and have specific questions about exercise technique or a certain exercise, don’t be afraid to ask here or on the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook page. Look forward to hearing from you all!

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