When we think about technique training, we often think of performing a number of immaculate reps. I definitely think that practice has value – it engrains “correct” patterning, limits spillover fatigue that you’d otherwise accrue from inconsistent movement and allows for some conscious control of movement without sacrificing performance by virtue of being submaximal.
However, amongst lifters that are broadly competent, technical errors are typically exposed when weights get challenging or fatigue gets high. The nature of the challenge of lifting a load changes under those conditions. The technical demands of the powerlifts subtly change, and different parts of the movement chain typically fail or fatigue first. Compensation and form breakdown then arise as a result of these weakpoints. By training weakpoints and developing resilience to the perturbations to technique that arise as failure approaches, lifters can continue to grind for longer when the inevitable breakdowns do occur.
This article describes the two “technique” training paradigms that I think of mostly, and what sorts of practices are most apt to maximise your returns on them. For a quite in-depth breakdown on coaching and learning technique, you can check out this other article that I wrote. This article will deal more with the applied side than the theoretical.
Paradigm 1 – Perfect practice
Most people who write “technique” work into their programs think in these terms. Acknowledging that the hardest training days in a program might be above the threshold of difficulty where execution will be entirely “perfect” all the time, people who sensibly incorporate some undulation in their training programs often write secondary days with a focus on greasing the groove, so to speak.
As I’ve discussed in previous articles about variation and about how hard training has to be to promote technique, it’s not sufficient to consider these days in a context-free manner. Were that the case, every training session that we wrote for our clients would be designed to be maximally stimulative for strength development, meaning heavyish loads for hardish sets for highish volumes, but there’s a number of reasons that we don’t do that.
Firstly, training monotony is predictive of burnout. Secondly, poorly managed training load can increase injury risk. Thirdly, there is a degree of fatigue that is permissive of productive training and adaptation and it is probably phase-dependant. By that I mean that if you are chronically under-recovered, performing well enough to do productive strength work becomes increasingly hard. This is probably somewhat more the case than it is for hypertrophy work, although to what degree I’m not entirely certain, and during peaks this is absolutely exaggerated, as near-maximal loads become maximal/supramaximal very quickly with just a little fatigue. For that reason, we need to modulate the frequency of truly challenging training sessions such that we recover sufficiently to get what we want out of them, and that may take a while. In this article on hypertrophy training I mention how the timecourse of recovery from maximally stimulative exercise doesn’t always line up with the timecourse of the adaptations that we are most interested in, and in this article I make some similar points to the ones I’m about to – namely that we can’t train hard every session all of the time.
So given that higher frequencies tend to help with strength development, largely as a function of allowing more volume (note that similar has been found for hypertrophy) and also given that higher quality of training and lower perceived effort are side-effects of distribution of work across the week, it’s becoming more and more popular for people to train the lifts multiple times weekly. Because of the recovery costs associated with higher frequencies, that entails some undulation past a point to ensure appropriate recovery for the main sessions.
Because of THAT, many trainees necessarily have light days. Now, all of that preamble wouldn’t be necessary if our sole focus was ensuring that technique was stable, but it does highlight other imperatives of these sessions – namely that we limit additive fatigue and possibly reduce the perceived stressfulness of training.
So, what does that mean for writing days with “perfect practice” in mind?
Firstly – there’s some evidence that higher volumes are more fatiguing in ensuing days than higher intensities. The specific study that I’m thinking of is a little bit extreme – comparing 8×10 at 70% to 8×3 at 90% 1RM, finding that the former promoted greater inflammation, and suppressed force production more and for longer. That’s illustrative, but the differences would probably be moderated pretty significantly by bringing things back towards the bounds of normality. Still, given other evidence of force production being impaired for 72+ hours after 8-10ish sets of training, it’s worth noting that your light days can’t just become more voluminous and be less taxing, all of a sudden.
Whilst it might be appealing to do more repetitions with lighter weights, because it’s easier to do them well, and therefore you get more good practice in overall, that’s a meta-consideration for programming. If you have already identified other training days as higher priority and have lower intensity days in for recovery purposes, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by making their recovery demands unnecessarily great. If you need more volume of work with weights that you can handle with good technique generally, perhaps your overloading days should come down in intensity a bit, or you should change your priority days to the slightly lighter ones and have lower priority, slightly easier days that are marginally heavier.
The brings me to consideration number two – the only way to make a heavier day appreciably easier is to increase the number of repetitions in reserve (ie train further from failure) by a considerable number. If you’re doing sets of 8-12 at 70% 1RM, doing sets of 5-8 at 80% is probably going to feel similarly difficult, but doing sets of 2-4 won’t.
In the more common example, which is using lighter intensities for easier days, sticking a fair way away from failure does a number of useful things.
Firstly, it makes “perfect practice” of technique much easier. If your technique breakdowns are partly fatigue-dependant, having less per-set fatigue is going to reduce their frequency. Secondly, because proximity to failure is a predictor of muscle damage and therefore recovery cost, it reduces how taxing a given amount of volume is likely to be. Thirdly, because more of the repetitions that you do will be performed “fresh”, the force produced per repetition is going to be higher, which is more specific for strength. Consider that while heavy weights move slowly because they’re heavy and that’s all the force that you can produce, light weights slow down because you’re producing less force against them than you were in prior repetitions. Finally, if you do choose to increase session volume somewhat by increasing the number of sets performed you get more chances at practicing your setup. Because more chances of reflection/processing occur doing 6 sets of 3 than 3 sets of 6, training mindfully in this manner is also likely to promote better learning.
There are, however, some small tradeoffs in staying very far from failure, and this describes the weakness of the “perfect practice” paradigm generally. With very light weights you don’t have time to exert truly maximal force (check this iconic article out) and without sufficiently heavy loads the muscles involved may not be fully recruited. This might be more of a consideration for secondary muscles in each movement than the prime-movers, as there’s evidence for prime mover activity to peak in the squat and bench press at light loads, with secondary muscles picking up more slack after that point, and I’ll get to the implications of that later.
That all being said, though, training light is a conscious tradeoff that is informed largely by the prerogative to reduce fatigue, and its drawbacks are probably best addressed by simply having some adequately heavy training in your program too, which everyone sensible does.
The final consideration for “perfect practice” training is the use of variation. In this article I describe how certain variations can be very effective for teaching technique, and I cover the hows and whys in this article (see constraints-led learning and information-movement coupling). In short, subtly changing the conditions under which a task is performed can draw attention to aspects of its execution that might otherwise be overlooked. For the sake of learning technique, choosing variations that require the use of lighter loads and that highlight important but currently-lacking technical components can be very useful. Good practical examples might be the use of tempo, pauses, or environmental cues such as squatting to a box. Each of these variations can be used to engrain a sense of the desired movement. To qualify as “perfect practice” these days need to be prescribed with a technical reserve – not at the outer limits of the lifter’s ability to get the work done. However, they also need to be hard enough to highlight or punish misexecution.
Because conscious control of movement is typically clunkier and more effortful, even when using lighter loads and with more repetitions in reserve, using variations that force an interruption of previous automated movement will cause a lifter to feel that they are working disproportionately hard. This is worth considering, because if you reduce the objective difficulty of variations too greatly, the actual feedback that you seek from their use will be diminished. If you don’t, then the reduction in perceived difficulty/monotony of effort of training will be ameliorated, too.
I also have a pocket theory that speed of movement and time under tension both inform our sense of difficulty of movements. It makes some intuitive sense – typically when we do high-force tasks slowly it’s because it’s at the limits of our force-producing capabilities, and if you’re doing say, a tempo squat, you’re still likely squeezing the majority of your muscles as hard as you can to perform it well. The sensation of effort is going to be really high. Time under tension is also an accepted part of training load calculations – internal training load calculations often multiply training duration by RPE or a similar subjective effort measure. So, trying hard for a long time feels hard (duh).
Because of the necessary interruption of automated movement and because it reduces the contrast in perceived difficulty between the sessions, I typically move away from tempo/paused movements as my lifters approach a peak. In that context, light days should serve a primarily fatigue-reducing role and by allowing automation that’s better facilitated. Away from competition, however, actionable feedback from “perfect practice” can be increased by the use of subtle variation.
To sum up the “perfect practice” paradigm – training designed to improve technique can be interspersed between the priority training sessions. In order to facilitate reductions in fatigue and not interfere with the overall training goal, volumes should be moderate and proximity to failure should be reduced. This is most convenient with lowered intensities, but doesn’t have to be the case. By using close variations of the competition lifts you can provide more targeted technical feedback, however doing this comes at the cost of greater perceived effort and possibly less of a fatigue-reducing effect.
Paradigm 2 – Weakpoint training
Whilst the first paradigm does a lot to ingrain general competency in a movement, as I mentioned in the intro the technical and muscular demands of lifts change as intensities climb. That means that whilst you might be able to do a beautiful-looking squat at 70% of your 1RM, replicating that at 85%, 90% and 100% is not as simple as trying harder.
The powerlifts are multi-joint movements. When we squat, we require knee extension, hip extension, and sufficient back extension strength to avoid folding over like an accordion. Where one part of the system can’t tolerate a given load, we can and do alter movement strategies to shift load to other muscles. Beyond just broad technical incompetency, when we see technical breakdown it reflects a tendency to shift load to muscles or movement patterns that are stronger or more familiar. Continuing the example of the squat – the knees shooting back and hips falling into drastically more flexion increases hip and back extension demands whilst reducing knee flexion demands. Because knee and hip extension demands in the squat are coupled (see Greg Nuckols’ writing on this here and here), if the quads can’t produce enough knee extension torque to support a given position, we can ask the glutes/hamstrings to do more.
Similarly, when we bench press our pecs, anterior delts and triceps do work to lift the bar, and the pecs and triceps work interdependently. Extending the arm by necessity adducts the shoulder when your grip is fixed (see technical explanations in this article).
What this means in practical terms is that as weights get heavier or as we get fatigued, unless we have a perfectly proportional/balanced “system”, certain muscles or movements will begin to break down first. We hit a max when we cannot produce sufficient net joint torques to lift a weight, and that’s usually made manifest in a chain reaction of compensations as each part of the system fails. Take the squat, again. If the knee extensors can’t produce sufficient force, weight is shifted to the hips, and back extension demands increase. If back extension strength isn’t sufficient to support this new position, we miss the lift. Of course, there’s other ways in which we can fail squats, but that example is illustrative.
Similarly, as we bench press, if the pecs begin to tap out, and the tricep contribution to a lift increases to keep the bar moving, and eventually tricep strength is insufficient, we fail.
Related to, and overlaid on this, is that muscular contributions to lifts don’t tend to increase proportionally as intensities rise. In the case of the squat, whilst peak quad activation happens quite early, other muscles continue to increase their activation as intensities climb. In the case of bench, men appear to have hit peak pec activation at approx 70% 1RM, with the triceps and anterior delts increasing their contribution beyond that point. At maximal loads, the demands on supporting/secondary muscles become near maximal, and so their strength is more important than in a submaximal context.
So, how does this relate to training?
General technical competency (the stuff addressed under paradigm one) puts us in positions that are replicable and biomechanically efficient. That is to say, we are in the best possible starting point when things start to get hard.
Paradigm 2, or weakpoint training, acknowledges that there is going to be a degree of technical breakdown as weights approach our max. By targeting the muscles that give out first, and the muscles that support a compromised position, we can delay the breakdown and equip ourselves to grind.
As an example, if we assume that somebody’s quads begin to fail first in the squat, and that their upper back position begins to go shortly after, choosing variations that target the quads and strengthen the upper back (or doing each separately) should be highly effective. Safety bar squats and front squats, due to the degree that they punish positional errors, are great choices in this context, as would be just including general quad strengthening and upper back strengthening.
The advantage of using lift variations that address a lifter’s weakpoints, as opposed to just training them with isolation movement, is that they sit closer to the competition movement along the continuum of specificity. That is to say, they’re likely more transferable.
That said, as I wrote in this article, specificity to task is more important than specificity to sport. In an extended off-season, or when focusing on general hypertrophy, choosing exercises that facilitate doing higher volumes comfortably should take primacy. During general strength phases, however, using variations that address the weakpoints of the lifter can be highly effective. Sometimes these variations can even be used as the primary training lift at these times.
There are a couple of considerations for programming weakpoint training.
Firstly, it takes an accurate appraisal of the athlete at hand’s tendencies under heavier loads and an understanding of how that alters biomechanical demands. Not everybody experiences technical breakdown in the same fashion, or for exactly the same reason, and accurately identifying and diagnosing what is going on is necessary to most accurately prescribe a variation to address it. Where people do have a genuine weakness, they’ll often subconsciously alter their execution of your technical fixes in order to make it easier. For instance, people with weak hips will often alter their execution of block pulls and RDLs to bias loading their back instead – the benefit of those variations is then lost.
On the plus side, even slightly misprescribed or misexecuted lift variations are going to be good general strength work, and the slight alterations to the movement are still useful from a technical learning perspective, so you’re not likely to ever waste your time completely with a halfway intelligent variation.
Secondly, this type of training is probably more necessary in submaximal training contexts. Given what I said above about the changing technical and muscular demands with heavier loads, this should make sense. The more exposure to near limit loads you have in a program, the more likely that the supporting muscles are going to have experienced a robust training effect. In fact, during a peak or when the primary lift is being pushed really hard, doing too much weakpoint work could be counterproductive. By overly fatiguing the muscles most sensitive to breakdown, the likelihood of them breaking down increases.
To sum up the “weakpoint training” paradigm of technique training, by identifying the weak links that emerge at near-limit loads, we can do targeted work to strengthen the muscles necessary to avoid and then support compromised postures. Rather than including work to simply ingrain a given position, we should also seek to develop resilience to inevitable positional errors. In off-season periods this might involve hypertrophy work for the relevant muscles. During general strength phases using targeted lift variations exposing weakpoints on priority loading days can be beneficial.
Bringing it together
Up until this point, I have described the two paradigms as being entirely separate, although that’s not really the case. In reality, technical tendencies and muscular strengths are inextricably linked. We bias ourselves towards movement patterns and the use of muscles that are strong, and avoid those that are weak and unfamiliar. We don’t really make conscious, tactical decisisons about how to move our body during the lifts to increase or reduce demands on certain structures, and technique could more accurately be described as emergent – it represents the best solution to a motor challenge that is currently available to us, considering our strengths, weaknesses and movement competency.
Technical training should therefore accommodate both paradigms. Having sufficiently challenging loading on the competition lift on main loading days, lighter days focusing on perfect practice (with or without the use of close variations) and grunt work interspersed that targets the weakpoints that emerge at heavier loads in the competition lifts satisfies all of the needs for technical development.
As an example, for an individual in a general strength phase with a squat in which the hips often rise early and an apparent quad weakness, squatting 3 times per week, an appropriate training plan might look like this:
Competition squat – 4-5 sets of 3-6 reps with 2-3 RIR
Front squat OR Safety bar squat – 3-4 sets of 4-8 reps with 2-3 RIR
Pin squat OR Tempo squat – 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 RIR
Day 1 involves a reasonable amount of practice with difficult loads in the competition movement, with sufficient reps in reserve to ensure that the majority will be quality. Day 2 involves some weakpoint training, targeting the quads and upper back. Day 3 could be performed the day after Day 2 and involves some lighter work with targeted variations to develop the skill of standing straight up.
For the same hypothetical individual, if we presume that their recovery capacity is worse, or that they can only tolerate 2 squat days per week, successive phases might look like this
Safety bar squats – 4-5 sets of 4-6 reps with 2-3 RIR
Pin squats – 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 2-3 RIR
Competition squat – 4-5 sets of 3-6 reps with 2-3 RIR
Paused squat OR Safety bar squat OR Safety bar paused squat – 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-4 RIR
In this case, Day 1 of phase 1 involves weakpoint training with challenging loads and Day 2 involves slightly higher difficulty work with a targeted variation that encourages the ideal technique. During phase 2, the competition lift is reintroduced on Day 1 and Day 2 either maintains the main lift from Day 1 of the prior phase or uses a targeted variation, again. Because there are only 2 squat loading days in this example, their relative difficulty can be a little higher.
We can structure powerlifting training to satisfy all of the needs for technical development. Focusing purely on perfect practice or on addressing weakpoints without giving consideration to the other is probably insufficient. By appreciating that each approach covers bases that the other doesn’t, and also that they are interrelated, we can write plans to improve the overall package of the lifter.
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