I was prompted to write this piece after a discussion with one of my clients, a fellow personal trainer and exercise physiologist, whose lifting technique falls somewhere in that grey-zone that we all know – generally sound and safe, but not entirely consistent or optimised.
He expressed a (well-intentioned – it’s not that he wanted to avoid doing any hard work) desire to absolutely dial his technique in before truly committing to a progressive program.
This attitude is not entirely uncommon, especially amongst people who are diligent and analytical, and especially when performing lifts such as the powerlifting disciplines in which poor form presents a safety risk, and for which textbook form is highly-esteemed (consider how many people think the “perfect squat” is super cool vs the number who comment on a “perfect lateral raise”).
In other articles, and on my podcast, I often state that nearly all of your training should be performed with near-perfect technique. I don’t consider overload at the expense of gross technical degradation to be acceptable, and neither am I dogmatically attached to the use of lifts that are technically demanding (such as the powerlifts) for those for whom they are not appropriate or necessary (read – powerlifters).
Despite that, I ALSO don’t think it is necessary or even helpful to delay in engaging in training until your form is entirely textbook or perfectly replicable. Technical improvement is, outside of a competitive lifting setting, an arguably secondary adaptation to the physiological improvements that progressive training induces. Provided technique is sufficiently safe and consistent, it is more productive to focus on getting broadly better. Being myopically focused on technical perfection of a few major lifts whilst neglecting developing a base of muscularity and general strength is like greasing every axle of a car and forgetting to put an engine in it.
Furthermore, technical development is an ongoing process, and I’d argue that perfect technique at trivial loads is not immediately translatable to near-maximal loads (although, poor technique at trivial loads is unlikely to be improved by adding load, either), and so given that technique serves to allow us to lift training/competitive load safely and efficiently, a large part of our technical development has to occur under training loads anyway.
To reiterate – this is NOT an article stating that technique does not matter. (In fact, see the next paragraph). Nor am I advocating increasing training loads/demands to a past the point at which a client is unable to perform reps with largely sound technique. Nor am I discounting the fact that for many people, reducing training load is necessary to relearn appropriate technique.
What I AM saying is that technical demands change subtly over the spectrum of training loads and over the course of a training career, and whilst having a baseline of movement competency is necessary before you get started, technical refinement should be a continuous process rather than a “one and done” thing.
Why technique matters
I’m going to address this under a few separate domains. While I might risk stating the obvious here and there, actually considering the purpose of technique is pretty important when making training decisions, at least as pertains to progression of load and technique.
Of universal importance
– Safety. Sound lifting technique should minimise injury risk. Certain movements (such as large degrees of spinal flexion and/or extension under load) may increase risk of injury to either muscles or connective tissues, although that’s not necessarily the case. It is more likely problematic for technique to massively deteriorate under high forces than to assume any given posture, per-se. Feasibly, appallingly bad technique in certain exercises (such as box jumps) could lead you to suffer impact injuries also.
For POWERLIFTING performance
– Adherence to the rules. Failure to adhere to technical stipulations means that, safe or not, a lift won’t be passed.
– Maximising performance. Within the rules, the technique that allows you to most efficiently perform a given movement and lift the most weight is best, at least during competition. Note that movement optimisation may actually involve deliberately reducing range of motion and/or force-producing demands. For instance, a big arch during the bench press reduces range of motion (and also positions the shoulder advantageously) while a bar-path while pressing that moves back towards the face relatively early reduces demands at the shoulder a little bit.
For BODYBUIDLING (or just building muscle)
– Replicability. I’ve written before that external load is a proxy for tension-producing demands on the muscle. When trying to induce muscular adaptation, if adding 5kg causes a deviation in technique that reduces tension on the muscle, there isn’t true “tension progression”. An easy example would be going from doing strict dumbbell bicep curls with 15kg to doing swinging curls with 20kg, where hip and back extension and shoulder flexion drive the movement.
Technical perfection is a nebulous concept, particularly as pertains to powerlifting performance. The “perfect” technique optimises efficiency for a given individual’s leverages and takes maximal advantage of their strengths. Because technique is individual, “optimising” technique occurs over the course of a career, during which time leverages, strengths and weaknesses all develop and change.
Outside of safety and generalities, more or less nobody has “perfect” technique all of the time, and even where technique appears incredibly consistent, good lifters have a sense for very small deviations that impact their performance and so technical refinement is an iterative process that never ever ends.
Even for bodybuilding purposes, whilst “true” optimisation is much less important, it takes a reasonable degree of competency to reliably perform exercises with near-identical technique repetition to repetition, week to week.
That isn’t to say there aren’t better or worse choices for how to perform a given lift. For instance, if doing a lunge as a quad exercise a shorter stride and a relatively upright torso with the knee travelling to/past the toes will increase knee extension demands. However, the same exercise can be made more hip-dominant with a slightly longer stride where you lean forward at the hip. Both choices are valid depending on the context of the program, but were you to select lunges for the purposes of quad development and use the more hip-emphasising form you’d be performing the exercise suboptimally, even were it to allow slightly greater loads.
So when making decisions about how good technique has to be to train, you need to do it with an eye for context. It may be acceptable to begin training a novice powerlifter with technique that is safe, is acceptable under competition standards, but is a little inconsistent and inefficient, and slowly refine it. You may consider an elite, highly technically competent powerlifter different, in that the same degree of technical deviation that you see from a novice would indicate excessive fatigue or inappropriate loading. In either instance, constant technical improvement would remain important.
For bodybuilding/general health purposes, provided movement is safe and mostly replicable, it is not strictly necessary to aim for maximum technical efficiency (at least for the purposes of lifting more load), but performing the exercise such that the target muscles experience tension is important.
So what’s the point
The point of this article, broadly, is that striving for technical “perfection” is something you should do constantly, but not something that you should do to the exclusion of actually training progressively.
Because technical perfection entails something different depending on context, because there is always improvement to be made, and because lifting weights serves to induce physiological adaptations (unless you consider your bicep curls artistry in the same sense as rhythmic gymnastics), you should establish a safe, relatively consistent baseline of execution and seek to refine it as you go on.
From here on in I’m going to lay out some of my thinking about stuff pertaining to technique to address the misconceptions that
– Your technique with an empty bar will be the same as your technique with your max, and that training “technique” with unappreciable loads has transfer
– You won’t experience deviations in technique/technical competency over a training session/block due to physiological readiness
– The technique you learn as a novice will be with you forever
1 – Technical demands change with both absolute and relative intensity
“Intensity” means load lifted. “Absolute intensity” describes intensity in absolute terms (eg 100, 200, 300kg) and “relative intensity” in terms relative to a maximal effort (eg at 50% of a one repetition max). Two individuals can lift the same absolute load (100kg) at different relative intensities – if one person has one rep max of 100kg and the other 200kg, one is lifting 100%, the other 50%.
Absolute intensity (the load lifted) can change the technical demands of movements. For instance, when squatting your centre of mass must remain over the midfoot (both for the sake of efficiency and to prevent you falling over).
Most people conceive of this as meaning that the barbell itself must remain over the midfoot and travel up and down in a straight line when in reality the centre of mass is that of the athlete/barbell as a system. Past a point that is for all intents and purposes the barbell, however when squatting with an empty bar (and to some extent until you’re lifting a decent amount above bodyweight) the majority of your torso and hips will sit behind the bar in the bottom position, providing enough of a counterweight that for perfect balance the bar will actually have to move forward marginally over the foot.
In a practical sense, what this means is that while doing squats with an empty bar can give you the gist of how it is done, help you practice the skill and develop the requisite mobility and control to do heavier squats, absolute technical optimisation at a load that is trivial is going to have limited transfer to performance at a much higher max. Once you can perform the movement competently and consistently with a light load, technical refinement should happen with loads that are at least appreciably heavy relative to a full overloading session.
Whilst not strictly “technique”, it is also true that the relative contribution of muscles to compound lifts can change across the spectrum of relative intensities. For instance, I recall a study on bench pressing in which pec recruitment plateaued at a moderate intensity (approx 70%) whilst tricep and anterior deltoid recruitment continued to increase as weights approached a 1RM load. Although the exact reference eludes me, the same point is made by Greg Nuckols in this guide on bench pressing. I even more vaguely recall a study in which females, but not males, increased pec recruitment at higher intensities, although that’s tangential to the point. (See the comments where Greg has kindly linked me to the articles I refer to).
That isn’t to say the actual motor task necessarily changes much at higher intensities, or that the sticking point in the exercise shifts, but anecdotally different cueing strategies can become important at heavier loads.
Technical breakdown is a complicated topic, because technical competency/motor patterning and muscular strength are actually interrelated – people are often inclined to shift load from relatively weak, or poorly controlled, muscles to stronger muscle groups, and to regress from uncomfortable movement patterns to more familiar ones. Deviations in technique that COULD indicate weakness or immobility can often be overcome with appropriate cueing or very slight modifications in positioning, and so it can be a bit simplistic to presume there is only one factor at play causing a problem that you see.
That all out of the way, because people are rarely entirely proportional in their strength between muscle groups, high intensities pose unique technical demands on lifters as one or more links in the kinetic chain fail.
A really good example of this is the classic “good-morning” squat. Presuming this isn’t due to poor movement patterning/weight distribution, this is often due to having weak quadriceps relative to the hip muscles (because by having the knees shoot back knee extension demands are reduced and hip/back extension demands are increased).
Usually lifters will begin to exhibit technical breakdown above a certain intensity, at which point knee extension demands exceed the strength of the quadriceps, whilst still being able to execute the movement. Because of the relationship between strength and motor patterning, it is common for there to be a bit of a “grey zone” where technique can be corrected through conscious cueing and effort before things really just get too heavy for the problem to be overcome. This is because it is “easier” to default to a stronger or more familiar pattern.
Because there is a threshold intensity where strength-related technical deficiencies occur, training significantly below it doesn’t present the same technical challenges. Training at nearish that threshold, where a degree of conscious input is required particularly as fatigue sets in to prevent technical breakdown has much more carryover to performing with near-maximal loads.
As you become better at performing a given movement with the “correct” technique, the deviations become smaller and occur at higher relative loads, until (ideally), when you have to “grind” lifts, you do so with little to no change in the actual execution of the lift. Improved strength in the weaker links in the movement pattern are both a natural cause and consequence of this change, however the motor-learning component is crucial, which is why doing completely dissimilar movements (such as leg extensions) rarely demonstrate immediate transfer to performance in the squat in more advanced athletes without some lead-in time where you learn to make use of the extra quad strength/size that you’ve developed.
2 – Over training cycles you will experience fluctuation in technical competence
For a given training program, stress is rarely entirely proportionally distributed across muscles and certain muscles seem to tolerate higher workloads than others. Even with good fatigue management it is not unusual for some training sessions to feel like your groove is just a little bit off because your (insert muscle here) feels tired.
There’s a million and one other reasons that your technique might feel off, too, but disproportionate fatigue accumulation can move that threshold intensity where weak links start to show up or down.
This means that while you may actually have the technical competency to perform a lift very well, fluctuations in readiness might cause it to appear otherwise. Whilst most training should be performed with close to perfect technique, seeing some small, fatigue-related deviations in performance is both normal and fine on occasion.
This has a couple of additional implications. Firstly, when peaking for powerlifting (where technical execution at near maximal loads needs to be extremely good), extra care has to be taken to ensure you are fresh enough for heavy sessions. This usually entails reductions in total volume and some more undulation of load/difficulty of sessions.
Secondly, when using extra volume to bring up lagging/limiting muscles in a movement, care needs to be taken to ensure that the extra fatigue that induces doesn’t compromise the quality of your main work (usually by moderating load or proximity to failure).
3 – Technique changes over the course of a career
I’ve already discussed how absolute load can alter technical demands for movements such as the squat. In addition, leverages change over the course of training careers – some athletes get taller (discounting amputations and extreme haircuts, very few athletes get much shorter), or gain/lose significant amounts of bodyweight, which further alters this balance.
On top of that, just as fatigue can be disproportionately accrued over the course of training blocks, nearly everybody also develops muscles/strength unevenly. Some people’s quads just grow, or their arms get huge and their chest doesn’t and so on. Whether this is attributable purely to physical characteristics or partly reflective of their competency in using the given muscles, I don’t honestly know, but what this means is that different technical challenges emerge over the course of a training career.
Whilst having really sound technique as a beginner is a big boon, as you train and get stronger your technique will need to undergo constant refinement, and so delaying the actual process of getting stronger may not move your long-term ceiling much higher provided the basic competencies are down-pat.
Why commence training
With all of the above in mind, my point is that once you can do a lift competently and safely, you need to start training to actually get bigger and stronger. Worrying about absolutely perfecting technique before you start that process is self-defeating.
The reason we lift weights is to elicit physiological adaptations – technique serves the purpose of allowing us to safely, replicably target muscles (in the case of bodybuilding) and maximise performance (in powerlifting). Being able to demonstrate “textbook” technique with weights that are too light to actually elicit any of the adaptations we desire doesn’t do anything, whereas safe execution of training does.
To reiterate – you must actually impose enough tension demands on your muscles to elicit changes for your technique to be at all useful. Even for powerlifting/weightlifting where technical efficiency is paramount, if you can’t actually show good technique at training and competition loads, who cares? And even if you can, if you don’t do enough training to get bigger/stronger, because you’re trying to maximise the efficiency of what you already have, long-term you’re not going anywhere.
Furthermore, as is hopefully apparent, because technical competency at higher loads is developed by handling relatively challenging loads, progressing your training is important for getting any good.
And finally, if you AREN’T a powerlifter, or you’re just training for general strength/bodybuilding purposes, not only is your movement selection entirely subject to your preferences and technical capabilities, but beyond having sufficient consistency to ensure that you actually overload the muscles that you want to, your technical needs are just not that great.
None of the above should be taken as a gung-ho “disregard technique, just grind and get big” call to bro-arms. Moreso, I’m saying don’t let a preoccupation with the perfection of technique stop you from developing the actual qualities that we lift weights for, and even where technical mastery IS important, it’s still only one piece of the puzzle and can be developed in conjunction with the others.
One more time – do not create a false dichotomy. It is not EITHER “develop technique” OR “get stronger, it is “program intelligently, lift safely, develop technique and get stronger together”.
A useful way to conceptualise it is this – there is a lower end of intensity or training stress required to induce physiological adaptations (a minimum effective dose). There is also a technical ceiling of intensity/stress/fatigue above which point performing lifts near perfectly is very difficult. Both the minimum effective dose of training and technical ceiling move up as lifters develop, and so once you have a sound/safe baseline of technique, training stress should be progressed as necessary to keep actually getting you stronger/bigger, without exceeding the technical ceiling more than very occasionally.
With all of the above in mind, here are some practical tips for considering and structuring technical development.
Step 1 should for learning any movement is to develop basic movement competency. Identify and develop the absolute necessities for safe/sound technique before increasing training demands.
Often regressed movements can be used for this (for example, banded hip hinges and Romanian/partial deadlifts for deadlifting, goblet squats for squats).
Once the regressed movement is insufficient to provide a meaningful training stimulus, or the client is competent enough to perform a more challenging variation, progress towards the target movement. It is usually helpful to highlight what technical aspects are being maintained, and which new challenges they might have to overcome. For instance, introducing a barbell back squat to people is often challenging because they are inclined to over-extend at the lower back during the descent, or find the shoulder mobility requirements challenging, neither of which is as often the case in a goblet squat.
Some people will have to spend time moving along a continuum of exercises before being able to perform the goal movement (eg, progressing from a heels-elevated goblet squat to goblet squat, then a barbell box squat, then a squat, or similar).
Remember that an increase in load or proximity to failure also represents an increase in training demands, and initially very submaximal training will still yield strength (and physiological) adaptations.
Once the goal movement can be performed safely and consistently, progress training demands whilst constantly refining execution.
Past the initial “learning” phase, there are a few patterns to technical development. I once heard Juggernaut’s Max Aita say something about how the difference between a novice and an intermediate weightlifter is that the former makes different mistakes every rep, and the latter makes the same mistake(s) consistently.
As the number of technical errors reduce, so should their frequency and magnitude. It is not uncommon for one or more technical errors to be related (as per my squat-morning example, poor weight distribution can contribute to inefficient use of the quads and early knee extension, and so on). Where possible, identifying a common aetiology and cueing to fix that is ideal. Otherwise, cueing to fix errors in order of their magnitude or impact on performance is smart (as most people can’t fix more than one or two things at a time).
As I’ve previously said, athletes are likely to develop different muscles and skills at different rates, and so expect to have to continue to refine technique or alter cueing slightly to continue to promote good performance.
Filming and self-analysis is also a useful tool – it allows you to draw relationships between what reps felt good, and what they looked like, make cueing strategies for subsequent sets based off of the errors you see, and develop an eye for technical errors.
Finally – if your, or your athlete’s, technique sucks, reducing training demands (either by regressing the exercise, or reducing load/proximity to failure) and re-patterning might allow further progress, and could feasibly reduce injury risk if they were previously walking the line of their tissue tolerance, and you can use other exercises for the given bodyparts to maintain muscle and general strength. However, if you are NOT a powerlifter/weightlifter (and therefore do not HAVE to perform a given movement), choosing less technically demanding variations, or those that suit your build/mobility better, is also perfectly viable and probably smart.
For powerlifting specifically
“Near enough” is good enough to start training for powerlifting, but optimisation of the competition lifts is a mandatory part of improving as a powerlifter long term. Because technical refinement of the competition lifts is crucial, performing the majority of training submaximally and including lighter days is smart. Mishaps due to fatigue or errors in execution will happen, but mindfulness and coaching can reduce these.
Including some lower technical-demand grunt work for the sake of hypertrophy and general strength is smart. Later in training cycles, where overall fatigue has to be reduced to allow for technical perfection at heavier loads, very general work can be trimmed away. As a result, the proportion of work in a program dedicated to competition lifts will usually increase as a cycle goes along.
Another benefit of light days is that they allow the management of fatigue such that days that are highly demanding on technique/performance are performed when you feel fresh enough to do so well.
Secondary lifts should be chosen to compliment the perfection of the competition lift, control fatigue, or specifically target a weakness. For more on that, read here.
For bodybuilding specifically
Technique should be as consistent as possible – increases in load should not alter execution of the exercise. Where, in powerlifting, the skill of lifting a heavier load is the aim of the game, in bodybuilding exercises and external load are used to induce tension on muscles, and so moving greater external load at the expense of muscular tension is silly. (Again – do not create a false dichotomy – you should still be aiming to progress loads and use challenging weights). Because I believe load progression is important for hypertrophy training, I think it should be planned, but your capability to so progress should reflect adaptations to prior training and that your dosing of training stress is roughly appropriate.
Small technical alterations can be helpful in order to maximise tension on target muscles whilst maintaining safety (for instance, mild protraction of the scapulae and internal rotation of the humerus, coupled with lifting in the scapular plane often helps people feel their middle delt more during lateral raises)
To allow for best performance and most consistent technique, usually executing lifts in a sequence from highest to lowest technical demand is smart, but this isn’t written in stone and there are reasons you might choose to do otherwise.
So there – that’s a whole lot of waffle to remind you of what, likely, you already knew. Technique is important, and you need to have good, consistent technique. Furthermore, you should always be looking to refine it. But technical refinement isn’t, and cannot be, separated from the actual process of training. Technique should facilitate hard training, and training shouldn’t be progressed (nor should it need to be progressed) past the point at which technical consistency can be practiced and developed.
If you LIKED this article, join my mailing list – it’s FREE and I can send you stuff directly to your inbox. You can also follow me on Instagram, where I frequently post training and diet analysis and advice on my stories.
I also have a podcast, Weakly Weights, available on iTunes and Podbean, where I discuss training for powerlifting in-depth. You can join our mailing list, too, for free sample programs when we discuss them.