Technical Strength

Sara Fleming

Technique.  Its something we as coaches are constantly correcting, describing, cueing, and obsessing over.  Seems simple, right?  If you want to perform at your best, you need perfect technique.  And yet, that concept is probably the most misunderstood, misapplied, and outright ignored concept in physical training.

In the interest of increasing the amount of time my son actually devotes to practicing his cello, my son’s cello teacher posed this question to us today:

“If you knew someone had to perform one hour of vigorous physical activity a week, how would you train them for it?”

For the record, this cello teacher was born in the Czech Republic and was not only raised in a vigorous music teaching environment, but also a vigorous physical training environment.  And according to him, there’s not much difference.  Both are extremely physically AND mentally challenging.  A lot of people don’t understand actual Eastern Block training methods that don’t involve drug use so here it is at its core:

“You work up to it incrementally by working until technique begins to break down, practice as long as you can without it getting worse, and then call it a day.  You gradually increase frequency as well as total time, always staying on that edge of where maintaining good technique becomes hard and over time you will be able to do it longer.  It may not happen for days, weeks, months, or years, but you will develop the strength and endurance for good technique and more importantly, avoid hurting yourself.”

When he said that, it reminded me exactly what I was taught in my first weightlifting coaching certification.  “Work up to a weight where technique starts to break down and work there until fatigue sets in.”

For the past 9 years, this is how I taught anything that requires strength or skill.  Whether its powerlifting, weightlifting, throwing, or simple strength training for athletes, I teach technique first and only add weight (or complexity) when the first lesson is mastered.  Sets, reps, and loads are simply tools that one uses to master better technique over time.  If you aren’t always focused on a more perfect execution of the lift, you simply won’t make progress over the long term.

This is where we really have to divert our attention from everything we’ve always been told about strength training:  GO HEAVY!!! GET HYUGE!!

True strength training does not have to be a steroid fueled body building fest where only size matters.  True strength training is actually very much centered in the brain.  Neurological factors account for a large percentage of strength gains in children and women.  Most of my powerlifters are women and I expect all of them, through correct training, to deadlift at least two or three times their bodyweight simply because that’s the norm.

It’s the mind-body connection and actual body awareness that matters more than anything else.  Those we call “natural athletes” actually have a much better mind-body awareness than the rest of us and so don’t have to actively think about how they execute a movement.  The beauty of that is that the rest of us are perfectly capable of reaching those same levels of strength and performance, we just have to think about it harder.  And that’s where good technique serves us best.

I wish I could say that there is a single set of cues, a single way to set up, a single way to execute a movement that fits all people, but its simply not true.  We all have different limb lengths, muscle composition, body composition, joint mobility, strengths, and weaknesses.  The best technique for my 5’2”, 140 lb crossfitter is not the same as for my 5’7”, 200 lb USAPL national champion.   And those techniques will be honed and polished over time.  Maybe we’ll widen the grip on the bench as she gets stronger or switch from a conventional pull to a sumo pull when it becomes more advantageous.  Maybe we’ll work on decreasing squat depth to optimize hip strength and maybe we just have to throw in some old fashioned body building to strengthen the upper back.

Why does good technique matter outside of weightlifting and powerlifting?

It can’t be said enough that good technique in the weight room develops strong hips and backs, the power center of most athletes.  More importantly, it builds strong posture and reinforces correct movement patterns in every day activities.  I can’t tell you how many young athletes I coach who are so specialized to their sport that their regular everyday movements lack balance, coordination, and stamina.  Restoring full body strength and correct movement patters in the weight room allows them to move past plateaus in performance and more importantly to me, prevent injuries and long term muscle imbalances.

For me and my athletes, technique is the foundation on which we build strength.  With technique as the focus, they blow past old plateaus and reach strength and performance levels they never imagined.  I’d like to say I’m unique in this approach, but I’m not.  It’s a concept that permeates many other practices from martial arts to ballet to simply learning to read.  And of course, like all of those who came before us in the world of high level athletics, it all comes down to good technique, maximum useful volume, and minimum effective dose.  There’s no need to overdo it.  After all, its just learning.

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