The Issue Isn’t Your Lack of Technique
Let me set the scene.
I was on vacation in need of a training spot, so decided to make do at the nearest commercial gym. In between sets of split squats, during which I admittedly was taking too long, I look over my shoulder to see a trainer coaching a client through the overhead press. Obviously both flustered, the trainer tried fruitlessly to get his client to “press the bar all the way overhead” while this poor guy struggled to just get it past his chin. It wasn’t that the weight was too heavy; as he was just pressing an empty barbell, but that his elbows extended out, his shoulders were rounded and internally rotated, and he could functionally only get his right arm overhead. Therefore, the bar wiggled feebly out at an angle in front of his face, one side drooping as he struggled to stabilize the implement, back arching so far it mimicked more of a bench press than anything.
Now, after about three failed attempts at this exercise and the trainer finally giving up on “coaching techni que”, this coach actually did regress the exercise to something manageable. Because the client simply couldn’t raise his arms overhead with proper scapulohumeral rhythm, and there was a clear discrepancy between shoulders.
This happens all too often. Trainees get so bogged down in trying to do certain movements – clean and jerk, deadlift, squatting “ass-to-grass”, and so on. Sometimes, even a simple bear crawl or body weight plank is too much for people. And that’s OKAY.
When we live in a society where an Instagram model is an actual thing, it becomes near impossible to try and “outdo” the person next to us. But just like that Instagram post was taken at a weird angle and edited a thousand times; the guy next to you probably has no idea what he’s doing anyway. Stick to your body, your exercise, and your training level.
Mobility – It’s not just a catchphrase
Mobility literally means our ability to move through different planes to a certain extent. It’s not just some kitchen sink, pre-workout solution to becoming a better lifter. Your ability to move might be limited by muscle tightness, sure. But it could also constrained by nervous inhibition, inflammation or injury, impingement, skeletal structure or any combination of the above.
The body is a system of pulleys built to move in certain ways. And no “body” is the exact same. So why waste time trying to do something not suited for yours? Regress the exercise to something you can manage and lift effectively. Then, proceed to tackle your mobility through soft tissue, dynamic stretching, traction, and body weight-based movement workouts.
For every lift there is an equal and alternate lift
If you’re not ready to do something, don’t do it.
Toddlers, while probably the most mobile of humans, can typically do a perfect body weight squat. However, they lack the strength and structural support to be able to hold 95 lbs. on their backs. Therefore, you shouldn’t force a toddler into a back squat. Not because of his or her mobility, but because of their lack of strength development.
Well duh. It’s obvious when you put a toddler in that scenario. But what about a 33 year old with the training age of a toddler? Or 25 year old gym rat nursing a back injury?
Often people who have only been lifting consistently for a few years forget that they are just that… young. Or those who have been injured in the gym feel like they have something to prove. No wonder you’re frustrated about your “poor technique”. You have to learn to walk before you can run. If your body doesn’t have the strength, or if it hasn’t been afforded time to learn neurologically, no amount of cueing is going to help. You’re going to heave the weight to try and force it, which is an injury waiting to happen.
Take the time to move through a progression. Learn to move well under body weight, challenge stability, add a lighter load consistently, and finally you can approach max strength or explosive movements. I promise, you’ll get there. Sometimes, less is more. Especially when weight and egos are involved.
Okay, but, how do you really know whether or not you’re ready?
Assessments. You can’t get where you want to be if you don’t have an accurate starting point. Take, for example, a relatively novice athlete who wants to improve her snatch 1RM. Sure, she can get 65 lbs. from the ground to overhead in one movement, but anything above that is dropped immediately. Throwing more weight on it and telling her to go isn’t going to get us anywhere. So you have to figure out where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
A good assessment from a trained eye will help the aforementioned athlete identify what exactly she needs to improve on. Maybe she’s struggling with the initial pull. Maybe her raw squat numbers need to go up. Or perhaps it’s poor shoulder stability or thoracic spine mobility.
The same applies to any exercise in any program. Sometimes, yes, if technique is failing, you might just need more coaching and practice. But more often, there’s another side to the story. Only with a thorough assessment can you really hammer down what exactly needs improvement and attack it.
Variations of different barbell movements
Wondering where to go from here? Below are a list of common barbell movements where technique gets blamed. Find yours below, identify your issue, and choose a variation that works for you.
- Back/Front Squat
- TRX- supported squat – if strength through mobility is your issue
- Goblet Squat – your upper back is rounding or it’s too heavy
- Landmine Squat – If you have trouble sitting back into the lift or a rack position in the front squat
- Split squat – if you have lower back pain
- From blocks or Rack Pull – if you have trouble getting in to the bottom
- Cable Pull throughs – If you have a weak posterior chain and hip hinge pattern
- Trap Bar DL – if you have a lower back problem (tightness, pain, weakness)
- Dumbbell RDL – lengthen the eccentric portion with lighter weight to challenge your hamstrings without adding too high of a load
- Overhead press
- Dumbbell neutral grip Overhead Press – if you lack thoracic mobility, external mobility, have wrist issues
- Landmine press- for those who struggle to get overhead range of motion or have unilateral weakness
- Dumbbell Incline Press – if you lack core strength and struggle to get overhead, or are just learning to press through an open chain
- Pike Push Up – if strength or coordination is the issue (i.e. you’re a complete newbie just learning OR just coming back from a serious injury)
- Barbell Bent Over row
- T-Bar Row – if you lack lower back/hamstring flexibility to bend over
- Meadows rows – if one arm is your limitation and/or you want to challenge your lats. Since these are done from a split stance, they help you get lower to the floor, so try these if you have issues getting parallel with a flat back in a BB row.
- Barbell Inverted Row – For trainees just learning pulling, you should be able to move your body weight before trying to control an external implement
- Single arm TRX row – barbell rows often cause lower back pain, and these will teach anti-rotation and keep your spine in line rather than putting it under an Isometric load
- Olympic Movements
- Pulls/shrugs from the hang – if you have poor thoracic mobility, wrist tightness, knee problems, or any other issue with the “catch” phase
- Hip Thrusts – if you have an upper body mobility/stability/injury issue
- KB swing – to teach explosive hip extension
- Med Ball Toss – For those JUST learning plyometrics and explosive movements, especially if you have a lower limb problem with impact (knee, ankle injury)
- Broad Jump – If stability and body control is the issue, start here. Note – heavier athletes should be careful to progress to jumping as lots of impact can be contraindicated