Changing Technique Part 1

This is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a while; I apparently started it in 2011 and then got distracted by other things.  But for lack of anything to write about, I’m getting back to it.

A recent (note: 2011) article in Runner’s World magazine spurred what will invariably be an article that takes far more parts to cover than I’m initially planning; in brief it looked at some of the recent debates over running form (and of course the shoe issue) in terms of the whole heel strike vs. midfoot strike vs. forefoot strike.    More generally it looked at the issue of running form/technique, if there is an ‘ideal’ form or technique and, if so, whether it’s worth it for runners to attempt to change their technique.

Unfortunately, in the absence of much real data on optimal running technique or what have you (and anecdote is not data no matter how much people try to make it so), their only real answer to the question of “Should runners change technique?” was “It depends.”  At least they were honest and that’s certainly an answer I can get behind.

Now I have no intention of addressing the running technique debate per se here, rather I want to talk more generally since the issue of technique, learning technique, optimal technique and changing technique comes up quite a bit in the training world.  Many forums, including my support forum have a thread or forum dedicated to exercise technique and lifters often post videos of themselves lifting looking for feedback.

And then depending on the nature of the forum and who comments, advice can range from ‘You need to go back to using the bar and start all over’ to ‘That’s fine’ to ‘Just shut up and lift’ and pretty much everything in-between.  This can often lead to your typical internet arguments where folks are more or less arguing across one another (basically talking about completely different or unrelated issues) or simply not acknowledging that many questions such as ‘Should I change my technique?’ have to be answered with ‘It depends.’


Glenn Pendlay Olympic Technique DVD – Product Review

Glenn Pendlay OL Techniqe DVD

Information on Olympic Lifting in English is not available in large amounts and what is available can run the gamut from excellent to absolute trash. The movements are technically complicated, there is little information (again, especially in English) on them and many who teach them, frankly, have no clue what they are doing.

Mind you, this isn’t different for other movements in the weight room but the OL’s are pretty technical movements and a lot is going on in a very short period of time.

A lot of strength coaches seem to think they know what’s happening/what they are doing but, when you watch their videos (cough cough, Mike Boyle and Dos Remedios) it’s clear that they do not.  You see gross technical errors which said coaches then make chronic excuses for.

I’ve even seen DVD and other teaching products that, flatly, taught stuff incorrectly.  And not just on the Youtubes; I mean professionally produced and priced stuff.  But I’m getting off topic.

The state of Olympic Lifting in the United States has made learning the movements or learning to teach the movements somewhat problematic. Certification is a first step but not everyone has access or time; and the afforementioned DVD products can run the gamut from quite good to absolutely worthless/detrimental.


Split Squat Technique

Today I want to cover proper and improper exercise technique for the split squat.  I’ll go ahead and note up front that everything I’m going to discuss would apply to the myriad lunging variations as well.  The only difference is the added component of movement (forwards, backwards, alternating or whatever).

Recently the split squat in one form or another has come sort of the forefront due to a rather popular strength coach’s belief that the split squat (more specifically a rear foot elevated split squat) can and should replace back squatting for athletes.  While I won’t go that far, the split squat can certainly be a useful movement in many situations.

One is when a bilateral leg imbalance, that is a strength differential between the right and left legs, develops for some reason.  The split squat is one of many ways to go about correcting this.   A second place where the split squat can be useful (and this seems to be the main thrust of the strength coach mentioned above’s argument) is when the low back is limiting squat poundages.  Since there is far less low back involvement (as a function of both lighter loads and a more upright torso) compared to back squatting, split squats and their variants can be used to either limit low back stress or as a secondary movement for legs after the low back has been fatigued (e.g. after deadlifts when something like squatting would go poorly because the low back will give out).

Additionally, in situations where a lifter either must use lower weights (e.g. they only have access to a limited amount of weight as dumbbells for example), a split squat can still provide some overload to the legs while requiring less absolute load.  There is also some interest in ‘unloading the spine’ for athletes and, again due to the lower absolute loads used combined with less forwards lean, split squats would be a way of achieving that.

I would note that some lifters can use loads in the split squat that actually approach their back squat numbers, this is especially true if they actually squat to parallel or below; so the premise that a split squat automatically lightens the loads used or needed is not necessarily correct.  There are two major reasons for this apparent contradiction: how can someone possibly use more weight in a single-leg movement than a double leg movement.


Back Extension Technique

In Friday’s Q&A on Lifting 6 Days Per Week for Mass Gains, on the lower body day, I suggested both the Romanian Deadlift as well as another low-back exercise on the lower body day.  In response to this, someone on the support forum asked what low back exercise I’d recommend since, as noted, the RDL already hits the low back to some degree.  I suggested that back extensions would be my primary exercise choice and, today, I want to address various technique issues relevant to that exercise.

I consider the back extension to be a basic ‘core’ exercise. While low back certainly gets hit during big movements like squats and especially deadlifts (and RDL’s and good mornings), the spinal erectors tend to get hit primary isometrically (meaning that they contract without movement).

From a safety standpoint, I think there is benefit to working the spinal erectors through full flexion and extension since there are times when the back simply can’t be kept flat. Low back strengthening can also benefit squats and deads simply by ensuring that they aren’t a weak point in the movement.  That’s in addition to any safety benefits.

The simple fact is that heavy squats and deadlifts can often go awry during maximal or near maximal sets, folks lose form no matter how hard they try not to; this often involves rounding of the upper or lower back or both.  And if the low back hasn’t been trained in such a way to handle those stresses in a rounded position, injury often results.

As well, some recent research, primarily from Stuart McGill’s lab, has tied low back pain to endurance in the spinal erectors.  While there are certainly other ways to do it, dynamic back extensions are one way to train this capacity.

Muscles Targeted in the Back Extension

As the name suggests and the introduction states, the primary focus of back extensions is, of course, the lower back musculature, specifically the spinal erectors.  As well, depending on the specifics of how the exercise is done, many other muscles are often hit.


Lat Pulldown Technique

In a previous exercise technique article, I examined the Cable Row and today I want to examine the ‘other’ major back movement: the lat pulldown.  In this article,  I’m going to cover a narrow undergrip, medium overgrip (both in front of and behind the neck) and parallel grip handle.

I’m generally not a big fan of very wide grip pulldowns, I think that a medium overhand grip works just as well and wide grips tend to limit the range of motion.

Note: the form issues I’m going to address go for chins or pullups as well.  The only difference is that instead of pulling the bar down to your body, you pull your body up to the bar.  As well, I’m going to use the term pulldown generally throughout this article, just keep in mind that it refers to all of the different variants as well as chins/pullups.


Muscles Targeted in the Lat Pulldown

As the name itself suggests, the lat pulldown has as its primary target the latissimus dorsi.  This is the large fan shaped muscle that takes up an exceedingly large portion of the back.  While the midback is involved somewhat in the pulldown movement (depending heavily on how it’s done), the vertical line of pull tends to take the midback muscles out of the movement.

Since the arms are involved and there is bending at the elbow, of course the various elbow flexors, the biceps and brachialis, are also involved.  Much of which is involved and to what degree depends on the grip used; I’ll cover this more below.