Continuing from Part 1, I want to address other issues related to the topic of changing exercise technique. This includes factors that go into deciding whether technique should be changed to begin with which will make up the majority of Part 2. Finally I’ll give some practical strategies to change technique if you so desire.
A factor that I think is often forgotten is the impact of training age and goals in the choice of whether or not to even consider changing someone’s technique. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, training age refers to how many years someone has been training and this is in contrast to biological age which is who old someone is. A 24-year-old who has been training since they were 4 has a training age of 20 years, A 24-year-old who has been training since they were 22 has a training age of 2 years.
And this is important for several reasons. Focusing on the athlete with a long training first, the longer the longer the training age, the longer they have had to truly automate a given pattern. Given the demands to change that pattern, the time involved may simply be too enormous to consider.
Think about how many repetitions an athlete who has done something for a decade has accumulated and, by extension, how many repetitions they would have to do to have a chance of fixing it. I’m not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done but it is a consideration.
Tying in with this is the fact that it is possible to get very efficient at an “imperfect” motor pattern. Do something long enough and you get pretty good at it even if many would consider it a technical flaw. Changing things may harm performance which I’ll come back to below.
Additionally, someone who has been doing something for that many years has a body that has adapted in an enormous number of ways to that movement pattern. Not just neurologically but in terms of all their connective tissues. Tendons and ligaments adapt (slowly) to the stresses and forces put on them in very specific ways. Some of these are probably involved with the long-term improvements in performance.
There is a story in the excellent book The Sports Gene about a high-jumper who had his plant food Achilles tendon tested and it had basically developed into a spring over the two decades he spent jumping. The same goes for most sports and this may increase the risk of injury. More below.
Fourth, athletes with a high training age at a high levels of competition have adapted to and probably require high training loads. To avoid injury in certain sports with a technique change generally requires cutting back the training load significantly which is yet another consideration. More on this below.
Related to training age is training goals. Here I’ll take the simplistic approach that people are either training for high performance competition or training just to train (yes, I realize that everyone in every gym is an elite beast). Let’s face it, most people don’t train in weight room stuff to compete and I doubt many take up the shotput or pole vault unless they are competition athletes.
A high performance athlete has two issues to consider. One is that elite sport has never been consistent with health. As I mentioned in Part 1, one of the big issues I take with the “Some elite guy does something weird and is successful ergo technique Nazis should stfu and lift, noob” is that
- That one guy made something goofy work is irrelevant to the majority. An exception is just that
- A lot of elite athletes do stuff that may be necessary for maximal performance but the tradeoff is safety.
Yes, fine some OL’ers break knees in hard on the clean recovery. This saves the quads for the jerk but throws a lot of stress on the knee which can cause injury (these guys also start at age 5 which gives their bodies time to adapt). People also conveniently ignore that most elite athletes are broken disasters physically later in life. They give up long-term health for performance.
Folks also forget that most of the lifters that do this wash out and never make it to the top. The guys who made it to the top, by definition, survived the training. If one athlete made a technique or training style work and 99 failed, the one doesn’t matter. For example, it’s estimated that only 1 out of 66 Bulgarian Olympic lifters survived the training. What they did doesn’t matter to the majority.
In any case, to tell a recreational trainee to do any of that is idiotic. They aren’t ever making it much past suck most of the time so why even suggest a *potentially* dangerous technique to add 5% to their total. Because 5% on top of suck is still suck. The same goes for training by the way, this idea that what a bunch of elite guys do in training (that destroys 90% of them) is what the average lifter should to do add 10% to suck is moronic.
The Chinese are notorious for leaving 90% of their athletes ground into paste to get a gold medal winner. They don’t care because all they want is medials. Fine, I’m old and conservative but if you’re looking at a lifetime training career, any tradeoff on safety for potential injury or burnout isn’t a good one in my opinion.
Related to this is where the high performance athlete is in their career. Someone near retirement with 1-2 years left in their career simply doesn’t have the time to change a technique that is established for nearly 20+ years. This is even more true in a highly technical sport.
Unless it’s something so severe as a technique flaw, which is pretty unlikely in the first place if they’ve made it to high-level sport, just leave the hell alone. As you move back further in their development, this might change. Someone with 5 years left who has a major technical flaw holding them back from the top tier of successcan probably change it. 10 years back and definitely. I think you get the idea.
The Technical Demands of the Activity
Another issue to consider in addressing the issue of whether or not to change technique are the actual technical demands of the sport. Make no mistake, all sports require technique and I would never argue that poorer technique is a better choice than better technique. But sports vary significantly in how critical technique (versus say conditioning) are to success. And as a generality, the less technical an activity is, the more brute force conditioning can make up for it.
A distance runner with less than perfect technique can succeed by just grinding miles. The same goes for distance cycling which, by and large is not terribly technically demanding. Most of the technique here would be more accurately described as riding skills. Holding a straight line, being able to draft in a paceline effectively, riding in an echelon (an angled paceline for dealing with crosswinds).
Yes, fine, there is technique to the actual pedal stroke and cyclists will talk about pedalling squares. You push down, pull back (scrape the mud off your shoes) across the bottom, “pull up” (maybe) and then kick through at the top with the goal of keeping pedal pressure even across the stroke instead of just mashing up and down.
But not only is this not that difficult to do, it’s not really that difficult to change. If someone has an uneven pedal stroke, a few basic cues and drills (i.e. 1-leg pedalling) can get it done and it’s pretty trivial to get a billion repetitions fairly quickly (a pedal cadence of 90/minute times 4 hours = 21,600 pedal strokes). So it’s honestly not that hard to fix (a lot of cycling training is also low intensity so you get even more reps at a low intensity).
At the other extreme, sports like Olympic lifting, swimming and speed skating are insanely technical. An Olympic lifter with amazing technique can beat one who is simply strong. A good example of this was Shane Hamman, a powerlifter turned OL’er with a 1000 lb squat, he still got beaten at the international level by athletes who had better technique and had been doing it for longer (they were more efficient).
You can find videos of 14 year old Chinese Olympic lifters with 10 years under the bar. For example, here’s a female 14-year-old snatching 70kg. A good swimmer will dust a poorer swimmer no matter how fit the second person is (of course the swimmer with good technique and conditioning dusts them both).
In my own ex-sport of ice speed skating, I was actually stronger and fitter than most of my teammates. I could outlift one of them (who was 6″ taller and outweighed me by 50 lbs) in the gym in absolute terms. I don’t mean pound for pound, I mean in absolute terms. I could dust him on the bike, dust him in dryland (off-ice technical/conditioning training) and he stomped me on the ice since he had corners and ice feel and I didn’t. His technique beat my conditioning with ease.
In contrast, inline skating (which I did prior to the ice) is a lot less technical overall and just being strong and fit in my 20’s got me pretty far. Better technique would have gotten me further (I set a PR in the 10k in my 40’s, beating a time with ease I could never get past in my 20’s) but, to a point anyhow, conditioning could beat technique.
And everything else falls onto this continuum. Some sports such as rhythmic gymnastics (which is more like juggling, it’s the one with the ball, the ribbon, etc.) are almost all technique with little conditioning. Most are a mixture where technique and conditioning are both critical with any given sport varying in how much or how little technique or conditioning plays a role.
Let’s Be Honest About the Weight Room
To be honest, outside of Olympic lifting, most weight room movements aren’t that technically demanding. Even the powerlifts (squat, bench, deadlift), in the aggregate are not that technical which is part of why they tend to be more popular than Olympic lifting overall.
Yes, working in heavy gear is insanely technical but the lifts themselves, not so much. PL’ers will get twitchy with this and I’m not saying that they aren’t technical or that good technique doesn’t beat poor technique. But compared to other sports, the technical component just isn’t there.
As a pure anecdote, I recall a big powerlifter of the day (recently, I can’t remember who) stating that since he wasn’t ever going to be the most technical lifter, he was just going to get f’ing strong. This can work in PL’ing (which is a pure max strength sport) but doesn’t usually cut the mustard in most other sports.
How Technical is Your Sport Really?
But overall, the technical demands of a given sport not only dictate how beneficial fixing true technique flaws may be but also plays into how difficult it may or may not be. The relatively low technical demands of the cycling pedal stroke make changing it pretty easily. Depending on the cause, fixing a minor technique issue in basic weight room movements or the powerlifts may not be that difficult (though it may take time if the pattern is very well engrained).
In something like Olympic lifting, swimming or speed skating where technique is so important, changes can be very difficult since the movement is so inherently complex to begin with. Certainly this depends on the degree and type of error in the first place along with how well it’s ingrained. But the technical demands also couple with the relatively difficulty or not of getting sufficient repetitions to fix the technique.
Why Bother Changing Exercise Technique at All?
In a sense I probably should have addressed this earlier in this series but a question worth considering is why bother changing or attempting to change technique at all. Outside of pure aesthetics (i.e. looking pretty while doing something which is only relevant in a handful of sports as I mentioned and/or to make form absolutists happy), I see two primary reasons that it might be worth addressing or attempting to change exercise technique: injury and performance.
Technique and Injury
Injury can actually span a couple of different issues. One is a situation where someone is getting a chronic injury that can clearly be tracked to a technique fault. A runner might be having chronic ankle or knee problems, a lifter might be having shoulder issues or low-back problems, things of that nature.
In this case, where someone is either dealing with a chronic condition, or is having an injury happen, heal and happen again, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed since nobody makes great progress when they are chronically injured. This is true for either the relative beginner or high-level athlete.
If the latter is chronically injured (except maybe runners, those guys are always injured due to the impact nature of the sport), you have to address it no matter what else is going on. Even in the weight room, chronic injuries such as rotator cuff, knees, etc. need to be addressed although those are as likely to be related to bad program design as technique per se.
Another related issue would be one where a given technique issue might be likely to cause an injury down the road. This is one of those very nebulous kinds of things. If you’ve spent any time in any gym or around athletes, clearly a lot of people get away with a lot of poor technique without injury. Of course, you’re also not injured until you’re injured at which point it would be nice to be not injured. This is where you have to make some critical choices sometimes.
A minor technique flaw may not be worth the time to address in anybody outside of just being a perfectionist psycho (which is fine). Something more major (like a major back rounding in a deadlift or severe deviation in running technique where someone pronates, breaks their knee in and then flips the foot out from heel strike to flight phase), well…. In a beginner, fix it. It won’t be that difficult to do and long-term pays big dividends. Once again, for a high-level athlete who is doing something that should be injurious but clearly isn’t getting injured while they got to high levels of competition, well…just leave well enough alone.
Because in this case, changing something may actually have the potential to *cause* injury. I know this seems contrary but it is possible that changing someone’s well established technique can cause more problems than it solves although this is really only relevant to someone with a high training age.
This ties in with my comments above about the body adapting to a given movement pattern over years of doing it. Their connective tissues are adapted to their pattern and, whether it’s right or wrong, changing that will throw a lot of stress onto unconditioned tissues.
This actually came up in the Pose running fad research that was relevant when I started this piece. When researchers set out to study the technique, they made two big observations. First was that Pose running did reduce stress in one part of the body. Second was that it put stress on a different part of the body. And everybody got Achilles tendon problems. I mean every study subject. This is telling.
In many sports, if you suddenly throw a hell of a lot of stress onto connective tissues that aren’t adapted to it, no matter what improvements you might conceivably make, you put them at risk for injury. And remember that nobody makes much progress injured. It’s not true of every sport but it is true of enough sports.
A runner’s ankles, knees, hips, etc. have adapted to a lot of miles over a lot of years and throwing a ton of stress onto different structures can cause problems. A javelin throwers shoulders adapt to their throwing pattern and the same occurs. And this is especially true if you don’t cut back their training load to compensate. Which brings me to the performance issue.
Technique and Performance
In premise, improving technique should always improve actual performance metrics. And in reality this isn’t the case although it depends on the population. In the short-term, it actually almost always decreases performance due to what has to be done, working with submaximal loads or intensities, to fix it.
For the relative beginner this isn’t an issue. You’re looking at a tops a couple of years of training and not only will fixing technique be relatively less of a hassle but the long-term benefits will be worth it. Any short term reduction in performance will be compensated in the long-term.
But for the athlete with a high training load, this is a big issue that ties in with the injury thing. Athletes who have been training a long time have adapted to a high training load. And in activities where changing technique can cause injury, that training load has to be drastically reduced along with a reduction in intensity of the sporting movement.
Effectively you almost have to train them as a beginner. And if you take a runner who has built up to 100-120 miles per week of running and force them to drop back to 20 miles per week so they don’t get hurt, their performance will absolutely crater.
The time it will take them not only to change the technique, but to build up their volume and intensity again while maintaining that change is overwhelming and, objectively, it will hurt their performance. There are some ways around this, sometimes it’s possible to use relatively non-specific methods of training to maintain basic fitness or conditioning without impairing the technique repair.
Many many years ago, I had to rebuild the technique of two lifters (and I’d do it again later on). While they were practicing squats, deadlifts and benches submaximally, I was able to hammer them on exercises for legs (leg press), chest (machines, flyes), rows, etc. to maintain muscular size and strength. As their technique got better and I was able to increase intensity on the main lifts, the non-specific work decreased. And they lost very little.
Endurance sports have both a central (heart, blood volume, hematocrit) aspect and a peripheral aspect (muscular efficiency, movement patterns, muscular adaptations). You can maintain the central adaptations at least with non-specific stuff. The heart doesn’t know what’s making it pump more. Elliptical, biking, etc. You can maintain some basic aerobic fitness while rebuilding technique. Different sports vary in how readily or not this is done.
That is on top of the issue that I mentioned regarding efficiency. You can get really efficient doing something really goofy. So imagine a theoretical situation where an athlete doing something “wrong” technically has gotten really efficient at it. Imagine that if you improve their technique they have the potential to improve their performance by 5% (compared to their old technique).
But imagine that they will lose 10% efficiency that they had doing it the other way. Their performance goes DOWN by 5%. Another of the pose studies found this in high-level triathletes, their running efficiency went down with the new technique over 12 weeks of training. Fine, it might have gone back up with more practice but acutely it harmed performance.
So not only do they have the time taken to rebuild/fix technique (which can take forever on a background of a decade or more of training), they have to deal with the potential loss of fitness and then the years to become efficient at the new movement pattern. And if they are late in their career, well…the time isn’t there. So unless there is a very good reason to mess with things, just don’t.
A Tale of Two Skaters
In an attempt to summarize the above, I’m going to provide a couple of pure anecdotes that are only related by my old sport, ice speed skating. This is an insanely technical sport with completely bizarre movement patterns (you push sideways into internal rotation in a cat backed position, gliding isometrically for 0.8 seconds between each push before dropping the hip into the next stroke and that’s just the straightaway) where conditioning simply can’t make up for technical flaws.
It’s one where proper technique is just critical and a lack of it really limits how far someone can go. Since it’s non impact, injury issues are less of a concern. Yes, skaters get back and knee problems but that’s more endemic to the sport; the knee angle during the glide is hard on the knees and the round back in the corners which twists you into a pretzel causes back issues. Even done correctly, these occur. So let me look at two skaters who sort of define the differences in what I talked about above: myself and Chad Hedrick.
I spent a majority of my 20’s inline skating and doing it terribly. My technique was awful, there were no resources and coaching wasn’t a thing unless you came from indoor skating I would skate hours every day which meant endless repetitions doing it wrong and just locking in those motor patterns.
I mentioned above that to a degree, my overall strength and fitness allowed me to get fairly far when I was competing but I came up against a wall I just couldn’t get past (in this case breaking 20 minutes for the 10k). I was faster than most of the pack but could never make it to the top guys (who at the time were going 17-18 minutes at that distance). Better technique might have solved that.
Jump a decade and a half later and I decided, at the age of 35, to attempt ice speed skating. As mentioned, this is an insanely technical sport where technique can beat conditioning up to a point. Little kids with 5+ years of skating routinely dusted me which is only a little bit disheartening. To have any chance of getting to my goals meant completely overhauling my technique. There was simply no way for me to progress without doing it.
That meant endless grinding drills and I do mean endless. Before practice, after practice, in-between sets. I would drive my SO crazy as we’d be at the post office and I’d be doing drills while standing in line. I knew that I had to accumulate a billion repetitions of doing it correctly to have any chance of ovewriting the terrible patterns. The ice was even more problematic because, while inlining for 3 hours is fairly trivial, this can’t be done on the ice. Ten minutes of continuous skating on ice is exhausting and the work you can do is very limited. So I had to do endless drills on top of that.
The only benefit I had in terms of the ice is that there isn’t much injury potential. I mentioned low back and knees but that’s just part of the sport. Corners twist you into a pretzel and sitting in the low position stresses the knee. Here my focus on heavy weight training (full squatting for years) was an advantage since my knees were very well conditioned to high stress.
At the same time, squatting had trained me to take a toes out position (I even step up to the urinal in my squat stance) along with every adaptation in connective tissue that had occurred. But skating is done in internal rotation with the feet at least forwards. I actually fixed this by walking on the treadmill pigeon toed for a season to get endless reps with my legs internally rotated.
I was very efficient with my old (crappy) technique and that meant that every time my technique improved, I would transiently get slower. Even doing it badly, my body was very efficient at the old technique. When something would correct, I’d have to get that many reps to get even remotely efficient at it. And the next season, I’d fix another technique issue, get slower and then start to get faster again. At least part of this was that with every technique improvement, I was moving back into the conscious stage of performance. I had to concentrated on it which means you can only put so much effort into the push and such.
It would ultimately take me just over 5 years of absolutely mind-numbing, psychotic drilling to finally lock it in. I figured out my corners right when it was time for me to quit. Now, in hindsight, if there is one thing I would have done differently it would have been to do nothing but drills for like the first 2 years of training.
My coach didn’t approach it that way since he typically worked with older skaters who wouldn’t have the patience for that; he simply didn’t recognize my psychotic obsessiveness early on. He had me racing from year one and that just further engrained my poor technique since I’d revert to it at anything above low intensity.
The same went for training on the ice in general. Every hard set I did with poor technique just further offset the drills I was doing. One year I got really pissed with him since we started skating with this other team; to build ‘team morale’ I’d do sets with skaters too fast for me and I’d skate like crap.
Speed skating is an individual sport and I give a damn about a team and I refused to do it. I should have done endless drills, low intensity work and just used non-specific work on the bike (which actually has very good transfer to skating) and in the weight room until it was dialed in. Hindsight.
Mind you, I wasn’t a beginner in terms of skating but the reality was that I had to fix my technique to have a chance. And it took years although I still suspect it would have taken less time if it had been approached differently.
Chad Hedrick is arguably one of the best skaters of all time. His parents owned a skating rink and he started skating when he was like 4 years old. He skated indoor (which gave him corners), outdoors (which gave him an engine from hell since the distances were 10k to marathon) and played ice hockey which gave him ice feel (an ambiguous aspect of skating similar to water feel in swimming or bar feel in OL’ing). He even invented an entirely new way of skating (the double push) while playing ice hockey that he transferred to inline and it became THE preferred technique of skating. That’s how good he was.
In his 20’s (from memory), having done all there was to do in inline he switched to the ice. He wasn’t the first, Derek Parra, another world champion skater had switched fairly late in his career and took 8 years to figure out the ice before setting world records and being the first Hispanic American to win a winter gold medal.
When Chad switched to the ice, he was criticized heavily for his technique. It wasn’t pretty and speed skating is nothing if not an elitist prick kind of sport where the technical absolutists are in full force. He did a lot of very strange things on the ice, mainly in between his pushes. But, as my coach put it, he did a lot right in-between the strange things. And ugly technique or not, a year and a half later, he was world champion.
Right or wrong technically or aesthetically, 20+ years of doing it made him very efficient at what he did. He wasn’t a strong sprinter but his motor made him an amazing distance skater and the bizarre way that the overall is determined makes the distances relatively more important. He could give up time in the shorter distances and just murder people in the 5k and 10k (because when you routinely skate 40-50k, 10k isn’t much). And as I stated before, technically perfect or not, it’s hard to argue with his results.
He continued to be pretty dominant for years and then right at the tail end of his career, his coaches decided they should make him a proper skater. I remember watching him do the endless dryland drills that skaters have done (none of which he had done in his career, he just skated) and he was terrible at them. I mean objectively I was better at them than he was.
This was a technical model that was different than what he had been using for nearly 30 years by this point and which had gotten him to the top of the sport. And they decided to change it when he was like a year from retirement. And it basically destroyed him as a skater.
There were other issues going on in his last year but this was a big part of it in my opinion. It was a situation where he wasn’t getting injured, he had clearly been dominating “doing things wrong” and had no time to even attempt to learn a new movement pattern. And that’s something you just don’t mess with.
So You Want to Change Technique
Ok, so you’ve looked at all of the above and decided you want to go about changing your exercise technique. Let me try to give a few practical suggestions on how to go about it. First, of course, you have to identify a real technique flaw.
And this means knowing what proper technique is. And this can be a big issue. Come to my Facebook group and you can get all kinds of feedback, some of it even good, on your lifting technique. A good coach is a lifesaver here and sometimes you can even find one.
The next step is identifying the cause of the flaw. As I mentioned before, sometimes it’s a muscular issue (something too tight, something too weak) or just misconceptualizing a lift (i.e. not thinking “elbows up” on a front squat ascent). This tends to be more common in relative beginners since they haven’t really had a chance to lock in what is simply a weird technique issue. In more advanced guys, certainly this could be the cause and might have been in the earlier stages but usually it’s just repetition of some technical flaw that is now engrained.
After identifying the cause, you have to fix it. Conceptualizations of how the lift should be done and muscular stuff is much easier than fixing engrained motor patterns but they are related and sometimes you have to attack all three. I can fix muscular issues pretty quickly and sometimes you can fix a misconceptualized lift with the right cue in one workout.
So let’s focus on the much more difficult one: correcting an ingrained motor pattern.
The Key to Changing Exercise Technique is Repetition
Actually the key to changing any behavior is simply repetition, doing it until it becomes automatic. But I’ll focus on exercise technique here. Outside of some supposed magical fixes to motor patterning, it really comes down to a lot of repetition of the new pattern and avoiding the old one as much as possible. This means drilling, lots and lots of drilling.
I’ve mentioned in some other article that one thing that you usually see with great athletes is that they always work the fundamentals. Their warmups are as focused as their work sets because every repetition done correctly is one more towards complete automation. Contrast that to the guy who pumps out 8 lazy reps in the bench because he needs to get to a minimum macho poundage to impress his buddies.
Do every rep of every set correctly and with conscious attention. Focus focus focus. This is a place where frequency beats intensity. 20-30 reps five days per week is better than 100-120 reps once/week. There is at least some evidence that distributed practice is better than concentrated practice.
So the old approach was 10 minutes on one technical drill, 10 minutes on the next, 10 minutes on the next. It’s better to mix it up with less time on each drill at a time. Every time you do that you have to concentrate harder which means more brain activity (whatever) and focus.
Alternately, work on one thing for 5 minutes, switch to another thing for 5 minutes then come back to the first thing again. Every time you switch means putting more conscious thought into it, more than if you just went 10 minutes straight. If you start losing focus, stop for the day, now you’re wasting your time.
Do drills before you do an exercise, always finish an exercise or workout with some proper repetitions. I have a goofy belief (that maybe is supported by research or something but I find motor learning research to be mostly dull and irrelevant) that your nervous system “remembers” the last thing you did in a workout technically.
If you finish with crap reps, it remembers crap reps. Even if you have to drop the weight on the bar or intensity always finish with some perfect repetitions. That sets you up for the next workout. Always finish on a perfect repetition.
Whole-Part-Whole Approach to Learning Technique
I’m not boned up on the whole part-whole-part or whole approach to learning or fixing something. Basically old ideas said do part of the movement, integrate it into the whole movement, work on part of the movements. Others thing that just doing the whole movement is better. There are pros and cons of both.
So consider the Ol’ing approach of breaking the lifts into pieces. The old top down approach was work on overhead position, then squat position, then pull from the crease or above the knee, then pull from below the knee, pull from the floor. You put each piece together top down (others do it bottom up starting from deadlift to the knee, deadlift to above the knee, etc.). Still others just do the whole movement.
For someone just learning a movement, just fixing bits of the whole movement may work better although both can still work. Someone learning to squat, you might just have them squat and fix on bit at time. So get the bar in the right place and focus on a big chest before descent. Don’t worry about the rest of it.
Once the start is good, worry about the specific of the descent. Remember that squatting isn’t the most technical movement compared to say a squat snatch so you don’t have to break it up nearly as much. Tell someone to sit back like they are sitting on a toilet and they usually get pretty close. A bench is probably more difficult since it’s not something most do every morning while they read.
According to Dreschler the Bulgarians teach the OL movements this way, they just let them perform the lift and gradually fix stuff. This is great when you have 10 years to develop someone since you have endless time to fix the bits. The latter can be better in the short-term but you have to be careful not to end up with this weird segmented movement.
Whole-Part-Whole Approach to Fixing Technique
But fixing things may be different. It can be very difficult to fix a small piece of a movement if you have to perform the whole thing. But just fixing the single part won’t necessarily make the whole movement right. Here’s where part-whole approaches may be superior. Olympic lifters trying to fix a technical flaw often do this in sets of multiple repetitions.
Someone trying to fix an issue in the final explosion might do a rep from the crease, a rep from above the knee, a rep from below the knee and a rep from the floor. The idea being that the first part of the movement is focused on prior to integrating it into the full movement. Someone on their goes into the jerk might do several reps of just dipping with weight on the heels with an upright torso before doing a full repetition in the jerk. Part, part, part, whole. Eventually you do less of the part and more of the whole.
Maintaining Fitness while Changing Technique
There is of course the issue of maintaining fitness while you rebuild technique in a primary movement and, as I mentioned, different sports lend themselves to a greater or lesser degree. An OL’er can focus on pulls (assuming the technical error isn’t in the pull itself) and squats while they fix a problem in the full squat clean and I talked about how you can use non-specific strength training to maintain muscle mass and strength while the big movements are being fixed.
Endurance athletes can do a different endurance activity. Other sports will have to approach it differently. Even relative beginners don’t like to lose too much progress so doing at least some of this is still important.
Intensity has to be low when a technique is first being rebuilt but should gradually progress. You will see the constant admonition to “Go back to just the bar” online a lot but, honestly, that’s usually crap. A lot of movement are frankly easier with at least a little bit of weight on the bar since you can feel what you’re doing.
But it’s a matter of degrees here. Too heavy and the person will revert to old technique, too light and they can’t feel it. I offered a nice compromise, both appropriate for learning and fixing technique previously. Mel Siff once offered a rule of thumb that once you can do a technique correctly 80% of the time, it’s time to go up in intensity. But it should be gradual so that technique stays stable as the loads go up.
Again, always make sure to finish any exercise or workout with some proper repetitions. If you do 5X5 up to a medium hard weigh that gets a little bit wonky, drop the weight back and finish with 5-10 PERFECT repetitions. Treat it like a set of 5-10 singles and focus on every one (ideally with feedback from someone who knows what to look for). Do as much frequency on a movement as you can realistically do. Do extra light sets of squats on upper body day or vice versa. Just focus on technique. The more reps you get in over time, the better off you are.
And be patient. Unless you’re very new, fixing technique takes time. It’s not fun and it sucks the life out of you. But if you’re in a situation where it is appropriate, it’s what you have to do.