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Changing Technique Part 2

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Continuing from last week, I want to look at some more specific issues that might go into whether or not someone might consider or need to change technique.  This includes looking at some fairly specific times when, even if a major technical fault was present, attempting to change technique would actually be the wrong thing to do.

Before getting into that it occurs to me that a lot of what I’m talking about and the examples I’m using are coming from a weight room perspective.  The reason for this is that, in a lot of sports it’s fairly rare for someone to take them up casually or without coaching.  Do most get into gymnastics or pole vaulting without being in a coached situation?  Not really.  People run all the time and cycling is rarely coached.   Rarely do people get into swimming without at least being in some adult type of class.

But people walk into the weight room every day and not having a coach is more the norm than not.  Olympic lifting is a possible exception (and I can usually tell 9 out of 10 times if someone comes from a true OL background by how they squat and lift).  And this is where a lot of the Internet arguments and overall issues show up.  This isn’t to say it doesn’t apply to other sports of course; for all I know people on ping-pong forums sit and analyze technique with the same arguments as I see on weight training forums.  Ping pong players please chime in in the comments.

I’m actually going to end up having to do a third part simply because I am having the worst time making this article flow correctly and it’s going to end up running not only long but incoherently if I do it all today (another week gives me time to figure out the last bit).

What Defines a Technique Fault?

So, inasmuch as I made any points last week, I hopefully made a couple.  The first is that the absolutists are wrong; there is no absolute singular technique that is the only correct one and any deviation from that Platonic ideal is incorrect.  The second is that the relativists are wrong; the idea that everything is ok (usually based on the idea that some exceptional athlete who made something weird work) is incorrect.

Every sporting movement has a general technical model (that often changes over time) but within that, there are often individual styles of performance that may be more or less appropriate for a given individual.  There are also the occasional exceptions where some exceptional athlete gets away with some quirk that most agree is probably incorrect.  But that they have clearly made work and gotten to the elite level using (and it’s hard to argue with that level of success).

So when is a technical deviation an actual fault and not just some aspect of individual style or just some odd individual quirk?  I think we can probably define a true technical fault as a deviation from the general technical model of a movement that is not simply an issue of style, may impair performance or limit potential improvement and/or increase the potential risk of injury.

Or perhaps technical deviations (again from the general model) that, if changed, have the potential to improve performance or the ability to progress or decrease relative injury risk.  I will address both the performance and injury issues next week and will only say here that changing technique has both the potential to increase and decrease performance along with decreasing and increasing injury potential and all of these are worth considering.

The Degree of Technique Fault

Do realize that technique correctness is not an on/off switch even if simplistic people think of it as such (i.e. either technically something correct or it’s not, getting back to the absolutist approach).  Within any given technical model and style, a fault can vary in it’s degree of extremity.  In some cases it’s fairly minor and only the worst type of nitpicky ass (i.e. me) would even notice or worry about it.  It’s probably irrelevant unless someone is an absolute perfectionist and you could argue back and forth whether it’s even worth addressing.  In other cases, not only is the technical fault visible to anyone with eyes (unless they are the worst kind of ‘do whatever feels right, stfu noob’ relativist) but it should be fixed sooner rather than later.

An easy example would be the issue of rounding the back in the deadlift and here I’ll focus on the upper back and assume someone is trying to do a clean style deadlift (flat backed with an explicit arch).  They aren’t using it into a clean, just doing it as a deadlift; I’m making the distinction since maintaining proper positions is a huge part of the clean since the DL portion is a means to an end (setting up for the final part of the pull) whereas a DL is just a movement in and of itself and you can do relatively different things and still make the lift.

Now, in an ideal world, the back would stay flat and hold the arch all the way through (again, this is the goal here).  That said, with near max loads, it’s common for the upper back and shoulders to get pulled forwards slightly and there may be a slight rounding in the upper back (and moreso in women due to differences in upper and lower body strength where their upper body strength often lags behind what their legs can move).  But with maximum loads, this may not only be unavoidable but acceptable, where expecting perfection is unrealistic.  Contrast that to someone lifting a submaximal load who immediately rounds their upper back to the maximum when the goal is a flat back or who ends up in that position near the end of the set.  That’s a clear technical flaw that needs to be addressed.  It’s a matter of degrees.

Causes of Technique Issues

Let’s assume that a true technique problem has been identified, how do you go about changing it?  Well, in some cases it’s kind of easy in that it may simply be a problem resulting from some type of muscular weakness or imbalance.  It could also be due to poor cueing or someone misconceptualizing how a lift should be done.  The upper back rounding above is often nothing more than weakness in the upper back musculature and a bit of remedial work on spinal erectors, midback, etc. may be all that is needed to fix it.  Or it could be a situation where someone isn’t focusing on lifting their chest up or leading the pull with their chest.

I’ve found that many only focus on the squat or deadlift as ‘push with the legs’ and they ‘lose’ their upper bodies behind them.  A front squat ascent should be thought of as driving the elbows up, a back squat as throwing the head and chest back and up (depending on style).  The legs will straighten if this is done and certainly you need to push with the legs as well.  It’s when someone only thinks legs, they often shoot their hips because the upper body doesn’t come along.  The same can occur in the deadlift to get back to my original example.

But in as many cases, a technical fault is simply due to having learned and practiced it wrong.  In the weight room at least, it’s the case that most people do things incorrectly than correctly when I think it should be the other way around.  Most lifters don’t get coaching (and if they are male, they know that having testicles means knowing how to lift weights in addition to intuitively knowing everything about cars) outside of some very specific situations.

They either see nonsense on the web or just mimic what they see others doing (incorrectly).  An amusing story: a trainee of mine years ago had horrid form on everything except for one movement: the Romanian Deadlift.  Her squat, bench, etc. were all horrible.  And the reason was that she’d learned the RDL from an online source with all of the others having been based on observing people at the gym who were doing things badly.  The above may not be unrelated, of course.  A muscular imbalance or poor cueing/teaching may lead someone to pick up a form fault that they then practice over and over again which cements that as a movement pattern.

Learning Technique

Noting that I’m not a huge motor learning guy in terms of details, here’s basically how motor learning, that is the process of teaching/learning any type of motor pattern works.  There are three basic stages which starts with conscious effort and moving ultimately to automatic control (I forget what the middle bit is called) where the pattern doesn’t have to be thought about to occur and is occurring more or less unconsciously.  This is a time related process, anyone who remembers having to learn something probably remembers the different aspects they had to focus on.

If you ever learned to drive stick shift, you remember this.  Initially it takes endless thought on when to gas, clutch, shift.  Eventually you don’t think on it which gives you more time to text while driving (I’m kidding, don’t do this).   It holds for most movement patterns that someone is trying to learn.  The more complex the movement, the more aspects of the movement exist to worry about.  You can get on a bike and start riding or go run without much thought; just go out the door and get going.  A squat snatch on the other hand.

But with sufficient repetitions, eventually you don’t have to think about what you’re doing.  It’s part of why great athletes often make terrible coaches.  They develop what is called motor amnesia; they aren’t even aware of what they are doing during a movement and couldn’t describe it meaningfully to someone trying to learn.  It’s too automated.  They just do it like Nike said.  And in the big scheme it is better for something to be automated than having to think about it.  When you don’t have to think about technique, you can focus on other things.

Additionally, here’s a protip that I got from an essay by the writer I want to be when I grow up (minus the crazy beard), Robert Sapolsky: if you are competing head to head with someone who has a truly automated activity pattern, ask them how they are doing something.  It brings the motor pattern from automated to conscious and will tend to screw them up since they are thinking about what they are doing now instead of just letting it happen.

But simply, motor learning any movement pattern takes repetition where in the early stages, you have to think about it and ultimately (hopefully) becoming automated without though.  It is just a sheer repetition issue and you will hear coaches throw out the anecdote that once you have a given motor pattern under control, you need 10,000 repetitions of doing it right for it to become automated.  Depending on the sport, this can take a relatively short period of time.  A runner with 120 foot strikes per minute is getting 7,200 repetitions per hour, a cyclist is around the same.  An Olympic or powerlifter who can only do 2o-30 repetitions per workout 3-5 times per week is maybe 150 reps per week.  That’s sixty-six weeks to 10,000 repetitions at the short end.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the old saying that “Practice makes perfect” but some think it is better phrased as “Practice makes permanent.”  And the more you practice something wrong, the more permanent it has become.  If you’re lucky enough to start practicing something correctly, that’s great (many will rephrase the original to “Perfect practice makes perfect.”).  But if you’ve spent some amount of time repeating a movement incorrectly, this is where the issue starts.  Because the more you perform something incorrectly, the more entrenched (eventually becoming automatic) the incorrect motor pattern becomes.  This makes changing it or fixing it a real bitch.

Before moving on, here’s a random anecdote to give an example of this.  Years ago I knew a very strong squatter named Grant.  I mean his technique was just beautiful and it didn’t matter if he had 135 or 700 on the bar.  Every repetition looked the same and they were all perfect.  I am told that his first coach had him squat with no more than 135 for an entire year.  I don’t know any more specifics about the training but that meant an entire year just drilling in the proper motor pattern with what would have amounted to a submaximal weight (by memory he was Samoan so he probably started at 135 and could have done more since they are genetically strong dudes).  And by the time it was automatic and he started adding weight, it simply got more engrained at gradually higher intensities.   I’m not advocating this specifically as most adults wouldn’t be patient enough to do it but rather trying to make a point.  With beginners learning more complex movements, spending time getting technique at least stable at a submaximal intensity might be better than ramping up the weight on the bar too quickly.

Changing Technique Part 1

The final topic I want to look at today is what kind of goes into changing technique since it goes directly to whether it’s worth changing technique at all (which I will look at it in Part 3).  Of course identifying the cause of the technical fault is the first part.   Is it muscular, a function of cueing or miconceptualizing the movement somehow?  Eventually even if those are the direct causes of the technique flaw, the pattern is simply becoming automated.  And the longer someone has been training, the more automated it will have become.  Yes, you still have to address the muscular and cueing issues but simply correcting them may not do anything to fix technique necessarily.

Fixing poor posture is a good example of this.    You can improve midback strength/endurance and stretch tight anterior structures all you want and people will still adopt the same posture that they habitually use if it’s very entrenched or the person is in an environment (i.e. working at a computer) that tends to encourage it.  Yes, you should address the muscular issues but it will take more than that to fix the overall problem.

The body has learned to do it that way and just as the initial learning took conscious effort, so will fixing it.  The athlete who isn’t leading out of a squat with his head and back will have to focus consciously on doing it that way for a while.   And this takes time.  An old rule of thumb is that it takes three times as many repetitions to fix something as it did to learn it.  So fixing 1000 wrong repetitions takes 3000 repetitions.  I’m sure there is zero research to support this and different sports with different technical demands probably vary in this but it’s just a rule of thumb.  In this vein, any coach will tell you that it is ALWAYS better and easier to teach an athlete the correct way from the get go than to fix it after they’ve done it wrong for some period of time.

But it tends to be grinding tedious work with endless repetitions and drills that have to be consciously focused on to try to learn the new motor pattern.  And the body, depending on how well entrenched the old pattern is will try to revert to that since it’s a more efficient and learned movement.  Under conditions of fatigue, or too high of an intensity, the body will ‘seek’ the more entrenched pattern.  It comes back to my posture comment above: no matter how much you fix the muscular issues, the body will tend to return to the old pattern since it’s habitual.  It takes conscious effort (and there are devices that remind people to check their posture every 10-15 minutes) to fix it.

Even more wonderfully is that the old motor pattern never completely goes away.  The same actually holds true for all behaviors; it used to be thought that old behavior patterns would extinguish and that they would disappear completely but this is not really correct.  But as any long-time smoker can tell you, it only takes the right cluster of events to start them up again even if they haven’t smoked for a decade or more.  The old behavior never goes completely goes away, it just kind of gets overwritten with the new behavior.  With more repetition, the new behavior becomes stronger while the old one becomes weaker.

At high intensities, under conditions of high fatigue or stress, an old movement pattern will come back.  The body knows the pattern, it’s efficient at that pattern, and under a lot conditions it will return to that pattern especially early in the process.  But it can still happen long down the road.  Even if an athlete can use the new technique perfectly at lower intensities, it won’t necessarily carry over to higher intensities.  Even if they can do it in the controlled condition of the gym, they might not be able to do it under the stress of competition.  I think you get the idea.

But this means that not only does the new technique have to be practiced pretty damn endlessly, it has to be practiced under progressively more difficult conditions, usually starting at lower intensities.  It’s also best if the old pattern isn’t reinforced at all which has other implications for the choice of whether or not to even try to alter technique.  But only there when the technique is stable at the lower intensities.  And this has a number of consequences and raises various considerations that I’ll finish up with next week.  I hope.

Read Part 3

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