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A Guide to Changing Exercise Technique

A recent (note: 2011) article in Runner’s World magazine spurred me to write this guide to changing exercise technique.  In brief it looked at some of the recent debate over running form (along with the shoe issue).  Predominantly it was looking at the issue of heel vs. midfoot vs. forefoot strike and whether or not there is some “ideal” running style or technique.  This led into a discussion of whether or not runners should attempt to change their runnign 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.

Changing Exercise Technique

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.

Almost daily someone will post a video to My Facebook group asking for technical 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, noob” 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.  That is both making a valid point while talking about different topics.  Most of the time folks don’t realize that the question of “Should I try changing my exercise technique?” can only be answered with “Well, it depends.”

In this (let’s face it, series of) article(s), I want to look at some of the myriad issues that go into the question of whether or not someone should try changing their exercise technique.  I want to make it clear that I’m not just talking about weight room technique here, the same would apply for other sports as well where technique plays some sort of role (an issue I’ll also try to look at).

Through the series, I’ll be using some various and sundry examples, some personal, myself or folks I’ve worked with, some from other sources.  If there is much research literature on this, I’m not aware of it.  I’m sure it exists but I find motor learning research profoundly boring and often utterly irrelevant to real world activities.  Studying the changes that occur to moving a cursor with your thumb isn’t doing a snatch.

So a lot of what I’m going to talk about can be considered experiential or anecdotal, more of a “This is what people have figured out works over 8 decades” kind of thing.  That is, the examples I’m using will mainly be to illustrate a point in some sort of semi-applied way more than anything.  Just putting that up front.

What is Proper Technique: Part 1

Before even getting into the issue of whether a given individual in a given circumstance should spend the time trying to fix or change their technique, I want to look at what will seem like a bit of a pedantic question.  But I think it’s relevant.  And it lets me pad out this piece so I can update more days.

And that pedantic question is this ‘What is proper technique?’ This question actually consists of a bunch of different issues that I want to look at and folks tend to fall into one of two major camps.  I think this was best discussed in Arthur Dreschler’s Encyclopedia of Olympic Weightlifting where he discusses the extreme camps of the Technique Absolutists and Relativists.

In its most extreme form, absolutists feel that there is one proper lifting technique, that they know what it is, and that anything less than perfection is to be shunned and ridiculed.  Often, they also seem to judge performance solely on technique where good technique is good performance (regardless of actual on the platform performance) and poor technique isn’t.  A guy with perfect technique who is getting ass stomped in actual competition is the superior lifter to them.

Which is wonderful in the small handful of sports judged almost solely on what amounts to technique and how pretty it is (err, rhythmic gymnastics perhaps, I can’t think of many).  But in the real world the guy who lifts the most, runs the fastest, gets the highest score (or sometimes the lowest score), crosses the line first wins.  How he looks doing it isn’t usually relevant.

Of course there are sports where aesthetics/technique do play a role in scoring.  For example, gymnasts can be marked down for not maintaining proper toe point or whatever during certain moves and they at least used to get points for amplitude, which you can interpret as how freaking AWESOMELY the move was done.  But this is really part of the athletic nature of the sport more than appearance per se.  Keeping the toes pointed is part of the defined point earning characteristics.

In the other extreme camp are the relativists who think that lifters should just do “what is natural”, whatever that means.   They seem to think that the body has some sort of intuition about how to do certain things and that folks should will just “figure it out” given sufficient time.

You can divest yourself of this nonsense by going into any weight room in the world.  Just go look at what people come up with “left to their own intuition” then shake your head and go read an article on proper lifting technique.

Is Running “Instinctive”?

Tangentially, in that I brought up a running article to introduce this piece, running is perhaps one sport where the idea that there is a “natural/instinctive way” to run has been the most entrenched.  It’s been argued that running is part of our evolutionary past. Certainly our relative distance running performance, compared to say sprinting where the average housecat can beat the best human, supports this idea.

As such it’s often argued that humans just “know how to run”.  Distance running, so the article argued, has been one of the last sports to really examine the issue of what is or isn’t “good technique” (in contrast other sports have spent decades trying to optimize things).    Because of this supposed “instinctive running ability”, it’s often also argued that trying to change run technique is impossible: it’s felt that people will run how they run and that’s it.

Having both watched people run (usually miserably with extreme pronation going into the feet flipping out externally, knees breaking in, terrible body carriage and posture, etc.) as well as having seen folks change technique, I find both of these ideas pretty flawed.  Clearly people don’t run well left to their own devices and it’s clear that technique can be changed.

If it were instinctive or natural, you wouldn’t see people doing it so badly.  If it were ingrained, nobody could change how they run.

It’s possible that at some point humans did “know” how to run but by the time you introduce modern life which tends to wreck posture and cause muscular imbalances, the shoe issue (which I’m not going to touch), pavement and everything else this certainly isn’t the case anymore.  Start introducing a lot of other variables in the real world and you see a lot of really terrible (often injured) runners.

If it’s intuitive, then people’s intuition sucks.

Absolutists vs. Relativists

Mind you, it would be unusual to find someone truly at the extreme of either the absolutist or relativist camp (though they certainly exist, usually folks who have read a single book about training and are now experts), most people simply tend towards one side of the argument or another.

I mainly bring this up as you can often find similar camps in the various Internet arguments that often crop up around the issue of “proper technique” and/or whether or not someone should try to fix it.  More often than not this revolves around lifting technique since arguably more people look for feedback there than in other sports where people usually go get a coach.

So someone will post a video of themselves lifting, a squat, bench, deadlift or what have you looking for feedback.  And then it all goes nutso in the ensuing discussion/argument.   True absolutists will argue that there is not only one proper technique for everything but that until a trainee can do it perfectly, they should work on nothing but that with just the bar.

Relativists tend to argue that this is nonsense.  Their usual argument is to pull out examples of top athletes or lifters in a sport who do something far removed (or at least somewhat removed) from supposed “optimal technique”.  By this logic, it clearly doesn’t matter what is being done.

As usual, the truth tends to be somewhere in the middle with both groups ignoring a bunch of important realities that decided whether it’s worth changing exercise technique.   Really, this section is just an extended introduction for the rest of this article series.

What is Proper Technique: Part 2

So again, what is proper technique?  To first address this seemingly simply question, I want to look at where technique actually comes from.  That is, where ideas about technique derive from?  And the answer is that there are a lot of different places where sports come from.  In the earliest days of sports, technique probably came from a combination of trial and error and/or lucky accident among athletes.

Then, as that athlete starts to be successful doing something, folks start to simply mimic them.  Someone would try something, it worked, and everybody would copy it.  You still see this today.  Some elite athlete will show up doing something different with their technique or training, everyone will assume that THIS is what made them elite and start doing it.  Which is just as foolish as thinking there is nothing to be learned when someone is doing something new.   It’s always a matter of degrees.

An example that comes to mind is that the 6-beat kick was apparently invented in swimming by accident.  I forget the details but someone probably got fatigued, started kicking faster than everybody thought they should and saw a performance boost.  After that particular swimmer simply dominated the sport, everyone adopted his invention/discovery (and note that swimming technique, one of the most technical sports ever, is still being refined and figured out).

I would have to imagine that a lot of lifting techniques, at least in terms of optimization came through this.  Certainly many of the movements (such as squatting, pressing) are what some refer to as “primal” movements but optimizing them for use with heavy loads was likely to have been a case of trial and error and a bit of luck.  At least in the early days, most technique changes came from the athletes and coaches just trying stuff out to see what worked and what didn’t.

You can see this in early Olympic lifting.  Guys would press with the bar overhead and their heads up and back which is a very difficult position to maintain.  At some point, some guy thought to bring his head through (what Dan John calls “peeking through the window”) and realized it was way more stable and easier to lockout.  And now everybody does that.

Everybody used split technique for years until someone did a squat technique.  It was obviously superior and everybody (assuming they could get the mobility) switched for the most part.  OL technique is like no primal pattern in existence (except perhaps for the much vaunted triple extension) and guys were figuring it out as they went for a long time.

Of course, sometimes technique inventions are just because some maniac has an equally maniacal idea.  The Fosbury flop in high-jumping seems to fit this category.  For whatever reason, I’d suspect too much alcohol, Fosbury had the idea to go over the bar backwards instead of trying to hurdle the thing as everyone had been doing to that point.

At least some of it had to do, from memory, with the development of landing pads.  Early high jumpers had to land on dirt and landing on your head isn’t a great idea.  When pads came about, the possibility of landing on your back became possible to begin with.   I still suspect Fosbury was drunk but I also suspect that a lot of sports or technique gets invented due to a bunch of guys sitting around drinking and someone going “I bet you can’t do that”.

Nobody thought it would work and it would be years before anyone knew how it worked (it has to do with trickery involving the body’s center of gravity passing under the bar as the body moves over it).  But it worked, worked better and everybody rapidly followed suit and adopted the technique assuming they weren’t too late in their career to be able to.

In more recent years, as technique optimization has become quite the big deal and sports are worth millions of dollars, a large amount of biomechanical analysis is being done.  Between theories about biomechanics or just straight up video, EMG, analysis and the rest folks continue to look for ways to get the most out of the human organism.

This is becoming arguably more important as the limits of physiological development are being reached: things like strength, power, Vo2 max are no longer improving, performance improvements can only come from other aspects of sport such as technique or equipment.  The Soviets did endless research on Olympic lifting in an attempt to optimize performance in the 70’s.   And this trend continues today.

Technique vs. Style

As a final comment here, let me address the idea that any given sport has a proper technique but there can also be variants due to a specific athlete’s style of lifting.  That is, when you look at sports technique, most top competitors do roughly the same things.

Within some range of variation, a back squat looks like a back squat, a bench looks like a bench, a clean looks like a clean, etc.   Even those “exception” athletes the relativists like to trot out do more things like other athletes in their sport than not.

At the same time, different athletes often do slightly different things within that general technical model.  Their biomechanics plays a role, a lifter with a shorter femur and longer torso may do different things in the squat than a lifter with a longer femur and shorter torso.  Hip structure and mobility can impact on stance width, the needed amount of toe turnout, etc.

But in the aggregate, a high bar squat will look relatively similar between two lifters.   So will a generic power squat or a competition squat (this can also depend on gear, monolift, etc.).  Yes, there will be differences.  One will sit slightly more back, one slightly more down.  Back angle may vary as may head position.  Despite a lot of myopic nonsense, great squatters have looked down, at the horizon and up and there is no right way in an absolute sense.

A clean style deadlift will look, in the aggregate, like another clean style deadlift done properly.  One lifter may sit a bit lower, another a bit higher and head position can vary.  Long femur/short torso is different than short femur/long torso (or short femur/short torso) and it’s important for any athlete trying to copy a given athlete’s technique to pick someone with similar biomechanics.

Other biomechanical differences can come into account.  In Olympic lifting, it’s common for big boy superheavy weights to use a wider stance at the start of their pull.  This is a necessity so that they can (I kid you not) get their big fat bellies between their legs.   They often show a bit more of a bar loop (meaning they have to compensate elsewhere) to get the bar around their belly.

An often unconsidered issue is women’s boobs (on top of all of the other mechanical differences).  A  female Olympic lifter with boobs may have to loop the bar slightly so avoid hitting them.  Few seem to consider how technique of many lifts might change (i.e. flat bench press or any exercise done lying on the stomach) due to this.

There are often different theories of a proper technical model.  According to Dreschler, Bulgarian Olympic lifting coaches felt that a proper lift had the lifter jump backwards; others felt it should be straight up.  Khaki Khakisvilis and I probably spelled his name wrong had perhaps one of the most classically “perfect” pulls in history.

I don’t think anybody every advocated jumping forwards but any OL’er can correct me on this one.  It usually means that the bar is out front which is considered a technical error but I’m sure some lifters have made it work from time to time.

Exceptional Athletes are Exceptions

As well, sometimes athletes just pick up quirks somewhere along the way.  You see this a lot in OL’ing with top guys often doing some very weird things.  Pyrros Dimas, somewhere along the line, picked up this early shrug back where he’d retract his shoulder girdle as the bar came past the knee into the explosion.  I suspect this was a way of shortening the lever arm for the axis of rotation relative to the “traditional” technique (most lifters don’t do this) which let him get more speed.

An absolutist would say this is wrong, the relativist would point out that he dominated his weight class.  But you simply don’t see it in the majority so the fact that one lifter made it work, despite being used by the relativist camp, doesn’t mean much.  You can find just as many or more superior lifters who don’t do it that way even if relativists love to focus on the lone exception.

Naim I can’t spell his last name had a weird side to side hip shift in his squat recovery after the clean.  I don’t know if this was in his technique early on or something he did because of an injury but some have used this to argue that the idea that you must recover the squat straight up isn’t true. Or that side to side deviations don’t cause injury.  Well, maybe.

Assuming he started doing it early in his career, his body and connective tissues adapted over years of progressive training to it. That doesn’t make it safe for someone just starting to lift.  As well, at the elite level, nobody gives a damn about safety or health.  Whatever lets you win is what you do and most like to ignore the broken and battered bodies that are left over by stuff like this when the athlete retires.

Similarly, a lot of Ol’ers recover with their knees way broken in (some female Chinese Ol’ers almost have their knees touch).  Oh my god, scream the relativists, the guys saying don’t break the knees in are wrong and should stfu noob do you even lift (this is like the round backed deadlift thing, where people are arguing across one another).  Maybe.

Or maybe when you have insane mobility (women are more mobile than men, often being hypermobile), don’t give a crap about safety when ultimate performance is the goal and start using a technique when you’re 5 so that you have 15 years to adapt to it isn’t really relevant to someone who started lifting 6 months ago.

There is also the fact that at the highest level of sport you, by definition, only see the guys who succeed.  You don’t see the endless guys who got destroyed by a given training program or lifting technique, who got injured or broken off by it.  Exceptions don’t disprove a rule and if 98% of people got destroyed by something, using the 2% who didn’t to try to make a point is asinine.    Bulgaria never cared if they destroyed most of their lifters so long as they won medals.  The handful that survived the training don’t offset the majority who didn’t.

Why Am I Focusing on the Weight Room?

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.

That said, let me continue from above by addressing the first question that must be answered before anybody even thinks about changing exercise technique.

What Defines a Technique Fault?

Hopefully I made a couple of points above.   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 regardless of the athlete’s success.  The second is that the relativists are wrong.  Humans have no intuitive knowledge of how to lift weights and just because some exceptional athlete made something weird work doesn’t prove a damn thing.

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 later 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.  A movement is not either technically correct or incorrect.   Within any given technical model and style, a fault can vary in its 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 changing to begin with.  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.  This tends to occur moreso in women than in men.  Due to the differentials in upper and lower body strength for women, it’s more common for their upper body to lag 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 but 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.  That’s what I mean by a cueing or misconceptualization error.

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).  In the first stage, you have to think hard about what you’re doing.  Over time, it becomes automatic and occurs (ideally) without thought.

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.  You might learn the basics in an afternoon and spend a decade perfecting it.

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.

Practice Makes Permanent

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.

A Random Anecdote About Squatting

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 2 of this guide).  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 doing that in isolation won’t fix the 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.

Behaviors are Never Extinguished, Only Overwritten

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 discuss next.


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2 thoughts on “A Guide to Changing Exercise Technique

  1. As a runner, I can add a couple of points:

    1) Hang near the finish line of a marathon for a while. It’s not universal, but as the finishing times get worse, the number of weird-looking strides increases. There’s a strong correlation between good technique and faster running.

    2) In the past year, I’ve made some subtle changes to my running form. It’s likely not the only factor (and may not even be a factor), but my pace has gotten significantly faster. (Incidentally, I moved to a mid-foot strike, not for the reasons many zealots promote, but because it’s a strong indicator that I’m landing with my weight over my feet.)

  2. 1. No disagreement. But you can also see some really goofy stuff in top competitors.
    2. Oh sure. But you’re getting into stuff I will talk about in part 2.

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