Saturday, December 12, 2009

Proper Form: Can You Handle It?

Some good advice to remember in our weightroom training, but also in the ring.

by Charles Poliquin

"You can’t handle the truth!" is the famous line Jack Nicholson barks to Tom Cruise in the military classic A Few Good Men. That expression comes to me whenever I see trainees not paying attention to proper form – they just cannot accept the fact that their technique sucks and is holding back their progress as well as putting them at greater risk of injury.

Individuals with low self-esteem refuse to live consciously. I remember this one mediocre bodybuilder who used to train at a top gym in Southern California. The guy insisted on using the full weight stack on every machine he used, and because he wasn’t built like Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, his workout looked like a slapstick scene in a Jim Carrey comedy. Too bad I didn’t bring a Flip camera to the gym when I trained – that clown would have given me a lot of great material for America’s Funniest Home Videos. What a joke.

Delusional bodybuilders aside, I’ve found that trainees who use proper form usually have high levels of self-esteem. Their form reveals what they believe about bodybuilding and strength training:

1. Their interest is in progression, not theatrics. They’re not concerned about what another person thinks about them using lighter weights. They’re not embarrassed to perform rotator cuff exercises with a 2-1/2 pound weight plate if they believe it will prevent injuries or improve their bench press. I love to have these types of individuals attend my seminars on structural balance, such as my Level I and Level II PICP certifications, because they are willing to set aside their egos and learn the best ways to make continual progress in their training. Remember, it’s not where you start that matters; it’s where you finish that matters.

2. They lift for themselves, not to impress others (not that other people in the gym are going to care how much you can swing to straight arms in a triceps kickback). If performing a front squat with 195 pounds will do more for leg development than slapping on a half-dozen 45-pound plates to a leg press machine, then they will do front squats with 195 pounds.

3. They understand that lifting big loads with improper form will not help you lift big loads with proper form as quickly as lifting with proper form at all times will. Sure, squatting a few inches above parallel will enable you to lift considerably more weight, but the training effects are much greater when you perform the exercise correctly. (A great little device to keep athletes honest about their squat performance is the BFS Safety Squat, which attaches to the upper thigh and beeps when the athlete reaches a position where the tops of their thighs are parallel to the floor. For most trainees, you wouldn’t hear much beeping, judging by the way they squat.)

For those who are willing to open their minds and learn the truth, here are some practical recommendations about exercise performance that will help take your training to the next level.

1. Always look for ways to make an exercise harder, not easier. Weight is not everything. Bouncing the plates off the floor during a deadlift between reps will enable you to perform more weight with heavy weights, but pausing the bar on the floor between reps on the deadlifts creates more overload on the neuromuscular system. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to write about how he would focus on feeling the muscle when he lifted and that he wasn’t as concerned about how much weight he was using. In an article he wrote in 1976 about squats, he said, "...concentration lends its own form of resistance. By thinking I can direct the effort, I can make every movement count..." He was right. There is a very large difference between training for strength and size, and training to lift high loads explosively. These are two different goals; thus two different training methods are used.

2. Never sacrifice style for increased poundage. I know individuals who have increased their bench press by 60 pounds in just one month – seriously! They do this by changing their form, and the result can be proven mathematically, as follows:

(Lifting hips off the bench = 25 pounds) + (Bouncing the bar in the bottom position = 10 pounds) + (Increasing width of grip = 10 pounds) + (Not extending to lockout = 15 pounds) = 60 pounds.

Rather than degrading your lifting technique to use more weight, I recommend changing the exercises you perform approximately every six workouts. The idea is that when you are just about to hit a plateau, it’s time to move on to another exercise. I remember being in New Zealand about 17 years ago, and it seemed that EVERYBODY in the gyms where I trained used 225 pounds on the bar for bench presses – it was like if you did not use that much weight you were not a man. You should have seen the numerous "interpretations" of what constituted a bench press. Those ridiculous exercise variations were more like "Supine Two-Arm Anyhows" or "Spastic Push-Aways." Likewise, I saw one especially interesting pull-up technique in a Copenhagen gym – let’s see...try to imagine an accordion with epilepsy!

3. Lower weights more slowly than you lift them. When weight training, you control the weight; the weight does not control you. Even though you can use more weight during eccentric contractions than during concentric contractions, you only recruit about half the muscle fibers when lowering a load – so the actual tension on the muscles recruited is double. There is also evidence that a slower lowering of the load is associated with greater growth hormone output, thus allowing better tissue adaptation. As a result, you benefit more by maximizing the overload on the eccentric portion of every rep.

During my PICP courses I always have the students perform exercises with long, eccentric tempos so they can experience this type of training firsthand. And because soreness is associated more with eccentric contractions than with concentric, the next day there are a lot of aching muscles!

Soreness never lies. If you aren’t feeling it, it isn’t working. That’s the truth about getting the most from your workouts. Can you handle it?

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