WHY TECHNIQUE IS SO IMPORTANT
The progressive overload principle should be thought of as not just adding more weight to the bar, but adding more tension on the muscle itself. “Overloading” a movement by allowing the form to break down does not necessarily imply that more tension has been added to the muscle since the use of excessive momentum and the involvement of assisting muscles can help “move the weight.” So, while I think it is acceptable to allow for controlled “cheating” on some secondary and tertiary movements, primary movements should be purposefully mastered and controlled on every single rep. There are two main reasons for this: safety and results.
Strength training can be dangerous if done wrong. Since building muscle and increasing strength is a time-consuming process, it’s important to stay as injury-free as possible for as long as possible. Consistently practicing perfect technique on lightweight will ensure that you have built-in and ingrained the proper lifting habits when lifting the really heavy weight.
Good technique minimize injury risk and it also loads the targeted muscles more effectively, while decreasing the loading of secondary and stabilizing muscles. A large degree of strength development is directly tied to technique development and because of the primacy of the progressive overload principle, it’s safe to say that a focus on getting stronger in the rep zones included in this program will lead to greater muscle gains. This all begins with good technique.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE “GOOD FORM”?
Some trainers take the extreme stance that zero momentum or cheating should not be used when lifting, regardless of how well controlled the cheating is. Others insist that because the goal is to overload, cheating is fine since it allows you to move more weight. I think they are both wrong, because it is always based on context and in this case, movements:
Primary movements: Practice perfect technique on all reps (for example, squats, bench presses and deadlifts).
Secondary and Tertiary movements: Some momentum is allowed to get the weight moving, but always control the weight on the eccentric.
Exactly what accounts for “good form” will depend on the specific movement being performing and the person performing the movement as we all have different builds and leverages. Still, a helpful practice is to record your lifts and compare your technique to the technique demonstrated in the videos provided. You can also have me give you feedback if you’re one of our coaching clients.
With exercise-specific technique variations aside (e.g. maintaining a neutral back during a squat, minimal swaying during a bicep curl, keeping the barbell in contact with the lower leg and thigh during a deadlift, etc.) there are three main principles that constitute “good form”:
1. CONTROLLING THE NEGATIVE
Controlling the negative essentially means that you are lowering the weight under your own control, not under the control of gravity alone. Despite this being an important concern for safety reasons, some literature suggests that the eccentric (negative) portion of the lift is the most important for muscle growth. Rep durations between 0.5- 8 seconds all lead to similar amounts of hypertrophy. This suggests that you should choose a tempo that is comfortable for you, while maintaining full control of the weight throughout the entire repetition. My personal recommendation is to aim for a one to two second negative and a one to two second positive on most lifts, with the main criteria being that you are consciously and actively controlling the weight using the target muscles throughout the full range of motion.
For primary lifts like bench presses and squats, you should aim for a more “explosive” concentric and focus more on the movement of your entire body in three-dimensional space, rather than on a specific lifting tempo. Deadlifts are the one possible exception where the eccentric does not need to be controlled to the same degree – simply hold the bar on its way down and maintain bar position directly over the middle of your foot, allowing the bar to descend at a speed that feels natural for you.
2. FULL RANGE OF MOTION
Although research does suggest that partial range of motion training (“half reps” or “quarter reps”) can be a useful training tool for strength development, for the most part, we will benefit maximally from consistently training through a full range of motion. This basic habit across all exercises will allow for a more efficient understanding of the movement pattern and ensure roughly equal strength abilities at all points throughout the movement’s range of motion.
From a safety perspective, it’s also important to note that a full range of motion will usually require the use of lighter weights. Using the bench press as an example, you will be able to lift much more weight if you only bring the bar halfway to your chest than you will by bringing the bar all the way down to touch your chest. This “extra weight” on the bar may cause additional stress on the joints and soft-tissues without any additional benefit in terms of hypertrophy. Going through a full range of motion results in greater increases in muscle mass than using a partial range of motion. Granted, there is counter-evidence supporting the idea that as long as intensity (relative effort) is equated, full and partial ranges of motions lead to similar hypertrophy.
3. PROPER BREATHING
Knowing how to breathe during a lift is something many lifters struggle with. It is common to see people either holding their breath for far too long during a set or having the pace of their breathing totally out of sync with the pace of their reps.
My simple recommendation is to inhale during the eccentric (negative) and exhale during the concentric (positive). This may feel awkward at first so I recommend paying close attention to your breathing during your warm-up sets so that you can better “ingrain” those proper breathing habits for your heavier sets. If your temptation is to hold your breath while lifting, consciously remind yourself to breathe and consider “marking the breath” by saying to yourself “breathing in” as you lower the weight and “breathing out” as you lift the weight back up.
In addition to ensuring proper oxygenation, research has shown that inhaling during the eccentric portion of the lift and exhaling during the concentric portion significantly lessens the increase in blood pressure associated with the more advanced “Valsalva maneuver” technique. The Valsalva technique is when you forcibly exhale against a closed glottis during the concentric portion of a lift. This is a very commonly used technique amongst powerlifters and other strength athletes to increase the amount of weight being lifted by increasing pressure in the abdomen. In the intermediate-advanced stage of lifting, I would recommend experimenting with the Valsalva maneuver on primary exercises (squat, bench press and deadlift) to your own comfort levels since it will very likely help increase the weight you are using on these exercises. However, keep in mind that this breathing technique is associated with a greater increase in blood pressure, so use it at your own discretion and be particularly cautious if you are at risk of hypertension.