Strength VS. Technique

Published: Fri, 04 Nov 2016


The question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg,” has a long history, and though it has never been fully answered, most people would agree that no egg has ever laid a chicken. Philosophers through the ages have pondered not only on the possible answers, but the meaning of the question itself. We’ve all seen video of poorly built buildings collapsing upon themselves, bridges falling down, and rocket ships breaking into pieces on take-off. We’ve seen tires bouncing free from race cars and careening across the track, heard of oil tankers breaking in half, and know of many other examples of design flaws resulting in disaster, including a few recently televised clothing-related incidents. Yet some buildings have survived the test of time, lasting for hundreds and even thousands of years. Artists wonder which is more important, form or function, while scientists ask the same question, substituting the words “anatomy" and "physiology.” While teaching strength training at this year’s FoodnSport retreats, I was struck by the number of people whose lack of proper technique prevented them from lifting to anywhere near the limit of their strength. Technique limits the application of strength. In the case of the rocket ships, the strength was there, but poor design (technique) resulted in collapse. The fallen bridges and buildings were built with strong materials, but design flaws resulted in failure.

Archimedes is credited with saying, “Give me a long enough level and I could move the Earth.” His insight and understanding into the power of levers and leverage inspired countless inventions and innovations. In strength training, we must use leverage to our best advantage or else we make the weight feel heavier than it really is. We’ve all learned to carry heavy weights close to our body, for as the weight gets further from us, our leverage is compromised, making the weight feel heavier. Essentially, good lifting technique results in making the weight feel as light as possible, thus requiring the least application of strength. I’m not suggesting that feats of strength are really just tricks of leverage, mere gimmicks of smoke and mirror tomfoolery. Strength athletes are indeed incredibly strong, especially when compared to we mere mortals. But even they must use optimal form to lift the heaviest weights, or else they will fail in the lift and increase the risk of injury. When lifting heavy weights, proper technique is essential.

By the end of their first session of deadlifting, most people find that they can lift at least their own weight, or even up to roughly fifty percent more than their own weight. Lifting a light weight does not require great technique, but proper technique always helps. As newcomers go through their introductory and warm-up lifts, they invariably ask questions about their form. When the load is light, however, feeling what is actually going on can be challenging. Form breaks don’t show up as clearly, because the lifter can use muscles other than the primary movers in order to lift the weight. If the lifter leans too far forward, for example, s/he can simply push off of the toes to counter the effect of the forward lean. When lifting a weight that is near the lifter’s limit, the forward lean will create a series of knock-on problems. The lifter will be on toes, unable to drive downwards through the heels. The knees will move forward, tilting the shins forward, putting the lifter in a weakened position. Instead of bringing the bar ever closer to the body, forward lean will result in the weight moving away from the body, making it feel relatively heavier than it really is. When the weight is heavy, form breaks show up quickly, as the weight will actually throw you around.

Lifting at somewhere close to eighty percent of your maximum seems to be the ideal weight for developing great technique. At this weight, the lifter can usually perform four to six repetitions before becoming too tired to lift any further. The first few repetitions are relatively easy, while the final one or two will be quite challenging. Performing multiple reps is a great way to learn and “lock in” good technique, but the weight must be heavy enough that good technique is required. At eighty percent, doing only five reps, the lifter will still be developing strength while also refining technique. As strength and technique improve, maximal exertions will result in heavier lifts. The trick to strength development is to lift, and to always lift with great technique.

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