Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


by stef bradford, PhD, SSC | August 04, 2021

pushing on a hard rep

A statement often thrown around at the gym or in online discussions of training is "I'm just going to work on technique." It's one of two or three of those Things People Say that put me at risk of breaking my teeth. This is especially true when it is an IJGTWOT variant that includes reference to the light weights that inevitably go along with this declaration.

IJGTWOT is a Red Flag that the lifter is looking for a way to not train – to make things easier for the session by removing the planned stress. It's for a good reason, you see: for technique! practice! form! So ditching training is justified. But is practicing at low intensity an effective way to improve technique on the barbell lifts?

First of all, every single time you get under the bar you're practicing technique and embedding movement patterns. This includes the warm-ups you use to prepare physically and mentally for your work sets. This is where it's appropriate for you to work on technique with light weights. You already cover this intensity range every time, for every lift.

Keeping weight at warm-up levels for an IJGTWOT session is easy and comfortable since you're repeating things well within your capability, but growth requires working closer to the limit. It requires stress. You've already developed the strength to control the weight and hold proper positions on these light sets, so they're an opportunity to practice your technique at that level, but don't contribute much for developing it further. Good technique is very easy with light weights.

In contrast, your work sets challenge your ability to maintain good technique. The stress in the squat is not simply what happens with the prime movers getting the bar down to the bottom and back up out of the hole, but includes every part of the kinetic chain that holds your position and coordinates your movement from start to finish. Maintaining good form during the heavy sets, just at the edge of your ability to do so, develops the strength needed for your technique.

A second problem with trying to develop technique with practice at light weights is that technique changes with load on the bar as the Center of Mass of the lifter/barbell system – the combined center of mass (CCOM) - shifts. This effect is most easily noticed in pulls since the load is in front of the body. An easy clean at 75% of your bodyweight is different than a harder one at 100% in more than just the weight on the bar, since the CCOM is in a different place. Developing good technique at the heavier weight requires lifting the heavier weight. Technique is developed in the context of a progressive training environment and adjusted to match the changing context of the system.

Finally, if you're practicing light weights with the aim of improving technique and aren't being coached, how do you know that you're practicing correct technique? How do you know when it is good enough for you to increase the weight on the bar? Without real-time correction you're in danger of both missing training and having your IJGTWOT session be an “I'm just working on the wrong technique” session.

Barbell training requires your technique to develop with your strength. It can't be isolated and developed as a separate skill. Good technique is best worked on under a coach who can teach you the lifts and then cue you to keep good form as you do the program, getting stronger under progressively heavy weights. Once you move from novice to intermediate you'll have light days where any residual urge to switch to IJGTWOT-mode can be satisfied, but without sacrificing training.

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