The truth about exercise technique- it's not as important as you think!
Updated: May 5
When I began as a Fitness Instructor some 23 years ago I was such a stickler for technique. I actually annoyed several gym members with my fastidious need to correct form. My own strength training sessions were like a major event, not just because of the high level of exertion but primarily due to the constant self-monitoring of limb, torso and pelvis position while striving to contract specific muscles in a specific way. Over time I’ve come to understand that technique isn't as critical as I'd once so vehemently believed. Technique does matter of course, especially if you're lifting heavy weights. It’s undeniable that decent technique means you can exercise more efficiently, effectively and safely. It won’t however counteract the pitfalls of poor exercise selection and programming- getting those aspects right is a large part of the value in engaging the services of a fitness professional. Here's 3 things I’ve come to realise about the limits of technique & some more important considerations:
1. Too much of anything is not good for you
I don’t get too bothered about what other trainers are doing with their clients, mainly because it’s easy to judge when you don’t know the challenges and limitations they face. However I admit I get annoyed by instruction which involves too much focus on 1 muscle group. For instance doing set after set of movements which involve the shoulders is really risky business. It’s something I notice fairly regularly. Many trainers don’t get that boxing, push ups, throwing a big ball, waving a heavy rope and upper body weights are all placing a degree of strain (& hence fatigue) on the shoulder joint, it’s connective tissues and stabilising muscles.
Additionally, the typical personal training client is middle aged with less than optimal upper body posture and flexibility (the result of the increasing amount of sitting behind a steering wheel/ computer we do). Plus there is often tension in the neck and upper back as result of chronic or acute stress. Collectively this all means the bio-mechanics of the shoulders are far from optimal. Place too much demand on this part of the body and you’re inviting injury. In practice it’s a greater risk than mediocre technique. Smart exercise programming involves spreading the demands on the various parts of the body throughout the session. It's something I give a lot of consideration & perhaps the most vital of skills I’ve developed over the years.
2. You can’t make an exercise that’s inappropriate appropriate by perfecting technique.
Demanding whole body exercises are very effective for increasing metabolic rate, burning calories, increasing muscle & cardiovascular fitness. There is no doubt about that. The Olympic lifts certainly fall into that category and that’s why they’ve become more popular and mainstream. CrossFit utilises use a lot of this type of strength training. The problem is these lifts are simply inappropriate for many, many people. If you don’t have the flexibility, stability or do have long limbs it’s just not possible to get into the correct positions to do these movements safely and well. Altering technique won’t overcome this; it’s like trying to get a square peg into a round hole. Similarly running isn’t suitable for everyone. It’s stating the obvious that the more you weigh the more force you put through joints. Running of course will increase this degree of force considerably, particularly through ankle, knee and hip joints. If you suspect you are too heavy to run, then you’re probably right and trying to master running technique won’t be of much benefit.
3. Trying to exercise with perfect technique doesn’t help build habit & can DETRACT from performance
Again you don’t want to get sloppy with how you do things, but from personal experience and with a couple of particular former personal trainer colleagues in mind (who burnt out professionally or physically) I can assure you laser-like focus on every little movement isn’t sustainable. A vital part of exercise is building the habit (well it's the most vital part really- don't do it regularly & you simply won't get the results) and with all the other challenges in life sapping your limited reserves of concentration, it’s neither practical nor wise to invest too much mental focus on a workout, which will likely become unenjoyable. An Olympic level track & field athlete once told me about a training group at his gym/track so pre-occupied with technique they just weren’t doing things with enough power/speed/strength/intent to improve and be competitive. Essentially the technical obsession was hindering, if not detracting, from performance. If you get too bogged down with technique your workouts can lose flow and productivity. You need to get on with getting the most appropriate exercises done, if you want to significantly change your physical appearance or performance. Get in touch if you need the help of an experienced professional to put together an effective program or for personal training sessions.
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