Changing Technique Part 1

This is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a while; I apparently started it in 2011 and then got distracted by other things.  But for lack of anything to write about, I’m getting back to it.

A recent (note: 2011) article in Runner’s World magazine spurred what will invariably be an article that takes far more parts to cover than I’m initially planning; in brief it looked at some of the recent debates over running form (and of course the shoe issue) in terms of the whole heel strike vs. midfoot strike vs. forefoot strike.    More generally it looked at the issue of running form/technique, if there is an ‘ideal’ form or technique and, if so, whether it’s worth it for runners to attempt to change their technique.

Unfortunately, in the absence of much real data on optimal running technique or what have you (and anecdote is not data no matter how much people try to make it so), their only real answer to the question of “Should runners change technique?” was “It depends.”  At least they were honest and that’s certainly an answer I can get behind.

Now I have no intention of addressing the running technique debate per se here, rather I want to talk more generally since the issue of technique, learning technique, optimal technique and changing technique comes up quite a bit in the training world.  Many forums, including my support forum have a thread or forum dedicated to exercise technique and lifters often post videos of themselves lifting looking for feedback.

And then depending on the nature of the forum and who comments, advice can range from ‘You need to go back to using the bar and start all over’ to ‘That’s fine’ to ‘Just shut up and lift’ and pretty much everything in-between.  This can often lead to your typical internet arguments where folks are more or less arguing across one another (basically talking about completely different or unrelated issues) or simply not acknowledging that many questions such as ‘Should I change my technique?’ have to be answered with ‘It depends.’

In this (let’s face it, series of) article(s), I want to look at some of the myriad issues that go into the question of whether or not someone should make the effort to change and/or fix technique.  I want to make it clear that I’m not just talking about weight room technique here, the same would apply for other sports as well where technique plays some sort of role (an issue I’ll also try to look at).

Through the series, I’ll be using some various and sundry examples, some personal, myself or folks I’ve worked with, some from other sources.  If there is much research literature on this, I’m not aware of it; probably more because I haven’t looked since motor learning research tends to be boring, pretty irrelevant to complex sporting activities and I’m lazy on this topic.. So much of it will be anecdotal in nature.  That is, the examples I’m using will mainly be to illustrate a point in some sort of semi-applied way more than anything.  Just putting that up front.

What is Proper Technique: Part 1

Before even getting into the issue of whether a given individual in a given circumstance should spend the time trying to fix or change their technique, I want to look at what will seem like a bit of a pedantic question.  But I think it’s relevant.  And it lets me pad out this piece so I can update more days.

And that pedantic question is this ‘What is proper technique?’ This question actually consists of a bunch of different issues that I want to look at and folks tend to fall into one of two major camps.  I think this was best discussed in Arthur Dreschler’s Encyclopedia of Olympic Weightlifting where he discusses the extreme camps of the Technique Absolutists and Relativists.

In his own words, in its most extreme form, absolutists feel that there is one proper lifting technique, that they know what it is, and that anything less than perfection is to be shunned and ridiculed; they also seem to judge performance solely on technique where good technique is good performance (regardless of actual performance) and poor technique isn’t.  A guy with perfect technique who is getting ass stomped in actual competition is the superior lifter to them.

Which is wonderful in the small handful of sports judged almost solely on what amounts to technique (err, rhythmic gymnastics perhaps, I can’t think of many).  But in the real world the guy who lifts the most, runs the fastest, gets the highest score (or sometimes the lowest score), crosses the line first wins.  How he looks doing it isn’t usually relevant.  Of course there are sports where aesthetics/technique do play a role in scoring (for example, gymnasts can be marked down for not maintaining proper toe point or whatever during certain moves and they at least used to get points for amplitude, which you can interpret as how freaking AWESOMELY the move was done).

In the other extreme camp are the relativists who think that lifters should just do ‘what is natural’ (this seems to suggest some instinctive weightlifting genetics which is idiotic) and not worry about it.  They seem to think that the body has some sort of intuition about how to do certain things and that folks should will just ‘figure it out’.  You can go into any weight room to divest yourself of this nonsense.  See what people come up with left to their intuition, then go shake your head and read an article on proper lifting technique.

Tangentially, in that I brought up a running article to introduce this piece, running is perhaps one sport where the idea that there is a ‘natural/instinctive way’ to run has been the most entrenched.  It’s been argued that running is part of our evolutionary past (certainly our relative distance running performance, compared to say sprinting where the average housecat can beat the best human, supports this idea) and, as such, humans just ‘know’ how to run.  Distance running, so the article argued, has been one of the last sports to really examine the issue of what is or isn’t ‘good technique’.    Because of this supposed ‘instinctive running ability’, it’s often also argued that trying to change run technique is impossible: it’s felt that people will run how they run and that’s it.

Having both watched people run (usually miserably with extreme pronation going into the feet flipping out externally, knees breaking in, terrible body carriage and posture, etc.) as well as having seen folks change technique, I find both of these ideas pretty flawed.  Clearly people don’t run well left to their own devices and it’s clear that technique can be changed.

It’s possible that at some point humans did ‘know’ how to run but by the time you introduce modern life which tends to wreck posture and cause muscular imbalances, the shoe issue (which I’m not going to touch), pavement and everything else this certainly isn’t the case anymore.  Start introducing a lot of other variables in the real world and you see a lot of really terrible (often injured) runners.  If it’s intuitive, then people’s intuition sucks.

Mind you, it would be unusual to find someone truly at the extreme of either the absolutist or relativist camp (though they certainly exist, usually folks who have read a single book about training and are now experts), most people simply tend towards one side of the argument or another.  I mainly bring this up as you can often find similar camps in the various Internet arguments that often crop up around the issue of ‘proper technique’ and/or whether or not someone should try to fix it.  More often than not this revolves around lifting technique since arguably more people look for feedback there than in other sports where people usually go get a coach.

So someone will post a video of themselves lifting, a squat, bench, deadlift or what have you looking for feedback.  And then it all goes nutso in the ensuing discussion/argument.   True absolutists will argue that there is not only one proper technique for everything but that until a trainee can do it perfectly, they should work on nothing but that with just the bar.  Relativists tend to argue that this is nonsense; often pulling out examples of top level athletes or lifters that use something far removed (or at least somewhat removed) from supposed ‘optimal technique’ and tell lifters not worry about it since clearly it doesn’t really matter.

As usual, the truth tends to be somewhere in the middle with both groups ignoring a bunch of important realities (that I’m going to address in Part 2) that tie into whether or not technique should be changed.   Really, this section is just an extended introduction for the rest of this article series.

What is Proper Technique: Part 2

So again, what is proper technique?  To first address this seemingly simply question, I want to look at where technique actually comes from.  That is, where ideas about technique derive from?  And the answer is that there are a lot of different places where sports come from.  In the earliest days of sports, technique probably came from a combination of trial and error and/or lucky accident among athletes.   Then, as that athlete starts to be successful doing something, folks start to simply mimick them.  Someone would try something, it worked, and everybody would copy it.  You still see this today; some elite athlete will show up doing something different with their technique or training, everyone will assume that THIS is what made them elite and start doing it.  Which is just as foolish as thinking there is nothing to be learned when someone is doing something new.   It’s always a matter of degrees.

An example that comes to mind is that the 6-beat kick was apparently invented in swimming by accident.  I forget the details but someone probably got fatigued, started kicking faster than everybody thought they should and saw a performance boost.  After that particular swimmer simply dominated the sport, everyone adopted his invention/discovery (and note that swimming technique, one of the most technical sports ever, is still being refined and figured out).  I would have to imagine that a lot of lifting techniques, at least in terms of optimization came through this.  Certainly many of the movements (such as squatting, pressing) are what some refer to as ‘primal’ movements but optimizing them for use with heavy loads was likely to have been a case of trial and error and a bit of luck.  At least in the early days, most technique changes came from the athletes and coaches just trying stuff out to see what worked and what didn’t.

You can see this in early Olympic lifting.  Guys would press with the bar overhead and their heads up and back which is a very difficult position to maintain.  At some point, some guy thought to bring his head through (what Dan John calls ‘peeking through the window’) and realized it was way more stable and easier to lockout.  And now everybody does that.  Everybody used split technique for years until someone did a squat technique.  It was obviously superior and everybody (assuming they could get the mobility) switched for the most part.  OL technique is like no primal pattern in existence (except perhaps for the much vaunted triple extension) and guys were figuring it out as they went for a long time.

Of course, sometimes technique inventions are just because some maniac has an equally maniacal idea.  The Fosbury flop in high-jumping seems to fit this category.  For whatever reason, I’d suspect too much alcohol, Fosbury had the idea to go over the bar backwards instead of trying to hurdle the thing as everyone had been doing to that point.  At least some of it had to do, from memory, with the development of landing pads.  Early high jumpers had to land on dirt and landing on your head isn’t a great idea.  When pads came about, the possibility of landing on your back became possible; I still suspect Fosbury was drunk but I also suspect that a lot of sports or technique gets invented due to a bunch of guys sitting around drinking and someone going ‘I bet you can’t do that’.  Nobody thought it would work and it would be years before anyone knew how it worked (it has to do with trickery involving the body’s center of gravity passing under the bar as the body moves over it).  But it worked, worked better and everybody rapidly followed suit and adopted the technique assuming they weren’t too late in their career to be able to.

In more recent years, as technique optimization has become quite the big deal and sports are worth millions of dollars, a large amount of biomechanical analysis is being done.  Between theories about biomechanics or just straight up video, EMG, analysis and the rest folks continue to look for ways to get the most out of the human organism.  This is becoming arguably more important as the limits of physiological development are being reached: things like strength, power, Vo2 max are no longer improving, performance improvements can only come from other aspects of sport such as technique or equipment.  The Soviets did endless research on Olympic lifting in an attempt to optimize performance in the 70’s.   And this trend continues today.

Technique vs. Style

As a final comment here, let me address the idea that any given sport has a proper technique but there can also be variants due to a specific athlete’s style of lifting.  That is, when you look at sports technique, most top competitors do roughly the same things.  Within some range of variation, a back squat looks like a back squat, a bench looks like a bench, a clean looks like a clean, etc.  At the same time, different athletes often do slightly different things within that general technical model.  Their biomechanics plays a role, a lifter with a shorter femur and longer torso may do different things in the squat than a lifter with a longer femur and shorter torso.  Hip structure and mobility can impact on stance width, the needed amount of toe turnout, etc.

But in the aggregate, a high bar squat will look relatively similar between two lifters.   So will a generic power squat or a competition squat (this can also depend on gear, monolift, etc.).  Yes, there will be differences.  One will sit slightly more back, one slightly more down.  Back angle may vary as may head position.  Despite a lot of myopic nonsense, great squatters have looked down, at the horizon and up and there is no right way in an absolute sense.   A clean style deadlift will look, in the aggregate, like another clean style deadlift done properly.  One lifter may sit a bit lower, another a bit higher and head position can vary.  Long femur/short torso is different than short femur/long torso (or short femur/short torso) and it’s important for any athlete trying to copy a given athlete’s technique to pick someone with similar biomechanics.

Other biomechanical differences can come into account.  In Olympic lifting, it’s common for big boy superheavy weights to use a wider stance at the start of their pull.  This is a necessity so that they can (I kid you not) get their big fat bellies between their legs.   They often show a bit more of a bar loop (meaning they have to compensate elsewhere) to get the bar around their belly.  An often unconsidered issue is women’s boobs (on top of all of the other mechanical differences).  A  female Olympic lifter with boobs may have to loop the bar slightly so avoid hitting them.  Few seem to consider how technique of many lifts might change (i.e. flat bench press or any exercise done lying on the stomach) due to this.

There are often different theories of a proper technical model.  According to Dreschler, Bulgarian Olympic lifting coaches felt that a proper lift had the lifter jump backwards; others felt it should be straight up (Khaki Khakisvilis and I probably spelled his name wrong had perhaps one of the most classically ‘perfect’ pulls in history).  I don’t think anybody every advocated jumping forwards but any OL’er can correct me on this one.  It usually means that the bar is out front which is considered a technical error but I’m sure some lifters have made it work from time to time.

As well, sometimes athletes just pick up quirks somewhere along the way.  You see this a lot in OL’ing with top guys often doing some very weird things.  Pyrros Dimas, somewhere along the line, picked up this early shrug back where he’d retract his shoulder girdle as the bar came past the knee into the explosion.  I suspect this was a way of shortening the lever arm for the axis of rotation relative to the ‘traditional’ technique (most lifters don’t do this) which let him get more speed.   An absolutist would say this is wrong, the relativist would point out that he dominated his weight class.  But you simply don’t see it in the majority so the fact that one lifter made it work, despite being used by the relativist camp, doesn’t mean much.  You can find just as many or more superior lifters who don’t do it that way even if relativists love to focus on the lone exception.

Naim I can’t spell his last name had a weird side to side hip shift in his squat recovery after the clean.  I don’t know if this was in his technique early on or something he did because of an injury but some have used this to argue that the idea that you must recover the squat straight up isn’t true. Or that side to side deviations don’t cause injury.  Well, maybe.  Assuming he started doing it early in his career, his body and connective tissues adapted over years of progressive training to it. That doesn’t make it safe for someone just starting to lift.  As well, at the elite level, nobody gives a damn about safety or health.  Whatever lets you win is what you do and most like to ignore the broken and battered bodies that are left over by stuff like this when the athlete retires.

Similarly, a lot of Ol’ers recover with their knees way broken in (some female Chinese Ol’ers almost have their knees touch).  Oh my god, scream the relativists, the guys saying don’t break the knees in are wrong and should stfu noob do you even lift (this is like the round backed deadlift thing, where people are arguing across one another).  Maybe.  Or maybe when you have insane mobility (women are more mobile than men, often being hypermobile), don’t give a crap about safety when ultimate performance is the goal and start using a technique when you’re 5 so that you have 15 years to adapt to it isn’t really relevant to someone who started lifting 6 months ago.

There is also the fact that at the highest level of sport you, by definition, only see the guys who succeed.  You don’t see the endless guys who got destroyed by a given training program or lifting technique, who got injured or broken off by it.  Exceptions don’t disprove a rule and if 98% of people got destroyed by something, using the 2% who didn’t to try to make a point is asinine.    Bulgaria never cared if they destroyed most of their lifters so long as they won medals.  The handful that survived the training don’t offset the majority who didn’t.

But now I’m off topic. This is as good a place to start as any and I’ll continue next week by looking at some other considerations on exercise technique, how we might even define a technique flaw in the first place and when it might or might not be appropriate to go through trying to change that technique to something more technically correct.

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