Mastering the Basics: Training Edition

Sohee Lee

Many sports are organized in such a fashion that mandates formal mastery of some skill before advancing to the next level. With Tae Kwon Do, you start out with the white belt, then you progress to yellow belt, and so on and so forth until you finally obtain elite black belt status. Gymnastics works in a similar fashion: once level 5 is reached, the athlete is required to meet a minimum score before moving forward and eventually becoming an elite gymnast. There are strict rules to adhere to and milestones that must be achieved. With general gym training, however, such rules do not exist.

Trap bar deadlift, then sumo, then conventional.
Goblet squat, then front, then back.
Crawl, then walk, then run.

It’s a natural progression that I don’t think enough people in the gym are following. Why? Could be for a number of reasons, but the two most common I’ve noticed tend to be pride and excitement. I understand that there may be cute chicks around that you want to impress or your buddies that you absolutely have to outlift. There are eyes watching you; your manhood is on the line. Or you’re trying out a new exercise for the first time and - seems easy enough - you eagerly slide on plate after plate onto the barbell.

But you’re not ready for that. Not yet anyway.

When I say “mastering the basics,” I mean this in a multitude of ways. We can attack this issue from a number of different angles, but for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to just a few.

1. Proper motor control. First and foremost, the neuromuscular connection must be sufficiently established before any weight is loaded. For many beginners, lack of strength can also be an issue that lends to apparent shortcomings in coordination. Much of the time, however, the root of the problem is really that individuals are simply reinforcing poor movement patterns. The body likes to groove patterns that are most efficient and that can mean, for example, different muscles and ligaments compensate in place of some deficiency elsewhere. The back rounds when pulling the barbell from the ground. The knees cave in when coming up out of a squat. The butt sinks during a prone bridge (more commonly referred to as a plank).

I was training a 12 year-old boy a few days ago who had just stepped into a gym for the very first time. The first exercise for his training session was the cable pullthrough. I was aware of the fact that he likely did not know how to hip hinge, so I brought him over to the wall to teach him how to sit back.

He performed decently well. At the cable machines, however, he was unable to replicate the same hip hinge movement; instead, he slumped over with the roundest of round backs and attempted to pull the rope with his arms. I realized I was in a red light situation with him and quickly regressed to simply practicing the hip hinge with a dowel. I received the OK to substitute that entirely for the pullthroughs and took him slowly through rep after rep for all three sets. There was no way he was going to be loading any weight there that day.

The solution is not to add more weight and hope that one day the technique will fall into place. Proper motor control need to be learned - sometimes from scratch - and the nervous system must be trained. This takes plenty of repetition and concentration. Invest the time and effort into re-grooving your body’s movement patterns; the payoff will be great in the long run.

2. Appropriate exercises. Compound before isolation. [Tweet "For those seeking maximum performance, aesthetic, and health benefits, compound exercises are king. "]Isolation exercises don’t provide nearly as much bang for your buck - heck, they should be earned if you ask me. By this I mean that if you’re not considered strong in the bench, deadlift, and squat, you really have no business bro-ing out with those bicep curls. I don’t think there’s really any harm in throwing in a few sets of triceps pushdowns at the tail end of a session, but leave it for the very end. Spend your precious time on the lifts that offer the most dividends.

On another level, sometimes the more basic, the better. Front-loaded reverse lunges on a slideboard really aren’t the best option if you’re still struggling to do one regular reverse lunge with just your bodyweight. In that kind of situation, your best bet is to stick with the version that has less room for technical issues. As a popular example, the goblet squat is a variation of the full squat that has a very low idiocy factor.

Chains, extra plates, and other “fun” items that lend to more complex or advanced variations of an exercise does not necessarily make a lift better. Be careful not to become enchanted by the idea of single arm spiderman push ups with six chains on either side if you have a hard time as it is with ten regular push ups. There’s nothing wrong with the good ‘ole squat (performed properly, of course). Keep it simple.

3. Solid form. I consider this last point related to but still distinct from the rest. Proper motor control and exercise variation aside, I’ve observed individuals allowing some not-so-accidental cheating happen with regards to technique. Range of motion, for one, tends to be a ubiquitous matter that many folks like to skimp on for the sake of pulling and pushing more weight. Racing through reps is another common problem I see - either because they dislike the exercise or they’re trying to use momentum to get the weight up. I understand that lifting heavy ass weights is fun, but it’s all an exercise in futility (that's a fun! I feel clever) if the technique is not up to be par. Scale back on the weight, leave your ego at the door, and let me see some crisp pulls.

A caveat. Don't get so nitpicky about maintaining impeccable form that you never get anywhere. If you've been lunging with 10lb dumbbells in each hand for the past three weeks, then grab the 15s and have at it (this happened with a CP client last week). Understand that everyone's bodies are built differently and there will be slight disparities in terms of how movements are executed based on biomechanics and the like.

Hangin' out at the bottom of a dumbbell goblet squat. I could do this all day.
 Hangin' out at the bottom of a dumbbell goblet squat. I could do this all day.

In an ideal world, all commercial gyms would be run by strength coaches monitoring clients around the clock and ensuring they were using appropriate weight and approve level of exercise selection (kind of like Cressey Performance - not that I'm biased or anything). But we have neither the time nor the money to afford that, and the fact of the matter is that not everyone wants to be coached. I get that. Some people are there just for kicks, and for many, it's an accomplishment in itself to get to the gym and move in one way, shape, or form. If that means you're going to worship the elliptical gods for an hour as opposed to sitting on the couch inhaling red velvet ice cream, then more power to you.

But if you're there with a specific goal to get bigger, faster, and/or stronger - if you're training with real purpose - then follow the guidelines covered above and you'll find yourself on the right track to Awesome.


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