Want to enter a black hole of cyberspace? Join any online discussion about “best exercise technique.” No matter how simple or basic the exercise, you’ll find dozens of conflicting opinions, each backed with the standard mix of broscience and braggadocio.
However, it’s downright foolish to believe there’s one “perfect” approach to exercise programming or technique. While every good coach should embrace the “basic” knowledge, such as pulling the shoulders back when rowing or pushing through the full foot when squatting, there are many instances when a tweak here or an adjustment there can greatly affect the training experience.
Training vs. Lifting
Few lifters acknowledge the difference between training and lifting. In most major movements, there’s a “right” way to perform an exercise that facilitates the targeted muscles, and a “right” way that allows the most weight to be lifted.
So when it comes to deciding what technique to use, it’s important to first remember what the goal is: maximum strength or hypertrophy.
Example 1: Rows
In all rowing exercises (bent-over rows and seated rows especially) it’s recommended to maintain a flat spine that remains motionless during the lift. There’s nothing “wrong” with this, but this is only true if you want to zero in exclusively on the scapular muscles.
If you’re training to lift heavy weight, or you’re a powerlifter looking to add bent-over rows to help build deadlifting strength, you likely won’t get too far doing this exercise with strict, rigid technique. You’ll quickly reach a point that your arms can’t lift anymore weight, even though your lower and upper back can still handle more load.
In a case like this, where lifting more is the key, it’s excusable to keep a neutral spine and incorporate more of your back with a well-timed “top rock” to perform the rowing lift.
Editor’s note: you must watch the video to the end. ‘Nuff said.
The take home point: Remember, stimulation versus lifting. There are benefits to both styles.
Example 2: Deadlift
This “training versus loading” idea is a big reason why lifters will lower their hip position or even go to sumo stance when deadlifting heavy loads.
The lowered hip position will make the quads fire more, and the wider toes and knees will encourage the adductors to contribute.
In any given textbook, you’ll read about the deadlift and it will state that it’s a prime developer of the posterior chain muscles – the glutes, hamstrings, low back, and even the upper back.
As such, the “on-paper” coaching technique for the general population will reflect this, and the lifter in the pictures will show perfect form to hit the glutes, hams, and low back.
But when weight becomes a factor, I guarantee that perfect “by the book” technique won’t be used in a setup. I know in my case, I’ll want to use more of everything to help me lift.
Take a look at any 800+ deadlifter and you’ll notice a bar position located further under the shoulder, lowered hip position, and much more quad involvement. I’ve argued against lowering the hip position and I still believe this – for tall lifters.
Tall guys have a problem with the deadlift because of their anthropometry. They’ll often be forced into a higher hip position when performing the lift, which does a good job of stimulating the muscles involved but won’t help them pull 1000 any time soon.
Shorter powerlifters can incorporate more musculature into the deadlift along with a flat back and good “pulling technique.” Add long arms to the mix for their height and you’ve got the makings of a strong pull.
Take home point: Lower hips, distance from shins, and more quad involvement will help you move more weight, but won’t necessarily make your hamstrings and glutes stronger. It depends what you’re using the deadlift for in your training, as it relates to your goals.
Example 3: Pull-Ups
This is a supreme marker of upper body strength and a prime developer for the lats and upper arms. Regardless of your weight, learning to do pull-ups isn’t easy, and getting good at them is even harder.
All over the internet, I see trainers post videos of themselves or even their clients with a brazen title claiming a performance of a very high rep set of pull-ups. And each time I click on the link, I’m disappointed. I see shameful technique, reckless kipping, incomplete extension, and virtually no back muscles being used through the great majority of each set.
However, training for pull-up performance is different from training for muscular stimulation. No matter how questionable the technique, being able to crack out 25 or 30 bodyweight pull-ups is an impressive feat of strength and muscular endurance. Some credit must be given to a lifter who can do this, even if his “lats” aren’t performing the lift the way everyone says they should.
Here’s an example of pull-ups done with proper technique to hit the lats effectively. I avoid swinging, the shoulders are lowered to precede each rep, and the lift disallows the shoulders from rounding or caving forward as the top of the lift nears.
While the technique is great if I do say so myself, I can guarantee that I wouldn’t get many more than 15 or so reps using this strict form, and probably even fewer. But, am I strong enough to perform 20 or 25 pull-ups? That’s a different conversation altogether.
Take home point: If you’ve been training for a while and reached a plateau, sometimes it can be okay to abandon picture perfect technique if you’re after strength gains or a PR lift. This includes bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, where “high risk” isn’t quite as much of an issue as other exercises.
On the other hand, if you’re a complete novice or just looking to make your lats grow, stick to the script. Stimulate your muscles effectively, and make the weight lifted take second place.
One More Thing: Use the Force!
Another great example to support my theme would be the use of force angles. Take the dumbbell pullover for example. Meatheads galore will say it’s a great mass builder for the lats, increasing trunk volume, and expanding the size of the ribcage.
If this wasn’t true to some degree – if you didn’t add serious size by performing heavy pullovers – the movement wouldn’t still be used by bodybuilders worldwide.
However, the force angle to make a pullover effective for the lats or chest muscles is completely wrong. Gravity is pulling the weight down towards the floor as you try to go through a mainly horizontal pulling action. The function of the lats and pec minor from this position would be best exploited if the force angle came from behind. That’s what would stimulate the muscles more, and isolate the lats through the same movement pattern.
In other words, use a cable pullover instead of a dumbbell pullover. You only need to move the flat or decline bench over to a low cable pulley. You use the same pattern that you would with a dumbbell, only you use the cable instead, thus creating a different force angle.
Take home point: Do you want to just get “stronger” and be able to apply more force while moving through a general movement pattern, or do you want to train certain muscles within that pattern? The difference could mean looking at your physics, and also changing the weight. Neither method is “wrong.”
So, What Constitutes a “Perfect” Rep?
The short answer is, it doesn’t exist – so it’s foolish to get married to one school of thought when it comes to exercise. It’s specific to the individual, their needs, and the goals of his or her training program.
While there’s typically considerable overlap between those training for strength numbers and those training for size and physique, technical tweaks often come in handy in either situation. In saying that, don’t be an idiot – garbage technique and a bunch of cheat reps won’t get you anywhere, except injured.
Remember, people are contraindicated, not exercises, so it comes down to what you want out of the weights you lift. There’s always more than one “right way” to do things in the gym.