Here's what you need to know...
• Don't work out just to get better at working out.
• Never lose sight of why you're in the gym. Do what gets you better at that. The fact is, your numbers can improve without you actually improving along with them.
• Getting obsessive about technique can be counterproductive.
• If your goal is explosiveness, then do the exercise that lets you be the most explosive. Don't get hung up on mastering cleans for example if you happen to suck at them.
We use the gym to better ourselves for other things. We get stronger or faster for our favorite sport. We improve our heart health and cardiovascular function to live a longer, healthier life. We build rippling biceps and a chiseled six-pack to impress that hot chick at the coffee shop. The point is, working out is a means to an end.
Don't get me wrong – I love a hard workout. Not many people dig getting under the bar and doing kickass conditioning as much as I do. But I'm not in the business of working out just for the sake of getting better at working out. Because that's kinda stupid.
I'm in the business of working out to improve the rest of my life. If I can do something badass in the gym, but it doesn't have any real carryover to anything else, that's a waste. That's where the "paradox of exercise" comes into play.
Stronger Or Better?
If we're doing things in the gym to improve ourselves for something else, then that something else should be the measure of whether what we're doing is really working.
Are you faster on the track or stronger on the mat? Do you look better in the mirror? If so, then you're doing it right. If not, then it's time to go back to the drawing board. The problem comes into play when we use what we do at the gym as our benchmark of our progress... and that's it. Because that shit can be hacked.
Back in the '90s, pro-baseball players started hitting homeruns in a manner like the public had never seen. It was largely attributed to guys working out smarter in the gym. When they worked out smarter, they got stronger. When they got stronger, they were able to hit the ball farther. We found out later that this was more due to steroid use than some new workout, but the idea still holds true – a stronger player meant a ball hit farther. This ended up causing guys to try to get stronger.
Here's the thing, though: a player doesn't necessarily have to get stronger to knock it out of the park. Instead, he can spend time in the batting cage with a good coach. By improving his swing, he can also hit the ball farther. And he never has to step foot in the gym to do it. He doesn't become a "stronger" hitter – he becomes a "better" hitter.
What many people don't realize is that the same thing can happen in the gym, and it'll totally screw you up if you're not careful.
When Your Bench 1RM Isn't Your True 1RM
On the whole, we gauge our progress in the gym by comparing to what we've done previously. Your bench 1RM was 200 pounds. You worked hard for three months and now you can bench 225 pounds. Your bench went up, so therefore you're stronger. What you did worked and now you're better.
The problem with this approach is that too many times, the number on the bar ends up becoming the sole focus. Instead of thinking that getting stronger leads to a bigger number on the bar, we think that a bigger number on the bar means we're getting stronger. So we start chasing the wrong thing. Instead of trying to get stronger, we try to get a bigger number on the bar. This is often done by making ultra-refinements to exercise technique.
Doing this does lead to a bigger number on the bar, but all it means is an improved performance – it doesn't really mean you're any better at anything. Yeah, you can brag to your buddies, but so the hell what?
Think of it like this: I'd venture to say that Jim Wendler or Dave Tate could take virtually anyone and improve his bench technique. Jim or Dave would teach him how to spread the bar, exactly where to bring it down to his chest, how much to flare the elbows, how much to arch, and so on.
I'd further posit that with probably as little as 20-30 minutes practice, a guy like Jim or Dave could take our random dude and put as much as 30 pounds on his bench 1RM.
Do you really think that guy just got 30 pounds stronger in less than half an hour? Of course he didn't – he just got better at expressing the strength he already had. Just like the baseball player who spent extra time in the cage didn't get any stronger or faster – he just got better at hitting.
Therein lies our dilemma.
Better Isn't Always Better
We often get so wrapped up in improving the numbers that we lose sight of whether we're improving the physical qualities that we need to apply to the other areas of our life that brought us to the gym to begin with.
Yes, ultra-refined technique might put more weight on the bar, allow us to do more pull-ups, help us perform a particular workout faster, or let us run farther. At the risk of repeating myself, so the hell what?
Unless those numbers are why you're in the gym in the first place (you're a competitive powerlifter or Olympic lifter), then going from "good" form to "perfect" form doesn't really mean jack in the grand scheme of things.
Now don't go misreading what I just said. You should always use good form, no matter what type of exercise you're doing. Proper form will ensure that you're targeting the appropriate musculature, being safe, and developing the physical qualities you're there to develop.
But once you're doing an exercise with good, safe, and appropriate form, making tiny changes in technique might allow you to add 5 pounds here, shave .5 seconds off your time there, or add an extra rep. All of that is indicative of improved performance and probably had nothing to do with improving the physical qualities that drive performance.
So now you're in that realm of working out for the sake of getting better at working out.
The Hard Stuff
Everything we've looked at so far has been normal, everyday stuff you see at the gym. What happens when we start considering movements or types of exercise in which technique – not just raw strength, power, conditioning, etc. – is a driving force? Does an inability to proficiently perform these activities somehow equate to lesser physical capability?
I can snatch an 80-pound dumbbell so hard that it wants to fly out of my hand. Yet my barbell snatch technique blows. Does that mean I'm not explosive? A few years ago, CrossFit introduced a swimming event into their yearly Games. Were the competitors that washed out of the competition as a result of not knowing how to swim in the ocean somehow "unfit" to compete that year? Are those who did poorly because they hadn't mastered the trick of walking on their hands really "less fit" than those who had? No.
Those tests are not based on raw physical qualities. Instead, they test the ability to apply raw physical qualities to a very specific skill.
Any time an overabundance of skill is requisite to perform something, you're now just as hamstrung by technique as you are raw physical ability. That means you have to not only devote time to improving your raw physical ability, but time to practicing that specific skill or trick.
Now, if you want to improve that specific skill because it's your chosen activity or just because you want bragging rights, then knock yourself out. But if a lack of a specific skill is keeping you from performing a specific activity, don't think that somehow means you need to include that skill into your repertoire.
Ask yourself what your goal is – why are you in the gym? What physical qualities are you trying to develop? Is there another way to build those same qualities that's not technique-based?
If the answer is "yes," then take that route instead. For example, guys like using O-lifts to improve power and general explosiveness. Yet at the same time, many guys have O-lifting technique that absolutely sucks.
If you weigh 210 pounds, can squat 450 and jump onto a 36" high box, yet can barely clean 185, should you really be screwing with cleans (unless, again, you just want to)?
On the flip side, if you weigh 210, can squat 450, jump on the 36" box, but can clean 250+, then of course, go to town on the cleans.
As a friend of mine recently said, "If your goal is explosiveness, then do the exercise that lets you be the most explosive." Simple advice, but very wise. Apply it across the board.
The Grand Scheme of Fitness
• Remember why you're in the gym and do what gets you better at that, because your numbers can improve without you improving along with them.
• If your technique sucks, then going the technique-intensive route is a bad idea. If your technique rocks, then it could be a viable option.
• If you want to use uber-refined technique on a more regular exercise, that's fine – just be sure to keep your comparisons and progress on an "apples-to-apples" basis. In other words, don't go comparing your pre-Wendler bench 1RM with your post-Wendler bench 1RM and think you're now a badass because it went up 30 pounds. When your post-Wendler bench 1RM is 30 pounds heavier than your last post-Wendler bench 1RM, then it actually means something.
If you run across some random activity or skill that's somehow supposed to measure a function of fitness but relies too heavily on technique or experience (like handstand walking or swimming), then don't sweat it. Because it doesn't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things.