What if I told you that I had the perfect training program? Would you be interested? Conversely, what if I told you that I had the imperfect, less than ideal training program. Which of the two would you be interested in? The former of course! However, application of a little scientific reasoning actually shows that the "imperfect" training program is sometimes the "ideal" program to follow.
Confused? Stay on board, it'll make sense soon.
Is Safer Better?
No one would argue that the safe and perfect execution of any motor skill or task isn't of prime importance. In the interest of injury prevention, we're often exposed to rules and regulations of what we should and should not do with regards to exercise technique and execution.
Like the Ten Commandments, we're reminded of the penalties (poor performance and potential injury) of breaking these fitness rules and instead are urged to remain believers and to have faith in the words of the so-called fitness experts.
Along the same lines, some of you readers have no doubt been exposed to some of the following Fitness Commandments:
• Thou shall not squat past a 90-degree angle!
• Thou shall not let the knee travel beyond the toes in a lunge!
• Thou shall not let the bar touch the chest in the bench press (a relatively new and bizarre commandment)!
• Thou shall retract and depress the scapula prior to any pulling movement!
• Thou shall pull in the belly button prior to any execution of an exercise!
• Thou shall not bounce while you stretch or do any ballistic stretching!
• Thou shall not hold your breath while lifting weights!
• Thou shall not blah, blah, blah.
I could go on and on!
Those commandments mentioned above exemplify only some of the myths and misconceptions that continue to transcend all scientific scrutiny and be passed on by the masses of believers in hopes of recruiting new members. In talking with some of my colleagues, we've come to the conclusion that the fitness industry is not unlike a religion, with its devout believers and worshipers in each specific fitness sect.
In fact, I too once bought in to many of the above-mentioned beliefs with an end result of some of the most painful (due to injury) and unproductive sporting results of my life. So I know first hand of the danger such thinking can have on the body even though the goals of such beliefs are to prevent injury and enhance physical, mental, and physiological functioning of the body! To fully understand why avoiding so-called "dangerous" exercises or ranges of motion within an exercise can actually increase your chance of injury, I'll quote the late Dr. Mel Siff:
"...lack of safety in exercise is not simply a consequence of so-called dangerous exercises, buy one of unsafe execution of any exercise. One should remember that religious avoidance of certain exercises can lead to an overall imbalance between muscle groups or in motor coordination and increase the likelihood of injury during the sports event. The avoidance of exercising a muscle group in a particular way never enhances safety; it simply weakens those muscles relative to the exercise pattern which is avoided."
–Supertraining 2000, p.458
If that didn't sum up what I'm trying to explain than I don't know what will! As you can see, simply avoiding an exercise or a particular range of motion does absolutely nothing to enhance safety. If you only train, for example, with half squats, what are you to do when you are forced in a dynamic sporting situation to do a full squat? Who on earth ever came up with this crazy notion anyway? There's nothing wrong with using your available range of motion and if you don't use it guess what happens? That's right, you lose it! Now if one genuinely has a significant injury, than there's obvious need for altering an exercise.
What are the Causes of Injury?
Most injuries occur as the result of two primary factors: accidents and over training. Accidents are those unfortunate events that often are out of the control of the performer or are caused by an opponent or other player. This alone is reason for doing some "imperfection training" to help one learn how to create a "contingency plan" for the unexpected events that do and will occur. Also, it should be noted that ineffective technique or skill of sporting actions themselves could lead to increased chance of injury.
Overtraining, on the other hand is completely under the control of a coach, athlete, or trainer. Overtraining can occur as a result of too much intensity or stress being applied to the body at a single instance, which is also referred to as "overload." It can also be caused by too much volume or duration of loading. This is referred to as "overuse"(Siff, 2000).
It's unfortunate that overtraining injuries are so common among athletes today because they're the easiest to avoid. If a coach and athlete simply monitor the volume, intensity, health and nutritional status, and perceived exertion levels (RPE), the training can be modified accordingly and overtraining can be avoided. This isn't to take away from what are known as "shock microcycles" in the Soviet literature where an athlete is purposely overtrained for a brief period of time only to super compensate during a regeneration phase. However, the vast amount of overtraining that occurs is undoubtedly unplanned and completely unnecessary.
Putting Imperfection Training to use
I hope at this point that you have a better understanding of injury in general and why avoiding certain exercises does little to enhance safety. Also, it's important to know that training should include certain elements of "imperfection" to enhance the safety factor of the body. The following are some specific examples of how you can immediately incorporate some imperfection training principles into your training process. They can be applied to almost any exercise, skill, or movement, but I'll use squatting (back, front, overhead, etc.) as it's a cornerstone movement.
Note: Ease into these drills and alterations of technique very carefully.
It's better at first to use imperfection training with sub-maximal attempts; warm-up sets work nicely here. Basically, just use common sense!
a) During your warm-up sets, once you've removed the bar from the rack, try shifting your weight from side to side a few times (alternate lifting each foot off ground a few inches) and then begin your descent.
b) At the bottom of the squat (only during lighter sets), do some very controlled bounces up and down and then come up. Control is the key word here; don't go overboard.
c) Close your eyes or wear a blindfold during a few sets. By eliminating vision one markedly increases proprioceptive demands and has to rely on kinesthetic sense or "feel." When you return to full-vision squat, notice the improved technique and coordination!
d) Destabilize the load on the bar by having 2.5-5 lbs more on one side. Again, this works well during warm-up or even cool-down sets but it's not something you want to practice with maximal loads.
e) Wear earplugs in one or both ears (this can be combined with the blindfold for an unusual effect!). By eliminating hearing you increase visual and proprioceptive demands on the body.
f) Have a training partner carefully and lightly push you in various directions during the movement. These perturbations will help enforce a good exercise technique or "groove" that'll enhance your ability to deal with unexpected situations such as when some idiot walks right under the bar while you're squatting!
g) Use unusually short or long rest intervals during your work sets to throw your body off guard. In a weightlifting or powerlifting competition for example, you may be forced to rest too much or too little according to your usual preference. As a sprinter, in practice I'll often sprint from the blocks for up to 50 meters all out. Then I will walk back to the starting line and do it again. This effectively helps reproduce the unfortunate but very common phenomenon of false starts in competition.
As you can see there are many ways one can include imperfection training principles into their training. Those mentioned were just a few of the many creative ideas that can be used to help prepare your body for the unexpected. I hope you've enjoyed the article and I look forward to any feedback or comments you may have!