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Why You Should Never Sacrifice Exercise Technique

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 28 October 2019
Hits: 6747

When it comes to learning a musical instrument we know that technique is everything and coaching will make it so much easier to learn the necessary skills required. The learning process is simple in the beginning before gradually progressing to more complex skills as you improve. Simply playing more and hoping you just work it out will not make you a better guitar player. You need to learn the technique and spend time with fundamentals to get better. This exact principle applies to exercise, yet many ignore the need for learning technique in the sake of getting more done. This is a dangerous road to head down for if we lack fundamental movement skills and place more emphasis on quantity instead of quality we are now building fitness on a dysfunctional body. Unlike the musical instrument where poor technique just sounds bad, poor technique with exercise over a period of time inevitably leads to poor performance, injury and pain. Today’s society tend to treat exercise like going to war with their body, instead of trying to gradually challenge and allow the body to adapt. We forget there must be a balance between quality work and rest to ensure we move well. In this article we take a close look at everything to do with exercise technique and why quality beats quantity every time.

When people look to get in shape they believe that moving well will just happen. All they have to do is get out there and get it done and the body will fix itself. Unfortunately it won’t. And movement problems will only get worse when compounded by frequency and volume of training.

We have covered this in great detail before in our article – You cannot use a fitness solution to solve a health problem

If we were to adopt a smarter and a long term approach to health and exercise perhaps we would not see people cutting corners with their exercise program to get in shape fast. In my opinion a big part of this problem is the Fitness industry! How often do you see ads from gyms and personal trainers promoting 8 week challenges or 12 week transformations to get fit fast? Anyone who knows anything about exercise knows it takes a long time to develop serious results and be able to stay there, yet we market the fact that it can be done in only 8 or 12 weeks! 

Can you learn how to play any sport exceptionally well in only 8 or 12 weeks? Can you learn to play the guitar well in only 8 or 12 weeks? No you cannot do either of these things well because it takes considerable time to learn the basics and skills required. There just is no shortcut to perfect training and that takes time.

Yet with health we ignore this form principle and just believe more is better.

As you can already gather I am quite passionate about the quality of technique and spending the time to master skills and fundamentals. Maybe this is something that I learned as a kid playing sports where I was not the fastest or the strongest but I was a keen learner of skills. I quickly learned that I could dominate in sports by mastering techniques and this enabled me to excel in the sports I played.

Later on I found this discipline would be invaluable in helping people to overcome injury and pain for the root cause behind all cases of chronic pain is poor movement technique.

What is the Purpose of Exercise?

The purpose of exercise is to enhance our ability to move in life. It is more than just losing weight and looking good in a mirror for you can do that by eating well. If you are trying to exercise yourself into great shape I have bad news for you – that never works! See the article – Why you cannot out-exercise a bad diet for more information on this.

Exercise is important to us more than ever as we have slowly progressed to more sedentary lifestyles. One hundred years ago we did not need gyms as we were forced to walk everywhere, most jobs were very physical and even home life demanded rigorous activity.

We need exercise to constantly maintain our skills of balance, mobility and strength to ensure life’s demands do not exceed our physical ability. This is a high priority with older adults which we have covered in great detail many times in previous articles and where disability is a real risk from lack of exercise. See the article – Why Leg Strength is Vital for the Older Adult

It is not just the older adult who needs strength training, we ALL need to be hitting the gym learning the skills of functional strength. The point of strength training is stress the neuromuscular system and demand it to overcome the load within a functional movement pattern so that it enhances our ability to move in life.

See the article – Why Functional Movement is So Important.

The interesting thing to take note of with beginners to exercise in the gym is how quickly their strength improves in the early stages from just learning to move better. At first they are very awkward and lack control while their brain tries to interpret what they are trying to do. The improved strength is nothing to do with their muscles but the nervous system improving its ability to sequence and optimize motor control of their limbs. 

For extra help with learning exercises I encourage you to download a copy of our our Free Report on Functional Training below as this gives you all the techniques of key movements and programs in great detail that I am about to show you.

Technique & Movement Dysfunction

It should not come as a surprise that poor performance, injury, and pain is the end result from using poor training techniques. What does come as a surprise to people is how difficult it can be to change a faulty movement once it is encoded into your nervous system.

A great quote that really stuck with me about exercise technique and its value to preventing injury and pain is in the book “Corrective Exercise Solutions for Hip & Shoulder” by Dr Evan Osar. He says,

"It is much harder to detect the subtleties of compensatory movement in the early stages although easier to correct them, and much easier to detect errors in chronic movement dysfunction however they are much more difficult to change."

This is so true.

Over the past 14 years in our rehabilitation program we have worked with so many people suffering with really complex cases of injury and pain that took a long time to help the person find relief and a solution. Sometimes the dysfunction was so great we could not find a solution and the best we could do was to find ways to manage the problem.

The most important point is that in ALL of these cases the problem could have been very quickly corrected or prevented if we saw the person BEFORE they began exercising, and were taught efficient strategies of movement. Their ignorance to quality of movement with endless repetitions of poor form eventually broke down their body’s structure.

You can begin to see my frustration knowing how easy exercise can be when you have been taught correctly from the start.

If you have ever watched people go for their weekly jog around the park on a Sunday morning you will always see varying degrees of exercise technique. We know the elite runner makes it look easy but cannot pinpoint exactly what it is that makes them so efficient. Yet the person who looks terrible running you can instantly see their awkwardness, and exactly where their lack of form is.

The question to ask here is – “Is the person running bad for they are weak, or are they weak because they are running bad?” A very interesting concept to try and get your head around and the only way to really know for sure is to complete a thorough assessment to rule out bio-mechanical problems versus just coordination and understanding of technique.

Compensation and Avoiding Pain

When the body is challenged with a movement it will do anything it can to find the path of least resistance and most importantly avoid pain. In the case of a stressful situation where you have to execute a movement not familiar to you this is vital so that your body will complete the task as best as it can. The brain is so smart it will just figure things out on its own to create a version of movement it feels it can handle.

In the book “Movement” by Gray Cook he makes a note of how many things a beginner to exercise may have to contend with when learning how to exercise. The brain will be firing multiple commands that are operating in the background such as;

  • Avoid positions that are restrictive
  • Avoid unfamiliar movements
  • Avoid pain and stress
  • Compensate and substitute where possible
  • Compromise movement quality to gain movement quantity where needed
  • Conserve energy where possible
  • Do not rely on positions of weakness or instability
  • Take the path of least resistance
  • Seek comfort and pleasure

In the case of our runner his body will choose quantity of movement over quality of movement. If he does not have adequate stability or strength to handle this task his body will create an alternative form of stabilizing in the form of stiffness. Unfortunately this stiffness will rob his joints of the necessary mobility required for efficient running. Even worse it will begin to change other movements with similar timings and positions.

“The brain does not question if it is good or bad motor program, it will simply choose the program it knows the most and use that to produce movement”.

In the short term this is fine for the body has found a solution that is fast to implement and allows him to run away from danger. Over the longer term this is a potential disaster for the inefficient technique will begin to cause damage to muscles and joints not designed to perform various roles under load and stress.

The poor technique becomes encoded into the nervous system as a permanent motor program once the person exceeds a certain threshold of repetition. This is known as a motor engram and is stored in the spinal cord. Paul Chek claims it takes 500 reps to learn a movement but as many as 5000 to change one!

This is why it is so important to learn right the first time.

Looking Good versus Feeling Good

It is amazing when how many people would rather look good in a mirror than feel good to move. I cannot tell you how many people have come to see me for help with their exercise program and their physical appearance is ripped. They have incredible fitness, athletic muscles and some even have a six pack. But the reason they came to see me is they were in pain.

This is a classic example of developing fitness at the expense of good movement.

Modern fitness equipment allows us to train our body in sitting positions that do not demand high levels of coordination, stability, and posture. We learn it is possible to avoid learning these fundamentals before lifting loads or moving fast and the principle of “earning the right” is not needed. A classic example is the leg press where someone can start lifting incredible loads on the first day, yet be barely able to complete an effective squat with their own body-weight that demands stability and coordination. They basically bypass the skills to get to the strength stage as this is where the “fun stuff” is.

Read the article – Comparing the Squat to the Leg Press

People want results fast and unfortunately many in the fitness industry tells them it is possible to take shortcuts and avoid learning the fundamentals. Someone can go from being a couch potato one day to joining a 5 days per week high intensity group training program the next. And if you add a competition to the mix such as a 8 week or 12 week challenge where the focus is more about how much weight you can lose in a short time, instead of the quality of exercise and changing nutrition and lifestyle habits the rate of dysfunction will steadily increase.

Even the tests used are more about comparing skin folds or the weight on the scales as opposed to quality of movement. Even the nutritional changes may be compromised as extreme measures like calorie restriction to lose weight fast are taken, as opposed to a slower more long term approach that can be sustained for life.

While I think it is great to get people to exercise and change their lifestyle and I applaud them for taking the step to improving their health, I believe we need to take a much slower and gradual progression approach. Going too hard, too fast before your body is ready just sets people up for failure and this is where the “yo-yo” dieters and exercise regimes take a hold and ruin your health in the long term.

What would you rather

  1. A program that provides slower results, does not require you to be a gym junkie or restrict calories, is easy to maintain for life and you only have to do it once.

Or

  1. A program that provides fast results, requires significant amount of time, is unsustainable in the long term, will have many flaws that you will need to go back and fix later on.

I know which one I would prefer. People who provide the 8 week and 12 week challenges tell me that their clients often continue once the challenge is over and this is a way to get them started. They believe that without the offer of fast results they would not have begun. Perhaps to some extent they are right and I have no doubt their intentions are of the highest regard and well-being for their clients. They just want them to succeed.

However, I have the belief it is up to us to educate them about the reality of achieving great health and fitness results takes considerable time. By explaining to them that quality is more important cutting corners to get there faster, they will provide them with the foundation for everlasting success. Learning to respect exercise, learning to move well before applying fitness methods, and appreciate that rest and quality nutrition is just as important as training.

If you are serious about losing weight, you really need to look carefully at your food as this will provide the greatest change. Exercise helps to speed up the process but really you can lose the bulk of the weight just from food.

"If You Can't, You Must" - Tony Robbins

This is another great quote, this time from famous motivational speaker Tony Robbins and I find it applies perfectly to people who are injured or have a particular problem with a certain movement.

What we tend to do if a particular movement is uncomfortable or hurts is to avoid it altogether, especially if we have suffered a painful injury in the past. Remember, our brain wants to find the path of least resistance but when we allow this to happen we are changing things outside the gym too. The longer this remains the bigger the impact it has on our life.

Take for example the action of bending and bulging disc. In the gym the deadlift is the exercise used to improve the bending action but it can be very risky for the person with back pain. A real fear of re-injury is present with this injury as closely mimics the action they possibly completed when hurting themselves, and may bring on the pain symptoms quickly. However, it is for this very reason you MUST learn how to do this exercise.

This is not just an exercise, rather it is a foundational movement pattern that has problems with motor control and technique. Your brain will continue to use the faulty pattern until it is shown a better one that it trusts. It is your job to identify the flaws in your technique, modify them, and practice them perfectly enough times that your brain re-writes the program to the new correct one.

By using a carefully designed program to turn a movement that was noticeably weak into a strength your chances of re-injury are dramatically less. As opposed to avoiding changing the weakness and leaving the brain to work it out by itself using compensation where your chances of re-injury are very high.

Also do not ignore the movements you make throughout the day, as they can greatly influence poor technique. The movement we think nothing of contribute to the automatic motor engram being coded into your spinal cord. It is vital to change this as much as your technique in the gym.

See article – Correcting Bulging Discs Starts with How You Move At Home

This example was about back pain but the same theory applies to all injuries and pain. If you have pain in the knees during a squat, you need to find a way to squat more effectively. This doesn’t mean you go straight to doing squats, there may be other things you have to address first, but the point is the motor program for the squat has a problem.

For more help on various injuries I have placed some links at the bottom of the article for you to download advanced programs to help with specific injuries.

Poor Movement Creating Osteoarthritis

When you avoid changing a faulty movement over a long period of time and leave it to the body to figure out itself is when you are at great risk of developing osteoarthritis that can severely limit your ability to move, forever.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition of the joints, which over time become painfully inflamed. If you have joint degeneration without pain, the condition is known as osteoarthrosis. With both conditions there is deterioration of the joint ‘cartilage’ – a smooth substance that covers bone endings, allowing bones to glide over each other with minimal friction. Cartilage also cushions force as it is transmitted through the joints and when you have used it up, there is no way to create more!

People love to blame this on getting old. The real reason we see osteoarthritis surface in older adults is that the length of time the person has spent moving poorly eventually ends up completely wearing and tearing the joints, cartilage, ligaments to a point where pain sets in. Added on top of this is a lack of muscle and you now have the perfect recipe for unstable joints that create stiffness, osteoarthritis and eventually pain.

Another great quote from Dr Evan Osar sums this is up.

"Osteoarthritis, more accurately described as degenerative joint disease, is just one manifestation of poor movement strategies and is not simply a process of getting older" - Dr Evan Osar

You can read more about strategies we might use for extreme arthritis in the article – Exercises for severe knee pain

Can You Over-Analyse?

Now as much as we emphasise technique can you overdo it? Absolutely you can and I do see this quite a lot with people who have some anatomy knowledge and even personal trainers who have gone too far into corrective exercise. Paralysis by analysis can cripple a great movement pattern as you try to isolate muscles and completely disrupt the timing and sequence used by the brain.

You see this a lot with golfers who over analyse their technique to the point where they completely lose their swing. Sometimes the best tip for this person is to say, “Hit it as far as you can”. This encourages the body to find its automatic timing it once had before you over critiqued your game so much you lost your natural swing. Sure there are things you need to modify but the basic swing will restore itself effectively when the timing is right.

Just remember technique is more about positioning, timing, and breathing more so than what muscle is working.

Our muscles perform multiple roles all within a split second to create movements like walking, running or even standing up out of a chair. Some muscles are more concerned with stability and deceleration, while others are focused on locomotion and acceleration and all of this happens in a blink of an eye.

This is why you can never blame a single muscle for a movement dysfunction. Watch the video below for more on this.

When we spot a dysfunctional movement often you will see a tight prime mover muscle/s combined with a poor stabilizer muscle/s and as a result a stiff joint. Independently they may actually be quite fine but the problem will be they do not interact well within a certain pattern. Working on improving the pattern using various regressions and training aids will help to mobilize the stiff prime mover, while simultaneously improving the stability and timing of the weak stabilizer. It sounds complex but really it is quite simple, you just need to know what to look for and have a tool box of many exercises and drills to call upon when needed.

What Can You Do?

Well the obvious answer is find a coach who can teach you good movement. Then spend the time trying to master the techniques of the key functional movement patterns.

To help you out I have provided some videos below that explain exactly what good technique is and some that show examples of compensation and bad form. There is also links to specific articles with each movement that have more detailed explanations, regressions and progressions for you to fully develop your skill. 

Before getting stuck into these movements it is important to NEVER train to failure when learning new skills. If you go too far into fatigue you force your body to find a way to protect itself and compensate. With enough repetition it will learn that the best way to overcome the challenge is the compensatory method instead of the precise form that is still new. Good form is everything.

Deadlift

If there is one movement you really want to master, bending would be the one. We see so many issues relating to this and there is a real lack of understanding as to how to execute perfectly.

Read the article – Which deadlift is the best version for you

Squat

The squat is very similar to the deadlift but has a much greater focus on knees and ankles. A very important movement for sports as this is what we use to create jumping.

Read the article -  Top 7 Squats for Bulletproof Knees

Lunge

This is possibly the most athletic movement and is often the stance used as a base during arm movements to create motion. A unique aspect of the lunge is it has the ability to move in all directions. Difficulty with this often results in a loss of balance and increased chance of knee or hip pain.

Read the article – Why the Lunge Is the Key to Fitness Success

Gait (walking and running)

I don’t need to tell you how important the ability to walk is to your life. The gait cycle is very complex and it is difficult to use a singular exercise to improve it. We also tend to take it for granted and not fully appreciate that we need to constantly be using exercises to enhance our ability. If you are a runner I have provided a video on technique for this too.

Read the article – How to improve your ability to walk

Push

Upper body strength and function is important and the pushing pattern is something we use a lot in daily activities. A weakness in the pushing pattern often results in shoulder or neck pain. Below are two videos showing push up technique and also standing cable press technique.

Read the article – The Top 7 Pushing Exercises

Pull

The opposite of pushing is pulling and you need to have adequate strength and timing with this to maintain optimal balance of the shoulder joint. Possibly the easiest of all the movement patterns to master.

Read the article – Everything you need to know about pulling movements

Twisting and Rotation

Rotation of the trunk and torso is something we use a lot in sports but also with daily activities like vacuuming, raking leaves, and even walking itself that uses a fair degree of rotation to create motion.

Read the article – Is rotation bad for your back?

Additional Resources to Help You

Those suffering with knee, hip, back, or shoulder injuries will find our detailed programs below will cater perfectly for finding the source of your problem. Each of these advanced programs you can download instantly and will provide you with detailed assessments and step by step programs to implement. Click here to go straight to the online shop or on the image below of the program you need.

   

Summary

There just is no substitute to learning precise technique with movement. The person who has spent the time to master movements can do many things without fear of pain or limitation and can easily excel in sports. More importantly they are able to preserve their ability to move later in life. While strength and fitness are both great assets to have, they cannot over-ride the ability to move correctly.

It is so much easier and faster to learn good techniques right at the beginning instead of trying to change them later on. If you are a beginner to exercise take your time to do things well, and earn the right to challenge your body. It may be slower than expected but the rewards are well worth it.

It is extremely difficult to develop strength and fitness to your full potential if you do not have great movement efficiency and technique to begin with. You can cheat for a little while but eventually you will pay a big price for ignoring the quality of movement. Never sacrifice good technique to do more.

Lastly do not over-analyse your technique to a point where you move like a robot or are forever stuck in corrective mode. If your form is good, you must progress and challenge yourself with harder exercises in order to continually change.

If you enjoyed this article, live in Melbourne and would like to organize a Free Consultation to discuss how we can help you improve your strength and movement fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletic Body Balance by Gray Cook
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist