You Can Lift that Weight, But Should You?

Why ‘Less is More’

All of us (ok many of us) want to get stronger and in order to do so its definitely important to lift heavy; however, as counterintuitive as it may seem in many cases we actually need to lift less (weight) in order to lift more.

When we train our lifts and are nearing our 100 percentiles, technique almost always starts to slide and at a certain point we end up muscling our way through on sheer stubbornness and will-power. While training like this may feel more rewarding in the short-term (hey, it feels badass to be able to rep out heavy squats/deads/cleans….) in the long run training with weights we can’t move with proper form/technique does more harm than good. Just because we can move a weight for reps doesn’t mean we should.

My Badass Brother-In-Law Repping (Tim) Repping out Overhead Squats at the CrossfitBC Summer Challenge
My Badass Brother-In-Law (Tim) Repping out Overhead Squats at the CrossfitBC Summer Challenge

n.b. I’m not talking about 1-rep maxes or competitions. When we challenge our limits by going for a max lift or giving it our all in a competition we are going to let our form go to some degree and this is OK. We want to keep our form as good as we can, but realistically it will breakdown to some degree and this will shows us where our weaknesses are and what we need to work on during training. 

When I say ‘lift less to lift more’ What I’m referring to is the training we do at our 60, 70, and 80 percentiles, because this is what makes up the bulk of our training and this is when and where we build our movement patterns.

My Badass Older Sis Sally Snatching 52kg like its nothing
My Equally Badass Older Sis Sally Snatching 52kg like its nothing

Everything we do (an airsquat, picking up a barbell, picking our nose) is initiated and controlled by rapidly moving electrical impulses that are transmitted through our bodies via tiny cells called neurons. I won’t go into depth here, but if you’re interested check out my post ‘Crossfit, Weightlifting and the Neuroendocrine Response’ for more about this).

Neurons 101: A (VERY) Basic Explanation of How This Works

The body has millions of receptor cells that detect stimuli from the surroundings (our hands wrapped around a barbell, how heavy the bar ‘looks’, if anyone is looking our way etc) and this information is transmitted to the brain via electrical impulses. The brain then compiles, analyzes and ‘decides’ on the appropriate response(s) before sending commands (electrical impulses) to our muscles to carry out the corresponding actions (e.g. engaging our core muscles, initiating a pull, walking etc).

Practice Makes….Perfect?

The more we repeat a movement (practice) the more efficient the associated neurons become at communicating with each other and as a result that action becomes faster and easier until it feels ‘effortless’.

Think back to the first time you picked up a barbell, how did it feel? What happened when you tried to imitate your coach who had just demonstrated a beautiful and seemingly effortless snatch?…

My first attempted snatch (with a 33lb barbell) ended with me flat on my ass fighting back tears and (probably) blushing bright red because I had dropped the bar right onto my shins (which where already raw from rope climbs) ….

BCWA Womens Training Camp
BCWA Womens Training Camp. **Note, it looks like I am Staring At Rachel Siemens Ass (its Quite Possible) I want to Lift LIke Her One Day and if I want to get there I’ll need some Glutes/Hamstrings like those.

Yet through practice, patience and perseverance that once alien and unfamiliar movement can become as easy and effortless as riding a bike (or for those of us who aren’t good at riding bikes, possibly easier…..)

Unfortunately our bodies can’t differentiate between ‘bad’ technique and ‘good’ technique  when developing muscle recruitment patterns all it knows is what movement patterns we repeat over and over. This is is why it is so important to have consistent feedback (usually from a coach or training partner) that enables us to detect and correct errors as soon as they appear. Not realizing when we make mistakes (or being too lazy to fix them) results in the development of incorrect movement patterns  and unlearning them is both difficult and time-consuming.

So What Does This mean

If you want to get stronger and see results you definitely should be lifting weights and training heavy, HOWEVER during regular training sessions only go as heavy as you can while maintaining good technique.

e.g. If your max backsquat is 250lvs and during training you are supposed to do 3 sets of 3 at 85% (212.5lbs), but find that you can’t maintain good form…

your knees collapse in, or your chest drops etc

…This means you are training too heavy and by doing so teaching your body bad habits. 

So What Should I Do Instead?

Take some weight off. Find a load where you can rep out sets of 3 consistently with correct form then slowly add weight until you hit that ‘tipping point’ where you begin to lose your technique and STOP HERE. This is where you should be training, the point where the weight starts to challenge your technique, and don’t move up until you can get through all the sets and reps with good form. This is where it is extremely helpful to be working with someone who can watch your form, cue your movements  

‘push your knees out’ or ‘drive out of the bottom of a squat and use your hips’

and give you the feedback you need,

230lb Back Squat
105kg BackSquat **Note my AWESOME weightlifting coach Mike Cartwright (just slightly visible on the left) who has helped me so much since I started lifting

In the end It doesn’t matter in the end if you can do 3 x 3 at 187 lbs with incorrect technique because training like this will prevent/slow any progress by allowing bad muscle patterns to develop.

So keep in mind that there is a difference between practicing, competing and testing and that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

Photo Credit: Caragh Camera