For many people, strength training is a numbers game - it's all about the weight on the bar. While this is ultimately one of the main indicators of progression in strength training, it shouldn't be the only one. Instead, the focus should be on moving correctly, with the loading on the bar reflecting increased capacity. Sacrificing the correct movement pattern in the quest for bigger numbers can lead to a range of problems, all of which reduce the effectiveness of your training.
Before we talk about movement patterns, we need to think about how the body works. In the simplest of terms, the body and the brain work to get things done. This happens by nerve impulses traveling between the brain and the rest of the body. When it comes to performing movement-based tasks, the brain "asks" the muscles of the body to do the job, and the muscles comply. This underpins all movements, and defines the importance of getting them right.
If we focus on the correct movement pattern, we essentially program our brains and our muscles to work in a specific order. In the context of strength training, this is critical, as we to move with the objective of engaging the "right" muscles. The "right" muscles are those best placed to maximise joint-muscle leverage at different phases of a movement. Each repetition reinforces the pattern, effectively "hardwiring" the brain-body network for that task. Once in place, it's hard to change.
If we don't focus on the correct movement patterns, the brain and the body move into "get the job done" mode - the brain tells the body to complete the movement, and muscles fire off to get it done. In this instance, the muscles working may not be those that should work; instead, they are likely to be the ones that can do the job (the hip flexors and glutes are a great example). Incorrect movement feeds back on itself and can result in poor movement under load, reduced maximum capacity and, in the worst scenario, injury. At the minimum, correcting poor movement patterns takes a long time, and may not be 100% effective (in other words - as the system reaches its capacity, it reverts to the incorrect pattern).
So, how do ensure that we learn the correct way? Follow these steps, and you'll be on the right track:
- Get a good coach, one who demonstrates to you that they know what the correct technique looks like, how to fix it and what you should be feeling.
- Progress slowly, and only when it is clear that the movement pattern both looks correct and engages the desired muscles. Post-exercise soreness is a good indicator of the latter.
- As your strength increases, use warm-up sets to ensure that the correct movement is being employed.
- Avoid performing reps once form degrades - all you are doing is reinforcing the wrong patterns.
- Be patient - strength training is a long-term project, and there is nothing to be gain from rushing it.