All of us (okay, many of us) want to get stronger, and in order to do so it’s definitely important to lift heavy (that’s how we increase strength); 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 often starts to slide and at a certain point many of us end up muscling our way through on sheer stubbornness and willpower. While training like this may be more rewarding in the short-term (hey, it feels badass to be able to rep out heavy squats), in the long run training with weights we can’t move with good form/technique does more harm than good. Just because we can move a weight for reps doesn’t mean we should.
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 break down some. But a breakdown of form during testing/competition can be a good thing because it 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.
Everything we do (an air squat, 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 about how all this works, as that would take a while and probably bore most of you — and me — out of our minds).
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, trying to go for a discreet “nose rub,” etc.).
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 33-lb barbell) ended with me flat on my ass fighting back tears of pain (and probably embarrassment) because I had dropped the bar right onto my shins (which were raw from my first ever rope climbs).
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 movements we repeat over and over. This is is why it is so important to have consistent feedback (usually from a coach or training partner) who 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.