7 Technique Mistakes of the Intermediate Lifter

by on March 4, 2012

March 2012: 7 Technique Mistakes of the Intermediate Lifter

We all drop the ball. Some of us more blatantly than others. In the gym, I’ve noticed within the sea of “good” and “bad” lifters, there are a percentage among the “good” lifters who could do with a couple of prompt cues that would take their performance to the next level. Yep – I’m looking at you. Keep reading buddy. Here’s my list of 7 such cues, in no particular order. . .

1. You’re Not in Tune with your Tempo

This goes beyond just exhaling during the hard part of the reps. Nowadays (well, it never wasn’t like this), people are more concerned with the weight they’re lifting and the effect it has on their psyche, rather than the training effect an exercise can have on stimulating a muscle to get stronger or larger. We need to let the weight we choose to lift train our muscles, not have our muscles lift the weights – it’s a very different concept to think of. With the correct amount of focus to cues on tempo, it wouldn’t be a surprise to have workouts in which you reach the same levels of fatigue under 2/3 the weight lifted.

Put the most thought into the eccentric phase of your movements. Pretend the reps are “reversed” by making it “tough” on the negative. Count backwards from 3 or 4 for all your negatives, and see how much sooner your muscles will fatigue – also, enjoy the pump you get from this kind of tempo training!

2. Your Head Ain’t Right

The simplest cue that most people completely botch in the gym is to align their neck. Think about it. When you see heavy benches or heavy biceps curls, what often happens is the neck craning forward to “dig in” for some tough reps. Perhaps it’s to “watch the bar”. I dunno – but I do it too before I catch myself. What can really happen from something that appears to be so diminutive is interesting. Because the crainial tilt we’re creating is by way of the upper spine, we can be cutting off a lot of electrical input that our nerves can send to our muscles. You guessed it – It can weaken our performance. It’s just as risky to squat or deadlift with the upper spine out of alignment too.

His head’s not in the game. Sorry dude.
His head’s not in the game. Sorry dude.
Many make a habit of looking up at the mirror for their big pull (I’m not even going to address it when people turn their heads and look sideways at the mirror to “make sure their back is straight”. Just….Wow.) not realizing that it’s doing them more harm than good. The “look at the ceiling” cue for squats and deads, in my humble opinion – MUST STOP BEING USED. The only thing it does is promote muscle imbalances, spinal irregularities, and injuries.

3. Your ROM is Too Large

Sounds kind of counterproductive to say that range of motion should be lessened, but the truth is, there are scenarios where an increased ROM can lead to poorer isolation. Let’s take a biceps curl as an example. Many lifters will routinely lift the weight until it reaches the shoulder – but how far do you really need to lift your arm to have the biceps fully contract?

Here’s something for you to try while you read this:

Make a fist and perform a “biceps curl” with your hand. Squeeze your upper arm as hard as you can. Take note of how close to your shoulder your hand gets when you do this. Now do the same thing, but this time flex your bi’s without closing your hand. Keep an open hand, with your fingers facing the floor the whole time. Now that you’ve taken your forearm out of the movement, it shows just how far up the biceps are responsible from pulling your arm. Chances are your elbow angle is larger than when you started. This is what makes exercises like drag curls (or broken-wrist curls) so damn effective.

I’ll put money down that Arnie knew all the dirty tricks on biceps training.
I’ll put money down that Arnie knew all the dirty tricks on biceps training.
Taller lifters and guys with long extremities should take note of this. It means exercises like seated rows, pullups, and lat pulldowns will have exceptions. The “understood” full range of motion for these exercises are when the body comes in contact with the implement (pulling the bar to the chest for the rows and pulldowns, and pulling the chest or shoulders to the bar for the pull ups). Taking your anthropometry into consideration, your long levers will mean you don’t have to pull as far to achieve a full contraction of the back muscles. Some good food for thought!

4. Your Breathing takes 2nd place

This plays a more important role than you think. Especially if you’re a lifter who’s got some experience under your belt, breathing right under loads can make or break your performance – even more so when it comes to the big lifts. As a guy who’s gone through hernia injuries, I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your breathing regulated through movements. Of course, we all know this one but I’ll say it for the record: Exhale during the “hard part” of the lift. Ok, now that we’ve got that out there, let’s zero in on heavy compound lifts, like squats and deadlifts. The valsalva maneuver needs to be applied here. Take a big breath in and HOLD it there all the way through the bottom position of the movement. This will increase intraabdominal pressure and stabilize the spine and all the intrinsic muscles that surround it. Let the great majority of your air out at the top of these movements, not from the bottom up – rather, when you’ve reached the top. Keeping these cues in mind can be the difference between a PR, or looking down and realizing you’ve shat your intestines out.

5. You’re Being Fooled by Fake Hip Extension

When you’re nailing out sets of heavy squats or deadlifts, pay attention to how sore your glutes get in comparison to your quads and hams the next day. A common flaw I’ve noticed with seemingly “good” squats and deads is a lack of hip drive, contributing to low glute activation and (ultimately) development. What happens in its place? The low back goes through the extension to make the body appear “tall”. When I broke down the deadlift in my last article, I mentioned that the glutes and hamstrings have a measure of control of the pelvis, and tilt it backwards. We need to remember this for the end of the squat and deadlift, and drive our hips right through so they’re tucked tightly under the spine and upper body. In English? A big back arch at the top of either of these lifts is a no-no.

To get this concept ingrained in your mind, consider taking things back to the basics. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and perform a set of typical glute bridges. Remember to remove all space between the low back and the floor to get the pelvis to tilt backwards, the way I’m advocating. Then, raise your hips off the ground. Try to make your low back the last thing to leave the ground. Squeeze the snot out of your glutes and hams. When you can master this with bodyweight, add an unloaded barbell and perform the movement again.

6. Your Split Stance Work is All Quads!

A lot of coaches (including myself) will preach split stance training as a top-tier method to add strength, size, and function to posterior chain muscles. The problem is, if they’re not being done carefully, we can run into the same kind of problems that create the premise for this wonderful article. The cues of “dropping the back knee down” when lunging or split squatting has to be sent to the gutter. That encourages zero tension on the muscles of the posterior chain.

A lunge that I don’t like.
A lunge that I don’t like.
One I do like. The slight lean forward is key to hitting the glutes and hammies.
One I do like. The slight lean forward is key to hitting the glutes and hammies.
I can justify why this is so important by simply stating that the greater the degree of hip flexion, the more hip extension we’ll need to get out of that position. If our torsos are straight upright, and we drop our back knee straight down, we won’t be closing our hip angle off enough to make the hamstrings and glutes respond and get the most out of the movement. Alternatively, it makes sense to close the hip angle by leaning forward. Make sure the knee on the trailing leg is doing just that – trailing. There should still be a straight line from shoulder to rear knee, only now, that straight line will be on a slant. As a result, your front knee will pass forward over the toe. This is fine. Keep the heel down and drive through it in your split squat or walking lunge.

7. You’re Lifting Too Much Weight

This fittingly sums up this entire article. Let’s face it, if any or all of the above applies to you, then chances are, the weight you’re lifting is a contributing factor to your form going to the dogs. It’s a good idea to strip a plate or two off the bar and make sure your technique and form is picture perfect before lifting huge.

Dude. Check your ego, and lift weights that will ensure you’ll do it right.

‘Nuff said.

Get my drift? I don’t even have a conclusion. Before you pick up the bar next time, look past the Superman shirt you got at Target for 8.99 and give your weightlifting some thought. Remember, if you want to be a hero, you should put out the best quality work.

Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of leeboycetraining.com and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website www.leeboycetraining.com and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.