Working Weights and Technical Maximums for Beginners
One of the problems I encounter frequently while coaching is convincing a beginner to stay on lighter weights which they can do properly. It’s understandable that people who go to a gym want to lift as much as possible and it’s often hard to get them to see that for a beginner, getting the most weight from the floor to overhead in a movement which vaguely resembles a snatch or clean & jerk isn’t a worthwhile goal. I think it helps to fully explain what we’re trying to achieve and to place their current training in that context for them so they can see the route to their true goal. In my case the goal is getting them snatching and clean & jerking as much as they’re capable of but I’ve seen the same problem with people training for powerlifting or to get bigger muscles. It’s easy for a beginner to think that a coach is holding their weights down for “health & safety” reasons (not that these aren’t important but preventing injury isn’t very exciting) and seeing as they don’t mind taking a bit of a risk they’ll be tempted to put more weight on the bar when your back is turned. Explaining to them that they’re focusing on good technique and correct movement patterns to help them to develop better and more quickly as a weightlifter can often prevent this.
The short term goal for those new to weightlifting should be to learn and develop sound technique. This doesn’t necessarily mean “perfect”. A coach will know what’s important and needs correcting and what can be left alone for now. Sound technique means hitting the key positions well while keeping good form. This is necessarily developed using light weights as we want the focus to be on technique rather than physical effort. It’s worth remembering that the elite lifters you see handling massive weights will have started to learn lifting at a young age and so have gone through an extensive period of technical and physical development. To try to cut this period out and go straight to heavy training because you’re older and don’t feel like you have time for it is always a false economy.
There’s no reason beginners can’t develop strength while learning the lifts. Learning the lifts will start to increase the capacity of the relevant muscles for work but combining technique training sessions with weight training and bodyweight exercises will accelerate the process and add an element of physical challenge to keep it interesting. Each lifter will also tend to have one lift come along quicker than another so you may find that a lifter can start to train with heavier weights on snatching, for example, while still having to hold the weight down and practice good form on cleans and jerks or they may be able to work on pulls with heavier weights before the full classical lifts are ready to be loaded.
Sometimes it helps to explain the reason for performing a particular movement. For a weightlifter, squatting is an assistance exercise used primarily to strengthen the legs. This is a different goal than for a powerlifter for who squatting is a competitive lift. Weightlifters should minimise forward lean on the squat to emphasise leg strength. Powerlifters lean forward more to allow the hips to help them handle more weight. I use the idea of a “technical maximum” to ensure that my lifters are training in the correct way. If a lifter can’t keep a flat back and elbows up when front squatting for example, they are using too much weight. I think the body usually loses form in the front squat to get the bar nearer to the knees and take effort away from the thighs transferring the work to the backside and hips in the process. If you think your goal is to squat down and get up with as much weight as possible you’ll allow this as you’ll shift more weight that way (I’m not saying this is a good idea, it’s just what happens). If your goal is to develop leg strength to help you to clean & jerk more you’ll squat as much as you can in good style and reduce the weight when your form starts to suffer instead of continuing to an absolute maximum.
It’s easy to see that a person is using too much weight and not getting the desired training effect when they try to curl too much and end up doing sort of reverse grip, bent back hang cleans for reps instead of strict curls. We’ve probably all had a good laugh at people doing this. It’s also easy to see that kipping has developed to maximise the number of pull ups someone can do while the goal of a strict pull up is to maximise the work the back and arms have to do and develop strength in these muscles. The same goes for the Olympic lifts and their derivatives. When a lifter understands the purpose of an exercise they are much more likely to perform it correctly and when they perform all their exercises correctly they’re much more likely to see good results and minimise the risk of hurting themselves.
Although this article has referred to beginners I think a lot of us are guilty of ignoring technique for weight in training and not getting the desired improvement as a result. What really made me focus on this was when I recently sorted my back squatting out by using a technical maximum instead of an absolute max. My legs started getting stronger, my injured back suffered less and my lifts improved as a result. It takes discipline but it’s worth it.
If you’re doing a particular exercise you should know why you’re doing it.
Once you know why you’re working on a movement it’s easier to see why technique has priority over weight.
Muscles are what move our bodies. If you perform a movement incorrectly, the muscles which perform it correctly aren’t getting strengthened (at least not in the desired range) and progress will be limited.