Mastering the Basics

I’ll be the first to admit it: when I train, I want to look hardcore. I’m talking gloves off, sweat dripping, plates on the bar, rap music up to eleven. There is nothing more fun than watching people watch you lift weights, impressed. But do you know what’s not fun? Getting pinned to the bottom of the squat rack by weight you can’t handle. (True story.) Luckily for me, I ended up with just a bloody finger and a bruised ego—but it could have been a real catastrophe. All because I wanted to look cool. Athletes are competitive people in general (to put it mildly), and often too eager to jump to the hardest lifts, at the heaviest loads, at the hugest volumes—but progressing too quickly can get you into serious trouble. Before you can flip 1000-lb tires like J.J. Watt, you have to first master the bodyweight squat. And I’m talking master—because if you don’t have a black belt in “the basics” of strength training, then you better put down that tire.

Mind (Mostly) Over Matter

This topic is important for athletes because, as strength training and weightlifting become more mainstream, the drive to succeed can sometimes mask the very real dangers of the weight room. Our desire to push past limits of mental fatigue can override the body’s physiological fatigue—and this is when injury occurs. Barbells are heavy. Weights can be dropped. Muscles can be torn, tendons ruptured, and (in extreme cases) bones broken if weightlifting is not performed or progressed properly. We, as athletes, are taught to get our minds right, get our head “in the game,” dream big and believe in the impossible—but there must be a balance between good psychological conditioning, and the physical conditioning necessary to get us where we want to go. I’m not advocating that we train and compete in fear of injury or underperformance, but instead that we assess our capabilities with honesty. Deluding ourselves to believe we can deadlift 500 lbs before our body is ready is dishonest—especially to your lumbar disks!

It sometimes feels like today’s athletes are living in a rainbow-colored dreamworld of positive vibes. And I’m not trying to diminish the importance of a positive mental attitude in athletic performance. (All we need to do is watch Russell Wilson’s NFC Championship post-game interview to remind ourselves how effective positive thinking and determination can be in athletic success!) But a “mind over matter” mentality means nothing without good preparation. While strength training is not an inherently dangerous activity, any activity can be risky if not performed correctly. And the best way to ensure proper form is to perfect the fundamental movements in sports strength and conditioning.

Perfect Practice Makes, Well, Perfect

Vince Lombardi was right on the money when he said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Performing 100 squats with poor form does not prepare you for barbell back squats, and if you can’t perform weighted overhead presses with perfect form then you should not be doing handstand push-ups. It’s quality over quantity, all the way. But to achieve that quality requires preparation and patience, and there is no quick fix. And so the first step in mastering the basics is to check your ego at the door—approach your training like a scientist, study your technique, find your weaknesses to correct, and repeat until your results are guaranteed. 

When asked what makes his son Stephen Curry one of the best shooters in NBA history, Dell Curry answered, “Repetition. You have to have confidence you can do it, and that only comes by putting in the work, and then doing it when the game’s on the line.” Perfect practice translates to success on the court, and the same applies to off-the-field strength training. If you’re progressing into training, you must master bodyweight movements like squats, inverted rows, lunge variations, pull-ups, and presses. You should know how important a braced and neutral spine is when lifting, and be able to maintain that position in all unweighted movements. You should know how to keep your pelvis stable when lunging, how to keep your knees from collapsing when squatting, what position to keep your elbows in during a push-up, and how to limit unwanted thoracic extension during overhead movements. Where are your feet? Where are your hips? Where are your shoulders? Where is your head? This is a lot of data to remember, and requires study and practice. But when you practice perfect technique and body control now, your body will naturally default to good positions once you increase the weight. That same perfected repetition that helped Stephen Curry hit so many 3s will allow you to progress in your weight training—and outside your weight room, in your sport.

Prevent Future Injuries Now

Coach Justin Smith, Volt Advisory Board member and Co-Director of Athletic Performance at the University of Vermont, says, “Too many athletes try to accelerate the training process without a solid technique base built upon the mastery of fundamental movements. This not only lowers their ceiling for athletic development, but can put them at risk for injury in the long term.” Not only will practicing perfect technique make you better athlete, it will also help you stay injury-free throughout your athletic career—and while long-term injury prevention may not sound sexy to young athletes now, it sure will when they’re pushing 50! 

If you like getting injured, developing and practicing poor motor patterns is a great way to do it. Over- or under-developed muscle groups, or an over-reliance on a particular limb, can lead your body to compensate by using other muscles, which can hurt your form. And if you practice that broken form day-in and day-out, your body will adapt and make that your default movement pattern. Adding weight to poor motor patterns is like building your house on top of a sand dune: no matter how cool it looks at first, it will, eventually, collapse. Luckily, bad movement patterns can be corrected through practicing proper technique in foundational movements.

Notice how RG3's knees cave in as he takes off and lands his vertical and broad jump attempts. This is called valgus knee collapse, and this is poor mechanics.

Notice how RG3's knees cave in as he takes off and lands his vertical and broad jump attempts. This is called valgus knee collapse, and this is poor mechanics.

Lift like a scientist: examine how you move, study your form, and make corrections. Your goal is to build a foundation of solid movement awareness, upon which you can later add weight. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, the number on the bar isn’t the be-all, end-all. It’s not about how much you squat, it’s about how much you can squat WELL. Developing good movement patterns, just like laying a foundation, requires a lot of work—you have to slow down, pay attention, seek out imperfections to be fixed, and repeat ad nauseum. But good movement patterns paired with a proper training program will ensure your body won’t crumble under stress.

Primers and Finishers

One great way to reinforce good movement patterns is through adding a primer or finisher to your workout. Primers are an opportunity for you to prepare your body specifically for the work ahead. Performing a primer before a workout will help to activate all the muscles and ligaments that you’re about to use, keeping your joints happy. You want to get the most out of the work you’re about to put in, so you’ve got to prepare. For example, on a training day involving heavy front squats, your primer might include squat jumps or jump lunges to prepare the quads and glutes, banded hip abduction to help increase your squat depth, or overhead mobility work with a dowel or band to prep your shoulders for the front rack position.

Finishers, on the other hand, are designed to tax your muscles and energy systems after they are fatigued from your training session. They can help drive further training stress for a focused goal (like developing better grip strength), or provide an appropriate recovery method to help the body return to a normal, pre-exercise status. Finishers should always be performed with great attention to form, since the body is depleted post-workout and susceptible to form errors. But even if your finisher is quick (say, 3 sets of 10 push-ups and 10 pull-ups as quickly as possible with perfect form, after a workout involving a bench press), it will help reinforce the good movement patterns you work so hard to maintain.

How to Look Cool in the Gym: Stay Injury-Free

J.J. Watt didn’t just decide to pick up a 1000-lb tire one day on a whim—he’s been preparing for that tire since Day 1 in the gym. To perform at your sport while avoiding injury, you must go back to the basics. Prime your body for activity, perfect your form through perfect repetitions, and challenge developed movement patterns with a finisher that reinforces good form even when you’re fatigued. And check that ego—it’s a process, and it takes patience. But remember that 10 perfect reps outweighs 100 bad ones, and when you practice quality in the weight room, it translates to quality on the field. And remember: injury-free athletes look pretty badass, even when doing bodyweight squats.

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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye