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Strength Training Programs: Lifting Heavy Weights vs. Corrective Exercise – Finding a Balance

Posted Mar 04 2011 10:16am

Q: How does one find a balance between “technique/form/corrective/sissy work” and lifting heavy weights to make gains in a strength training program? I see both extremes, but am curious about what affects the balance between the two.

A: This is actually a great question, and I am actually surprised that I’ve never answered it before in over five years of writing on this site.

For me, it all comes down to five factors in each athlete/client: strength training experience, injury history, goals, time to commit, and training session structure.

In someone with limited strength and conditioning, more of the session is going to be devoted to technique work on entry level strength exercises.  You don’t have to worry as much about lifting really heavy weights simply because beginners can make appreciable strength gains with as little as 40% of 1-rep max on exercises.  The more advanced an athlete becomes, the less time you spend on technique work, and the more work you do with strength development and corrective exercise.  Eventually, when an athlete has a lot of strength, you have to consider whether all the time and effort that would go in to adding 20 pounds to his squat would actually be better spent elsewhere – whether it’s with corrective work, power training at a lower percentage of 1-rep max, or in introducing new exercises.  Effectively, it always comes down to finding someone’s biggest window of adaptation and exploiting it.  That’s one reason why I tried to make the Show and Go program so versatile by including 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week training options alongside five supplemental metabolic training protocols.

If we are talking about someone with a lengthy injury history, though, the rules get thrown out the window.  You are not only spending more time with corrective exercise, but also refining your strength exercise selection to work with this individual – so it might mean that you have to do more technique work to add in new strength exercises, regardless of that individual’s training experience.

One’s training goals impact the corrective/heavy lifting balance as well.  If I’m training someone who simply wants to improve quality of life or stay healthy in athletics, I can be a bit more cautious on the heavy lifting side of things and hold back.  However, if we are talking about someone who was put on this planet to get strong and wants to be the most badass guy in the gym, we have to lift some heavy weights to make that happen.  So, while the second scenario in many cases requires more corrective exercise, we’re talking about a population that is willing to take more risks in training to get to a goal that might not be at all interesting to a more “low key” population.  This does not, however, mean it’s okay to let strength-oriented people lift with atrocious technique.  Doing so makes you an unethical clown who is more likely to get sued – not a professional.

Time to commit is another important consideration that many folks overlook.  Very simply, if someone can only get in two exercise sessions a week, I’m not going to be spending a ton of time on corrective exercise with them.  You’re much more likely to die from being fat and having diabetes than you are from having a cranky rotator cuff.  I’ll gladly give these folks additional corrective exercise that they can do during their busy schedules (which are never as busy as they claim), but I won’t coddle them when they need to move.

The last factor, which is more about the training model than the athlete/client in question, is how one structures a training session.  At Cressey Performance, athletes start their sessions with foam rolling and then proceed to an 8-10 exercise dynamic warm-up.  For many folks – particularly young athletes – that is enough “corrective” work, and the remainder of the session can be devoted to technical instruction and increasing strength on exercises that are safe for them.  Those with more accumulated wear-and-tear on their bodies will need more corrective exercise beyond what they’ll get from strength training alone – so we add in fillers (e.g., extra mobility work) between sets, and some additional corrective work at the end of the session.  Since you have a limited amount of time with people, you may have to cut back on strength training or metabolic conditioning initially just so that you can get in this early corrective work to get them over the initial “hump.”  Trust me: it will set the stage for long-term success rather than “short-term gain, long-term pain.”

There are two final points I’d like to make.  First, in my experience, many experienced lifters/athletes have responded well to separating the heavy lifting from the corrective stuff.  When they show up to train, they may be really fired up and ready to go – so the last thing they’ll want is to do some scapular wall slides or spend five minutes getting some length in their rectus femoris.

These folks would be wise to do just enough warm-up work to prepare for their heavy training, and then add in some separate sessions to address movement inefficiencies – whether we’re talking additional foam rolling, massage, mobility drills , rotator cuff work, or something else.  They can also add it in on the end of the session after the hardest work is done.

Second, for many folks, maximal strength can be tremendously corrective.  Increasing strength in one area can reduce excessive stress in another area of the body.  An example of this would be using the box squat or deadlift to learn proper hip hinging techniques, which would increase posterior chain contribution and take some of the burden off the quads in someone with anterior knee pain.  Likewise, all other factors held constant, a stronger muscle is less likely to become degenerative.  You can read more along these lines in two older newsletter of mine on the Law of Repetitive Motion: Parts 1 and Part 2 .

Obviously, there are many things to consider, but this should at least get you headed in the right direction in finding the right balance in your strength training program.

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