As a weightlifting coach, my job is to fix technique and make people better. I spend the majority of my coaching hours scrutinizing movements and thinking on how to fix mistakes. When people come to me for advice, the most common question I get asked is, “How can I fix this?” So I gave a seminar about it few weeks ago, and today I’m going to expand on some of these points.
Mistakes in weightlifting can generally be attributed to two broad categories: Technical Errors and “Something Else”. I know; the “Something Else” is vague. We’ll get there.
Technical errors in weightlifting are often caused by one of three things:
- The athlete’s knowledge and level of experience
- Formation of bad habits
- Using improper cues
Of course, errors also occur when you’re fatigued, in pain, injured, hungover, etc., but that’s not the point here. We’re talking about reasons for improper execution of the lift, without other mitigating factors.
Beginner weightlifters typically make the most mistakes, and that’s ok. They’re learning to lift, and it often takes months before we start to see any real level of consistency in their lifting technique. Consistency and sound technique are developed over time as an athlete creates motor patterns and refines their skill level. However, without proper cues, coaching, and feedback, athletes can develop bad lifting habits.
As a coach, it’s actually far easier for me to teach someone something completely new, than to try to correct an already learned skill. The reason for this is that as we learn a new skill, the brain becomes activated and lays down new connections between neurons as movement patterns become stronger. Over time these patterns become so strong, that the brain activity required to execute the pattern, will actually decrease. Movements become more automatic and the brain doesn’t have to “think” about it anymore.
Once someone has created a motor pattern, the body tends to default to that pattern wherever possible, most likely because the brain thinks it’s an efficient way to do things (where efficient means it requires the least brain power and muscular effort). When trying to correct a bad habit (i.e. overwrite a previously learned motor pattern), you will often resort to that old pattern, since your brain already has an idea about how something should look and feel.
Overwriting that pattern becomes the tricky part. Trying to form new neural connections over old ones can take a lot longer than starting from scratch. In this instance, correcting bad habits can take a considerable amount of time and effort on both the coach and athlete, not to mention a lot of practice.
And here’s where coaching can make or break an athlete. Good coaching will provide the athlete with appropriate cues and drills to enable correct movement production, while bad coaching will make an athlete, well… bad. Cueing becomes incredibly important when learning a new movement. As a coach, you might look at a weightlifter and see ten things wrong, and your initial impulse is to give ten corrections to those ten errors. Stop. Do not pass Go. Do not overcorrect/over-cue your athlete. Pick ONE thing to work on, and move with that. One cue, ideally one that gives the biggest bang for your buck, should be your focus.
How do we know, what we know?
Sometimes, an athlete might not be able to execute a given lift or cue because they’re limited by mobility, strength, or some other physical trait. You coach and cue them and they’re trying hard to get it, but something doesn’t look right. So how do you know if it’s a technical error or something else?
First off, you should have assessed your athlete before working with them. But if you don’t have that option for whatever reason, here’s how you can determine whether the issue is a technical error or something else:
- Can the athlete correct the technique, given the appropriate cue? And by appropriate, I mean appropriate for the lift, and for the athlete. The same cue doesn’t work on everyone, so there’s some experimentation to be done here.
- Can you move the athlete into the correct position? If cueing doesn’t work, can you put the athlete where you want them to go (by moving their arms, legs, hips or whatever)? And if so…
- Can they hold that position? Is the athlete able to maintain that position for more than a second? While in that position, do they mention any restrictions, pain or other issues?
If you answer yes to all three (with no pain or significant restrictions present), then the issue is most likely technical and they need to work on correcting that issue. If you answer no to one or more questions, you need to look at other factors: mobility, activation, asymmetries and imbalances, stability, and strength. I call these the Foundation Five (my “Something Else.”) We’ll address this in our next article.