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Exercise Technique Obsessed
Whilst we are fortunate to be able to work and train in a world-class facility, most of our team members train elsewhere (in commercial gyms) when travelling or when convenience takes priority. For our coaching team, seeing people working out with ineffective exercise technique is tough to watch. We want to use this article to revisit a common theme in our blog; solid exercise technique. This article may prove to be timely in the lead up to the Christmas holidays. After all, there are office social events to navigate and the damage of indulgence to mitigate. We want to use this article to reinforce why great technique is important and give examples great technique for some of the most common (and often misused) exercises in fat loss workouts.
We go to the gym to lift weights. However, where body composition is concerned, we are really going to the gym to lower weights. The lowering (eccentric) phase of most exercises is more valuable that the lifting phase and should be treated as such. There are several reasons for this;
1) You are approximately three-times stronger lowering a weight that you are lifting it. Therefore, we can induce far greater tension on the lowering phase.
2) In building muscle tissue, ‘time-under-tension’ is king. The lowering phase of each exercise allows to add time to each repetition without sacrificing weight on the lifting phase.
3) The lowering phase is where your understanding of the movement is developed. Ask any of our coaching team, a perfectly executed lowering phase is indicative of a great lift.
Have a look at a brief explanation of each different phase of an exercise below. Then, think about your own exercise technique and how you might apply and maximise each phase for common movements such as squats, press-ups and rows. The goal is always to fight for as much benefit as possible from each set and each repetition. After all, working out in the longer-term is a game of inches.
Three Exercise Phases
Concentric Contractions: A concentric contraction takes place when a muscle contracts, develops tension and shortens. When you perform a Biceps Curl with a dumbbell, the biceps contract and shorten, moving your forearm towards your humorous. This phase is typically the most aggressive and dynamic of each exercise. However, in training for improved body composition, our goal is to minimise momentum through this phase. Lift aggressively, but never swing. We seek to have the target muscle under stress throughout the entire range of movement.
Eccentric Contractions: In our example of a Biceps Curl, when lowering the dumbbell back towards the floor; this is an eccentric contraction (the opposite). Your muscle contracts, develops tension and lengthens throughout the range of movement. This phase is too often forgotten when training. Most people focus their effort into lifting the weight but let gravity do the work when lowering the weight. Focus on embracing and maximising eccentric activity. You will completely transform the intensity of each set and make dramatic improvement to your results.
As a rule of thumb, place a subtle pause at the end of each eccentric phase. In doing so, you will minimise the possibility of any ‘bounce’ or stretch following the lowering phase that may take tension away from your lifting phase. Pauses are very useful to maintain your focus on the target muscle(s) and maximise tension.
Static/Isometric Contractions: Static contractions are when your muscle contracts, develops tension but the length of your muscle does not change. For example; if you perform a Biceps Curl but stop/pause the at the ‘half-way point’ and ‘hold’, a static contraction is employed. You will quickly feel fatigue setting in and lactate building but there will be no lengthening/shortening of the muscle itself.
If you can remember and consistently adhere to the principles of each phase of an exercise, the effectiveness of each exercise you perform will increase.
Squats: Theory to Practice
Let’s now look at these principles when applied to one of the most common movements in a body composition workout programme, squats.
The goal of our squat will be to improve body composition and, more specifically, to build muscle in the quadriceps group. Let’s assume that the person performing the squat is absolutely mobile, has great joint health and structural balance. Essentially, we want to remove any contraindications and reasons to amend a basic Barbell Back Squat.
Your starting position for a squat is relatively simple. You are stood upright with an Olympic barbell resting on your upper trapezius muscles. Your posture is tall, your elbows are down, under the bar and your feet are between hip and shoulder width apart.
The Eccentric Phase
As you start squatting from a standing position, your first phase will be to lower yourself down through the movement. The eccentric phase should be absolutely controlled. Given the large range of movement (and your goal) the speed at which you lower yourself might be a smooth and consistent 3-4 seconds approximately. Your goal is to stay upright and focus as much effort on your quadriceps as possible. Imagine (if you can) ‘pulling yourself down’ toward the floor as you descend. This ‘internal cue’ will increase neural drive toward your target muscle(s).
The Static Phase
At the end of your lowering phase, you pause in the lowest (almost seated) position. Your quadriceps tension is large, strong and can store a huge amount of potential energy. Therefore, your ability to ‘bounce out of’ the eccentric position and lose tension within the quadriceps on your concentric phase is significant. Adding a subtle (0.5-1 second) pause (static contraction) in the bottom position will take away your inclination to ‘bounce out’ and therefore improve tension within the working muscle groups on the next, concentric phase.
The Concentric Phase
When squatting, the concentric (lifting) phase is the phase most likely to see technical errors due to the temptation to lean forward and improve your leverage. Whilst a forward lean will increase the speed at which you can return to the top position, this will reduce tension in your quadriceps and therefore the effectiveness of the exercise. Not good. Focus on ‘staying tall’ as you drive down through your heels, push your hips forward as you ascend and drive aggressively back towards your top position.
Why Perfect Your Exercise Technique?
Great technique can make the difference between an ineffective workout and fantastic, long-term progress. Understanding the three primary phases of each exercise is only the beginning but a great place to orientate your focus when training alone. If you practice and employ the principles of this article to your next workout, you will notice a huge difference in the acute effects on the intensity of each exercise and how you feel after trying it.
Exercise technique can be challenging to master but the investment is worth it. Sadly, achieving great results are not simply a product of effort or will. A great workout is a combination of science, creativity and experience. However, even the most basic workout can be made infinitely more effective when sound technical principles are applied.
Thank you for reading.
Try our similar post, ‘Fat Loss Mistakes‘