Why Subtleties Are So Important in Weight Lifting

Your body is incredibly complex. It’s an interlocked and woven system of bone, tissue, nerves, and energy. What you do with it matters. Showing your body respect is important. I’m in the gym everyday. I’ve worked out in numerous gyms and environments. Most everyone, as far as I can see, cares little for the subtleties of a lift. Often times it’s obvious that a person is familiar with an exercise, but not what that exercise is meant to accomplish, not which muscles are to be targeted, not the compensations they’re performing, and so on.

You miss out on so much when you lift.

Let’s talk about some of the subtleties of a lift you’ve probably never been introduced to.

Each lift focuses on a joint or joints.

You probably think a lift focuses on a muscle. I mean after all, all the machines in the gym show you a picture of which primary and secondary muscles are being used when you use the machine. But technically, a lift is centered around a joint working on its own, or joints working in unison. Muscles contract or release to control your joints. Without the movement in the joint there is no movement. Strength is the ability to manipulate a joint under tension.

Okay. So what does this mean?

It means you should be conscious of the types of lifts you’re focused on. Are you a biceps and/or triceps guy? You’re working a single joint when you target these muscles alone. Curls work a single joint! The elbow. This is a subtlety so often overlooked. Instead of being a biceps guy, hit your biceps but do it in a more dynamic way. Work your biceps but work multiple joints. You’ll get more out of chin-ups. This works two joints, the elbow and the shoulder. It can also work your core dependent on how you do them. I’m not saying don’t ever do curls. I’m saying, be mindful of what your lifts truly are: the manipulation of a joint.

Your brain is always compensating for something.

This is one of my favorite subtleties of lifting. Mainly because it’s extremely hard to overcome. Your unconscious mind is constantly performing tasks for you. Tasks, when untrained, you have no control over. I do not care to be a slave to my mind, so I work against these compensations. Also, these compensations at times can be dangerous. Although they may feel intuitive, they at times put your joints in compromised positions.

Think of someone untrained in squats. When someone who does not understand how his/her knees are supposed to track squats, their brains will often force them to draw their knees closer together. This feels right because you’re drawing your knees under you. It brings your legs under you and under the weight. Your brain tells you this is right. Of course you need your knees under you to perform the lift…right?

No. This is not correct. It compromises the lift and potentially the knee. Your knees should track more outward. Nothing extreme, but away from each other.

Each of us have a lift or lifts it will take or has taken us years to learn how to master. I remember when I solved that my left shoulder was weaker than my right. My brain knew this even when I didn’t and it would arch my back and rib cage to the left. This effectively puts more of your back into the rep for the left arm and propels the weight on that side upward. Now, If I only had to perform this lift once, that might not be a bad thing. However, when this occurs you hang your right arm out to dry. It’s forced to do more work because it has less leverage. As a result the right arm gets stronger. Over time this compensation widens the gap between the strength of each arm.

We compensate all the time. Arching the back is a common compensation that occurs on so many lifts. Overhead press. Flat bench. Front shoulder raises. Ergo bar curls…and a lot of other curls. When we give into these compensations we train for weakness, not strength.

An inch in range of motion or angle can make all the difference.

When performing a lift, do you imagine the muscle you’re working in your mind? Do you focus on it contracting? Do you think on the way your arms or legs are tracking? Not only can performing a lift at the correct angle properly hit the muscle, but it protects the muscle and joint being worked. I can’t tell you how often I’ll see someone in the gym performing a set and not working the muscle they’re intending to at all. Even the slightest change in the angle of your hand or foot, grip, pull or push, can change the rep drastically.

So can a change in the range of motion. At times you’ll get more of an exercise, for instance lat pulldowns, if you start each pull with the muscle fully stretched. However, in a front raise if you release the weight on the negatives all the way to a relaxed position, you gain nothing. There is no greater stretch in the muscle and you have just given your deltoid a break. Furthermore, the first 12 inches of the rep, your muscle isn’t even engaged and you’re gaining momentum on the lift that actually releases the muscle from tension later in the rep. Stopping the rep 12 inches before a dead hang keeps the muscle under tension longer. Those subtle inches get you so much more out of each rep. Care for these inches for every set and you get much more out of your entire workout.

Problem here is that on several of your lifts, changing the angle or plane of the lift, and being conscious of final inches at the beginning and end of a rep, will often cause your numbers to drop. Technically your numbers aren’t dropping. Technically you can’t actually lift the weight you’re lifting, not properly. You’re cheating yourself. Read about cheat reps here.

There are just a few of the subtleties you should be paying attention to on every lift.

Want to get better at this? Read about mindful lifting here.

People, I implore you to think about what you’re doing a bit more. It’s your body. Be good to it.

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Whenever someone tells me they're unhappy, I always ask, "How often do you exercise?" There is nothing more important to your happiness than your brain chemistry. Protect your brain chemistry.

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