Lifting weights is technical. It’s not just about power and brute force. Weight lifting is also graceful and fluid. The slightest twist of a wrist can change a lift entirely and it’s not easy targeting a single striation of a muscle group. A good lifter, or body builder, cares about these technical aspects of lifting as much as the resulting gains. Why though? Why should we care?
There are many reasons to care. None greater though than your brain’s unconscious compensation for weakness, imbalance, lack of mobility and so on. When untrained, unpracticed, or unaware, your brain is always compensating for these things. This compensation is necessary, at times, in real world applications when a split decision needs to be made or a functional movement, recruiting the body’s immediate strengths, is required.
In the gym? Compensation is your enemy. It widens the gap of your imbalances. It accommodates, instead of resolves, immobility. It protects your weaknesses. It leads to injury.
What is compensation?
Take a standard barbell bench press. The idea is to load the chest with weight for the purpose of hypertrophy. If your chest is weak and you still want to put up weight, your brain might naturally change the technique of your reps to recruit more of your anterior deltoid (the front of your shoulder). This is compensation. In a proper rep your shoulders are back, shoulder blades together, disengaged deltoids and the majority of the load is on your pectorals. When compensating, the shoulders come forward, the back flattens out, the anterior deltoids engage, and the load is removed from your chest. This is compensation.
One of the major skills you are training for in the gym is the ability to overcome compensation.
Let’s talk about imbalances. Imbalances are another primary reason your brain compensates for you without your knowledge or permission. Keeping to a standard barbell flat bench, if one pectoral or complex of pectoral, tricep, and deltoid is stronger than the other (you’ll see this all the time in the gym, every time I’d wager) you may place the stronger side under more load. Your brain thinks, “We need to complete this rep. Oh no! One side is too weak. Put the load the on the stronger side!” It is easy to notice when this is happening. A couple clues. Pay attention to the distance of the hand from the center of the chest. If each hand is not equidistant from the center of the chest, compensation is occurring. Another less obvious indication of compensation on bench is what a lifter is doing with his/her hips. Often at heavier weights the back begins to arch (this is in itself a compensation). When the back arches, if it also twists, meaning one hip (usually the left for a right-handed person) raises higher than the other, the brain is compensating for the weaker pectoral, tricep, shoulder complex.
Immobility is another cause for compensation. Think of an overhead shoulder press. How much do you arch your back? The less mobile the shoulder joint the harder you’ll have to arch your back, especially at higher weights, to press the rep for a full range of motion. You don’t even know you’re doing it. The problem here is that now you’ve changed the angle of the rep and taken some of the load off the shoulder and placed it on the upper-chest. You’re no longer isolating the shoulder.
Learning how your brain compensates is important.
Compensation can lead to injury. Think about a squat where a person’s knees don’t track properly. They cave in during the rep. That person’s brain is yelling at them to get all their strength underneath them. We know allowing the knees to cave in puts the knee at risk and can lead to serious injury.
If you are not mindful when you lift, the way your brain compensates can lead to injury, can lead to a larger gap in your imbalances (one side of your body could become better defined, larger, and stronger), and can lead to lack of development in a muscle group you’re targeting (ever wonder why your shoulders or chest won’t grow?).
How can I fix what my brain is doing?!
The hard truth is that it takes years. But you’re an avid lifter right? You’re in it for the long haul. You have time but you have to become aware. Firstly, when you’re performing a lift, before you even approach the lift, what muscle group, and even more definitively, what subset of the muscle group are you targeting? When you perform the lift, are you focusing on how that muscle feels during the lift? Secondly, pay attention to your tracking. How do your arms or legs track? Is it different from one side to the other? Pay attention to the angle of your wrists, the angle of a planted foot, the tracking of your elbows and knees.
If you pay attention, the subtleties WILL reveal themselves to you. Take stock of your body after a workout. Is one muscle more tired or sorer than it’s complimenting muscle on the other side? These are all clues.
Take what you have found and consciously make changes to your lifts. Your body will thank you later.