elitefts™ Sunday Edition

I have spent a lot of time talking about, teaching, and working on the technique of all three of the lifts. It is without a doubt one of the most important parts of training, but what do you do once you know and understand the technique?

You build big, strong, and stable neuro-pathways.

Now, I am not going to get into all of the physiology of the nervous system because, quite honestly, I don't remember all that stuff and there are probably many people much more qualified to write about that side of it. Axons, myelin sheath, motor neurons, dendrites...blah blah blah. I have always been more interested in the real world aspect of neuro-pathways—the aspect that helps me lift a ton. That's not to say that I didn't learn all that stuff in college, or that it wasn't good to learn it all so that I better understand how it works, but I live by the "keep it simple, stupid" motto. I am a busy guy. Give me the information that I need to know and nothing more. I don't want to waste time looking up old information that I have forgotten or waste your time telling you stuff that I don't feel really matters. I want everyone to get strong as hell, and I don't really care if you know what a dendrite is.

The building of neuro-pathways takes time and it is difficult to break old ones, so the very first thing is to really learn what good technique is. I have said this so many times, and I am going to say it again: most people think they have good technique when it is actually shit. If you learn terrible technique or don't understand proper technique and you start training that way, you will just have to try to break those neuro-pathways later. Spend the time and the money to learn it right and build from there. I promise that any elitefts™ seminar will be worth the money you spend, or you can purchase my training DVD which is all about technique. Find training partners that actually know what they are talking about and that know proper technique—listen to them. Also, if you have any access to top lifters, take advantage of that. You really want to understand what good technique is so that later you can teach your partners and they, in turn, can watch you. It is also a good idea to video yourself once you know what you are looking for. There is no reason to build neuro-pathways that you're going to have to spend time breaking later. You're already going to have to spend enough time breaking the bad pathways you have now, so there is no reason to start more bad ones.

Once you know what your technique is supposed to be, then you can go about teaching your body to lift that way. This sounds like an easy enough thing to do, but it is much harder than most people think. Our bodies get used to things and will tend to keep doing them in the same way. This is particularly true in how we move. How you hold your fork, how you reach for you wallet, and how you brush your teeth, etc. are all common tasks you repeatedly perform the same way. We develop the ways in which we do these movements when we are kids, and over time our body builds strong neuro-pathways to do these movements. Once the pathways are developed, we don't really even think about the movements. Basically, we tell our brain we need to brush our teeth and then, without even thinking about it, we are brushing out teeth.

Take walking, for example. When is the last time you ever remember actually thinking about walking? We think “I want to get a glass of water,” and then we get up and get it (or if you are really lazy, you wait for someone else to get up and ask them). However, we don't think right in front of left, push off the ball of the foot, flex hip flexor, pull leg forward, extent leg by flexing quads, put heal down, flex hamstring, and so on. Gate patterns are very complex, with tons of muscles moving and flexing, yet we do it easily. This is because of the neuro-pathways we built as babies while we were learning to walk. At first, our gate was clumsy and we fell a lot. However, over time, we slowly kept trying and with each little thing we did right, we built a neuro-pathway. Eventually, we were running all over the place, even though we didn't have to think about running. We just told ourselves we wanted to run and we did it. This, of course, is the short and simple version. Basically, our mind doesn't want to spend too much time or energy on things it will do repetitively, so it simplifies it. It builds pathways between the brain and the muscles using nerves. This way, it stimulates a part of the brain that controls running and we run.

There are other benefits to these neuro-pathways, too. For instance, they make for a very consistent movement. Take again the example of walking. Yes, we do stumble or trip sometimes, but think about how many solid steps we take with no problems. It's a lot, even for the clumsiest of people. These pathways also simplify the thinking process, freeing up brain power for other activities. Again with looking at walking, how many time a day are you doing so many other things while your walking? If it was not for the neuro-pathways we built, we would be spending all of our time focusing solely on the complex act of walking. These pathways have also played a big role, and maybe were developed, for our survival. If some animal was trying to eat one of our ancestors, he probably would have been eaten if he had to think about running instead of just hauling ass to safety. However, because of his survival instinct, perhaps he would have instead turned to stab the animal with his spear because he had developed the proper neuro-pathways to do so. The human body is a very smart and efficient machine that can do amazing things.

We must develop these neuro-pathways when it comes to our lifts in the gym. We don't have time to be thinking about all of the elements of a proper squat while a thousand pounds rests on our backs. We need to be focusing on pooling all the strength we have and getting the lift done. Sure, there will always be one or two cues to think about but not the whole technique of the lift. Could you imagine trying to lift a true max while thinking of the 30 things you need to do while squatting? Get set, belly full of air, push abs out, turn knees out, butt back first, let knees break when they want to, push butt back, and so on. There is no way we could do that; the weight would crush us. The other thing is that there will always be areas of the technique that we need to work on, and this is do to muscular weaknesses. This means we can't always be thinking about the whole movement. Once you build the neuro-pathways, the majority of the lift will become habit and will free your mind so that you can focus on any weak points you have, like forcing weak muscle to follow the correct technique so they get stronger. This will be a progression, too. When you first start training properly, you have to think of 30+ things to make sure you squat correctly. After a while, 10 things will become habit and you will only have to think about 20. This will continue until there are just a couple of things. I think that when you are always pushing the limits, you will always have to stay up on your technique. However, once the pathways are built and imbedded, it's pretty easy to keep things solid.

So, what is the best way to build these neuro-pathways? First and foremost, you must stop doing a movement wrong. Every time you do it wrong you make that pathway stronger. I say this because I see so many people do their warm ups like shit! They will say something like, "Oh, it's just a warm up, and I will do it right when I get heavy." To be blunt, that's F'ing stupid! You're putting yourself at risk for injury and you're strengthening a pathway you need to break down. It also takes thousands of reps to build a pathway. Warm ups are an excellent opportunity to build these. So warming up with bad technique is screwing yourself.

You're strengthening the incorrect pathway and not taking the opportunity to build a good one. Another thing I like to do in order to build that strong pathway is, after your training session, do 10 sets of 10 reps with no weight on the lift trained that day. If it was bench day, I would bench for ten sets of ten. On squat day then complete ten sets of ten squats. These are done with an empty bar or no weight, and they need to be as perfect as possible. What I like to do is have a partner I trust watch or video each set of ten. Get feedback or watch the video so you know what to work on for the next set of ten. These may sound easy, but trust that if you are really working hard on your technique, it will be a lot harder then your think, especially after your train. Another thing that is important is to practice whenever possible. I would slide to the edge of the couch as if I was on a box before I would get up, and I would make sure my technique was perfect. Any time I got up from a sitting position was a chance to work on my technique. Even getting off the toilette! Unfortunately, not so may things in life simulate the bench press, but throughout the day I would do some imaginary reps in the air but with perfect technique. All of these things will build those pathways and remember, the more time you do it right, the faster the neuro-pathways are built.

One of my favorite things to do is visualization. When I first learned and started working on my technique for powerlifting, I used this a lot. I would go in my room and shut the light off. Then, I would sit on the floor against the wall and set an alarm for 30 minutes. I would start off visualizing myself going through the lifts through my own eyes—my perspective, focusing on each little movement and how it felt. I would do the lifts slowly in my head. Then, I would change to where I visualized it as if I was watching myself. Again, I would go through the movement slowly, trying to get each little part right. Then, I would go back to visualizing it again through my own eyes, but now I would speed the lift up. I would work up to a full-speed lift while still trying to feel each movement and doing it perfect. I would then finish up by watching myself at full speed. This is a great way to help build those neuro-pathway even though you are not actually doing the movement. Your mind will connect the pathways with your muscles.

I often hear some confusion on whether you should go heavy while learning new technique. I have heard people say that they are not going heavy until they can do the lift correctly. I personally feel this is wrong. Yes, you can build the pathways by going light, but you have to train the pathway under stress too. Someone may get the technique down with no weight, but every time he/she gets halfway heavy, it all falls apart. This is because he/she has never trained it heavy and probably has weaknesses in certain muscle groups with the new, proper technique. We are still strength athletes, and we still need to train heavy. It's kind of a catch-22 deal because you don't want to reinforce the bad pathways but you still need to train heavy.

When I first started to squat properly, I could barely do an empty bar correctly, and this was when I was doing 545 pounds for five sets of five reps narrow and deep. So for my first couple trains, I did just the empty bar and would add a little weight until my technique got bad. Then I would move to a good morning or some other max effort work. For these, I would still work on my technique but I focused more on pushing myself strength wise. I gradually pushed this each session. I would go heavier with my squat until my technique would start to fail, then I'd stop there. I always tried to keep going up each train though, and every so often I would just go for a true max no matter what my technique was looking like. Over six months, my max squat went from around 650 pounds to over 700 pounds with completely new technique. The best thing is that it kept growing from there because I had a strong base with good technique. I understood what muscles were involved in proper technique and could easily pick out my weak areas. That was just the beginning for me.

Like I have said many, many times, going crazy in the gym is just a very small part of strength. Put the time in to train hard and put the time in to train smart. Learn perfect technique and then take the time to build strong neuro-pathways so that you can go to the competition and just focus on destroying weights. Utilize your warm ups, they're not just there to get your muscles and joints warm. Every time you get up from a chair is an opportunity to work on your squat and deadlift, and doing three or four bench presses in the air at work can lead to huge lifts in the gym. Being a great strength athlete is not just about a few hours at the gym during the week, it's about a way of life.