Examine your setup and consider the proportions of your body to find the best technique for you.
The perfect program, the perfect lifting technique, the perfect anything, is the one that’s specifically designed for you. You are unique, like a snowflake. You are, however, still a snowflake like the rest of us, made of the same ice and following the same laws of physics.
Many of us fall into the trap of obsessing over our individual differences, hiding behind imagined distinctions to avoid fixing our own gaps in performance. These perceived roadblocks come in the form of excuses like, "I'm just a hard gainer," or “My body wasn’t designed to move that way.”
When it comes to technique, sometimes, you have to respect the snowflake and sometimes you have to admit you’re just ice. Either way, it’s important to know how you should look when you lift, when you should switch to a different exercise, and when you are blaming your genes for something that’s really just bad movement.
When you take these individual differences into account, you can adjust your technique accordingly to set yourself on the best path toward achieving your performance goals.
No Two Lifters Are Alike
Presses, pulls, throws, and squats are universal, gross-movement patterns that most athletes tend to execute close to the same way. There are common points of performance associated with each lift, but every athlete has a bit of wiggle room within these guidelines.
Two people can look dramatically different doing the same lift and both be absolutely correct. So, if your technique looks vastly different than the person lifting next to you, how do you know whether you’re different or just plain wrong?
Let’s take a closer look at five elements that play a significant role in the way you move:
Limb Lengths. The length of your body segments will inevitably change the look of a correctly executed lift. Here are a few guidelines for making adjustments on the fly:
- Examine your setup and consider the proportions of your body. If you have short arms and/or long femurs, your setup in the deadlift is going to be pretty horizontal. However, if your shoulders are just forward of the bar in your setup, the bar is over your mid-foot, and your back is flat, you may not have the most graceful, upright stance, but you’re still correct. When you try to mimic other lifters without a fixed reference point, you’re almost always guaranteed to be wrong.
- If you have wonky proportions but can’t quite picture how they impact a lift, imagine that disproportion wildly exaggerated. If your forearm was twice as long as your upper arm, how would your front rack look?
Bony Structures. Your skeleton is a limiting factor for how you perform a lift. Some people have an ideal hip and femur arrangement or a flat acromion process, which results in a naturally more comfortable approach to the squat and press. Don’t try to force yourself into an ass-to-grass squat with a narrow stance if your body was not built for such range of motion.
Injury History and Restrictions. Sometimes you can work around injuries and sometimes you can’t. With a minor technique adjustment or a close variant, many injuries will still allow you to train without a major shift. When dealing with an injury, assess the range of motion that causes you pain and finds exercise variants that allow you to continue training without causing further damage.
Body Mass and Body Fat. Lifters with a lot of body mass (muscle or fat) will look different under the bar than someone who carries less weight. A significant belly or a great deal of fat distributed in the hips and legs will change your walking gait and lead to some funky-looking angles, especially for lightweight warm-ups and novice lifters.
Competition Goals. If you’re training for overall strength, health, and athleticism, you should generally choose a technique that safely allows you to lift the heaviest weight over the longest range of motion. If lifting is your sport, though, you may compromise one of these elements to put more points on the board. For example, a super-wide grip bench press is less useful in training and more likely to tear a pectoral muscle, but that exact technique won Shao Chu a world record. Her lift looked goofy, but do you think she cares what you think about her grip width?
If you want to be your best, find your faults and learn to address them.
Looking Different Doesn’t Mean You’re Special
One of the biggest mistakes an athlete can make is not respecting their individual situation. If you have shoulder restrictions and can’t low-bar back squat or snatch, do high-bar squats and Russian swings instead.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should give up too easily and switch exercises just because something doesn’t look quite right. Instead, take a moment to examine why your movement is different. What if you’re not a unique snowflake and you just have bad form?
Before ditching the movement altogether, find the fault and fix it first. You’ll become a better lifter in the process. If you switch from deadlifting with a barbell to a trap bar because your back is constantly rounding, you might miss out on the opportunity to train yourself how to keep a rigid back under a heavy load.
There are, of course, times when you do have to abandon one exercise for another. Sometimes, you legitimately can't fix a problem, or maybe you don’t have the time/skill/experience to correct the form fault that day. Whatever the case, before you dig into your arsenal of exercise variants searching for the technique that is designed perfectly for you, ask yourself this: "Am I using this technique for a reason, or am I trying one exercise after another until I find the one that looks “good enough” without much effort?"
Find Your Lifting Groove
Individual differences in technique can be a tough nut to crack. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, your best performance will come from tweaking your form to your unique situation. But in reality, you’re not that special.
If you want to be your best, skip the easy route. Seek guidance from an experienced coach who can help identify if your deviations from “normal” are standing in the way of your goals or are in fact putting you on a path to success.
More on Finding Your Potential:
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- Talent Doesn't Lift Weights, You Do: Own Your Practice
- Don't Let the Fitness Industry Tell You What to Do