Textbook Technique and Why it Doesn’t Exist

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It’s not lost on me that the title of this post will raise some eyebrows. If I had a grain of salt to toss everyone’s way this instant I would do it. The title shouldn’t be taken too literally, because I do feel there are ideal approaches, methodologies, and “rules” to consider when coaching any lift in the weight room.

 

I do believe there are some universal tenets to coaching a deadlift or squat or bench press or kettlebell swing1 that will not only allow a client or athlete to marinate in its benefits, but to do so in a fashion that won’t increase their likelihood of injury (or their contributions to their physical therapist’s mortgage payments).

I’m interested in making people savages, but I’m also interested in the long-game. It wouldn’t bode well for business (or my reputation) if all of my client’s deadlifts looked like this:

To that end, with regards to universal tenets for deadlifting:

  • Loaded spinal flexion is a no-no.
  • That’s pretty much it.

If you’re following that one golden rule, you’re doing a better job than most. It’s sad, but true.

However, golden rule(s) aside, there are many intricate, more nuanced things to consider person to person. One’s training experience comes to mind. We can’t hold someone holding a barbell in their hands for the first time to the same standard as someone who’s been a competitive powerlifter for 17 years.

Likewise, someone with a vast and delicate history of lower back issues is not going to take the same path as someone with a “clean” health history. And, of course, other factors come into play such as goal(s), movement quality, and anatomical/structural differences between individuals.

Someone with hips like this…

…is going to move differently – and presumably be coached differently – than someone with hips like this:

There are many, many fantastic resources out there that help to break down anatomy, assessment, biomechanics, joint positions, and what’s considered ideal exercise technique. I have my biases as to what I feel is correct – as does everyone – but it’s important to take every resource with a grain of salt, because…

“Textbook technique only exists in a textbook.”

When I heard Mike Reinold say this sentence in a recent presentation I was listening in on my immediate reaction was this:

via GIPHY

My second reaction was to start doing handstands down the sidewalk outside my apartment, but I didn’t. You know, cause that’s fucking weird. And because I can’t do a handstand.

Either way, what Mike said was/is 100% correct.

Textbook technique, in the real world, is every bit as much of a myth as detox diets making you pee rainbows or me riding a Hippogriff to work today

What we read or deem as “ideal” on paper, while often a great starting point for many people, doesn’t always translate to real-life. As coaches it’s important to understand this. Anytime we corner ourselves into one-train of thought or that any one thing applies to everybody, we’re doing the industry – and our clients/athletes – a disservice.

A Real-Life Example

A few months ago I started working with a woman who had been battling some low-back issues, yet wanted to hire me to take over her programming and help clean up her technique. Specifically she wanted to hone in on her deadlift.

She was frustrated because no matter what she did (or who she worked with), her back always bothered her.

I like to be a fly on the wall and just watch people do their thing during an initial consult. I want to see what their default movement schemes are. In this case I set up a barbell on the floor, loaded it up with a weight I knew she could handle safely, and then asked her to do her thing. Her “default” stance was a conventional stance, and while it wasn’t the worst one I had ever seen, I could clearly see why her back may have been bothering her.

We had established earlier in her assessment that she lacked t-spine extension and her hip mobility wasn’t great either. More to the point, after doing a simple hip scour and Rockback test, I surmised she was able to attain more hip flexion ROM with more hip abduction. An important point, as you’ll soon see.

Note: the Rockback test is a great assessment to use to figure out one’s “usable” ROM in hip flexion. The idea is to see if or when the lumbar spine loses positioning.

Bad Rockback Test

Notice when spine loses position.

 

Dead Sexy Rockback Test

Notice the spine stays relatively “neutral” throughout. Also, notice those triceps.

 

 

We can then compare what we see here with what we see on the gym floor.2

Going back to my client, she read a lot of articles and books on deadlifting, most of which told her that deadlifting = conventional stance. Always. Moreover, other coaches/colleagues she had consulted with in the past told her to use the conventional stance. No exceptions.

This is what I mean by falling into the “textbook technique” trap. On paper everything sounds (and looks) great. Everyone can and should be able to conventional deadlift. In real-life, though, not so much.

Here’s a before and after picture I took of my client. The top picture shows her original set-up with a conventional stance. The bottom demonstrates me putting her into a modified sumo stance.

sarah-z-deadlift

Immediate improvement in her lower & upper spine position. Having her adopt a wider stance better complimented her anatomy, which then resulted in an infinitely better starting position to pull (no lumbar flexion, improved t-spine extension). What’s more, with that modification alone she noted there was zero pain.

She left that session feeling motivated and hopeful about training. A win-win if you ask me.

I posted the above picture on some social media accounts – explaining much of what I mentioned above. And wouldn’t you know it: I was called out by a handful of coaches.

One stated the problem wasn’t with her anatomy, but that the real issue was my poor coaching. A funny assertion given he wasn’t in the room with me. Another coach agreed stating something to the effect of:

“No client has walked into “x gym” and not have been able to perform a conventional deadlift after a little coaching on day #1.”

I guess all I could have done at the time was to just go fuck myself.

I demonstrated I was able to clean up someone’s deadlift and do so in a way that was pain-free, and yet, here I was being told by a crew of All-Star coaches I had failed because I didn’t have her conventional deadlift. My actions, apparently, were on par with drop kicking a baby seal in the mouth.

Pump the Brakes

I hope people can appreciate the narrow-mindedness of this type of thinking. To expect everyone to fit into the same scheme or way of doing things because that’s what YOU prefer to do (or because a textbook told you to do so) is about as narrow-minded as it comes.

No one has to conventional deadlift.

Likewise…

No one has to low-bar squat or squat with a symmetrical stance.

No one has to bench press or bench press with an aggressive lumbar arch.

And no one has to start watching WestWorld on HBO. Except, yes you do.

I’d argue a “good” coach understands and respects that everyone is different, and that he or she will be humble enough to put their own personal biases in their back pocket and appreciate there is no ONE way to perform any exercise. Cater the lift to the lifter, and not vice versa.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  1. Or tall kneeling band resisted DB bicep curls off a BOSU ball (blindfolded).

  2. If someone is unable to maintain a good spine position during their deadlift but CAN keep a good spine position in the Rockback test, the culprit is, likely, NOT a mobility issue. It’s most likely either the novelty of the exercise (they need more practice) or lack of motor control/stability. Conversely, if someone is unable to control ROM during their deadlift and you see the same faulty pattern on the Rockback test, you can ascertain it’s likely a mobility or structural issue.

  • Kyle J

    Perfectly in line with your recent article on LBP and there being no 1 correct way to treat it. There are so many variations of the “conventional” lifts that are best for an individual based on many factors. Now, excuse me while I go watch WestWorld.

  • I’d be interested how she went with her squat, if hip flexion is an issue for her. What variant did she use, what alterations did you have to make, if any.

    • TonyGentilcore

      We started with front squats Kyle….her back tolerated those better. And we used a wide(r) stance there too. Not too wide though. The anterior load helped her stay upright anyways. Plus, with the front squat, it helped her to gain some context as to what “t-spine extension” is supposed to feel like.

      • Makes sense. If I get someone with lower back issues, front squats work well, they keep their lower back in good extension because they have to or they’ll fall over 🙂

        • TonyGentilcore

          Exactly. It’s Evil Strength Coach Trick #52. It’s in the handbook.

  • Tom Mcdonald

    Fantastic post Tony, where do these internet coaches come from, they are everywhere.

    • I believe I know who he’s referring to, and they’re not internet-only coaches, in fact most of them have never even written an e-book.

      • TonyGentilcore

        I have no doubts the coaches in question are good coaches (and I don’t believe they were SS coaches. But if they were it wouldn’t surprise me. Some (not all) kinda have an elitist attitude). They seemed to know what they were talking about. It just puts a bad taste in my mouth when people automatically assume that THEIR way is the best way without even being in the room.

        Client came in, I was able to fix technique, and do so pain free, and the response was “you’re not a good coach because you didn’t have her conventional deadlift.” Huh? Nevertheless, it’s one of those things where if we were all in the same room I’m sure we’d all be giving each other high-fives. PS: client conventional deadlifted not long after that assessment.

  • Shane Mclean

    Slow hand clap with a mic drop. Excellent article Tony and spot on.

  • Kelsey

    Great post Tony! It’s SO true especially when you’re working with teenagers whose bodies change every few weeks. One month conventional deadlift looks great, next month, their spines look like a snake with the hiccups. I’ve changed deadlift variations, specifically, multiple times (with different kids, not the same one) because their bodies changed enough that it was no longer a good fit for them (regardless of my coaching). I often ask kids which one “feels” better to them and that’s the variation we go with.

    Keep up the great stuff!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Kelsey! Amazing to hear from you. That snake with hiccups comment made me laugh. I may need to “borrow” that line….;O) I hope you (and Steve) are well.

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  • Ellen Dyverfeldt Personal Trai

    Great post. 100% with you on this. Specially that you have to work around your clients capasity to get the best result and ¨not as you said fall in to the text book trap¨
    Ellen Dyverfeldt

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Ellen – appreciate your note and kind words.

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