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A heavy load isn't always the safest road for weightlifting

By Justin Roberts
On January 26, 2014

At some point, we've all found ourselves nervously wincing as we've watched someone attempt to perform a haphazard, superhuman feat of strength in the gym.
It's not uncommon to see someone load up a barbell with an amount of weight he or she can't handle only to proceed to squat it a mere six inches, knees caving inward and eyes popping out like those of a rabid maniac. Unsafe stunts like this are being facilitated by a "no pain, no gain" performance mindset and a widespread misunderstanding of movement techniques. Don't let these ideas ruin your workouts and your health.
The human body is an incredibly efficient yet stubborn piece of machinery. When muscular imbalances, altered joint mechanics, or poor understandings of exercises prevent us from performing tasks the way we were designed to carry them out, our bodies will find risky shortcuts to complete the movements.
Though we may be able to get away with biomechanically incorrect compensations for a while, cutting corners will only ingrain shoddy motor control and lead to serious injuries.
"We have confused functionality with physiology," writes Dr. Kelly Starrett, physical therapist and creator of "Sure, you can lift heavy loads with a rounded back for a long, long time, but at some point your tissues will fail."
Just because something works doesn't mean it's safe. Bad mechanics may initially allow us to lift more weight, but they also may cause us to develop overuse injuries along with other nasty side effects.
Starrett's book, "Becoming a Supple Leopard," is an excellent guide to learning correct movement patterns and correcting musculoskeletal problems that inhibit efficient motion. In it, he attacks the performance-at-any-cost workout mindset that does more for the ego than it does for wellness.
Nothing is more important than proper form when exercising, not even the amount of weight we are lifting.
Lifting a heavy load improperly does more harm than good, overly stressing our tissues and robbing us of potential force production. If a weight is too heavy to lift with good form, it's too heavy to work out with.
Research correct techniques before attempting an exercise, and practice the movement without added weight before increasing the load. You wouldn't study the basic mechanics of a firearm using a loaded gun; don't learn the basic mechanics of your body using a loaded barbell.
In addition to Starrett's highly recommended text, Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier, and are great resources anyone interested in taking advantage of the benefits of resistance training should consult.
Each source does an excellent job of explaining workout movements, and the books listed will pay for themselves ten times over by preventing injuries.
Unless you're a competitive athlete who understands the risks of sacrificing technique for performance, keep your workout sessions safe to get results without injury-related setbacks.
Though progressively overloading the muscles is necessary to see positive adaptations from weight lifting, it should always be done safely and with proper technique. No one has anything to prove to anybody in the gym, and correct movement patterns will take us further than sloppily lifting weights too heavy ever will.

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