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Technique is king. Or is it?

Originally posted on the Evolutio blog.

If you’ve ever done any of the exercise, it’s likely that you’ve heard the phrase “technique is King” (or similar).

I’d like to play the devil’s advocate here, just to question whether our fetish with form has missed the point. Maybe it hasn’t - I’m happy to be wrong on this one.

I feel like culture around technique has drifted so far out of context that it’s more like the Emperor’s new clothes. It seems to have devolved into a lot of mansplaining dweebs stipulating narrower and narrower terms and conditions on any movement and trolling any differing perspective until everyone’s too tired of the criticism to step out and say “Oi! Maybe there’s a bit more to it than that.”

Just like with everything in training (and literally any other subject), trying to make real world problems fit black-and-white principles does not work. In practice, not only is defining optimal technique a moving target, it’s also a matter of context, opinion and what is actually practicable. There are a helluva lot of shades of grey.

So why exactly is it so difficult to fit into the neat, satisfying box we want it to?

Well, everyone has variations in their anatomical structure, obviously. But I just need to take a second to stress that these variations can be a) imperceptible from the outside, and b) mind-boggling. Some people have hip sockets that point in a different direction. Some people have bone structures that block off ‘normal’ range of motion. Some people have whole muscles or attachments that other people don’t have. Some people have disabilities. Trying to make any one technique fit every body is not only pointless but can do actual damage.

Then there are variations in activities. Different sports need different things. For example, a bodybuilder, a cyclist and a rugby player may all squat differently. Even among the strength sports, where squatting is one of the biggest components of their training, not only will squat technique vary between the disciplines and from athlete to athlete, but form fads come and go and athletes will tinker with their technique over the course of their career.

And then there are neurological differences in movement literacy, learning and co-ordination. Technical things are hard and people that do things perfectly are very, very rare. So I’m going to shout this for the people at the back : EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT TO BE A BIT SHIT AT SOMETHING, ESPECIALLY BEGINNERS.

An older woman in black activewear holds a pink kettlebell. She is doing box squats onto a blue plyo box behind her.

So purely to prove my point I’m going to defend the indefensible, the cardinal sin, the one thing everyone knows is BAD: knee valgus. But that’s just an example - the same line of questioning can apply to anything: round backs, arched backs, extended wrists, pronated feet, using momentum, etc. Even if in a majority of cases these things should be avoided, there will always be exceptions. Trying to gate-keep ‘good form’ without understanding what’s really going on is just as destructive as ‘bad form’ can be.

Valgus is simply a term for movement or positioning of the knee towards the midline from a starting point. That’s all it is, and its opposite is varus.

From the language we use, it’s quite clear which is The Good Guy. For varus we say things like ‘drive out’ or ‘push out’ the knee, while any and all valgus motion gets called ‘caving’ or ‘collapsing’.

Now, valgus collapse is the term for specifical cases when the movement becomes problematic, and can be defined as unintentional, uncontrolled and excessive inward movement of the knee. Valgus collapse classically occurs due to a weak gluteus medius and is more often observed in untrained or beginner athletes. It has a well documented causal link with MCL and ACL injuries, particularly during dynamic movements.

That said, not all observable valgus movement is valgus collapse. If the knees are ‘out’ at the bottom of a squat, they sometimes move inwards and then out again during the ascent. Particularly if we are looking at lifting near-max weights - if you think about it anatomically, seeing a slight shift in the knee is pretty understandable

Adductors do a massive amount of work getting out of the bottom of a squat, two of the three hamstrings are internal rotators and contracting the quads can also rotate the leg (try it). When all of those muscles are maxing out, there are a lot of forces pulling the knee inwards, so we can forgive it for wavering - if that movement isn’t excessive.

In addition to that, there are theories that the valgus moment can increase the squat by putting the glutes on stretch so that they are at a mechanical advantage when you need them most.

Valgus also happens in sports like basketball, where some players deliberately set up for a shot with their knees and toes pointed in, again using that to put tension on the glutes and spring-load the hips for a tight jump. However, keep a close eye on the same athletes landing those jumps and you probably won’t see any.

Both of those examples are athletes using the movement to improve their performance. It is happening in a controlled, moderate dose during the concentric phase of the movement (the eccentric would be during the descent of the squat or the jump landing). There’s no need to diagnose from your armchair or hit the ‘comment’ button. There are ‘rules’ that we all learn when we start lifting, but I think we all need to learn that there are also coaches and athletes out there making the informed decision to bend or break those rules.

I’m not a knee-cave apologist, or denying the link between valgus collapse and injuries. I’m just saying that not all valgus movement is collapse, it’s not always pathological, and it’s not always bEcaUsE yOuR GLuTeS aRe WEak AnD yOU sHoUlD bE dOiNg CLaMsHelLs nOt sQuAtS.

You just cannot simplify it that much. Because on the other hand, you may not be solving any problems by forbidding valgus and exaggerating varus in a squat. Not only could that rob you of performance potential, but it could end up in injury too. Overdoing knees-out squats can mash the femur into the hip socket, rub the labrum, irritate nerves, hamper activation of the glutes, hamstrings or lower leg musculature due to lost big to connection with the big toe*, etc. etc. etc.

All that said, my number one issue with technique dogma is that it plays into the notion that the human body is fragile - which is not only false but noxious. It makes us feel that there’s only one correct way to move, and everything else is wrong and unsafe. It whips up this feeling that training is fraught with danger and at any moment you could make a false step that will lead to lifelong pain and injury. When in reality, avoiding training with a variety of challenging weights and movements is a lot more likely to lead to pain and injury.

It’s just easier to swallow “bad technique will get you injured and good technique will protect you” than the reality of having to add ‘sometimes’ and ‘not always’ to that sentence. The truth is, although we see a lot of injuries that are easily attributed to bad form, there are also plenty of people out there that train with shoddy technique their entire lives and don’t have any side effects other than getting motherfucking strong. That’s not me promoting shonky form, I’m just saying this shit is complex and subtle and messy and none of us actually know for sure what’s going to happen, but that’s OK.

A woman in black trackpants and a black crop top, doing a sumo deadlift.

Muscles and joints get stronger and more resilient from progressive overload, which happens by increasing intensity, load and volume - not technique. Technique is just an instrument that allows you to apply that stimulus.

In a perfect world, technique would always be perfect… but what about IRL?

Never allowing someone to load up a movement because of their technique is a noble idea, but consider the opposite: are you doing them a disservice by denying them access to what they need to get stronger?

Is there not a grey area where sometimes the right thing to do is to apply weight to a suboptimal technique?

Maybe sometimes the right thing to do is allow a minor fault to continue temporarily while you address a larger one?

Is it sometimes more risky to correct a fault when you won’t have time to cement it before the athlete has to go back to training at intensity or playing their sport?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, I just want to be able to ask them.

‘Technique is king’ sounds great in theory but if you’re working where the rubber actually hits the road, I think there’s more to it than that and we need to embrace a more nuanced view.

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