You sign up for a barbell clinic with your training buddy to get your lifting technique checked out and fixed. As your buddy gets coached on the squat, you notice something amiss. His wrists are bent!
But the coach doesn’t seem to care. While he’s telling your buddy to do all sorts of other stuff, he isn’t fixing the problem that’s staring you in the face.
Now, you’ve read Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training and you’ve hung out at some online lifting forums and seen other coaches give feedback on lifter’s squat videos so you know that extended wrists are an issue that needs to be fixed.
So is this a crappy coach? Why isn’t he fixing such an obvious issue?
Issues must be prioritised
To the casual observer, you might be wondering why such obvious technique issues aren’t immediately fixed.
What they fail to understand is that while an extended wrist is an issue, there are often other more important issues, less obvious, that have to be rectified first. Your training buddy might be losing back extension at the bottom of his squat or his weight is shifting forward of the midfoot during the ascent. To the untrained eye, these issues may not seem obvious. But they’re actually far higher up the priority list than an extended wrist.
Just like we choose to do barbell lifts because they are the most effective form of strength training, we need to focus on the most important mistakes when fixing our technique.
Triage is a coach’s job
It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or advanced lifter. When you’re under the bar, every lifter will have some degree of form deviation from the model as laid out in Starting Strength.
The responsibility for noticing this difference lies with the coach. His job is to get you to lift according to that model, by observing the way you lift, comparing it with the model that exists in his head and then cueing you accordingly to get you there.
In any set, there are usually multiple errors occurring. When you perform a rep, the coach needs to triage the errors, figure out which is the most important thing to fix first, and then cue you accordingly for the next rep.
As you perform the next rep, the coach will get feedback on whether his cues worked by seeing if the issue gets resolved. If it doesn’t, the coach will try another cue. If it does get resolved, the coach will then work on fixing the next most important problem.
And if a problem arises on the second rep that is more important than what happened on the previous rep, the coach will need to fix the problems in the second rep first. Successful diagnosis is a feedback loop that goes back and forth between the lifter and the coach.
In the previous example, even someone who has some experience with barbell training would have noticed your buddy’s bent wrists. But an experienced coach would have noticed the loss of back extension or the forward shift on the ascent of his squat.
These are examples of less obvious but fundamental issues that must be fixed, before you worry about bent wrists.
Fix only the most important issue first
The main takeaway from the above is that you need to know what’s the most important thing to fix, then settle that first. The next takeaway is that you can only fix one issue at a time.
From a coach’s perspective, he needs to be able to see all the issues at once when the lifter is lifting, recognise which is the most important one, and then draw on his toolbox of cues to fix that issue.
There isn’t any specific order of priority, because a whole multitude of things can go wrong and the importance of any one issue can change based on circumstances. For example, bent wrists usually aren’t as important, but if the lifter is complaining that their elbow or wrist hurts, then that becomes important to fix.
If you’re coaching yourself, you need to recognise all the issues, either through proprioception (feeling how your body moves in space) or by reviewing the videos you’ve recorded. For every lifter, there will generally be some errors that will frequently occur. Review the videos and try to spot the most important one that repeats the most often, and fix that. Then, iterate for the next issue, and so on.
Why not fix more issues at once? Well, if your coach yells 4 cues at you to fix 4 different issues when you’re lifting, chances are nothing will get fixed.
You can’t think well under a heavy bar
Try thinking about shoving your knees out, arching your back, wiggling your toes and planning what to eat for lunch while squatting a heavy set of five. Bet you can’t.
Regardless of whether you have a coach or are self-coaching, your mental capacity is limited when under a heavy barbell. That’s because most of your attention and energy is going towards driving that barbell up.
Similarly, if you learn to focus on one problem at a time, you will put all of your attention on it and that gives you a much better chance of fixing it.
That’s why a coach will usually tell you just one thing that you can improve for the next set. Perhaps he might mention two things if the movements are closely related, for example, “shove your knees out, and stick your butt back” during the squat.
Note: if you need a refresher on technique, here are some of our top articles for the various lifts. In the overhead press, this is how to find your press grip and fix your hip movement. Learn how to secure your deadlift grip and stop yanking deadlifts off the floor. For the squat, know where to look while squatting, how deep to squat, and how to “bounce” at the bottom of the squat.
One problem, one cue, one action
To recap: when you’re lifting, you should be focussing on fixing just one problem at a time. This comes in the form of just one cue, that tells you just one actionable thing that you can easily understand and perform.
If you’re coaching yourself by reviewing your video after each set, try to find the most important fix that can be done better on the subsequent set. Figure out the right cue, and then focus only on that cue for the next set.
Don’t sabotage yourself by watching your squat video and thinking, “Okay, I need to straighten my wrist, my knees need to be shoved out more, I’m not leaning over enough, and I’m lifting my chest way too early on the ascent. Next set, I’ll fix everything.” Don’t do that.
Progress takes time, so be patient. Focus on one thing, because splitting your attention among multiple things ends up being a good way to fix nothing.