Nailing strength training techniques with a PT

Weight training tips: “I’m a qualified PT and fitness editor but I still make gym mistakes”

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However long you’ve been going to the gym, weight training technique can be hard to nail. Often, it’s only when you get in front of a PT that you realise how rubbish your form is – as Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi has been finding out. 

Despite having worked in and around the fitness industry for a few years, my strength training technique is still all over the place. I’m quite strong, reasonably fast and pretty mobile but I’m not the strongest, fastest or most limber I could be… because I keep making mistakes which never get picked up in classes or when I’m training on my own in the weights room.

It’s for that reason that last month, I joined a 21-day challenge at The Foundry – a large part of which involves attending two small group PT sessions a week. These appointments focus on technique and building serious strength through classic moves like squats and deadlifts. And it was there that I discovered that I could lift far more if I actually nailed my form once and for all.

When your form is off, you compromise on range of motion, power or muscle gain, and it’s interesting to note how much harder or easier a move is when you do finally get the technique spot on. While not everyone wants to get a PT, this experience has taught me that no matter how comfortable you are with your training or how strong you may be, we can all do with an expert-led back-to-basics refresher.

These are the six basic mistakes I’ve been making – and you’ve probably done the same.

Not lifting heavy enough

I’m reasonably strong but it’s been amazing to see how much more I can lift when someone else is there watching and encouraging me, compared with training on my own. For months, I’ve been at a shoulder press plateau, using two 8kg dumbbells. In my PT session, I was easily able to use two 10kgs – going up to 12.5kg for six reps. When I first turned up, I grabbed two 7.5kg weights for bench press; by the end of the set, I was using 12.5kg dumbbells. 

Unlike on a treadmill where I’m used to maxing out on the effort, one of the big reasons I’m not seeing huge progress in my usual lifting regime is simply because I’m not challenging myself to lift heavy enough.

Deadlifting with all the weight in your heels

I always thought that with squats and deadlifts, you want to have the weight in your heels. Apparently, that’s not so. When you go to deadlift, you want your weight to be spread across your whole foot – with your big toe, little toe and heel being the main points of contact with the floor. That gives you more stability for when you’re lifting heavy. You’re still working that posterior chain but why spreading the weight more evenly, you’re also using your quads. I almost keeled over backwards during a lift before I realised that I was relying too much on the heels.

If that sounds familiar, take your shoes off (even if they’re strength shoes) and concentrate on the feeling of pushing down rather than lifting up when you’re deadlifting.

Not sitting back enough in squats

Squats are the backbone of every gym workout for most women, so many of us think we’ve got them nailed. I certainly did until my PT, Georgie, kept telling me to sit further and further back.

To illustrate just how much range was being lost, she got me to start with box squats. You still use a barbell but instead of going down towards the ground, you actually sit down onto a bench before coming back up. That action of having to sit back onto a seat showed me that squatting isn’t just about going up and down – even if, like me, you have good hip and ankle mobility. You want to go down and back, before coming back up to standing. After a few reps, you can take that bench away. Turns out that squats done with the correct technique are a lot harder than the way I’d become used to.

Lack of shoulder mobility

When it comes to renegade rows, I always thought that as long as your hips didn’t move and you could get the weight towards your back pocket, you were doing the move just fine.

Thanks to hours spent at a desk, however, I – like so many others – find it really hard to retract my shoulders and row into my mid-back. I’m using pure arm strength to move the weight, rather than retracting and rotating, which is what we want to do. 

To correct that, I was made to sit on the floor and use a resistance band to slowly row and retract the shoulder. Now, when I’m doing a renegade row or a single arm row, I can feel my shoulder moving and the mid-back muscle being targeted.

Many desk workers have rounded shoulders, which makes it hard for us to retract and hit the mid-back when we're rowing. To undo this, you want to strip the weight back and concentrate on getting a slight shoulder rotation.
Many desk workers have rounded shoulders, which makes it hard for us to retract and hit the mid-back when we're rowing. To undo this, you want to strip the weight back and concentrate on getting a slight shoulder rotation.

Inaccurate rep counts and effort gauging

This is a pretty ridiculous thing to admit but probably the main issue I have is a total inability to count reps. I never thought that was a big deal but it is actually quite important. 

If you’re going for a rep range of eight to 10, for example, and you end up doing 12, you could have lifted heavier. By getting distracted, you stop thinking about how things feel and that ultimately means that you’re not able to push as hard as you should. Strength training requires your whole attention (unlike running, which actually can benefit from being distracted), and achieving that level of mindfulness is a win in itself.

Looking at yourself in the mirror

Go to any weights room and you’ll see everyone staring at themselves in the mirrors. While some may well be narcissists, most people in there are looking in the mirror to ensure that their form is correct. It’s also just easier to move when you can see what you’re doing. But you’re not actually supposed to stare yourself out in every move.

When I had my first deadlift session, I was keenly checking to see that my feet were slightly pointed out, my back was flat and that my shoulders were as relaxed as possible when Georgie stopped me and told me to stop looking in the mirror. By keeping my eyes fixed on my reflection, I wasn’t able to lengthen the neck, which in turn was making it harder to retract the shoulders. It was the same on the zercher good mornings; you want to be looking just slightly ahead and below so that the neck lengthens and there’s a straight line from your head to your glutes. 

Looking in the mirror can be useful but you need to know when to drop your gaze.

The point here is that we all make mistakes and form is probably the hardest thing to get right in weight training. We can all lift weights and it’s totally possible to lift quite heavily but with bad technique. Getting those points right, however, means you’re able to continue progressing and building strength without running into injuries or plateauing.

Check out our extensive library of expert-led workouts over on the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.