Practice, don't train

Published: 2023-06-27

Practice doesn't make perfect, only perfect practice does. Practice makes permanent, so you need to ensure you can lift with proper form before doing heavy lifts. In this article I will talk about when, why, and how you should practice a lift rather than train it.

Table of Contents

You don’t want me to train?

Of course I want you to train. Wasting time by only doing exercises where there’s no struggle is not going to get you anywhere. While jumping straight into doing curls or cable rows without practicing good form and technique is probably “fine”, in the sense that you’re probably not messing yourself up too badly, doing so in other lifts is a whole other thing.

Deadlift is the most obvious example. You want to understand what a flat lower back means and how to properly tense your core. These things will help you from badly messing up the back, potentially for life, and instead reap the benefits of one of the best back strengthening exercises there is. You want to practice until it’s natural, then safely add weight to the bar to get stronger.

Sumo deadlifts is another example. I never let anyone go heavy on them for at least a few sessions before they’re used to the movement - not even well-trained powerlifters! It can too easily cause sciatica-like symptoms and trust me, that’s not something you want to deal with. With sumos it’s just not the technique that needs to be dialed in (finding someone sumo deadlift with proper form is rare) but also getting the body used to the movement.

Barbell squats and bench presses too need to be practiced before the weight is pushed. And the Olympic lifts (the snatch and clean & jerk or its power cousins) is a whole other matter because they’re actually technically complicated for being lifts.

So big lifts = practice for a while. But it actually goes for some smaller ones as well, in particular kettlebell lifts. I once taught a person to do kettlebell swings. Her natural idea of how to pick up the kettlebell was with a back resembling a banana and with knees caving in so much they touched each other. If she were to start doing swings like that I don’t know what would pop first - her back, her knees, or anything else between the heels and the head.

Take away: if you want to do big lifts, or lifts that risk putting the body in a dangerous spot, practice it for at least a few sessions before starting to add serious weight.

How to practice a new lift

Now that you understand when and why to practice instead of training a lift, let’s look at how to do it.

  1. Use a weight where you’re not struggling any rep.
  2. Use a rep range where you’re not struggling any rep.
  3. Use a fairly low amount of reps.
  4. Use a fairly high amount of sets.

The key points is to not struggle and ensure to as perfect practice as possible. This calls for light weight with low reps. The light weights obviously help you with not struggling. So does the low reps (even a light weight will be a struggle in a 100-rep set) but they serve a different purpose as well: keeping focus on good quality reps.

If you’re doing a set of 10 reps it will be difficult to keep focus all reps when you need to think about execution. Doing 2-3 reps will allow you to think, pause, and reflect and reset between sets. That’s why a typical beginner recommendation like 3x10 is not good, but if you invert it to 10x3 it makes a lot more sense!

Use a weight you can handle quite easily and do about half the amount of reps you could do if you actually struggled. It should feel “too easy” and you shouldn’t feel tired afterwards. Never take a rep where you’re even close to struggling with the weight if you’re practicing a new lift.

Keep the reps low, 2-3 might be a good start, perhaps up to 5 once you start getting a hang of the motion. Drop the reps lower if you feel like you start losing position in the lift. Do many sets, but not so many that you get fatigued. 4-10 sets should definitely be doable.

An even simpler way

Honestly, when I teach someone a new lift I never count the sets and reps. I have them do the lift for 15-30 minutes, taking breaks as needed, only focusing on quality reps. The reps tend to be low and sets high if you keep that in mind. You can do the same. In fact, this might be the best advice as it requires less thinking.

Remember, all that matters with the practice is that you get comfortable with the motion. The weight you’re lifting is not important it will be easy to increase it once you have proper technique.

Practice is best done first, or at least early in the session. Video yourself with a smartphone or have someone look at you. Compare what you see with instructions on StrengthDB.

FYI: These are not the rules for skill practice! Skill practice is half the pie of my system when working with athletes. For strength sports like powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting it’s done with heavy or near-maximal weights if the athlete is past the beginner stage and educated properly. However, that’s skill practice for excelling at a sport, not practice to learn a new lift.

Get help

StrengthDB. Written instructions for many lifts (still being updated). I created this resource for people I train, from beginners to world class athletes. I simply couldn’t trust whatever nonsense they found on whatever blog or in whatever video. It’s free, loads fast, and without spammy ads.

Workshops. I do in-person workshops and seminars where I help people with proper technique.

If you want to get into getting strong 4life (and unless you’re a competitive athlete you should) then sign up to get the training sent directly to your inbox. It’s no-nonsense, zero BS, free of charge, and includes instructions on how to tailor it to whatever strength level you’re currently at.

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