On one side we have those who are not satisfied unless they’ve wrung out the life of every set (however ugly things become). You cannot fault their spirit or work ethic! For these beasts of burden, it is all about the numbers – the amount of weight, reps, sets, volume, tempo, frequency, even RPE. Their training revolves around anything that you can assign a number to. After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure-right?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Zen masters. They listen to their bodies and are the poster children of mindfulness. Training is thoughtful and often light. They don’t care about the load but respond to every nuance and detail within the exercise they perform. They seem to think that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be measured.

These two camps focus on different things. The former is obsessed with technique and the latter on form. They are distinguished as follows:

Technique

  • Focuses on the quantity of the work done
  • Anticipates the exercises end position
  • Exercise and movement focused

Lifting technique is decided by your goals. For example, to bench the most weight you use a technique that puts you in the best mechanical position. Conversely, to develop your chest, you would shift the emphasis onto the muscles. 

It’s not the exercise that’s changed but the way you perform it, i.e. the technique. It is the technique that determines the shapes, feelings and functions of the movement.

Form

  • Focuses on the quality of work done 
  • Concerned with the body’s current and next position
  • Body and motion focused

Think of the word form as in ’shape’ and where the word ‘formal’ comes from. Technique is the ‘why’ you are doing an exercise and form is the ‘how’ you should do it. Form provides the rules and constraints within the chosen technique. 

These rules will usually not change regardless of goal or intention and the way you lift something. It gives us some standard of what should be counted but is not itself quantifiable. Whilst better technique often results in improved performance, better form usually doesn’t. 

Balancing the two

Beware quantification for its sake. Measuring how much weight was lost, how much muscle has been added, how much stronger, how long is that programme, how fast will it work is all very well, but does it add any value? All these questions can have numbers assigned to them, even if they are just guesses. They allow goals to be set, but risk of focussing exclusively on what can be counted is that anything that does easily submit to quantification is ignored. Not everything is quantitative and blindly omitting them will hamper your lifting progress.

We are attracted to flashiness: loud, not quiet; bright, not dull; fast not slow; dynamic, not static. Technique evokes emotion, it is exciting! Technique will always be the life and soul of the party; no-one really notices if form slinks off early. Form is always going to be the more reasonable, dull and sensible counterpart that is easy to ignore. To sum up, technique is generally all the things we would like to see happen. Form is the absence of any undesired things occurring. 

Take the way I type as an example. I needed to type in order to get down the words you are reading right now. When I type I look like an ambidextrous ET! The two fingered technique I use is best described as ‘hunt and peck’. It has not changed over the years, but I have gotten faster and seen enough improvements now to confidently call it ‘speed pecking’. Measuring my words per minute is easy but my poor technique will lead to a glass ceiling. All I know is that my poor technique will lead to a glass ceiling, but for what I need it will not hold me back too much.

for what I need

But what if I were to start hunching over the keyboard? Well then even if I corrected my technique, I could become faster but I’d still be typing with bad form. This unwanted slouching could be a result of spending too long at the screen or a lack of awareness. 

Either way, regardless of technique, I am not typing well. Correcting my form would mean I must take more breaks which would slow me down, but this could be saving me from injury, burn out, long plateaus and most of the joy. How would you measure this?

What really counts? 

Those in the throes of sweat-lust will try to convince you that the end justifies the means; the work was done so it counts. It’s just good honest cheating. In reality, those reps that were a bit too heavy didn’t help you get used to the load, they helped prepare you to move that weight badly.

The perfectionists would argue that the load isn’t important and it is what you do with it that counts. Those less muscularly endowed may like to believe that, but they too are kidding themselves.  It doesn’t matter how many tantric-sets you perform.

‘…faith without works is dead…’ James 2:26 

If you aren’t lifting enough load with enough volume, you will fail to elicit a training response. Form is to there to be adhered to, not to restrict you; progress demands more than rules being followed or a specific movement being practiced. It has to be challenged with enough load too. 

Some exercises can end up looking so bad I’m waiting for them to either be blurred out to protect younger viewers or for the subtitles to pop up and help translate what is meant to be going on. However, this is less significant with exercises performed with higher rep ranges. If you can pick roughly the right weight, easily throw in an extra set or go up a couple reps each week and it’s the kind of lifts that don’t really plateau but just get switched, then they aren’t the exercises that will be making the difference, so doing them well or not will add little to bottom line. 

This is not true for the bigger, heavier and more important exercises, i.e. the Holy Trinity of squat, bench and deadlift. If one of these starts to look like a kind of interpretative dance then you’ll be swapping muscular and strength growth for the opportunity of debilitating injury.

How to count it

The big three do not suit higher rep ranges, so lighter weights (under 50% of a rough estimate of your maxes) can form part of the warm up but don’t count as work done. Anything over this intensity doesn’t automatically qualify either unless they are good reps. 

Measuring progress of straight sets is simple. For example, if I were to lift 3×5@90kg and next week use a heavier weight for all my sets it is easy to see there has been progress. 

When all the reps were not met or a session involves different loads and rep ranges it becomes less obvious so I usually work out the ‘average’ weight lifted and the average sets and reps i.e.

Sets x Reps @ Weight (Tonnage)

2×6@90kg (1,080kg)

3×3@105kg (945kg)

Total weight lifted (2,025kg) divided by total reps (21)= 96.43kg average weight lifted over 5 sets of 4.2 reps.

All still pretty standard, but what is to stop me going for that extra rep or going that little bit heavier? The honest lifter would not count unfinished reps but would record the ones where form broke down and an unwanted movement occurred. However, both are unsuccessful. Even if completed or not, they cost effort, energy and will have an impact on recovery and practice. Whether you got through it or not, they are just too toxic to ignore and the numbers should reflect this.

Instead of working out the work done, I calculate how much the work is worth. I add up all the sets and reps that were attempted but only add the weights of the reps that were successful. Using the last example, let’s say that for whatever reason, I deem the last rep of the last set too ropey to count.

2×6@90kg (1,080kg)

2×3@105kg (630kg)

1×2@105kg (210kg) + 1 failed rep

Total weight successfully lifted (1,920kg) divided by total reps attempted (21) = 91.43kg average weight lifted over 5 sets of 4.2 reps.

Conclusion

By varying the rep ranges and sets we can make incremental improvements without the need for fractional plates. We are also not forced into going heavier before we get stronger. Any meaningful increase in weight costs far more in reps lost.

For practice to remain meaningful, the intensity has to be right. Too heavy will prevent you getting in enough work to create a physical adaption, too light means there is not enough load to cause the adaption in the first place. The intensity can also cause your technique to change and alter the contraction order or role of a muscle in the exercise.

By setting a minimum intensity, we do not get our averages dragged down and are not fooled into thinking such light weights count as training. 

Not only will your training diary make it easy to see the quality work being done, but this way of ‘scoring’ a session helps discourage overambitious repetitions and weight selections that punish your cherished averages. It allows us to focus on the quantity of the quality.

References

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effect on spine stability.

Brown SH, Vera-Garcia FJ, McGill SM.

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2006 Jun 1;31(13):E387-93.

Effect of Barbell Weight on the Structure of the Flat Bench Press.

Król H, Gołaś A.

J Strength Cond Res. 2017 May;31(5):1321-1337. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001816.