A guide to mastering resistance training technique

Justin Kompf, PhD

My career in fitness began in 2008 as a front desk attendant at a gym. Since then, I've had a diverse range of roles within the fitness industry. From personal training in 2009 to coaching college strength and conditioning from 2013 to 2017, my passion for helping others engage in physical activity has been my driving motive. I even had the privilege of teaching university courses from 2012 to 2021 (with plans to return for a graduate class in the fall). Over time, my career has evolved, leading me to become a researcher, author, and now fitness lead at Sequence.

Throughout my professional life, my focus has always been on facilitating physical activity for people. Whether it's through personal training sessions, conducting research to promote strength training, or guiding group consults at Sequence, my ultimate goal remains the same: empowering individuals to embrace an active lifestyle.

The transformation of public opinion and research regarding strength training over the years is remarkable. Once considered a fringe activity confined to circus performers a century ago, it has now garnered substantial attention due to extensive research and its positive impact on public health. Studies have unequivocally demonstrated the immense health benefits of strength training, from enhancing insulin sensitivity to preserving lean mass while losing weight.

In understanding the significance of strength training, it's crucial to emphasize that not all weight loss is created equal. Imagine two individuals who both shed 10 lbs. The one who incorporated strength training would have lost nearly 10 pounds of fat, whereas the other individual might have lost 3 or more pounds of muscle mass.

Despite the proven benefits, engaging in strength training isn't always as straightforward as other activities like walking. One key distinction lies in the skill component of strength training. Certain exercises are relatively simple, while others demand more technical expertise. Finding the right balance between your current skill level (which improves with practice) and the difficulty of an exercise is crucial for maintaining proper technique and preventing injuries. My aim is to guide you through this process and help you excel in your strength training journey.

Throughout this guide, I will provide valuable tips and insights to help you master your strength training technique. 

Matching Your Skills to the Demands of Strength Training Exercises

If I were to create a simple guideline for tackling strength training exercises, it would boil down to three key components:

1. Start with Machines, Move to Dumbbells, then Barbell Exercises

If you're new to strength training, it's essential to build a solid foundation. Begin with machines if necessary, as they provide more stability and are generally easier to handle. Progress to dumbbells once you've mastered the equivalent machine movements. For example, if you've got your technique with a goblet squat using a dumbbell down, you can confidently advance to a back squat using a barbell, as it follows the same movement pattern.

2. Multi-Joint Exercises are Harder Than Single-Joint Ones

Multi-joint exercises engage multiple joints, making them more challenging but also highly effective for overall strength. Single-joint exercises, on the other hand, focus on just one joint movement. For instance, a biceps curl or triceps extension is technically simpler than a dumbbell bench press or a dumbbell row, which involves coordination between the elbow and shoulder joints.

3. Upper Body is Easier Than Lower Body 

In the realm of strength training, upper-body exercises are generally less technically demanding than lower-body movements, particularly the hinge category. Hinge movements, like deadlifts, can be quite technically challenging but offer great benefits. If you're new to deadlifts, it's best to begin with light weights to avoid risking injury due to poor technique.

Sequence members don’t necessarily need to worry about this as our exercise prescription is appropriate for people just getting started. The next piece of advice builds upon this too.

Understanding the Acceptable Level of Error in Movements

When starting a new exercise, don't fret over achieving perfect technique right away. It's normal to have some errors, especially when learning a new movement pattern. However, the key is to manage the level of weight you use. If you're performing a goblet squat with slight form deviations but using manageable weight, the risk of injury is low. In contrast, attempting the same exercise with heavy weights could lead to greater technique breakdown and potential injury. I recommend focusing on technique first, then gradually increasing load.

Emphasize proper technique before adding heavier weights to your routine. Putting too much load on top of flawed form increases the risk of injury and hinders progress. Instead, prioritize practice and gradually increase weights as your technique improves. This patient approach will yield better results and keep you injury-free in the long run.

Develop the Mind Muscle- Connection

The mind-muscle connection, also known as the neuromuscular connection, refers to the conscious and intentional focus on contracting and activating specific muscles during an exercise.

When you perform a resistance exercise, such as a bicep curl or a squat, the goal is to target and engage the specific muscles you want to work on. However, many people often rely on momentum or use other muscle groups to complete the movement, which means the exercise is not targeting what it is meant to.

The mind-muscle connection involves deliberately directing your attention to the muscles you intend to activate during each repetition of an exercise. By doing so, you increase the recruitment of those specific muscles and ensure they are doing the majority of the work, leading to greater muscle activation and better results.

You can even try this right now. Bend your arm at 90 degrees and put your hand on your biceps. Flex and see if you can turn that muscle on. Point the balls of your feet towards the floor and see if you can create tension in your calf muscle. 

Check out these weight training tutorials 

I wanted to end with tutorials for two of the more difficult movements, the squat and deadlift. These cover some of the important things you need to know to master these movements.

Squat video

Deadlift video

Deadlift 1

Deadlift 2

Deadlift 3

Deadlift 4

Concluding thoughts

First, always start light with less technically demanding movements. Make sure everything is done in your comfort and control. You don’t need to rush through movements, meaning weight training group exercises class might not be the best place to start if you are not sure of your technique. If you do find yourself in a class, go light and focus on technique. Work on developing the mind-muscle connection, meaning try to feel it in the right places and start with less technically demanding exercises. 

Sequence members can download their fitness plans here to get started. The workouts are also recorded on our youtube page so subscribe to check these out. Not a Sequence member yet? Take our short quiz to see if you qualify for our program.

Justin Kompf, PhD

About the Author

Justin has devoted his career to helping people exercise. He started personal training In 2009 and worked as a college strength and conditioning coach before moving to Boston to obtain his PhD in exercise and health science, where he conducted research on promoting exercise. Justin is excited to help you on your journey towards better health!

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