In “Supertraining,” Mel Siff makes a case for “imperfect training”: occasionally varying the balance of loads, stances, speed and others to better prepare an athlete for sport.


Older coaches will remember Paul Chek’s “balance” training for the “core” in the early 2000s. For years, parents visiting my gym would cite the value of “training the little muscles in the core” while talking about their kids. Heck, “core” is STILL a buzzword in training circles of lower educational average.


Obviously, the nature of sport is unpredictable. But can the training room best prepare an athlete for that unpredictability? Is the scope of unpredictability different for each sport, and therefore trainable only on the field or rink?


“Imperfect training,” in my mind, can be spread across a broad spectrum:
– inherently unsafe, with little value (risk > reward)
– inherently unsafe, with moderate-to-high value (risk = reward)
– inherently safe, with moderate-to-high value (reward > risk)
– inherently safe, with little value (risk + reward = 0.)

 

It’s irrelevant to our purposes to discuss activities which create no reward. But all training carries an element of risk. Small “injuries” – including muscle tearing, elevated blood pressure, glycogen depletion and exhaustion – are necessary to spur super compensation.

 

In that light, where is the line between “small injuries created on purpose” and “small injuries that are a side effect”? What about small injuries that cause no real limitation or long-term damage, like blisters?

“Imperfect” training raises the risk associated in training. BOSU balls were popular toys (but not with Siff, nor with me) for years. The unstable surface of a BOSU ball was argued to create more stability around the ankle and knee joints. Higher risk for a reward or arguable value.

Where do box jumps fit into the risk/reward picture? Low-rep box jumps done from on high? High-rep box jumps done from a medium height? Where is the “safe” line in either scenario?

The common answer is, “It’s the duty of the coach to know when to hold the athlete back.” But HOW do they know? Is it subjective? What experience — short of causing injury — tells the coach, “This far and no further?” With individual variations in back musculature, injury history and deadlifting exposure, how can a coach determine that any one posture is “bad” in the deadlift?

But exposure to success leaves clues: the *best* dead lifters do it with an anteriorly-tilted pelvis, extended back and elevated chin. Except for the ones who don’t, like Andy Bolton, the current world record holder. Yet no one would presume to say, “Andy, if you backed off the weight and fixed your form, you’d lift 1100lbs instead of 1008lbs.”

 

Most arguments in the fitness world sound like this: “Bad form is dangerous because it’s bad form.” It’s circular logic. When pressed, the fallback seems to be, “It’s just bad! Everyone knows that!”

 

Here’s Tony Budding explaining CrossFit’s perspective on “safety vs intensity” and what constitutes good form:

 

The problem for coaches making the “bad form” argument is that technique occurs on a spectrum. Danger occurs on another spectrum. What’s dangerous for one person can pose no threat to another person. Experience changes the spectrum; load and intensity change the spectrum. What a coach must consider when correcting technique isn’t variance from a hard-and-fast line, but the average of averages.

We can say that, on average, a lifter whose knees collapse inward will have less power in the squat. We can say that, on average, a lifter whose torso tilts forward will place more stress on their lower back; and a lifter whose torso stays too vertical will place more stress on their knee. But we cannot say that a barbell must be vertically placed at 64.3% of femoral length relative to the pelvis at the start of the squat, because your legs are longer than mine.

Without a clear and present “perfect” form, what range of variance is acceptable?

Is “good form” an arbitrary decision?

​What’s bad? What’s good? How do we know for sure?