Home Blog Strength Training Programs: Lifting Heavy Weights vs. Corrective Exercise – Finding a Balance

Strength Training Programs: Lifting Heavy Weights vs. Corrective Exercise – Finding a Balance

Written on March 4, 2011 at 9:16 am, by Eric Cressey

Q: How does one find a balance between “technique/form/corrective/sissy work” and lifting heavy weights to make gains in a strength training program? I see both extremes, but am curious about what affects the balance between the two.

A: This is actually a great question, and I am actually surprised that I’ve never answered it before in over five years of writing on this site.

For me, it all comes down to five factors in each athlete/client: strength training experience, injury history, goals, time to commit, and training session structure.

In someone with limited strength and conditioning, more of the session is going to be devoted to technique work on entry level strength exercises.  You don’t have to worry as much about lifting really heavy weights simply because beginners can make appreciable strength gains with as little as 40% of 1-rep max on exercises.  The more advanced an athlete becomes, the less time you spend on technique work, and the more work you do with strength development and corrective exercise.  Eventually, when an athlete has a lot of strength, you have to consider whether all the time and effort that would go in to adding 20 pounds to his squat would actually be better spent elsewhere – whether it’s with corrective work, power training at a lower percentage of 1-rep max, or in introducing new exercises.  Effectively, it always comes down to finding someone’s biggest window of adaptation and exploiting it.  That’s one reason why I tried to make the Show and Go program so versatile by including 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week training options alongside five supplemental metabolic training protocols.

If we are talking about someone with a lengthy injury history, though, the rules get thrown out the window.  You are not only spending more time with corrective exercise, but also refining your strength exercise selection to work with this individual – so it might mean that you have to do more technique work to add in new strength exercises, regardless of that individual’s training experience.

One’s training goals impact the corrective/heavy lifting balance as well.  If I’m training someone who simply wants to improve quality of life or stay healthy in athletics, I can be a bit more cautious on the heavy lifting side of things and hold back.  However, if we are talking about someone who was put on this planet to get strong and wants to be the most badass guy in the gym, we have to lift some heavy weights to make that happen.  So, while the second scenario in many cases requires more corrective exercise, we’re talking about a population that is willing to take more risks in training to get to a goal that might not be at all interesting to a more “low key” population.  This does not, however, mean it’s okay to let strength-oriented people lift with atrocious technique.  Doing so makes you an unethical clown who is more likely to get sued – not a professional.

Time to commit is another important consideration that many folks overlook.  Very simply, if someone can only get in two exercise sessions a week, I’m not going to be spending a ton of time on corrective exercise with them.  You’re much more likely to die from being fat and having diabetes than you are from having a cranky rotator cuff.  I’ll gladly give these folks additional corrective exercise that they can do during their busy schedules (which are never as busy as they claim), but I won’t coddle them when they need to move.

The last factor, which is more about the training model than the athlete/client in question, is how one structures a training session.  At Cressey Performance, athletes start their sessions with foam rolling and then proceed to an 8-10 exercise dynamic warm-up.  For many folks – particularly young athletes – that is enough “corrective” work, and the remainder of the session can be devoted to technical instruction and increasing strength on exercises that are safe for them.  Those with more accumulated wear-and-tear on their bodies will need more corrective exercise beyond what they’ll get from strength training alone – so we add in fillers (e.g., extra mobility work) between sets, and some additional corrective work at the end of the session.  Since you have a limited amount of time with people, you may have to cut back on strength training or metabolic conditioning initially just so that you can get in this early corrective work to get them over the initial “hump.”  Trust me: it will set the stage for long-term success rather than “short-term gain, long-term pain.”

There are two final points I’d like to make.  First, in my experience, many experienced lifters/athletes have responded well to separating the heavy lifting from the corrective stuff.  When they show up to train, they may be really fired up and ready to go – so the last thing they’ll want is to do some wall slides or spend five minutes getting some length in their rectus femoris.

These folks would be wise to do just enough warm-up work to prepare for their heavy training, and then add in some separate sessions to address movement inefficiencies – whether we’re talking additional foam rolling, massage, mobility drills, rotator cuff work, or something else.  They can also add it in on the end of the session after the hardest work is done.

Second, for many folks, maximal strength can be tremendously corrective.  Increasing strength in one area can reduce excessive stress in another area of the body.  An example of this would be using the box squat or deadlift to learn proper hip hinging techniques, which would increase posterior chain contribution and take some of the burden off the quads in someone with anterior knee pain.  Likewise, all other factors held constant, a stronger muscle is less likely to become degenerative.  You can read more along these lines in two older newsletter of mine on the Law of Repetitive Motion: Parts 1 and Part 2.

Obviously, there are many things to consider, but this should at least get you headed in the right direction in finding the right balance in your strength training program.

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  • David Jack

    Solid EC – keep it coming – DJack

  • Great question and great response, this is how we develop our programming philosophy also.

    Great Stuff!

  • R Smith

    Eric,

    Love the post, as usual. Funny how foam rolling and mobility drills seem like such a nuisance until you realize all the strength you\’ve gained is NOW accessible through enhanced movement quality.

    Never cared about thoracic mobility, HIRD or ankle dorsiflexion until–thanks to you–I saw the difference made by working on these areas.

    RS

  • Crazy timing Eric! I’ve been having this discussion with my colleagues as to what is the proper/best approach to strength training in the collegiate setting? Athletes come in with horrible movement patterns but sport coaches want these kids to squat, bench, and clean through the roof. It has been challenging to, as you say, find the right balance in order to satisify a coaches expectations while keeping the athletes healthy and competitive.

    Thanks for the post.

    Blake Theise
    Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach
    St. Cloud State University

  • Thank you for covering this topic. I train the general population one-on-one and in small groups. I stick mobility drills and corrective exercises (some from your book, Maximum Strength)into my group classes and training sessions. I tell clients that these movements are the ones that will allow them to “exercise yet another day”!

  • Excellent response to an oft answered Q in our clinic Eric. Lots of overlap here and no need to throw either corrective exercise or heavy weights under the bus. I regularly see the mid-aged computer jockeys in our clinic with bum elbows/shoulders/and discs from trainers that pushed an unbalanced system into tissue failure because they don’t want to be seen as promoting a “sissy” approach. At the same time, the gym is full of folks that consider their corrective exercise prescription to be their ultimate workout. I liken it to a car with one wheel out of alignment…Ok for years of market trips, prone to breakdown or crash on a cross-country (volume) trip or a race track (intensity). Good reason for those in corrective exercise fields to know the excellent trainers in their area, and vice versa.

    Phillip Snell, DC
    Portland, OR
    MyRehabExercise.com

  • As always Eric, great blog post. I wish more trainers or fitness professionals would read your blog and begin applying some of the information you provide.

  • Great post, Eric. Since visiting your facility in November, I’ve been using the fillers between strength and power movements to enhance mobility and movement patterns. My athletes’ strength numbers have really increased, and I attribute it to their improved joint function and cleaner movement patterns.

    Thanks for the great info!

    Brian

  • Spot on as usual coach! Great post.

  • James

    Hi Eric, I own Show and Go and there is no 2x/week program in it only a 3 and 4 day split. Is this something that was added later on?

  • James, it’s featured as one of the bonuses. There are four separate PDFs of 2x/week programming (one for each phase).

  • Nice.
    A topic I often struggled with when I started out as a coach and one that is still a cause for concern even now.
    I agree that the dynamic warm up is the obvious place for corrective work and have all my guys go through approximately 100 reps of bodyweight movements in various directions before they even touch a weight.
    I also set people home work for their most problematic areas, this maybe mobility, isometric or stretching, whatever is appropriate and applicable within their routine.

    Thanks for the great info, keep it coming.

    Dave

  • Tony Cox

    Hey EC,

    I may be late coming to the party, but can you fill me as to the types of movements you’re referring to when you talk about extra mobility work between sets?
    Keep the great info coming.

    Tony Cox

  • Mike/Emmett

    Thanks EC for all the help available through your site. I’m 64 yrs old, work nights and am a husband and father of two daughtes, one in HS the other in college. I find some time each week to work out in my basement where I have a power rack. I find myself needing as much repair work as I do weight work. I have been off for a year with bad knees that have slowly returned, now I need to get my pr’s back. Your guidance in recovery and balance and repair has been invaluable to this end. Thanks for all that you do for this community, now just spend a little more time dealing with us old guys who won’t let go and I’m a happy guy. Thanks again!!
    Emmett Michael Marrone
    NY

  • Boy oh boy, did i love this post! Thanks so much for a well-written, well-thought out, and informative post! I can sink my teeth into stuff like this. I work with alot of 40-something women, some of whom are as strong as an ox and some who are just getting started into “fitness”. Gaining knowledge, skill, and WISDOM to help these ladies is where I live.

  • Well said Eric! I am really like your take on strength training as a corrective. You said: “increasing strength in one area can reduce excessive stress in another area of the body” I believe the body will compensate in many ways, but one way to get it to “reset” proper movement patterns is through strength training. Correct as you go so you go, but do not sacrifice strength as you go.

  • Justin

    Great response!

    I appreciate everything you’ve had to say, you have great a great wealth of knowledge thanks for sharing!

    Please continue to do so!

    Justin

  • EC BIG time agree w/separating the mobility and the lifting, or, finish with mobility on 1 or 2target areas but have a dedicated corrective day

    ur the man, homie

  • Jpak

    Awesome post! I’ve been struggling with this issue where I was balancing corrective exercises with strength training. Didn’t work. So now i do 3 days strength, and 3 days corrective exercise along with cardio that acts as a rehab+cardio+active recovery session. After 2 weeks, all my nagging injuries are gone and i feel like i put on a layer of armor!

  • Robert

    Mr.cressey,

    What would you reccomend a pitcher due besides the basic foam rolling, medicine ball throws, and weight training in order to keep a symmetrical balance over the course of the season?

  • Robert,

    It’s a bit different for everyone, but that covers most of your needs. Positional breathing (PRI stuff) can be helpful as well.

  • Kendal

    How do you protect your (kid) 8th and 9th grader while they doing strength training with idiot coaches who are always talking about this kid can do this max on power cleans bench and squats, and that don’t know your son plays baseball or basketball?

  • Kendal,

    If there is a risk of injury, it’s your responsibility (preferably with help from additional coaches) to bring this to the attention of those in authority positions, whether it’s an athletic director, principal, superintendent, or school board member. It’s their a** if a kid gets hurt.

    You can also go out of your way to educate your son/daughter about proper technique and expectations. Prepare them to train in good technique no matter what, and they’ll be much better off.

  • Royce Chen

    Eric, what is corrective work? thanks for your time.

  • Royce,
    It could be a lot of different things! Soft tissue, mobility drills, strengthening exercises, etc.

  • Royce Chen

    Got it, thanks Eric! How would you recommend for a beginner to start doing corrective work?

  • Royce,

    Our Assess and Correct product would be a good start: http://www.assessandcorrect.com.

    It’s hard to know what to do without starting with an assessment of where you stand!

  • Royce Chen

    Got it, thank you Eric!


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