Guilty (and useful) pleasures: lifting videos and recalibration

I love watching other peoples’ powerlifting and weightlifting training videos on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Watching a wildly assorted set of body shapes, ages, abilities, and personalities work through similar movements is pretty fascinating stuff if it’s where your interests lie and social media have made sharing easy and accessible. It’s like a strange combination of a vanity press and a diary, in which people craft public images of their lives, but where the real stories creep in along the edges as well, if you know where to look.

And I watch all sorts of videos, from the brand-new lifter who is fumbling their way through finding the squat stance and form that suits them, to the seasoned veteran whose sumo deadlift technique is so polished that it’s an art form. I don’t really care as much about the weight on the bar as I do about how they’re moving it and what that weight represents for them. Often I’m watching to learn something in particular, examining a hip or back angle of a lift, for instance, to see how the leverage works and to try to sense how a movement would feel if done this way or that. Many times I’ll take an idea down into the basement gym and play with it, looking to see how my body conformation reacts when moved in a particular fashion, or to try out a drill or technique. I spend a fair amount of time watching to see where a lift starts to fail or looks weakest and imagining ways of programming to correct this. You learn a lot by watching other lifters. And yourself. (The video below was where I rediscovered how much a belt helps my bench.)

Most people post videos of their triumphs. You get a few who provide glimpses of failures, and still others who provide you with recordings of every dumbbell press they ever did. But generally people post their personal records and the lifts of which they are proud, which means that you’re often watching a lift that’s relatively good for them AND you can share in their joy of achievement. When you have a series of best lifts from an individual, you can see what must have happened in the gaps. Changes in technique, vast improvements in strength, corrections of muscular imbalances, the healing of injuries, and so forth become evident over time.

While you watch a personal record lift, what you’re seeing is the accumulation of everything that person has learned and fought for over weeks of work. You don’t directly see the high-volume sets of squats or the grinding out of weighted pull-ups, Romanian deadlifts, or presses (most people don’t post the mundane stuff, but it’s often there), but you see the results and the effects of that work over time. It’s fun to see.

Observing that progression over time is one of the reasons that I tape my own lifting when I can. Sometimes it’s just a nuisance to set up and I’d rather focus on what I’m doing, so I don’t bother. But I’m trying to get more consistent about doing spot checks to check technique (and squat depth/bench-arse position) and just to keep a running record of how things change and hopefully improve in response to certain training cycles, ideas, mobility exercises, or technique work. And since I *know* what I’ve done to get to that point, video is even more useful as an evaluation tool.

I think, though, that the most significant thing I’ve learned from taping my lifts (especially the heavy stuff) is how to use them to recalibrate on the spot. When you’re inside a heavy lift, time flows at a different speed. Each second is an eternity, there’s a tendancy to think, “damn, that felt slow,” and to assume that this represents some form of limitation or inadequacy on your part. This is not a helpful feeling, mid-lift. It is the kind of feeling that can make you hesitate just that fraction of a second that will kill the lift. You can’t afford to overthink *anything* during a heavy lift.

When you watch the videotape of a heavy deadlift that feels slow and you see that it actually broke the floor with speed and didn’t appreciably decelerate, you get a chance to say, “okay, mind and body, THIS is what that slow and heavy feeling LOOKS like. It’s not slow, it’s just a steady pull. Get used to it and don’t panic, ‘kay? Have some patience with the lift when it feels like that and follow it through.” For me, this recalibration was a key to breaking a mental deadlift plateau; my nervous system was sending messages that needed further context and the videos let me rewrite the mental script that plays while I lift heavy. It’s exciting when a door opens like this. You start to see new potential in a lift.

After I realized this, I watched heavy lifts from other (more advanced) lifters with a new eye, and could see this same idea in their lifts. They had reconciled perception and reality and were able to keep perception in check and be patient with a lift to see it through. It was a key plateau-buster for me and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone there.

So if you’re not taping your videos fairly regularly, you’re missing out on a key learning tool and the potential for significant improvement. You don’t have to post to Instagram everything that you record, but try to get glimpses of your technique pretty regularly. You’ll avoid surprises in competition, spot injury risks before injuries happen, learn a whole lot about yourself and how you move, and enhance your creativity by learning how to use gym equipment to prop up a smart phone.

It’ll pay off over time.

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