It seems many trainees are unwitting students of Plato, for many seem to have the idea that it is necessary for them to always employ the perfect form when they train. However, when I speak of “form” here, I do not refer to lifting technique (as I have already gone on that tirade many times), but instead am discussing the notion of how each training movement must be a perfect movement. The further away a movement is from its original form, the less value it seems to hold, at least according to these trainees.
I had an interaction on an online forum recently that fostered these thoughts. On this forum, many trainees believe that the powerlifts (along with the powerclean and overhead press) were the absolute best movements for becoming bigger and stronger. Though the argument can be made that these are valuable movements, what struck me as odd was how these trainees very narrowly defined what is and is not these movements. If one pressed with an axle instead of a barbell, they were not performing the press. If one deadlifted with a 1” elevation of the plates, they were not performing the deadlift. If one squatted with a safety squat bar, they were not squatting. In all cases, the understanding was that, by not performing the movements that were the closest to the ideal of perfection, one was in turn accomplishing LESS. These changes necessarily made the movements LESS effective, rather than equally (or dare I say) more effective.
This in turn begs the question, when exactly is a movement no longer THE movement. When is a squat no longer a squat, or a deadlift no longer a deadlift? Is a “perfect” deadlift, by definition, one performed with a 30mm, 7’ barbell with center knurling and 20kg iron plates that measure exactly 450mm in diameter? What if someone uses a 28mm deadlift bar and some bumper plates, are they in turn getting less than perfect results? How much deviation do we allow before we deem the exercise too far changed to be of any good? Or, for a super fun thought experiment, consider the fact that, through rigorous deadlifting, one can warp the plates and start shaving off fraction of a millimeter at a time. In this instance, are we actually becoming WORSE by training?
In some cases, yes
We need to understand that many of the movements we perform arrived out of necessity, not out of intention. We lifted with the equipment we had available and made the most out of it, but that does not mean that simply because the movements came into existence means they are the best ones we have available. For instance, the diameter of Olympic plates was decided for (gasp) Olympic weightlifting, specifically so that, should a trainee fall backwards with a weight, the barbell would not smash their face. The plates were elevated enough to provide some manner of safety. This arbitrarily determined the height of the starting pull for both the clean and the deadlift, and became something WE all conformed TO, rather than making the equipment conform to us. The notion that we somehow accidentally created the best movement in existence for becoming stronger that applies to all individuals universally is frankly absurd. In any manner of millions of alternate universes, the plates could have been 500mm, 400mm, or any other possible permutation, and in each instance the mechanics for the clean and deadlift would be slightly modified.
On the above, let us also understand that, when we are at the mercy of the equipment, no 2 individuals are getting the same workout. To say that the deadlift gives all individuals the same results ignores the fact that, due to anatomical variations, individuals are going to get stressed in different ways when using this same movement. If Peter Dinklage and Shaq deadlift, though the movement has the same name and the equipment starts at the same height, both individuals are going to be performing an entirely different exercise. One is going to be performing an above the knee pull, and the other is going to perform something that looks like the most insane deficit deadlift in the world. To believe that these movements MUST be perfect, and that any deviation away from their origin decreases efficiency again becomes ridiculous.
Left: The world's greatest deadlifter
In addition, we must also come to terms with the fact that, due to poor quality control in the fitness industry, the odds of two individuals even having the same actual equipment to use is astronomically small. We say “the bench press is the greatest upper body horizontal pressing movement”, but WHOSE bench press are we talking about here? How high off the ground should the bench be? How wide should the pad be? How low should the uprights be? Deep j-hooks or shallow? And Jesus Christ, I haven’t even discussed the barbell or weights here. Are we going to conclude that those who train with non-calibrated equipment are actually NOT doing the movement, and getting worse results?
I argue in turn that we must avoid Plato’s appeal to “the forms” and instead embrace the approach of realism. We cannot grant the movements so much reference that we assume it is we the humans that are flawed, but instead must come to terms with the fact that the world itself is flawed and that it is our imperative to work with what we have available. We make the world conform to us, not the other way around.
We make our own rules
The basic movements that revolve around the barbell have great potential, but they are not your only options. Modifications, adjustments, personalization and all other manner of adapting and overcoming are available to a trainee, for in an imperfect world we must sometimes perform imperfect actions. Additionally, in the pursuit of making all things “equal”, we must understand that equality does not equate to being the same, but in many cases being different. If 2 trainees are deadlifting with the same 450mm plates, and in the case of one the barbell is 7” below their knee and in the case of the other it is 9”, though these trainees have equal equipment, they are performing unequal workouts. However, if in the case of the latter trainee we elevate his plates 2”, though both trainees have an unequal set-up, are they not in fact performing now the same workout?
Your equipment was made by man, not the gods, and are subject to the same flaws inherent in humanity. To assume that their sheer presence and construction dictates the ideal and perfect way to train is naiveity, and to in turn refute any different or modern means to train is simply an appeal to tradition. Reverence to only one way limits us, and it is our responsibility to make the most effective choices with what we have, not to assume that what we have is in fact the most effective option.