26 May Quality Over Quantity: Use Low Reps to Build Strength and Stability
There’s a saying out in the strength coach world…
“If it looks wrong, it is wrong.”
In strength training and performance, there is a huge spectrum for programming exercises and an even bigger spectrum for what people pass as “good” technique.
Sometimes, coaches have to let people get some reps in and “figure things out”. Other times, cues can be huge game changers for helping someone develop healthy movement patterns. It’s really up to the coach to decide what is most appropriate for the athlete or client at that particular time. That kind of wisdom takes time and experience… and a willingness to get better. Make sure you look for that willingness in a coach when you hire one.
While I hate “cookie-cutter” systems, I do think guidelines and standards should be applied to all strength training and application.
I say that so I can introduce you to one standard I feel everyone should follow.
Quality over quantity!
What does this mean? Well, it means that “If it looks wrong, it is wrong”.
A smooth, fluid and stable movement should always be preferred and coached. A shaky, unstable, and choppy movement needs to be corrected or modified. This is why the application of exercises is very important and why good strength coaches use regressions and progressions.
Here are some common movements I see where quality is lost for the sake of reps.
Squats: notice the internal knee collapse… no bueno for the knee or hips.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen squats look awful and go uncorrected while the athlete attempts to do an ungodly amount of repetitions.
Push Ups: notice the butt up in the air, lacks core engagement and puts extra stress on the shoulders.
Push-ups are hard enough for people to do 1. But yet they get programmed for “max” reps and all of a sudden the quality disappears for the sake of numbers.
Lunges: notice the internal knee collapse and torso misalignment… OUCH!
I love lunges, seriously I know I’m a little sick in the head, but ugly lunges are a “no-no”. Lunges can be an amazing exercise for building strength and stability of the trunk and hips, but they do very little of that if they look like the picture.
Often times, when people come to see us, they want strength training for the purpose of improving performance in a sport or their day to day life activities. The most appropriate step to take is to build solid movement then add resistance to it. That works if we focus on quality over quantity. We start with low reputations and increase as long as the movement looks fluid and solid. As the repetitions increase, resistance can be added by adding weight or by challenging stability by going from two-leg (bilateral) to single-leg (unilateral) movements.
We often keep the reps low (aiming for 3-5 reps at a time with multiple sets) to allow someone to build good movement patterns. It does no good to allow 3 good reps and 12 crappy reps for the sake of doing a set of 15 reps.
You wouldn’t want to build a home on a weak foundation. That would be similar to what world-renowned physical therapist Gray Cook says “You can’t shoot a cannon out from a canoe”.
An example that comes to mind came from my recent assessment of a college baseball player.
The goal was to gain strength, power, and size to improve performance. Upon doing his assessment, one of the things that stuck out the most was how much stronger he was on one side compared to another. It was very apparent by how unstable his movements (lunge and single leg deadlift) were on his left leg.
Now, initially, it would make sense to get him on a program where he increased reps and weight (volume) so that he could get stronger and grow. However, if we focus on the quality over quantity principal, then we need to address the imbalance before we increase reps (volume). It would be appropriate here to increase upper body volume and address lower body stability, as a coach you have to remember that you have to match people’s goals while giving them what they need.
All that being said, before you increase weight and reps, follow the quality over quantity standard. If you do this, you can reduce chances of injury and continue your activities for longer periods of time.
Sometimes, a movement that lacks quality can be fixed by using corrective exercises. Here are three of my favorite corrective exercises. Each one addresses a different part of the body that will help you in all the major movements of pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and/or running.
Lateral band walks:
Place an appropriate band around your knees. Keeping your feet parallel to each other, take side steps for reps or yards and return to the starting position.
Remember to push your hips back in a hinge position. It helps to keep your knees over your ankles and your butt to the wall. Minimize any vertical or lateral movement of the torso and brace your abs.
Begin on the floor and cradle the bell into your torso(belly). Transition to your back keeping the bell close to you for safety. Use both hands to press the bell to a full lockout.
Roll to the side where the kettlebell and arm remain vertical. This is a position where your shoulders and hips are stacked and your top leg is bent to add stability.
Once your shoulder stability is solid, meaning you are not waving the bell around everywhere, slide the top leg to an extended position and squeeze your glutes to add rotation to your torso and cause a stretch.
Reverse the sequence to return to the ground.
Tall kneel band press:
Begin by being in a tall kneel stance (knees on the ground with a pad for comfort) and hip distance width of your knees. Point your toes away from you so you are forced to use your glutes and core to stabilize as you press the band away for sets of 5-10+ reps.
It’s important to minimize any leaning of the torso, use a lighter band or scoot closer to the anchor spot if needed.
Keep your shoulders down and your head neutral.