When “It Makes Sense…” Doesn’t: “Virtuosity”

In the original Star Wars, Luke and his intrepid team of heroes jump out of hyperspace on their way to the planet Alderaan to an unexpected surprise: Alderaan isn’t there, a meteor shower has appeared out of nowhere, and there’s a small moon nearby that isn’t on any chart. As Han aimlessly flies towards it while trying to get his bearings, they realize all too late what it actually is…

If you’ll forgive the nerdiness, I think this scene perfectly illustrates something we see all too often in the nutrition and fitness worlds. As coaches and lifters, we generally gravitate towards solving one problem: “I want to score an elite total” or “I want to help women get their beach bodies back post-pregnancy.” But in the meteor shower of programs and ideas out there, some good, most bad, we often find ourselves making snap decisions about things that aren’t immediately related to our primary focus simply because they ‘make sense’ and we don’t have time to give them a closer look. If it looks like a moon, why think it’s a battle station? All too often, though, ideas that ‘make sense’ at first glance break down when examined more closely.

I’d like to take a closer look at a series of concepts that ‘intuit well’ but may not apply across the board or be useful in our training and coaching.

Virtuosity

I was introduced to the word ‘virtuosity’ years ago while reading Greg Glassman’s open letter: “Fundamentals, Virtuosity, and Mastery.” In summary, he describes virtuosity as an intense attention to detail, focus on fundamental movements, and mastery of the basics. This is an exceptional philosophy, and I strive for it in my training and coaching, but let’s take a closer look at how it can misused in practice.

It is not uncommon for sports coaches to advertise that they don’t train their student athletes on the back squat until their Junior or Senior year while they ‘master the fundamentals,’ or for lifters to follow detailed kettlebell progressions before doing something as basic as the deadlift. Even the CrossFit ‘Squat Clinic’ article, for instance, includes these two assertions:

The safety and efficacy of training with the front, back, and overhead squats before the weightless variant has been mastered retards athletic potential.

When has the squat been mastered? It is fair to say that the squat is mastered when both technique and performance are superior… and fast multiple reps are possible. Our favorite
standard for fast multiple reps would be the Tabata squat
(20 seconds on/10 seconds off repeated 8 times) with
the weakest of eight intervals being between 18-20 reps.

It makes sense. Master the bodyweight movement before you add weight. Drill the basics first. “Don’t load dysfunction,” right? But do we really need to wait until someone can rip through Tabata squats before putting a barbell on their back? Virtuosity is critically important, but you have to understand how to apply it or, in trying to follow the spirit, you’ll trip on the execution.

The Variant is Not the Lift

Air squats, goblet squats, overhead squats, dowel squats, box squats, and front squats all look pretty similar. The lifter sits back and down with a weight (even just their own bodies) until they’ve reached a certain depth, then they stand up. Of course, it’s not that simple.

When the weight gets heavy in a barbell back squat, certain things must happen. Your hips must be back far enough for your hip extensors (glutes and to a lesser degree hamstrings) to contribute. The center of mass of you and the bar (which, at the heaviest weights, will be pretty close to the bar) must stay over the midfoot or you’ll lose the weight. Because of this, the balance of weight must be on the midfoot, not the toes or the heels. How horizontal or vertical the lifter is will depend on the lengths of their body segments (femur, tibia, and torso) and the position of the bar. This means that the mechanics of the variant can vary drastically from the primary lift.

In the air squat, the load is light and there is no bar determining your center of mass. You can put your back at pretty much any angle and keep your weight balanced over the midfoot (your biggest limitations will be ankle flexibility and the skill to keep your back rigid). Also, because each rep is so light, you can be inefficient and still move very well (having your weight on your heels might even benefit you for speed in the air squat… but that’s an article for another day). In short, mastering the air squat is great, but a correctly executed back squat won’t look like an air squat. They’re different movement patterns, and you can interfere with a heavy back squat if you try to make it look like an air squat. They’re entirely different skills.

In the Front Squat and Goblet Squat, the weight is in front of the lifter, moving the center of mass forward and allowing for a more vertical back angle. For examples, see below:

Comparison between the front squat, high bar squat, and low bar squat respectively. Reproduced with permission from Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Ed 2011, The Aasgaard Company.

There are some coaches who like the look of the first or second model and get nervous when their lifters round their lower back (a bad thing) or look more horizontal than the coach likes (not necessarily a bad thing). Let’s say this coach sees a lifter like the one on the right, pulls them off the bar, and has them do goblet squats (squats holding a dumbbell in your hands) or front squats for several sessions to train them out of the problem.

The lifter’s back instantly becomes more vertical because the weight is in front, not because their technique has improved, and their lower back is more rigid because it’s closer to the barbell and doesn’t have to do as much work (the dumbbell is also usually lighter, which helps).  It’s a miracle! They’re fixed! Put them back on the bar and they may retain some of the look of the new position for a time, but as the weight gets heavier, they tend to become more horizontal again (which is fine so long as the barbell stays over the midfoot) and/or they start to lose their lumbar tension. Why? Because instead of teaching them how to stay tight under the bar, their coach pulled them off the bar and put them on a different lift entirely.

This isn’t just for squats, either, but for virtually any full-body fundamental movement. Consider Major Posey, creator of the Marine Corp’s 0-20 Pullup Program, and her struggle with pullups. Despite long sessions on the assisted pullup machine, she never quite got a single pullup until she started doing her work on the pull-up bar itself, completing negatives, partial reps, and partner-assisted lifts. Why? Among other things, it was because the assistance machine changed the movement pattern.

Virtuosity is critical, but it needs achieved within the movement pattern we’re trying to coach. There are always exceptions, but the focus has to be on getting the lifter doing the lift as soon as possible. As a general rule, you don’t ‘earn’ your right to train a lift by achieving an arbitrary performance standard on a different exercise (air squats and back squats; kipping pullups and pullups; kettlebell swings and deadlifts).

Learn the mechanics, start with a light load, and perfect the movement until you can execute it. If you’re not strong enough to do the movement at all and it’s important to you (Marines and pullups, for instance), develop the general strength of the relevant muscles and build your skill and strength through partial-range-of-motion variants of the lift itself. 

Achieve virtuosity in the movement by mastering the movement, not by mastering a different movement in hope that it transfers.

2 thoughts on “When “It Makes Sense…” Doesn’t: “Virtuosity””

  1. The Other Thing people miss – insist on missing – is that light xyz is not the same as heavy xyz. Practising a lift with light weights doesn’t transfer to technique at heavy weights. Technique is strength-dependent. You have to work on the technique all the way up.

    You don’t see people practising music at 1/2 speed and expecting that this means playing at full speed or faster will be there. Nope, the metronome is set to push competence forward from 60bpm to 65bpm and so forth, all the way to 120bpm.

    Yet how many people want to “work on form” with 50% lifts? Technique has to be improved just before/at the point of breakdown.

    The “I’m just working on form” means “I’m wasting time as I enjoy my excuse to avoid hard shit that might brush me up too close to failure, and imperfection.”

    Good way to not ever get anywhere.

    1. Absolutely! Even if you see the air squat as not only a variant of the squat but as a lightweight version of the squat (almost the *lightest*-weight version), your point holds perfectly. It’s funny that you mention it, because I’ve been thinking along the same lines after reading this comment on a popular movement screen website:

      “Having the body loaded during the _____ does not challenge the ability to stabilize naturally, and actually aids this process. Remember, we are looking at fundamental movement patterns that are unloaded. By giving them a load, you are essentially building stability on a undeveloped foundation. If they don’t have the stability without load, then create the best possible foundation to develop stability.”

      A combination of naturalism and the fundamental attribution error leads people to think that there are inherent, universal movement patterns that you can ‘fix’ at some basic level that, once fixed, carry over to all activities. To a certain degree, “it makes sense.” It’s just wrong. Hm…

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