As I kid I grew up watching martial arts movies. Back in the 80s we had an independent TV station, Channel 21. If you didn’t have cable this channel was a godsend. It offered programming you couldn’t find in the cheesy world of 80’s TV and I made full use of it, especially Kung Fu Theater on Saturday afternoons.
There’s a lot of carry over from those movies into what I do and not just because I teach martial arts. (See, Ma! I wasn’t wasting my time. It was EDUCATIONAL.) Fundamentally martial arts are a skill and nearly every martial arts movie involves the trope of our hero developing that skill. As part of his process in moving from neophyte to master our hero is often tempted by the master’s secrets or the secrets of a particular style. Sometimes we see the trope of a villain who steals the secrets or attempts to bypass the traditional learning process and jump straight to the good stuff.
Only, it doesn’t work that way.
The secrets you will discover, be they in martial arts, strength training, or any other discipline are in the details. A slight variation in grip or a minor deviation in vector can often make a significant difference.
The details are useless without first understanding the gross outer movements. Again, using martial arts as our example, you can tell the difference from a beginner and an advanced student in any particular style by the largeness of their movement. When first learning a particular movement or style we start with large gross movements. These are easier to visualize, learn, and integrate. As the student progresses the movements become smaller, the unnecessary is eliminated leaving just what it takes to get the job done.
I have been training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for around 5 years now. I’m still very much a beginner, but I’ve been in classes with my professor long enough to see much of the same material two or three times. Each time there is a greater level of detail. Detail that had it been given to me at the start would have been lost. A beginner can only absorb so much, we learn best by getting a big picture view and then learning to focus with greater and greater detail.
So how does this relate to weight lifting? One of the great truths of this life is that you can identify a principle because it applies across all fields of life. If we call this principle Start with the Macro and Work Your Way to the Micro, then you can see how it might apply.
If you are beginning as a squatter it’s useless for me to wax poetic about the details of hand placement and grip. Our time is better spent worrying about the simple act of bringing your hips as close to the floor as you can and standing back up with balance. Let’s do that a couple hundred times with various loads in a variety of positions. Once we have the hips dialed in, then we can talk about other details like foot and hand position, High Bar versus Low Bar, and all the other nit-picky details we can explore.
As you can see it’s useless to go straight for the secret details. What good is understanding the finer points of hand placement if you don’t understand the larger movement in which that detail is placed? So squat - a lot. Understand the squat inside and out. As you practice it over and over you’ll naturally experience all kinds of subtle variations. Some you’ll instantly recognize as detrimental and others will present themselves as potentially fruitful.
Then when you sit at the feet of a master, looking to soak up those pearls of wisdom, those details will actually mean something. You can gauge them in the context of your own experience and recognize their value. Stick with it long enough and you’ll even discover some secrets of your own, perhaps even tidbits you can share with the next generation. To carry the martial arts metaphor even further, you might even develop your own style and lineage, just like they were formed inside the traditional martial arts of old.