Can Practicing Incorrect Form Actually Improve Your Lifting?

In the strength and conditioning world the saying, “there are multiple ways to skin a cat,” couldn’t be more true when developing an athlete’s strength and technique. For this article, we’re going to dive into the Method of Amplification of Error (MAE), an interestingly effective, yet somewhat counter-intuitive learning process to developing strength, technique, and performance.

A recent video on Omar Isuf’s YouTube channel featured Greg Nuckols (writer at StrongerByScience) explaining a recently published study that uses MAE to improve snatch technique. The study is titled, “The effects of two different correction strategies on the snatch technique in weightlifting,” and Nuckols dives into the study’s logistics in the video below. His analysis comes from the newly created Monthly Application In Strength Sports (MASS), which is a brand new research review published by Nuckols, Eric Helms, and Michael C. Zourdos.

The study analyzes the learning process called the Method of Amplification of Error in weightlifting. This topic in regards to weightlifting is relatively new to the formal research setting, and the results are pretty interesting (which are covered below).

Method of Amplification of Error Training

This learning concept has been around for quite sometime, and is often used as a way to develop proper motor patterns in younger athletes. The reasoning behind using this method is to allow the user to experience their own main movement error, which in theory will have them create a positive searching strategy to improve performance. In short, it’s the act of allowing an athlete to experience a known error, so they can experience the incorrect feeling and self-improve.

For a strength coach, this is a very cool learning concept to employ. Why? It allows athletes to learn with their own autonomous intuition without excessive extrinsic feedback (verbal cuing, etc). In a lot of situations, athletes learn best when given the opportunity to feel right from wrong. The best part of Nuckol’s analysis on this new study is that it highlights the potential of this method being effective on experienced athletes, and not just newer athletes.

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Why Does It Work?

MAE is hypothesized to work because it allows one to use their own intuition to correct technique and improve. This learning method doesn’t exploit errors, but it embraces them and uses them to intrinsically teach. Basically, instead of avoiding poor mechanics, it embraces them and uses them to teach an athlete through their own perceptions and experiences.

MAE and Newer Athletes

A study from 2008 analyzed thirty 13-year old study participants (15 male, 15 female) and their long jump performance. The authors split the thirty youth into three groups which included: 10 MAE instruction, 10 direct instruction, and 10 into a control group. Participants were tested on three different occasions within three weeks, and were instructed to not perform long jumps outside of the experiment.

The first meeting involved each group performing three jumps without any instruction. Their jumps were then recorded and averaged. It was at this time when the study authors identified the main errors present with jumping techniques.

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The second meeting is when the group’s corresponding instructor utilized the MAE and direct instruction learning techniques. In the MAE group, instructors asked athletes to magnify (exaggerate) the error they were making. For example, excessive forward trunk flexion for the jump, basically, amplify incorrect jump mechanics. The direct instruction group was informed with extrinsic feedback on how to improve their jumping technique. For the second session, youth jumped a total of six times. Once with the learning technique utilized, then they were asked to jump freely with no instruction, in a 1:1 instruction:free jump ratio.

The final session involved youth to have their jumps recorded once again to check for learning retention. Authors found that both the MAE and direct instruction groups improved their jumps, but the MAE group improved by +/- 16 cm compared to direction instruction learners.

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MAE and Experienced Athletes

The newly published 2017 study mentioned above analyzed experienced weightlifter’s abilities to improve with the use of MAE. Similar to the 2008 study, this study also involved 30 participants that were split into three groups, which included MAE, direction instruction, and a control group (similar to the study above). Unlike the above study, these participants were experienced with previous weightlifting and competition experience (trained 5x/week for 15 total hours).

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This study involved two sessions and had athletes go about their usual warm-ups before beginning their snatch workout. The group’s prescribed coach was given formal cues to use for each group, so cuing was consistent among athletes whether it was a correct or incorrect cue. The cues used were developed based on previous research that analyzed proper and improper snatch techniques.

The first session involved 14 total snatch trials, which were split into three groups: pre, training intervention, and post-training trials. Authors told the athletes to, “do their best” during the pre and post-trials. In the MAE eight trials, coaches instructed athletes do magnify their designated error. Similar to the 2008 study, athletes performed a 1:1 rep ratio with training intervention:free trial. The direct instruction group performed a similar trial scheme, but with correct extrinsic feedback.

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In the second session athletes performed a total of 10-trials and were instructed to perform their best to check for learning retention. For the second trial researchers connected kinematic markers on athletes and the barbell to track form and bar path. The researchers found that those who used the MAE method improved their technique in respects to how the bar crashed on them (less crash) and they improved on their linear bar path. The MAE group’s corresponding coach also agreed that their form had improved.

Author’s Note: It’s important to point out that both of the above studies were performed by the same head author. This is why they were very similar in structure and grouping. Also, both studies were performed in a short-term setting (with smaller population), so long-term learning impact may differ with different demographics.  

How to Use MAE

In order to use this learning method, it’s recommended that a coach fully understands the mechanics of a movement. Once you understand proper mechanics, then you can identify significant errors and cue/amplify them accordingly. Without full understanding of complex movements, coaches will have a difficult time using errors to hone in on correct mechanic values.

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As suggested in the above studies, this method can be beneficial for both newer and experienced athletes. It’s important to keep in mind that every athlete will respond differently to intrinsic and extrinsic cues, so a coach will have to use their discretion when deciding what athletes to use it on. Also, this method shouldn’t be used when a movement is in an area of possible injury. For example, if an athlete is snatching in a way that could hurt them, then it would counter productive to have them exaggerate their error even more.

Wrapping Up

MAE is one of many learning methods, and it’s not an end all be all. It’s a style of teaching that can be used to promote proper form, strength, and mechanics if done correctly. At no point does the research recommend using improper form regularly. Research suggests that it’s beneficial for both newer and experienced athletes, at least in terms of short-terms effects. Whether it work long-term will be dependent on the coach and athlete using this learning style, as everyone will have situational differences.

Feature image from @johnparker__ Instagram page.