Updated: Jun 29, 2021
Every natural system in the universe has a hierarchy of importance. In a 'hierarchy' some parts matter before others: like how the President is protected by snipers and Elon Musk earns more in Tesla than Gary in human resources. In the grand hierarchy of the universe there are the electrons, protons and neutrons that make up the atoms that make up everything else (let's ignore quarks or dark matter or something else way beyond my year of high school physics). We know atoms come before carbon because atoms can exist without carbon but carbon can't exist without atoms. Likewise carbon can exist without life but life can't exist without carbon, and so forth until we get to vegetarian bacon.
The same is true for our body. We can last minutes without oxygen, days without water, weeks without food and months without vitamin C. This is why checking breathing is the first priority in a medical emergency and why we don't throw oranges to drowning people as a precaution against scurvy.
Exercise also has a hierarchy. The difference in general health and wellbeing between someone who does very little physical activity and someone who does a regular amount of physical activity is greater than someone who does a regular amount of physical activity and someone who does a lot. The super athlete may be able to run further or lift heavier weights but their overall health and lifespan is unlikely to be much different to someone who does a few press ups in the morning before cycling to work; while the poor old sloth is statistically far more likely to develop health problems and die much earlier than either of them.
Therefore, regularly moving our bodies is more important to our body than winning the Crossfit games. If you're new to exercise remember that simply doing something is much better than doing nothing and thirty minutes on the elliptical everyday while watching TV may be not turn you into a super athlete but it is unquestionably good for you.
Another example of a hierarchy is in how to execute an exercise. Progressive overload is important when squatting but is it more important than protecting your spine? It's much easier to live with slightly smaller muscles than it is to live with a broken spine so first and foremost, protect your spine.
You're better off practicing lifting heavy objects with good form than you are setting personal bests or lifting to impress other people (no one cares), so if you're ever wondering what to 'work on' in the gym, think about the hierarchy of exercise and think about working on technique.
Disclaimer: Working on 'technique' or saying 'something is better than nothing' doesn't mean you shouldn't push yourself. There are so many benefits, both mental and physical, to challenging yourself but if you're a beginner or you're about to quit just know that simply turning up is much better than giving up and working on 'technique' doesn't mean lifting easy weights.
How do you work on technique if you're new to exercise and don't have a coach or personal trainer? Try this: simply observe your body. There is something in meditation called a body scan, where you place your attention on a body part with the intention to simply observe. In theory, if you're tuned in to your body you're much less likely to injure yourself if you're developing a deeper, more inherent understanding of the mechanics behind 'good technique'.
So next time you're doing an exercise 'check in' with part of your body. If you choose your feet, observe what they're doing (presuming you're standing on the ground). Is your weight at the front of your foot, the back, the side or evenly spread? If you want to adjust, adjust, if not, simply note what you observed and carry on. Then next time try observing your breath or your knees or your hands or how all the muscles down the back of your legs work together. Do they feel coordinated or disjointed? Does one leg move differently to the other? Checking in doesn't mean keeping our attention there for the whole set (it can but doesn't have to); even just for a few seconds is fine. Over time not only will your technique naturally improve with better body intelligence but you'll feel calmer, more focused and more likely to have a long and enjoyable fitness journey.