If you have spent anytime in a gym you have, without a doubt, seen someone perform a deadlift with their spine bent like a banana in extreme flexion, or someone perform a lunge in which their front knee collapsed inward as it passed far overtop the toes. I have seen this many times. In some cases the form was so bad that it caused me to cringe thinking about the amount of stress being placed on the spinal ligaments and intervertebral disks or, in the case of the lunge, the cruciate ligaments of the knee. Lets examine why these individuals may have been performing these exercises incorrectly, by defining what is required to properly perform any exercise.
They keys to properly performing an exercise
1. Knowledge – The individual needs to know which muscles to contract, at what time, and with how much force. The individual must also know the correct plane and range of motion in which the joints must move to safely and effectively perform the exercise.
2. Mobility/stability – The individual must have the required range of motion to perform the exercise (mobility), and the ability to stabilize the required joints, including the spine, throughout that range of motion.
3. Coordination – The individual needs to be able to contract the right muscles, at the right time, and with the right amount of force.
4. Strength/endurance/power – The individual must have the required amount of strength/endurance/power to perform the exercise safely and effectively, with the chosen amount of resistance.
Now, lets return to the deadlift and lunge scenarios discussed above and let’s assume that those individuals had the required knowledge, mobility/stability, coordination, and strength/endurance/power to perform these exercises. Why then were they performing the exercise incorrectly? The answer is likely the 5th key to performing an exercise well, and something people often lack when exercising….
5. Focus – The individual must be focused in order to ensure that they: utilize their knowledge of exercise technique; are performing an exercise that is acceptable for the amount of joint mobility/stability that they possess; are coordinated and contract the proper muscles throughout the movement; are using a weight that is appropriate for their strength/endurance/power.
How to know if an exercise is appropriate
As a personal trainer and certified athletic therapist I prescribe exercises based on the mobility and stability of the patient or client (whom I have pre-assessed). I will have the individual perform the exercise without load, during which I will cue them as to what muscles should be contracting at what time, in order to teach the proper coordination of the exercise. Once I know that the patient has the mobility to perform the exercise, the stability to control the movement safely, and the coordination required to perform the exercise properly then, and only then, will I add the appropriate amount of load (if necessary) in order to challenge their strength/endurance/power (the amount of load chosen will depend on which of the three I am trying to address). Throughout this process I am explaining to the individual what I am doing and why I’m doing it, in order to increase their knowledge of the exercise.
Even after all that, does it guarantee that the patient/client will perform the exercise correctly? Absolutely not! This is not surprising however, and is actually expected for a couple of reasons:
1. It is unreasonable to expect someone to remember all of the information you have just imparted on him/her about a given exercise.
2. It is well known and understood that it takes many repetitions of a given movement in order to develop a motor pattern.
As therapists and/or personal trainers…
- We must ingrain the importance of proper technique in our clients/patients. They must understand the importance of consciously being aware of what muscles should be contracting and which joints should be moving during the exercise.
- We must explain to our clients/patients the reasons why this is important, which include developing proper movements, targeting the proper muscles and preventing injury.
- We must focus on how our patient/client is performing an exercise. Our undivided attention should be on the client and their technique while they are performing a set, especially when they are learning a new exercise! We must not allow ourselves to get distracted by conversations with others, or even our phones (I have seen this!).
- We must give effective cues at appropriate times. However, we must be careful not to overload, and thus confuse, the individual. This is a whole other topic that was tackled brilliantly by, well-known personal trainer Jonathon Goodman, in his blog post entitled Improve your coaching cues.
Once we, as therapists and personal trainers, have done all of these things effectively, it is up to the individual to perform the exercise on their own. Along with this newfound exercise independence comes responsibility.
When performing an exercise, on your own…
- You must focus! For the 30 seconds, or less, it takes to complete a set you should be concentrating on performing the exercise well. You can talk to your “workout buddy”, think about the upcoming weekend, or stare at the ‘”hottie” beside you once the set is over!
- You should ask yourself the following questions, both before you begin and during the exercise:
- “Do I have good technique?”
- “What muscles should I be contracting”
- “Is this weight appropriate for me?”
If you are not focused OR don’t know the answer to any of these 3 questions, STOP the exercise! You should re-focus and/or ask someone who knows the answer(s) before attempting the exercise again.
If you don’t…
- - You will teach your body improper movement patterns.
- - You will not effectively target the intended muscle or join.
- - You will increase the likelihood that you will suffer an injury
Thus, it doesn’t matter if you have all the knowledge, mobility/stability, coordination, and strength/endurance/power in the world. If you don’t use it, because you lack focus, you may be just as likely to suffer the consequences, mentioned above, as those who don’t!