Have you ever had a client who, no matter how you demo, cue, or diagram, cannot seem to get an exercise right? You tell them to move left, they go to the right. You give a more complicated explanation, and they promptly do nothing.
Most of us are trained to do a biomechanical analysis and look for biomechanical issues, but what I’ve discovered over the years is that these aren’t necessarily biomechanical problems. Instead, your client’s confusion might come from a cluster of issues that are often related but should be dealt with differently.
And sometimes the issue stems elsewhere: the brain and how it processes your coaching. If that’s the case, it takes looking at the problem in a different way.
Is your style of coaching clicking with the client?
The ability to process information and turn it into movement can run amok for many people. And while it may not necessarily be a full-on motor skills disorder (which would need treatment from an occupational or physical therapist), some individuals can lag in certain capacities. They may have a hard time turning verbal instructions into movement or cannot tell where they are in space.
The first step, of course, is figuring out if the root of the problem truly is biomechanical. Try your typical solutions for the biomechanics of sport and exercise: regress an exercise that you’ve been doing together and look at the component pieces to see if the issue is with the client’s inability to do one of those smaller portions. If all the parts are functioning fine, then there may be an issue with motor planning, or figuring out what to do and when.
Conversely, if nothing seems to work and you have no clue where to break things down further, then there may be a problem with motor control or proprioception.
1. Your client may have poor motor planning.
For some clients, figuring out the actual steps involved in a movement can be challenging. Once you demonstrate a movement, it may be hard for them to understand what to do because they can’t map out all the steps from point A to point B.
To see if motor planning may be a problem, select a multi-joint movement (a lunge or incline push-up, for instance), then demonstrate it with minimal cueing that describes the basic movement without step by step instruction. For example, say:
I am keeping my body in a straight line and bringing my chest towards the bench, then pushing myself back up.
I’m putting my hands here and my feet here. I contract my core muscles so that it doesn’t move.
Then ask them to repeat the movement. If they don’t even know where to start or do something that isn’t actually the exercise (i.e., dropping the hips in an attempt to bring their chest lower in an incline push-up), there may be a motor planning problem.
With these clients, think about each step involved in an exercise, even those that may seem incidental to you. For instance, with a dumbbell chest press, do you sit in the middle of the bench or on the end? Do you pick up the weights from the ground beside you when you’re lying down, or do you hold them in your lap and lean back? How do you get up once you’re done?
With a step-up, for example, you may need to explain to put the whole foot on the block, lean forward to shift weight onto that foot, press through the foot to lift up, straighten the entire body out once standing, then stick the butt out to initiate descent. And so on.
Think about the tiniest pieces of an exercise can also help you see where your other clients are struggling, even if they’re typically fine with motor planning.
2. Your client may have poor motor control.
Poor motor control is when a person’s brain may know what the body is supposed to do, but doesn’t seem to execute on that information. You can use the same exercise assessment that you use for motor planning to look at motor control: by regressing and breaking down the movement.
This time, however, give step by step instructions. With motor planning problems, the person should be able to execute the exercise–maybe not with perfect form, but with the correct joints moving or not moving at the correct time. With motor control problems, however, a person may know that she needs to bend her elbows and lower her chest for an elevated push-up. It may take her three or four tries to get the right joint to move.
You can also simply ask your client where she’s not quite understanding the instruction. If she says something along the lines of, “I get what you’re saying, but my body just isn’t following the directions,” then it may be a motor control problem.
This issue may be the hardest to deal with because it may take the person multiple attempts to get from cue to proper execution. It’s not a lack of theoretical understanding on her part, so further explanation doesn’t necessarily do any good.
To help her better understand the difference between what she is doing and what she should be doing, you can try mimicking her actions for her to see the difference between her movement and proper form. If touching her has been permitted, you can even gently guide her through the movement pattern. Once she has the movement down, keep practicing it until she can do it on her own, even if it means doing the exact same exercise for multiple sessions.
3. Your client may have a lack of proprioception.
Proprioception is really a sense of knowing where your body is in space. A quick test to see whether a person has good proprioception is to have her stand on one foot. If she’s fine doing it with her eyes open, but topples over when her eyes are closed, poor proprioception is probably the culprit. Basically, without a visual cue, she has no idea where her body is in space.
As a result, doing things where she can’t see her feet, like climbing a ladder or doing agility drills while looking forward, can feel unsettling. For these individuals, having access to a mirror while exercising can allow them to learn what their bodies feel like when they’re in specific positions.
Similarly, individuals with low proprioception may not recognize proprioceptive input when it’s happening. For instance, they may not feel the rhomboids contracting during a row, even if you can see the scapula retracting through their shirt. In these situations, touching the contracting muscles could help them engage them better. If touching the client is not appropriate, consider describing how the muscle should feel: squeezing versus burning, for example. Does she know the difference between stretching and tightening?
Simple activation exercises can go a long way in helping a person recognize whether a muscle is engaged or not.
4. Your client may have postural instability.
Postural instability covers a host of evils. To check for postural instability issues, choose an exercise that can be done in a supported and unsupported state.
A cable row is a good example because it can be done while standing or seated. If the person can’t perform the movement correctly while standing, but seems to be okay getting the proper shoulder movement when seated and supported, there may be a postural instability problem.
Because postural instability can negatively impact exercises that don’t necessarily relate to posture, responding to this issue requires a multi-pronged approach. Most obviously, strengthen stabilizing muscles (hello, rotator cuff!) and core musculature, like the transverse abdominus and obliques. When working on global movers, keep the client in as stable a position as necessary, such as seated before standing, back supported instead of unsupported, split stance to narrow stance, and so on.
Eventually, you will be able to integrate larger movements with some instability.
5. The exercise might just be too hard.
It seems obvious, but new trainers often throw exercises at clients that are just too challenging. Sometimes a person can’t control her movement simply because it’s more than her muscles can handle. Don’t add weight to an exercise unless it can be done properly without weight. Don’t add instability until it can be done in a stable environment.
As obvious as it seems, it’s easy to forget that a “beginner” exercise for an athlete is different from a “beginner” exercise for someone who’s been entirely sedentary.
Keep in mind also that the number of corrections you give has to be kept in a fine balance; too much can be frustrating. Think about what correction is necessary to perform the exercise safely and try to stick with two or three goals per session. Remind your client that plenty of people learn to exercise differently, just as with any learning situation in life.
By becoming sympathetic to all the limitations that might hold an individual back from the gym, you can more successfully help bridge the gap between your clients’ living sedentary lifestyles to living active ones.