Exercise is more than just working out. It’s part of one of our most important relationships — the one with our body.
Through movement, what we eat, physical exploration, pushing physical limits, and setting physical goals, we come to know ourselves. All this fitness stuff is undeniably part of making you a happier person.
A healthy strong body is a spiritual thing. It’s not just how we look in the mirror. A strong body is more than the weight we move. It’s how we move and how we load movement and what it takes to get there.
As I often say, if you encounter a contradiction (pain + “perfect” form) check your premises. One of them might be wrong. In this case my whole understanding of form was wrong. Earlier in my coaching, my understanding of what “perfect” or “proper” form was, was based on the wrong premise; that there was an absolute when it came to “good form”.
My ability to effectively coach exercises and get someone progress has grown immensely because of this shift in my thinking. You have to balance recognizing good technique, motor patterns, and what “clean” movement looks like versus trying to get someone to fit some idea of “form” you have in your head.
There’s an individual skeleton for every single person on this planet. And while we have form guidelines for a reason, one of the dangerous grey areas you can hold onto as a coach is getting stuck in one mode of “what’s right” for exercise. Especially if what you observe and the feedback you get from your body (or your client’s) is contradictory.
How I look at someone’s form has evolved to more than just checking off a list. “Chest up, knees out, go below parallel” etc.
Now, I might cue someone like that and keep it simple (in fact that’s preferable), but I’m seeing way more than that. I want to see where the tension goes. I want to see what looks easy to them. I watch their face to see grimaces, straining, or scowls.
- I want to see where the tension goes.
- I want to see what looks easy to them.
- I watch their face to see grimaces, straining or scowls.
- I watch their breathing.
- I watch their speed.
- I watch what breaks down first.
- I watch their range of motion.
- I watch their feet and their neck.
Basically I watch them as a whole, and adjust the cues accordingly.
Sure, I’ll use a lot of the same ones. You will see many of the same patterns, the same solutions, etc. That’s where we get the principles from; from what has worked in a range of similar patterns. For example, things like anterior pelvic tilt and upper crossed syndrome will keep popping up.
There’s no one perfect way to do something. There’s only what’s right for that person. And sometimes that might not fit neatly into our ideas of “good form.” Maybe our ideas need to change, not always the form.
There’s a rule we can trust about form and technique, and upon which we can base our decisions as lifters and coaches that there are many right ways.
I need to say a big thank you to David Dellanave, who said the right thing, at exactly the right time. He said,
“Make it look easy”
while watching me deadlift at the Fitness Summit. Reading his free e-series later about biofeedback, I had several revelations.
When you’re doing “everything right” and not getting what you want, that means it’s not right for you. But getting there in your thinking is often hard, because it’s hard to be objective about yourself. To find out what’s right, you must pay better attention and get rid of any assumptions — assumptions you might not even have known you were making.
Ass Out of You and Me
We all know that form is individual, but we often don’t put that concept into practice, and worse yet, when encountering a contradiction between “form” and results, we don’t stop to evaluate.
We barrel along and end up in that reverse utopia — being in love with what’s wrong with our clients, with our injuries and limitations and placing our focus there instead of being loyal to progressing and learning and open to a wide range of individual expression of movement.
Here’s my story. It’s not everyone’s, but it’s one example of this principle of “perfect form” and getting stuck chasing it.
I started learning to lift on my own. I bought the best books for personal trainers, watched videos, subscribed to blogs, and absorbed everything possible. I have an eye for symmetry. I like to nitpick. I also love rules and “do this and this.”
I’m very visual and kinesthetic as a learner. I need to “feel” what I am doing, which is one reason why I feel an overwhelming need to try everything and do it myself before talking about it. That’s a good quality for a trainer. I can follow a program to a T and ignore anything outside of it, including how or what I “feel.” Including pain (before, not so much now).
When I started lifting, I felt pretty elated. I could easily do a lot of movements that others seemed to describe as difficult.
I could squat ass-to-grass. I could press overhead. I read a lot about the need for mobility/flexibility (which to be fair was largely written by men) and could do all the movements prescribed to the extreme range. I didn’t know much about hypermobility or motor control. I could do every movement in every range of motion. I could do all the hip opening stuff that they said would help me squat better. I could aggressively open my shoulders which was supposed to make me press better. This posed some problems, which I came to find out about.
As my lifting career progressed there were several things that kept me going. I was determined to do it right, I was rather impervious to pain, and I could maintain focus when I thought I knew exactly what to do. Basically I could put my blinders up and work.
And it worked for sure. I did a lot right including not program hopping, tracking my training, pushing linear progression, and an ability to apply enough intensity (something I find women have a harder time doing).
But there was a problem. You know that famous saying “hard work is not smart work.” If there was one thing I could be known for, it was the ability to work hard, survive and buckle down — smart work, maybe not so much. Part of it can be blamed on my ignorance, part on a lot of assuming I did.
The Lesson That I Learned About So-Called “Perfect Form”
When you don’t know much, you cling harder to what you feel you do know or argue harder for what you feel sure of. It’s the mark of a less-educated person. It’s not a bad thing. Education and growth takes time, and you should never stop.
But eventually certain principles and basics are learned and you can move onto another level of creativity and “connecting the dots.”
However, the balance that’s harder to maintain as you grow in your profession is being confident in your abilities and how you evaluate and absorb knowledge (knowing what is valuable), and being open to learning and maintaining objectivity about new knowledge that comes out and continually examining your own practices. Learning how to analyze fitness research is a good start.
Being able to continually challenge dearly-held theories and norms, when they’re proven to be incorrect and/or ineffective or when you simply find that the premise was wrong.
This is why science, medicine, therapy, etc. has been able to progress over the years. It’s why we don’t bloodlet anymore, or determine someone’s mental health based on the shape of their skull. This is why human knowledge is able to grow at all.
To continue with my story:
When I started squatting and deadlifting etc, I goddamn got it right. In fact, you could call me the poster child for “perfect form.” I had numerous other trainers point to me as an example of “perfect form.” The fact is, I had the mobility and the willpower to mimic just about anything, and pound away at the practice of it till I got better.
This was 90% of any physical talent I had. It wasn’t exceptional training or form that got me my max squats or deadlifts. It was sheer determination and work ethic, coupled with an ability to zone out the discomfort and keep working.
Except there came a point where I kept running into the same nagging issues no matter what I did. There came a time when I had to think for myself, and add in that magic ingredient that no world class trainer in the world can give you: your own common sense and an ear to what your body is telling you.
At the height of my frustration, I was doing it all right. So why was I in pain? Why did I keep having the same issues crop up?
A big reason was because I was pigeon-holing myself into “perfect” form and thinking there was one thing I had to “fix” about movement and then it would be all good again. But it just wasn’t so. So, luckily I started to think about what I might not be thinking about and examine what I held as “right.”
What were my beliefs about form, effort and “proper” movement? What were my “defaults” that I had never actually examined if they were correct for me? What was I ignoring in my training that my body was trying to tell me about (like, hey maybe some transverse/frontal plane movements, stability work, and more GPP?)
Pain is a great motivator. It motivates us to avoid it. The avoidance of pain is a bigger motivator than the pursuit of pleasure (so I have heard).
By delving into pain research a bit more, you see how mental it is. This isn’t to say that pain is not caused by injury or chronic bad movement in some pattern, etc. It very well can be. But there’s a bigger picture to it. Pain can be experienced just by suggestion.
Pain can be a memory from an injury that’s already healed. Pain can be something related to our stress levels, and general attitude. It’s a slippery fish. And once you experience pain, you’re creating this neuro-memory (not a real word) that can be reactivated when doing the same movements, or in the same situations.
Learning about movement, mechanics and anatomy through training has made me realize that while you need to think about how you move (if you’re just learning or have just started exercising), any movement in the end shouldn’t require you to overwhelming think about what you’re doing.
Movement should be effortless, varied, and natural. I’ve been told by a couple coaches that I look like I over-think movement every time I move. I feel it’s a result of a deep insecurity in movement from being injured often and “rehabbing” myself over the years without a lot of guidance.
I found my way (am still finding it) kind of haphazardly. This has been beneficial in giving me a good “eye” for watching others move, and understanding it.
But has also given me a deep appreciation for effortless and easy movement, and how often this important aspect gets overlooked in programs — that “fitness” should include the freedom and confidence to move in a variety of ways without the fear of injury (which is where quality programming and coaching come in).
And this is the direction I’m going in my coaching philosophy towards teaching good technique and in programming. The essence of mastery is the appearance of ease, not effort.
If you make something look easy, fluid and natural, aren’t you better at it than someone that looks awkward and has to “try so hard?” Perfect form is not a pigeon-hole. It is a term with exactly one definition per person. Find yours.
How Has This Changed My Approach
Find what a client can do well, and easily first.
Too much effort isn’t a good thing. You can recognize shitty effort in things like breathing, speed, posture etc.
A movement that’s awkward, painful, and is causing a client to guard themselves (holding their breath, grimacing, flinching, shaking), and requires a ton of cueing is probably not a good exercise for them at the moment.
Don’t prematurely diagnose what’s “wrong” with them.
See it when you see it, and address it appropriately.
Don’t assume someone is broken and a shitty mover even if they show up with the classical “I sit on my ass in front of a computer and have horrible posture.”
Sometimes nothing needs “fixing”, they just need to move regularly. Assume nothing. Observe and quantify. Find ways to test what you want to know (still working on this one). This is where movement screens like the FMS can be helpful for certain populations.
Good form guidelines are just that; guidelines.
You need a knowledge of bones and muscles, and the biomechanics of the body. Within that knowledge, realize that every human skeleton is different. This means good form can be exhibited in a variety of ways and it’s your job to see the differences in people’s structure and cue accordingly.
Do not think in absolutes.
Trends, majorities, and generalizations are not absolutes. They are trends, majorities, and generalizations. Absolutes in training are dumb, and unsupportable by both science and anecdote.
Your body was meant to move in a variety of ways.
Your programming must respect that. A broad base of physical capabilities is the foundation for any athlete. Why is that different for us average folk? It’s not. This is not the same as “muscle confusion“.
Check your premises, because one of them might be wrong.
Follow the basics.
Strength coaches promote basic proper form for a reason.
Pain is a funny thing.
You can’t be absolutely certain about causes of pain because it’s such a mental issue as well. The mind is the control center for what we experience physically. You can have pain without injury and injury without pain.
The more you re-enforce the idea that you’re broken, screwed up, or asymmetrical (we all are!), the more you’ll re-enforce pain-related symptoms.
While I am a big believer that good movement can reduce or help types of pain (joint, muscle etc), as trainers we have to be careful about what we think we know about pain and what we assume about it.
The Ultimate Guide to Pain – Anoop Balachandran
Is Posture Important? – Justin Kompf
55 Reasons Why the Deadlift is the Best Exercise of All Time – Dean Somerset
How to Analyze Fitness Research – Jonathan Fass
Why You Must Not Stretch Hypermobile Clients – Eric Cressey
thePTDC Book Recommendations – Jonathan Goodman