It’s fair to say a large portion of what we do as fitness professionals revolves around the strength world, and for good reason too. An improvement in our client’s strength levels has a profoundly positive effect on our client’s physiological and psychological wellbeing. How we decide to obtain that strength with our clients however varies hugely from professional to professional and when we put aesthetics aside it’s very easy to see that not every training methodology is equal, in fact in this article I’m going to argue that some are even detrimental to your clients wellbeing.
If we look back on the recent history of strength training within the context of fitness centres it’s fair to say body building put strength training on the world stage and turned people’s perception of it on its head. The wider community’s perception went from “these guys are a freak show” to “wow that’s incredible sign me up!” and with this change of perception the fitness industry we work in was born. A large amount of thanks needs to go to the body building community for the opportunity we have today as exercise professionals.
What has transpired in western society (not limited to however) over the past 40 plus years though is a skyrocketing obesity rate, increase in sedentary lifestyle and then of course a host of medical issues that we all know too well which relate back to these two key issues in our society. This of course is no reflection of the fitness industry but more of a society that has become increasingly lazy, with less people willing to take responsibility of a nutritional system that is failing them in a society that’s becoming increasingly more high tech which is only promoting longer periods of inactivity.
As personal trainers I believe a key responsibility we have is to teach people how to fall back in love with movement. Somewhere between childhood and the stresses of adulthood many people fall out of love with movement or at least don’t see it as a high importance in their ever busy lifestyles. The problem is movement plays a critical role long term in dealing with so many psychological and physiological issues that currently ravages our society. Now in relation to human movement, the problem the fitness industry has begun to acknowledge since around the early 2000’s is that the traditional isolation training models that the fitness industry was built on by the body building movement doesn’t have ‘improvements in human movement’ as a central focus. It is as we know focused on creating aesthetically beautiful bodies.
Hence the birth of ‘functional training’ as we know it today, Kettlebell Swings, Squat Presses, Box Jumps, Power Cleans, Suspension Trainer exercises, Gymnastics Rings, Bosu Balls, Swiss Balls the list goes on.
Now these training methodologies are nothing new in fact some have been around for hundreds of years, the new found importance of combating the sedentary lifestyle has brought these training styles into vogue if you like. These types of movements have a proven track record as effective tools for improving human movement.
Now don’t get me wrong I love the concept of functional training and I buy into it whole-heartedly, for the reasons stated above, not to mention they are just plain fun! There’s a missing link however, a skills gap if you like, that hurts the reputation of us as exercise professionals like no other.
This is the fact that many fitness professionals don’t assess or prepare our clients well enough before prescribing these types of movements which can only be considered advanced and complex.
Let me deep dive into this a little to explain, a large portion of the typical ‘functional training’ exercises we see and use in a gym in this day in age requires high degrees of co-ordination, kinaesthetic awareness and most importantly joint stability because of the higher level of instability found with many of the movements. All of which a fair portion of our clients don’t have due to the fact they are de-conditioned, have poor body awareness and in some cases haven’t moved in decades. Fitness professionals have all the good intentions in the world for their clients and apply ‘functional training’ to get them moving how the body was designed while forgetting one very critical rule in the strength world which is:
‘Strength levels should never be increased around a joint when stability isn’t first present’
This rule as a strength training concept I call Strength through Stability. The problem with performing complex exercises when stability isn’t present is that the body then sets up compensations to deal with the instability. An Upper Trapezius will dominate a movement when our Rhomboids and Lower Trapezius is weak, creating shoulder dysfunction. Our Quadriceps and hip flexors like to dominate a movement when our Transverse Abdominis, Hamstrings and Gluteals are weak creating lumbo-pelvic dysfunction.
When these compensations are not corrected it creates poor neuromuscular patterning, which is the long term problem with not abiding by this rule as a fitness professional.
Think of a golfer that has played a hundred rounds of golf before finally going to see a golf pro to correct their swing. It’s extremely hard for the pro to make large and effective changes to their swing because the neuromuscular pattern has been engrained by 100’s of poor swings. Weightlifting is no different. So when we prescribe an exercise that the client performs incorrectly because there’s no stability around the joint, it becomes very difficult to correct the muscle imbalance present because the primary movers have become so strong and hungry to work that the stabilisers have no chance in activating and doing their fair share of the work.
Over time this means excessive wear and tear on joints as bony structures don’t track correctly and ultimately leads to a more rapid degeneration of the muscular-skeletal system. All this just because we either weren’t prepared or educated enough on how to correct the poor neuromuscular patterning present in our clients .
We effectively then are doing our clients a disservice and I’ll go as far as saying this whole topic is the major reason why fitness professionals have such a poor reputation generally speaking within the allied health profession. This is because it’s the physiotherapist, osteopath or other allied health professional that picks up the pieces when the client starts complaining of knee or shoulder pain for example.
What do I do then?
Understanding ‘Strength through stability’ is just a case of understanding 'cause and effect', a very simplistic example is knowing that when the knees bow in medially during a squat that chances are the clients Gluteals are weak while their hip flexors are overactive for example. Now I appreciate this deeper level of understanding doesn’t happen overnight and certainly doesn’t come with a Cert IV in Fitness, however you don’t need a degree in anatomy & physiology either, some sound dedication to learning the basics around which muscles are associated with dysfunctional movement is all that is required along with the corresponding activation and release exercises that go with the issue.
Having this level of detail in your personal training service is the difference between being labelled a ‘thrash & bash’ fitness professional verses one that is fully conscious of the causes and effects that exercise results on the human body which sets you apart from 95% of the pack and skyrockets your clients results.
So remember never underestimate the importance of having a sound technique while perform an exercise. If it doesn’t look right then chances are it’s not, if you’re unsure of what’s going on then consult a senior fitness professional, research information and up skill so the next time you come across the dysfunction you know how to take your clients experience from an average one to an amazing one and ensure that like us, they too fall in love with movement.
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Tristan Hill, Masters of Sports Coaching, author of Lifting the Bar and mentor to Personal Trainers.