-How deep should my squat be?
-How come I get pain in my shoulder when I bench past this point?
-Whenever I do RDL’s, why do my shoulders keep rolling forward?
These types of questions are a daily conversation in the training realm, irrespective of setting or population. I feel, however, there is a common theme that gets overlooked when analyzing individual movement patterns. I think coaches are quick to get sucked into the rabbit hole of trying to diagnose limitations, usually due to feeling a sense of pressure to have an immediate answer. Or even worse, immediately suggesting a regression, modification, or omitting the movement entirely in lieu of a real solution. In my opinion, these are shortsighted philosophies, or at the very least, are implemented in the improper order. This isn’t to say that using a band to correct knee valgus during a squat or using a board for someone with shoulder pain while bench pressing isn’t a prudent solution. I just feel that these methods should be pushed down the totem pole a bit, and should be reserved for secondary, tertiary, or final options to solve inefficient movement patterns.
This is especially a problem with younger coaches, who often feel the need to have an immediate answer, solution and/or diagnosis when a problem arises. Similar to what I touched on in my “It Depends” article (INSERT LINK), the most frightening encounter you can have as a young coach is being presented with a direct question that you do not have a direct answer to. And in these early stages, 9/10 are going to tell you the first thing they can conjure up before simply stating “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you as soon as I can.” But anyhow, to stay on topic here, a similar conundrum is faced regularly with how different individuals execute different movements. We all know that despite having so many similarities physically, we are all highly individual when it comes to movement execution. From training history and biological age, to limb (or lever) lengths and muscular archetype, we are all vastly different, and this must not be ignored when it comes to coaching even the most rudimentary exercises. In essence, if we randomly selected 100 individuals, we’re probably going to see somewhere around 50 different squat mechanics. And frankly, if we want to get technical, biomechanists and sport scientists would probably tell you that you’d observe 100 different squat mechanics.
So, what am I getting at here, what do I mean by “path of motion first, range of motion second”? Well, uneventfully, it’s a pretty direct translation- train the path, then the range. But let’s dig a little deeper on this. The first thing I want to cover on this is re-configuring the order of movement intervention. Let’s stick with the squat as the hypothetical example here for the sake of simplicity. Let’s say that someone descends into the bottom of their squat and you notice their knees caving in once they get to about the 90-degree point. What is the correct next step for the coach here? Is it to sprint for the resistance band, wrap it around their knee and talk until they’re blue in the face about “pulling into the pattern”? Unlikely, but perhaps it is. Or, is it to remove the external load and have them do a leg press instead? Again, unlikely, but it could be.
But what about starting by simply asking the person if they notice their knees coming together when they squat? More often than not, they’ll say they don’t notice it, to which you’ll ask, “ok, well can you correct that on this next set?” Astonishingly, a lot of people will be able to correct the valgus knee pattern simply by becoming conscious of it. But let’s say that they don’t or can’t correct the pattern. THIS is when we would (or should) typically want to start to seek alternative methods, utilizing bands/blocks/assistive devices to try to groove the pattern. But I would like to implore an intermediate step between the two, my suggestion, is to try shortening the ROM first, before any external assistance, and have them work a shortened ROM for 1-2 weeks with a heavy emphasis on cueing every aspect of the movement.
What I’ve learned over the last year or so, is that if we just shorten the ROM, most people will be able to “self-organize” and absolve inefficient or incorrect movement patterns. Remember, any exercise, irrespective of difficulty, is no different than any other deliberate task you can think of- swinging a baseball bat or golf club, learning to drive, or writing in cursive. When something is new, it’s just that- new. There needs to be some undefined number of repetitions or practice with something before it becomes proficient. So, with the squat, we can have them perform half or even quarter squats with as close to perfect technique as they’re capable of. Little by little, working further down to the point just before the knees were collapsing. What you’ll notice is each time you have them squat, they’ll be able to go just a bit further before the knees come together; this is also the same approach I’ll use for my “butt-wink” people as well… but that’s a topic of conversation for itself.
Now, I know what you’re saying to yourself at this point… “well what if I do this and two weeks go by and they still have knee valgus?” That’s the beauty of this frame of thinking- if they still have knee valgus, then we’ve reached a fair conclusion that they actually need some sort of external intervention! Really the underpinning to this message is more about taking the proper sequential steps to solving movement deficiencies, not necessarily what is inherently right or wrong. Over the years I’ve often heard that “it takes 20 good reps to override 1 bad rep”. Obviously, this is far more anecdotal than concrete science, but nevertheless, this is speaking to the neuromuscular adaptations that occur during training. Again, we can relate this to anything, but in the training realm, it should make intuitive sense. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does, right?
Stepping away from the squat, we can take and apply this to any movement pattern, no matter the complexity or lack thereof. Interestingly, one of the most difficult exercises for me to coach has always been the RDL or similar hinge patterns. For whatever reason, this is a seemingly foreign movement for most. Whether it’s an inability to differentiate the hinge from a squat pattern, shoulders/back rounding forward, or knees coming together, people often struggle with hinging at first. So how should we sequentially approach this problem?
1.) Shorten range of motion from mid-shin to above knees for 2-weeks
2.) Introduce PVC pipe hinge for biofeedback of upper-body mechanics
3.) Use mini-band around knees for biofeedback of lower-body mechanics
4.) Use resistance band around hips (attached posteriorly) for biofeedback of pelvis mechanics
5.) Reverse the pattern (teaching bottom up mechanics)
The caveat here is that most athletes will be able to achieve a proper hinge pattern in a full ROM with only the use of step 1. This may not be as foolproof with younger athletes (<14 years old) or elderly clients (>55 years old) as there are more considerations with these populations, but again, for most, you won’t have to utilize much external application. Takeaway point here is to think chronologically when navigating problem solving on movement patterns, don’t be shortsighted.
To bring all this in to focus, I think we neglect to consider the practice element of strength training. As coaches, we’re conditioned to observe movement as it appears and compare it to a “perfect” execution of said movement. The order of thinking in this frame of mind is to do whatever we feel is necessary to make the person we’re coaching perform a perfect rep. It would be no different than analyzing a quarterback throwing a pass and telling him that he needs to throw more like Peyton Manning. My point of contention, rather, is to focus less on getting the person to a theoretical perfect, but to optimize their uniquely independent movement. And often, they just need to learn little by little, without the assistance of external intervention. This is the way the nervous system learns: exposure, experience, expansion. Be patient with your athletes and allow them the freedom to explore movements as they’re presented to them. Don’t rush for perfection, embrace them finding their way to optimizing their movement.