Coaching in the Weight Room: Cause or Effect?

Sara Fleming

When form fails or a client is unable to execute a movement, can you identify the cause?  Its an important thing to think about because there can be multiple reasons that a person may fail on a movement.  I’ve watched a lot of trainers and coaches and a common mistake made in the weight room is identifying the tail end expression of a technique or form fault as the primary issue.

First things First

For example,in weightlifting, a soft upper back and dropped elbows on a clean is often the result of the hips rising before the shoulders on the first pull, usually from the weight increasing.  This leads to the center of gravity shifting forward, incomplete shoulder extension, and catching the bar too far forward.  If you fail to identify this initial fault and instead, blame the trainee for not keeping his or her elbows up, you will likely fail to fix the problem.   The way to fix this is to cue proper hip position on heavier pulls so that the trainee learns to maintain a consistent hip position on the first pull.


That example may be a bit complicated, so let’s consider a more simple example:  the squat.  This may be a relatively simple exercise, but it can go wrong for a lot of people without looking wrong at all.  The tendency for a lot of people as they descend into the squat is to push the knees forward rather than push the hips back.  Sometimes this is so slight that it is only noticeable by watching weight shift in the feet.  By observing a person’s feet and ankles as they squat, you can tell where their center of gravity has shifted and if that center of gravity gets in front of the instep, you can almost always guarantee some knee pain or dysfunction developing at some point down the road.  More importantly, it prevents the individual from fully engaging their glutes at the bottom of the squat which hinders the development of hip strength.

Very good posterior chain engagement on this squat.

Many people who are learning to squat to depth may be unable to do so at first with their hips back and that’s okay as long as the goal is to get them hitting the right positions over time.  There are people you will train who will not be able to squat below parallel, ever.  And that’s okay.  As long as you are making sure that their squat properly engages the posterior chain, you will strengthen the hips.  Strong hips are one of the first lines of defense in preventing knee injuries.

I’ve seen numerous people squatting moderate to heavy weight below parallel without fully engaging their glutes.  The lack of hip strength will go on to manifest itself in many other exercises that will remain mysterious in origin until you can make this simple observation of the feet.  Fixing it may mean adjusting stance, focusing on form with weight in the heels, or even prescribing box squats….Yes..Box Squats.


Center of gravity is one of the biggest tells when coaching in the weight room.  It is the one thing I try and identify throughout the lift for both the lifter, the implement, and the two of them together.  Having one’s center of gravity off can create a number of poor movements and increased forces that can wear and tear joints over time.

Next time you are observing your trainees, try and keep this in mind.  Are they moving optimally to preserve center of gravity?  And if not, why?  Do they lack the strength or flexibility to support the position?  Is the position painful to get into or hold?  Is the form fault you are observing a cause for a poor lift or an effect of something else going wrong?  Modify the client’s form as well as the exercise itself based on your answers.  There are numerous ways to execute an exercise, but to be safe and effective, the form and execution must be optimal for the individuals body.

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