Have Fun, Get Strong

Strength coach, trainer educator, writer, mom to three awesome kids, pie enthusiast. Creating monsters since 2009.

Coaching in the weight room

Sara Fleming, Gant Grimes, and Dave Van Skike

One of the greatest benefits of working with a trainer or coach in the weight room is constant feedback on form and technique.  Teaching your clients to lift with good technique for their body type, limb lengths, strengths, and deficits is key to their success.  You must be able to instruct them on the basic mechanics of the exercise you are teaching and make corrections that he or she can incorporate as learning takes place.  To do this well, you need to develop a good coach’s eye.  This takes time and practice.  In this chapter, we outline the basics of good form and observation.  We also talk about how to act on our observations; how to know when and what to correct.  This should serve as a guideline as you develop your own coaching practice.

The Importance of Posture

posture

Good posture is an important training goal.

Before we even begin discussing form in specific exercises, we must discuss posture.  Evaluating an individual’s posture, both in a relaxed standing position and in sport specific positions will tell you a lot about potential weaknesses and mobility issues.  A lot of postural deviations can be corrected with appropriate training, but more importantly, some postural deviations can become worse or cause injury if not addressed.  Kyphosis, or rounding of the upper back, and lordosis, exaggerated curve of the lower back, are some of the more common postural deviations you may encounter in your clients.  Scoliosis, lateral curvature of the spine, presents rather commonly as well and may cause the individual to have mobility limitations as a result.

Outside of actual postural deviations, evaluating posture is extremely important as it is an indicator of the relative strength of the muscles that support the spine.  Full body strength is not just important for performance, it is important because your muscles are responsible for supporting the bones and joints.  If these muscles are weak or underdeveloped, simply standing up straight all day can become a fatiguing activity and the joints suffer a lot more wear and tear.  Individuals lacking the strength and endurance to maintain their posture throughout the day fatigue more easily and may sustain damage to the joints and the spine from passive support.  Consistent posture helps to maintains one’s center of gravity and balance.  When posture declines due to fatigue, pain, injury, and age, the individual is at a higher risk for falls and injury.

Strength training is not always the answer for postural deviations or back pain.  Supportive care such as chiropractic, massage, active release therapy (ART), and other modalities may be necessary.  However, before assessing anything else, take a look at your client’s posture and make note of the deviations that are present simply at rest or moving naturally through the room.  As with form assessment during an exercise, observe how they move, their center of gravity, their balance, and ask them if they have any pain.

 

The Importance of Form

ohpress

An axle press requires different form than a barbell press.

The importance of good form is always stressed when discussing strength training, but there is little direction as to what good form actually is. As instructors, it is vital to understand the basics of good form, how to observe it, and how to correct it.

When we teach a lift or exercise, it is usually based on a model movement. A model movement is a hypothetical diagram of a perfect movement; a mechanically efficient lift moving along the proper pathway. The model is particular to each trainee according to the trainee’s limb length and musculature. For instance, the model squat will look different for a lifter with a short torso, short femurs, and long shins than it would for a lifter with a long back, long femurs, and short shins.  It is important to remember that the model or ideal movement differs from individual to individual because of these individual differences and so one person’s ideal model is not necessarily good for someone else. It is important to understand that this model can change over time based on injuries, age, weight gain or loss and even the goal of the trainee.

The actual movement that the lifter executes will deviate from his or her ideal model based on the lifter’s technical expertise, mobility, flexibility, injuries, and other external factors such as the implement being used.  The coach’s job is to recognize what deviations are okay and what deviations need to be fixed.  In many cases a different exercise may need to be prescribed rather than forcing an individual to conform to the confines of a single version of a lift.

How Good is “Good Enough”?

The goal for most trainees is to execute an efficient movement that can be duplicated for several reps.  Consistency of good movement leads to improvement of technique, more fluid range of motion, and improved neurological efficiency as the correct pattern is learned.  The role of the trainer or coach is to identify and correct any issues that cause deviations from the model. Issues such as poor flexibility and weak stabilizer muscles should be addressed before adding significant weight to the bar.

However, when determining whether or not an individual’s form is “good enough”, the coach must consider whether or not it is practical to improve.  Old injuries, limb length discrepancies, and other deficiencies may not be correctable. In this case, the trainer will have to determine if the discrepancy can be safely worked around or, if another movement will have to be substituted.  Determine the importance of the exercise for the person’s success.  If you can train that quality another way, the exercise itself is not an integral part of their sport, e.g. overweight implement throwing for a thrower or sprinting for a distance runner, it does not need to be in the program.

Teaching, Observing, and Correcting

Observation and clear communication are the keys to good coaching and teaching; for both the coach and the trainee.  To be most effective, both individuals must understand the nature of the movement and what quality it is being used to develop.

When introducing a new movement, it is best for the coach (or experienced lifter if the coach is unable) to demonstrate the movement and the key points.  Begin with foot position and other points of contact such as grip on a bar and/or position on a bench.  Describe which parts of the body should be stable and which ones should be moving.  Discuss some common faults and why they occur.  Finally, demonstrate the correct movement.

Allow your trainees to then attempt the movement for multiple repetitions.  Choose one correction for each trainee at a time.  Sometimes it is important to let some form faults slide while you correct the most critical fault presented.  Correct one at a time and/or find an alternative version of the lift that diminishes the number of faults present.  For example, an individual whose back rounds and knees cave in on the squat might be best served squatting to a high box while concentrating on opening the hips and maintaining an erect posture.  As his form improves and becomes more consistent, the box can be lowered and eventually taken away.

When working with your trainees, be sure to observe from multiple angles.  Front, back, side, and even a 45 degree angle can all yield different observations.  One can check for bar path, hip depth, hip rotation, posture integrity, bilateral symmetry of the movement, and a number of other deviations.  Most importantly, don’t forget to communicate verbally.  Ask your trainees how the exercise “feels”.  Was it easy?  Hard?  Did they feel it in the part of their body that should be driving the movement?  Or somewhere else?  All of this information is vital to effective teaching.

The Importance of Gaze

christine snatch 1

Gaze and center of gravity (cog) are important for efficiency and balance.

This is one of the trickier cues to work with for a variety of reasons.  Generally speaking the body will follow the eyes.  To maintain center of gravity, it is imperative that the trainee fix their gaze in a way that is an advantage to the lift itself.  This may remain constant, or change during the execution of the lift.  For example, if a trainee is trying to lift the bar while staring at the floor, she may shift her center of gravity over the bar instead of slightly behind.  For some individuals, looking at a spot on the floor 10 feet away is good for establishing strong drive out of the hips.  For others, a neutral gaze is better for maintaining upper body tension.  And for others, looking above parallel may be necessary to maintain tightness in the upper back.  Gaze and head position can be completely separate, but observe where your trainees are looking when executing a movement and determine if a higher or lower gaze would be more valuable.  It is very useful to have an object or mark for them to focus on while executing their lift or exercise.  Consistency of gaze contributes to consistency of movement.

The Importance of Center of Gravity (COG)

Understanding the lifter’s Center of Gravity is fundamental to understanding efficient movement.     When training individuals with weighted implements (kettlebells, barbells, sandbags, etc.) you need to consider not only the lifters center of gravity, but the center of gravity of the lifter and the implement combined.  If the movement dictates that the weight is far from the body, for instance an overhead press, the center of gravity is dispersed over a larger area of the torso. If movement allows the implement to remain close to the body, like a deadlift, the center of gravity is easier to control and hence the lifter can use greater mechanical advantage to move heavier weights.

As an example, consider the clean and the snatch.  Keeping the bar as close to the midline as possible and moving it as vertically as possible keeps the lifter from having to exert horizontal as well as vertical force.  In powerlifts such as the squat and bench, positioning the center of gravity of the implement in the position of greatest mechanical advantage, allows the lifter to exert more force.  In both cases, the ideal form for that lifter will keep the bar moving in as vertical a path as is possible given their particular leverages.

The Importance of “Staying Tight”

One of the biggest faults you will see in the weight room are individuals who are only concerned with the moving parts of an exercise.  The static parts of an exercise are just as important.  Most multi-joint movements such as the squat and press recruit the entire body with some parts driving the movement while other parts provide stabilization and balance.  For example, in the squat, the legs are the drivers while the core stabilizes the spine and the upper body stabilizes the bar.  Failure of any of these parts to act in concert will limit the potential of the movement.

An individual should always be thinking about stabilizing and balancing the body as a whole.   Staying tight while preparing for and executing an exercise not only increases strength, it reduces the risk of injury by diminishing stress on the joints, maintaining center of gravity, and enhancing consistency of movement.

Some things you may observe from a failure to stay tight through an exercise:

  • Joint or muscle pain while performing an exercise
  • Loss of balance
  • A visible loss of stability when preparing for or executing a movement (example, instability when walking a bar out of the rack for a squat)
  • An inability to engage the proper muscles for the exercise (example, individual will report sore muscles unrelated to the prime movers of the exercise)
  • Inconsistency from one repetition to the next
  • Slack or floppy appearance in the joints and spine

The Importance of Feet

clean1

The feet provide a solid base of support. The hips and spine provide stability and drive.

Having a solid base of support whether you are benching, squatting, or snatching is the key to maintaining balance and exerting force with the whole body.  Therefore, the feet are one of the first areas to observe when determining center of gravity for a particular lifter. Observe the areas of pressure in the foot and determine if the lifter is pressing to the inside, outside, heels, midfoot, or toes throughout the exercise.  While some exercises require a shift in foot position and pressure, determine if those shifts are changing balance or force application favorably or unfavorably by observing the rest of the body.  For example, while an Olympic lifter may temporarily be up on his or her toes during extension, their center of gravity is maintained over the midfoot and/or heel.  When the center of gravity shifts over the balls of the feet, the lift is typically lost out front or the lifter has to jump forward to save it.  Some common faults include:

  1. Shifting weight forward into the toes while squatting or deadlifting.
  2. Not driving through the feet when bench pressing.
  3. Coming up on the toes before complete hip extension on a power clean.

The Importance of the Hips and Spine

The spine from hip to neck is a lever that must be maintained under load.  Whether a person is standing or lying on a bench, the relative stability of the spine and trunk is important for proper exercise execution.  Again, center of gravity can be observed by watching shifts in spinal posture as well as hip and shoulder position.  Stability is the main requirement for the trunk when executing most strength lifts.  Proper breathing and actively setting the hips can mitigate a lot of these faults.  Some common faults include:

  1. Softness of the upper back while squatting or pressing overhead.
  2. Hyperextension of the lower back while squatting or pressing overhead.
  3. Hyperextension or hyperflexion of the neck and back while deadlifting.
  4. A relaxed lower and upper back while bench pressing.

The Importance of the Shoulders and Upper Back

dave coaching

Checking shoulder position on the bench.

For most lifts including the squat, bench press, overhead press, power cleans, and deadlifts, the shoulders must be actively stabilized.  Actively stabilized shoulders result in the “muscle beach pose”:  the shoulder blades are pinched, the lats are tightly pulled back and down, and the chest is rotated up.  Another way to think about this is to “pull your shoulder blades into your back pockets”.  Properly setting the shoulders can mitigate postural faults such as softness and rounding of the upper back.  Some common faults include:

  1. Inability to support the bar on one’s back during a back squat.
  2. Flat back (no arch) on the bench press and not driving off the upper back.
  3. Passive posture and loose shoulders in the power clean.
  4. Loss of balance forward and rounded shoulders in the overhead press.
  5. Loss of balance forward or hips shooting up in the back squat.

The Importance of Overall Appearance and Verbal Communication

How does the exercise look as a whole?  How does the trainee feel while executing it?  Even if a lift looks textbook perfect, if the lifter looks uncomfortable or reports pain, that form is not ideal for that lifter.  Sometimes correcting a person’s form will result in them feeling awkward under the bar.  As long as there is no pain and there is a visible improvement such as bar speed or consistency, allow the lifter to adjust to the new movement before considering another correction.  If the lift continues to feel awkward or uncomfortable, other adjustments may need to be made.

One of the easiest tools one can use to develop self-awareness is Rate of Perceived Exertion.

Cueing

The primary element of training that you must keep in mind is that all training is learning.  As the trainer/coach, you are also the teacher and you must find ways to connect with and communicate effectively with your clients.  Although there are many different learning styles, it’s important to understand the most basic learning and teaching styles you will employ in the gym.  This will affect how you instruct, cue, and correct individuals on form and movement.  Understanding how to communicate in all three areas, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Tactile, and Visual and Spatial, will enhance your ability to communicate effectively with your clients.

Auditory:  These individuals prefer verbal directions and cues.  They may repeat instructions back to you for confirmation that they understood correctly.  It is important with these individuals to use consistent language when teaching new movements or cuing ones already in use.

Kinesthetic and Tactile:  These individuals learn by actually performing the movement.  They may also appreciate physical, hands on cuing.  Always ask for permission before touching a client.

Visual and Spatial:  These individuals learn from watching.  Demonstrate a movement and/or have another person in the room demonstrate the movement while you describe what is right and/or wrong.

Although you may encounter individuals who strongly favor one of these learning styles, most individuals utilize at least part of all three.  Make sure you can instruct and cue using all three styles.

Come up with a cue that works for the individual.  Cues are not to be taken literally.   A cue is not the form, a cue is a description of what the form should feel like to the person.  “Knees out”, “chest up”, “tuck your hips”, etc. are all examples of cues that are used with a lifter to correct a fault.  The cue is shorthand for a form correction understood by both the lifter and the coach.  For example, to cue completion of the extension on a clean, a coach may say “shoulders back”, “chest up”, “head back”, or “hips forward”.  All of these cues are meant to produce the same result, but are only useful if the lifter responds with the correct movement.  Again, the cue is communication not a form.  If the coach can yell, “Pink Elephants” and the lifter corrects their movement, then pink elephants is a viable cue for this lifter.

When coaching a new trainee, first observe the big picture.  Do not become so fixated on minor details that dangerous form faults are missed.  Trainers should also limit their number of suggested corrections, especially in novice trainees. It is not uncommon to see a trainer yelling a laundry list of suggestions to a poor trainee who can barely squat the bar. This serves mainly to frustrate and discourage the trainee and is not effective coaching.

So how many corrections should be addressed at one time? Three is good. Two is better. One is best. Avoid the desire to correct everything and instead, identify the most glaring, and/or most dangerous form fault in the movement. Correct one major fault and let it sink in over a couple sets. Lighten the load if necessary.  Taking weight off the bar can be hard on the ego, but leaving it on and continuing to practice with bad technique stalls progress.  This is appropriate for lifters at all levels.

Often, when the major fault is corrected, secondary issues correct themselves.  It can be difficult at first to identify the major fault in a series of form issues. This is important though, because you will be much more effective correcting one thing at a time.  For example, a trainee who fails to sit between their hips on a squat, will not know to outwardly rotate the hips and knees. This will lead to balance problems and feet that won’t stay flat on the floor.  In this case, simply cueing them to open their hips allows the feet to be properly grounded, center of gravity shifts back, and the back becomes more stable and upright.   The more complex a movement, the more difficult this becomes.  Although we do not want to reinforce bad form, focusing on the fundamentals of good form, one at a time, is more effective at developing long term improvements.

Form and Fatigue

As an individual fatigues over the course of a working set, a number of things can happen.  The bar may slow, stability may break down, or the movement may just get sloppy.  In the beginner, form often breaks down before the individual feels true fatigue.  For example, on the squat, the knees may cave in, the back may assume a more acute angle with the hips, or the upper back may begin to round.  It is the coach’s job to know when to end the set based on the form and effort changes he or she observes in the individual.  This will differ from individual to individual and is dependent on a number of factors including their fitness level, experience level, goals, and individual body type.  The ultimate goal in communicating with one’s trainees about fatigue observations is to help the trainee to develop a sense of rate of perceived exertion or RPE.  RPE is valuable for the self-trained athlete, but is also a valuable tool for both coach and athlete to more effectively work together.

As fatigue sets in, you may make different observations depending on the individual’s training experience and particular weaknesses.  Stabilizer muscles may start to fatigue first causing form breakdown.  The speed of the bar may slow or the lifter may develop a noticeable sticking point.  As a coach, you should be aware of the fatigue changes your trainee exhibits and know what can be corrected by consistent practice and when you need to intervene with assistance exercises.

Best Practices for Exercise Instruction and Selection

When instructing trainees on exercises, it is important to note that form breakdown will occur more easily in beginners as compared to experienced lifters.  This form breakdown should indicate a stopping point in the exercise.  Training with inconsistent and/or bad form simply reinforces bad form.  When teaching a new exercise, treat it as skill development and practice and continue to use other methods to develop strength/power/endurance in the targeted areas.  Understanding where and why form breaks down in your trainees will help you to figure out where their weaknesses and imbalances may be and if they need accessory work or substitutions to fix the problem.  It will also help you to develop individualized verbal, visual, or kinesthetic cues for your trainees.  The following are considerations when coaching and observing exercises:

Setting Up

  1. Have you assessed the trainee’s basic abilities to balance and get into the required positions before adding weight?
  2. How are the feet placed?
  3. Where is the center of gravity?
  4. Where are the hips? What are they doing?
  5. Where are the shoulders? What are they doing?
  6. What does the back look like? Is the torso stable?
  7. How is the weight secured by the lifter? Can this be maintained this through the motion?  Is it appropriate for the lift?

Executing the Movement

  1. Does the individual have any pain or experience pain during any part of the movement?
  2. Can the individual achieve a full range of motion during the movement?
  3. Can the individual keep his or her balance throughout the movement?
  4. Can the individual maintain an appropriate center of gravity for both his or her body and the implement during execution of the exercise?
  5. Can the individual maintain stability in body parts that are not part of the movement itself?
  6. What breaks down as the lifter fatigues?
  7. What cue will help to correct the form breakdown you are observing?
  8. When will you know to terminate the set or drop the weight?

General Considerations

  1. Before adding weight or increasing intensity, does the individual have the foundational tendon and ligament strength to perform heavy and/or high velocity movements safely?
  2. Does the individual need low impact exercises or can he or she utilize higher impact exercises such as jumps and Olympic lifts?
  3. Does the individual require sport specific or general power development?
  4. Is technique sound before increasing load or complexity?

Coaching Rubric

In general, observing the following three areas when coaching your trainees will provide the most information.  Understand that any flaws you observe may not necessarily be the cause of the dysfunction, but may actually be the effect of an underlying technique or form flaw.  Use this table as your guideline when coaching in the weight room and be sure to consider all three areas independently when observing your trainees.

Coaching Focus Center of GravityObserve the path of the implement relative to the body, and shifts of areas of pressure in the feet. “Softness” and “Tightness”Observe each of these areas:  Upper back, shoulders, lower back, hips, knees, and ankles. Execution of the ExerciseHow does the exercise look as a whole?
What to observe Where is the center of gravity of the individual?  The implement?  The two together?  Does the movement look “balanced”?  Is the movement consistent? What areas of the body are too slack and need more support?  What areas are too tight and need more mobility?  What areas are unstable or immobile during the set-up and the actual exercise? Does the movement look “natural”?  Is there a large discrepancy between what you feel the trainee is capable of and what they are actually doing?
How to solve Working on maintaining center of gravity of the implement and individual may require some changes in technique and execution. Some of these issues may require specialized exercises and stretching, however, most can be solved with consistent practice of the core lift. If the trainee is uncomfortable, adjustments for his or her leverages may need to be made.  Discrepancies in loading can often be corrected by improving technique.

 

 

 

 

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