A recent scenario triggered my need to pen this article, as it is a very very regular one that often unfolds in my practice.
Helen Back (to keep her identity safe and take the opportunity for a subtle Dad joke) had been training with her PT for many years. She had managed to lose a significant amount of weight, but the dull pain in her back that had been bothering her for some time had recently become more painful than a 2am lego in the foot. She saw a physio who had prescribed her some exercises, and continued to work with her PT on others, that would also help to strengthen her weak areas that had contributed to her problem.
Except non of it worked.
Both the physio and the PT had chosen exercises that seemed reasonable enough, however, neither had made sure that the exercise was doing what it should have done, and by the time she got to me she was popping pain killers with a Lyndsay Lohan type ferocity, and given up on exercise, as it just aggravated her problems.
All too often I see people performing exercises in a way that reinforces problems instead of fixing them. We have enough knowledge at our fingertips now that anyone can figure out what exercises are good or bad for them with a 2 minute google search (or 10 minutes if you are like me and prone to scrolling doggo memes and Russian road rage fights-I’m not proud of it). Knowing what exercise to do isn't the same as knowing how to get it feel like the right exercise to do.
When a client like Helen comes to see me I will often run through what they have tried to do to get to the bottom of their problems, and in this case, it was very obvious that the mindless performance of her routine had neither been cued well or been afforded any ownership by Helen, nor could she give me any good answers as to why she was performing the current mishmash of google related exercises.
If you don’t want to end up like Helen, or if you have been to Hell and Back (get it-Hell-en-back…whatever), then let me give you a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your training, even if your trainer sucks more than vegan paleo gluten-free sugarless flourless dairy-free birthday cake.
I make certain that every client I see has a clear understanding of why they are doing the exercises they are doing and how it relates to the big picture. I encourage them to ask why, and to empower themselves with the knowledge needed to have a successful training or rehab program.
And so should you.
Whether you are training for an event, or trying to get through another injury, without understanding why, not only is there a good chance you will veer from the path paved out for you, you will also find it difficult to continue on it at all. This is why many people tend to jump back into throwing stupid shit around the gym well before they have gotten through a period of making anything significantly better, or before their Strength and Conditioning program has made them ready for it. If you do need to mix things up for whatever reason, understanding why will allow you to make good choices.
Helen Back demonstrated exercises that should have helped her back (even more value out of her name). But she was doing them so mindlessly that they had no chance of doing anything other than lining her trainer and physio’s pocket with some repeat opportunity cash.
Knowing why is the first step. Knowing how is what gets you to the end result.
If we need to rehab a weak muscle, we can’t do so unless we know how to pay attention to that muscle and make it work. Many exercises are designed around the anatomy textbook versions of “this exercise results in this”, but that may only be the case in a person that has the alignment and biomechanics to allow optimal positions to be default.
The rest of us have to work at it.
If you cannot find a way to activate a muscle that should be working during an exercise then you need a strategy to do so. You won’t know whether this is a problem or not until you pay enough attention to figure it out for yourself.
Knowing what the overall picture of your training looks like can help you stay on track. Knowing this down to the detail of why you are doing every exercise will not only allow you to get more out of each session, but will ensure you stick to it. We could go guru style and talk about your overall purpose, but really here I am talking about, what are you setting out to achieve with your current training plan. Whatever it is, knowing how all those puzzle pieces fit together, and how important each individual one in contribution to make a pretty picture, will make sure that every session is meaningful. I once tried to re-gift a child's puzzle that wasn’t very loved. It had been used for just enough time to ensure a piece was missing, and draw attention to the non sharp edges of the rest of it remaining pieces. This did not paint a pretty picture for anyone.
We could also discuss good goal setting here, that makes up the essence of good programming. This should be a combination of your overarching purpose, where you are at (as opposed to where you want to be), and combining evidence based science with the realism of being a human in 2017.
I hope I’ve encouraged you to think a little about how to approach your training. Whilst it is a nice idea to believe in, the people we choose to help us achieve our goals aren't always in the position to provide us with the care and help we need. Taking some ownership in your own health journey is the way to ensure you don’t get led astray.