Being a strength and conditioning coach or a personal trainer requires many qualities. One of them is the ability to pay attention to details. When coaching exercises, there are many different body positions and subtleties in movements that one needs to be aware of. Just demoing the exercises and throwing a couple coaching cues up in the air is usually not enough to get the result we want from our athletes and clients.
A coach (or trainer) needs to be able to identify and understand the subtleties in the different movement patterns to be able to coach the exercises in the most optimal way possible. Here are some of the subtleties that a coach needs to be able to distinguish and correct (in no specific order):
1. Thoracic Spine Extension vs Thoraco-Lumbar (T-L) Junction Extension
I covered that in a previous blog post, but the “chest up” cue is not always interpreted the right way by the athlete or client. Basically what we want to see when calling “chest up” is an extension at the thoracic spine so that the athlete maintains a more neutral spine. Often times, the extension will come from the T-L junction which will put more stress on the lower back, will cause the anterior lower ribs to flare out and put the diaphragm in a less than optimal position. That pretty subtle substitution will too often go unnoticed if the athlete is wearing a loose shirt.
Barely noticeable T-L junction hyperextension because of a loose shirt
2. Hip Flexion Compensation
In most athletes the psoas ends up being the weakest hip flexor. The reason being that it is the only hip flexor effective above 90 degrees of hip flexion. In most athletic endeavors the hip ends up being flexed above 90 degrees rarely, if ever; that in turn causes a higher recruitment of the 2 other main hip flexors, the TFL and the rectus femoris, and the psoas ends up weak. It is a good idea to include psoas activation exercises in a training program to re-establish hip flexor strength in the end range of motion. When doing these drills, athletes will be tempted to compensate because they are pretty weak in that position. The seated psoas lift is one of my favorite psoas activation drill, but can be cheated pretty easily if not coached properly.
Often times, athletes will either lean back or hunch over to try to get the knee up as high as possible. But in both situations, you’re really avoiding the above 90 degrees end range of motion; the angle of the hip flexion will be less than 90, and therefore you’re not getting that psoas activation you’re going after.
Bad Form- Leaning back will prevent your hip flexion to be above 90 degrees
Bad Form- Rounding of the lower back will also avoid that end range of motion
The same problem can occur if you perform a standing psoas hold, or any other type of exercise of that nature.
3. Full Hip Extension Compensation
The complete hip extension is definitely something important in many different exercises that are part of a training program. An incomplete hip extension can expose some pretty serious problem going on around the hips. Whether the problem is caused by a hip flexor restriction, a lack of glute activation or just poor coaching, this is a problem that a coach needs to be aware of to be able to prevent injuries with his athletes. This is another movement that can be very subtle and if you don’t pay attention to it can be missed altogether. The incomplete hip extension can present in a wide variety of different movements, with posterior chain exercises (deadlift variations, pullthrough, slideboard hamstring curls, etc) being some of the most important ones. An athlete not being able to finish his movement at the top with full hip extension will usually compensate with a hyperextension at the lower back.
Again, if no attention to details are paid during a deadlift (or just from coaching from different angle) this is something that can easily be missed.
4. Scapular Protraction vs Elbow Extension
This is something even more subtle. The correct technique for pressing exercises is to keep the scapulae packed back together. If unable to get a full elbow extension, the athlete might compensate by protracting the shoulder blades to get the end range of motion at the top.
Good Form- The shoulder blades stay packed back while getting full elbow extension
Bad Form- Protracted shoulders compensating for incomplete elbow extension
The biggest problem I see with this compensation pattern is for the following reps; if you’ve lost your packed scapulae position, when going for the next rep your shoulders are not going to be in a stable position to press a heavy weight anymore. That can in turn have deleterious effects on the shoulders.
5. Feet Position
This is one that will go unnoticed more often than not. One of the main reasons is that the shoes your athletes are wearing might simply hide what’s going on at the foot and ankle. During lower body exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges and the like a lot can happen at the foot that might be detrimental to an athlete’s health because it will either cause problems further up the chain, or it might be in itself the result of a problem going on somewhere else. An overpronation, or a loss of the arch of the foot are good examples.
Relatively neutral feet in the bottom of the squat
Feet overpronating at the bottom of the squat
In this last picture, it is easy to realize that it is something that be completely missed when the athlete is wearing shoes. (As a side note, I am not necessarily recommending that people squat without shoes on, but it clearly reveals a problem that might have otherwise been missed.)
This is really just a quick list of some of the most subtle body positions and compensated movement patterns you can see in athletes and clients. Paying careful attention to details is such an important part of a coach or a trainer’s job because in the end, it plays an extremely important part of the injury prevention component of an effective training program.