Fitting The Mold

September 15, 2021

When looking around a gym, you typically see people performing various compound movements. The fitness professional or strength coach has been taught the bio-mechanical principles to identify cues when teaching these lifts. The problem is that most individuals cannot fit the ideal mold when it comes to performing these exercises. What this means is that although we have been taught the “perfect” way to teach the lifts, many individuals have injuries or poor flexibility that hinder them doing so. This is not to say people shouldn’t perform multi joint lifts. They absolutely should as long as caution is taken and adaptations made.

Let’s use the squat as an example. If a person or athlete has poor hip or knee flexibility, they may not be able to hit the ideal depth. Do you stop them squatting altogether? No. You have them squat to their comfortable depth and work range of motion during post workout to better improve flexibility. They can still benefit from performing the movements as long as posture and other cues are correct. Keep the training weight challenging enough to encourage adaptations but light enough to ensure proper form is maintained at all times.

The same can be said for deadlifts. Some people find it hard to keep a neutral spine when reaching the bar off the floor. Encourage flexibility training, but adapt the exercise to help them. I find trap bar deadlifts are great for those who struggle from the ground. It elevates the handles and keeps grip neutral to assist posture. Another adaptation could be the use of blocks to elevate the bar higher off the ground. If it keeps the person with good form, it will still benefit them. Quality over quantity is key as hitting ideal depth is not as important as keeping good form. When working with athletes, similar problems may arise.

Olympic lifts are key to enhance explosiveness, but many can’t “catch” the bar to complete a clean. Do you disregard Olympic lifts? No, you adapt and breakdown the movements to accommodate your athletes. Studies indicate identical explosive improvements in those who were catching a clean and those who could only complete a high pull from the floor. This demonstrates that all athletes can benefit from some form of Olympic lifting. If they can catch, absolutely let them. If they can’t, that’s ok too. Encourage wrist flexibility during post workouts and have them focus on proper form during pulls and jerks.

The point is this, not everyone is capable to hit the range of motion that we have been taught. Injuries happen, strength may be weak or technique not yet developed. Making adaptations to the movement can still yield benefits while they work on the little things to hit ideal range of motion. It’s important to realize that a client may be proud of what they can already accomplish. If they hit a record max but lack depth, that’s ok. It’s THEIR max.

As a coach you want to improve their range of motion, but not at the cost of their confidence. What they give you may be the best they can simply because they are not physically able to do anything else. You assist them in making it better, not tearing what they can currently give you to pieces. If it’s an athlete trying to improve performance, the same understanding should be applied.

I’ll use myself as an example. I had shoulder surgery a few months ago. I am currently unable to perform an overhead snatch movement due to pain and further risk of injury. Do I stop lifting? No. I perform variations that can yield the same result. I could change grips so that my arms are closer together to relieve pain. Same benefit, just a lighter load and different grip (called the overhead snatch with clean grip). If an athlete can’t perform a certain movement, it is your job as a strength coach to adapt an exercise to yield similar benefits. You are not to put them in harms way to satisfy some criteria or ideal position. Your job is to improve their performance. Period. The point of this article is not to encourage poor technique but instead provide understanding.

It is frustrating when you can’t physically do something. As a coach, you must realize that your clients or athletes have limitations that may inhibit certain exercises or parts thereof. The ideal position is something to strive for, it shouldn’t determine how you rank physically. Use it as a tool for improvement instead of using it to dictate performance. The individual differences in body types parallel the differences in which people move. It is the job of exercise professionals to utilize each individual’s strengths and  improve their weaknesses. Break the mold, because no two people are the same.