Teaching exercise is incredibly rewarding. We get to potentially be part of legitimately changing people’s lives for the better. However, it is not always a simple task, especially when it comes to exercise form. We are dealing with complex humans, specifically from the perspectives of emotion, psychology, and biology. Each of those elements is complex by themselves, but they never really exist in isolation. Which effectively means they are complicated to the third degree!
Keeping that complexity in mind, how we teach exercise to people can become challenging. People looking for a solution (pain or injury mitigation, body composition changes, strength gainz, etc) typically want a SIMPLE solution. For example, “Do this one exercise and be JACKED!” “Drink this one fruit and be SHREDDED!”. The truth, of course, is rarely one simple change away.
Exercise form instruction is one common area where things are made simpler than they really are.
Most exercises are taught in various systems, be they Pilates, yoga, a kettlebell company, a book on how to start strength, etc. Typically these systems teach how to perform an exercise to a specific standard. Let me explain why that makes sense, and then why it is potentially problematic.
Why Exact Exercise Form Standards Make Sense
The most optimistic and well intended reason for simplifying specific exercise forms into a standard is that practicing the exercise with that exact form will lead to better success and performance as intensity increases. This is a totally valid viewpoint. It makes sense, and indeed it is good to practice the form you intend to use at higher intensities at lower intensities because as intensity increases, the specificity of the exercise form requirements also increases.
It gives a target for people to shoot for. Achieving “perfect” form is aspirational, which can also be directive. Without direction or aspiration many people can feel aimless and that their efforts are pointless.
Simplifying exercise form makes it easier to teach, because clients have been conditioned to expect a specific set of rules on how they must perform exercises. When we give them leeway it often times results in confusion, lack of confidence, and perhaps even fear that they are “doing it all wrong”.
In addition, simplifying exercise form makes it easier to teach if you are a certifying body it is far more practical and repeatable to have a set of standards for the instructors to teach to. This often times is a business decision, but not always. Quite frankly it is easier to teach, “Squat with your toes at 13.67 degrees eternal rotation” than it is to say, “the amount of external toe rotation will be individualized”. It may not seem like it is easier because logically teaching the second example not only makes more sense, but it seemingly would not invite any confusion or disputes. Yet it absolutely does. I would argue the reason it is easier to teach a specific standard is, again, people crave simplicity and absolutes.
A Clif-note after teaching more than 300 workshops and certifications in 6 different disciplines and methodologies: the majority of attendees at certifications are relative novices in the field and they lack the cumulative knowledge to be able to fully develop their own “it depends” line of thinking at their young trainer experience age. Most attendees are looking for a cut and past, or “if>then” type solution. Again, those are simpler than having to adjust to the complex human that is in front of you.
If teaching in a group, it is significantly easier to teach one form than to try and allow for many variations. The clients will see each other and self-doubt will flood their heads because they don’t look exactly the same as their neighbors.
The cynical view of standard form teaching: it creates a dependence on the instructor by the participant. There are unfortunately professionals in the field who nurture dependence from their clients. The example I am most familiar with, some chiropractors insist that without weekly or multiple weekly adjustments that a client’s body will be out of alignment and therefore more prone to injury. This same thing happens with stretch therapists or trainers who utilize lots of stretching. And it even happens with trainers who try to “protect” their clients by expressing concerns about form that happens outside of their instruction.
I choose to not see these things as purposefully malicious, but honestly generally believe the professionals are doing what they feel is in the best interest of their clients. It is the rare few that are simply worried about losing a client and use these fear-based methods that poison our industry.
Why Having An Exact Standard on Exercise Form May Be Problematic
If an exercise is performed ONLY in one way, it means there are MANY other slightly different ways that are never practiced, and therefor relatively underdeveloped, which could potentially lead to injuries occurring in those differently performed movements.
If we label a specific form as perfect, and people cannot achieve it then they will potentially not feel aspirational, but instead feel defeated and unsuccessful. Those two feelings could lead to quitting, the exact opposite intention we as instructors have.
If we label a form as safe, we are saying that any other form is then unsafe. This means that we are potentially and problematically instilling a fear based association with movement in our clients.
If a client is at present time unable to perform an exercise to standard, and they believe the exercise to be unsafe without achieving that standard, they will likely be moving with excessive apprehension and that negatively effects their emotional, psychological and biological states!
With that preface, it is imperative that as a coach you understand that:
Exercise form is intensity and tolerance dependent.
Tolerance: an individual’s level of capacity to withstand overload of various types of intensity.
What this means, in three examples…
The 3 Biggest Form Double Standards In Fitness
While this list could be hundreds of examples long, the primary three circumstances that I tend to coach and teach on a literal daily basis are centered on “optimal” knee positions, along with spinal position.
As we’ll quickly see here, the common answer “it depends” always needs to be based on the circumstances and specific individual that presents in front of you. So yes, here are the 3 biggest form double standards in fitness.
#3 Knee Valgus aka “Knee Collapse”
Degrees of knee valgus are not inherently dangerous. However, we need to take context into account.
Knee valgus under load obviously increases the stress on the knee structures, and while under bodyweight conditions it may be safe, with increased load it eventually won’t be.
Can they CHOOSE where to send their knee? Do they have another option of what their knee does? If under bodyweight conditions they are able to squat with knees moving towards each other, forward about parallel to each other, or to rotate out away from each other that is ideal, because they show the ability to purposefully control their knees and what they do.
It can be potentially problematic if they struggle with control and default to knees collapsing in, and are unable to change that strategy when coached.
#2 Forward Translation of Knees Over Toes
Knees moving forward over toes is fine, and regularly necessary. However, that rule can change under certain circumstances…
Under heavy load where the muscular system is overloaded, and the person is almost entirely reliant on their structural system to catch and support the load. aka if people are too weak.
Where pre-existing structural injuries are present. If people try to squat/lunge without their knees traveling forward towards over their toes, and they are loading their body then the strategy to keep the load from collapsing that person will move to other muscles/structures.
The common example is the low bar hingier looking barbell back squat. This is a great exercise, but for a time in fitness everyone started coaching almost every squat in a model that suggested knees never move forward. This resulted in front squats that required excessive extension in the low and mid back; this resulted in kb goblet squats that were more like good mornings.
Knees can totally move forward, and should. It’s only when the loading attempts are so great that it overwhelms the structure that it could potentially be problematic.
#1 Spinal Flexion
Spinal flexion is typically fine. However, that rule can of course change quickly under certain circumstances. Here’s the short list:
Spinal flexion performed under load. (More specifically: quick changes in spinal positioning under load. Arguments can be made that SLOW spinal flexion under light loads can improve tissue tolerance over time, as many people have experienced success with Jefferson curls.)
When someone has a pre-existing spinal (disc/spinal process/nerve) injury. (An analogy: people with specific kidney conditions cannot safely consume protein. This does NOT mean that protein is bad for everyone. Sometimes the “anti-flexion” crowd fails to understand this point, just because one person is flexion intolerant does NOT mean everyone is)
Very, very high repetitions. This is generally attributed to McGill’s lab work, and it is compelling, but relied on machines to repeatedly flex and extend spines until they wore out. Now, these were in-vitro spines, and it is reasonable to wonder that perhaps in vivo (still alive) connective tissues can remodel, repair and adapt due to still being alive.
Apprehension and/or fear of pain. When our clients move apprehensively or fearfully, it will absolutely change their movement strategies, perhaps into other potentially problematic strategies. How WE frame our instructions play a major role into what our clients perceive as safe or dangerous. We need to refrain from saying things like “don’t round your back or you’ll get hurt”, instead simply saying “try to maintain a flat/neutral spine”.
That being said, we just need to do our best to keep the intensity at levels slightly lower than our client’s tolerance.
This of course is hard to do. Clients want to work hard. We cannot FEEL what they are feeling. And so, the standard process in coaching intention is to protect our clients by giving absolutes on form such as “don’t bend your back”, “don’t let your knees pass your toes”, “don’t let your knees collapse or they’ll ugh-splode”. And it does make sense to teach the form that we would use under heavy loads to our clients while they are under “no to low” loads.
However, these types of statements may be more problematic than they are helpful, because they promote a fear-based understanding of movement. They also rob our clients of potentially building tolerance over time to different positions. So, I want you to always try and remember that it’s ok for people to not have “perfect” form in lower intensity exercises.
We will always be thinking of the individual and what their body deems intense, and what their tolerance is. But we also don’t want to scare the hell out of them. This is a fine line to walk…we don’t want to be risk takers needlessly, but we also don’t want to be a part of the fear based exercise teaching that is predominately practiced in the field.
So long as the form is not inherently dangerous, and it is developing some positive physical strength and tissue adaptations, we can be content with our clients’ performance. We will coach them to change their form not specifically to improve their form, rather, I want you to think of it specifically as improving their abilities to perform tasks in more varied yet specific ways. While this is indeed semantics, it is important.
One is telling them that they are doing it wrong and perhaps dangerously, which it likely isn’t. And the second option is showing them that they can choose to do the drill in many ways, and that having multiple options of how to move is inherently safer as it gives more wiggle room in life.
We want our clients above all to feel safe and successful. By having them feel successful they will build confidence, tolerance and ultimately those things will help to keep them safe.
Do NOT Fall Victim to The “One Way Only” Trap
Depending on whether you train group or privates, you should adjust instruction accordingly.
In a group you must make sure to say that it is ok if everybody looks different, and has different form. People are inherently self-conscious and many exercisers live in self-doubt, so when they are doing things a little differently they almost seize up in a panic. We must continually explain to them that so long as they are doing things well enough to create positive change and are not in inherently unsafe positions that they are doing well.
Private training is simple by comparison, you have less complexity because the person is your only focus.
For spinal flexion incorporation:
Include direct core work that involves purposefully flexing the spine. These could be “dreaded” crunches or sit-ups, standing cable or band chops with flexion and rotation, hanging knee or leg tucks, hollow body holds, supine quadruped drills where a flexed torso is encouraged, and many other exercises.
Regarding deadlifts specifically: we will continue to teach these with a neutral spine, and we will not purposefully be incorporating loaded flexion based deadlifts. However, during the learning phases of deadlifts with clients, and during times where they are using loads under their tolerance, we will not freak out about some flexion that may occur during controlled tempo lifts. More specifically, we will coach them to move towards neutral to “focus more on the glutes and hamstrings” vs. ”keepsback safe”.
For knee valgus incorporation:
Understand that in some step ups, variations of lunges, jump landings, step downs, that it is fine if there is some movement both inward and outward of the knee relative to the midline of the foot. And during ramp up sets and low weight sets that getting these slight variations is part of the total development of the knee structure.
Of course if it hurts, it should be coached to a different position. When I coach this it often sounds like “let’s try the knee staying over the foot this time, and see if that is where we are more successful today. As we get stronger, we should develop our ability to do this in more ways without pain”
Do some “old school” warm-ups where at bodyweight, or with TRX/wall assistance the clients squat down with knees moving towards each other. Do another set where one knee moves in and one moves out. Not only will this help the client build bits of resilience and confidence in new positions, but it will help them to appreciate more structural solid positions that they would be squatting/lunging under load in later when ready. Ask the clients to squat with their knees and feet changing positions every repetition and to “squat as low as you can comfortably”.
For knee forward over toes incorporation:
Let’s just start by not asking people to keep a vertical shin on a squat again, mmmkay?Then let’s follow that up by not saying, “don’t let your knee go past your toes”.
I like to simply explain to our clients that generally speaking, knees moving forward over toes will utilize a proportionally larger amount of quads, while keeping knee back will utilize a proportionally larger amount of hips. We also explain that as the knee moves backwards, the torso typically should lean forward at the same time.
Add some knee over toes specific variations as warm-up or accessory work in your programs. Peterson step ups, split squats where you purposefully drive the knee forward as far as you can (great for posterior lower leg mobility!), heels elevated squats, squats on the balls and toes of your feet with a torso lean back.
If a client is performing drills and their heel comes off the floor and you didn’t ask them to, ask them to control it. Explain they’ll get more total hip musculature contribution that way. Don’t tell them “it’s dangerous for your knee!”.
Incorporating more carefully and appropriately selected variations into your clients’ programs not only ads a robustness to your clients’ biological development, but it also mentally fortifies them to be more confident with the amount of things they can safely do.
About The Author
Clifton Harski is the Chief Operations Officer and Fitness Director for Fitwall, a functional strength training studio with 7 locations across the United States. At Fitwall, the Pain-Free Performance Training System is a cornerstone of their industry leading preventative fitness programming. Since 2011, Clif has taught over 300 workshops, courses and certifications in multiple disciplines and education systems including, MovNat, CK-FMS, Spartan Racing, Animal Flow, and Kettlebell Athletics and the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification, where he serves as a master level instructor. He also holds advanced certifications from ACE, NSCA, NASM, StrongFirst, CrossFit, DVRT, FMS, Animal Flow, KBA, Spartan and FRC.
*The above article was originally an internal coaching email from PPSC instructor Clifton Harski to his coaching staff at Fitwall.*