My thoughts and perspectives on health, science, and logic… Keep an open mind!


The fitness world is filled with an immensely diverse collection of characters, styles, likes, dislikes, and perspectives.  I think we can all agree that we have no shortage of variety.  However, there are certain traits/tastes that seem to be particularly characteristic of a “fitness enthusiast” or “exercise expert” in many people’s eyes.  Certain stereotypical qualities, if you will.

I’m not that guy.

What follows is a list (though not exhaustive) of the ways in which I’m a terrible “Fitness Guy” —

Hey, I never said I was perfect :/

Hey, I never said I was perfect :/

1) I hate cardio.  I mean HATE it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ll be the first to tell you about the benefits of cardiovascular training (whether we’re talking about improving arterial compliance and peripheral blood flow, strength/endurance/efficiency of the heart muscle itself, or oxygen uptake and metabolism within the muscles).  The upsides are numerous.

I just can’t stand doing it.  At least steady-state cardio.  Put me on a treadmill or elliptical for more than a few minutes, and I’m losing my mind.  I might get up to 20-25 minutes on an Arc Trainer on a good day, but that’s about it.  I personally prefer martial arts and the sort of interval training that it brings with it as my source of cardiovascular training.

2) Deadlifts?  Fat chance.

I neither have the build to perform barbell deadlifts easily, nor the patience to work them into an already stacked regimen.  I give mad props to people who do them and benefit.  But I don’t find them to be a particularly effective use of my time (again, due to my odd body proportions, injury history, etc.).  That doesn’t mean I won’t do them on occasion.  But they’re not a major goal in my training, as I don’t see myself having to heft a barbell-like object from the floor with precise form any time in my near future.

3) I’ve got a crazy sweet tooth.

Anyone who knows me well is no doubt aware of my ability to devour chocolate chip cookies by the sleeve (back when Chips Ahoy came in sleeves, anyway).  If I’m having a rough day or week, it’s not uncommon for me to compensate by eating my feelings.  Is this healthy behavior?  HELL NO.  But I still do it.  I rationalize, I fall off the wagon, I give into cravings just like every other normal person.  In fact, I can do it in spectacular fashion.  And it does hold me back from making better progress, particularly in body composition.

4) I don’t really like sports.

In a field where athletic performance is rarely far from one’s mind, a guy like me sticks out like a sore thumb.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve left people with puzzled looks on their faces after telling them that, “No, I DIDN’T watch the game last night.  I was busy reading.”  It’s as though it doesn’t compute for them.

This was particularly glaring for me, as I grew up in the South.  Football was a huge fixture in my hometown.  Since I pursued kinesiology degrees in sports-loving towns, it was quite rare my teachers seemed to think of any biomechanics- or physiology-related example that DIDN’T involve a ball.  Color me annoyed.  I feel that, while a fun pastime, sports aren’t the be-all, end-all of this field and aren’t the main reason why we study the human body.  Not by a long shot.

This hasn’t earned me many friends in this field :-P

5) I don’t prep meals.

If you have the patience, planning, and consistency to cook and prepare your meals for the week all at once, I say do it.  It often takes the guess work out of what to eat and can really streamline your day.  It’s especially useful for those who have hectic schedules.

But I don’t do it.  The last thing I feel like doing on a Sunday evening is portioning out food into baggies or plastic tubs for the week.  Just doesn’t appeal to me, and I figure I’ll make it through a day without it.

6) I don’t have a set schedule.

That is, I don’t do the same thing at the same time every day or week when it comes to exercise.  I tend to go whenever I feel like it.  Now luckily for me, that still results in 4 or 5 days a week at the gym because I enjoy it, but I don’t normally treat my workouts as a planned thing.  Some days I’ll go around noon, while other days will see me there around closing time.  It just depends on what is convenient for me that day (and it usually has nothing to do with a work/school schedule).

As is the case with meal planning/prep, I highly recommend that people DO get into a routine.  For most people, just going to the gym when they want to won’t cut it, because that sort of motivation is hard to come by.  So if you can establish a plan and stick to it, do that!

7) My favorite pastime?  Movies and video games.

Many fit pros who fit the “mold” will say that they love to hike, explore nature, ride their bike, or do yoga in their spare time.  While I certainly can enjoy these sorts of activities, my “default” leisure activity is likely goofing off playing games on my computer or going to the movies.  I was born a nerd in the very stereotypical sense, and that part of me is never going to go away.

So if you want to know what I’m doing many late nights when I’m not working or studying?  I’m probably hunched over my computer or otherwise parked in front of a screen engrossed in some fantasy world.  That’s my idea of a great time!

Why am I saying all of this?

Because it’s important to remember that trainers and other fitness pros are more than just the stereotyped versions we see portrayed on television.  We’re human beings, and we carry all of the flaws you’d expect.  We try to lead by example and encourage others to live a healthier lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean we always do a perfect job.  Furthermore, we may be satisfied with only being in “pretty good” shape instead of being contest ready.  That’s a choice every trainer, like every other person, must make for him/herself.

So for those out there who struggle with their fitness in some way, take heart — you don’t have to be perfect.  Make improvements any place you can, and realize that at the end of the day, even the best of us is only human.  We’ve been there.  We’re still there every day.  So don’t beat yourself up.


“You’re only as strong as your weakest link!”

We’ve heard that expression a thousand times.  These days, it’s repeated ad nauseum by well-intentioned trainers, coaches, and other fitness professionals who are trying to find new ways to analyze the movements of their clients and athletes. The fitness industry is filled with certifications, tools, tricks, and toys.  Look around at any local gym, and you’re likely to find trainers who have all sorts of letters after their names.

A continuing trend in many cases is the move toward “corrective exercise”  coupled with movement screens and assessments that are used to analyze the quality of a client’s movement.  These are thought to give the trainer powerful insight that will help him or her take better care of his/her clients.  In essence, these tools should help to tease out a client’s/athlete’s “weakest link” so it can be addressed.  Cool, right?

Many screening and assessment tools abound -- one of the most widely known being the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). I wonder what this guy's

Many screening and assessment tools abound — one of the most widely known being the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).
I wonder what this guy’s “weakest link is”…

Unfortunately, I’m of the opinion that many people are expecting too much out of these tools and, in some cases, just plain wasting their time.  I felt I’d share a few of my thoughts on movement assessments (not exhaustive at all, but something to start with).

You see, people get caught up in different “screens” and “assessments” that are supposed to give some reasonable indication of movements that a person can or cannot do safely and/or without pain. The trouble is, most of these methodologies operate from a very presumptuous position. That is, they make a number of assumptions that I think are unjustified (the first 3 items on my list). While not all screening/assessment methods are guilty everything I’m about to talk about, I think these are each common enough to warrant mentioning:

1) They assume there’s one universal version of “GOOD” movement. That is to say, there’s an idealized picture in many fit pros’ heads of how a “squat” or a “press” or a “lunge” is supposed to look. The trouble is that these visually based evaluations normally don’t take into account specific structural differences that might *require* one person to move differently from another. Furthermore, the reasons given for why “good” movement is “good” in the first place are often vague and, in some cases, flat-out wrong.  Who decides what the most “fundamental” or “important” movement patterns are?

2) They assume that we can automatically know if a muscle is “weak” or “tight” by looking at posture or gross movement. The trouble with this is that movement is a highly complex process that the body orchestrates from moment to moment, and a single “snapshot” (in the case of a posture evaluation, for example) gives us very limited meaningful information about the capabilities of the body. Further, specific muscular deficiencies take time to tease out, as NO movement in the body occurs in pure isolation. It’s a fantasy to think that you can ever completely isolate a muscle through voluntary contraction (or involuntary postural control).  The only way to know if there really is a “muscle imbalance” (itself a misnomer) is to test each and every function you’re curious about as directly as possible.  You don’t know what is dysfunctional just by watching someone move.

3) They assume they test things that they actually don’t. Put another way, these screening tools tend to carry little to no validity. Many of them fail to have reproducible results when put under scientific scrutiny. If the entire point of a screening tool is to test a person’s “movement quality” (whatever that means) and predict the likelihood that they can perform similar movements skillfully, then the selected “tests” being administered had better actually indicate that probability! Unfortunately, many movement-based screening tools don’t hold up.

4) Relating to the last point but warranting its own mention due to the implications — many of these methodologies aren’t particularly good at predicting injury risk. One of the biggest arguments that “movement quality” proponents hang their hats on is the idea that a “less dysfunctional movement pattern” is a safer movement pattern. Unfortunately, this is problematic — largely because 1) there’s no easy way to agree on what a universally “good” pattern would be in the first place, and 2) the movements as chosen and enforced in these screens/assessments often don’t predict injury risk at all! Put another way, they’re typically of little use for doing the thing that attract many people to them in the first place.

5) This is a catch-all bullet point for a bunch of other issues that I see. Not assumptions per se, but flaws in many screening methodologies that make it difficult to use these tools in the ways they are intended — These include vague definitions of the desired movements and how they should be executed, subjective “scoring” systems that could result in vastly different ratings given by different testers, and a lack of mention of/appreciation for the factors that might contribute to a perceived *improvement* in function or movement over time (e.g. was it something in the training? Did the person get better at the screen by practicing the screen? Is it something that the nervous system “sorted out” on its own without our intervention? Hard to tell with limited tools and sloppy testing).

***********************

Now this isn’t to say that screens and assessments are altogether useless. But we have to be mindful of what we can and cannot glean from them! Ultimately, the only thing you know with absolute certainty when you evaluate a person’s movement is how they can perform that *exact* movement at that *exact* moment in time. The hows and the whys will almost always require further investigation.

Which exact muscles might be responsible for issues with this motion?  Some of them?  All of them?  Just one?  Maybe NONE? (Image taken from Biology-Forums.com)

Which exact muscles might be responsible for issues with this motion? Some of them? All of them? Just one? Maybe NONE?
(Image taken from Biology-Forums.com)

Is their knee diving in because of “tight” adductors? Maybe. But how do you determine if that’s the case? And which adductors? And in what position? An externally rotated hip will have a different set of muscles as “primary” adductors than an internally rotated one. Are you really being “apples to apples” when you analyze the differences between one side of the body and the other?  And THEN how do you address this perceived “tightness” effectively and without negative effects?

^^^ As hinted at above, any piece of information you may get from a screen or movement assessment (particularly if it’s the kind that is typically “sold” to personal trainers and other fitness professionals) will need to be followed up by a series of more specific questions before you know what is really going on.

My personal experience and study (limited as they are) have led me to the conclusion that assessing a person’s movement for exercise purposes is going to change in accordance with the exercise we’re most concerned about. To most of my colleagues who really know body mechanics and exercise progression, this should come as no surprise. A “general” assessment is going to give you a “general” answer. As such, you’re going to need to do something that is more dialed into the movement you want to know about.

In my world, this means testing an unloaded (or slightly loaded) version of the exercise we’re about to do if I think the individual can handle that basic task. If I’m not yet sure of even that capability, I’ll probably look at active range of motion for any joint motion that the desired exercise requires. A thorough understanding of movement and mechanics can allow you to break any full exercise down into its component parts as needed. This means you can test in a way that is more specific to what you’re actually looking for.

For example — want to know about whether someone is competent to handle a bench press? Perhaps examine their active control in horizontal adduction and abduction. Look at scapular motions like protraction/retraction and elevation and depression (in isolation as well as with shoulder motion). You may even want to do positional strength/stability tests to make sure the person can handle force there. THEN you’ll hopefully have some idea of whether or not they can handle an actual load with those joint motions/positions.

what-does-it-mean

Maybe he’s got a point…

So what’s the point of this whole thing?  If you don’t take anything else away from my rant, hopefully this last bit will make some sense.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I summed up my thoughts on fitness movement assessments (rather bluntly):

—-

Try a movement. Is there pain? Don’t do that thing. Get checked out by a qualified specialist if that pain persists.

Try other movements. Can you do those? Cool. Now try loading them slowly. Notice issues? Okay, there’s your barrier.

Assess positional strength as desired (if you’re trained and qualified to do so), and this may help with teasing out movement issues. But you won’t know until you establish strength/stability and then recheck the movement. Additional learning/training of the previously “faulty” movement is likely still going to be needed.

And dammit, pay attention to how EACH person’s body seems to move best. Different mechanics + different motor learning histories = different ideal solutions. Everyone won’t look the same.  One person’s “best” isn’t the same as someone else’s.

* Furthermore, I threw in what is one of the central tenets to how I approach exercise:

Every movement in itself is its own “assessment.”

You can approximate that movement by doing slower/deloaded versions, versions with limited range, etc., but it’s always just an educated guess. You don’t know for certain how a person’s going to do a loaded front squat until you have them DO a loaded front squat.

—-

Furthermore, assessments don’t just happen at the beginning of a training session or at regular four-week intervals.  EVERY SINGLE REP gives you information.  A trainer should never stop evaluating how a client is executing an exercise.  Just because they did it great five minutes ago doesn’t mean it’s perfect right now.  Likewise, we as “exercisers” ourselves need to be aware that our muscles and nervous systems are in states of constant change.  If we pay close attention to them, we can get much more out of our training than we would by turning our “assessing” brains off and kicking into auto-pilot.

So ultimately, I feel that we need to take a step back.  We need to resist the temptation to buy into “screening” and “assessment” systems that hand us pre-selected criteria for “good” movement and promise that it’ll make us better at predicting the future.  We must understand that a test/assessment/screen is only as good as its validity, and —  If we don’t have confidence in that validity, we’re probably better off with breaking down exercises into components that make sense for us.

If you try out a particular tool and TRULY think that it is helpful to you, then by all means use it.  But be aware that many of these systems aren’t what they’re cracked up to be and, when you really scrutinize them, just don’t do what they set out to do.

We only get so much time in the gym, on the mat, or on the table.  Let’s use that time wisely.


Hey, looking for a nutrition plan that’s tailored to your specific metabolic needs so you can lose those last few pounds?  Perhaps a detailed diet to help you to manage your prediabetic symptoms?  My hat’s off to you for trying to make a positive change!

Oh, wait — you want ME to write that plan for you?

Sorry, friend.  You’ve got the wrong guy.  What YOU need is a dietitian — not a trainer.

How’s the stiffness in that hip and lower back been doing?  Getting any better?  Let’s keep working on getting you strong and stable with some carefully applied exercise, and I bet you’ll see improvements over time.

What’s that?  You felt something ‘POP’ when you were playing with your kids yesterday and want me to tell you why you can’t stand up straight now without debilitating pain?

I’m pretty sure you need an orthopedist or physical therapist and some imaging.  Resistance bands and isometrics won’t rebuild a disc in your spine.

A proper exercise regimen can absolutely improve energy levels and improve your heart health.

So you’re telling me you haven’t been able to sleep well and your heart’s been beating irregularly for the past two weeks?

Get yourself to a doctor!

Far too often, people mistake those of us who work in fitness for all-around experts on everything health.  From diet, to exercise, to advanced biochemistry and immunology — it’s expected that we’ll have an opinion and stand by it confidently if a client puts us on the spot with a question.  But the simple reality is that no amount of studying will make someone an authority in all of these areas.  In fact, most exercise professionals are lucky if they can really call themselves an “expert” in one or two of them!

There's a reason I don't wear a stethoscope except when I take people's blood pressure -- I'm not a doctor!  If you need something diagnosed, see someone who's licensed/registered to do that!

There’s a reason I don’t wear a stethoscope except when I take people’s blood pressure — I’m not a doctor! If you need something diagnosed, see someone who’s licensed/registered to do that!

But in all fairness, I can’t blame the public.  I can’t blame the clients.  After all, they get these impressions from somewhere.

They get it from US.

That’s right.  I’m talking about people in this very industry who have plenty of opinions and not enough scruples.  They kick down your door with promises that they can fix almost anything in your life with their secret knowledge.  They position themselves on the same level as medical doctors and nutrition experts (if not above them) and say definitively that [insert problem here] is simply caused by [overly simplistic scapegoat] that is easily fixed with [remedy that is either insultingly simple or completely arbitrary].  This creates a perception that personal trainers are experts on anything that even smells like it’s health related.

NEWS FLASH — WE’RE NOT!

In fact, the REALLY knowledgeable ones who actually may know a good deal about these other fields tend to be even more conservative about the advice that they give.  They almost always respect the limits of their own knowledge and the scope of practice of other professions (like medicine, physical therapy, dietetics, etc.).

So a simple rule of thumb is this: If a personal trainer always has an answer for everything — even things that have little to do with actual exercise science — RUN!

Now before anyone gets too upset, let me be clear.  I’m in no way saying that we exercise nuts can’t do some pretty incredible stuff.  I’ve got more than my share of personal anecdotes about amazing successes that people have had through exercise and basic, sensible diet principles (the kind that you *don’t* need a dietitian to learn).  Health and epidemiology research supports this as well.  So in other words, a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach may be EXACTLY what they need!

If people have medical needs, they need to address those first.  THEN we can worry about sets and reps :)

If people have medical needs, they need to address those first. THEN we can worry about sets and reps :)

The key is in figuring out those needs so we can take the right course of action.  If there’s any suspicion that something is broken/torn/dislocated/etc., then a medical/clinical professional is the way to go.  The same goes for anything where someone’s health may be in jeopardy (e.g. a heart problem, difficulty breathing, illness, etc.).  Even in cases where exercise is needed for such individuals, it should be carried out in coordination with (if not under direct supervision of) a medical professional as part of a team effort.  Furthermore, exercise professionals who work with such populations typically hold a higher-level, more specialized education and credentials to go with their position.

So too is the case with specialized dietary prescriptions, psychological counsel, or anything that’s health-related but not exercise-related —  it’s outside our scope of practice  That means we shouldn’t be giving advice on it (and in many cases, it is illegal to do so).

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that fitness professionals have a narrow (but still important) skill set.  We use exercise and related health principles (basic dietary knowledge, psychology, etc.) to improve people’s health and/or performance in some meaningful way.  We don’t set bones, diagnose ailments, “prescribe” diets or cleanses, or do anything else that goes outside of our scope of practice.

And we don’t have to!

Exercise is an absolutely incredible thing in itself!  When we have benefits like potential management of osteoporosisdisease risk reduction, and a number of other goodies under our belts, we shouldn’t need anything else to make us feel adequate.

image-11-256x300

So if you’ve got clearance from your doctor and are coming to me to improve virtually every area of your life through exercise AFTER the stuff I’ve already talked about is taken care of — Then you’ve got the right guy.

Slow Down, Champ!


Many of my fitness colleagues and I could get around a table and wax poetic on the various mistakes that we perceive in the industry. We all have a laundry list of goofy things that we see trainers doing in gyms around the country and the world. Right now, there’s one particularly common error that’s been on my mind since I’ve been seeing it far too much.

That’s concerning a little thing called SPEED.

You see, the vast majority of the rank-and-file in your typical globogym seem to have it in their heads that “a rep is a rep is a rep.”

WRONG.

While it certainly matters that you get a rep done, of AT LEAST equal importance (and I’d wager much greater importance, actually) is HOW YOU GOT THERE. The path you took and, subsequently, the way you generated the force to accomplish a repetition of any given exercise will directly determine whether that rep is accomplishing the goal you set out to achieve.

If a person is unable to do a movement slowly and with control, it is IMPERATIVE that you as a trainer not further increase the challenge and risk by adding excessive inertia and/or unpredictable motions to the equation. Lock down the basic stuff before asking more of any individual’s neuromuscular system. If this means slowing the rep down to half tempo, so be it! Maybe it means removing weight. Maybe it means you have to shorten the range through which the client is moving, or perhaps alter the points in that range where things are easy and hard (also known as altering the resistance profile).

Don't be this guy...

Don’t be this guy…

Here’s a scenario:

Let’s say you have a pair of identical twins you’re training. They both live and eat exactly the same. You have one person just knock out 10-12 reps of lat pulldowns as quickly as they can for a given weight on the stack. You have the other person do the same exercise with the same weight, but slow down enough that the bar path is precisely controlled throughout the entire rep, never letting tension leave the muscles that you are attempting to target (assuming you know which ones could be most effectively targeted by this exercise). Are they going to have the same experience? Will they feel the same? Will these two people progress at the same rate and in the same way?

I PROMISE you they won’t.

The point is, if I had to pick ONE big error that I see trainers committing time and time again, it’s that there’s too much focus on getting an arbitrary number of reps done in a given time, and not enough focus on keeping challenge on the muscles that are *SUPPOSED* to be worked by a given exercise. If you don’t know with confidence what is being challenged at EVERY point throughout a movement, you probably need to slow down and remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish. What’s the goal? We are always responsible for the decisions we make, and autopilot is NEVER good enough. As Tom Purvis would say, “every set is sacred” :)

Props to The Resistance Training Specialist® Program for helping me to develop the thought process that I continue to hone every day.

Health vs. Fitness???


As is the case with many fields, the world of fitness sees many words used interchangeably when they probably shouldn’t.  Trainers with any experience have probably encountered times when two people used the same word to mean different things or vice-versa.  While I could harp on plenty of these disconnects in language (and I likely will in the future), today I’d like to look at two words that are at the core of what we do:

HEALTH… and FITNESS

So what do they really mean?  To many, that’s open to interpretation.  A lot of people might think it’s silly to give it much thought in the first place, as we all know what these words mean, right?  Well I’ll suggest that it’s never a bad idea to double-check these ideas before moving forward.  After all, if these are words we use to describe our goals — and our goals will determine everything we do in the gym — then shouldn’t we be COMPLETELY sure that we’re using them as accurately as possible?

abc_gma_health_3_101006_wg

For decades, Jack LaLanne served as an example of someone who focused on health AND fitness — performing countless incredible feats of strength and endurance over the years as well as living to the ripe age of 96 (image taken from abcnews.go.com)

 

If we’re to paraphrase the Merriam-Webster definition, good health could be described as the mental and physical condition whereby we are free from illness, injury, and pain.  Sounds reasonable enough, yes?  You could also describe it as a state of metabolic efficiency (all of the body’s processes are in good, working order).  So basically, a health-oriented goal would be focused on ensuring that our biological machinery is working well and that we’re not malfunctioning in any way.  And if you think about it, that’s indeed what a lot of people are going for when they exercise.  Lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate, reducing the risk of cancer, recovering from a sprained ankle so we can walk properly again — these are all attempts to preserve or improve our body’s basic ability to function.

But what about fitness?  The most appropriate definition I’ve been able to find is something along the lines of: the state of being adapted to a particular task or goal (being “fit”) — in exercise, this would mean being fit for a specific type of exercise-related or performance-oriented task.  So if we take this approach, we see that physical fitness could be demonstrated in a number of ways.  We can have a certain ability to run fast, jump high, be flexible, demonstrate motor coordination, etc.  It varies depending on the goal.

So we can see that — if you accept these definitions — fitness and health are NOT the same thing.  While health is a sort of baseline quality of someone’s biological function (are all the parts in good working order?), fitness is more about the way we can perform a particular task (how much endurance do we have, how strong am I, etc.?).

It’s certainly possible to be healthy but not particularly fit.  Just think about someone who goes into doctor’s office for a yearly checkup and has every test come back “normal” (healthy), but he/she doesn’t necessarily exercise and isn’t able to perform at a high level in any sort of athletic capacity (not really “physically fit” for those tasks).  Conversely, there are plenty of cases of extremely high-performing athletes who can run extremely fast or lift incredible amounts of weight (high physical fitness), but their cholesterol levels or blood pressure might not be very good (not extremely healthy).

fast car slow car

A Smart Car fresh off the lot will have all of its parts in good working order (“healthy”), but it obviously won’t perform the same as something designed for more speed.

 

So why am I mentioning all of this?  Because I think it’s important for us to realize that, while many of the improvements we make through exercise can aid in both goals (improved cardiovascular health will also aid in fitness tasks relating to endurance, etc.), it’s not always the case.  Sometimes, we can confuse one thing for another.  Just because someone looks great or can move well doesn’t mean he/she is as healthy as appearances might suggest.  Keep that in mind before chasing that next marathon, adding more weight to the bar, or insisting on taking aggressive measures to lose weight.  You can perform well, but don’t compromise your own health in the process!

 

More to come.  Cheers

 

-G

Squats — Front or Back?


“Shut up and SQUAT!!!”

Ronnie Coleman doing his thing, of course

Ronnie Coleman doing his thing, of course

Few exercises in the gym are as loved and as hated as the ever-present squat.  If you’ve spent any length of time in the exercise world, you’ve undoubtedly encountered countless individuals who swear by the practice of grabbing a bunch of weight and dropping their butts to the ground.  Many more engage in the practice sans weight (just think about how many 30-day fitness challenges involve bodyweight squats).  Whatever the flavor, it’s pretty widely accepted that squats are the “go-to” exercise for building the derriere of your dreams.  While I COULD spend this entire post picking apart some of those misconceptions, I’ll save that for another day.  Instead, I’ll assume that you’ve determined that this movement is appropriate for your body and goals and get right to the meat of this write-up.  That is, a comparison between TWO TYPES of squats.

— Allow me to interject before we go any further that I am not a big fan of sticking labels on exercises and saying, “THIS is the way it must be done!”  At the end of the day, such an approach is inappropriate if you’re trying to tailor an exercise to a particular body for a specific goal.  BUT, in the spirit of simplicity, I’ll make some generalizations so I can get some basic points across.  —

Now that that’s cleared up, let’s continue.  The main focus of this post is to look at the difference between the back squat and the front squat in terms of how they might load the different joints and musculature of the body.  While both movements certainly challenge the legs, hips, lower back, etc. to some degree; the exact amount of effort required at each region of the body will change depending on exactly where you put the weight and how your joints move.  To give some understanding of this, we need to understand what joints are going to be moving during a squat-like exercise in the first place.  The list of main players, in no particular order, will be as follows as we descend during a squat:

1.) Ankles — Increasing dorsiflexion (shin moves toward the top of the foot)

2.) Knees — Increasing flexion (knees bending, smaller angle between the calf and back of the thigh)

3.) Hips — Increasing flexion (torso and fronts of the thighs get closer together)

*.) On the way up (coming out of the squat), these movements will necessarily be reversed!

** NOTE ** I’m assuming a bunch of other joints are able to stay still during the motion.  If you can’t keep the rest of the body relatively stable during this exercise, then you shouldn’t be doing it!  I’m also not mentioning motion of the intrinsic joints in the foot, as such a discussion is beyond the scope of this post.  We could spend all day talking about how the foot does or doesn’t move during different activities.

Anyway, all exercises that are traditionally known as a squat will include movement at the 3 joints listed above.  The question is how MUCH movement will occur!  That will depend on a bunch of different factors that I’ll try to hint at here.  Let’s start by looking at a diagram of three different squat scenarios.  On the left is a low-bar back squat (where the bar is kept relatively low on the back, as the name implies).  In the middle is a high-bar back squat (I’ll let you figure out why it’s called that).  And on the right is a front squat:

Much thanks to Lon Kilgore for the illustration.  Note the different body angles between the different squat configurations (Low bar, high bar, and front).

Much thanks to Lon Kilgore for the illustration. Note the different body angles between the different squat configurations (Low bar, high bar, and front).

 

WARNING — SCIENCE AHEAD!!!

 

So — What do you notice?  In each scenario, the hip, knee, and ankle are obviously bending.  But do you notice how the angles are all markedly different?  That’s worth taking a moment to appreciate.  This is due to a little thing called PHYSICS!  Specifically, the center of mass of your body (including the weight you’re lifting) has to stay over your base of support in order for you not to fall over.  Let me say that again:

Your CENTER-OF-MASS must stay over your BASE OF SUPPORT to stay upright!!!

Your center of mass refers to the point about which all of your body mass is distributed.  If you averaged the positions of ALL of the mass you have, that hypothetical average “spot” is where the center of mass would be.  It’s also called the center of gravity.  If this falls outside of your base of support, you can’t stay upright.  In the case of a standing exercise, that base of support is your feet!  So the bar plus your body weight will need to be balanced over your feet for you to remain standing (or “squatting”).  In the pictures above, you can think of that vertical dashed line as passing through the center of mass.  Notice that it’s over the feet in all three cases.  So when you move the bar farther forward or backward, you also have to adjust your body position to compensate and KEEP that line from falling in front of or behind your feet.

If you have to hold your body in a certain position for the lift when the bar is on your back (picture on the left), it should make sense that you’ll have to lean backward more if you decide to put the bar IN FRONT of your body instead (picture on the right).  Think about it — you’ve just put more weight in front, so you have to bring some of the weight back somehow to keep yourself balanced over your feet.  A great way to do that is to sit more upright.  And that’s exactly what we see in the front squat picture.  Notice also that sitting upright means that we have to bend differently at the knees, hips, and ankles if we want to get down into the bottom position.  Look at the angles in the picture closely!  If we have LESS hip flexion, we have to make up for it by having MORE knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion.  This coordinated movement has to occur for us to get into the bottom position effectively.  Keep that in mind :)

So you can see that you’ll have to adjust your body position to accommodate the way you’re holding the weight.  If the weight moves, the body has to move as well.  You do this all the time when you carry things and move around in a typical day.  Most of the time, you probably don’t even notice!

Alright, that’s all well and good.  We’ve established a basic understanding of how the body can move to adjust to different bar positions.  But what does that really mean in terms of what muscles get used?  To explain this, I need to throw another picture at you.  This picture will be similar to the previous one, but it points out another aspect that I haven’t yet talked about:

 

Edited image gratefully borrowed from barbellacademy.com — Note the distances between the hip and knee joints and the dashed vertical line of force.

So here you see three pictures that are similar to the ones in the previous image.  But instead of joint angles, we’re pointing out something different.  See the horizontal lines coming from the knee and hip joints at each squat position?  They help us to visualize how far those joints are from the line of force (that dashed line representing body weight and the bar in this case).  That distance — the blue line for the hip, and the green line for the knee — is known as the moment arm for the joint.  It’s the perpendicular distance between the axis of rotation (the pivot point or joint in this image) and the line of force being applied to it.  If that all sounds kind of wordy, think of it this way:

How does a wrench work?  It is a tool that lets you grab onto a nut or a bolt and turn it.  And we all know that a longer wrench makes it easier than a shorter one.  But why?  The answer is simple — the longer wrench has a longer moment arm.  That’s important, because the amount of torque (rotational or turning force) that you generate at a joint or axis (the bolt you’re trying to turn, in the wrench example) is directly related to how far away the force you’re applying is.  A long wrench gives you a longer lever, which means you can apply force to turn the bolt from farther away.  That imparts a greater torque to the bolt, making it easier for you to turn it!

So taking that logic back to the squat example, what do we see?  When the joints are farther away from the weight, we can see that the weight will generate more torque at those joints.  That means the weight has a greater mechanical advantage to cause those joints to move (hip and knee flexion, in this case).  So if we’re trying to lift the weight, that means that OUR MUSCLES have to generate more force to oppose that weight.  So if the weight on the bar stays the same, then moving a joint farther away from that imaginary dashed line in the picture will make our muscles work harder at those joints!  We can see that the front squat creates the greatest moment arm at the knees in this picture, while the low bar back squat creates the greatest moment arm at the hips.

With that understanding, we can then say the following (assuming we haven’t altered anything else about the lifts):

1) A front squat will tend to require more work at the knees, AND

2) a back squat (particularly with a lower bar) will tend to require more work at the low back/hips

 

END OF SCIENCE-Y STUFF!

 

So there you have it — a somewhat wordy explanation for WHY a back squat is different from a front squat.  Note that this is still EXTREMELY simplified, and there are many other factors that can further affect how these movements challenge your body.  People with different body segment lengths will “fold up” differently, and some people have much more joint range at the hips, knees, and ankles than others.  As such, not everyone will be able to achieve the same depths or positions.  That’s okay!  But if you understand some of the basics behind body mechanics, you’ll be better equipped to understand why that is and what might be the best approach for your workouts.  There are also different artificial tools that can affect a squat — such as lifting shoes, Smith machines, hack squat machines, etc.  So this is just scratching the surface!

Finally, this was just looking at some basic joint mechanics and trying to appreciate how the major body segments are moving in relation to one another.  Want to know how that affects specific muscles in the hips and legs?  Stay tuned for a future entry that will examine some of the muscular anatomy of the area and give a little insight into what’s actually responsible for lifting you (and that bar!) up off of the floor!

Cheers :)


As I get ready to head to the gym — for a WAY overdue workout, lazy me! — my mind fills once again with the sights and sounds I’m about to encounter.  I’m a member of a local Max Fitness, which means it’s your typical corporate chain gym atmosphere.  Clanking of weights, pop music over the sound system, the shuffling of feet on the alarming number of treadmills.  You get the picture.

Also of note are the people you encounter in such an environment.  You have your teenage first-timers, “problem area” moms, weekend warriors, “gun show” fanatics, and all other sorts.  Some you can learn from.  Some are a little questionable in their methods.  And others you should avoid like the plague!  For a person new to exercise, it can be quite intimidating and confusing.  Whom do you turn to if you have questions?  If there’s one group that should be safe to listen to, it’s the trainers.  Right?  RIGHT???

Well… maybe not.

You see, the problem here is that the term “personal trainer” or “fitness trainer” carries a LOT of latitude.  There’s no single, official, government-sanctioned definition of the term.  Furthermore, there’s virtually no legal oversight given to the field to enforce standards regarding what does or does not constitute a personal trainer.  The only specifics exist in terms of legal boundaries that protect the scope of OTHER professions (for instance, a personal trainer cannot legally dispense medical or dietary prescriptions, as those privileges are preserved for specific professions that require a license).  Since the U.S. government does nothing to define most fitness professions, the fitness industry is left to regulate itself from within.  It does this rather poorly.

 

You'll often see certs like this hanging on the wall or in an office somewhere.  They look quite neat, don't they?

You’ll often see certs like this hanging on the wall or in an office somewhere. They look quite neat, don’t they?

 

If you’ve been around for any length of time, you’ve almost certainly encountered people who are “certified” personal trainers or something similar.  Most of the time, it’s held up as something that needs to be pointed out.  A badge of pride, a sort of “quality seal” for the individual that lets you know that they’re the real deal.  But what does it really mean?  Unfortunately, not much.

A certification process really just establishes a sort of minimum standard.  You study the material, you take an exam (usually just a multiple choice test on a computer these days), and if you get the required 70% or so, you’re now a “Certified Personal Trainer” or something similar.  There are a variety of organizations that offer certifications — ACE, AFAA, ACSM, NASM, NSCA, NFPT, etc. — and they have varying levels of quality in terms of the accuracy and depth of their training materials and the rigor of their testing processes.  Having said that, none of them are really THAT hard.  I would say that, with rare exception, none of the major fitness organizations have tests that a reasonably intelligent person couldn’t pass with 3-4 months of study (and that’s WITHOUT an exercise-related education/background).

As hinted at in that last sentence, there are also no educational requirements beyond a high school diploma and generally a CPR certification.  What this means is that, based on the requirements for certification alone, the piece of paper that someone holds doesn’t stand as any real indication that that individual is QUALIFIED to train you.  It only shows that they passed a test.

Now this is by no means a condemnation of personal trainers.  It merely shows weaknesses in the process by which people obtain certifications in the first place.  I felt it was important to explain this before getting into what you might want to look for in a trainer (if you are seeking the advice of one).  There’s a big difference between having a piece of paper that says you know something (certification) and having the knowledge and thought process to perform the job at hand (qualification).

 

So what the heck DOES constitute a good trainer???

So what the heck DOES constitute a good trainer???

 

Good question, Jackie!

There are quite a number of attributes that I would ascribe to a “good” trainer.  While not exhaustive, the list below contains a few major qualifications trainers should have:

1. – A solid fundamental understanding of exercise science.  This includes sound knowledge of biomechanics (body structure and how it works mechanically), exercise physiology (underlying biological processes related to nutrition, energy, how we adapt to exercise, etc.), and exercise/sport psychology (including understanding of motivation, adherence, and how people can develop good habits for health).  This DOES NOT mean the person goes spouting off jargon every chance they get.  It’s not about trying to show off book knowledge.  But if a trainer is afraid to talk about some of the more technical aspects of why he/she is having  a client do something a certain way, then that’s a big red flag.

2. – An openness to using a variety of tools to get the job done.  By this, I mean that the trainer should not be “married” to any particular exercise method or rigid philosophy.  He/she should be willing to apply whatever method is most appropriate for the particular person and situation for which exercise is being designed.  If a person doesn’t “believe in” machines, bands, free weights, yoga, etc., then there’s probably an issue with that person’s understanding of how those different tools might be applied to serve someone’s capabilities and needs the best.

3. – An ability to justify the approach that is used (NOT be random).  As an important counterbalance to the previous point, an effective trainer knows that variety is only as effective as our ability to temper it with good judgment.  Someone who haphazardly throws a new method or exercise at a client every set or every day is likely to cause injury or, at the very least, impede their progress through a lack of specificity in terms of how the workouts are approached.  The trainer MUST have a good reason for every tool or method that is used.  Do you want to use whole-body barbell movements today and nothing but isometric work with resistance bands tomorrow?  GREAT!  Just know why you’re doing it.  There must always be a justification!

4. – An ability and willingness to communicate effectively with a client.  This includes things like explaining the long-term goals of a particular exercise plan, conveying information about nutrition and lifestyle, and helping the client to develop realistic expectations for progress.  It also means the trainer is able to teach/coach effective techniques for exercise and — now this is a BIG one — knows how to cue a person effectively between and during every repetition if needed so every moment of the workout is used effectively.  This communication will likely be a combination of verbal and nonverbal, and it will strike a healthy balance between too stoic and overly wordy.

5. – Honesty and integrity at all times.  A trainer has an enormous responsibility to the client.  A fitness professional must recognize that someone is putting their health and well being in their hands.  As such, it’s irresponsible to lie or withhold any information that might have any bearing on that person’s health.  If a client is not holding up their end of the agreement (let’s say not eating well or showing motivation), the trainer should take them to task on it.  Likewise, a trainer should hold him/herself responsible for mistakes or oversights AT ALL TIMES.  In addition, the trainer should n0t pressure a client into paying for something he/she doesn’t need.  This includes questionable nutritional supplements or other “secondary income” avenues for the trainer (as well as gym services that the client does not want or need).  I understand that trainers at many gyms are required to try to sell additional services, but there’s a way to handle this that is classy and not overly pushy.

 

 ^^^ EVERY good trainer should fit these characteristics pretty well ^^^

It's important not to mistake a piece of paper for the knowledge it supposedly represents.  Evaluate the person, not the credential!

It’s important not to mistake a piece of paper for the knowledge it supposedly represents. Evaluate the person, not the credential!

You’ll notice that in that list, I didn’t once mention a certification of particular educational background.  That’s because they aren’t necessary to develop the attributes above.  Sure, studying for an exam will probably teach you a few things.  Maybe a lot of things.  But it’s not enough to make you the trainer you need to be.  I’ve met many people with certifications who are great, and many who are terrible.  I’ve also met many without any such credential who are ALSO at both ends of the spectrum.

So when making a decision about whether a person is qualified for the job as a fitness professional, it’s important to look beyond the certification.  Look at the person who earned it.  Because at the end of the day, it’s what you DO with that piece of paper that determines its worth :)

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