Preventive maintenance for your workout?

I have an online client who mentioned that he was not feeling great with the front squats in his program, but he was pretty confident he was doing them well since he is an experienced lifter. He is smart and self-aware, so I tended to think he was probably right. But I asked him to get someone to video his front squat because I have a pretty good eye for small details (I’m a ski instructor – if you can find small faults as someone launches past you on a ski hill, standing still on flat land is a piece of cake) and I just wanted to see what was up. Partly I just wanted to be sure that it was good form, because that would impact what exercises I would give to him.

He did, and before I even got the link he noted that he could see one major flaw in his front squat and that he was confident that I’d be able to help with it. I saw the video, which his son uploaded to youtube, and he is correct! The front view of the squat looks great – shoulders look great, the knees don’t cave in, and no lateral (side) shift. This is the view that you would have if trying to watch your own form at the gym if you had a mirror in front of you. Then came the side view, which lets face it, we don’t get to see. When you’re deep into a squat with weight on your back, you really don’t want to be turning your head to the side to check form. It could lead to bad things for your neck or back. But in fact, the side view showed the big flaw in his squat: his knees move way too forward as he comes down and his heels rise up slightly.

In the personal trainer and strength coach world, we call this a quad-dominant squat. It’s also the kind of squat that is bad for the knees. I like the expression: “squats are not bad for your knees; squats done poorly are bad for your knees”. Proper squat form would involve the weight shifting backwards more, and therefore having more glute and hamstring involvement. I’m so glad that we live in an age where the technology exists for me to watch the squat form for a client from across the continent. Because now I can have him put a box just behind him as he squats and instruct him to move the hips before the knees, keep the weight between the heels and balls of the feet, and touch the box lightly with his buttocks at the bottom, without actually sitting, then stand back up. This should move him to a proper squat position and start to recruit those glutes.

About an hour later I started thinking about the many, many people who train themselves. In some cases, people who train themselves have good and smart programs; in others, not so good. If you train yourself, hopefully you fall into the former category, but either way, the quality of the movement is very important.

When was the last time you got an objective view of your form?

How about the trainers among us? Many of us create our own workouts and are our own coaches. Who is correcting our form? You can only see so much in a mirror, and frankly, some exercises, like the front squat are not conducive to mirror watching as it can make them dangerous.

Thankfully there is a solution! Setup a tripod and take a video of yourself, or get a friend to take their smartphone out and film your lifts. Then take a look. Ask them to take a look. If you are not confident in your own or your friend’s ability to critique your form, post it on an online forum (like www.femalefitnessforum.com for the awesome women out there who workout!) and ask for input.

Be critical! Ask others to be critical.

Is your back rounding in your deadlift?
Are you really going to parallel in your squat?
Are you getting full range in your pullups?
Does your right shoulder creep up to your ear when you bench?
What are your hips and knees doing in your split squats?

If it turns out that your form is poor in any exercises, it is probably time to fix it. You may be able to correct it just by focusing on the movement, but odds are, you will have to reduce the weight some to be able to fix the form. I know going back in weight is not popular, but it is well worth it.

While you are at it, give some thought to what is wrong. If your deadlift is off, maybe your hip mobility is not where it could be. If your squat is less than great, maybe you could use some work on thoracic spine mobility? In both cases, how are those lats and glutes? Maybe they need a kick-start?

Spending a couple of weeks fixing form and adding corrective exercises to your program can lead to personal bests within a month or two because it means you are now using your body more efficiently. And it certainly reduces your injury risk. Win-win! Consider turning this into regularly scheduled workout maintenance.

How can you make sure you’ll remember to do it? Plan to review your form every time you take your car in for an oil change. Because let’s face it, most of us are more likely to investigate a creaky car part than a creaky body part.

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Have questions or comments? Please post ‘em and I’ll try to answer ‘em.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who works primarily with athletes and active adults. She also provides online training programs for those outside the Ottawa area.

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