Making an exercise harder is easy: do more reps, choose a heavier weight, go faster, etc. But some of the most “basic” exercises such as pushups or squats are beyond the ability a number of people. And I’m not just talking about the ability to do it…I’m also talking about the ability to do it right. My time working at Hospital for Special Surgery and Hamilton Health and Fitness over the past year has given me an even greater appreciation for the need to understand how our body works, where our current movement abilities are and creating an effective plan to get us moving better…even if we don’t know where our abs are or what they do. Here are my thoughts:
It is essential to establish a baseline of body awareness with someone (or yourself) before trying to do major exercises or activities. Body awareness means knowing where you are in space and what muscles are being tensed at a given point in time either while being still or in motion. Do we understand the difference between tight and relaxed? Or are we so strung up that tight is the default and we don’t know anything else?
Some of my clients initially had a hard time describing how a particular exercise or stretch made them feel. Just like any other skill, body awareness needs to be practiced. Before working out, take a moment and see how you feel: any particular areas tight? When exercises, do you find one side working harder than another when both sides should be working equally? Are you feeling the exercise in the right place/muscle? There are entire disciplines involved in helping build body awareness including Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique and Tai Chi. Experienced and knowledgeable athletic trainers, physical therapists and yoga and Pilates instructors can also help.
When performing any exercise, it is essential to know which muscles should be working and which are not. These days we sit in so many chronic postures and positions (sitting, hunching at a computer, carrying a bag on one side, wearing heels), we can no longer assume that the body just “knows how to move”.
Before performing a new exercise, I make it a point to tell my clients where they should and should not feel it. I also frequently ask my clients where they are feeling an exercise to reinforce their ability to feel what they are doing so they can perform it properly when I’m not there. Ultimately, building body awareness during exercise provides us with increased control over our body and its movements. And ultimately it allows us to troubleshoot as we progress or try new exercises.
When someone does not feel an exercise in the right muscles/areas, I know something is not working properly. Either they are not aligned properly, they are not able to properly stabilize the movement, or they are not strong enough for the movement. Let’s consider one of the most popular, but often poorly performed exercises: the pushup. The pushup should involve someone lowering themselves down as one unit toward the ground until the entire body almost touches the ground and then the chest helps push you back up while the abdominals stabilize the up-and-down. Your head should not droop down, your shoulders should not hike and your lower back should not collapse as you go down. Doing quarter- or half-pushups is not particularly helpful…regression until you can do the full movement is ideal (see below). The pushup should be primarily felt in the chest and abdominals…not deep in the shoulder or radiating down the triceps.
- Check for alignment: Most people should have their shoulders approximately in line with their hands and should move up and down in one unit. Note if your shoulders tend to run away from your hands or if you are pulling your shoulders too far forward over your hands. Everyone has their own “sweet spot” that should make your abs and chest turn on like a light bulb.
- Check for stability: In this case, people are likely able to do the exercise, but just can never seem to get it in the “right” muscles. Often I have clients either squeeze a yoga block between their inner thighs above the knee (so the legs are hip width or so) to pre-engage their abdominals or have them do it on a bar where they can tightly grip it to pre-engage the scapular stabilizers. Usually if we can get those firing and get good alignment, the feeling should shift to the right spots.
- Check for strength: If someone cannot go through the full range of motion, then odds are they should not be performing that exercise as-is. So if you see someone doing quarter-pushups or piking their hips up into the air and not lowering themselves all the way down and up in one straight line, then the pushup is probably too challenging at the moment.
A great way to regress them is to merely bring them higher up…that’s why so many PT’s have patients do “wall” push-ups. The higher up we go, the less of our body weight we must bear. Determine the height that allows you to move properly and engage the right muscles. Consider a stable table or counter top. Or if there is an adjustable Smith Machine at your gym, that’s great too. Or you can do a modified pushup on your knees. They are not girly, they are smart if you want to ensure you are training properly and minimizing injury risk. You can then progressively lower yourself down over time until you are on the ground. Knowledgeable physical therapists are an excellent source of regression ideas…consider the population they are training/rehabbing!
For my clients, I love it when they tell me that they practiced a couple times during the week and felt everything in the right places. Because I know then they have the ability to move properly not only today or tomorrow, but for the rest of their lives. I taught them how to fish 🙂