Is there such thing as “Perfect Form”…and are you focusing on the wrong cues with your clients?

If you’re a personal or group trainer/coach/instructor and are always stressing the importance of “perfect form,” you might want to re-think your approach.

There is absolutely no such thing as perfect form that everyone should be able to perform. We all have different shapes, sizes, strengths, injuries, histories, etc. We are all unique.

There is absolutely a goal that we strive for and positions that will help decrease the risk of injury, but even for those of us who are highly educated on what these forms would look like…truthfully, how many of us can consistently execute these flawlessly every time?

Here are my rules regarding exercise:

  1. It must be safe

This means minimizing risk. Just as there is no perfect form, there is no perfectly safe exercise either. There are, however, obvious higher-risk positions that we can make sure to avoid.

  1. It should be working towards whatever goal we had in mind.

As an example, take the deadlift:

The goal is total body strength, more specifically the entire back side of the body. There are a lot of different deadlift variations (please see David Dellanave’s Off the Floor book) and each is fine. And within those variations there will be differences between clients; we just have to make sure we aren’t allowing the body to get into positions it is not ready for. Generally speaking, in the deadlift that would be a flexed spine, locked knees, coming off the heels, letting the weight get out in front of you, or a “pez-dispenser” bobble-head situation.

It just so happens that if you avoid those common potential issues, you’ll likely be safer and you will have moved the exercise into “yes, it is accomplishing the goal.” Now, the amount of knee bend, the grip taken, the exact head position, the foot width, the height the weight is lifted from: all this can vary and still have the exercise be safe, and accomplishing the goal.

This post isn’t about form and variations etc., as that stuff has been written about extensively by many people. This is about how you as a trainer are affecting the focus of your clients by overemphasizing perfect form (or inherently safe or inherently dangerous form) in exercises.

Let’s talk about weight loss as another example:

Does your client just want to lose weight…and you’re worried about them qualifying for an Olympic competition or the CF games? Just make sure they’re safe and not going to get hurt.

So how is this over-emphasis on perfection an issue?

How your focus might be affecting your clients

  • You can make them scared to do anything “wrong.”
  • You might be convincing them they don’t get anything out of doing it “less than perfectly.”
  • You may be spending so much time correcting that you have them feel unsuccessful and frustrated.
  • You spend so much time correcting that they end up not getting that much exercising done.

How it affects other Fitness Pros

  • They now have to deal with scared clients, who overthink everything and fall prey to over-analyzation and under-doing.
  • Many fitspo memes just say to START. This is true, even if the rest of the memes are not.
  • Instead of just getting down to coaching exercise we have to spend a lot of our efforts convincing people that exercise is inherently safe.
  • We have to spend a lot of our efforts convincing people that what they are doing, even if it’s not perfect, is very valuable.
  • Instead of just focusing on the benefits of exercise as a whole, we have to spend time explaining why each and every exercise we do is a good idea. That is part curiosity of the client, which is a good thing, but sometimes it’s because they don’t trust us.
  • And that last part is really tragic. There are a ton of fitness people (and most of us truly want to help people to feel and live better, happier, healthier lives), but we teach clients to not trust fitness people. Many times we do this in an attempt (whether conscious or not) to try and set ourselves apart and be “better/smarter” than other fitness people, so we constantly bombard potential and actual clients with these types of messages:
    • “Top 10 reasons that crunches are bad for your back”
    • “Why running will kill you”
    • “Why not running will kill you”
    • “If you can’t squat you’re not going to be fit!”

So what would I ask you to do?

Follow some general guidelines:

  • Coach people to understand that there is no such thing as inherently safe or dangerous
  • Coach people to understand that they can do way more than they think they can; it just means they need to practice in order to get there.
  • Coach people to understand that no, they should not do things that hurt – but if they invest enough time doing things that don’t hurt, they may be able to get back to doing things they can’t currently do.
  • Coach them to know that if they can’t squat/deadlift/press/run right now, they can still be successful and have amazing progress.
  • Keep them safe and feeling successful. Success breeds success.
  • Don’t scare your clients! (It “scars” them for the future.)
  • Don’t underestimate how scared and scarred people are when they come to you.
  • Definitely don’t to things to contribute to those feelings.

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