Fitness people are often guilty of overloading the unsuspecting gym public with overly complex instructional information. We tend to emphasise specific instructional cues for certain exercises, thus generating some confusion as to what instructions apply to what exercises. “Look up or down? Hips forward or back? Chest up or down? Shoulders forward or back?”
When practising a new physical skill, unfortunately as humans we are quite limited in our ability to process multiple instructions all at once. Implementing them into a quick movement that may not take much more than two seconds to complete is even more challenging.
If we make a mistake, then we get bombarded with additional correctional instructions over and above the original basic instructions we already had difficulty processing in the first place. This physiological reality can present quite a challenge for the overzealous fitness professional.
The more we learn about exercise technique the more we are able to identify the common denominators. I’m not usually a fan of cheesy acronyms but when it comes to sharpening your technique, I’ve got one of my very own I like to call upon.
For sharper technique in the gym, you must be, quite simply, ‘sharp’. By paying attention to speed, heels, alignment, range and posture, you can practise safe and effective techniques in each and every movement you perform. Let’s take a look at each ‘sharp’ factor in a little more detail.
Speed of movement is the first element we shall consider, for it is one of the most common mistakes we see. Unless stipulated otherwise, speed of movement in most of the moves we perform in the gym should be deliberate and smooth, no swinging or jerking.
We want the muscles to perform the work, not momentum. If we cannot complete the movement without the assistance of physics, then the weight is too heavy. You’ll achieve a lot more by lowering the weight and striving for continuous muscular tension.
Apart from increasing effectiveness, we are also lowering risk of sustaining injuries. Jerky movements can lead to muscle, tendon or ligament tears either suddenly or slowly over a longer period of sustained abuse. Always think smooth and deliberate, and stay in control.
Next, consider the heels. This may sound a little odd, but remember that while in the competitive sports arena we tend to live on the balls of our feet, in the gym we live on our heels. Any exercise performed in a standing position with additional weight in hand will require some special attention paid towards weight distribution.
Performing exercises, like squats, deadlifts or good mornings will require the combined centre of gravity of your body and the extra resistance being handled, to act predominantly over the portion of your foot between the centre and the edge of your heel, as seen from the side. If you let the combined weight shift forwards to the balls of your feet while attempting to control a heavy barbell, you can expect to eat a face full of gym floor.
When engaging the major joint structures of the body, alignment is crucial. For leg exercises, consider the position of the knee in between the hip and foot, as seen from the front.
It should fall in the middle of the two, naturally aligned. The further it moves out of this natural alignment, the more unnecessary torque forces will act on the knees themselves, hips and ankles.
Apart from reducing the effectiveness of the exercise, this could also lead to joint injuries. Consider also in the same fashion the alignment of the shoulders, elbows and hands during compound exercises, like bench presses and shoulder presses, as seen directly from above.
When handling dumbbells, this is even more important. If the elbow is not aligned in direct support of the hand, when fatigued you may lose control of heavy dumbbells with dire consequences.
When considering range, observe the total range of motion through which the working joints act. If you are performing a biceps curl for example, the forearm should move through a range of motion that takes the elbow joint from near total extension with the arm in a near-straight position, to full flexion at the top, hand closing in on the shoulder, and biceps fully engaged.
Squats should be performed until the thigh is parallel to the floor, and bench presses should be performed until the bar comes into light contact with the chest. Don’t take shortcuts; exploit a full range at all times.
And finally, posture. A good friend of mine once described ideal posture to me as imagining the body is hung from a string attached to the centre of the top of the head. This tends to promote the idea of all body parts ‘hanging’ in their correct positions without undue tension. The most important feature of such natural posture is the position of the back.
The typical spine aligns itself into an S-shaped curved structure as seen from the side. This is known as a neutral back position. Whatever we do in the gym, or anywhere else for that matter, this neutral back position should always be preserved.
Any position that attempts to force the back out of neutral alignment will require the core muscles to contract to preserve core stability and support the spine.
Always think: perfect posture, tummy tight.