Monday, May 2, 2011

Should You Spend ALL Your Time on Corrective Work?

Assessments are a vital tool to creating effective exercise programs. When fitness programs take into account assessment findings and they aim at improving one's performance, that usually assures that a client will reach a level of success. However, what do you do when you have a client that has paid you $750 for a package...eager to begin...and is looking forward to achieving some great results because she has heard so much about you AND is ready to refer many of her co-workers to you??

Time to pony up. A client's expectations can put alot of pressure on a fitness professional--especially when their money is good and you truly want to help them become your next walking billboard.

There are times when the personal trainer can focus a little too much on the assessment findings and tailor an entire program to try and correct one movement flaw.

I know what you are thinking..."John, what are you talking about? This goes against everything you always say?!"

Sounds blasphemous?

But this is a problem I have seen in many new trainers that have acquired tons of new information regarding functionality and joint kinematics. New knowledge opens many doors for a personal trainer; causing a 'system overload' that actually confuses the trainer on where to lead the program into. Assessments are perfect for showing a trainer where to start with an exercise program; but for some, if you do not  veer off the path of 'carefulness', your program will get stuck in the mud.

In this world of quickness and instantaneous gains, clients demand alot out of their dollar. At times, personal trainers have to 'sell them' on corrective work. Basically, we know corrective work is needed where applicable, but most exercises and drills are simple, isolated, and don't pack big punches like other compound movements like squats, bench presses, and lunges. Most clients really don't understand the importance of bird-dogs, bridges, wall slides, and quadruped thoracic mobility rotation...until they start feeling a difference!! But as mentioned earlier, we are  a society that wants things fast and if the main goal is fat loss, chances are the corrective work is not going to keep your client enthused and excited for each upcoming session.

Designing an exercise program based on assessment findings is actually easy. However, trainers become paralyzed with the progression into the actual 'meat and potatoes' of the program because they have yet to reach perfection based on the corrective phase.

Check out the image below of my client on the LEFT. He wants his swing to look like the guy's on the RIGHT. My client is 74 years old. The guy on the left is 23. Mayor difference in age bring about differences in mechanics. I need to accept that his swing may not look perfect, but it has to improve noticeably for my client to be pleased.

His assessment looked horrible. Forty plus years as a physician made Mr. Weaver a very wealthy man, but he suffered from a poor golf game. His years as a doctor didn't leave him much time for golf, so he picked it up later in life. Unfortunately, his joints don't care that he wants to play golf now...his joints are settled in their patterns and its unlikely they will change unless he adheres to a plan that is simple and easy to commit to.

And that is where the problem begins. When trainers try to reach perfection in movement patterns they paralyze the entire program. They become fixated on correcting every small detail in movement deficiency. What many have a hard time swallowing is that most movement deficiencies uncovered in an assessment are gradually developed over a period of time (years) from poor posturing, occupation, injury, and lack of conditioning. It takes time to develop a poor movement pattern and it will take time to improve upon it. Truth be told, corrective work is "little" compared to what the client expects to reach his/her goal. Although,  the end result is huge, it pales in comparison to the "meat and potatoes" of a program that is geared towards fat loss or strength gain. So that is why I break it down into boulders, rocks, and pebbles.

Boulders - This is your "meat and potatoes" of the program (if you are Italian like me, you'll like to always refer to food in your explanations). Boulders represent your main exercises that are geared towards the ultimate goal. These may include your squats, bench presses, lunges, chin-ups, box name it. If the goals is adding size, losing fat, or getting faster--the exercises that will aid that process belong in this category. You can typically see how many boulders are in a group, so it is really easy to distinguish your main exercises from the rest that will follow.

Rocks - There are usually more rocks than boulders because they don't take up as much room--such as your main exercises in a program. Rocks represent your specific exercises or drills that will aid the boulder exercises to becoming better. These are your assistance exercises, or as some call, auxiliary exercises. In some cases, your rocks can also be your flexibility exercises (i.e. stretches).

Pebbles -  Here is where the corrective exercises can be placed throughout the program. Dispersed throughout workouts either at the beginning (as part of the warm up series) or within rest periods or circuits completions. These are exercises that directly impact your findings in the assessment. Some corrective exercises may need to be completed in a specific order to re-program the nervous system.

Here's an example using my client mentioned and pictured above:

Boulder Exercises
Squats - Not loaded. Just body-weight...learning the hip-hinge pattern. 

Wall Push Ups - For upper-body strength 

Pallof Presses - Standing core stability work. Standing  is more functional for a 74 year old golfer

Rock Exercises:
Cable Wood-chops - I use these more to teach hip separation and oblique movement. These are ugly in the beginning, so many of my "pebble" exercises are used in conjunction.

Medicine Ball Wood-chops with Added 1/4 Squat - Again, to reinforce the squat pattern with proper hip hinging, I like to add a bit of speed using a 4-6 pound medicine ball.

Pebble Exercises:
Clam Shells - Learning the glute medius

Side Lying Hip Openers - For hip mobility. These are rather simple to perform, but can be muffed if the exerciser is not coached effectively.

Small Band Pull-Aparts - These are great of the external rotators of the shoulders and the posterior deltoids.
The next time you are designing a program, don't be paralyzed into thinking you can't progress into using some of the boulder exercises that you want to use. Surely, your plan will have to be thought-out well, but make the program fun and interesting for the client. I am sure they will stick with it more and that is the most important thing.


  1. "It takes time to develop a poor movement pattern and it will take time to improve upon it."

    That is well said. For my part, I don't expect a perfect movement straight up, I just expect that the movement should not cause them pain, and that it'll improve over time. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than it was? Yes? Good, then.

    In regards to boulders, rocks and pebbles, you're reminding me of something a friend told me. Picture a large jar, and a few large stones and many small stones. Put all the small stones in first, you'll only be able to fit in one or two big stones. But put the big stones in first, they all fit in, then all the small stones fit in around them.

    So perhaps that's another way to say what you said: deal with the big and important stuff first, the small stuff will fall into place around it.

  2. Thank you for a good read. I agree with this and one thing that I think is important but not always easy to accomplish as a trainer is to make your clients do some corrective work on their own in between sessions. A regular client may see you perhaps one or two times per week which is often enough to increase their basic strength and fitness levels but I think "pebble exercises" in general must be performed more frequently.
    Often it´s a hard struggle as a coach to convince your clients to actually follow an easy 5 min daily (stretch/mobility/activation) routine but in the long run it will be beneficial for both. The client gets a better movementpattern and can spend less time on the boring stuff and more on heavy lifting during the personal training sessions. You will get a happier and stronger client who will hopefully continue to train with you for a long time.

    Erik Lavesson

  3. Great post John,

    This is how my own training has evolved over time.

    I realised rest periods where a client is either standing around or doing light aerobic active recovery could be far better used for drills to pull up alot of weak areas - from scap stabilty, dynamic stretching, activating glutes, opening up the hips and so on.

    By using these as fillers, sessions have a nice flow and the client is never getting bored, while I'm mixing the medicine in with the sauce.

    I think alot of my clients appreciate these drills too as it means they are getting a bit of a breather from the meat and potato exercises which are tough!


Thanks for checking out the blog and commenting!