Safety / Injuries
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Corrective Exercise - Are You Doing it Right?
How to Cue Good Form for Injury Prevention
Corrective exercises: not everyone’s favorite part of a workout, but so important to keep your clients injury-free.
As trainers, we use corrective exercises to “correct” the movement compensations people make that lead to pain and injuries.
For example, maybe you have a client whose left shoulder is abducting during a biceps curl. If she keeps doing that, she will end up with pain and potentially a real injury.
What leads to the use of a movement compensation like this is either poor motor control, poor mobility, or lack of strength in a muscle, like an adductor in this example.
So, in this case, you may wonder:
“Is her left shoulder abducting because the adductors are weak?
“Or is it because her nervous system doesn’t have sufficient motor control to hold that joint steady with the load that’s being lifted?”
While it’s great that you really want to dissect what’s going on with your client, actually determining the true underlying cause of movement compensation is tricky.
The good news is that, regardless of the cause, you can help her fix it with corrective exercises but....only if you cue those exercises effectively!
How to Cue a Client
A common way for trainers and therapists to cue their clients is to say something like “squeeze this” or “brace that” during an exercise. These are known as internal cues because they require the client to focus on something that’s happening inside the body.
Even though an internal focus can be beneficial at times, research by Gabriele Wulf Ph.D. has demonstrated that external cues are more effective in helping someone learn a complex movement—the type of movement that is usually most helpful when doing corrective exercises.
Here are a few of examples of internal vs. external cues in sports and exercise:
- While practicing a free throw, a basketball player concentrates on hitting the back of the rim (external focus) instead of the movement of the wrist (internal focus).
- In the gym, this external focus translates into telling your client to “try to bend the bar” during a pull-up instead of saying, “squeeze your lats."
- When your client is about to lock out his hips at the end of a squat or deadlift, an external cue would be “push the bottom of your shoes into the floor” instead of telling him to “lock out your hips.”
- You place a mini resistance band around your client’s lower thighs to activate the glute muscles during a squat. Instead of telling him “spread your knees” during the squat, a more effective external focus would be to tell him to “stretch the band” during each repetition.
Learning to use external cues instead of internal cues takes practice, and some exercises are easier to cue than others. But if you start using more external cues, you can help your clients better learn and more effectively engage in more complex corrective exercises.
What about Feedback?
It’s hard to resist correcting form as soon as you see a problem, but research has shown that it’s better to let your client go through a few faulty repetitions when learning a new movement.
Why? This allows clients to feel how their bodies naturally try to move before you give feedback and a correction. Of course, if it’s a challenging exercise and the client’s form is so poor that injury is likely, you should make a correction right away.
Here’s the best way to provide feedback during corrective exercises:
- Start him with a light load, or no load at all
- Have him perform several repetitions
- Summarize what your client needs to do differently to correct his form at the end of the set
This strategy of using less load and only a few reps reduces the risk of injury while still allowing for enough repetitions so that the client can actually feel the incorrect movement and get good feedback to fix it.
As an example, after watching your client perform a short, light set of the standing dumbbell shoulder press, you might give him the feedback that he needs to “push the dumbbells closer to the ceiling” if his range of motion was less than optimal.
This particular example for feedback combines the use of external cues with good feedback timing. Research suggests that giving clients feedback immediately after a short set, instead of during it, improves motor learning.
The Takeaway – Correct Form First, Interventions Later
Click image to view full infographic or download PDF here and print for your clients.
In a perfect world, people would be able to participate in the sports and activities they enjoy—or just slog through a workout session—without the burden of corrective exercises cutting into that time.
But, corrective exercises are important. Correcting form with effective cues is how you as a trainer can ensure that your clients stay safe and comfortable while working out. While there is a time and a place for corrective interventions, like foam rolling, stretches, and thoracic spine drills, correctly cueing a client to use better form can resolve nagging issues so that you can avoid these interventions.
We’ll cover how and when to use those interventions in the ISSA’s New Corrective Exercise Specialist course. We’ll also cover how to use and cue corrective exercises first, before the use of interventions. The best corrective exercise is to teach your clients how to move with better form, and cueing the exercise effectively should be your first corrective intervention.
Dr. Chad Waterbury
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Corrective Exercise Specialist
The ISSA's Corrective Exercise Course will help you learn how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions that you are likely to see in a wide range of clients, from the weekend warrior to the serious athlete. Both health care professionals and certified personal trainers can benefit from this distance education course, learning more about how people move incorrectly and how to guide them to correct those dysfunctions.
Please note: The information provided in this course is for general educational purposes only. The material is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider regarding particular medical conditions and needs.