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There are many times in the life of a personal fitness trainer in which you will need to be able to assess a client's body, and specifically the kinetic chain. You must understand the kinetic chain and be able to use that understanding to assess issues with your clients. This will give you a great deal of credibility and ensure that your clients trust your abilities and can give them actionable programming. These are the primary benefits and importance of kinetic chain assessment.
The question of what personal trainers need to know about the kinetic chain in order to offer the best advice they can really boils down to evaluating things like movement, strength, posture, and the way it all ties together. It's also important to know your limits. Personal trainers aren't physical therapists, and unless you hold a specialization, like ISSA's Corrective Exercise Specialist Certification, an advanced degree, or another form of credential in that respect, know from the beginning that pain isn't part of this. Pain is when you should know that it's time to get a professional in sports medicine involved.
This doesn't mean that you can't assist with recovery within their parameters, but for the record here, we're mainly going to deal with recovery once an injury has healed, assessing common issues with lifestyle and workplace kinetic chain problems, and athletic performance. These are absolutely within your scope of practice and are a great way to provide extensive value to the people you train regularly.
The kinetic chain is a principle of human movement within the body in which we make observations in order to optimize performance. It's used by fitness professionals, physical therapists, and other rehabilitation specialists in order to assess problems with movement and correct them.
This could be anything from favoring one side due to an old hip injury to a lack in strength in one side from a former training regimen that lacked balance. It's especially common in former athletes, for instance, how a quarterback might favor one side from simply throwing right-handed for their entire high school career or how a pitcher might have used one arm more than the other. These are completely understandable issues, and there are ways to correct them.
The goal here is to give you tools and resources for assessing the kinetic chain in your own clients, so that you can either help them to correct imbalance or determine whether or not something might be injured.
There are two types of kinetic chains, open and closed. An open kinetic chain is where the extremity is free-flowing, similar to a bench press, where the weight on one end is in the air. A closed kinetic chain is where the sequence of motion is grounded, and the joints are securely fixed, like in a pushup.
In these two examples, you can see where a similar exercise which works similar muscles can be described as open or closed kinetic chains.
There are different purposes for each type. For instance, an open kinetic chain tends to isolate particular muscle groups better on singular planes. Closed kinetic chains tend to require multiple planes of movement, even at similar joints, in order to remain stable.
For a more in-depth look at this, check out our previous article on Your Guide to The Kinetic Chain.
Ultimately, what you're trying to do with a kinetic chain assessment is determine if there are issues in your client's body efficiency. If one side or muscle group in the body is underdeveloped, it can cause other issues throughout. The reason we talk about it in terms of a chain is because nothing in the human body happens in a vacuum. Rather, everything is connected.
The assessment will help you to determine their fitness goals for their exercise programming, and will require a little bit of testing on your part. You can determine helpful things like range of motion, muscle strength, whether or not they're achieving proper muscle activation, and a host of other things which will help you with more positive outcome measures and achieving real results.
To begin with, what does the client do 40 hours a week at work? Are they mainly sitting? Does their work involve a lot of manual labor? Do they use a computer a lot?
Furthermore, how do they spend most of their leisure time? Do they go outside very often? Do they play a lot of video games? Do they tend to socialize on a bar stool most nights? Are they into home improvement projects?
Finally, you want to know about their medical history, especially as it relates to their physiology. Did they suffer an injury to their shoulder in high school? How many ankle sprains have they suffered in their lives? Do they experience pain or discomfort while moving in the past?
All of this needs to be taken into account when you're performing your assessment. It gives you context and can indicate a place to begin when you move on to the other pieces of your assessment.
This is one of the easier objective measures you have—it simply relies on looking at the posture of the body. How is their postural control? Looking at their body from the front, the back, and the side will give you some great insights.
Look at the feet and ankles. Is there significant pronation or supination? Is there knee flexion or knee extension? And how are the knees aligned overall?
Then, move up the body to other factors. Are the hip and pelvis properly aligned with the torso? Are they pushing out in the pelvis in one direction or another? Do they favor one side, leaning one way or another? Is their lower back properly aligned? How much curvature is there in the spine? Sometimes, you need to ask them to perform a forward bend to get a better impression of how their back curves.
Finally, move up to the shoulders. Are they slouching? Do their shoulders slope evenly (if not, this can also be an indicator of previous injury)? Is there symmetry from one side to the other? Then, look at the positioning of the head. Is it in neutral alignment, or is it positioned more forward? This can give you good insight into any existing rotator cuff issues, or general shoulder problems you might run into.
These are all helpful guides and will give you valuable insights to how the client carries themselves. Remember that small postural issues might seem small, but over time and with use, they can cause issues throughout the kinetic chain.
Now, it's time to bring some energy into it. One great way to pinpoint issues is with actual movement in the body. In particular, you can use 10 repetitions of an overhead squat to really look for weak points. For this, you want to keep a special eye on factors like the foot's position and flexion in the knee throughout the movement.
As you watch them perform each repetition, write down how these movements cause shifts in the feet, knees, and ankles. Are the feet pointing outward? Is the knee bending properly? You can usually use this to diagnose weakness in the lower body muscle groups, for instance, if the quadriceps muscles are favoring one side or another, or if the muscles themselves are too weak to support the person's frame, as can often happen with people struggling with obesity.
This also gives you the opportunity, when viewing from the side, to determine if they're leaning forward too much, and ascertain whether the spine is curved enough to support proper form.
Take careful note here, as you can also deduce whether there are weaknesses in the back in general, and whether the core is firing properly and doing its job to stabilize the entire frame.
Remember that if the client feels pain at any point to stop immediately and record the information. Where is the pain occurring? How often do they feel this pain? This is great information for them to take to their doctor in order to find treatment so that they don't get injured. Pain is never a good thing, and it's often beyond the scope of what personal trainers are qualified to address.
Another technique often employed in an assessment is pushing and pulling with the hands. Have your client push against your hands and feel the resistance they give. Is it directed? Is it balanced from the left hand to the right? And, again, is there any pain in the kinetic chain leading up the shoulder? Is the shoulder moving properly as pressure is applied? Evaluate the same way with a muscle pull.
Also, make sure that you're being cognizant of the head position as your client is pushing and pulling.
Finally, one great indicator of issues in the kinetic chain is to test the balance of your client. For this, have them remove their socks and shoes, and stand on a hard surface. It's advisable to have something to hold onto if they are nervous or lack confidence in their own balance, just in case they fall.
Have them stand up straight with their feet together. Then, have them lift their foot six inches off the ground or place their foot against their opposite leg. A healthy adult under 30 should be able to maintain this position for about 30 seconds. Clients older than 30 might need to do slightly less.
Ultimately, this will test their balance on each foot, and likely will reveal issues in the kinetic chain of the legs. Being that the body is a contiguous unit, core strength has a lot to do with the ability to balance.
If they are struggling, try to see why. Have them switch feet and try it again while the other leg rests.
You're looking for signs of trembling in the feet and ankles, or problems with the knees. Often, if someone has had an injury to the lower extremities, you will find the issues here. Furthermore, this tests the resiliency and strength of the supporting musculature of these joints.
Balance is something that must be practiced, and it's very possible for someone to be able to do a weighted squat yet fundamentally not be able to balance on their feet. By taking time in your programming to work on their balance and core strength, these issues can be addressed, and their performance in other areas will approve in tandem with their balance.
Once you've completed the assessment of the client's kinetic chain, you will be able to better anticipate their needs. Whereas there are many trainers who will jump right into the basics of working out, taking the time to do this work will yield positive results.
Focusing on the little things will pay dividends down the line. When someone's been training for a long time, they can get reliant on favoring one side or another, and end up not doing what's necessary to balance out their abilities. This is a recipe for injury down the line.
Assessing the kinetic chain is a great way to provide optimal value to your clients. It communicates your knowledge, your professionalism, and that you bother with the small things. To retain a client, it's important that they have faith in you and in your abilities.
For some, this will require you to stretch your coaching muscles, as well. Often, people want to just jump into the hard, sweating workouts that they see on TV or hear about their friends doing, not realizing that there is a necessary build into this. And even for people who have likely trained on their own for years, there are often issues that they may not be aware of fully. It can be easy to hide things from ourselves without realizing it, and you can often witness this in people who perpetually work out alone. A lot of times, these individuals might be more focused on the number of repetitions they performed or the amount of weight they lifted instead of paying attention to the small things. They could have issues with form, issues with balance, or a whole host of other issues that a simple kinetic chain assessment will reveal.
All in all, it's your job to do a proper evaluation of your clients to ensure that they are and remain as healthy as possible. Just take the time to focus on the small things, and you will have a client who can push through most anything you throw at them later with the confidence that they're in professional hands.
Are you ready to learn more about how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions in your clients? Expand your knowledge and skillset with ISSA's Corrective Exercise course online. You'll learn everything you need to know to start helping clients start moving and feeling better.
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