Coaching the Joint-by-Joint versus Talking About It

Coaching the Joint-by-Joint vs. Talking About It

Great article for you today on the joint by joint approach.

Thank you, Sam, for sending it over.

Take it away, Sam…

Preface: I am purposely keeping the text in this article short to allow for lots of applied content via the illustrations involved. The redundancy is on purpose. Enjoy!

In modern training jargon the “joint-by-joint” has made its way into colloquialism. By now most who speak it understand the implications. Michael Boyle introduced it to the training world after discussions with Gray Cook  and thus was born the Joint-by-Joint Principles (1).

A little while after, Dr.Charlie Weingroff elaborated and optimized the model to satisfy the nay sayers and thus was born the Advanced Joint-by-Joint (2) and Advanced Principles (3).

If you’re reading this and aren’t quite familiar with such things, please review those articles before continuing reading here. You can get the links to those articles at the end of this article in the reference area.

For those who are familiar and want a deeper understanding, I recommend products (4) put out by Charlie Weingroff, Shirley Sahraman, Gray Cook, and a few select others you can find on my resources page (4).

So let’s get into it. Throughout this profession you’ll find coaches claiming the manner in which they cue exercises is optimal and satisfies the joint-by-joint principles, ensuring utmost safety and transfer of training stimulus to the desired structures/tissues. However, many times what is said and what is shown in their articles, blogs, social media, etc. are two different things, revealing their thought process drops off at the distal body segments.

Most understand, for example, the “shoulder blades back and down” coaching cue because the scapula-thoracic joint is a “stable” joint. It’s just as obvious via the anatomy that the lumbar spine is a “stable” joint and should not be cued into large flexion/extension/rotation moments during an exercise. What’s not so obvious for some, still, is things like the foot, hallux (big toe), cervical spine, etc. How should you coach these joints during exercises? Below is a “quick hitter” display of optimal coaching examples that I feel often go unnoticed even by well intentioned coaches.

The Hallux

The hallux is built for mobility and a lack thereof causes compensations further up the chain like a mobilized mid-foot (which should be stable), stabilized ankle (which should be mobile), and continues even up to the hip and beyond causing a lack of hip extension (via the mechanisms discussed in reference 3 ) and consequently increase lumbar extension. We could elaborate further but I think you get the idea. All of these processes are not good and in the long run (sometimes short run) wears passive structures down to the point of breaking pain threshold. Notice I didn’t say “injured”, as they may already be damaged but simply haven’t reach pain threshold yet. (This thought process extends to all areas of the body discussed throughout this article, not just the hallux)

Half-Kneeling: Non-Optimal Coaching

Half-Kneeling: Optimal Coaching

Tall-Kneeling: Non-Optimal Coaching

Tall-Kneeling: Optimal Coaching

Quadruped: Non-Optimal Coaching

Quadruped: Optimal Coaching

Hopefully the pictures served their purpose in elucidating the point. The correct hallux position applies for any exercise you would perform in the half/tall-kneeling, quadruped, front/side plank, etc. positions.

The Cervical Spine

The upper cervical spine is built for mobility and the lower cervical spine for stability. How do you coach this? By getting your client to pack-the-neck/make-a-double-chin/make-a-surprised-look/neutral/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. The reasons why and what happens if you don’t have already been elaborated in reference #5. Below are some uncommon and common mistakes I see most often made throughout coaching strength exercises and mobility exercises. Note that it’s incredibly effective/important to stabilize the neck during a thoracic-spine mobility drill because it shifts the mobilization right to where we want it – the thoracic spine! If you left the neck “loose” some of your mobilizations would get shifted upwards toward the cervical spine. This is not what we want, obviously.

Front/Side Plank: Non-Optimal Coaching

Front/Side Plank: Optimal Coaching

Chop/Lift: Non-Optimal Coaching

Chop/Lift: Optimal Coaching

Front Squat: Non-Optimal Coaching

Front Squat: Optimal Coaching

Deadlift: Non-Optimal Coaching

Deadlift: Optimal Coaching

Bent Over T-Spine Rotation: Non-Optimal Coaching

Bent Over T-Spine Rotation: Optimal Coaching

Doorway Wall Slides: Non-Optimal Coaching

Doorway Wall Slides: Optimal Coaching

Chin/Pullup: Non-Optimal Coaching

Chin/Pullup: Optimal Coaching

Pushup: Non-Optimal Coaching

Pushup: Optimal Coaching

Quadruped Extension-Rotation w/Internal Rotation: Non-Optimal Coaching

Quadruped Extension-Rotation w/Internal Rotation: Optimal Coaching

Bench T-Spine Dips: Non-Optimal Coaching

Bench T-Spine Dips: Optimal Coaching

T-Spine Extension on Foam Roll: Non-Optimal Coaching

T-Spine Extension on Foam Roll: Optimal Coaching

Just like the principle regarding the hallux, the principle of neutral cervical spine can extend to many other lower/upper body exercises as well core training exercises.

After reading this article the “glass half empty folks” might think to themselves – “how much does this seemingly minutia stuff matter in the grand scheme of things?” The obvious answer is– why NOT do it – seriously, why not? What are you getting out of NOT implementing these strategies? Should we be ok with just not caring if we have a good amount of reasons to support these benefits of these coaching cues? If you’re going to do something, anything, why not optimize it? Sometimes the combinations of doing things just a little bit better makes the difference in the long run. I hope you found value in these illustrations and a novel appreciation for some of the smaller aspects of coaching. If so, please pass it along to your colleagues so we can all get better at what we do.

All the best,

Coach Sam

Sam Leahey is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Council on Strength and Fitness.

He is an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Springfield College. Prior to that he was an assistant strength and conditioning coach at American International College.

Currently pursuing a masters degree in Strength&Conditioning as well as manual therapy licensure, Sam also holds a BS in Exercise Science from Becker College in Massachusetts and a BSE in Physical Education with a minor in Sport Coaching from Arkansas State University.

While being a serious collegiate athlete himself at both the division 1 and division 3 level, he maintained the highest academic honors and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

It is back to Rick.

Great info, Coach Sam.

This is one of the best posts on Exercises For Injuries.

Thank you so much, Sam.

Before I go, if you like the info above, watch for Muscle Imbalances Revealed – Upper Body Edition where Tony Gentilcore, Dean Somerset and Dr. Jeff Cubos will be sharing their tips, tricks and exercises when it comes to upper body training.  Mark down the date, it will be coming out Tuesday, August 9, 2011.



  1. A Joint-by-Joint Approach to Training by Michael Boyle
  2. Expanded Joint by Joint by Charlie Weingroff
  3. Foot-Related Interview
  4. Recommended Resources by Sam Leahey
  5. Packing in the Neck by Charlie Weingroff