How Well Can Your Body Multitask?

For any fitness professional, other than seeing your clients’ lives change for the better, program design is the most enjoyable and creative part of the profession.

Being able to create routines that can literally change someone’s body reminds me of the power of movement.  Playing with movement combinations and sequencing is like mixing potions in a Hogwarts class—just the ingredients and BAM!  You get magic and a powerful mixture that can transform weak, flabby bodies into strong, functional physiques.  The key to a perfect routine is to make it perfectly match the clients’ goals, imbalances, build, and skill. Once that is determined, the initial exercise routine can and should be gradually developed in a planned and systematic way to produce desired results.

You can do this in many different ways:

  1. Increase the resistance
  2. Increase the volume (more sets and reps)
  3. Decrease rest time
  4. Increase the complexity of movement

While the first three variables have been discussed and studied extensively to better understand their effects, the last variable has not.

In recent years, such complex movements as kettlebell training, crossfit training, MMA training, and boot camp–style training have become increasingly popular. Many clients have quickly gone from traditional straight line, single plane, and bodybuilding-style movements (e.g., DB curls, squats, bench press, and shoulder press) to these more complex multiplane, acceleration / plyometric, and whole body movements. Some people even went from a purely sedentary lifestyle to these complex movements).

While the benefits of more complex movements include increased caloric use, the increased risk of immediate and chronic long-term injury is a significant drawback.

Let’s examine how this happens and how to avoid it.

The primary goal of the fitness professional is to identify clients’ imbalances and skill level and then design an exercise routine that challenges their muscular system to build / tone muscles, their energy system to burn calories and thus fat, and their nervous system to improve joint stability and quality of movement.

When using complex multijoint and multiplane exercises to accomplish all three goals, you first have to make sure your clients have the coordination level needed to control those movements.  If they can only control three joints at once and you do a plank rotation that involves five main joints, bad things happen. You’ll see that they can’t synchronize their spine with their pelvis (typically upon takeoff and landing from the rotation).

As a result, their spine, which is subjected to 800+ pounds of pressure in a forward plank according to studies by Stuart McGill, is now twisting and compressing the discs and facet joints. And with every set and every rep, this adverse movement pattern is reinforced and embedded as a habit, which has a direct, long-term impact on their spinal health. Similar consequences occur with any exercise where the pattern of movement is not ideal and not in a planned sequence.

Here is a video for you, explaining things:

How can you avoid potential long-term damage to your clients’ joints?

Three steps must be taken:

  1. Understand the perfect technique and strive for it with every movement (luckily, most trainers do this already)
  2. Determine the proper starting point (i.e., how well your clients can exercise)
  3. Properly pace the motor control difficulty of the program

First, you need to determine how skilled your clients are at exercising.

Have them perform some single plane 1–2 joint exercises and assess their ability to control their bodies without shaking or having a breakdown in posture.

Then you should progress to exercises with more joint movement or planes of motion. Such an approach will enable you assess a client’s ability, e.g., “client A can control five joints at once in two planes of motion, while client B can only control two joints at once and only in one plane of motion.”

Therefore, client A can perform exercises in diagonal movement patterns involving the whole body (e.g., plank rotation, squats with medicine ball presses, and side lunge with shoulder presses), while client B can only do single plane simple movements (e.g., DB curls, DB front raises, and squats).

Changing your client’s body is similar to getting from point A to point B on a map.

Having a system in place that can identify a client’s skill is like identifying the location of point A. If you don’t have such a plan, you won’t be able to give exact directions on how to get to point B. With a starting point identified, you can determine what types of exercises clients A and B can do. Client A would start training with more traditional bodybuilding-style movements involving one plane of motion and isolation-type exercises. While these are not the most effective at burning calories, they are the safest for the client. During the workouts, your goal is to develop client A’s skill level by challenging them with some multijoint exercises or multiplane movements.

After a few weeks, you can retest and see if they are ready to progress to a more “neuromuscular” workout. With this approach, their nervous system has time to adapt to more demanding exercises.

The Central Nervous System (CNS) can multitask more effectively and control multiple joints and muscles at once. Trying to give client A an exercise early on that only client B can do will be impossible. No matter how much you spot them, correct them, and demonstrate the exercise, their nervous system is just not ready to handle a complex exercise.

This approach can transform your training business. Your clients will feel better and get great workouts that don’t harm their bodies. They become focused on the movement skill, and exercise then becomes something they want to master instead of being merely a way to burn calories. This shift in psychology helps your clients to want to continue exercising and helps you become their trainer for life. You might even save a few copays and medical bills for your clients, and they’ll love you for it.

Dr. Steve Young, DPT, CSCS

Dr. Young is currently the owner of Body Solutions, a business in Voorhees, NJ, which integrates personal training, physical therapy, massage therapy, and martial arts.  He received his BS in kinesiology from PSU and his master’s and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Hahnemann University (now Drexel). He has lectured nationally to fitness professionals regarding proper training approaches. His latest project is changing how fitness training is done through a patent-pending process of skill assessment and program implementation called the Body Readiness Ranking System .

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Thank you to Steve for sharing.

The “official release” of Assessment & Exercise started today.  If you have not got it yet, you should check it out, here.