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The Five Biggest Contradictions in Fitness
It’s no secret that when people contradict themselves, it has the effect of making the flaws in their actions or statements seem glaringly obvious. But what about when WE ourselves get caught contradicting ourselves by someone else?
A better question is what to do when we fitness professionals and exercise enthusiasts catch ourselves displaying multiple contradictions within our own practices and beliefs?
At Performance U, we have instilled the discipline to critically analyze our own practices on an ongoing basis. We are humble enough to laugh at ourselves when we realize the situations in which we’ve become a walking contradiction. Additionally, we’re often smart enough to immediately change what we’re doing to turn our inconsistent thought processes into consistent ones that make much better sense.
Think about it: If we ourselves are not willing to be consistent with the training concepts that we preach and the techniques we teach, then how strongly do we really believe in those concepts and techniques to begin with? What does do we learn about the validity of one belief or practice when it stands in direct contrast to different belief or practice that we might be much more sure of?
Strength and conditioning training is rarely black and white. In fact, it’s mostly a grey area, which is the root of many of these heated “coach vs. coach” debates on various techniques and concepts. Because there is rarely one “right way” to go about a task in this game, we realize that we certainly don’t have all the answers. However, what we do know is that if we contradict ourselves or do something that directly goes against something else that we do, we are absolutely guilty of flawed thinking. In other words, if what you say or do conflicts with something else you say or do, then some of the things you are saying or doing are 100% WRONG. Period.
I travel the word teaching and interacting with fitness professionals, and I can say with great confidence that the world of fitness training is full of these contradictions because a good portion of what is being taught to us as fitness professionals was developed using rather inconsistent thought processes. We at Performance U are just as guilty as anyone else because too often we don’t even realize that we are walking/talking contradictions until someone else comes along and catches us or we experience an “Aha!” moment. It could be said that the objective of writing an article like this is to give you the knowledge to not make the same mistakes that we did.
In this article, I share the five biggest contradictions in fitness training, mistakes that we have made as trainers and that you may be making as well! I also provide simple training strategies that we’ve used to transform our inconsistent and flawed thought processes into more consistent and sensible solutions-based strength and conditioning practices that have drastically improved the results we’ve been able to achieve for our clients and athletes of all levels.
If you’re ready to join me in laughing at yourself while learning, read on.
1. Pull your shoulder blades back and down
Similar to many other fitness professional and physical therapists, in the past, we advised all of our clients to “pull your shoulders back and down” as almost a default approach to immediately improving their postures for performing any action, from standing to sitting to various exercises.
This is why we no longer use this postural cue and feel that it is contradictory:
Most of us agree that neutral joint positioning is a safe, effective, and efficient place to begin for most people for performing most activities. However, pulling your shoulder blades back and down is NOT a neutral joint position, it’s an end-range joint position!
We wouldn’t tell our clients to fully tilt their pelvises (posterior or anterior) for training, walking/running, or just standing around, nor would we tell them to fully adduct or abduct their knees when moving or standing. Therefore, why would we treat the shoulders any differently? We don’t believe the shoulders should be treated any differently, and thus, we no longer treat them any differently!
Our practical, more sensible, and consistent solution:
Although our joints move in different ways, ALL joints work in the same general manner. Joints are avascular, which means that they require regular “good quality” movement (compression and distraction) to push waste products out and bring nutrients in to keep your joints healthy. In contrast, poor movement tends to negatively impact your joints and can cause damage if your body is unable to compensate sufficiently. In general, lack of movement in your joints tends to cause degeneration.
The way that we treat one joint is the way that we treat ALL joints in the body. Instead of telling our clients to move into a end-range joint position, which likely interferes with optimal joint mechanics, we cue our clients to find a comfortable and neutral shoulder position (between protracted and retracted) for standing, sitting, and the beginning of an exercise.
2. Shoulder and neck packing
If you are not familiar with shoulder packing or neck packing, it’s a fairly new posture/movement cue that prompts you to draw your neck “back and in” to more or less give yourself a double chin before you lift a weight. For the shoulder, it’s a cue that tells you to put your right shoulder blade into your back left pocket when lifting loads overhead, such as when performing a kettlebell press.
Jimmie only packs his neck for selfies.
Both of these “packing” cues are offered as default methods that were thought to increase stability at your neck and/or shoulders.
In truth, we’ve experimented with these “packing” techniques but never fully embraced them as a regular component of our training because we were skeptical of them from the beginning.
Currently, we don’t use these concepts in our training practices at Performance U.
Listed below are three reasons why we don’t subscribe to the neck/shoulder packing theory, why we don’t feel it is necessary to incorporate these cues, and why we feel they are based on an inconsistent and highly contradictory thought process:
- Driving your neck backward and losing the normal lordotic/cervical (neck) curve does not create a neutral joint position because this is an end-range joint position, similar to driving your shoulder blade into your back pocket when pressing overhead.
This is another example of telling clients to create “neutral” joint positioning at the ankles, knees, lumbar and thoracic spine only to turn around and tell them to do the exact opposite for their neck and shoulders by “packing” them into more of an end-range position.
Because all of your joints (although shaped differently) are structured using the same raw materials and each joint generally functions in the same avascular manner, human physiology dictates that we treat all joints the same way to avoid contradiction!
We either want to start trainees with more neutral positioning at all joints, or we want to start them in a more end-range (packed) position at all joints. Whichever you personally decide to choose, understand that you must be willing to be consistent and apply your understanding across the board because both approaches can’t be right.
This means that if you choose to use the “packing” concept, to avoid contradicting yourself, you must be willing to treat the pelvis like you treat the neck by cueing your clients to drive their pelvis “back and in” so they lose their normal lumbar lordotic curve, just as you cued them to do in their neck.
If you are not willing to use this approach for the pelvis, it’s time to ask yourself why you would use it for the neck? These examples illustrate what we think about often at Performance U, and our answers are very humbling, which is a good thing.
- Do you remember how many fitness professionals (us included) and physical therapists once told everyone “draw in” their belly buttons because (at that time) we “knew” that this method was the magic bullet to pre-positioning of our bodies for optimal lumbar spine stability?
Of course, we found out later on that the body automatically takes care of this job on its own. Shoulder and neck packing is basically “drawing in” at a different location in your body!
The question we’ve asked ourselves is, “If we now know that the body creates stability on its own at the lumbar spine, wouldn’t it make sense that it also takes care of that same job everywhere else as well?”
Even in patients with low back pain, the TvA was never turned “off”; instead, its activation was delayed by only 50-90 milliseconds. No situation exists in the gym in which a load is taken on that quickly. Therefore, it is unnecessary for anyone to draw in the belly button before lifting weights!
The way we see it, using what we know already is flawed logic (drawing in) and applying it to a different part of the body doesn’t make it any less flawed.
Put simply, if we know there is no need to draw in the belly button when strength training, we don’t see the need to draw in any other body part.
We believe that if the body can take care of stabilizing the lumbar spine joints on its own, it also knows full well how to take care of all of the other joints on its own too!
- Not only did it look very unnatural to us when we had our clients “pack” their neck and/or shoulders, it also felt very unnatural, awkward, and uncomfortable to the clients when they tried it.
In fact, I can promise that you’ll never see an athlete “pack in” their neck or shoulders when playing a sport. You may see it occur when certain people perform exercises because they’ve been “coached” to do so or if someone has forced them to make it a habit. In fact, you’ll even hear people who teach joint packing say that they’ve “never met any athlete who already knows how to pack their neck without being taught.”
Now, if someone tells us that they’ve developed a test that no one on the planet can pass, we’ll confidently tell them why they’ve just told us (without even realizing it) that their test was unrealistic and invalid to begin with.
Think about it. What does it tell you about the legitimacy of a practice or belief is if not one human walking the earth can perform it?
Listen, the human body is an otherwise perfect system that we’ll never fully understand. In our opinion, telling our clients that they should learn how to do something that doesn’t even come naturally to the best movers (high level athletes) on the planet sounds like we’re claiming that we’ve found a flaw in an otherwise perfect system. We don’t buy this, even if you’re giving it away!
Described below are our practical solutions for ensuring maximal stability at the neck and shoulders without packing anything but our luggage:
For the neck:
- For slower lifts such as deadlifts and squats, we allow each person to find a comfortable head/neck position that is somewhere within his/her midrange (between extension and flexion). Our clients come in all shapes and sizes, and therefore, we allow for a certain amount of variability from person to person. However, we don’t allow for full end-range positions.
- For faster actions such as kettlebell swings, we tell our clients to look at a 45-degree angle in front of them. We’ve found that if you keep your head still (without extension) by “packing” and move quickly, you quickly become dizzy and/or disoriented, which also leads us to believe that keeping your neck in one place doesn’t make sense because you could never play sports and move quickly without flexing and extending your neck position to make visual adjustments and to maintain your equilibrium.
- From what we’ve learned about the shoulders, upward scapular rotation is healthier than upward elevation when lifting your arm(s) overhead. Therefore, as long as we don’t see you putting your biceps on your ear each time you raise your arms up, you aren’t elevating your scaps in a way that concerns us.
3. Movement assessments
At Performance U, we don’t assess our clients just once or every few months. We assess during every damn workout because the body changes daily based on everything from stress to how you slept or ate the night before.
Of course we also believe in using movement assessments, but we believe that in the past, there were certain practices in our assessments that didn’t make sense.
Here are three things we used to do and say in our assessments that we now feel are contradictory:
- We realized that we couldn’t tell our clients (or students) that they must do an assessment because it helps us to “personalize” their program only to turn around and tell them why everyone needs to do kettlebell swings, Turkish get-ups, and some sort of deadlift variation(s). We laughed when we asked ourselves, “What good is your assessment if you’re just going to do the same damn exercises anyway?”
- We used to love telling people “You should have the movements that you had as young child” until we realized what we were saying was just plain unrealistic and silly because EVERYHTING about the human body changes as it ages. It’s called “growing up.”
We asked ourselves, “How is it possible for an adult to move like they did when their bones weren’t as thick, their connective tissues were more lax, and they had much less muscle density and a brain that’s wasn’t even fully developed?” Our answer was simple: A different body will indeed function differently!
- We also enjoyed wowing our clients and students by hitting them with a statement like this: “You can get rid of your adult dysfunctions by getting on the floor and rolling around like a baby because doing this resets your nervous system back to when you were an infant, before you had developed any dysfunctions.”
In addition to what I mentioned above in #2, we again asked ourselves a question, “If that’s true, than why don’t I crap my pants or lose my ability to walk after doing rolling exercises that supposedly reboot my CNS like a computer?”
The truth of the matter is that we were ignoring the fact that when you do “reboot” a computer, there NOTHING left on it. Therefore, if we really were rebooting our systems when doing any specific exercise(s), why could we still do all the things we could do before we did the exercise(s)?
Even worse, what really made us laugh at our ridiculousness was asking ourselves this question: “What about when a person sucks on a woman’s breast? Does his/her CNS reset back to when he/she was breastfeeding?” You already know the answer we ended up with because every human who’s gotten laid as an adult would still be wearing diapers.
Our simple solution:
At our initial meeting, we are straightforward with all of clients and tell them, “Everyone we train regularly performs some sort of push, pull, lower-body, core, and locomotive exercises.” We no longer unconsciously deceive them by telling them how important their postural or movement assessment results are only to turn around give them the same exercises we use with everyone else.
We simply watch people move, see what exercises they can do, and figure out how they can begin to do them better. However, we stopped getting caught up in asking our clients if they can or can’t get into some specific body position they’ve never seen or done anytime in their normal lives or how they did it when they were a baby.
Instead, we focus on the normal movements that our clients perform daily, movements that they can control, and we build our fitness program from that starting point. As our clients become more active, their functional mobilities and stabilities improve by default, and many of their aches and pains seem to magically disappear from simply reinstating regular multi-planar movement into their lives.
Additionally, as I stated previously, we continually assess our clients on every workout, with every set and during every damn rep and not just on the first day. For training, we simply remain in the pain-free ranges of motion, we use smart exercise progressions, and we pay attention to detail.
There is no need to do “functional training”… just get strong!
I’ll admit that “functional” training is something that we’ve flip-flopped on over the years like a politician running for office.
Adrian has the strong part handled…
Caption: Adrian has the strong part handled…
Early on in our training careers, we got overly caught up in making almost every damn exercise look like the movement that we were trying to improve.
Later on, we went in the complete opposite direction with our training and told everyone to “just get strong and to not worry about mimicking the movement” that they were training to improve because “the stronger you are, the more functional you’ll be.”
Although we still feel that getting stronger will certainly help your overall functional ability, here is why we no longer say things such as “functional training isn’t what it looks like but what it creates” because we believe those statements directly contradict what we (and most trainers) actually do in training:
If you want to “get strong”, you must do the “Big 3” lifts (i.e., squat, deadlift, and bench press) together with other movements (i.e., chin-ups, single-leg work, etc.).
Next, to further improve at any of the three big lifts, you need to perform “assistance exercises” for those lifts. For instance, to get stronger at bench press, you’d do assistance movements such as close-grip bench and board presses. The funny thing is that almost ALL of the assistance exercises we use to improve a specific weight lifting movement happened to LOOK JUST LIKE the movement we were trying to improve, which is exactly what we were telling people was a poor method of training.
We had an “Aha!” moment when we realized that we can’t tell clients that the exercise doesn’t have to look like the movement that we’re training when we know damn well that to improve their deadlift, they must do many assistance exercises that happen to look just like the damn deadlift or mimic movement components of the deadlift.
We also said to ourselves, “C’mon now… surely you don’t believe that the concept of using assistance exercises to improve specific aspects of a given movement can ONLY work for three lifts and that’s all!” The reality check response (to ourselves) was, “Of course not, because that would be plain ridiculous.”
Additionally, we also realized that when we want to retrain (correct) a movement pattern and attempt to improve it, the (corrective) exercises that we use look just like the movement we’re trying to improve/correct, or they at least mimic components of it.
Therefore, we were previously contradicting ourselves on two levels: strength training and “corrective” training.
Our practical solution:
We use BOTH general exercises AND functional/specific exercises.
In general strength training, we use free weights and machines to perform basic weight training exercises to “get big and strong.”
UFC fighter Matt Brown certainly has functional covered!
We also use functional exercises, which we design to match the specific force production patterns of the real-life or sporting movement we are aiming to strengthen. These movements are generally “assistance exercises” for every movement that we want to improve.
In other words, we apply the same wisdom used successfully by powerlifters to improve at the bench, squat and deadlift to improve everything else!
Getting strong does help you to become more functional, but it has its limitations, which is why we also incorporate functional exercises to gain benefits in the areas where the general exercise falls short.
Check out this video of Coach JC Santana and I discussing his research study showing the limited functional carryover of the bench press into the standing pushing actions common to sports.
5. Machines are non-functional
This is another common training contradiction that we realized we were making at the same time as we caught ourselves on #4 (above.)
If you’re like us, and guilty of committing the training contradiction I outlined above in #4, you are probably guilty of this one as well:
We completely contradicted ourselves when we told people (sometimes in the same sentence) to avoid machines because they don’t “look” like any functional movements of life and/or sports.
We used to be the ones that strongly advised people to “just get strong” and not worry about making the exercise look like the activities of life and sport we’re trying to improve.
However, we’d then do a 180-degree turnaround and tell people to not to use machines because they were non-functional because they didn’t look like anything people do in life and sport. Now if that ain’t the king of all training contradictions we we’re guilty of, I don’t know what is!
Our practical solution:
We use both free weights AND machines because both have unique benefits.
We use free weights for larger movements, and we use machines to target (isolate) weaker areas and to build up less developed areas.
We emphasize free weights and we use machines secondarily.
The goal of this article was simply to make you smile or even laugh at yourself by realizing (as we have) that so much of what we say and do in fitness training is a complete contradiction to other words and actions that we feel equally as strongly about.
If you did laugh or flick yourself in the forehead reading a few of these, then you “got it.” If you’re not guilty of one, a few, or all of these above contradictions, props to you for realizing this stuff much earlier than we did.
Finally, remember this: If you have a training principle that you follow, you must be willing to apply it to everything rather than using it selectively. If you’re not willing to apply that one thing you do in your training to everything you do in your training, then it’s probably time to rethink how and why you’re using that principle at all.