A CASE AGAINST CORRECTIVE EXERCISE TRAINING

Some of you are going to read this headline and immediately begin to raise your eyebrows. So before you begin to vilify me, I’m not opposed to corrective exercise training (For the remainder of this blog post, CET will replace ‘Corrective Exercise Training’). In fact, I do believe CET has its place in fitness and can yield some dividends. I personally incorporate elements of CET into my training and that of some of my clients. For those unfamiliar with it, CET, in a nutshell, is a form of dynamic, nontraditional training created for the sole purpose of addressing  biomechanical problems and faulty movement patterns in the kinetic chain.

It begs the question: Who needs CET? Is it for everyone? How often should it be done within the confines of a training program?

CET started to garner mainstream popularity in the early 2000’s and really took off half a decade later. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) was the first major certifying organization to offer an accredited certification which is now famously known as ‘Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)’. Talk to any NASM CES and they will tell you it is the be-all and end-all of fitness. Like I previously stated, I do believe CET can improve and enhance movement but we are spending way too much time on it.

While I think everyone can benefit from CET, I don’t believe everyone needs it. Just because a person isn’t able to descend low enough on a squat or another rounds his/her upper back on a push-up does’t necessarily mean you discontinue those movements and replace with CET. In some cases, all that’s needed is simply stretching, doing deep-tissue work and dynamic drills. I’ve never understood the concept of placing an elastic tubing around the knee to correct a valgus-knee squat. Besides the risk of losing balance and falling, the knees are going to cave back in without the band not to mention the hips/knees are being assisted when they should be gradually learning the movement. If my hip external rotators/abductors are tight and weak, asking me to abduct while performing a squat is going to be a tall order. Furthermore, the hamstrings and adductors are two of the biggest stabilizers during a squat. Performing and perfecting a deep squat simply means stretching and activating those muscles on several occasions.

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Many of us, especially those who sit at a desk all day, have internally rotated shoulders ( aka rounded shoulders & slouch posture) meaning our external rotators are tight. If you bench press and do pull-ups on a regular basis, chances are your shoulders are internally rotated. (Try this quick test to assess your shoulder mobility: Stand in front of a mirror in an anatomical position with your hands and palms relaxed and hanging by your sides. Keep your eyes on your left and right thumbs in the mirror. If they point inwards, towards your body, your shoulders are internally rotated.) You don’t have to stop these movements completely, although you may have to lower the intensity and frequency of your bench press and pull-ups if you want to address the issue at hand. Stretching the pectoralis minor and performing shoulder external rotation movements are some of the ways to correct this. But proponents of CET will argue in favor of doing a plethora of  CET exercises and not performing those exercises until the issue is resolved. Where I disagree is that I believe both can be done without discontinuing one completely.

Then there’s this question: How long should one perform CET and to what extent? I’ve seen people, both personal trainers with their clients and regular exercise enthusiasts, who do CET for 30-45 minutes, multiple times a week with no basic movement at all (squat, deadlift, push & pull). The idea is all the body’s weak stabilizers and prime movers must be strengthened before movement can begin. Regardless of how much CET you make me do, I have to perform a skill or movement more than once in order to get better at it. The Principle of Specificity states that clearly. I’ve had first-time clients correct their Deadlifting pattern in one session. It may have required 4 to 5 sets, but they fixed whatever mechanical issues they had at the beginning of the working set. I didn’t have to employ any CET. They simply perfected the movement by doing it over and over and over again.

Here are 4 takeaways:

  1. STRETCH, FOAM ROLL & DYNAMICALLY WARM-UP: It sounds very easy and simple but I’m a firm believer that a lot of our tightness and weaknesses can be addressed via stretching and foam rolling. Stretching the hamstrings/adductors can yield a more efficient squat. Likewise, regularly stretching the pectoralis minor/major will pull our shoulders back and enhance posture. Dynamic warm-ups like X-Band walk, scapular wall slide, cradle walk, high-knee walk and walking spiderman are some of the best activation drills for the glutes, hip abductors/adductors, hip flexor muscles and shoulder girdle. Keep in mind, in order to get the most bang-for-your buck reward via foam rolling, it must be performed routinely and extensively. FullSizeRender
  2. PRINCIPLE OF SPECIFICITY: To be a good cyclist, you must cycle. The point to take away is that a runner should train by running and a swimmer should train by swimming. It’s as simple as that. The Principle of Specificity states that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill routinely. Sometimes being unable to perform a movement doesn’t mean there’s a mechanical issue. It could simply mean that movement has to be performed a few more times to achieve perfection.
  3. STRENGTH TRAINING CAN BE CORRECTIVE: The Goblet squat, box squat and many TRX exercises are corrective in nature allowing two birds to be killed with one stone. Take the Goblet squat for example. Placing the elbows inside the knees during descent pushes the knees out leading to an externally rotated hips, which is required to perform a standard barbell back squat. The eccentric phase of a box squat (pushing off out of a seated position) requires more hamstring and adductor firing which can also carry over to a back squat. The TRX Row can promote external rotation of the shoulder while the TRX-assietd squat can teach diagonal neutral spinal alignment.

    4. POST-REHABILIATION CASES: Certain specialty situations may call for a load of CET early on. Athletes and recreational exercisers who tear their ACL or severely injure their shoulder may need to rehab via CET for quite some time before returning to conventional training. Due to the nature of these injuries, modified, regressed and dynamic exercises and drills is the best way to strengthen the surrounding tendons and ligaments.

CET has a rightful place in fitness and can have a great impact on a lot of people. It is definitely here to stay. However it should only be called upon when necessary and not overly implemented. Far too many people continue to use CET even after the issue has been corrected. Dynamic warm-ups and activation drills are very effective in loosening and firing tight and weak areas in the body and should be done on a regular basis. Performing a movement pattern incorrectly for the first time may not necessarily indicate an issue. It very well could mean it needs to be done again and again until perfection is achieved.

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Squats Vs. Hip Thrusts – Which Is Better For The Glutes?

Ask anybody at your local gym what exercise they think is best for the backside. I can confidently say most people will say it’s the squat. From the beginning of time, the squat has been associated with developing and building strong gluteal muscles. The backside of the human body has become an essential part of many training programs. Athletes require a strong posterior chain for optimal performance in their sports. Society’s obsession, though mostly women, for a firmer, tighter and rounder butt is at its highest. In fact, many women I come across these days tell me they want bigger butts. The butt craze is in full effect!

So what is the best exercise for building the backside?

For years, the traditional squat was the go-to movement for butt and still remains a fantastic choice. But in recent years the hip thrust has gained popularity and emerged as a true rival for gluteal development. No research comparing the two exercises and its effect on the glutes had been conducted until Bret Contreras (www.gluteguy.com), the creator of the hip thrust, conducted one. Bret examines 3 key factors that impact muscle growth and development : mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage on the gluteal muscles. Majority of this is based on his findings.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Squat: Glute activation during a sub-max effort on a barbell squat isn’t what most people think it is. With the loaded bar on your shoulder, the glutes are relaxed and only begin to contract during the eccentric phase. Contraction during descent is very low and lowest at the bottom of the squat. In fact, research now shows that a ‘bucket squat’ or going too deep has little to no impact on the backside.  The most amount of muscle contraction and activation takes place during the concentric phase; as you drive explosively upward from the bottom of the squat. Maximal contraction takes place during the middle of the rep, and slowly dissipates as you get back to the top.

Generally speaking, gluteal activation at the lowest phase of the squat is about 10-20% of maximal contraction, 20-30% at the start of the eccentric phase and 80-120% at the start and during the concentric phase. Overall the average gluteal activation percentage is about 60% of maximal contraction.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Hip Thrust: Using a sub-max load, the barbell hip thrust challenges the gluteal muscles a bit different from the squat. At the start of the movement, when the barbell is placed on the hip, the glutes are relaxed.  The lifter thrusts the hips concentrically upwards until full hip extension is reached. Average gluteal activation during this phase is about 160% of maximal contraction. Keep in mind that full hip extension must be achieved (squeezing the buttocks as hard as possible at the top of the lift) for full benefits to be reaped. Unlike a barbell squat where the glutes are relaxed at the top, the gravity effect on the hip thrust (the barbell constantly trying to push you back down from the top) inevitably places constant tension on the gluteal fibers resulting in more of a burn.

There is little to no hamstring activation during the barbell hip thrusts. However, when the drive occurs at the balls of the feet as opposed to the heels, some may get some hamstring work. As a rule of thumb, the heels should always be favored.

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Conclusion: Both the squat and hip thrust are excellent choices for building the backside. The fact that both movements keep the knees in a bent position means there is limited hamstring activation due to its shortening and therefore more involvement of the gluteal muscles. The hamstrings can only fire maximally when they’re continually lengthened. Although both exercises require hip extension which forces gluteal activation, the minimal activation during the eccentric phase and the lack of tension at the top of the squat doesn’t cause immediate burn and soreness unlike the hip thrust where there is constant tension. However because the fibers get a deeper stretch eccentrically during the squat more than the hip thrust, a lifter is highly likely to get sore in the days following a sub-max squat workout. The only small drawback is the lower back strength limits the load a lifter can use on the barbell squat and quadriceps and hamstrings activation takes away from maximal gluteal activation. The hip thrust, though easier to perform, is limited by glute strength, meaning once the glutes get tired from firing, a lifter will no longer be able to thrust thereby ending the set.

So which is the better choice for the backside?

Based on what the research shows, both exercises build and develop the gluteal muscles effectively and should be incorporated in a training program. Though the hip thrust offers more gluteal bang-for-your-buck results, it shouldn’t be necessarily favored over the squat nor should it replace it entirely. The barbell squat engages more of the lower gluteal fibers than upper fibers whereas the hip thrust fully activate both fibers. If you want a fully developed butt, you’ll have to routinely perform these two exercises. Performing only one and not the other will rob you of the full results. Both can be performed during a workout session or on separate days. The load must be challenging enough in order to illicit good gains. Generally speaking, a sub-max effort of about 75% of 1RM should suffice. Ideal rep range should be between 8 and 15.

Keep in mind that the front squat and goblet squat, which place emphasis on the front side of the body and anterior core, has very minimal impact on the backside and therefore can’t be relied upon for maximal gluteal development. While both exercises are low-back and knee friendlier than the back squat, they don’t fire the glutes nearly as hard due to the placement of the load.  As a bonus, the deadlift along with other gluteal isolation exercises like the reverse lunge, stiff-legged deadlift and hip abduction movements will yield one heck of a backside.