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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Stretching Vs. Warming Up

One of the first thing I learned as I made my way from regular folk to fitness enthusiast was the importance of a proper stretch prior to exercising. It was a cardinal rule that was engrained in me early on that I had to adhere to if I wanted to perform better and avoid injury. For a lot of you reading this, I’m sure you can attest to this. For many years, stretching was considered the end-all be-all protocol before and after exercise. Static stretching, the most common type of stretch, was a mainstream phenomena for most of the 80’s and 90’s.

But at the start of the 2000’s, several research studies on stretching started revealing new findings. It turns out the hype about stretching isn’t all it’s made out to be. In fact, scientific studies now conclude that excess static stretching can cause injuries and affect performance in sports and exercise. Earlier this year, a research conducted by The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed that stretching before strength training negatively impacts strength. Another research study conducted by the same publication measured the impact of pre-exercise static stretch on power and muscular explosive performance. The researchers concluded that static stretching prior to strength training should be avoided. This means a person attempting a Deadlift 1RM, bursting off the block for a 100-meter dash, jumping for a tip-off in a basketball game or even a tennis serve will be at a disadvantage if stretching was done prior.

So this must mean stretching is bad for you right?

Not necessarily. I’ve always been of the mind set that stretching is extremely overrated. Now I’m not saying stretching is bad and should be discontinued. I’m simply stating that too much emphasis has been placed on pre and post-exercise stretching rather than dynamically warming up the body and self-myofasical release (arguably the most effective way to loosen tight and stiff muscles). Most people often confuse stretching and warming up but it’s important to note that they are very different. You can warm without stretching but you can’t and shouldn’t stretch to warm up. Stretching has many benefits including increasing range of motion and improving flexibility. However, when it comes to reducing soreness and injury prevention, the British Journal of Sports Medicine found little to no impact from static stretching on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in a 2011 research study. The researchers looked at 12 case studies on static stretching in the past 25 years and concluded that “stretching does not produce important reductions in muscle soreness in the days following exercise.”

Dynamic warm-ups and soft tissue work have replaced static stretches in the last 15 years as the protocol for prepping the body before physical activity. Dynamic movements mimic the activity that’s about to be performed and sends blood to those working muscles quicker than static stretching. Soft tissue work (rolling with the foam roller or tennis/lacrosse ball) is another phenomenon that has garnered mainstream attention over the last two decades because of it’s impact on loosening muscles without overstretching the fibers. Because movement is more efficient when muscles and connective tissues are warm and lengthened, dynamic mobility drills and soft tissue work are more effective than static stretching prior to sporting events and exercise. Jumping jacks, hip circles, inchworms, butt kicks, scapular wall slides and high-knee walk are some dynamic mobility drills that positively impact performance. Stretching loosens muscles and the surrounding tendons that connect them to bones. But when this happens prior to exercise, the muscles aren’t able to produce enough power and energy at an efficient rate. The elasticity response from the a static stretch prior to exercise weakens the muscle for up to 30 minutes, which isn’t the right way a person wants to begin an exercise or sport.

Warming up dynamically before a physical activity is the new norm and should have preference over static stretching. It allows for continuous movement, increase body core temperature and promotes blood flow, all of which can help improve performance. Motor control, coordination and balance are variables that are positively impacted from dynamic warm-ups. Static stretching on the other hand limits movement patterns and does very little redirecting of blood to muscle groups.

So here are 5 takeaways:

1. Static stretching improves flexibility while dynamic warm-ups improves mobility.

2. You should only stretch tight and short muscles. Stretching the whole body is a waste of time and can be counterproductive.

3. Post-workout static stretching does NOT reduce soreness.

4. Statically stretching a muscle too far and too long causes pain and injury to muscle fibers.

5. Stretching prior to exercise or sport negatively impacts performance.

Stretching has been and will continue to be one of the most controversial topics in fitness. While several research studies rule against it, there are some that are in favor of it. Although more research is still being conducted, the universal conclusion at this time is that it does very little to improve health, exercise and athletic performance. However if you must stretch, do so only when you feel stiff, after sitting or standing for a long time and upon waking up in the morning.