Some Tips for Coaching Proper Form

Proper (or correct) form is essential to ensure your clients get the most out of their exercises and reduce the risk of injury. This quick article outlines the core principles of coaching good technique.

Whether you are coaching a client through a:

  • Basic plank, squat or lunge; or
  • More technically demanding move such as a snatch, plyometric press-up or burpee with a tuck jump,

Proper form is imperative as it is important for getting greater strength or performance gains and it can reduce injury risk

Learning to move with correct technique also gives people a reference point for how they need to use their muscles and the positions they need to be able to hold their joints in, which then translates into day-to-day activities.

While clients may be eager to challenge themselves with extra repetitions (reps), sets or resistance as soon as they have been taught a new movement pattern, putting good form in place should always come first.

Proper form is the first priority of any programme, no matter what goals have been set. Sets, reps, intensity and frequency are all elements that should come after a client has been deemed able to perform the exercise with the correct technique.

Why Does Form Matter?

In contrast to good form, which appropriately loads structures of the body which are meant to be loaded to deliver the desired adaptations, poor form loads structures that are not supposed to be loaded, and compromises the ability of muscles to support that load.

Here are a number of example to illustrate:

  • If we are running and striking with the heel, it reduces the ability of the calf to absorb any force that is being transmitted through the ankle, and that force then goes into the bone and increases the risk of injury.
  • If we are doing a dead-lift where we should be keeping the bar close to our body, but if we move it further away due to poor set-up or incorrect timing of the trunk, hip and knee extension movements in the pull phase, that increases the amount of activation needed in the lumbar spine and thus increases the risk of disc injury.
  • When performing a squat, if you break through the knees instead of the hips, you are pushing the femur into the patella and producing a lot of pressure, and it also means you are not using the glutes, the muscles you should be activating for bigger benefits.

Coaching Good Form

When it comes to cueing clients about proper technique, it is advisable to first put clients into positions where the muscles work from a more global perspective, rather than isolating things too much.

Some main positions to include are:

  • A normal bodyweight squat;
  • Small single leg squats;
  • A four point for spinal control awareness;
  • Plank variations;
  • Bridge variations; and
  • Crab walks.

Exercise professionals should aim to keep cueing clear, succinct and focused on several key instructions, and every exercise should have a progression and regression, to help the client learn the movement pattern at their own pace.

If form is not good in a particular exercise, regress it until the client has mastered it, then progress from there. Load can be added once the client can perform the movement proficiently.

Importantly, internally-focused cues, whereby an exericse professional instructs a client to move a certain body part, are not as effective as providing external cues, such as ‘push the ground away’ or ‘focus on the movement of the dumbbell in this exercise.’

Mirrors are another useful tool for teaching form, although video footage can be even better, as it means clients do not need to turn their heads or compromise their position. Filming them from the position that you want them to see, then giving them that video feedback after they have done the exercise. Slow-motion playback software will also help you analyse form in detail.

Focus on the Mid-Range

While form is task-specific and dependent on what you are trying to achieve out of a particular exercise, as a general rule joints work most efficiently at mid-range.

Mid-range is usually the strongest position for a joint, where it can either produce the most amount of force or resist the most amount of external force.

For example, once a person gets through the ‘sticking point’ zone in a squat, which is around mid-range for the knee and hip joint, they start producing a lot more force, and that is where they get their best gains. It follows that staying away from end ranges is fundamental to coaching good form, and part of this is maintaining a stable spine and pelvis.

Thus, if you can teach people a neutral position in the middle of the ends of range, they will avoid loading their passive structures (things like their ligaments and joints) and use their active structures, being the musculoskeletal system.

The key thing to take note of is that the musculoskeletal system controls the movement and position of joints through a series of co-contractions. If muscles are not active because they are in too much of a shortened or lengthened position, this means a lot of the movement control will fall on the ligamentous structures. Thus, form is linked to overall postural assessment.

Coaching Form in a Group Fitness Setting

Instructing proper form in one-on-one client training contexts is one thing, but trying to ensure proper technique in a group fitness class poses a much greater challenge.

It is advisable to choose low-risk exercises for the group that are fairly safe, but that you can still get a lot out of.

If it is a programme that runs over several weeks, cover some of the basics in the first session, so that people can understand the positions that they should be getting themselves into.

Another tip is to pick low-risk exercises that serve as indicators of good form. For example, single leg squats, lunges and bodyweight squats with the arms overhead, press-ups and hurdle step-overs with arms overhead will provide useful information on some movement deficiencies, yet at the same time work well in group fitness settings.

It is also worth suggesting to group fitness clients that they invest in a one-on-one session with a fitness professional (or in some instances, with a sports physiotherapist or exercise physiologist), to ensure they have a foundation of good form in place and know what specific technique works best for their body and physical capacity.

Tailoring Technique to the Individual Client

Personalisation and specificity are the gold standards of fitness instruction. Here are four tips to ensure you cater to the individual needs of a client, when teaching them proper form.

  1. Start with a Movement Screen:
    • All new clients should ideally be put through a movement screen first.
    • It is important to understand a client’s movement efficiency, posture, balance and symmetry.
  2. Accommodate Individual Differences:
    • The difference between individuals’ physiques can mean they move differently.
    • For example, people who have long femurs relative to their torso or arms will have a dead-lift position that looks slightly different to someone else’s, but that does not mean it is wrong, as long as it is safe for their body.
    • Slight individual variations in form are fine, as long as the client is not in a position that is unsafe.
  3. Cue with your Client in Mind:
    • I i’s important that an exercise professional knows their client and how to provide appropriate cues that will enable them to enact change.
    • While cueing is a vital learning tool, over-coaching should be avoided.
    • Do not provide too much information and have a plan on how to build towards correcting any error deficiencies you have identified.
    • Assess the errors and prioritise them with regards to injury impact and ease of change.
  4. Refer Where Necessary:
    • In some instances, a client’s struggle to master proper form may point to an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
    • If they have restrictions or there is pain stopping them from doing a movement, you need to find out the background behind why they can not move through that range of motion and refer on to an appropriate allied health professional.

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