I’m no stickler for following rules. Most really don’t take much more effort to follow, but some really are just useless red tape. The vast majority just get ignored anyway, and nobody cares.
Like those posters that most gyms have up that tell you not to swear or grunt, to wear shoes, to use a towel, and to put your weights back. I can’t remember the last time I went to a commercial gym and saw everyone cleaning machines down after use, wearing appropriate clothing or footwear, and racking weights. It is, unfortunately, just something you have to accept when you visit a gym, especially at peak times.
I’m also not about to write one of those articles that currently litter the internet about how you should never do cardio (especially if you’re a woman), about how the only exercises worth doing ever are compound exercises, or which foods you should never eat. Look around you; is everyone the same as you? Does everyone work the same job as you, go to bed and wake up at the same time as you, have the same genes as you? I’m guessing… no. So… why on earth are we writing about things that everyone should or shouldn’t do? (I probably wouldn’t recommend anyone eat glass or metal, but then even that seems to have worked out alright for this guy)
However, having recently ventured back into a mainstream commercial gym – Ben and I wanted to be able to train closer to home particularly on days we’re not working at the personal training studio – it has become painfully apparent to me that we do need a blanket set of rules to act as a checklist for any exercise performed in the hope of getting stronger, fitter, and healthier.
If you are one of my clients and you are reading this… I’m sorry. I know I go on about these all the time throughout your sessions. I know my snappy reminders (“Chest up! Toes in! Hips straight!”) must course through your head like a broken record as you wander out of the gym supposedly alone with your thoughts. In fact, you could probably write this for me. If you did, I’m guessing you would start with:
We may have evolved to stand tall on two legs, but we chose to sit on our bums instead. Hips got weak, cores went soggy, shoulders went soft. We carried things, we hunched over ready-meals and computers, we got stressed and lost confidence. Our shoulders rolled forwards and we lost the ability to keep our shoulder blades pulled back. We experienced back pain which we were unable to separate from muscles being worked in a safe and healthy way. So we got weaker. And so on.
I cannot think of a single exercise in the gym that would call for your back to go soft and your shoulders to roll in. Even when you bend forwards as in a bent-over row, or where you might need to lean forwards for balance reasons as in a squat or deadlift, your chest should always be pushed forwards. It will be tiring, but it will be so worth it.
My tip? Roll your shoulders back and push them downwards, as if you are trying to pinch something with the lower half of your shoulder blades. Tighten your stomach muscles. Open up your chest – think of giving your lungs as much space as possible. Be tall and proud.
Your pelvis is a really heavy link in the chain of command of movement. You can generate all the force you want through strong legs, but if your hips wobble all over the place all of that force and energy is going to be lost. The classic example you tend to see is runners who have fatigued towards the end of their runs; their hips drop lower and they start to feel heavy.
Many of us could do with strengthening our hips, glutes, lower back, and core, all of which will contribute to stronger hips. However, the first step has to be awareness; it’s easy to perform a core exercise or a squat with soggy hips, which won’t get anyone anywhere.
My tip? Start by thinking about your hips during your current routine: ask yourself which way they are facing as chances are they may be rotated a few degrees to one side when you thought you were standing straight. Every time you move your body or lift a weight, reassess your hip positioning – have they moved or have they stood strong? You might be surprised at how little control you’ve actually had over your own body!
Anyone who has been to a gym will have seen – and probably inwardly (or outwardly…) laughed at those individuals who think they are working their biceps or their shoulders (main culprits) but are in fact swinging their torso back and forth so much that their back is doing most of the work.
It’s not so much the swinging I have an issue with. It’s the lack of consistency it entails; if you swing uncontrollably or rush repetitions, how do you know that every rep is demanding the same amount of work from your muscles? You can imagine setting out your training programme with a precise number of sets and reps is a bit of a wasted effort when half the reps aren’t actually using the full amount of force that the particular muscle can generate.
Consistency requires awareness. Awareness requires the ego to be gagged. Gyms, unfortunately, are normally writhing with ego. Help me break that trend!
My tip? Take your time with each exercise and each repetition. At each position throughout the exercise, reassess where each body part is. Working your shoulders but for some reason your traps have joined in and are closer to your ears than they started? Working your legs but your quads got tired so you dipped your torso instead so it still looked like you were getting lower? Try a lighter weight or a lower number of reps. Slow down and make the muscle you want to contract, contract. Readjust in between each rep if necessary. One small step back in today’s workout, for an infinite number of leaps forward in future sessions/life.
Note: Keeping your chest up and your bum back will help with consistency, as it means your back is in a strong position and your core is engaged. Strengthening your hips will help with consistency as you will be able to keep them where you want them at all times. And one final reminder which I can already feel my clients rolling their eyes at; pull your toes up towards your shins (the opposite of pointing your toes) whenever you do anything involving one or two legs off the ground like various abdominal exercises or balance work. This keeps the entirety of the leg engaged and ensures that your ankle is always in the same, fully flexed position.
I’m sure I’ll be back with more but if you can get going with all three of those I promise you’ll be in a much better place for it!
I do want to hear from you though! What single tip (or two or three) would you give people you see working out? What have you found to be the most helpful change you’ve made to your training?