In the fitness profession, perhaps the proper form and posture to do most exercises do not matter much. In a recent article on The Personal Trainer Development Center, fitness professional Joy Victoria from Toronto, Canada, questioned and explored whether the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and cueing clients to move in a pre-mediated range of motion and posture is the right thing to do. Victoria wrote in the early part of her coaching career, her understanding of what was considered “proper” or “perfect” was based on an “absolute” premise that yielded very little variability in human movement. “There is no one perfect way to do something. There’s only what is right for that person,” she wrote. Not every client or athlete can fit into what most fitness trainers perceive as the proper form. “Maybe our ideas need to change, it is not always the form.”
This shift of thinking and paradigm in the fitness industry is somewhat new, contradicting the stereotypical image of a personal trainer micro-managing every detail of a client doing a barbell squat or push-up: “Knees and feet forward. Keep your stomach in. Chest up!” The belief is that poor form or posture can lead to pain or injury. While this belief has been upheld in the fitness industry for decades, numerous scientific literature and studies have failed to show a strong correlation or a causality between poor posture and pain. Science writer and former registered massage therapist Paul Ingraham of Save Yourself wrote a detailed description and analysis of whether posture really matters or not. First, he defined poor posture as “an unnecessary and problematic pattern of physical responses to postural challenges.” A postural challenge is “anything that makes it hard to maintain more or less upright function,” such as attempting to lift a heavy couch or sitting and typing with the laptop at chin level.
The context of poor posture should also be noted, Ingraham added. For example, an old man with a stooped posture may have spinal stenosis or some kind of spine disease. If he were to stand and walk upright, it may cause him much more pain. In fact, a Danish study from Aalborg University that was published in Journal of Pain in 2011 showed that a change of posture can be caused by pain. Thus, pain can cause “poor posture,” not always the other around. Thus, people with hunched shoulders, anterior pelvic tilt, “upper-cross syndrome,” and a host of other “dysfunctional posture” may be an adaptation to steer away from pain.
Sometimes posture is a reflection of a person’s emotions. In a study that was published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in January 2012, researchers Vanessa Bohns from the University of Toronto and Scott Wiltermuth from the University of Southern California wrote that people who adopt certain body poses change their hormonal levels and increase their likelihood to take risks. In one experiment, participants who adopted a dominant, more confident pose had higher pain thresholds than those who adopted neutral or submissive poses. In the second experiment, subjects who were paired up with another subject who displays a dominant pose resort to a submissive pose, which lead lower pain tolerance.
To say that posture and form does not matter much in exercise and movement entirely also has its flaws in thinking and application in the sports and fitness fields. “Yes, form does matter when we look at elite performers in any sport. We see certain aspects of their movement converge relative to what you see in the general population,” stated fitness professional Rafe Kelley, owner of EvolveMovePlay.com in Seattle, Washington, in an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice.
However, you will also see many that don’t. Look at arm angles used by different pitchers in baseball or the different stances of the hitters. The line between what is generalizable and what is idiosyncratic is unclear.
Kelley said there are basic aspects of movement which can be considered a commonality among most athletes and the individual’s preference of moving. For example, jumping and bounding requires a cycle of hip flexion and extension, and an effective punch in boxing requires a good force linkage between the ground and the fist. “Then there are aspects of movement that are individual and important that is specific adaptations to the structure and neurology of given individual that allow them optimal performance but are not generalizable to other athletes,” Kelley explained. “And finally, there is movement noise, aspects of an athlete’s movement patterns that have no overall impact on performance.”
If there is something that Victoria and Kelley can agree on, it would be that there is no single universal “rule” or “form” for everyone. “The difficulty in looking at a movement pattern is what part of the variation falls into each category is not totally clear,” Kelley continued,
Our knowledge of the body as a system is far lower than we often admit, the tools we have to bear on the question of perfect form are very imperfect. So we should be trying to identify the common factors that generally have positive or negative impact on performance across the population, as well as individual factors relevant to a given athlete. Within this, it is important to be open-ended and allow the athlete to be adaptive and not constrained by a completely rigid idea of perfect form.
While it seems that form and posture are not as dogmatically important as most fitness professionals think, Victoria added a few guidelines for both trainers and trainees. “Find out what a client can do well and easily first,” she wrote. “A movement that’s awkward, painful, and is causing a client to guard themselves (holding their breath, grimacing, flinching, shaking), and requires a ton of cueing is probably not a good exercise for them at the moment.” Victoria suggests trainers should avoid categorizing clients and attempt to “fix” their problems when there may be none. “The mind is the control center for what we experience physically. You can have pain without injury and injury without pain. The more you re-enforce the idea that you are broken, screwed up, or asymmetrical, the more you will re-enforce pain-related symptoms.” Thus, form and posture may not matter as much in exercise if the underlying cause of the problem is not addressed.
By Nick Ng