A Guiding Principle for Exercise Selection and Program Design for Injury Prevention
A guiding principle for exercise selection and program design: building resilience by putting movement quality first.
It’s safe to say that those of us who have been in the field of fitness for more than a few years would agree that of the “new” ideas that get thrown out into the arena very few of them are truly new. For example, Fred Hatfield has his “7 laws of strength training”. The great thing about the lack of new ideas out there is that we can pass an idea for our programming through the lens of these “laws” or “principles” that have guided success of those who came before us.
A discussion with a trainer who is very good at her job, but always looking to get better led me to define and share this principle. In that conversation, I was asked about a concept referred to as “complex training;” supersetting a typical strength exercise with a comparable explosive movement i.e. squats immediately followed by jumps, or bench press immediately followed by an explosive push up. I dug more deeply into why she was interested in this type of programming. In doing so, it became clear to me that there was one question we needed to answer before moving forward: “is the athlete going to be able to keep high-quality movement throughout the complex”? If so, then it's ok to try. If not, forget it!
The magic of using principles to guide your decision making about training is that we can learn from the experience of strength coaches and trainers across space and time. We can stand on the shoulders of giants and avoid the pitfalls of having to learn from our own coaching mistakes. Adopting “tempered” principles to guide our programming can help us from reinventing the proverbial wheel.
The principle proposed here is that movement quality matters. It matters so much that any decision we make about program design or within session exercise modification can be checked with it. Maintenance of movement quality should be of primary concern and we should always use it to guide our decisions about what exercises we choose and how we program them. Additionally, this principle can be applied to any client or athlete, regardless of goal and regardless of capacity. Considering kettlebell swings for fat loss? Super… Can your athlete keep a neutral spine throughout the movement? If yes, proceed. If no, well, NO!
If you’re not sure about increasing load, decreasing rest, or progressing movement difficulty for a client that you are coaching, check your thoughts with this two-part principle:
- Develop proficiency in basic human movements
- Sustain the movement quality under the following conditions:
Discussing movement proficiency and quality is beyond the scope of this article. There are a number of great resources out there already to help you determine what that looks like. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll trust that you know what good movement looks like.
I believe that a responsible coach or trainer should consider the inclusion of programming variables based on whether or not the athlete can maintain safe and effective movement in any context. This applies most specifically in considering exercise choice, loading parameters, movement velocity and sustaining good movement quality with increasing fatigue. Viewing the image below, we can see many “qualities” of the workout, all revolving around the central aspect of movement proficiency. This clearly illustrates how important the concept we’re discussing is:
This guiding principle is a direct product of something I learned from Kelly Starrett (famous for his www.mobilitywod.com project). Kelly apparently lives to share his knowledge and experience about mobility, movement and programming. At one of his very early mobility and movement seminars back in 2010, I expected to learn about soft tissue work, dynamic mobility and movement assessment. It was this unanticipated gem though, that has stuck with me the longest. Say what you will about CrossFit, but the coaches who put this principle into practice while programming for their “boxes” all crank out “athletes” that get results, and do it safely.
I work with a number of coaches and trainers that have adopted the mentality of movement quality first. Typically, they have at least 3 years of experience in coaching, have helped a dozen or more athletes/clients see very good training outcomes and have the patience to talk their students out of changing course every other week. Overwhelmingly, these coaches judiciously apply the variables of load, speed and fatigue in such a way that they help people get consistent results over a long period of time. Not surprisingly, they all spend the first few sessions (and usually longer) teaching solid mechanics. Additionally, they continue to keep this principle in mind any time a new exercise is considered. I know this is hard to do. It gets monotonous and there isn’t anything sexy about it, but the return justifies the expense. Resilient, stable, and strong trainees are going to get better, more consistent results, over a longer period of time than entertained ones.
In the conversation with the trainer mentioned earlier, applying the principle of movement quality first can make her decision about including complex training very easy. “Can she maintain a great jumping and landing pattern after squatting?” “Yes!” “Great. Go ahead and try some complex programming”... “She can’t.” “Go back to patterning and strengthening the squat.” By passing a new programming model through the principle laid out above, she can make a safer and better decision about applying a new idea into the athlete’s training.
As I mentioned earlier, there are very few new ideas out there in the field and this is a perfect example. I’ve built this on the back of all of the previously mentioned names. My hope is that I have encapsulated a truth that will help guide your programming and exercise selection. I believe this principle can help a trainer or coach guide programming and exercise decisions for any student they work with. Putting this concept into your programming will not only help you build more resilient athletes and students, it can help prevent injuries in the weight room as well as out in the real world.
“I am not interested in how heavy, how quickly, or how many times you can do something poorly.” David Whitley