Don’t load dysfunction!

This is a common theme and is followed by many performance coaches, but what does it mean and is it the only way? The basic premise for this is that loading dysfunction will only further increase the dysfunction of the individual, either pushing them towards injury or creating bad habits. An example would be that if an athlete cannot perform a bodyweight squat, they should not have a barbell on their back doing back squats. And while this may make sense at face value and is a great catchphrase to say when viewing training as black and white (functional vs. nonfunctional), is this the only way to go about things?

The first issue that I have with this is that you’ll always be chasing perfection, because anything less than that is dysfunction which can’t be loaded right? Well if you chase this rabbit you’ll never get past correctives and will essentially waste your time. And all this time spent fixing the smallest of details will take away time that could’ve been used actually training. Because that’s what we as coaches are here for right? To train and coach the athletes and give them the physical tools to be successful. So while I’m by no means saying that you should allow shitty technique for lifts, what I am saying is that you should embrace the ugly technique and have a bandwidth of acceptability for every athlete, so that they will simultaneously progress towards better form while also receiving a physical stimulus.

So then how do actually do this, how are you supposed to get someone stronger while also improving their technique and form? One way is to change the environment. This is a great way to coach and facilitate learning without actually “coaching”. For example, imagine your teaching a brand new group of athletes how to hip hinge, but like many who have never done this before they end up doing some squat back rounding hybrid that just looks painful. Many athletes will be able to fix their back rounding problem by a simple “proud chest” cue, but the excessive knee bending can be much tougher for them to grasp. So instead of cueing till your blue in the face and telling them they’re doing it wrong, simply place a bar in front of them just below their knees. This environmental constraint limits their range of motion at the knee and forces them to solve the problem of hip hinging without bending their knees. This environmental cue sets the athlete up for success by allowing them to be in the correct movement pattern, as well as being able to still load the exercise and give the athlete a sufficient stimulus to adapt to.

Another method is to change the force vector of the exercise. For those athletes who either have pain, limited mobility, or a lack of stability that doesn’t allow them to complete an exercise with proper form, altering the vector of action is a great way to allow them to execute the exercise while improving their form. Let’s take a simple forward lunge as an example. For some athletes this can be challenging either because they lack the stability to maintain their balance, or they could be recovering from a lower leg injury and they can’t control their forward foot and keep their knee from caving in. To help these two scenarios, altering the lunge from straight forward to a 45º lunge will help. By changing the lunging direction to 45º, you improve the stability of the exercise by increasing the width of the base of support. This added stability also has the benefit of improving the athlete’s knee control and over time you can decrease the lunging angle back to straight forward (35º, 25º, 15º, etc..) as the athlete improves their balance and control.

The key takeaway here is that just because an athlete is not able to perform an exercise due to mobility, this doesn’t mean you have to regress them to lying on their back and teaching them control, or only using bodyweight until they achieve this perfect form. By expecting perfection in every rep, it will do nothing but bring you headaches each session, yes you should have standards for each exercise, but there should also be an acceptable range for the athlete as daily lifestyle factors can affect how an athlete moves each day. Instead find ways to put the athlete in a position to succeed, and progress them to where they need to be.