Archive | February, 2012

Should you correct a stranger’s form at the gym?

20 Feb

Wow. Excuse me while I clean up the dust bunnies and cobwebs that have collected here during my absense.

In the meantime, here’s a story from today.

Earlier at the gym I did a back workout, followed by a cardio finisher (specifically the one found here).

I was in the bathroom right before I was about to jump on the treadmill for Tabata intervals, when a woman stopped me.

“Excuse me, I’ve noticed that you do a lot of the right exercises, but it seems like sometimes you don’t take the time to do them with fully correct form.”

Oh boy. Here we go. I noticed myself getting defensive, but kept my cool.

“Like what?” I asked.

She told me that I lean back too much while doing chin-ups, instead of staying straight, and that I drop down too fast. She also mentioned that I should bring my back knee lower when I do jump lunges.

I was immediately annoyed and started running through excuses in my mind, like: Keeping my body straight while I do chin-ups is something I already know that I need to work on. Even for the majority of experienced lifters, very few have 100% perfect form. It’s one of those things where there is almost always room for improvement. And as for the jump lunges, I noticed that I was keeping my back knee kind of high and made an effort to drop it for a few reps, but this was cardio and I was more focused on breathing and trying not to have a heart attack.

The lady made it very clear that she wasn’t trying to criticize me, but I still felt nit-picked. Partially because I already know I need to improve those things. But mostly because of my ego. I know that the learning process will never stop, but I feel pretty well-informed when it comes to exercise form. So when someone challenges that, I have to make an effort to silence that little voice in my head that says, Well who do YOU think you are?

Once I got a hold of my defensiveness I was able to accept that she was just trying to be helpful. And I had to admit that she had a point. I get lazy about my form sometimes, and that’s something I really should avoid if I want to be strong and injury-free. All the things that I told myself to justify my less than great form were, as I said, excuses. Self-defense mechanisms, yanno?

So as you can see, going up to people and correcting their form in the gym is a touchy subject, especially if you aren’t a trainer.

This is the first time I’m mentioning this, but I’m actually studying to get certified as a personal trainer by the NASM. The exchange I had with this women is actually kind of interesting to me, because it’s addressed in a chapter about customer service.

Basically, the book says that as a personal trainer, there is a very specific way to approach people to correct their form. If you say things like, “Can I help you with that?” or “Do you mind if I show you the right way to do it?” it is extremely off-putting to the other person because it challenges their personal beliefs. And I can totally see why. People don’t like to be told they’re wrong. And you might embarrass them or make them feel self conscious.

That’s a big part of the reason why I never go up to anyone in the gym and try to correct their form. One, I’m not a personal trainer. Two, it’s none of my business. Three, there’s a good chance I’m going to offend them.

I’d like it if people chimed in on this. I know we’d all benefit from not getting defensive when someone corrects us, but is there ever a time when a person should keep their comments to their selves?

Also, I’m genuinely curious to know if other people get lazy about their form!

Reader Q&A: To Crunch or Not to Crunch?

1 Feb

I was having a few drinks with friends on Saturday night when Joe asked me why I don’t do more crunches in boot camp.

Some arguing and drunken finger pointing ensued. He didn’t believe me when I said that crunches were a waste of time for building ABZ and strengthening your core. So I decided to do my first ever…


Only, it’s not so much a Q&A as it is an I told you so, but you know. Semantics.

So, to answer Joe’s question in a more sober manner:

As I mentioned, I don’t do crunches in the boot camp class because I think they are a waste of time.

That’s because they mostly only work your rectus abdominis, aka abs/the six pack.

But, your core is made up of much more than just your abs. There are also the lower back muscles (back extensors and quadratus lumborum), the upper back muscles (latissumus dorsi) and a few others (check out the link below for more details.) Having a strong core is important because it keeps your spine stabilized as you move. Only training the abs with crunches is not going to reach those deep-down muscles that are responsible for protecting your spine.

All my inside trunk muscles are allowing me to do this without royally screwing up my back. HardCORE. Get it? Derp...

Also, you can do all the core and ab work you want, but that six pack is not going to show unless you drop the fat on top of it first. That, my friends, is pretty much dependent on your diet. And as you should all know by now, you can’t spot reduce. Meaning that doing a million crunches is NOT going to get rid of your pooch. Only a smart diet will.

Furthermore, crunches can possibly damage your back. When you do them, you are flexing your back in an unnatural position that can lead to disc herniation. Think about it: when do you ever need to do something in real life that mimics the movement you do when you crunch? Never. If anything, you’re supposed to keep your back straight as often as possible, not bend it.

So how do you strengthen your core?

By doing compound movements, like push-ups, chin-ups and squats. Planks and side planks are also good. Any exercise that requires you to keep your back straight is key.

The good thing about compound movements is that they work other body parts too, so you get more bang for your buck. Here is a really good (albiet technical and science-y) article about how much abdominal activity is generated by different exercises. The winner? Chin-ups for the “six pack muscles!”

Still can't aim for shit though.

So I know having a strong core doesn’t sound as sexy as FLAT, CHISELED ABZZZ. But you will get a nice set of visible abs if you train your core and get your body fat percentage low enough.

I care about making the boot campers stronger, not piddling about doing the latest fitness fad just because it’s popular. That’s why I focus on functional movements that work multiple muscle groups.

That’s not to say that you have to strictly avoid doing crunches. Go ahead and do them if you’d like. They’re certainly not the end of the world. I just think you can do better.

And if you are going to crunch, for goodness sake, do it right:
Lie down with one leg flat and the other leg bent at the knee with the sole of your foot on the floor. Place your hands under your lower back for support. And only lift your head and shoulders.

More food for thought:
Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?
Are Crunches Worth the Effort?

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