I’m quickly approaching a decade and a half in the fitness biz and I’ve come to the realization that it’s an industry that struggles with an identity crisis.
It wants to come across as more scientific, more academic, and more “white collar” than it really is. Maybe that’s to compensate for all of the schmucks who dismiss it as nothing more than a sandbox job populated by people who are little more than paid motivators.
The result is the “trainer peacock walk” – the insecure regurgitation of encyclopedic terms and esoteric jargon that either impresses clients and other trainers…or scares them away.
This has led to many young trainers adopting a butt-load of blanket terms, cues, and premature conclusions without checking their validity. That’s how broscience spawns. But let’s try to inject some real science into the discussion by addressing a few of these blanket terms and cues.
1 – “You’ve Got Tight Hip Flexors!”
This is probably the blame-game coaching cue that gives me the most heartburn. Nine times out of ten, “tightness” is really the presentation of weakness elsewhere.
For proper health, we need to pursue structural balance. That means muscles on either side of a load-bearing joint must be strong enough to bear their own cross, so to speak, in order to contribute to a properly functioning, healthy joint. Here’s what’s really happening:
This is a common cause of irregular pelvic function. Remember, the glutes are posterior tilters of the pelvis. Once they can contract strongly, they’ll help reduce lower back arch and counter the hip flexors, which pull upward on the other side. In a nutshell, properly functioning glutes produce pelvic balance.
Hip Anatomy/Pelvic Structure
You might not be able to squat deep without looking like an invalid trying to get off of the toilet because your hips just weren’t built for deep squatting.
Depending on the depth of your hip sockets, angle of your femoral neck, and placement of the hip sockets in the pelvis itself, your own skeleton may be “blocking” you from getting well below parallel for the squat.
If this is the case, your hip flexors have nothing to do with the problem – regardless of whether they’re “tight as a rope” or not.
This sounds counterintuitive, but tight muscles can also be weak muscles. That’s something that’s underappreciated where the hips are concerned.
For a good squat or split squat, the psoas muscles need to shorten eccentrically to help pull the hips down into a deep seated position. No strength, no dice.
The next time someone tells you your ugly squat is due to tight hips, give him an upside tap to the head. Then do this exercise:
Tennis Ball Glute Bridge
This is the money fix for “tight hip flexors.” It’s surefire way to create or restore pelvic balance by going through a hip extension with engagement on both sides of the pelvis.
Just jam a tennis ball or two into the crease between the top of your thigh and the bottom of your hip and keep it there throughout the movement.
The psoas will have to work very hard to keep the tennis ball in place through end ranges and the glutes have to work just as hard on the planted leg to achieve full hip extension.
If the hips aren’t strong enough, the ball pops out of place. Conversely, if the glutes aren’t strong enough, your body won’t fully extend.
2 – “Oh-Oh, You’re Quad Dominant!”
When your ACE-certified fitness consultant at your neighborhood gym gives you a complimentary assessment – you know, the ones designed to unapologetically point out your weaknesses and rope you into a contract – there’s a 90 percent chance that part of the sales tactic includes talking about the quad dominance issues you have.
I got news for you. Everyone is “quad dominant!”
Put anyone in a one-minute “wall sit test” and they’re going to say they feel it in their quads. The same goes for almost any larger, truly lower-body movement. Dubbing someone as “quad dominant” based on movements like this is inaccurate, since zero percent of the population will ever feel such movements predominantly in their hamstrings or even their glutes.
I do, however, acknowledge that this term may come from good intentions. If someone has the propensity to raise their heels when squatting, roll in toward their big toes, and let the knees travel forward before anything else happens, then they may be relying on their quads to foot the majority of the load.
But that’s a very different story. Someone dominating an exercise with their quads takes on a very different meaning and effect than what some trainers mean by the term “quad dominant.”
Quads SHOULD be dominant. Everyone is quad dominant. There are four major muscles on the front of the thigh compared to three major muscles on the back of it. As a whole, the four muscles on the front will be stronger and generally produce more force than the three on the back.
In my career, I’ve never met someone who’s “hamstring dominant” or “glute dominant.” We need to stop throwing around this term.
Knowing about inherent quad dominance shouldn’t deter you from doing exercises that involve the quads or making them stronger. Many fitness assessors will scare new lifters away from doing lifts like squats or deadlifts, based around the thinking that they’re likely to exacerbate the bad habits and “issues” they’ve found.
In truth, performing poorly coached movements with bad technique is what will exacerbate those issues. Enough with the fear mongering.
The money fix for “quad dominance?” Pauses. Do compound movements, but add pauses to your reps.
Paused Deadlift (Concentric Pause)
I’m a fan of using pausing and tempos to increase training intensity (along with helping a lifter stay true to their strength and technique), but they also provide another benefit.
When it comes to squats and deadlifts, pauses allow you to keep the geometry you need to use the right muscles at the right time. A common problem with both squats and deadlifts is the propensity to lurch forward too far with the torso. This can really jack up a deadlifter’s back or force a squatter to come up off of his heels, forcing them to use more quads and spinal erectors.
Dropping the weight back by 20% and freezing at rock bottom, or even part of the way up, can give the posterior chain muscles a fighting chance to contribute.
3 – “Your Glutes Aren’t Firing!”
Kill me now. The very idea that a muscle will simply not activate, fail to contract, or have “amnesia” within a workout completely rocks the foundation upon which the “all-or-none” principle is built.
Muscles only have one role: Contraction. They can do so strongly if they’re strong. They can do so weakly if they’re weak.
If you don’t have proper training or neuromuscular coordination, this deficiency (coupled with weakness) could diminish a muscle’s contribution to an exercise for which it’s intended. But under no circumstance will a muscle “stop firing.”
Unless you have a neurological disability, you just need to focus on getting stronger, which isn’t a complicated process. Interestingly, trainers rarely use this statement about other muscle groups. I haven’t heard anyone say someone’s biceps, triceps, pecs, lats, or calves aren’t firing, so I see no reason for it to be used when discussing glute function.
The money fix for “Your glutes aren’t firing?” Get mobile.
There’s no single exercise that can be the solution to the problem, but making sure you’re capable of joint integrity and achieving full range of motion at the hip is paramount to set you up for success.
Your muscles won’t have a chance to get strong if they can’t achieve a range of motion to even contribute. Movements like Spider Man walks, deep bodyweight squats, and high-knee walks should be part of your routine.
4 – “You Need to Avoid Pressing, Dude!”
You might be in the habit of training your upper traps, front delts, and chest more than your back, and that would be a problem. But the idea that an imbalance in strength or even physique between your front side and rear side musculature means you should “avoid pressing work” is ridiculous.
Many times trainers will say this to steer clear of injury risk. Even though training the pull patterns can definitely play a big hand in improving the strength and stability of presses, the only real way to get stronger at pressing is to press. Of course, that advice applies to any exercise.
There’s a strong chance that your muscles are injury prone and your press patterns and posture suck because you’re just plain weak due to lack of exposure. Look, the human body is as fragile and injury prone as it is strong, adaptive, and resilient.
This implies that we shouldn’t forget either side of the coin; underestimating the body’s potential is the worst mistake we can make when pursuing gains and it’s a big rabbit hole that overly careful trainers or lifters fall into, never to emerge.
The money fix for “avoiding pressing?” Press smart.
Removing a necessary pattern of movement from the picture is different than saying you’re going to stop barbell bench pressing. Instead of prohibiting any particular pressing movement, find ways to bear load overhead and horizontally that won’t cause pain while still exposing your joints to some resistance and load tolerance. Here are three good examples:
Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
Dumbbell Floor Press
Squat Cage Viking Press
Let’s Stop the Fear Mongering
There will, of course, be times when a recommendation is spot on, but chances are the true problem won’t be some kind of hackneyed blanket cue that’s been passed on from training generation to training generation.
To be an informed lifter, ask questions. A good trainer will either have the answers or be able to point you to someone who can provide them.
Our bodies are capable of doing work, and while creating multiple restrictions to our program design may sound “intelligent” coming from a fitness pro (and might even be partially right), let’s not forget that in many cases it’s just a sales tactic.