This article originally ran on T-Nation.com.
Corrective exercise is the new “functional training.”
Functional training started out with the best intentions. Well-meaning physical therapists got their clients off the leg extension machines and had them do exercises that mimicked everyday life. Somewhere along the line, though, it turned into people balancing on wobble boards, doing squats on Bosu balls, and a host of other activities that aren’t the least bit “functional.”
As the industry has begun to turn its back on functional training, it seems as though every trainer in the industry wants to label themselves as a corrective exercise expert. But what is corrective exercise? Is it as simple as including some random foam rolling, activation exercises, and core work? Or is it what the pundits would like you to believe?
In this article, I’m going to set the record straight, and show you what corrective exercise really is.
As Bill Hartman noted in our Indianapolis Performance Enhancement Seminar DVD series, there really shouldn’t be a disconnect in training between performance enhancement and injury prevention. Smart training should accomplish both.
Let’s discuss some of the fallacies concerning corrective exercise that I see bandied about on a daily basis, as well as the facts.
Fact: Corrective training can include foam rolling, glute and shoulder activation exercises.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Corrective exercise isn’t always sexy. I sometimes work with clients who have absolutely no business benching, squatting, deadlifting, or doing any big-bang exercise. It’s like a mansion built on a terrible foundation: the best thing you can do is tear the whole thing down and rebuild it from the ground up.
One point we should agree on is that our little muscles (the stabilizers) have to do their job. The big, showy muscles (our prime movers) get more than enough demands from big-bang exercises.
If I get someone who is a total disaster with regards to alignment, and movement patterns, my first task is to get him moving correctly. For instance, you can’t fire your glutes in an isolated test or exercise like a glute bridge, do you think your glutes will magically turn on at the bottom of a heavily loaded squat?
It could theoretically happen, but in practice it rarely does.
Obviously, you need to test both: some people test terribly in isolation, and work pretty well in integration. However, the fact is that if someone struggles in a basic, isolated setting, they’re going to have a hard time integrating those muscles into a nice, clean movement pattern under load.
This is where people want to pigeonhole corrective exercise: they’d have you believe that all we ever do is have our clients flopping around on foam rollers, activating specific muscle groups. This is only the beginning of the process, and it’s only the case with the most difficult clients. The true goal of corrective exercise is always to get clients moving better, so they can get back to the exercises they enjoy performing.
Fallacy: You’ll get smaller on a corrective exercise program.
If you’re doing a corrective program, you’re going to whither away, right? I mean how can you possibly grow if all you’re doing is glute bridges and scap circuits? Well first off, there’s a lot more to it than weenie exercises.
As a case study, consider my good friend Nate Green.
Nate came to me a while back with some semi-serious issues for a guy his age. He was sitting quite a bit, his shoulder had started to bug him, and his hips were stiffening up. As we all know, it’s very difficult to be objective about your own training, so I began working with Nate to get him fixed up.
The results were pretty damned good. Nate worked his ass off, and was completely pain-free in about 2 months. The coolest thing was how Nate’s physique looked while on this program.
Not bad for two or three months of weenie exercises.
Sure he did some foam rolling and activation exercises, but they were only components of a holistic exercise program geared to getting him healthy and feeling great.
I’m not trying to take credit for Nate’s physique, dietary adherence, or even his sex appeal. My point is that if you’re following a good program, you won’t wither away. You may even look bigger and more proportional.
Another example. Bill and I are currently working with several guys at I-FAST that have unstable scapulae, so a big component of their programming revolves around improving scapular stability. Part of the programming involves isolated scap motor control work, but the other part revolves around heavy pulling exercises.
When you teach the stabilizers to stabilize, it allows the bigger prime movers to do their job more efficiently. These guys might not win any bodybuilding shows, but there’s a definite improvement in the size and muscularity of their upper backs.
Fact: You can get healthier and stronger on the right program.
Some people have trouble believing this, but this is where efficiency comes into play. When I began powerlifting, I was always really strong off the floor, but my lockout sucked. I would get so pissed off that I would rip the bar off the floor, but it would put me in a terrible position to finish the weight. My glutes were also ridiculously weak, which made a bad situation worse.
I didn’t understand the concept of efficiency. After taking a step back and really focusing on getting my core and glutes stronger, my lockout is now one of the strongest parts of my lift. In fact, now I need to get my hamstrings stronger to improve my strength off the floor in relation to my lockout!
I’ve seen this numerous times with clients as well. They want to improve their squat, bench, deadlift, or whatever. We won’t even train those lifts for a month or two, instead focusing on the areas that are lacking and holding them back. It could be their mobility, improving stabilizer strength, or something else, but as soon as we return focus to the core lifts for a few weeks, those lifts go right through the roof!
Fallacy: You can’t lift heavy while on a corrective program.
This is worse than a fallacy, it’s a damned lie. I would assume that there’s a “corrective” component to every strength training cycle Eric Cressey has laid out for himself, and the guy routinely pulls over 600 pounds at a bodyweight of 185 pounds. Simply stated, corrective exercise is in no way inconsistent with lifting heavy.
Dr. Eric Cobb put it best:
“Strength training cements your current levels of posture and mobility.” Simple yet profound.
Think about an Olympic lifter who has great mobility in the ankles, knees, hips, and thoracic spine. Once they have developed that mobility, strength training reinforces it, cementing that good movement throughout a full range of motion. In fact, assuming your technique stays solid at heavier weights, this will only further reinforce quality movement.
Lastly, some of the best “corrective” exercises are those that lend themselves to heavy loading. Want to get your glutes stronger? Incorporate heavy deadlifts. Low traps too weak? Pull-ups and chin-ups with a scap depression at the top will work wonders.
We need to stop thinking in a self-limiting manner. Corrective exercise and intelligent strength training absolutely go hand-in-hand.
Fact: Progression is the key to corrective exercise programming.
This is one of the key principles that separates the posers from the people who are really applying corrective exercise well. Let’s use a hypothetical example here:
You go to a trainer and they evaluate you for alignment, dysfunctions, and injuries. They determine your glutes aren’t up to snuff, and therefore incorporate three or four sets of glute activation exercises into your programming.
That by itself isn’t an issue. The problem arises when you’re still doing those same basic exercises after several years, and it’s worse still if they constitute the bulk of your programming. This is where progression is critical.
The goal of a glute bridge is to improve motor control and strength in your glutes, but the application or carry-over to real-world activities by themselves is minimal. Instead, the goal should be to teach the client how to use these muscle groups with isolative exercises, and then integrate them into movement patterns like squats, lunges, step-ups, and deadlifts as quickly as possible. Motor control is the foundation from which you can develop strength.
I’ve got no qualms with having someone perform a hip or scap circuit immediately pre-workout or prior to a specific exercise. I look at it like an insurance policy: an entire scap and glute circuit takes 3 minutes or less, which is a small price to pay to stay healthy in the long term.
Fallacy: Program design is the only key.
Program design is of critical importance, and poor program design will expedite your path to the disabled list. But saying that it’s the onlyfactor is pretty ridiculous.
Proper coaching of efficient movement, paired with individualized program design, are the true keys to success. I could design a client the most individualized and well-thought out program known to man. It could address every postural or movement issue they struggle with. But if they can’t take those exercises and execute them properly, not only will they not see optimal progress, but they could actually get worse as well!
Here’s an example: A lunge can be a great exercise to get your core and glutes working together. However, a lot of people are too stiff in their hips to perform them correctly, and end up making the lunge a very quad dominant lift. So if I give someone a lunge and they consistently do it incorrectly, they may be following the program but they will not get the desired result!
If you want to see maximal returns on your investment, make sure that your program is customized to help you achieve your goals. From there, it’s on you to make sure that you’re doing the exercises correctly to get the maximum benefit.
I hope this has cleared up some of the misconceptions when it comes to corrective training. While the pundits would have you believe it’s all smoke and mirrors, an intelligent and progressive program, combined with good coaching and exercise technique can not only get you healthy, but freakishly strong and fit as well.