Four Common Exercise Programming Mistakes: What You Need to Know

“Jeet Kune Do rejects all restrictions imposed by form and formality and emphasizes the clever use of the mind and body to defend and attack.” ~Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way (1997).

Tradition martial arts training tends to restrict students’ movements and train of thought by having them perform repetitive patterns in a certain order without understanding the meaning of the movements. However, in a real fight, the opponent(s) will attack you in ways that you cannot possibly predict. Students tend to get stuck within a pattern without the freedom to explore other movement patterns and options in defense or offense. Bruce Lee was against forms and anything that limits the freedom of the mind and movement.  By removing limitations in one’s thinking, you can create your own style of self-defense with the formless approach. Jeet kune do adapts to you, not having you adapt to it. This analogy can be used to describe exercise programs that people get themselves into today.

Exercise programs should be based on an individual basis because no two bodies, minds, and experiences are the same. How a person moves, responds to an exercise, and health history can greatly influence the outcome of their exercise program. The major problem with exercise programs today is that you have to adapt to the program, not vice versa.

For example, take this person for example. Would you think this person have a stability problem or a mobility problem?

Many people would assume that he has stiff back and hips or tight hip flexors and quadriceps because his torso pitches forward slightly as he squats. However, when he assumes a supine position, he is able to move his hip and leg joints with more mobility than in a standing position. Thus, based on these two videos themselves, we can say that his inability to deep squat can be mostly be attributed from poor stability and movement sequencing.

Unfortunately, most trainers would immediately assume tight anatomy as opposed to a poor movement pattern that inhibits his ability to squat. This type of thinking falls into one of four common mistakes in exercise program design that fitness trainers and coaches make when working with their clients and athletes. Physical therapist Gray Cook, author of “Movement (2010)” and co-founder of Functional Movement Systems, describes four of such mistakes:

The protocol approach

The basic kinesiological approach

The appearance-of-function approach

The pre-habilitation approach

The protocol approach uses the “one-size-fits-all” approach with no consideration and appraisal for individual movement patterns. This includes general weight loss programs, fitness boot camps, sports camps, and typical gym workouts.

The protocol approach tends to have the client adapt to the program, not vice versa.

Each person is put into a category and is given a set of exercises to perform with no consideration of movement competency. Two runners can have different movement patterns that cause one to experience pain in the lower back and the other to experience plantar fascia pain in the left foot while running. Two obese people can have different movement patterns, which affect their ability to sustain cardiovascular performance. Therefore, each person must have their exercise programs customized based on their weakest link in their movement patterns rather than tossing them in a general category. This approach has no system of checks and balances to indicate progress or improvement in movement patterns.

The kinesiological approach is based on training either individual muscles or muscle groups without little or no regard for movement patterns. It is used under the assumption that by training one muscle, it will improve specific movement patterns or athletic abilities. For example, if a person’s glutes are assumed to be weak, then butt exercises are recommended to strengthen the glutes. If the core is thought to be weak, then ab exercises are recommended to improve the core. Like the protocol approach, there is no system of checks and balances–it assumes problems, suggests a number sets and reps, and hopes that movement and performance will improve over time.

Do you really think this will improve the "core" while lying on your back and flex your spine?

The appearance-of-function approach uses an exercise that resembles a task-oriented pattern or a sports-specific pattern to  improve quality and quantity of movement. An example would be to have a person who demonstrates poor single-leg balance to stand on top of a BOSU, wobble board, or any unstable device. This approach may appear to be functional, yet the person will most likely produce a compensation rather than a proper movement pattern. Another example would be those who use the leg press machine to improve leg strength and function. Although this method stimulate muscle hypertrophy, the movement pattern in this position will be improve your squat, vertical jump, or any other patterns.

The leg press may work your legs but it won't make you squat or jump better.

If the functional exercise is easy to perform, then it is assumed that the exercise is not needed. If it is too difficult to perform, then it is assumed it is needed. Thus, the functional exercise has become a test and confirmation of the person’s progress. This system has no way to ensure such exercise or approach will improve one’s athletic ability.

The pre-hab approach are simply prepackaged exercises that is intended to reduce the injury risk for specific sports or activities. A classic example is the abdominal training package that is supposed to strengthen the core under the assumption that it will reduce back pain or core weakness. Chances are, the core weakness is a symptom of another problem that is causing the weakness. Doing situps, leg lifts and side planks are not likely going to improve abdominal strength or athletic performance.

Without a checks and balance system, you won't know if what you're doing works or not.

As you can see, all of these approaches have several things in common:

1. Lack of individualization

2. Lack of a common system of checks and balances.

3. Relies on preconceived notions of a problem rather than finding out the problem.

So what is the correct approach to exercise programming? Well, it would depend on what the client or athlete can do. What works for one person may cause problems for another. In the second part, we discuss the application of using the Functional Movement Screen to address exercise program design flaws.

4 Common Exercise Program Mistakes: The Solution

4 Responses to “Four Common Exercise Programming Mistakes: What You Need to Know”
  1. Jason says:

    Great post. I’m all in favor of movement based exercise. It shocks me how all of this was understood and then forgotten over history in favor of “isolation” based muscle development as if everybody should be a bodybuilder. Was it all Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fault?

  2. Hi Jason. I would say our former governor Arnold would not be the blame of everything. But consider this.

    In the late 1970s, there was an university study on low back compression in various body positions from standing to sitting and lying face up or face down. The position that places the most pressure upon the lower back was the sitting with poor posture position, which places about 200% of your upper body weight upon your spine. The supine position is the least damaging, which places almost 0% of pressure upon the spine.

    At the same time, guess what came out in the gym? Nautilus! They are a series of circuit training machines that works one body part at a time, mostly from a SITTING position. It was a marketing ploy to make gym owners and patron buy into these products. These big, bulky machines, which are still very prevalent today in America’s gyms, can range in the thousands, just to train ONE movement or body part. How ridiculous is that? This can be my next blog.

    Thanks Jason.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Four Common Exercise Programming Mistakes: What You Need to Know, many fitness professionals tend to develop exercise programs by using mostly assumptions and […]

  2. […] months or for the rest of her life. An physical therapist may suggest corrective exercises that are protoccol-based. A typical gym trainer might put her on a back extension machine, hoping that it will strengthen […]

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