Coaching Tip: When NOT to Correct Someone's Form

This past Saturday while out on the coaching floor, I was explaining something to one of our interns, and, in the middle of our discussion, I realized it would make for excellent blog fodder, at least for the trainers and strength coaches in the crowd. 

So, on Saturday morning, I was helping one of our *quasi-distance coaching clients, Rob, during his deadlifts. As he moved through the sets, he worked up to 335lbs for a set of 3, which was a personal best for him (cue fist bump).

However, during the first rep of this 335x3 set, his form broke down a bit. His hips were "prematurely" extending, or, in other words, he was throwing them forward a bit too early. Here's an example of what it looked like (although, to his credit, it wasn't quite this extreme):

I waited until he finished the set, had him drop the bar weight down to 135lbs, and then I showed up what he was doing (video above), and then demoed what he needed to be doing, such as in the video below. Notice how the hips and shoulders rise at the same rate, and then the hips extend ("hump the bar") to finish the lift.

He practiced the correct technique a few times with 135, gave me "ah hah, that makes sense!" expression, and moved on. Smooth as puddin'.

Yet this begs the question, WHY did I not immediately correct him during the heavy set, when his form was a bit off? Why did I let him finish the set without saying anything?

Quite simply, his form wasn't quite bad enough to risk injury, and the cue I was about to give him was one that we, Rob and I, hadn't discussed before. Which leads me to my main point:

Avoid giving coaching cues that the athlete or client hasn't heard before while they're in the middle of their set. ESPECIALLY when maximal weights are being used.

Yelling a cue or instruction at an athlete while they're in the middle of a maximal working set will most likely do one of two things: A) Utterly befuddle them, or B) Injure them. I think it goes without saying that both these scenarios are unfavorable.

So, if you notice they're doing something wrong, you typically have one of two options:

1) If their form is so bad, and/or they are breaking down so much that it looks like they're going to get hurt, STOP the set there. I don't care if they were supposed to do five reps and only got through one before everything fell apart.

Reduce the weight on the bar, describe what they are doing vs. what they need to be doing, and then have another go.

2) If their form isn't perfect, but it doesn't look bad enough to risk injury (ex. their elbows flaring too much on the bench press), allow them to finish the set, and then discuss what needs to be happening, and lower the weight if needed. Sometimes it's just a matter of them knowing what needs to be done, and other times the weight is simply too heavy.

Bret Contreras did an excellent job discussing this very topic in his post, The Three Most Idiotic Things I've Done as a Personal Trainer:

One of my best female clients was performing heavy high box squats (15? height). I had her squatting with 155 lbs on the bar and during the set I felt that she wasn’t arching hard enough at the bottom of the lift. I noticed that she’d relax a bit and fail to keep a rigid lumbar extension moment while she was seated on the box. During her set I instructed for her to “arch the low back.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t thinking clearly and she confused “arch” with “flex” and rounded her low back. Heavy axial loading + rounded lumbar spine to end-range flexion = herniated disc. She couldn’t train for over a month.....

.....As a personal trainer, you review proper form prior to the lift, you have them practice perfectly with lighter loads, you use simple phrases such as “chest up” so the advice cannot be misconstrued, and you make sure they know what “arch” means prior to having heavy loads on their back. “Arching” in the direction of lumbar extension results in a successful lift, while “arching” in the direction of lumbar flexion will likely have drastic consequences, so a good personal trainer doesn’t leave the client’s interpretation up to chance.

Couldn't have put it any better myself!

It can be sooo tempting, as a coach who wants to see things done correctly, to shout corrections during someone's lift if you see something out of whack. Just be sure that it's the right time and place. Sometimes you need to keep your mouth shut and wait until after the set to go over things with them.

*Quasi-distance clients refer to the "SAPTers" that train with us 1-4x/month in-house, and perform the other sessions in their program outside of SAPT. This  works quite well for those that travel frequently throughout the week (such as Rob from the example above), and/or have geographical/scheduling/financial constraints that don't make it practical for them to train at SAPT multiple times each week.