The quality of training sessions considerably rises when the client begins to think about how they’re moving rather than just doing it. Teaching body awareness is just as integral as teaching a client proper alignment and form for exercises. When a client doesn’t have an innate understanding of their body’s ability to move and how to move it, teaching form can be even more challenging. It’s a bit nebulous to teach someone how to think about and physically connect with what they’re doing during an exercise or movement. Good news though: there are techniques and exercises personal trainers can incorporate in order to develop clients’ body awareness.
Innate and Learned Body Awareness
Some clients are natural movers. They grew up doing one or more physical activities and continued their movement of choice into adulthood. These clients have learned a degree of coordination and agility from a young age, providing them an opportunity to solidify the mind-body connection that allows for control and understanding of the “hows” to moving their body and how it relates to the surrounding environment, also known as proprioception.
However, there will be a significant number of clients who will never have done so much as take a long walk. This group comprises my largest contingency of clients: people who genuinely don’t know what to do in a gym, how to properly exercise, or even how to move their body a certain way on command.
When an individual has never taken the time to explore and understand the mechanics of body movement, (which, to be fair, is most people in the general public), the body can start to do some funny things. The human body and subconscious have a propensity to take the path of least resistance—something to do with survival and wanting to stockpile energy so we are at all times ready for famine or fight. Fortunately, we are not living in the times of mammoths and ice ages, but our ancient subconscious hasn’t seemed to have caught up yet!
Movement-wise this translates to taking the easiest path for movement rather than what might be the most “correct” concerning muscular support. This can result in funky or dysfunctional movement patterns in the base human movements like sitting down and standing up, getting up off the ground, reaching overhead, stepping back to a kneeling position, and the like.
Teaching proper body mechanics and body awareness is not an easy task, and a large component is the time and repetition required to create the necessary neural connections. However, I do have some introductory exercises I use to reinforce proper movement patterns with my new clients that I believe are helpful in laying the foundations of proprioception.
It can be overlooked how the hands are utilized in floor exercises such as planks, push-ups, and tabletop movements. It was from my yoga teachers that I was introduced to this concept and it has made a huge impact on the quality of my planks and inversion work.
When executing a plank the hands and wrists can be passively engaged in the exercise. By placing the hand flat on the ground and then stacking the weight of the body over the hands, there is naturally going to be muscle activity throughout. But without taking note of where things are engaging, this position can create sagging of the chest and dumping into the wrist joint.
Another common hand position occurs when all the weight of the plank falling into the lateral side of the hand. This creates a puff of space between the palm, first two finger knuckles, and the ground. This will usually make it much harder for the client to stack the shoulders over the wrist, because the positioning of the hands pushes the weight of the chest back towards the feet. This can also bring on pain in the wrist if planks and other such exercises are repeatedly performed this way.
I instruct my clients to engage active hands so that they intentionally engage their hands to support themselves in a plank or push up.
I cue my clients to press the knuckles at the base of all the fingers and thumb into the ground and press all the fingertips into the ground. It will feel as if they are trying to “grip” or “palm” the ground. This creates active engagement of the muscles in the hands and forearm. This technique will also help to improve wrist strength and reduce pain that might occur with wrist flexion in plank.
Another concept that I find is great for improving body awareness and overall quality of the clients’ workouts is understanding scapular retraction and protraction. I start with the client in tabletop position and have them isolate this movement.
For retraction, I place my finger between their shoulder blades and instruct them to try and squeeze my finger like they would when performing rowing exercises. I tell them to imagine the shoulder blades gliding up and towards one another, without shrugging the shoulders towards the ears.
For protraction I have them imagine they are pulling the shoulders blades apart and pressing them flat against the upper back and ribcage.
Understanding scapular movement will improve a client’s plank performance. I mentioned the sinking or sagging that is often seen in a newbie’s plank. Sometimes this is simply due to lack of strength, however, it may also be attributed to a lack of understanding on how to engage the proper muscles.
I instruct the client to actively push away from the ground as if they are trying to lift their chest/upper back out of the shoulder joints rather than resting in them. This will require the client to apply some scapular protraction. You can even have them practice the protraction and retraction while holding the plank position to further demonstrate the impact of the body’s positioning on the effectiveness of the exercise.
Teaching people how to move is what personal training is all about. We personal trainers are more fascinated by the human body’s ability to move and produce force than the average person. However, transferring this knowledge and understanding of how to move the body is not as simple as explaining the mechanics of a singular exercise.
Take the time to explore body movement on your own, break it down, and analyze how best to teach it. So much of my knowledge on the “how to move” is from my own experience and being playful in my workouts. I’ve learned that until I actually understand a movement myself I cannot adequately teach it to a client. Success often lies in identifying different or new cues for the movement that might resonate better with a particular client. Do some of your own investigation into movement and what exactly is happening within it. It will undoubtedly bring insight and inspiration to your work and how you train.