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  • Chris Mullins

Position dependent exercise outcome

Exercises can be performed in any number of ways. They can be performed fast, slow, or without any discernible movement at all. They can be performed on 2 legs, 1-leg, on the hands, on flat or wobbly surfaces, with or without external load--the variations are limited only to the imagination.


When choosing which exercises to do, it helps to have 2 general ideas in mind:


1) A desired outcome. In other words, what do you hope to get out of this exercise, and why?


2) Visualization of what the "ideal" exercise execution looks like. Every specific exercise has an "ideal" execution. In other words, how do we best perform the exercise to achieve the desired outcome?


While for the purposes of this article I am referring to specific exercise selection, this concept can easily be extended to an entire workout or program. An effective exercise program is one that mixes a variety of individual exercise outcomes (i.e. speed, power, strength, mobility, etc.) to achieve the desired overall program outcome (goals/objectives).


It is important to make the distinction between outcomes and by-products. For example, sweat, difficulty level, and soreness are often used as measures of an effective workout, but those are simply by-products of physical activity. That's not to say it's bad to go into a workout with the mindset of "I just want to sweat!" That's perfectly fine, and engaging in play is something I feel is sorely missing in our exercise regimen.


However, at some point random exercises performed mindlessly will lead to plateaus, and boredom, injury and/or burnout is likely. Rather, to truly see sustainable progress in the long-term we need a blend of structured, focused routine as well as unstructured physical activity. The operative word here is focused. In my mind, we should be able to seamlessly shift between being focused (control) and letting go (freedom).


This article will cover the more focused end of the spectrum, on what I refer to as position dependent exercise outcome. In other words, the position in which the exercise is performed determines the benefits.


I'll use an exercise I use often--the split squat--as an example, but again, the concepts can apply to other exercises as well. If I program a split squat, I want a specific focus to be on things like where the feet are positioned, or how an object or implement is being held, or what sensations in the body the individual may feel. On the other hand, if I'm having someone throw a medicine ball at a wall, I want them thinking about moving fast, or hitting a target on the wall, rather than any internal sensations.


Below are 2 real-world examples of position dependent exercise outcome. For clarification, when I use the word position I am referring to the position of the various parts of the body in relation to each other (i.e. elbow bent or straight) as well as their position in space (i.e. center of mass).


For me, determining a successful outcome is a 3 step process. First, the split squat variation performed is chosen specifically for the individual's goals and needs. Second, there is a very clear picture of what the exercise should look like. Finally, I need to know how it feels to the individual performing the split squat. Do they feel muscles or joints? If they feel muscles, which ones? My visual observation combined with their perceptual feedback will tell me if we're achieving the desired outcome.


Split squat example #1



The image on the left (the after) represents the position I am looking for. The med ball hug was chosen for this individual for a specific purpose, yet on the right (the before), the med ball alone did not allow the client to get into the "ideal" position for this exercise. As a result, he felt the top of his left knee (before). Not what we were going for.


A couple small adjustments were made via the following cues:


1) "Apply more pressure through the left heel." (He initially reported feeling more pressure in his left forefoot.)


2) "Exhale as you tip the ball down slightly."


Notice how on the right (before) you can see the letter "E" on the wall behind him, but not on the left (after). This indicates that after the adjustment he shifted his center of mass back. Also notice the ball is a little closer to his thigh on the left, which means his ribs have come down. Finally, notice that he has less wrinkles in his shirt on the left than the right, indicating he has less arch in his back and that his rib cage and pelvis are stacked in the "canister" position I speak of often.


Those two adjustments resulted in him feeling "less wobbly," as well as feeling more of the back of his left thigh, and he did not feel his left knee. A better result through 1) awareness, and 2) a subtle but important change in position.


Split squat example #2



Again, the left image is what I am looking for, and the right represents the before. In the before, she felt pain in her left lower back. In this case the simple adjustment that was made was, "let the ball drift forward a little." This cue was chosen because she was "crunching" a bit and pushing her upper body back, while her hips were forward. Look at the side-seam of her shirt. Notice on the right how it is more of an S-curve. Also notice how her head is lower and more forward on the right than on the left.


**(See below for an interesting side discussion about this commonly misunderstood position.)


The result, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, is that by allowing the ball to drift forward a little, this actually brought her pelvis backward relative to her trunk, so they are more stacked (her knee is further back in the photo on the left--the knee position is an indicator of pelvic position), thereby achieving the desired "canister" effect. Notice the seam on her shirt is more straight on the left (after). As a result, her SI joint pain subsided, and she felt more of her left side abdominal muscles and left leg working.


Again, subtle adjustments to position changed the exercise outcome.


In both of these cases, once position and perception of position is established, the next step would be to need to build tolerance and endurance in this position through repetition over time so it becomes automatic.


Not every exercise needs to involve a hyper-focus on position. However, by including slower, position-based exercises in our exercise routines, we can train the mind and body to experience new movement options, which can help improve our ability to perform at the highest level possible for as long as possible.



**This "slouchy" position is commonly referred to as a swayback posture and is often thought to be a result of a pelvis that is tucked under too much (posteriorly tilted or rotated). However, this is a common misconception, and is actually a result of a forward-tipped (anteriorly tilted or rotated) pelvis that is also forward-pushed (anteriorly oriented), with an upper torso/spine/ribcage that is backward-pushed, and a head that is forward. The body wants to stay upright against gravity, so whenever one body segment moves forward, an adjacent segment moves backward to compensate for the resulting shift in center of mass. (Ditto for left and right movement.)


These compensatory abilities are the blessing and curse of being a bipedal organism: blessing because it is these characteristics that allow us to walk, run, dance, and move fluidly and effortlessly, but curse because our high center of mass over our relatively tiny base of support means we can also habitually compensate in any number of ways that can be detrimental to our health if left unchecked.

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