There are many ways that exercise can be used to improve health, fitness and performance, particularly given the range of interests and experiences of the population. Exercise professionals are well positioned to impact the lives of many if they are evidence-informed and guided by fundamental principles – tenets that span a broad range of objectives, populations and applications.
1. Performance = fitness and movement
Being physically fit, in the traditional sense (e.g. strong) does not equate to being physically prepared for a particular job, sport, or activity of daily living. Fitness is essential, particularly for physical active populations, but alone it is not sufficient to ensure peak performance and long-term durability; it simply reflects an individual’s potential.
For example, poor torso extensor endurance has been cited as a marker for future low back troubles (Beiring-Sorensen, 1984), although it is not one of the commonly described mechanisms of low back injury (as is spine curvature (Callaghan and McGill, 2001)). A possible explanation is that superior endurance provides the opportunity to maintain spine-sparing postures for extended periods of time by delaying the onset of fatigue. But, if individuals cannot adopt these postures for any number of reasons (e.g. perhaps they are unaware of the importance), muscular endurance becomes secondary and will have little bearing on the risk of injury.
Great fitness in the presence of poor movement or great movement in the presence of poor fitness will limit performance and increase the risk of injury. Both scenarios reflect the undesirable state where a performer’s demands will exceed their capacity.
2. Use movement to guide the progression of fitness
An individual’s movement patterns should be used to guide the progression of their exercise program. Only after they have displayed the capacity to perform (i.e. ability, awareness) should an activity’s frequency, intensity and time be modified to make it more challenging. Advancing too quickly may compromise the individual’s safety and limit the potential benefits of the program.
There is no reason to sacrifice fitness when emphasizing movement. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to sacrifice movement when emphasizing fitness.
3. Train movement not muscles
Since we cannot see muscles it makes much more sense to simply focus on movement. Every movement is the result of the muscular system acting on the skeletal system. Muscles produce force through concentric (shortening), eccentric (lengthening) and isometric (no length change) actions and provide us with an opportunity to perform the physical activities that we need and want to do. If sufficient force cannot be produced to perform a particular activity today, muscles have the unique ability to grow and become stronger in response to applied stimuli, or demands imposed on the muscular system.
However, accurately describing the muscles that are responsible for a given action, let alone the forces that are being produced relative to a muscle’s maximum ability is not possible without sophisticated equipment. And while the scientific literature does offer insight into select relationships between various stimuli and their corresponding muscular adaptations, numerous assumptions would be needed to develop an appropriate course of action for training if the primary objective was to enhance muscle function.
Further, enhancing muscular strength or endurance in the absence of a global objective will likely have little influence on an individual’s risk for injury or their performance. Exercise professionals should appreciate the complexity of muscle mechanics and muscle physiology, but ultimately their decisions to use a particular exercise or make a session more demanding should be based largely on observations made during training.
4. It’s not about the exercise
There are many exercises that can be used to achieve every training objective. An individual’s capacity can be improved with several modalities, exercises, and exercise programs; there are countless options that will provide an effective training stimulus. Exercises are simply tools at our disposal to help achieve a particular objective. There is also no reason why any specific exercise needs to be included in every training program given that almost every individual will perform differently, have a different background and varying personal interests/objectives.
5. Building capacity is a process – Focus on getting better, not making yourself tired
Enhancing capacity is a process. Most of us have a desire to be physically active today, tomorrow and five years from now. There is no date after which time our capacity to perform becomes more or less important, nor is there opportunity to take advantage of an “off-season”.
Much consideration should be given to the design of any exercise program so that it serves to enhance capacity in a manner that is relevant and sustainable over an extended period of time. Short- and long-term objectives are needed to effect sustainable change. It would be very disappointing to quit after only a few months because you were unable to maintain a particular intensity; or worse yet, you got hurt. Our exercise programs can be challenging but not simply for the sake of being hard when the goal is being active for life!
There is an important, yet often overlooked, distinction between making someone better and making them tired. Effective professionals are equipped with the knowledge and skills to design and implement exercise programs that can change lives, as opposed to simply making “hard workouts”.
6. Train with a purpose, revisit life’s demands.
Exercise can be used to prevent injuries, improve performance and enhance the quality of our lives. But each of us is different, both with regards to our demands and our capacity to perform. Without acknowledging these differences and establishing a purpose for training, any exercise-related initiatives to become better prepared may be misdirected.
Building capacity is a process that requires simple, yet sustainable strategies that keep us motivated and engaged. It is often the small seemingly insignificant steps that are the most beneficial to effecting long-term permanent change.
7. Coaching is both an art and a science.
Coaching is a science. There are fundamental principles of exercise physiology, biomechanics, motor learning and behavioral change that should be considered in the design process so that performers are challenged in a manner that is appropriate to effect positive change.
Coaching is an art. There is no single “best” approach that should be used with everyone in every situation. Trial and error is necessary because every individual will not respond to a given stimulus in the same manner, nor will they always respond as expected.
Although some structure can help (focus on learning), every exercise program must also be easily adapted to suit the progress being made. We need to understand the science to ensure that we are providing an opportunity to succeed, but creativity is needed to make adjustments and deviate from the plan when things do not progress as expected.
The “best” program in the world will prove to be ineffective if an emphasis is not placed on the coach-client relationship.
8. Improve transfer by emphasizing key movement features
Improving our performance in life does not require that a specific task be replicated in the gym. Many factors can influence the way we move (e.g. perception of risk, awareness, strength), and thus a range of physiological, mechanical and behavioural adaptations could, theoretically, be exhibited in response to subtle task differences. Simply altering the load, modality or instructions, for example, might elicit a different movement strategy than was used to perform the original activity.
However, if “key features” (e.g. control of spine motion) of an activity are emphasized while training it is possible to alter the habitual patterns of a complex skill without having to replicate the exact task. There is evidence to suggest that there may be attributes, or “key features”, of a performer’s movement behaviours that are common to a range of activities (Frost et al. 2015).