When you do an exercise, do you just go through the motions? Or do you actually think about where you should be and actually are feeling the move?
Hopefully you are thinking about where you are feeling the move because that will not only make sure you are doing it correctly but will also allow you to figure out if certain muscles are tight or overactive or underactive.
AND it will build that very important mind-body connection.
One of the first questions I always ask clients when they do a new move is “Where do you feel it?”
It really makes you focus on the move and really makes your mind have to connect and think about your body and the movement.
I also prefer asking that to even telling them where they should feel it because then they have no notion of where they “should” feel it and instead truly consider where they DO feel it.
Because when we consider where we are feeling the move instead of just going through the motions, we may realize we actually aren’t feeling the correct muscles working.
Like when squatting down…if we feel the squat a lot in our low back it may be because our abs aren’t engaged or our hips and even calves are tight. It also probably means our glutes aren’t engaged and firing.
And yes that means we need to do some core engagement exercises and roll out and stretch our calves and hips. And yes, it also even means we need to do some glute activation exercises.
But more importantly it means we need to THINK about the move and focus on engaging the proper muscles to make sure we feel the exercise working the correct muscles.
We can do all the proper activation exercises and learn how to activate and engage the muscles in isolation, but still not have that translate to compound moves IF we don’t focus on doing it during the movement.
Here are some quick tips address some of the most common form problems people have with a few common exercises. These tips help build that mind-body connection along with proper stretching, rolling and activation exercises. These exercise variations and adjustments help you learn to what it feels like to do the movements correctly so your mind knows how to focus on activating the correct muscles so that when you do any variation of the exercise and are asked “Where do you feel it?”, you will feel it in the correct places.
- You feel it in your low back – Try a bear hug squat with a sandbag. By hugging the sandbag to your chest, you will force your abs to engage throughout the squat movement. A good next progression from this is even a light front squat with a kettlebell (aka a goblet squat) since front squats require more core engagement. Then you can move into heavier back squats once you’ve learned to focus on engaging your core during the movement.
- You lean forward and feel it in your low back – Stand in front of a wall and perform the squat. Sometimes we may have done enough to loosen up muscles so that we should have proper form yet still repeat the same bad movement patterns because they are so engrained and our mind doesn’t stay focused on controlling our body. The best way to make the new movements muscle memory and get that mind-body connection is by sometimes giving our body no way to compensate. If you lean forward during your squats, stand in front of a wall close enough that you can lean forward and instead have to sink your butt to get closer to the ground. Make sure, however, that you don’t compensate by coming up onto your toes!
- Your heels come up – Many people actually don’t realize their heels come up or that they are coming forward in the squat and that is why they only feel the squat in their quads and not at all in their butt. A great way to correct this is by doing a squat to a box or bench. Stand enough in front of the box that you have to REACH your butt back to sit down on the bench. This will force you to sit back on your heels and then drive up through your heels, engaging your glutes and keep you from injuring your knees and coming up on your toes.
- Your back rounds as you hinge over – The most common one and often one of the hardest to focus on and correct since so many people are so used to rounding forward over their desks. A great way to ingrain the correct movement pattern is by starting your hinge with a pole or stick down your back. Keep the stick in contact with your head, upper back and butt at all times throughout the exercise. This insures that you have a flat back and do not round. Next move to just keeping your hands behind your back. The hands behind the back reminds you to keep your chest open which in turn keeps your back flat.
- You don’t feel your glutes working – I’ve found a great way to train the hinge motion and driving up through the glutes is by standing 2 or 3 inches from a wall, facing away from the wall. Lean forward and reach the butt back toward the wall. If you only lean forward and put all the work in your back, your butt will not move closer to the wall.But if you only lean forward to counterbalance your butt reaching back, you will feel a stretch down your hamstrings and you will feel your butt touching the wall. If you are working on a straight-leg hinge, you will not bend your knees as much. If you are working toward a conventional deadlift, stand a bit farther away and allow your knees to bend as you reach your butt back and lean forward (keeping your back flat) to counterbalance your butt reaching back to touch the wall. This move should make you aware of how it feels to sit back and the “stretch” you will feel if you are doing the move correctly. Advance to using a band around your hips while trying to reach your butt back to a pole or wall.
- Your low back is feeling it – Doing a light weight front-loaded good morning is a great way to get the core really activated while hinging. Too often when we are holding a barbell or kettlebells while lifting we are more focused on the hinge and keeping our back flat than our core engaged. But a front loaded move like the good morning is a great chance to really focus on the core. Hold a dumbbell, sandbag or kettlebell at your chest. Perform a straight two-leg deadlift, sitting your butt back and hinging forward. Because of the weight in front you will really need to focus on engaging the core so your low back doesn’t feel it. If you just rush through this move, you can easily irritate your low back. BUT I like to use it because it does really seem to make people more aware of how engaged their core should be.
- Push ups are one exercise everyone thinks they can do and hardly anyone actually does correctly. One of the best ways to train correct push ups is to make them as easy as possible to start with. INCLINE PUSH UPS should be done to start. Heck use a wall and do almost completely standing up straight push ups if you need to. By making it super easy, you allow yourself to focus on correct movement patterns….Like everything moving together and you not tucking your chin and your elbows not flaring out toward you head….
- You feel it in your low back – This means your core isn’t engaged. Try placing yoga blocks under your body. Make sure everything hits the yoga blocks at the same time. If your hips hit it before your chest then your hips are sagging and your core isn’t engaged…aka you are going to feel it in your low back! This may just make you aware enough to correct it or you may need to do some pelvic tilts and plank holds!
- You feel it in your traps and neck – You are shrugging your shoulders and not engaging your lower traps or lats. A great way to train yourself to keep your shoulders down is by doing a push up with your hands low down like toward your hips. Because this is a difficult push up, you may need to do a modified push up or even an incline variation.
- You feel it in your neck and traps – I find this is super common especially during inverted rows. It means you aren’t activating your lower traps. It is also easily corrected by focusing on pressing the chest out and by rowing LOWER on your chest. So instead of even focusing on engaging a muscle, focus on just rowing the strap or bar to lower on your chest…like below the nipple at least.
- Your back is rounded – Just like with the deadlift, a pole or rod can be used down your back to keep your spine in alignment. Make sure your head, upper back and butt all maintain contact with the pole throughout the move. This will also prevent you from rotating so that you actually feel the move in your lower traps and lats! (This isn’t great for keeping a straight line during the inverted row but during the bent over row or even a row supported on a bench.)
- You only feel it in your biceps – While any back exercise does work your grip and your biceps, you should feel the move in your back. Focus on driving your elbows up toward the ceiling and not letting your forearms curl toward your chest when you row. To learn this, it actually works best to stand up straight. Stand with your back to a wall. The wall should be only a few inches away. Standing up nice and tall, drive your elbows back to touch the wall. If you “curl” instead of “row,” your elbows won’t touch the wall. But if you pinch your shoulder blades down and back and row, your elbows will touch the wall. This is the exact motion you will use when performing an actual row and rowing your elbows up to the ceiling!
These are only some very basic cues and variations to help you develop that mind-body connection. But if you use them they will help you become more AWARE of your body so that you can keep the correct muscles engaged and working even during other variations.
Now ask yourself, “Where do you feel the (insert exercise here)?” Are you using the correct muscles or just going through the motions?