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You Are the Obstacle to Perfect Movement!

Joshua Buchbinder Overhead Squat
Whether it’s the flutter of our eyelids, the involuntary beating of our hearts, a kettlebell swing, or a gymnast’s full twisting backflip—movement is the signal that we are alive. Yet there are drastic differences between levels of proficiency. Many people are happy to move haphazardly through life with no direction, coaching or ability. However, if you’re reading this, movement without direction is (more than likely) not an option.

I started with coaching and fitness in the martial arts, followed by acrobatic gymnastics. In both of these sports, I was obsessed with perfecting the movements and honing my body into a precision instrument. Performing perfect, graceful, explosive actions was the goal. I pounded myself into the ground day in and day out. After performing a movement well, I would attempt it again and again. Often this just meant making more mistakes as my fatigue increased.

Unfortunately, this youthful persistence actually decreased my proficiency in these complex movements. My bullheaded nature often caused me to neglect the basics—simple holds, strength techniques, jumps and so on—that would have improved the harder complex movements.

My ego took over, often causing injury. Instead of practicing the simple, fundamentals until they became reflexive and intuitive, I wanted to perform the flashy and sexy movements. I was like a baby trying to run before I could even crawl!

Many times, when we get involved with fitness—kettlebell training, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, etc.—we want to do the complex movements before learning the basics. I remember trying to do kettlebell snatches before I could even swing properly. I also tried to learn barbell cleans from a book instead of getting a coach. How many personal trainers have taken the time to hire an experienced trainer or a coach to improve their technique and guide them through their fitness journey? How many of us are humble enough to ask for help?

Many fitness enthusiasts and professionals even attempt to teach something they have never truly learned. And when they perform the exercise incorrectly, their clients will perform it very poorly. It takes approximately 300-500 repetitions to learn a movement, but it takes at least 10 times that many repetitions to re-learn or fix a bad movement. It is far more efficient and advantageous to learn something correctly the first time from an experienced coach.

Correct movements don’t just happen. Sure, some people have natural talents and strength—gifts many of us might train towards for a lifetime and never fully achieve. But to become truly great, even the gifted must work, learn, train, and be coachable. I’ve coached many athletes who were stronger or faster than me, but who were humble enough to ask for help in perfecting their movements and improving their performance.

I was fortunate to learn from great coaches who taught me good movements and fundamentals. But it wasn’t until I became humble and released my ego that I was truly able to absorb what these coaches were trying to teach me. I had to be quiet and listen to learn.
Joshua Buchbinder hiking

Even though there are different styles of kettlebell training, any of these techniques can be performed very incorrectly. In HardStyle kettlebell training, the essence of the swing is a powerful hip hinge, and the kettlebell is held with either one hand or two. The girevoy sport swing is only performed with one hand and has more knee flexion and hip extension. The American swing (seen most often in CrossFit) employs a two-hand grip, a full squat, and takes the kettlebell completely overhead. While the American swing would have been considered wrong at one time, if this squatting pattern is being used to increase vertical jumping power, or to increase stamina in the quadriceps and glutes then it makes sense.

In contrast, a squatting kettlebell front raise swing performed on a BOSU does not make sense. Attempting this would actually reduce movement efficiency, power production, potentially increase the risk of injury, and may even create muscular imbalances. another poor example of a swing that we’ve probably all seen is one performed with knees completely locked, back rounded, shoulders protracted, and elbows bent—as the exerciser lifts the kettlebell, rather than letting momentum carry it upward. This very inefficient movement will definitely lead to injury and further dysfunction. Someone with excellent postural alignment and who performs primal movements well, will most likely never perform the swing in this manner.

Before any strength student learns complex movements combining the upper and lower body, they must learn to separate the two. Often it is useful for them to train unilaterally, re-balance the body, and create symmetry.

Should we identify movement and muscular imbalances before teaching any form of correct technique? Absolutely. Even if we teach the movements perfectly, if our students have imbalances, they will not be able to perform those movements correctly.

Fortunately, there are literally thousands of corrective exercise techniques to fix movement issues. Gray Cook, creator of Functional Movement Systems, has put together a very in-depth screen that allows fitness professionals to see deviations in different primal movements and specific joints. Cook even states in his book, Movement, "It doesn’t matter what an athlete looks like, it matters how they move." The FMS corrective system isn’t hindered by blaming specific muscles or activities for any problems. It focuses on solutions instead. Some parts of the Functional Movement Screen include exaggerated movements so challenging even elite athletes struggle with them.

Dr. Michael Clark, the founder of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), created the overhead squat assessment which allows us to identify muscular deviations. NASM is fantastic at helping the fitness professional understand individual muscle functions and how specific muscle synergies create different movement patterns.

The only issue with NASM’s system is that every muscle changes its function depending on joint position. For instance, the gluteus medius is an external rotator up to 90° of knee flexion, but beyond 90° it becomes an internal rotator. This information is applicable for clients squatting below 90°, like Olympic weightlifters, who may have excessively open knees and we are trying to reduce activation in the gluteus medius. And instead, this would have the opposite effect and potentially exacerbate the dysfunction.

So, how do we create efficient movement patterns? We start with the basics! Paul Chek has identified seven primal movement patterns: push, pull, squat, hinge (specifically the hip hinge), lunge, rotation and gait cycle. Each of these movements must be mastered individually before being combined together in more complex exercises like an overhead press, bench press, seated row or pull-up.

All too often we will attempt a complicated movement, or will have clients attempt a complicated movement without mastering the separate components—and disaster follows. If I have a client attempt a barbell thruster, yet they are not equally proficient in simply pressing the bar overhead or front squatting, then how can I expect the combination of both movements in the thruster to be fluid, safe and productive? Simple answer is that I can’t.

Similarly, a correct hip hinge must precede a kettlebell deadlift—which must (of course) come before a kettlebell swing. It’s simple bio-mechanics, unloaded linear movement is the prerequisite for loaded movement, and loaded linear movement must come before loaded explosive functional movement. Crawl before you walk and walk before you run.

As fitness enthusiasts and professionals, we must release our ego and perfect the basics. While this may seem like a step backwards, it will allow us to take 10 steps forward! I stated earlier, I had to experience defeat (in the form of injury and competitive loss) before I could experience and truly appreciate victory. I’m not saying don’t push your limits, in fact the opposite, but be trained, find experts, and become an expert mover—then you will be able to push your limits farther than you’ve ever imagined!

JoshuaBuchbinderOverheadSquatThumbnailJoshua Buchbinder, M.S. has two decades of coaching experience. He currently resides in Aurora, Colorado with his wife and son and is the Fitness Manager and a Master Trainer at the 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport - Aurora.