Does anyone like being corrected?
We understand that it’s for our own good and may even appreciate being informed about what needs to be addressed, but consider: when you are learning to perform a new skill; in the instant where correction is given, does it feel empowering? Oftentimes, it does not. Why then, would we expect our clients to feel confident?
Given that corrective exercise programming is here to stay (regardless of anyone’s opinion or the level practitioners choose to incorporate it into their practice), this article will focus on the impact corrective exercise can have on a client’s confidence. In particular, how we as fitness professionals can condition confidence in the course of our corrective exercise programming.
- Recognize the role of positive framing
- Establish a context of successful movement execution to foster association with capability
- Implement experiential and verbal positive reinforcement to engage clients during corrective exercise
Starting from Behind: “Corrective Exercise” Sounds Like Something Is Wrong in the First Place
For someone who is newly in search of physical relief, the term, “corrective exercise” can be encouraging, soothing and reassuring. It indicates to clients that the source of dysfunction (and distress) has been identified and, once addressed with specific exercises, correction will occur and their issue(s) will resolve.
Everyone wants to believe that the efforts they are making with a fitness or rehab professional will enhance wellbeing and function. This desire (and expectation) means at first that the idea of corrective exercise can seem appealing.
After the newness of the journey to optimize one’s body has worn off, hearing the term “corrective exercise” can instead spark an association more like the one we had as children with homework: we don’t look forward to doing it and there’s always more to do the next day. Also, this association can evoke a body image in which the client feels their body is lacking in some way; that their body is in need of correction or in need of repair. The client’s self-identity can become attached to this image and the focus becomes centered on what he/she can’t perform or perform without compromise. Over time this association can result in a lack of confidence. As long as they “need” corrective exercise (or are told they “need” it either directly or through indication from the type of program they are given), they may maintain this negative same self-image.
Changing the Lens
Reframing a client’s experience and association with the ability to move goes a long way to increasing his/her potential. Both experience and association with movement need to be built from a foundation of success:
- Successful understanding of the goal
- Successful execution
- Awareness of a successful accomplishment
As fitness professionals, we can set up a client’s perspective through the way we communicate. If we introduce corrective exercise as it has been done traditionally, they may start to see themselves as a chronic patient, rather than a competent person.
As one client of mine, who injured her knee, confessed to me during a prolonged period of physical therapy, “I’m tired of feeling like everything I do is to fix something. I just want to exercise and feel normal. You could go on forever trying to fix things. I’m tired of it.”
Positive Framing: Start with What’s “Right” and Keep Going
In their book, Telling and Training, authors Susan A. Ambrose and Michael W. Bridges state that trainers can influence students’ motivation levels by, “creating a positive learning atmosphere and work climate. The more open and optimistic the context you build, the more open and positive the learners will be, and that leads to greater
motivation and to learning.” They also warn trainers to observe students’ responses during the learning experiences and look for signs of distress: “Watch out for threat levels during training. Stress that breeds anxiety and fear of failure severely dampens learning.”
When implementing corrective exercise, we can shift the client’s perspective by switching our frame of reference. When instructing, rather than addressing what is wrong, begin with instructing the skill with which they do have function. Then increase the client’s recognition and awareness of that function and progress from there:
- Begin instruction with the skill the client can perform
- Increase the client’s recognition and awareness of that function /skill
- Build additional skill/awareness and progress from that point forward
In other words, always begin a training session with addressing and instructing a skill that the client can perform successfully. This principle applies even in significant cases of relearning motor skills: frame the re-education segment to focus on identifying the point where function is working well and incrementally expand their skill set from that point onward. To you as the fitness professional, it may feel like rewinding to go forward. However, in order to boost client confidence and allow them the best chance to perform, it is best that the client feels like he/she is successful and making progress during every training session.
Implementation: Paving the Way for Successful Execution
How can we accomplish framing success? By building a set of experiences where clients can succeed. Implement positive experiential and verbal reinforcement to engage clients during corrective exercise; as well as encourage habit change, bolster confidence, proficiency and compliance.
When you recognize a movement or activity that needs correction, treat it like a re-programming—much like the re-education process of corrective exercise. Whether the compromised form stems from physical issues or emotional issues (such as lack of confidence), reframing the learning experience can have dramatic results.
After you have identified a starting point that will result in success and introduced it to the client, reinforce the progress and acknowledge the client’s accomplishment. Reinforce that it was skill, not random chance, which created the successful outcome.
The steps outlined here have been implemented successfully with clients of all ages. The corrective exercises selected were part of a larger program, which may have been provided by their rehab professional.
- Case Study: Sally, female, mid 30’s
- Back spasm and potential disc injury, origin unclear
- Corrective exercise (among many others): step-back lunges
Sally was very concerned about pain and approached the step-back lunge very tentatively. By overthinking the exercise and approaching it with fear, the exercise became a confidence drain. Mechanically she was not impaired, but her outlook was providing a confidence block. She missed feeling “tough” while exercising.
Step 1: Successful understanding of the goal
As Sally’s trainer, I explained the concept of giving the body a chance to reacquaint itself with stabilizing while transferring body weight from one side to the other without experiencing pain. I then explained the added benefits expected once her sense of connection and internal support is restored - allowing her to return to moving across the floor with confidence and feeling strong while exercising.
Step 2: Successful execution
We started by removing the axial load with a four-point closed-chain limb reach. After experiencing no pain on all fours and sliding her foot along the floor (without lifting it), we progressed to gradually placing a little pressure on the ball of the foot when the leg was extended.
This movement was progressed by adding the sliding of her opposing hand along the floor (again, without lifting hand or foot).
After Sally felt connected to the movement and confident in her execution, she regained the axial load and stood with shoes off and socks on. I asked her to sense the stability and steadiness of the floor underneath her and bend her knees a few times to push against the floor – all while being aware of the support it gave her. After successful execution of this movement (and Sally’s acknowledged comfort with it) I communicated that we were going to bring that same sense of comfort and strength back into the step-back lunge. Sally was made aware that whatever progress was made towards the goal during the session would be beneficial. We only wanted to go as far as she felt strong and confident.
I instructed her to stand on one leg and only elevate the heel of the opposing foot.
- Starting position: Stand on one leg and elevate the heel of the opposing foot. Your side with foot grounded on the floor is the standing side and the other foot will slide a bit. Bend legs a few times to sense comfort stabilizing in this position.
- First movement: Place your hands on top of mine and slide the elevated foot back a few inches while pressing ball of your foot into floor. Notice how you can slide easily by adding or releasing pressure. Slowly progress to using less and less support from my hands until you are confident without holding on.
- Follow-up movements: Repeat same process incrementally going farther and deeper into a lunge until full ROM is executed successfully with comfort and confidence.
- Final movement: Repeat sequence as a step-back lunge. Instead of sliding, pick up the foot completely and place the ball of the foot into the new position. Begin by stepping back to a lunge where the final foot position is shorter, or less than full ROM. As long as the movement feels manageable and feels pain-free, gradually progress to lunges by incrementally increasing length of stride until reaching full ROM.
Step 3: Successful acknowledgement (awareness) of execution
I encouraged Sally to use that sense of support from the ground and imagine that she had complete control of the ground. This helped Sally tap into the feeling of power and control as she was executing the movement. I requested that Sally provide me with feedback on how the movement felt at each increment, acknowledged her efforts, validated her performance, and afterward, reinforced how she achieved success.
Sally regained the feeling of being “tough” when she moved and she was no longer hesitant to perform a step-back lunge. In fact, she said she felt powerful—even more than she had felt prior to her injury.
Reinforcing the New Lens
As the fitness professional’s attention makes a shift from a hunt for errors to a hunt for points of recognition and a client's awareness of the objective, several additional benefits result:
- The fit pro can better recognize the client's grasp on the exercise/concept instructed
- The fit pro can appropriately acknowledge client efforts that were not recognized when "hunting for errors"
- The fit pro can better recognize when clients understand how to execute an exercise or integrate a correction, even if the client continues to demonstrate difficulty in execution
In other words, the clients improve what they’re doing….and so do we.
Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bergelson, I. (2012, June 26). Cueing the mind body spirit connection: A practical guide. ECA World Fitness Magazine.
Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. J. (2011). Telling ain’t training (2nd ed.). Massachusetts: ASTD Press.