The benefits of strength training include improved bone mineral density, muscle mass and strength, as well as better balance and coordination. When executed with proper form, strength training also serves as a platform that better prepares you for moving through everyday tasks with ease. Using proper form means that you can maintain a stable core and neutral spine while moving your muscles and joints through a full range of motion. Many people assume that stiff muscles are to blame for limited range of motion, but this can also be the body’s way of protecting itself from faulty movement patterns due to poor posture. If you participate in any form of strength training, these three steps are critical in helping you to improve your positioning, range of motion, and quality of performance.
Use the “Two Hand Rule” to Maintain a Neutral Spine
All movement originates from your core, making spinal positioning the first priority for any exercise. A neutral spine and strong core creates stability for your hips and shoulders, allowing you to safely increase the intensity of your workouts. You may be surprised to find that the source of your knee pain may be directly related to a lack of stability in your core, but making small adjustments to your positioning will improve your performance and prevent further injury.
To begin, stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Think about centering your ears over your shoulders, hips and ankles. Squeeze your glutes together to tilt your pelvis into its proper position, and use your abdominal muscles to pull your lower ribs inwards, balancing your ribcage directly over your hips. From this position, take a deep breath and tighten your abdominal muscles as you exhale. Relax your glutes, but keep your abdominals tight to lock in this position. With palms facing the floor, place one thumb on your sternum and the other on your pubic bone, creating two horizontal planes. As you move, whether you are sitting, standing, or squatting, the position of your hands should not move. If you notice your hands move apart, your back is overextended. If your hands move closer together, you are rounding forward. Make sure your head and neck are centered over your ribcage at all times, and consciously keep your abdominals engaged to maintain a strong, stable core.
“Break the Bar” to Stabilize Your Shoulders
Creating stability in your upper body through your shoulders will prevent you from rounding forward. With your head centered over your shoulders, try to draw the top of your upper arm bones backwards, spreading your collarbones wide and allowing your shoulders to relax downwards and away from your ears. Oftentimes, people will squeeze their shoulder blades together in an effort to correct their posture, which can easily overextend the spine. Instead, simply imagine your shoulder blades are reaching down towards your hips. Next, grasp a straight bar and externally rotate your arms away from your body, as if you were trying to bend, or “break”, the bar. This will create a stable position for your upper body for pressing or pulling exercises. Tuck your elbows close to your body, and avoid letting them flare outwards, or track too far in front of, or behind, your body.
“Spread the Floor” to Stabilize Your Hips
When performing lower body exercises, the goal is to maintain alignment of your knees and ankles under your hips to prevent your knees from collapsing inwards or tracking too far forward. To increase range of motion when squatting, many people turn their feet outwards, causing the ankles and natural arch in the feet to collapse. This creates a twisting force on the knees that can lead to injury. To correct this, stabilize your core using the steps above and position your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. With your toes pointed forward, plant your feet into the ground and imagine that you are spreading the floor apart by creating an external rotation force with your feet. Keep your weight centered over your feet, and let your knees move outwards and away from the midline of your body as you lower into a squat. Use your hips and hamstrings to power your movements, and try to keep your shins as vertical as possible to direct the stress away from your knees.
Sarah Dalton is the founder of Able Mind Able Body, a Las Vegas based company offering motivational lifestyle coaching and personal training services. She takes a holistic approach to healthy living, and educates others on the benefits of nutrition, exercise, and emotional health. Visit www.ablemindablebody.com for more info.