Since starting my career as a coach back in 2013, the main reason for a new client seeking me out is always the same:
some form of physical aesthetic improvement is desired (for both men and women this most often manifests as a desire to lose weight). Now, I am not here to tell you that losing weight is a bad goal to have. Likewise, gaining muscle mass or having a general desire to change your appearance in some way are not inherently bad places to start your journey into movement (though exploring motivations and the type of motivation is critical to achieving results, which I will write about in a separate post). However, through years of experience in coaching people individually and in groups, I have found that focusing on these sorts of goals is not the most efficient way to create program adherence, improve movement quality, make strength gains, improve functional mobility, mitigate injury, acquire new skills, or even help you feel generally better on a daily basis.
Let me explain...
For the general population, this is to say that I am speaking here to the average person who does not train in a specific sport, body building, or type of physique competition (though I would gladly argue that this concept is also deeply important for any type of athlete or mover) making your physique the most important focus in your movement journey can lead to plateaus in progress, major setbacks in adhering to your practice in the long-term, and even can (and oftentimes does) lead to injury (which can potentially move you farther and farther away from your goals). I have seen these scenarios play out with former students who quit when the numerical values they deduced their bodies to were not met (oftentimes the numbers were unrealistic or even harmful to their health) and I have seen it play out in fellow coaches, competitive athletes and even in my own training as I have been subjected to the same harmful marketing that helps fuel our constant focus on our own imperfections.
The good news here is that by shifting your focus away from having the perfect beach body or biggest muscles or whatever image of an ideal physique floats your boat you can actually come closer than ever to achieving your most ideal aesthetics in a way that promotes program adherence, mitigates risk of injury, improves your confidence, improves your functional mobility (or how able you are to effectively move your body with ease throughout your daily life), and will help you gain new insights on how your body really is a freaking fantastic mechanism capable of so many things!
While I could write an entire book on all of the nuances that I am trying to convey in this post, I will keep it brief and focus on what I do as Corrective Exercise Specialist and the top five points as to why the focus of hitting goals in your training should be focused on perfecting your posture instead of worrying about your waistline.
Here we go...
When it comes to looking good, a lot of the most popular forms of exercise being pushed on people trying to lose weight, or "tone-up", involve moving very quickly through often repetitive movements with very little rest and recovery time. The majority of students I trained one-on-one who had a background in taking various fitness classes such as HIIT classes, Cardio Kickboxing, Boot Camps, or Power Yoga experienced an acute or chronic injury as a result of these high speed repetitive movements. More than 60% of the general American population experiences chronic or acute lower back pain, for example. This back pain can be result of poor static posture (how you sit or stand on a daily basis) or poor quality of repetitive movements (if you perform the same tasks multiple times a week in a sub-optimal manner).
Classes that want to give you that muscle burn sensation and get you super sweaty (neither of these things are solid metrics in measuring fitness improvements or even actual fat loss) tend to be full of students with a sole instructor who could not possibly watch every student's form. If you are doing a version of these classes at home with a pre-recorded video, you further increase your risk for injury if you are not very familiar with the movements.
Many of the movements these types of "fat burning" workouts require are compound movements. An example of a compound movement is a squat or a standard push-up. Even though these two movements are extremely familiar and seemingly simple, both require the upper and lower extremities to work harmoniously together. Because of the deep level of intermuscular coordination occurring here, there is a considerable risk of injury if performing these movements inadequately at a slow or moderate pace...now, add super fast club music, dim lighting, and one instructor for 20 students yelling, "GO FASTER! FEEL THE BURN!".
Consider that injury or a "nagging" pain will prevent you from moving and working out consistently. You will need time to rest and recover. During this time, if you do not seek out professional help to figure out what went wrong and why, there is a very high chance you will return to your training and repeat the same mistakes. Perpetuating what is known as the Cumulative Injury Cycle. You are more likely to re-injure an old injury or have a an injury in a different region of the body that is connected to the old injury via the kinetic chain, based on the Regional Interdependence Model, than you are to have a completely new and unrelated injury. This cumulative effect and constant need for time off training means regression on any progress made towards your goal.
Which brings us to the second point...
2. Avoiding Plateaus:
It happens to every person at all stages of training. You are crushing your goals and feeling great until suddenly, you stop seeing progress and you become increasingly frustrated with your practice which causes a decrease in motivation. Your body has an amazing ability to adapt to stimulus and as you adapt it requires more demanding strategies in order to keep progressing (or even maintain the results you have already achieved..."maintenance" without increasing stimulation is a myth).
Your entire survival is predicated on your ability to physically, emotionally, and mentally adapt to your environment. So unsurprisingly, the results seen from starting a new routine are short lived (not something that your fitness studio offering one type of class is going to advertise to you when you sign a year-long contract). But what does this have to do with posture or form while you're moving?
Focusing on how well you're moving while training (especially when you're first getting started) rather than how you're looking in pictures outside of sessions is going to correct postural issues that derive from how you sit and stand and generally move which in turn will increase your capacity to perform more challenging tasks as you train. This broadens the scope of how you move and what types of training you can perform. As a coach who focuses on corrective exercise and ensuring my students move with the highest quality, I have seen first-hand how training to optimize form has helped unlock hurdles by allowing access a fuller range of mobility and new skills that enable a progressive increase in intensity like volume, speed, or load (all factors that will force the body to adapt). As a symptom of this strategy, my clients are able to meet aesthetic goals more efficiently.
For example, someone who sits down at a computer all day will usually have postural issues such as tight and weak hip flexors and a rounded upper back/shoulders area. If this person does not focus on first correcting the static postural malalignments in their hips, spine, and shoulders before attempting to perform a loaded squat, jump squat or burpee not only are they increasing their risk of injury while performing these movements but they are limiting how much value these movements can give them in the form of present and future results. Issues with how you move will create limitations with how fast you can perform, how heavy you can lift, and how many repetitions you can perform. If you are improperly squatting your body's own weight, you are not going to effectively squat with a loaded barbell on your back. However, if you first train basic form and then worry about getting fast or heavy, your options for how far the squat can evolve to take you towards your goals becomes limitless. This is to say that the main limiting factors when it comes to your capacity for movement (and thus, results) are the physical limitations you ignore and never work resolve.
Essentially the simple squat can evolve with you to continually challenge you (forcing adaptations and new results) as long as you set the bio-mechanical foundation to continually evolve as you encounter new plateaus. Hitting plateaus that you are incapable of overcoming leads us to the next point...
3. Program Adherence:
The first and foremost factor I consider when designing a program for a student or class is adherence. What good is a plan that is not executed? How many of us have started a fitness program and then for whatever reason, abandoned it before completion? I'd bet good money that if you say you haven't quit at least once, you're not being honest with yourself. There are a multitude of factors that will lend to any individual's adherence or abandonment of a particular program such as changes in motivation, life circumstances, priorities, or hitting unbreakable plateaus or facing regression due to injury (hmm...that sounds familiar). So does working on perfecting your posture help with staying on track?
Without repeating the importance of avoiding injuries and how becoming injured due to poor form will force you to take recovery time, optimizing how you perform movements has huge psychological benefits that will make you feel more confident in your ability to crush your workouts. There have been various studies done, such as Blazevich et al. (2018), that show how an athlete who added preparatory stretches to their warm-up for optimal movement in their sports had a higher perceived confidence that improved their performance. It's not a stretch (pun intended) to say that by focusing on preparation, prevention and quality of movement you are more likely to perform better, which will increase adherence to your program and thus, effectively help you achieve your goals. If you are feeling your best, moving your best and constantly progressing to more challenging movements it is safe to say that you feel more motivated to continue towards your goals.
Seen from this perspective, looking good is only a periphery benefit to feeling good. I have seen this theory in practice with numerous clients who came to me looking for "weight loss" or "toning up" and then became more focused on accomplishing specific skills such as mastering the push-up or performing a free-standing handstand or deadlifting the equivalent of their body weight. They stuck with the program and continued far beyond reaching their aesthetic goals because they found a deeper connection to what truly motivates them--feeling confident, learning new things, and moving better than they ever have.
Functionality in your training during movement sessions has huge rewards for your daily life. If you are constantly communicating with your body while you are moving, if you are constantly refining the quality of how you are moving when you are training, you will invariably become a better mover when you are performing functional daily tasks. If you want to rearrange the furniture in your home, if you want to play baseball with your child, if you want to be able sit down at your computer and work without nagging back pain then you must put the work in to address these issues when you are training.
I will be first the person to say that I can name a concerning number of athletes I personally know who look extremely fit and would tick all the boxes for the majority of our "ideal body" wish-list who, as a result of only training to look fit, are poor quality movers. This is to say that they invest a lot of time, energy and resources into being "fit" at the expense of being functional, pain-free, or moving with ease through their daily lives. Building muscle, especially when done repetitively, without taking time to address postural malalignments, improve joint range-of-motion, and become more mobile creates all sorts of imbalances within the musculoskeletal system that impair one's ability to perform certain movements with ease. Likewise, over training cardio in order to lose weight does not help you gain strength. You may increase endurance, to a point and depending on what type of cardio you perform, but it will not make you strong enough to lift those boxes when you're moving apartments or give you the mobility to get down on the floor and play with your children or grandchildren.
However, focusing on finessing your form while training can increase your joint's range-of-motion, improve strength, strength neuro-muscular coordination, set the foundation for stronger leaner muscles, and help you look fitter while also becoming a more fluid and functional mover. You will only look so perfect for so long. That is to say that not even fitness models look perfectly fit all the time, it is not physically possible to maintain an ideal physique for the majority of people (healthfully) at all times. But unless you plan on taking a few months hiatus from performing any and all tasks in your daily life, you will need to move functionally every single day of the year for the rest of your life...so why not kill two birds with one stone and train to perfect your posture and have a great physique?!
Lastly and certainly the point with the bigger picture...
5. Breaking Self-Imposed Limits:
You are not a number on a scale...I know it's hard to accept, so pause and read that statement again.
You also are not what clothes you wear, how you look in your Instagram profile, what that mean little voice in your head says to you. You are not muscles or fat...you have muscles, you have bones, you have fat. So here is where I am going to argue that training to look a certain way will limit your own capacity to be a fully multidimensional person, with a highly complex and pretty amazing body, who is capable of doing some incredible things that you never thought were possible (and probably didn't even know you wanted to do). Again, this is not to say that by training for a fitness physique competition that you are not doing some pretty cool and challenging stuff that will invariably lead to physical and personal growth, because it absolutely can. I would ask, why stop there?
One of the most amazing things that I have discovered about my body and goals through my own movement journey, and I see it every time I train my students, is that when focus shifts away from working to look a certain way, eyes are opened to the true potential we have as movers. This is to say that building a strong foundation through optimizing our static and dynamic postures, increasing our capacity for mobility, and training for quality of movement gives us a clearer vision of how movements develop and where we can ultimately take them. Not every I train has a desire to do a handstand or a full back-bend but in helping optimize my student's movement patterns I incorporate aspects from these, or other types of training that focus on skill development, in every single program.
Training for high quality repetitions and demanding optimal quality of movement from yourself meets your body as the multifaceted complex organism it is and propels you outside of the confines of numbers. You're not your muscle mass percentage but rather that percentage is a prop in helping you do more push-ups than you've ever done, it helps you get the first pull-up of your life, it allows you to try a new sport and feel strong at it.
As a related example, my mother watches a lot of HGTV and the largest portion of the budget that is spent during renovations is never on furnishing and finishes, it's on plumbing and structural integrity and things that are hidden behind the walls. Essentially, I am arguing that you should build a solid foundation for your home before worrying about decorating the walls. You will surprise yourself with how amazing everything comes together when you slightly shift your perception.
In closing, because this became much longer than I originally anticipated, stop moving your body simply to lose weight or gain muscle and start looking at your physical training as a way to elevate your quality of life. Injury prevention, broader mobility and capacity for functional movements, adhering to a program that motivates you and overcoming patterns of problematic plateaus is not super sexy or sell-able on television but these are the long lasting considerations that will matter as you grow and adapt throughout your life.