On Staying in Your Lane and NOT Hurting Your Clients

This is a bit of rambling rant inspired by conversations on the gym floor.

The topic:

Your lane and why you should stay in it.

The muse:

A new member, a lad who was until recently training in another gym until his work/life schedule dictated he switched. The big reason he picked Wg-Fit seems to be the the fact we’re pretty good at working with injured athletes, and he’s injured.

When talking about his injury, a shoulder impingement, a few alarms started to go off in my head.

He didn’t need to know what I was thinking just yet, but I needed more info.

The normal M.O. when a new member joins our group sessions is that they do a very simple warm up sequence that I can use a very quick movement screen. Then if they have used kettlebells in the past, I have them show me their swing as this gives me a fair idea of the their previous training.

All fairly simple.

All in all, the new member moved well through the warm up, nothing jumped out, especially with regards to his reported injuries.

But when he picked up the kettlebell……..Holy Shit!

After doing this for around 12 years now, I’ve seen a lot. And I make no bones about it, any error demoed by a new client is purely the fault of their previous instructors, it’s not a reflection on them.

So anyway, this dude does a few swings, and I’m just watching, speechless.  He then asks if he can show me a Snatch as he feels he’s never gotten the hang of it. And that’s worse!

Now here’s the kicker.

I ask him: Were you suffering from shoulder impingement before you trained in the previous gym?

He had a think and replied saying that he had mild shoulder discomfort, but nothing bad. It started to get bad from deadlifting.

Deadlifting.

With the many shoulder injuries we’ve had in our athletes, we’ve almost always found deadlifts to be safe, assuming they’re performed well.

Swings, being that bit more ballistic, we’re little more cautious with, but if they’re low swings, ie the arm stays below 90 degrees (doesn’t reach parallel to the floor) we usually stay out the pain zone.

The Kettlebell Swing, a great reset drill when programmed well


In fact, the upper back activity required to control the scapula in both the swing and the deadlift are often times quite a tonic for a sore shoulder.

An impinged shoulder is a case where the space between the three bones making up the shoulder complex all get a little too close for comfort. This leaves little space for the soft tissues to move freely.

This is very common in people with internally rotated shoulders, or those that tend towards elevated shoulders, of and don’t forget protracted shoulders.

ie: rolled in, raised and forwards.

If you have all three, you’re a likely candidate for impingement or a variety of other scary sounding shoulder diagnoses.

Yet what are the key cues given on both the Deadlift and the swing?

“shoulders back and down”

You lift the chest up, which encourages the scapula to slide down and tilt backwards (you’re not likely to be aware of the tilt unless you have very highly tuned interoception), they also move in towards the spine. The muscles of the rotator cuff, mid and lower traps etc.

All in, you should be creating some space in the shoulder.

And that’s just the basics.

Both the kettlebell swing and the deadlift are very basic movements.

Any coach with half a brain should be able to coach both movements to a reasonable standard to almost anybody within a a few minutes. Yes, I know, special circumstance always throw out anomalies.

But the deadlift is a precursor to the swing, the swing follows the deadlift.

Stick a Kettlebell on the floor between someones feet, have them lift the chest, fix the eyes forwards and now pick up the bell while keeping a straight back and weight on the heels.

Congrats, you’ve just taught a deadlift.

If they can do that, they can swing.

Have a look at this:

(that video is from 2011, I’m still using the same method today, nearly 8 years later)

If they have pain doing this movement, look again at the set up.

If it’s shoulder impingement, are they collapsing their chest? Shrugging the shoulders? Lifting with their arms?

If yes to any of these, fix it. Start over, try different cues, better demos, hands on areas they need to consciously activate. Try reducing the range of motion, maybe a different set up. If there’s no reduction in discomfort despite the changes and adjustments, guess what?

You need to either change the plan entirely or refer them out to a specialist.

It’s not rocket science, and if you’re struggling to achieve this simple task as a coach, you should maybe rethink your career choice.

Now, if you’re the client and you are feeling an increase in symptoms after a visit to the gym, you have to tell your coach.

As good as the coach may or may not be, we are not mind readers. With a well practiced eye, we can pick on nuances in movement most people would miss, we notice changes in peoples habitual movement, we have trained our observational skills to a pretty high level. But we still miss things.

Which is why we ask questions.

Little things like “How are you today?” or “Hows that shoulder after last session?” And we watch your reaction to the question and we watch your body language as you answer.

If your coach doesn’t ask you, you must go over and tell them if your hurting.

I’m going to say it again, this job isn’t rocket science.

The body moves in certain ways, the exercises we choose to give a person in a strength training context are chosen to strengthen the ways in which the body moves. We’re not interested in hurting or causing injury because that would be counter productive to the training you came to us for!

Lets wrap this ramble up:

  1. If your client is in pain and you aren’t trained to deal with it, refer out.

  2. Youtube is a clients best friend, they can google exercise technique whenever they want and call a bad coach out

  3. Coaching is a conversation between the coach and client, most of the talking should be done by the client

  4. If you client can’t get the hang of something, move on. There’s always next time.

  5. And for fuck’s sake, stay in your lane! If you don’t know how to swing a kettlebell, how to do a deadlift or anything else, do NOT try to teach it, refer out and then go and do some study!

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