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Re-Thinking Corrective Exercise

breath work

I remember in 1999 being SO excited to learn about this new concept of corrective exercise. Up to that point I had trained mostly in a bodybuilding isolated muscle approach and was JUST getting introduced to the idea of functional training. Everything seemed so new and honestly, I was MOST excited by the idea that corrective exercise could help one of the biggest issues I had as a young coach in the industry.

That was realizing that so many people I was getting as clients had a host of aches/pains. Everything from shoulders, necks, low backs, knees, even hips and feet. It is VERY difficult to get people to achieve their fitness goals if their pain is stopping them from being able to move well enough to load their bodies, get into ranges of motion to build muscle, or be consistent enough because any flare up would always lead to missed sessions.

Like maybe many of you, it didn’t take long with the forms of corrective exercise I was exposed to at the time to learn that the dream of giving all these solutions quickly to people wasn’t reality. We added stretching, joint mobility drills, supposed good core exercises and not much changed. I was SO frustrated that I pretty much gave up on the idea of corrective exercise.

What we would learn is that corrective exercise really wasn’t the issue but rather what we thought of as corrective exercise. 

Then something happened to me…I lost the ability to walk!

While I had battled back pain since I was 14, I thought I was doing all the right things the experts were talking about. I deadlifted, I did kettlebell swings, I was doing planks, and so forth. Yet, that didn’t help me when Jessica took me to the emergency room for severe pain down my leg and upon examination by the doctors they rushed me in an ambulance to a trauma 1 center to go into immediate surgery.

The neurosurgeon saw that my spinal cord was being compressed and if they didn’t do surgery I would lose the ability to control my bowels as well as create potential permanent damage to my nerves that would impact my ability to walk. So, yea, it wasn’t just I had a flare up with my back, this was as about as bad as it gets.

I’ll spare you all the fun details (like them opening me up from the front, moving my organs around to get to my spine, okay, you get the picture) and focus on the point. Not being able to even move my right leg not only drastically changed my life, but my view on corrective exercise.

low back pain

How so? Let’s start with a working definition as many people will ask “what do you actually mean by corrective exercise? Isn’t that just good strength training?” While thoughtful strength training can offer benefits in the way we move and function, I believe corrective exercise is still different. The goal of corrective exercise is to restore proper motor control in order for the body to learn higher level functional strength training.

That may sound vague to some, so let me give some examples and break downs of the why’s and how’s.

Starting At The Right Level

I’ve heard some fitness pros try to suggest that ground based training is a movement pattern. Since there is no consistent pattern that is being performed on the ground (I can do a wide variety of patterns just being on the ground, that is like saying standing is a movement pattern) we consider this a way to build intensity by utilizing a certain environment.

The ground is often used in starting corrective exercise methods because we get to reduce the impact gravity has in requiring us to balance and stabilize our bodies.

Physical therapist, Jessica Bento, shows some great examples through our DVRT dead bug progressions. Learning to control our pelvis/trunk while our extremities move is a key quality to establish before moving to higher level corrective exercise. 

We need to be still thoughtful before blindly adhering to some of these corrective exercise concepts. For example, a side plank would be considered a ground based exercise, but A LOT of people struggle to perform a side plank (even at the most foundational levels) because they are being asked to lift a significant portion of their own body weight. For a lot of people that isn’t possible so using a half kneeling position gives us an opportunity to build the qualities of a side plank without having the same issues.

Jessica shows a series of progressive half kneeling drills that can make building lateral stability (which is another key of corrective exercise foundations) in ways that are more accessible to more people. 

The point is, if we can’t control our movement in these more stable environments, then progressing to higher level strength training is probably going to challenging, at least to do them really well. I’m not suggesting you have to possess mastery over all these drills, but if someone struggles with the foundations it shouldn’t be shocking why teaching a squat, for example, is a lot of work!

However, my views of corrective exercise have also changed in other ways due to my personal experiences and those with clients!

The Science Of Chronic Pain

To say that pain is complicated is more than an option on your relationship status on Facebook. Pain, especially chronic pain can be impacted by a host of issues.

The worst part is that it isn’t typically one thing that can cause us to experience pain, usually it is a challenging interwoven cycle that can be hard to break. For example, we could have an injured area of our body, this increases our stress not only because of the pain, but we wonder how we are going to be able to go to work or take care of the kids. This increased stress raises our perceived pain levels, but then because of the increased sense of pain we worry about the things we have to do tomorrow but are afraid how our pain will impact our ability to accomplish those things. That then makes it hard to sleep so now we are driven down more. We wake up, because we didn’t sleep well, and our pain seems even worse! Now we are getting very concerned and our energy levels are drained, we are getting overwhelmed and likely depressed, we can’t see how in the world we are going to go the gym, and this all makes our pain EVEN worse.

The point of that long example is how many things in our lives can start to cause a vicious pain cycle. Having gone through similar experiences myself, it made me want to make mind-body practices part of DVRT. The research on practices like yoga, tai chi, and qigong are extensive for chronic pain by both integrating effective total body integrated fascial stretching, but also through breath work that calms our nervous system and turns down the volume on our perceived pain. So, yes, I consider these types of practices too as corrective exercise.

How do you put it together though? If we are talking about a workout I like to use 2-3 mind-body practices (like the ones we show in our Myofascial Integrated Movement and Breath Course) to settle our nervous system down and to start adding movement to our body. Then 2-3 of our DVRT Restoration movements (like you would find in our Restoration Certification or Physical Therapist, Jessica Bento’s “Better Backs, Knees, & Shoulders” program).

Doing so allows us to always stay on top of what corrective exercise can offer. You don’t have to notice a problem to use corrective exercises either. Utilizing these strategies will keep your body moving more efficiently so that your risk of having issues is far less. Plus, it will help your nervous system to not get caught up in creating environments as much that can make you prone to pain.

I realize this is a lot and we could go down a rabbit hole about a lot of these topics individually (we can do so if you guys want;), but the point is that if we take the time to really understand what corrective exercise can be we can offer better solutions to people. That means a better quality of life!

You can get our new Breath Work Program AND Myofascial Integrated Movement program for a VERY special price with code “breath” HERE and you can get 30% off our MIM program with code “breath” as well HERE