Muscle Strengthening Doesn’t Fix Form; Motor Control Training Does

An experienced coach will watch typical people run, jump, land, squat, or deadlift and cringe. Sadly, most people’s form just sucks. But why does it suck? Why do knees cave and backs round? Is it lack of strength or lack of motor control?

I think that people learn to move this way over time because it’s more “efficient” from an energy-conservation standpoint. Let bones, ligaments, and fascia do more of the work so muscles won’t have to work so hard. When the back rounds in a deadlift, the ligaments and fascia eventually stabilize the torso (in a rounded position) and allow for the pull to take place. When the knees collapse when landing, the ligaments stabilize the position of the knees and the glute medius has better leverage for dissipating the energy at the hips.

While this is indeed “efficient” from an energy-conservation standpoint, it is incredibly “in-efficient” from a long-term joint health standpoint.

So the question now becomes, “How do we best go about fixing people’s natural inclination toward crappy movement patterns?”

I used to think that fixing people’s form on things was a matter of getting muscles strong. It’s not. You have to retrain their motor patterns.

X-band walks won’t fix someone’s valgus collapse during squatting; teaching proper form on squatting and having them practice it over and over will fix their form. The same applies to jumping, landing, sprinting, etc.

Altering technique has much more to do with the retraining the nervous system than it has to do with increasing strength. Most people already have the strength to perform a particular task, but they’ve memorized a faulty motor program and it takes time and concentration to get them moving better.

It is true that getting stronger and more powerful has more to do with increasing muscle size and neural drive via maximal strength training, explosive strength training, plyometrics, sprints, sledwork, etc.

However, if technique isn’t good during heavy or explosive movement the body will eventually break down. This is why you have to groove proper technique first and then build upon that base.

There are many names for technique training (neuromuscular training, neuromuscular reeducation, motor control training, etc.), but suffice to say you’ll reach your goal of improving form much quicker through focusing on form rather than utilizing creative strengthening exercises. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do glute activation work and other specialized muscle activation techniques. Just please understand the following:

Working with technique is KING when it comes to fixing form on anything; getting a particular muscle stronger only helps when that newfound strength is coordinated into the motor program through practice and repetition.

In this video I elaborate upon this concept:

52 thoughts on “Muscle Strengthening Doesn’t Fix Form; Motor Control Training Does

  1. Anthony Mychal

    Great post, Bret! Very similar to a post I did for Travis Stoetzel about position specific stretching and how it’s important to work specific to the movement in question in order to see results.

    For example, work the squat by using door assistance and whatnot as opposed to sticking solely to ankle or hip mobs.

    Awesome.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      I agree Anthony and could probably even add to your article (never saw it) as I’ve given tons of thought to it and have many ideas on this same concept. I guess great minds think alike!

      Reply
  2. Derrick Blanton

    Bret, I find external cues like “put a boulder down between your legs” (Dan John), more effective than internal cues like “shove the knees out” (Rippetoe). OR “elbow chop the guy behind you”, rather than “pull through your elbows”.

    Trying to correct form flaws piece by piece can get enormously frustrating b/c while you are shoving your knees out, you are caving at the lumbar. While you are erecting the lumbar spine, your dominant shoulder is dipping down, and on it goes like a shell game.

    Your immediate video feedback technique is probably the most helpful thing that I’ve tried. What I THINK I’m doing is often NOT what I am doing. Video does not lie, and tightens up that proprioception feedback loop between internal sensation and reality of movement.

    Interesting that when I nail the form perfectly, it actually feels odd at first.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Trust me I’m the same way. I’ve filmed a few videos of myself and thought to myself, “I thought my form was much better than that.” What our brain thinks we’re doing is not always accurate.

      Reply
  3. Phil

    I’m a PT and I LOVE the fact you’re putting this out there. Many, many of my colleagues would be wise to take heed. And Derrick, great post, listening to Dan John is never a bad idea

    Reply
  4. Jeff

    Bret, Right on brother. I love your stuff and approach to things, but this is one of those concepts that aspiring strength coaches and personal trainers (veterans aren’t exempt either) really need to take to heart. You wouldn’t push the cart without first fixing the wheel. Good stuff man and keep it up.

    Reply
  5. Satya

    Spot on, Bret ! I believe form is essential in any training. And yes, it takes a long time to “re-train” when you already learned it the wrong way.
    I am going through this with the KB swing. I have done it wrongly for months and kept hurting my back. I finally found a video of Dan John about a hip hinge that lit the bulb for me. I was not hip hinging properly, I was barely involving the hamstrings at all. I watched myself in the mirror from multiple angles and just did the swing without any weight. I actually got a workout just like that, and sore hamstrings and glutes for the next day. I could not believe it how wrong I did the swing before. I have been doing the weightless swing for days now and STILL as soon as I add weight, my body keeps doing it the old wrong way. And so I came to the conclusion that I have to perform the correct movement enough times to override the wrong way, to create a new ” memory” for the muscles and actually for all the proprioceptors involved in the movement. At this point , it is a mental exercise as well, I have to be very aware of the hip hinge and to keep the body in the correct position.
    Thank you for this great little article !

    Reply
  6. Taleen

    This is excellent Bret. I love that you continually meld my passions of physical therapy and performance/strength training. Keep up the great work and stay thirsty for knowledge my friend!

    Reply
  7. Curb Ivanic

    Thank you for posting this Bret! More trainers and strength coaches need to hear this type of information. Getting stronger and more mobile are good things but may not necessarily transfer to specific movement skills.

    BTW…to video clients I use an iPhone app called Kinesio Capture, $50. Lets you play in slow motion, breakdown the footage into single-shot stills, draw angles,etc. They also have an iPad version but its $200.

    Reply
  8. kit laughlin

    Bret said, “You have to retrain their motor patterns.”

    This is our mantra; of course, it pre-supposes a deep understanding of what *desirable* motor patterns look like.

    Paul Chek is alleged to have said that learning an undesirable motor pattern only takes 600 reps; and relearning a new one takes 6,000, but we have not found this to be accurate; if anything, it’s the other way about. Most people’s bodies respond immediately to the more efficient motor pattern, especially if their awareness is strongly direct to the *sensations* of the new movement. Incorporation of new movement patterns may feel ‘odd’ at first (how could it not: the old pattern is “normal” for you). And as Satya mentions above, new patterns can only be grooved with small resistances; if you get close to your usual weights, the old patterns HAVE to re-assert themselves. Men have the most difficulty with this concept.

    When we take in beginners into the Monkey Gym intro. classes, we tell them we are going to teach them AWARENESS; this usually gets their attention!

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Totally agree about the small and gradual progressive resistances. I agree, they almost have to re-assert themselves when going heavy or fast. And awareness can certainly be improved upon (Mel Siff called it “Kinaesthetic Awareness” I believe).

      Reply
  9. kit laughlin

    Bret, we need a way to edit out own posts, or a way of previewing them before posting. Can you delete the first of my doubled posts, above, then this one, please?

    Reply
  10. Tasher

    Hi Bret! Thanks for talking about this. I’ve only be training clients for about 4 years and I’ve had the misfortune of running into guys that will respond by saying “I’ve been doing this for so many years and I’ve never been injured.” People just don’t seem to care as long as they are getting the results they want.

    Your article reminded me “The Brain That Changes Itself.” It’s about neuroplasticity and motor control has its place in there. Norman Doidge has case studies including an eye surgeon who had a stroke but through the same kind of retraining managed to form those engrams. Despite having lost complete function in his left side, he has all dexterity restored. It just goes to show that retraining takes time but if we are patient, both trainers and clients, we will see better form!

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Yep, patience is a virtue but on the flip side, if you put in a ton of practice and concentration you can improve dramatically in a rather short period of time (for example a month).

      Reply
  11. Nicholas Lewis

    Love this article. This follows somewhat in line with the “Myth of Core Stability” article. Motor learning concepts are misunderstood, underutilized or not known at all to many so called professionals and their value is vast. Motor learning has answers for many aspects of training. I wanted to see if you care to comment on schedules of practice of this in relation to fixing an exercise specifically? Additionally, if someone is early cognitive, if you have an advanced athlete who has just simply reinforced an incorrect movement pattern, but is by all other definitions advanced. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Mark Young

    Great article my friend!

    I’ve personally found that both single joint movements/stretching and motor control training can improve form.

    For example, in a bulgarian squat I’ve noticed significant forward lean in people with a tight rectus femoris.

    I back them off for a few weeks to a goblet loaded split squat with the rear foot on the floor. During that time we work at foam rolling and stretching the rectus femoris. When we go back to bulgarian squats upright form is improved or perfect.

    Similarly, with knee collapse during squats training glute medius can create stiffness that helps to prevent caving in.

    Finally, I’ve been playing a lot with RNT by using bands to address the collapse of the knee in single leg movements. As they perform the exercise (single leg RDL for example) I use a band around the knee pulling medially. Almost every time the person instinctually corrects the problem by themself without cueing. After a few weeks I test without the band and I see big improvements. (Score one for motor control training)

    Finally I use verbal cueing (going to look into video after reading the comments above) to correct too. I like the method above better because the movement is learned more through proprioception than instruction, but it all helps.

    In the end, I don’t think it is an either/or debate, but rather a question of when to use what. I use them all. :)

    Reply
    1. Rob Panariello

      “In the end, I don’t think it’s an either/or debate, but rather a question of when to use what. I use them all”.

      Mark I don’t know if anyone could have made a better statement on this thread. I was having breakfast sometime ago with Mike and Meg Stone. During part of our conversation both Mike and Meg substantiated (through research and their empirical evidence) that there are some high level track field event throwers whom they train that present with very poor throwing technique (motor patterns). They therefore, as a coach, they are placed in a situation to either (a) utilize specific assistance exercises and drills to correct the athlete’s throwing technique, or what occurs more often than we may realize is (b) the poor motor (throwing) pattern is so “ingrained” so to speak, due to the athlete utilizing this specific throwing technique (motor pattern) for such an extended period of time (years), they actually have to teach the thrower a whole new and different technique. At times, they find this to be necessary (the best way) to improve the athlete’s throwing results (success).

      We as coaches may institute assistive techniques/exercises to ensure a proper “specific” exercise technique, but perhaps there are times when we just need to change the “specific “ exercise to a different exercise(motor pattern) that will still accomplish the same goal. “When to use what”, isn’t that the art of coaching?

      Reply
    2. Derrick Blanton

      Mark, could you (or anyone else on our panel, please) elaborate on the significance of forward lean or lack thereof on BSS’s? Is this a specific cue to train hip mobility?

      I often see that cue to stand tall, and I have never understood exactly why. The only approximation that I can see is a smith machine squat or machine hack squat, or possibly sprinting at top speed with a vertical torso. Otherwise doesn’t the torso need to come forwards a bit to balance and reduce sheer at the knee? What is the optimal standard for lean (0-degrees, 15-degrees, etc.)

      Thanks for anyone who can learn me up on this one. Great discussion!

      Reply
      1. Derrick Blanton

        Of course by “sheer” at the knee, I mean “shear”..Unless we are talking about the sheer majesty of a well executed split squat..:)

        Reply
  13. gert

    Hey Bret,

    I have no comments.. but, looking at your video… I see you have a particular motor-control-issue with your left hand.. The hand had a wanting to reach to your left hip as if it wants to get into the pocket.. You are taking control… But it’s like your body needs/wants/seeks some support.. Maybe you are a little exhausted physically or mentally or it;s just a motor-habit..

    I don’t know. But it’s funny to see while you are talking about motor-control.

    Anyway thanks for your post.

    Reply
  14. Jill zeller

    It’s just good coaching. Which is why cues are Soo important. As well as regressions and going thought full ranges of motion

    Reply
  15. Jeremy Frisch

    Does this mean the Iso-extremes, Eccentric Quasi-Isometrics, Extreme Isometrics that I a have been driving people nuts talking about for the last five years may actually have some value???

    Great Stuff Bret!

    Reply
  16. Rob Panariello

    “In the end, I don’t think it’s an either/or debate, but rather a question of when to use what. I use them all”

    Mark, in my opinion, the best thought on this tread. I was having breakfast with Mike and Meg Stone sometime ago and part of our conversation discussed the training of track and field throwers. Mike and Meg both stated that based on both their research and empirical coaching experience, to improve the throwing athlete’s technique (motor pattern) they either (a) prescribe assistance exercises/techniques to assist in the enhancement of the proper throwing technique, or (b) instruct the thrower in an entirely new and different throwing technique (motor program). Selection (b) occurs more often than we would think as in this case, a thrower who has “engrained” a specific throwing motor pattern over a prolonged period of time (years) may not be able to “break away” from that specific motor pattern, so to speak.

    Often in the weight room we as coaches may prescribe assistance exercise(s)/technique(s) to enhance the performance of a “specific’ exercise performance. There are also occasions where we may also elect to change the “specific” exercise performance to a different “specific” exercise performance that will also assist in the achievement of successful outcomes/goals.

    “When to use what”, isn’t that the talent and art of coaching?

    Reply
  17. Mike T Nelson

    If people just understood the “SAID Principle” and “Positive Transfer” we would be miles ahead.

    I’m still not a fan of internal cues. Yes, they can work, but I’ve found (and the research is pretty solid backing this up too) that external cues are better.

    I’ve also found that showing them via video is awesome. All of us are very visual based.

    Simple drill – have them do an exercise, and then PREDICT their response. “Oh coach, that one was bad and my knee came in” Video says……. yes, that did happen. I want you to fix it next time. Repeat, video, athlete response “Yep, I nailed it that time coach” Video says….. yes, that is better. Note, I did not tell them HOW to fix it. I used a simple cues to let THEIR body figure it out and I did not tell them “make sure you feel it in your hamstrings or whatever”

    Weak/strong can also be highly specific too (SAID).

    Good topic for sure!

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

    Reply
  18. Greg Lehman

    Great post Bret,

    The next big question is defining what is ideal technique. There are instances when people have what looks like terrible form and yet they are injury proof. Why does this occur? Are our assumptions about form missing the mark?

    Peformance and strength gains are different kettle of fish.

    I just finished a post on movement specificity and changing posture and form. I’d love your feedback. http://bit.ly/KTWQpV

    Gregrrr

    Reply
        1. Robbie-O

          I feel like form like that is just a ticking timebomb, a folding credit card. Sure she seems injury proof for now, and did not get injured on that pull, but from what has been observed about spine health, it seems like just a matter of time before injury occurs.

          Reply
  19. Jae Gruenke

    Bret, it’s a joy to hear what you say in your video; as a professional who helps runners improve their form exclusively through motor education (specifically the Feldenkrais Method) I have grown very tired of well-meaning PTs and trainers telling me their patients have to get the right kind of strength first and after that we can work on their form. As you say, not true!

    When form improves through a more accurate ability to feel what you’re doing and regulate your own movement, the right kind of strength develops, often all by itself (at least in the case of runners in training).

    You may be interested to look at the vast array of strategies and techniques for improving coordination that comprise the Feldenkrais Method. It’s a sophisticated tool, making it relatively easy not only to change longstanding habits but also to help people spontaneously do novel things well, without prior coaching. I wish more fitness professionals knew about it.

    Keep up the good work.

    Jae

    Reply
  20. Greg

    Good approach that all trainers, PTs, ATCs, anyone in the field should consider in their programs. One thing I think a lot of professionals might not understand is what correct position actually looks like. Are the knees out far enough? Is the scap retracted and depressed enough? Too much? It can get confusing.

    A more advanced technique I’m only beginning to understand (in the slightest bit) that will help bring joints into alignment when utilized is Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization. The DNS approach is quite amazing and if understood can be very useful in proper alignment with the neuromuscular system.

    Reply
  21. Maria

    Great post Bret. I’ve just been prone to doing this with my clients from the moment they walk in the door – because many of them have no body awareness & they want to do something way advance of where their bodies can safely go. I ask them “what’s the rush? If you get hurt, you’re further delayed. Take the time to learn to do it right and the rest will follow beautifully”.

    Reply
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  24. Greig Taylor

    I wish I could remember who said it so I could give credit, but I read an analogy a while back that fits. Trying to fix form by addressing muscle strength is like following a driver fishtailing all over the road and trying to figure out if its his tire pressure or suspension causing the fishtailing. It’s the driver! Decent cueing will improve form a lot faster than strengthening ever will.

    Reply
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  28. Todd Hargrove

    Hi Bret,

    Thanks for the article. I was interested in your idea that energy efficient movement can be bad for the joints. I wrote a blog post that discusses this idea a little and provides a sightly different perspective. My basic conclusion is that crappy movement patterns such as valgus knees may be locally energy efficient but lead to energy leaks that are globally inefficient. I would be interested in your thoughts if you have chance to take a look.

    http://www.bettermovement.org/2012/is-efficient-movement-unsafe/

    Reply
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