#PTonICE Daily Show – Friday, October 20th, 2023 – Does form matter?

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Fitness Athlete lead faculty Alan Fredendall discusses the research, physics, clinical context, and patient input that goes into deciding if mechanics with lifting are “good” or “bad”.

Take a listen to the episode or read the episode transcription below.

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Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the PT on ICE Daily Show. Happy Friday morning. I hope your morning is off to a great start. My name is Alan. I’m happy to be your host today here on Fitness Athlete Friday, the best darn day of the week. I currently have the pleasure of serving as our Chief Operating Officer at Ice and a lead faculty member here in our Fitness Athlete Division. Fitness Athlete Friday, we talk all things CrossFit, power limping, Olympic weight lifting. recreational bodybuilding, running, rowing, biking, swimming, triathletes, marathoners, anybody who’s out there getting after it on a regular basis, we address all things relevant to that population. Some courses coming your way really quick from the Fitness Athlete Division. Your last chance to catch us online for our eight-week online entry-level course, Clinical Management Fitness Athlete Level 1 Online will begin November 6th. So that’s just two weeks away. That’ll be our last cohort of the year. That class will take us right through the holidays. and then we’ll take a little break. The next cohort after that will be available sometime in the spring. So if you’ve been hoping to join us for that class, November 6th is your last chance for the next couple months. Live courses coming your way between now and the end of the year as we get into the back half here of quarter four. You can catch Zach Long down in Birmingham, Alabama. That’ll be the weekend of November 4th and 5th. That same weekend, Mitch Babcock will be in San Antonio, Texas. The weekend of November 18th and 19th, Mitch will be in Holmes Beach, Florida. Beautiful place, just actually took a vacation there a couple weeks ago. Wonderful place to get to, especially in mid-November if you’re from the Northeast or the Midwest, Florida’s a great spot that time of year. That class just has one seat left, so if you’ve been looking to get baby both to Florida and to fitness athlete, that is your chance. And then our very last live course of the year from the fitness athlete division will be December 9th and 10th. That will be out in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That course will also be with Mitch Babcock. So check us out online, check us out live. We’d love to have you here at the end of the year before we get into the holidays.


Today’s topic, we’re going to take a deep dive into form and mechanics. Does form matter? How much does it matter? We hear this question a lot in our courses as we’re introducing movements, instructing the basics of how to perform some of the most basic movements, your squats, your deadlifts, your presses. This may be a question that you get from athletes or patients in the clinic and for a long time and even right now this is kind of a very dogmatic campy approach to this topic of yes form is the most important thing or no form has no application at all we’ve even heard things like Sheer force is an artificial construct created by physical therapists to scare people away from moving. Physics doesn’t matter as much as we thought it did. That movement, however it happens, is normal, natural, and that’s how the human chooses to move, and there is no right or wrong way to move. So, where’s the magic lie? Where’s the evidence lie? What actually works in practice in the gym with real human beings? And what are some pearls to take away from the discussion on form? So often we get questions of does it really matter if the low back rounds during a squat or a deadlift? Does it really matter if the back hyper extends with overhead lifting? Who cares if someone catches a snatch with a bent elbow or they never reach full extension of the elbow at the bottom of maybe a pull-up? If someone presses their jerks or snatches out, is it really that big of a deal? So today I want to approach this topic from a couple different directions. I want you to go back and watch last Thursday’s episode or listen to it on evidence-based medicine about making sure we’re addressing all of the facets of evidence-based medicine when we approach a really hot topic like this that also has a room for a lot of interpretation one way or the other. We need to look at what does the evidence say, we need to look at what does our friend physics say, what does our clinical experience say as far as What is our anecdotal experience with clinical pattern recognition with actual patients and athletes? And then what does the patient say? What matters to the patient? Patient expectation and input matters. So let’s start from the top.


What does the evidence say? As much as we don’t want to hear this, we don’t have a lot of strong evidence either way in this discussion about form. When we talk about what does the evidence say, we have nothing concrete or strong for or against poor mechanics and lifting. We have a ton of research out of the functional movement screen space that looks at movement quality and its association to injury. And time and time again, I have to declare my bias. I hate that test. I think that test is total garbage. I think the research supports that that test is total garbage. And when we look at does particularly unweighted movement transfer to predicting injury, we have stacks and stacks and stacks of research across a wide variety of populations, recreational athletes, tactical athletes, first responders, professional athletes, that shows the association between quality and injury prediction or injury risk reduction is simply not there. We do have some research that looks at the effects of lifting, and I’ll put lifting in air quotes here for those of you listening on the podcast, that lifting with a rounded back does not seem to cause low back pain or make current low back pain worse with the caveat of when we look at that systematic review and meta-analysis from O’Sullivan and colleagues a couple years ago, that the papers they included did not have any patient lifting more than 25 reps across the span of a day at a weight heavier than 25 pounds. It’s really hard to take research like that and extrapolate it to our population who might be deadlifting two or three times their body weight, cleaning or snatching their body weight, doing dozens or hundreds of things like pull-ups and handstand push-ups and double-unders, really getting a lot of load through their body, running, crossfit, lifting, whatever. That research really has no application. It’s really hard to even call that lifting, right? Those are just kind of activities of daily living. We can’t take research like that and extrapolate it to somebody dead lifting with a low back and say these are the same. They are just simply not. We also need to be mindful of the research that we do have. When you look at papers on deadlifts with low back pain, on the effects of lumbar reversal with lifting, what you’ll find in those studies is that one of the variables that the research authors always control for is the lifting mechanics themselves. You’ll often see, if you actually read the full paper, not to harp on that, but when you read the full paper, when you read the methodology, what you will find is that very often those folks are instructed how we would instruct a movement in the gym, which is to try to maintain a brace-neutral spine, modifying the load or modifying the range of motion to maintain that, to therefore reduce that as a variable in the research study. That if we cannot control mechanics, that’s one more variable that maybe takes a little bit away from our conclusion when we look at the data. Of trying to standardize the mechanics as much as possible is how we can narrow down the focus of that research study on whatever the intervention is and whatever the outcome and feel really confident that the association there is direct and that other variables aren’t at play. If we can’t say deadlifts are safe, deadlifts increase low back strength, deadlifts improve low back pain, if we look at a study and there was no control on how the deadlift was performed or how the mechanics were performed through those deadlifts. One study does sumo deadlifts, another does conventional, one does trap bar, one allows back rounding, one does not. You’ll see when you read those studies that controlling for those variables, controlling for those mechanics, is one of the ways that variables are reduced. And so it’s hard to look at those studies as well and extrapolate to altered mechanics, what we might call a movement fault, and translate that to the population that we’re working with. It’s hard to take research and say, you know what? I’m gonna do everything this study did except change everything about it, right? That doesn’t mean you’re implementing that research and practice. You’re taking the general idea and you’re kind of going your own way with it. You no longer have that evidence base to stand on. From the research, we do know that symmetry can be objectively quantified, we can assess it, and we can intervene on it. Very often, physical therapists are very comfortable at calling out and identifying qualitative faults without really understanding what might be going on, how to assess it, how to measure it, how to track it, or how to change it. But if we look at some really nice research papers, a great one came out this year, I’m gonna butcher this name, I’m so sorry, Yuja Kovic and Sarah Bond came out this year, looking specifically at asymmetries and change of direction in basketball athletes and finding that there are ways that we can objectively quantify things like asymmetries, strength, speed, motion, quality, asymmetries, that we can also intervene on them. This study in particular sought to reduce the change of direction asymmetry by overloading the slower slash weaker limb with three times as much training volume compared to the stronger or faster side. That looking at an 11% or so difference in change of direction speed, able to reduce that down to just 4% simply by overloading the volume on the weaker, slower, basically problem area. In this case, it was the lower extremity. A very simple study, just using some lower extremity strengthening, three times as much volume as the contralateral limb. We know we don’t need a biodex or some other form of fancy isokinetic testing or force plates in our clinic to have ways to objectively identify and assess maybe quality that is associated with asymmetry that is maybe the cause of pain, aggravating current pain, aggravating past pain and or limiting performance. Great study by Helm and colleagues 2019. wanted to validate the five rep max rear foot elevated split squat. Maybe you have heard of this as the Bulgarian split squat, but essentially kicking up that back leg, doing a five rep max on each leg. In this study, they used a barbell. In the clinic, you can use dumbbells as well, trying to find a five rep max per side, and then quantifying and objectifying the asymmetry side to side. Finding it’s a very reliable, very valid way as compared to things like Biodex, and force plates to develop an idea of asymmetry from side to side. I would argue a paper like that we can extrapolate to the upper extremity, we can do something like a landmine press, we can do something with our lats or back with something like a bent over row and really start to think if we’re seeing movement faults that we think are the cause of symptoms or some sort of performance issue to start getting more objective in how we assess, reassess, and intervene on these things. So that’s what the evidence says. It doesn’t say a lot. Besides that, we need to help people get stronger and we need to quantify where their strength is at as they’re starting their rehab program and then reassess it as they’re finishing in order to be sure that person actually got stronger and actually closed the gap on any sort of perceived or actual asymmetries that we found.


What does physics say? This is something that we tend to ignore a lot, that we exist as human beings on a planet with things like gravity, and that we are subject to certain physical characteristics that we can’t avoid. Physics would say that the shortest route between two points is a straight line, and anything else, any other extraneous movement is a force leak. Any amount of force leak doesn’t matter what your sport is. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter, a powerlifter, a crossfitter, a gymnast, a swimmer, a runner, The more inefficient your mechanics, the more extraneous movement, the more your leg kicks out into circumduction in your run, the more your lower back rounds and extends back and forth as you go through deadlift reps, the more you bend your knees or bend your elbow in your pull-ups, it doesn’t matter. The more extraneous movement you have, the more you’re leaking force out of your system, the more you’re limiting your top end performance. I have yet to this day see anybody break the deadlift world record by doing a Jefferson Curl. Yes, under extreme loads we might see a little bit of low back rounding, but we don’t see people intentionally initiating a 1500-pound deadlift with a Jefferson curl mechanic. They tend to approach the barbell over and over again in a similar fashion, either setting up in a conventional or sumo deadlift and really doing everything they can, again, to minimize extraneous movement, put the maximum amount of weight through the ground to lift the highest load up in the air. That is performance, that is physics. We have to remember, unless we can invent some sort of technology or better understand physics, we can’t get around that. So that’s the evidence, that’s the math. What does our personal experience say? Our clinical experience, maybe some of you would say this is anecdotal, but remember, part of evidence-based medicine is our clinical experience.


Our clinical experience would say that those folks in the gym that we see performing pull-ups, overhead movements with things like a constantly bent elbow, tend to be the people that we most often see over in the PT clinic for stuff like elbow pain. That the folks who rock up on their toes, catching their cleans, their snatches, because they lack ankle dorsiflexion, are the folks that we tend to see coming into the clinic with things like knee pain. That those folks who always quarter squats, no matter how much we try to help them get to a deeper range of motion, a greater range of motion, whether it’s working on their mobility, elevating their heels, giving them a squat to target, whatever our coaching cues corrections are, those tend to be the folks in the clinic with things like knee pain and hip pain. And those folks who show up with lumbar rounding in the bottom of their deadlifts, as they’re pulling the deadlift off the floor, the bottom of their squat, catching a clean, catching a snatch, those tend to be the people who come to see us for low back pain and hip pain in the clinic.


And that connects really well to the third part of evidence based medicine of what matters to the patient. We have to understand these folks are often aware of their faults, especially the more they’ve been training, the less faults they tend to have, and they’re more acutely aware of the ones they have left, and they also know the association between the faults they have and maybe aggravation of symptoms, re-aggravation of symptoms with maybe a previous injury. Understanding as well that we don’t just always work with the lead athletes, that our goal is to introduce movement to everybody who comes into our clinic. How hard is it to introduce movements, even basic movements like the squat or deadlift, to patients who maybe never done this in their life before? Not even with a barbell. Maybe we just hand Doris a kettlebell for a goblet squat, or we have Frank just deadlifting a kettlebell off the ground. How tough is it for that person who is a complete novice to this If our instruction is, hey, Frank, you know what? Mechanics don’t matter. Points of performance are arbitrary constructs created by rehab providers and fitness professionals to scare people like you into purchasing more care than you need. How helpful is that to teach movement to somebody new? What are they going to say? Uh, okay. So like, is there a way I should do this? Is there a best way? Well, Frank, it doesn’t matter. All human movement is good and natural movement. Just do whatever feels good. That’s not very helpful, right? And you would never do that in the clinic with a patient. You would never do that in the gym with an athlete. If you do actually do that, I challenge you to film that and send it to me because my gut tells me that nobody actually does that because you know how stupid you would sound and how likely it is for the patient to be successful if that’s your approach to instructing movement. Likewise, if we do have that more experienced athlete, what good does it do to tell that person who has extreme low back pain, when their spine rounds in the bottom of the squat, there may be somebody who’s filming their lifts to try to figure out why do my squats bother me? And our answer is, hey, there’s no evidence to support that your spine flexing is a source of your pain. Same issue, right? Same outcome, entirely different patient population, but same outcome. Okay, that’s not very helpful. I can see my tail tucking here, and I notice that when that happens, that’s when I feel my extreme low back pain. That person has already associated that in their mind. What good does it do to tell them that there’s no evidence to support that that’s what’s happening? They’re experiencing it firsthand, right? We need to be mindful of the way that we instruct this, both with new and experienced athletes, patients in the gym and the clinic, that mechanics do seem to matter. People seem to have a natural awareness that at least some sort of standardization of performing a movement seems natural and that some sort of association exists between maybe symptoms and faults. We always acknowledge the resiliency of the human body, that yes, it can develop tolerance in different positions, such as lifting with a rounded back, but we can also still do stuff at the same time to limit pain with lifting. We can modify the range of motion. We can modify the load, the volume, whatever, to a more tolerable level. We need to get a lot more comfortable living in the gray area. Yes, we can recognize injuries multifactorial. Yes, the body’s capacity can be temporarily reduced by things like sleep, stress, illness, nutrition, but we can also still manipulate movement to be more comfortable and enjoyable and also help that person work on strengthening in a manner that we know is very evidence supported that’s going to reduce the likelihood of future injury. I have an athlete on my caseload right now, very, very impressive athlete, been doing CrossFit a long time. every time she’s under an extreme amount of cardiovascular fatigue, or she’s doing something like a 10 rep max with a back squat or a three rep max clean or something like that. Usually under a high amount of fatigue, she demonstrates some lumbar reversal associated with that lumbar reversal is always extreme low back pain. She is aware of that. She’s somebody that films her lifts. She knows every time she rounds her low back in the bottom of her squat, that is what usually will kick up an episode of low back pain that could last short term, a couple of days, or could really set her back weeks or maybe months. So she’s very aware of her spine rounding, the association of form with the development of symptoms, and aware of how bad those symptoms can get. So what are solutions with that in regards to does form matter or not? Well, the first thing we can always do is help reduce that pain acutely, right? Of that person is an extraordinary pain in our clinic, regardless of what we’re going to do with them in the gym, regardless of how we’re going to address their form, we have ways to reduce their acute pain. We can modify those squats, we can do things like belt squats, we can do lightweight, high tempo squats, tempo squats at maybe 30 or 40% of her max where she’s maybe taking three, five, seven seconds to sit down to that squat to maintain or continue to build strength in a way that doesn’t aggravate her symptoms. We can do alternate movements if a squat pattern is not tolerable at all, hip thrusts, deadlifts, et cetera, to train lower extremity general strengthening. Yes, we can build up general strength and endurance of the low back, the legs, the posterior chain as we’re getting more comfortable, but we can also spend some time working with that athlete on their mechanics of what’s going to probably help you the most is that under extreme fatigue, you know how to breathe embrace, you know when to call it for the day when you know you’re extremely fatigued, so you don’t find yourself in this position again and again. And yes, the final step there is probably to layer in some intentional lifting in that what we would say poor mechanical position, right? Let’s also add in some rounded back lifting so that we expose ourselves to the movement so the only time we encounter it is not under a 10 rep max on the 10th rep where we tend to encounter our symptoms. So let’s do things like sandbag cleans and sandbag squats and yes, Jefferson curls and other things like reverse hyper extensions. Let’s do all the things. We don’t have to focus just on form but also form matters. We need to train in that position so that when we get into that compromised form position, it is going to have a less likelihood to be symptomatic and set that athlete back.


And finally, we need to go beyond pain into performance. What does the evidence say? What does physics say? What do we say? What does the patient say? What does performance say? What can you possibly help an athlete with who comes into your clinic, who wants to pay you $150 an hour to improve their snatch, and you say there are no optimal mechanics to complete the snatch. We know that’s not true, right? People who win gold medals in clean and jerks and snatches tend to lift a certain way. They tend to all show relatively the same mechanics. That tells us that mechanics seems to matter a lot in regards to high level performance. There’s a reason those Olympic weightlifters tend to initiate their pull off the floor in the same fashion, going through their first pull, their second pull, their receiving position, the jerk overhead or the catching of the snatch. There’s a reason that it looks pretty much textbook no matter who the athlete is, how tall or short or big or small they are or what their race or gender is. They all tend to show the same mechanics time and time again. It seems like it’s physics at the end of the day. We don’t see anybody breaking the snatch world record with a rounded back deadlift to a muscle snatch, do we? And I think that tells us a lot of now beginning to shift towards using mechanics to push performance. And again, as long as we can be objective about it, I think that is the way to go.

24:41 – SUMMARY

So what does the evidence say? We have nothing strongly for or against poor mechanics and lifting. is it relates to people actually performing resistance training not just picking up pins off the floor with a rounded back. We need to be mindful that research studies tend to standardize points performance for lifts such that everyone is performing the same thing the same way every time. What does physics tell us? It will always tell us unless something miracle happens with a change in physics that the shortest route between two points is a straight line Mechanics matter in performance. Straight lines are strong lines. What does our clinical experience tell us? That people who tend to move like crap, especially under increasing amounts of load and or volume, whether it’s due to poor mobility, going too heavy, going too fast, those tend to also be the people who need a lot of healthcare treatment, right? Those folks who tend to move quite well tend to have maybe one particular fault, that they’re usually aware of, and that they’re usually also aware of being associated with their symptoms, and we need to be mindful of that. And what do those patients say? People who are already active are usually aware of that fault, they’re usually aware of when and how they demonstrate it, and they are usually aware of that it’s associated with some sort of symptom, development of a new symptom, re-aggravation of a previous injury, that sort of thing. We know the group of people we probably need to help the most are inactive patients. The other 90% of the population, right? The majority of the people in our caseload. Inactive patients, people who are complete novices to movement, can’t learn things in a structured manner that they’re going to be able to repeat them on their own in the gym or at home in the garage or whatever. if our approach is that physics, points of performance, faults, are just artificial constructs that we create to scare them and somehow fleece the general public out of their money. And then also finally, something to remember is that you’ll be stuck on a hamster wheel in your clinic forever just treating people in pain if you’re not able to transition people to the lifelong fitness and performance side of what we can offer them. At a certain point, mechanics do matter as it relates to top end performance, as it relates to goal setting. And you’re crazy if you think, quote unquote, normal people don’t want to increase the amount of weight they can snatch, or how fast they can run their mile. We need to be mindful that with top end performance, when people want to see their 5K time come down, or their one rep max back squat go up, that mechanics really, really, really do matter. So mechanics, do they matter? It depends, but there’s probably more to be said for mechanics mattering for a performance aspect, for instruction aspect, and for overall higher quality and the ability to perform more movement more often, which is the goal. If we are aware of mechanics, but also being mindful that sometimes they don’t matter, especially if we’re not being objective about assessing them, reassessing them, and what we’re doing to intervene on maybe trying to improve mechanics. Tough discussion, but I think it’s worth one having. I hope you all have a fantastic Friday. If you’re gonna be at a live course this weekend, I hope you have a great time. We’ll see you all next week. Bye, everybody.


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