As a human who also loves all things fitness, I’ve spent my fair share of time perusing Instagram for ideas and inspiration. As a physical therapist though, this can make me cringe. Anybody can post about anything these days and act like they’re an expert. I’ve even shared a few things that I look back at and wonder whyyy exactly (because I wasn’t spreading the best info). Basically, a lot of people have poor form and are adding weight and speed and power onto this poor form and are using it to motivate others. SO, if you’re new to this whole “fitness” thing that has been around forever but seems to have spread like wildfire over the past 3-5 years, please take the time to ensure you can complete these 6 tasks first. THEN go from there and progress as able and wise. In order to prevent injury and start with good form from the get-go, you’re going to want to have some prerequisite mobility and activation patterns down.
learn to breathe
Breathing is life and movement. It can either enhance everything we do or (if we don’t pay attention to it) can hinder our optimal performance or pain control. Breathing and airflow also affects your nervous system and can either drive an increase in your sympathetic nervous system to fully oxygenate muscles or can encourage an increase in your parasympathetic nervous system when the intensity is over and your body needs to chill out. I encourage everybody to look into diaphragmatic breathing as this also improves alignment and stability in your entire thorax and up and down the chain to your spine, shoulders, pelvis, and hips. To put simply, diaphragmatic breathing looks like letting that belly rise and fall while not letting your ribs flare or your shoulders rise. Use one hand on the stomach and one on the chest for some feedback. There are tons of other cool and important breathing techniques, but start here!
get in a squat
This continues to be a work in progress for me since I added too much weight too quickly with poor form in my squat. So be smarter than me and start out with proper mechanics! Your goal is to be able to squat down to parallel (or even lower) without hunching and rounding too much through the chest and shoulders or letting your knees cave in and your feet drop. Focus on screwing your feet outwards and into the ground, keeping those knees pushing out, and keeping your trunk upright. Slow and controlled.
move your shoulders and shoulder blades
Before you overhead press or do any pulling motions, it’s important to have healthy shoulders. Work on moving your scapula (shoulder blades) separate from your spine and shoulders, your glenohumeral joint (the shoulder joint) separate from your spine and scapula, and then combining it all and working them smoothly together. A good drill is to move your shoulder blades up then pinch them down into your back pocket; next, round them forwards then squeeze them back together. For the shoulder joint, use your other arm to hold your trunk steady so you don’t rotate and open out to the side then work on raising your arm to the ceiling with your palm facing in, then rotate that palm outwards with your thumb down as your arm moves downwards behind you. Try not to arch through your back to compensate.
segmentally move your spine
I love me some cat-cow pose in yoga; it feels so good! Cat is when you tuck your tailbone under, round your midback up towards the ceiling, and tuck your chin and neck. Cow is when you stick your booty up in the air, arch your back, and lift that head. You can do it all in one motion but it’s even better if you work segment by segment, starting from the top or bottom and moving like a wave as slow and controlled as possible.
master the hip hinge pattern
The hip hinge, found in the deadlift and other hamstring/glute dominant exercises, is different that the squat. Rather than flexing your knees and hips as you lower (pic2), your knees are staying relatively stiff (though not completely straight), as you bend at your hips and stick your butt back (pic5–good form). Also try not to round or arch your back (pic3,pic4) as this can strain your lower back quite a bit (unless you’re more experienced and working on a Jefferson curl; there can be a time and place for that, but if you’re just starting out, use this hip hinge pattern). As you stand back up (pic1), move your trunk upwards as you squeeze your glutes and extend your hips.
turn on your core in multiple planes
Your core includes your typical front abdominal muscles, but also your diaphragm (that breathing muscle above) and pelvic floor muscles, your obliques, the corset that underlies it all (the transversus abdominis), and your large erector and smaller multifidus muscles along your back. It’s important to work each of these through repetitive motions and through sustained/endurance type exercises. The plank shown above is so good for overall stability, the side plank targets your obliques more, and the birddog – where you’re lifting your opposite arm and leg but keeping your spine in a neutral position – is excellent for those muscles along the back and for rotational stability.
Please note that this list is not exhaustive. There are tons of important mobility drills and muscle activation drills you can and should be working on. And note that these are always a work in progress and can always be improved upon. Also, remember that once you progress, there are motions that look “bad” or injurious but if you have control over them and train them in a smart fashion, they are not harmful. That’s for down the line though. But start here and you’ll be better off than going into that crazy ‘fitness’ world blind.
Good luck and let me know if you have any questions!