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That one exercise you just hate? Training for diverse bodies.

I was fairly new to personal training, when a client spoke to me about mountain climbers. Trainers love a good mountain climber, it's a great, whole body, high intensity cardio exercise and at the time I was using them a lot in my own training, putting sets of mountain climbers in between my strength sets.

She explained to me that she just couldn't do them. It wasn't a fitness thing, they didn't work for her body, as she put it "my belly gets in the way".

We adapted. I discovered that if we did a TRX mountain climber, with her feet raised, she had the space under her body to bring her knees forward. It's a more challenging exercise in terms of core stability, but like I said, it wasn't her fitness that caused the issue, the exercise was just a poor fit for her.

That was probably the catalyst that made me think a lot harder about exercises and their suitability for the diverse body shapes of our human population.

Who invents exercises anyway?

Well... I'm going to hazard a guess that most conventional movements in fitness are created and curated by athletic men. For a long time the world of fitness has been dominated by those of a particular body type, and while others are taking a seat at the table, the established conventions are there.

So this means that a more voluptuous midriff, breasts, even elements like a greater range of motion (potential for deviation) are not taken account of in the basic form of the exercise. 

There are also proportions to take into account. A powerlifting coach will tell you that every individual needs to adapt their form to optimise their body's confirmation. How wide you place your feet to squat, how you angle your feet, where you grip the bar... you make adjustments to make your movements as efficient as possible - wasted energy means less weight lifted. Yet the movement cues for general population "fitness" are often given without flexibility, or a participant with long legs will be given the same squat variations as someone of shorter stature.

For entry-level fitness, it is often touted that bodyweight exercise is the place to start. But for heavier individuals, bodyweight exercises can be super challenging. A plank at 50kg is a very different level of challenge to a plank at 100kg+. No trainer would put 50kgs of sandbags on the back of a 50kg person in plank and call that an introductory exercise, but I've known lots of fitness instructors and trainers who will ask a heavier person to perform bodyweight exercises as a beginner option. Heavier people are often super strong, and excel at freeweights - so why make the assumption that they are "unfit" and give them exercises that are not suited to their bodies, when they could be feeling the immense accomplishment of exercising in a way that is better suited to them.

The "one size fits all" approach to movement in fitness favours those of natural athleticism. Those who genetically and culturally meet the idea of "fit", while failing to serve those who could probably use a bit of a leg up onto the fitness ladder.

Or to put it another way - it's not the lean, muscular men who need the most accessible exercises.

By default though, this is the body type that fitness instructors are trained to work with. To correct that, we need to actively work at diversifying our fitness library, and be prepared to modify and adapt with the needs of our clients. This also means listening carefully to a client's objections about an exercise, in order to respond appropriately.

Some people will need to work on their mobility, muscle balance and movement patterns before they are ready to do "standard" exercises. I complete a movement screen on every personal training client for this reason, and work through a corrective block before they start. It takes an investment of patience, but it's setting them up for success.

Some people will struggle with certain exercises or movement patterns, it's important that they are listened to, and, instead of shrugging it off as "oh you'll get there", we consider how to adapt for their needs.

Some people will have to commit points of performance violations because of the limitations of their unique bodies. For instance someone with a fixed ankle joint will be unable to squat correctly in the standard form, but allowing them to bring their affected foot forward of parallel gives a functional adaptation that allows them to execute a better variation of the exercise for them.

It's important that the exercise serves the individual, not the other way around.

What do I do if I can't do the exercise my instructor asks me to?

I am here to heartily encourage you to speak up. I am super grateful for the lesson my client taught me about mountain climbers - from then on, if a fuller figured individual told me mountain climbers weren't for them, they didn't have to spell it out, and I knew what to do and why (most of the time I'll recognise when the issue might arise and pre-empt it by programming an alternative - I've got about 4 versions I will try now). So she created a legacy much to the relief of many other people.

Ask your instructor for an alternative that works better for you, don't be shy, that's what they are there for. Fitness people are used to people saying stuff like "I hate burpees", "do I have to..." sometimes it's in jest, just part of the "evil trainer" banter. So let them know you'd actually like to do something better suited, and if you feel comfortable, why.

Most importantly, if you can't do a downward dog for risk of suffocating in your own cleavage, or feel like Bambi on ice when you squat, please understand that the problem does not lie with you, or your body. 

Image, coloured blocks of different shapes

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