GX SKILLS: Tweak the traditional

By using progressions to add intensity, rotation and complimentary exercises, you can bring traditional moves kicking and screaming into today’s classes, says group fitness guru, Marietta Mehanni.

Is a fitness concept, group exercise is here to stay – but that doesn’t mean that formats and programs don’t change over the years, responding to shifts in science and trends (an opinion I’ve expressed previously). The same applies to the exercises we instruct in those classes: by looking at them from a fresh angle we can both rejuvenate them and enhance their efficacy.

What’s wrong with traditional?

The first question that begs to be asked is what is traditional? In a group exercise setting, traditional muscle conditioning was squats and lunges in standing, and then floor exercises that would target specific muscle groups, which in the past were referred to as ‘problem areas’. These would include various leg raises, abdominal curls and push up type exercises, and a high number of repetitions were performed. Women enjoyed doing these exercises and often claimed that they were beneficial. It could be debated as to whether or not this was actually the case, but we can’t underestimate what an individual believes to be effective... These exercises required no equipment other than body weight and a mat. They were simple to perform and required minimal coordination, so most people could do them and they did create muscle overload.

A little tweaking…

Over the past 30 years there have been considerable changes in the fitness industry and some of them can be applied to these traditional exercises. Understanding that our lifestyle has changed our biomechanics considerably, we can tweak these exercises to ensure that we are also targeting muscle imbalances and weaknesses, as well as incorporating vestibular stimulation and more joint actions so that each exercise can progress to involve a full body action rather than a single joint movement.

It’s important to note that the key to successfully tweaking exercises is progressive overload. Your class participants have a range of abilities, and not all of them will be able to do the final progression. That’s OK though, because they are given permission to choose – but more about that later.

Extension exercises

Back extension, hip extension and shoulder extension combat the constant flexion that the body is in due to our lifestyle movement patterns. The traditional exercises that have been used in the past are back extensions off the floor, bridges and standing deadlift actions. To tweak these to provide a fresh focus, so it doesn’t feel like more of the same, play around with how these can be combined with other exercises to provide more of an overall body workout. A back extension can be combined with a tricep push up and a plank since they are all in the prone position. A combination could be:

  1. Lying prone, lift the head and shoulders off the floor with hands positioned under the shoulder
  2. Lift head and shoulders and then perform a tricep push up to lift the torso off the floor
  3. Lift head and shoulders, tricep push up and then lift knees off the floor for a hand plank for a few seconds before dropping the knees to the floor and then lowering the upper body.

In this exercise, the back extension is a constant action at the start of each sequence but then combined with other movements that require the extension to be maintained. The overall effect after performing several repetitions of each step is that the whole body is involved rather than it being a simple chest lift off the floor.

Rotation

Our bodies are designed to rotate. We have joints designed to rotate, for example, the ball and socket of the hip and shoulder, and we have muscles that pull the body into rotation, like the abdominal obliques and glutes.

Adding rotation to tweak traditional exercises can add an element of interest, especially when it is unexpected. The good old side-lying leg adductor (Jane Fonda would love this) can have rotation added.

  1. Lying on the right side of the body with both legs stacked on top, lift the top leg up and down approximately 30cm
  2. While performing this action, bring the top arm (left) from above the head to the thigh with each lift
  3. Now using the right arm that you are lying on, lift and lower the torso with each repetition to do a side plank movement
  4. Here is where we can add rotation: circle the left arm back behind the body and over the head with each repetition
  5. Then swing the left leg forward into a circle action in the opposite direction.

In addition to rotation being added to the hip and shoulder, there is a side lifting action off the floor – an everyday movement – so it also ticks the functional box. The brain is also processing what and how to do this (just like patting your head while rubbing your tummy!) so it’s getting a workout too!

Intensity

Surprise, not everyone wants to feel ‘smashed’ by their workout, either on the day or afterwards. Fitness professionals and enthusiasts may love it, but for most people with jobs, families and other commitments, being unable to lift their arms or move their legs the next day is something they would prefer to avoid. So the challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to find ways to create intensity that is substantial enough to stimulate change, yet also tolerable enough to allow life to go on.

Building in options to ensure that participants have choice is very important. These are the progressions, and the key is to make sure that the starting exercise is something everyone can do, and then add elements of intensity like reducing points of support, changing lever length, or adding a balance component. Giving permission to your participants to choose what they want to do puts the responsibility of the outcome squarely back onto their shoulders. These are four options I offer my participants:

  1. You can choose to come with me for all the progressions
  2. You can come on the journey with me but if you see an exercise and think ‘hell no’ then you can stay where you feel comfortable
  3. You can opt to drop down at any point to an exercise option that you can do comfortably (this is if they have progressed but are now fatiguing)
  4. You can stop and stretch at any point and join in where you want to.

Group exercise is not personal training. It is an option that a lot of people, predominantly women, prefer, and not feeling singled out is very important. That is why they like a group format. Offering progressions and options to choose is vital to ensure that people keep exercising. After all, that is the overall important goal – that people are moving.

Putting purpose to the practice

The fitness world is bombarded with research, information and opinions from many opposing standpoints. My recommendation to the group exercise instructor is to always be able to justify what you deliver. If your only justification is that you saw someone else do it, then it’s not a strong enough reason to teach the exercise. Have the reasoning and understanding of the implications on the participant. If the only reason you have is to smash your class so hard that they can’t move the next day and are painfully aware of every muscle they possess, this will not inspire most people – particularly newcomers to exercise – to keep coming back.

As the level of incidental activity in daily life decreases, scheduled exercise is becoming increasingly necessary. If we want more people to regularly participate in physical activity, we need to ensure both that they are enjoying it and getting results. By considering what we are delivering, we can ensure that they are getting the best of the traditional and up-to-date information.


Marietta Mehanni is a multi-award winning presenter with over 30 years’ teaching experience in both land and water-based group fitness. She is also an instructor mentor, World Master Trainer and education coordinator for Gymstick International, co-creator of mSwing and Pelvic Floor Ambassador for Continence Foundation Australiamariettamehanni.com