When We Tell Clients that Their Bodies are Tight, Weak, Strong, or that They're Doing it Wrong
I’m finishing up my first year of teaching pilates and yoga in Seattle, after leaving Texas, and it’s been such a terrific year of music and teaching. I’ve refined my teaching style, gotten clearer about what I value in my own teaching, managing clients, and what I actually think about the Pilates industry. One thing that has happened many times this year, though that puzzles me is when clients come in and tell me:
“My glutes don’t work”
“I was told I don’t breathe right.”
“So and So told me I have tight shoulders.”
“I’m not very good at X,Y,Z”
“My doctor said I had a weak core and that’s the cause of my back pain”
“I just delivered a baby 6 weeks ago and I was told my core is weak.” (Yup, really)
“My PT told me my multifidi don’t work”
“I was told my serratus doesn’t fire enough.”
And so many more. Basically, I’ve had one or more people every week come in with some sort of bizarre diagnosis or criticism, mostly from fitness coaches, pilates teachers, yoga teachers or massage therapists who mean well, but don’t often give suggestions for how to improve the situation. For example, when a practitioner tells someone that a certain muscle group doesn’t work, the client may think:
“Hmm, wonder why it’s not working today?”
“Oh ok, I have to work on that.”
“Oh no, I’ll never be able to do things because my X,Y,Z doesn’t work.”
Some clients will hear something and think that it applies to them that day, some will find that language useful, and some people will think that they are dysfunctional and it applies to them FOR LIFE and that it is UNCHANGEABLE. We have a small group of people wandering around the country with diagnoses that have been diagnosed by fitness professionals and massage therapists, and that’s not great.
It also means that when a client comes in saying “My multifidi/serratus is weak/underperforming” I have to ask:
Who told you that? What was the context? What was the exercise or movement? How were they testing?
Underperforming compared to your other side? Or compared to what? Compared to other people?
What did they tell you to work on to improve things?
Often times, the clients don’t have great answers, and they deserve better, from whomever made that claim. And in my opinion, on the fly diagnosis from fitness professionals is not ok, especially if we’re not trained in muscle testing, bodywork, assessment, or anything else relevant.
What’s the solution then?
Just because we see something in our client’s bodies, we don’t have to say it as a diagnosis. If a client has difficulty stabilizing their pelvis in a position, we can say “Your hips are unstable” or we can ask them “Can you feel when your hips lift or your pelvis starts to tuck?” It’s not that we’re not allowed to give feedback to clients, it’s how we deliver our comments. On any given day, we have no idea what’s going on in our client’s bodies (or nervous system).
Look at whether the client is adapted to the exercises or movements at hand. If someone comes in to me saying that some movement is hard or something feels weak, I usually ask, “When else do you practice this, or when did you do this before pilates?” Clients aren’t always adapted to the physical challenges we present them- that’s why they come for sessions. They want be challenged progressively, which means something will be hard sometimes. It doesn’t mean that they “have weak shoulders” necessarily.
When we say things like “you have weak shoulders, tight hips” or any other combination of things, we’re not giving our clients permission to change, both within the hour of the session or class, and long term. In addition, most of our joints have many directions and ranges of motion- maybe someone has a lot of range of motion in one aspect of the hips but not another. Making a blanket statement like “tight hips” is ignoring the many ranges of motion that are worth exploring. We also have the power to challenge our clients when they say, “Oh I have tight hips” and look at what’s actually happening, which may be restriction in one range, but normal range in other aspects. Just because something may “feel tight” it doesn’t mean that something is short or weak.
Sometimes muscle shortness or misalignment is a result of adaptation- to whatever someone does the most, and it’s not necessarily bad or in need of correction. Sometimes runners come in complaining of tight hips and hamstrings, but their body has adapted to what they do the most. I had a client who loved running marathons and ultra marathons (and almost never hurt) and we worked on hip mobility, but I reminded her that maybe her perceived “tightness” was a good thing, and her body’s way of adapting to long distances without injury. Abnormalities away from “perfect alignment” are the norm, and we don’t have to “fix” everyone that comes in.
5. Let’s give our clients hope, rather than perpetuate an idea that they’re broken or not good enough/strong enough/flexible enough/thin enough/etc. My goal is for clients to have a positive fitness experience that they may wish to repeat, with me or another teacher. If something is challenging for a client, we can encourage them and still make them work hard without telling them they’re weak, misaligned, or not breathing right. We can always encourage them to improve, refine, or expand their awareness, control and strength, but the way in which we communicate that is important.