I cringe every time I hear this from a personal trainer or fitness instructor:

“Push your belly button through your spine.”

What does that even mean???  Push my belly button through my spine?  First of all, that’s physically impossible.  Second of all, most people who hear this and attempt to do it will inevitably suck in their stomach.  Which is NOT what fitness professionals want them to do.

What that seemingly useful fitness clue is supposed to do is encourage people to contract their abdominal muscles, or “squeeze their abs.”  The problem is that if you have a beginner exerciser, chances are they may not be sure what contracting the abs means, either.  So that’s where that “push your belly button through your spine” clue came in.  Someone somewhere thought it was a good way of explaining how to squeeze the abs.  However, it isn’t a good way at all.

So here’s an easier way to get people to contract their abs.  It may sound disgusting, but people get the idea – and never forget what they’re supposed to do when doing strength exercises.  This is how I generally explain it:

“OK, this sounds really gross, but this is what you’re supposed to be feeling when you squeeze your abs.  Have you ever had to go to the bathroom and really push something out?  That’s how your abs are supposed to feel when you squeeze them.”

As gross as it may sound, this “fitness clue” actually works – unlike the “belly button through the spine” non-sense.  How do I know it works?  Because I’m not afraid to check.  As a Personal Trainer, I have a bit more of an advantage on this one than fitness instructors, since I work one-on-one with clients.  I simply say, “are you squeezing your abs?” and gently poke at their abs.  This instantly tells me whether or not they’re actually doing it – and yes, you can feel this even with severely overweight clients.

Here’s my second favourite useless fitness clue:

“Pull your shoulder blades back.”

Most of the time, this clue is meant to fix a rounded shoulder posture.  However, what most people do when they hear this clue is retract the scapulae by pulling their shoulders way back into an unnatural position, which is not really conducive to fixing the rounded shoulder posture – you just stay rounded with the shoulders further back.  In order to fix rounded shoulders, what you need to do is engage the small muscles of the shoulder; the muscles that help to stabilize the shoulder joint – these are otherwise known as the rotator cuff muscles.  It’s a very difficult movement to explain, because most people are not used to engaging these muscles without doing a large movement of the shoulder joint.  When you see someone “pulling their shoulders back” versus moving the scapulae by engaging the smaller muscles of the shoulder, the difference is obvious.  We hope to add video soon to show you the difference.  Since most people will have difficulty isolating these muscles, the best thing to do is to help them to strengthen them with some additional exercises.  Here is a simple one to accomplish this:

Stand against a wall with your upper back in contact with the wall at all times.  Arms are at your sides at shoulder level and elbows are at 90 degrees.  From this position, lower and raise your forearms on the wall without moving your back or upper arms away from the wall.  This exercise works the smaller muscles of the shoulder (including the infraspinatus, which rarely gets worked, but has a major function in shoulder stability).  This should help with a rounded shoulder posture.

This is just one of many exercises you can do to correct a rounded shoulders posture.  Then, when you hear “pull your shoulder blades back” in an exercise class, you can confidently ignore the fitness clue, because your shoulders will already be in the correct position.

These are just two of some very strange clues you’ll hear in a fitness class.  By educating yourself about the functions of your joints and muscles, you can decipher these fitness clues and make them work for you.  Or, you can just work with someone who doesn’t give weird fitness clues and helps you learn how your body can move optimally.  To do that, look for a reputable Personal Trainer in your community.