Reactive Coaching – The Movement Library

What does it mean to be a good coach?

The answer could vary, encompassing technical knowledge of physiology, biomechanics, programming, nutrition and so on.

These things obviously play a large role in our capacity to coach clients and athletes, but our ability to draw on this knowledge can be sharpened as well.

Our ability to react to the changing states of our clients is an important aspect of the coaching profession – one that can be utilized to make your clients feel confident in your skill set and happy with their investment.

I believe that we can become better coaches by becoming better reactive coaches. While the term “reactive coaching” is largely borrowed from the world of leadership and business, it can be applied to the weight room in important ways.

When I started at Okanagan Peak Performance, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the fluidity and speed at which head coach Chris Collins reacted to daily and moment-to-moment changes in his athletes and environment.

If a client presented with restrictions such as an inability to move as they usually did, pain, fatigue or high acute stress, he reacted with instant movement alterations and appropriate communication.

He did this for multiple clients at the same time, showcasing some of the highest levels of competence and experience that I have seen from a coach.

An expansive Mental Movement Library (MML) seemed to be a cornerstone of this ability.

It was something that I knew was restricted in my skill set, coming from a background of coaching powerlifters who were mostly interested in the barbell lifts. Even with my powerlifting athletes, I found myself reacting less-than-promptly to pains or complaints with certain lifts.

My mental model of “movement” was quite boxed into the limitations of powerlifting and powerlifting culture. In this new environment, I realized how valuable real-time training modifications can be, and have been expanding my movement library ever since.

The value in being able to modify movement promptly:

–          Displays coaching competence

–          Displays coaching attention and empathy

–          Displays your value for the client’s investment

–          Displays that you are flexible and realistic

–          Shows the client you value their time by utilizing it efficiently and still have them moving

–          Allows your clients to be challenged appropriately and without large hits to their confidence

This one is big: oftentimes movement alteration is the best option. Being able to modify the movement closer to their real-time abilities, with the right communication, is key in maintaining a client’s confidence.

I believe that a larger MML is the first step towards a more unrestricted model of movement.

There are few reasons that a specific movement should be deemed “bad” or “good”. Instead, movements should be selected based on their transfer to a clients goals, and whether the client is ready for that movement.

Movements are more or less appropriate for specific clients at specific times.

For example, which movement would be more appropriate for a client with an explicit goal of squatting 225kg:

1.  Bodyweight Single Leg RDL

2.  Dumbbell Goblet Split Squat

Even though you could make an argument for number 1 being part of the program given the right circumstances (pain, lack of balance and/or confidence), number 2 would be a more appropriate use of their time given the need for higher intensity stimulus and specificity of transfer to their goal.

In this case, we have the same athletes experience a case of acute back pain aggravation during their conventional deadlift session.

Given their explicit goal of wanting to lift 275kg, which training modification would be most appropriate?

1.  Max out their sumo deadlift

2.  Reduce the intensity and/or range (eg. pull off blocks), monitor symptoms and work below or at the client’s pain threshold

For some reason, maxing out the sumo deadlift the first time someone tries it is very popular.

Although modifying the movement in this way may prove to reduce symptoms, maxing it out is an example of the readiness principle not being accounted for.

This athlete is probably more ready for option number 2 – training the familiar movement at a lighter load or less aggravating range in the presence of pain and the mental + emotional consequences thereof.

These are more-so extreme examples used to demonstrate how an appropriateness movement model can replace the good/bad movement model. Allowing this may fast-track your MML expansion, and in concert, your ability to reactively coach.

Contextual restrictions which call for movement modification can include balance issues, mobility, pain and confidence.

Although there are certainly many more, lets go over these and some ideas regarding their management. There are almost infinite ways to modify movements, so this is not an exhaustive list.

1.  Poor balance

Example: Client is programmed to do single leg kettlebell RDL, but seems hesitant even at the moment you show him what to do. You quickly realize that balance is his major restrictor. 

What can you do in this scenario? Can you have them move near a wall? Near a post? Can you give them a PVC pipe?  Can they hold onto a rope or TRX band? Can you move nearer to them and give them assurance they can rely on you to catch them? Can you manipulate tempo to increase movement and reaction time?

This scenario as well as the upcoming ones all occurred in my actual practice.

In this case, I removed the KB and gave him a PVC pipe to hold on to, expanding his base of support and visibly improving his confidence in the movement. Over a few sessions, we added the KB back in and will soon be removing or altering his balance assistance.

2.  Mobility

Example: Client has a goal of barbell overhead pressing, but is restricted in shoulder flexion and can’t get the bar over head-height without folding their back in half. 

What can you do in this scenario? Can you just keep working on that movement or adjust little form variances? Can the range of motion be regressed to match their ability, and then built on over time? Does it change when you get them to try the motion seated? With dumbbells?

In this scenario, we swapped the movement for two different ones: incline bench press that gradually increased in incline, and straight arm wall push-throughs. We achieved a greatly improved overhead position within a month.

3.  Pain

Example: Competitive powerlifting client presents with lower back pain during the floor position in conventional deadlifting, restricting his force output as the pain increases with greater load on the bar.

Can the range of motion be regressed to match their pain tolerance, and then built on over time? Can the joint angles be changed to avoid or alter sensitive positions? Can the load be reduced? Can the tempo be changed? The queues?

In this case, we changed his 2 sessions of deadlifting per week to 1 session of conventional deadlifts off of a block (reduced range) and the other to sumo deadlift, which did not present back pain.

Over time we reduced the height of the block, eventually allowing him to pull off the floor without pain. Temporarily avoiding the sensitive range allowed us to continue loading the movement at relatively high intensity and staved off strength loss. Altering one session to a full-range painless variant of the deadlift (sumo) allowed for further reductions in strength and skill loss.

4.  Confidence

 Example: Client presents with apparent inability to squat below ¼ range. You observe her doing a bodyweight squat, where she stops a quarter of the way down saying she just “can’t get any lower”.

This situation is interesting, as many could believe that the main restriction here is mobility. There is value in testing some passive joint ranges like the hip and ankle, but after some quicker, lower contact options.

Let’s say you have reason to suspect confidence as the movement restrictor.

She is a brand new client with no idea who you are, are very new to physical activity and seem to be uncomfortable with how many people there are looking at her. Her range is exceptionally limited but says she doesn’t have any issues sitting down and getting up off of a chair, which is far closer to the floor than her squat. What can you do in that moment?

Can the range of motion be reduced to match her confidence? Can you do more warm ups with her to build momentum? Is “full” range in this particular movement important at this time? Can the load be reduced? Can you give her some failsafes like a post, rope or TRX handle? Can you get her to sit down and stand up off of a chair? Does her range improve with you spotting her or being near to her?

How ready is the client for something new and challenging at that moment? 

What happened: I brought her over to an upright squat cage post, and had her walk down the post with her hands as she sunk lower and lower into the squat. We then transitioned to a rope with the same method, then to holding a kettlebell in front of her.

Within 3 minutes, she was doing full depth kettlebell squats. This obviously doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s good to be aware that fear of embarrassment or fear of not getting back up can be powerful restrictors to movement. Giving some fail safes can be a quick way of ruling out fear as a restrictor. In this case, I presented her with graded exposure to less assistance, building up her confidence quickly as we demonstrated her ability to her.

An expansive Mental Movement Library can be an invaluable resource in improving your value as a coach and trainer.

Reacting promptly to changing contexts in your training sessions can display competence and experience, and may increase your client’s confidence in you as a trusted partner and professional.

Expanding your MML is something that should be started as early as possible, and movements should be seen on a spectrum of appropriateness considering the client’s goals and readiness.

There are more aspects to becoming a confident reactive coach such as communication skills, technical knowledge of involved musculature, understanding your client’s effort limits, and creating an understanding and empathetic relationship.

More of that in part 2, coming soon!


Artem Biziaev is a strength and fitness coach practicing in-person and online from Edmonton since 2012. Passionate for improving his clients and practice, he is currently finishing his professional kinesiology practicum for the University of Alberta under Sam Spinelli.

Share This Article


Join Citizen Athletics

Exceptional strength and rehab programming by two strength coach physical therapists.