Every industry has its catchphrases or terminology that anyone not familiar with the industry does not understand or only understands superficially. The health and fitness industry and the sporting industry are both littered with jargon used to spike sales and make you feel that “this” is the magical cure for what ails you. If it sounds too good to be true or sounds hokey, it probably is. Here are five words or phrases in performance and fitness that have infiltrated our common vernacular but need to be exposed for their laziness and misrepresentation of the truth.
Prehab or prehabilitation is the idea of taking a proactive approach to your rehabilitation. In other words, if you perform certain exercises before your training and on a regular basis then you will reduce the risk of injury. Historically, this used to be called training. The idea that performing specific “prehab” exercises prior to lifting is somehow going to fix your poor form, inconsistency in training, or poor training program design, is wholly inaccurate. People will often come into the gym and spend 30+ minutes on the floor foam rolling and stretching, followed by some low load exercises to “engage their glutes” or “turn muscles on” then jump into their workout. At this point they have done nothing to actually warm up, nor have they set themselves up for a good session. They have, however, spent 45 minutes in the gym not doing anything productive.
A proper training plan will be laid out in a thoughtful, purposeful, and progressive manner. The progressions will start at the macrocycle level (larger scale), work into the mesocycles (mid-level), and down into the microcycles (microfocus) or day-to-day. With appropriate load, volume, and intensity, progressions combined with an appropriate training density (how many sessions in a specific timeframe like one week), the athlete is able to progress without the use of “prehab” exercises. This is because the entire training plan builds a more robust and well-adapted athlete. A good training plan performed consistently is what will lead to a reduction in injury, while an inappropriate training plan for the individual will increase the risk of injury. No magic “prehab” exercises will save you from poor training.
The term “functional” is used to sell things to the anti-vax and essential oils crowd. If the exercise isn’t “functional”, is it even worth doing? This term grew in fame most recently due to the advent of CrossFit. The belief here is that movements have to be functional to improve quality of life or performance. Then the flow movement, animal flow, and Functional Patterns gurus came along spouting that traditional lifting wasn’t “functional” and doesn’t transfer to human performance because we didn’t historically move with barbells. This idea is asinine.
There is plenty of research supporting that stronger people run faster, jump higher, and are more resilient to injury. This does not mean that the only way to achieve this is through barbell lifts, but the term functional is relative to what is trying to be accomplished. A barbell back squat can be functional for a track cyclist even though it looks nothing like the task at hand. All exercises are simply tools in the toolbox. They have different settings (ie. different variables) that can be manipulated to make the tool more specific or more general to different degrees. There are no exercises, though, that are inherently “functional” or “non-functional”. But there are better exercises as tools and coaches who understand the proper uses for each tool, when to use it, and how to use it.
3. Weak Core / Weak Glutes / Muscles Not Firing
Every time an athlete gets injured and sees a practitioner, trainer, or coach that isn’t familiar with performance or athletics, they seem to come back with the diagnosis that their core is weak, their glutes are weak or not firing, or both. The solution to all of life’s problems seems to be fixed by simply doing clamshells or some other ridiculous exercise and making sure your muscles are “turned on” or “firing”.
Our physio-centric culture today is very stuck on the idea that our “core” always needs to be stronger. It is never strong enough, and if we just did more unloaded balancing acts then our bodies will magically be able to withstand the forces, impacts, and velocities that our bodies will experience in sports. This simply is not the case. Do we need to be able to control our trunk and be able to brace or maintain tension and postures within our sport? Absolutely! When someone gets an injury, does their muscle firing pattern change? Yes. However, this is just one small piece of the return-to-play process. It is also extremely unlikely that the fact they weren’t doing clamshells, dead bugs, or glute bridges before the injury is the reason they are now injured.
The other problem in this scenario is the athlete coming back and saying that X muscle isn’t firing properly, so Y exercise is going to solve this problem. This analysis cannot be made without using the right measure, such as electromyography. Simple joint and muscle testing or conjecture are not enough to truly understand what is going on in the body.
More importantly, one must look at the athletes’ full training history with an understanding of training loads, volume, and density. This includes on and off the field/court/playing surface. Often, catastrophic non-contact injuries happen from poor motor control, using loads and volumes that the athlete is not prepared to handle, and fatigue caused by doing this chronically.
4. Using “Sprinting” Synonymously with “Conditioning” or “Running”
Sprinting and running are not the same thing. Sprinting is also not suicides/shuttles, wind sprints, or hill sprint repeats. Sprinting requires someone to be moving at a certain percentage of their maximum speed over a given distance. Generally, this could be considered at 85-90%+ of maximum speed depending on age and experience. What normally happens at practices is that people mistake effort for speed.
If you were to sprint 40 yards as hard as you can, rest 30 seconds, then turn around and sprint back as hard as you can, and repeat this 5-10 times, this would not be considered sprinting. This may be performed at maximum effort and intention, but the athlete will likely downregulate their efforts because they know they must complete the session, therefore not sprinting at a high enough speed to be considered sprinting.
Or, an equally likely scenario would be that the athlete pushes hard on effort 1 at a speed that would be considered sprinting. Then by effort 3, they have slowed down significantly. By effort 5 they are barely hanging on and then continue for 5 more efforts. This has now turned into a conditioning workout very quickly and the speed adaptation did not occur. On top of that, the athlete was put at serious risk of a hamstring injury in this workout or the next. Sprinting is sprinting and conditioning is conditioning. Be clear on the terms. Understand the differences. Consult a professional for appropriate sprint training.
5. Muscle Confusion
There is no such thing as muscle confusion. Your muscle is innervated by nerves and will either contract or not. That is all muscles can do. They cannot think, remember, or be confused. Performing a number of different exercises for the purpose of muscle confusion is simply a poorly laid out training plan or evidence of no training plan.
Muscle confusion will not help you break through plateaus or help you make gains. It will limit the gains you will experience because your body does not adapt to a constantly changing stimulus as well as it adapts to a progressively overloaded stimulus. Continued stress above a certain threshold with periods of lowered stress allows the body to continually adapt and allows you to understand what is creating the adaptation. By continually changing things, you cannot understand what is causing the adaptations you might see. Therefore, how could you possibly replicate what’s working? If you get injured during the variations, how can you possibly know what contributed to the injury other than looking at general volume and any spikes in volume/load in different muscle confusion workouts?
The body understands stress as stress. It cannot differentiate between forms of stress, and it cannot tell the difference between exercise modalities. The body responds to the characteristics of the movement like velocity, intensity, forces, duration, density, and will adapt to withstand those stresses provided they aren’t excessive to your body’s capacity. By having a well-thought-out training plan that progresses appropriately, the body can adapt and recover. That is what it is all about, not fads or hype words that have no basis in the scientific literature or reality. Most people haven’t maxed out their capacity in the fundamentals. The problem is, this isn’t sexy or Instagram-worthy, but it WORKS! Keep it simple and keep moving the needle.