Posted June 29, 2015

The Coaching Grey Zone: When to Simply Shut Up

A common concept that consistently comes up is that exercise technique has to be bullet-proof and perfect for the individual to get the most out of it and to reduce the risks of injury or creating muscle imbalances. While this is true in theory, it’s also incredibly difficult to individualize for the person in front of you or for yourself, and very difficult to replicate from one rep to another and from one set to another.

For one, imbalances happen, likely because we’re actually asymmetrical in structure, function, and use, but it could also be said that chasing symmetry could be causing increased injury risk in some populations, so maybe it’s not the end-all-be-all we’ve been lead to believe.

Looking at video analysis of a very complex skill such as olympic weightlifting can show that successful lifts will rarely produce the same bar path kinematics, and this could even be significantly different between genders. The key to think about with that line is “successful lifts.” I remember attending a conference where Dan John was speaking, and he had a statement that caused a bit of a eureka moment for me:

“Looks right, flies right.”

In this context, the quality of the rep could be eye-balled to gauge whether it was solid technique or not, and the results would be the output and the consistency of the output. If you throw a discuss and it looks all wobbly on release, it’s not going to go as far as one that’s sent off with a solid line of exit, a smooth rotation, and no curving path. You could say the same for any exercise done in the gym. If it’s close enough to perfect, it’s close enough.

This is a concept I refer to as a “coaching grey zone” where the technique is good enough to get the benefits of the exercise, even if it’s not technically perfect, and doesn’t warrant a lot of communication from the coach on how to make it better. The goal in this zone is to simply get the benefit of the exercise with reps and training, and to correct if technique strays outside of that grey zone.

For the math geeks out there, consider perfect technique as the mean in a standard distribution curve, and the grey zone is the area occupied within one standard deviation of that mean. Anything within that range is fine and can simply live out it’s life with the lifter. Anything outside of that range warrants some feedback on how to improve the exercise to get back within that grey zone. Here’s a handy chart using deadlifts as an example, because deadlifts:

Coaching grey zone

This grey zone lends a lot of itself to the concept of motor learning and improvement with repetition. The ability to do hundreds if not thousands of reps of a movement will help the individual learn and fine tune much more than hearing 50 cues from their coach or trainer on how to improve. Being present in their body and finding that good line of action is as telling as anything I could say to them, and much more likely to be replicated on their own.

You’ll note on either side of the curve is a poor example of performance. The left side says “increased risk of injury,” so I thought I would touch on that for a quick second.

We’ve all seen people with completely horrendous technique perform an exercise and wonder how they could get away with it without something snapping and them becoming another gym casualty. Well, poor technique in itself isn’t the immediate cause of injury. Sure, there are known mechanisms of injury and if you do them with enough stress and velocity your odds of becoming injured go way up, like planting a foot, locking out the knee and rotating medially will likely cause a significant risk to your ACL tearing like paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Much in the same vein, a rounded back deadlift like junior on the left does put his spine at an increased risk of injury, but doesn’t automatically mean he’ll get injured.

Put it this way. There’s a Lotto Max draw coming up so you decided to buy a lotto ticket. Your odds of winning that lottery are something like 50 million to 1. To improve your odds, you buy 100 tickets, so not your odds are slightly better, 50 million to 100, or roughly 500,000 to 1. This doesn’t guarantee you will win the lotto, but just that you increased your odds. Similarly to this, performing with poor technique simply increases your odds of getting injured, but doesn’t guarantee it.

“No, squats aren’t bad for your knees. The way you squat is what’s bad for your knees.” Another Dan John-ism worth remembering.

To be safe and to see the best performance possible, your goal as a trainer/coach or an athlete/exerciser is to reduce your risk of injury through technical proficiency, and to use this technical proficiency to produce some performance benefits.

So how can you get into the grey zone and stay there to see the lowest risk of injury and the best performance benefits possible? Well, paying attention is the first big thing to consider. Looking at the example above, you can see something is wrong in how low he’s getting, and a lot of that could come from being very far forward on his toes, and not feeling like he has the balance to sit deeper into the movement. He’d likely benefit from some regression to work on using the range of motion he has available in a more effective manner compared to putting weight on his back and rocking knee-irritating quarter squats like an absolute boss.

From there, getting him to be more comfortable sitting deeper into the movement and repositioning his weight a little further back in his feet, not so far back that the toes lift off the floor, but not as far forward as he his where his heels are almost off the floor. If his ankles were tighter, he would wind up rocking a modified sissy squat by the way he’s going.

Those 2 points wouldn’t guarantee a perfect rep, but would push him closer to the broad warm glowing warming glow of the grey zone discussed earlier, and then it would be a matter of getting him comfortable with the new cues, hitting a few dozen or even a few hundred reps to get a training effect from the position, and then working on moving further towards the mean. He’s likely need some consistent feedback to ensure he was imparting those changes consistently and properly, but that’s where coaching comes in. He likely wouldn’t have to do a complete reset on each rep, and that’s okay.

If he was alone and didn’t have access to a coach, he could adjust technique by filming himself a few times to see what he looks like during the movement. The goal is to make the squat look like a squat and not like a bobbing knee bend style of dance seen at country club weddings once the deserts are demolished.

For experienced lifters, the grey zone they can get away with can be pretty narrow with submaximal lifts compared to novices. Due to the relative loads, a few millimeters here or there can make the difference between a super easy and successful lift, an absolute molasses-slow grind, or a failed rep and questioning of their entire existence and life choices up to that point with a weight they should easily be crushing. For a novice, because their loading is significantly less, they can have a broader grey zone without much issue, and failure only comes when they’re way outside of the acceptable limits of the movement, like the girl on the right side of the graphic shown above.

With injury recovery, the acceptable width of the grey zone is going to be pain and function dependent. Pain will usually result sooner as stress to healing or damaged tissues will limit variations to technique. Because this zone is so small and because they usually may not feel pain until the following day, care should be taken to make sure the entire process is coached to as close to the mean as possible, allowing as little deviation in technique as possible, until they have some experience with the movements to allow a broader grey zone without pain.

If you’re a coach, don’t get too anal-retentive about form to the point where your clients or athletes don’t get the benefit of the exercise, but be specific enough to ensure they’re not going to increase their injury risk or see performance decreases. For exercisers or clients/athletes, focus on the output of the exercise and aiming to master each rep versus simply get through the process, but don’t avoid doing the movement because it’s not perfect yet. Do it, learn from it, then do it again with the new info you just learned from the other rep. Keep trying to move more towards perfect, but don’t stop because it’s not there yet.

In the end, the exercise is just a means of making you better than you were yesterday, whether that means stronger, more mobile, with better cardio and work capacity, or whatever you’re after. If you can say that exercise you did today got you one step better than you were yesterday, it was a success. If it left you one step worse, then you need to re-evaluate the technique of that exercise. Don’t beat yourself up trying to be perfect, just invest energy into becoming better.

  • Shane Mclean

    I’m sure Tony loves being in the “grey zone” 🙂 Great advice mate, I’ve taken note.

  • Simon Roost Kirkegaard

    Hi Dean

    Thank you for your post. I am interested in your injury predictions with what can be perceived as not being in the grey zone. While I myself attempt to coach my clients in a similar way I was not aware that not being in the grey zone increased the risk of injury. What studies back up this view? I would very much like to read them.

    Kind regards,


    • Sigvar Garfors

      I agree, Simon!
      I would also be interested in reading that research 🙂

      Kind regards,
      Sigvar Garfors

    • deansomerset

      Hi Simon. I’m not aware of specific research that shows cause and effect of specific technical defects, but there are a lot of correlational studies that point to technique faults as potential causes for injuries. For instance, some studies looked at degrees of valgus collapse during landing from jumps and found those with the higher degrees of valgus angles had the higher rates of knee issues in sports like soccer and basketball, and it was more prevalent in women than men. The connection was if squatting, try not to let the knees cave in to a valgus position. There’s also a lot of biomechanical research that points to positions that increase stress and strain on tissues, plus research that shows known mechanisms of injury, like the ACL example I gave in the post.

      • Simon Roost Kirkegaard

        Those studies refer to something totally different than the exercise in question here so I would assume that no correlation or causality can be made? Also watching strong men play with atlas stones they would be out of the grey zone I imagine yet they are the strongest in the world. If we load the squat slowly and move into valgus position would this be harmful? Sure explosively it has a big injury potential but slowly probably not? I don’t know but if we in general don’t know should we not be careful defining what is right and wrong and potentially harmful to the body?

        • deansomerset

          Yep, that’s essentially the entire point of the article, just worded in a manner you prefer. Thanks for making that conclusion.

  • Eli Odnopozov

    Thanks for the post, its eye opening.
    Just on geeky thing: buying more lottery tickets doesn’t increase your chances to win the lottery mathematically..