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Making Shapes and Breaking Rules

Updated: May 18, 2021

“Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools”.

Every sport is characterised by a set of rules. Without rules, the sport becomes a free for all with no structure, shape or sense of meaning. Rules set boundaries, shape perceptions, decisions and strategies.

The bottom line is that rules drive behaviour. Breaking the rules result in penalties, dismissals, and sanctions. Players, coaches and supporters all accept the rules because they are clearly stated, enforced, and apply to everyone. This clarity and fairness creates a level of acceptance in the interest of withholding the integrity of the sport.

Now let us look deeper at rules through the lens of the gym environment. Many strength coaches view movement through technical models. This provides a reference point from which the coach can draw from. It also provides an opportunity for coaches to create a common language with the athlete in the form of verbal cues to enhance communication, improve performance and aid the coaching process, (Wu, Porter, & Brown, 2012).When the athlete moves away from a technical model the coach cues the athlete to maintain the gym rules.

The coach becomes the referee, and the cue becomes the whistle.

I’ve always felt that the biggest gift I could give my athletes was the ability to play the sport they love and to do so I recognise that there are NO movement rules on the field. We are task driven organisms and on the field we move based on the stimulus from the task we are performing, (Williams, Davids, & Williams., 1999). Tackling an opposing player, chasing down a breaking ball or overreaching to make a vital challenge on a goal bound opponent are stimuli that drive movement patterns and shapes that we rarely see in the gym, never mind have a technical model to refer to. During match play, alignment and symmetry do not always exist, this is the reality of the athletic world. During match play breaking alignment is not a probability, it is a certainty. With that in mind, how much of our physical preparation time with our athletes are we intentionally inviting small doses of movement variability from technical models to develop more robust and resilient athletes?

Coaching Shapes and movements, NOT muscles

In my programming, shapes are a specific training block that encourage variability from repetition to repetition as an effective tool to build robustness and capacity.

Example 1 – The stick-oriented squat

With this exercise I have intentionally asked the athlete to follow the stick as he performs the squat. This allows me to manipulate his centre of mass and load each limb differently from repetition to repetition. Each stick direction is going to give the athlete a different puzzle to solve, inviting a variety of loading patterns and shapes that break some gym “rules” and step into the unpredictable and variable nature of sports play. I want my athletes to be able to squat out of asymmetrical knee postures. The different shapes provide a holistic movement experience quite different to the commonly accepted norms.

So, what are these accepted norms?

Let us stick with the squat. We have a technical model based off the different elements and expectations of the task such as weight distribution, positive truck and shank angles, foot position, depth, and spinal position (Cook, Burton, & Hoogenboom, 2006). Once the athletes demonstrate technical proficiency, we start the process of overload (weight/tempo/direction). BUT, what if we could manipulate shapes as part of this process? Then it is not simply about just getting strong but also about increasing exposure to postures and shapes to bring about a more robust and dexterous athlete.

Additionally, with shapes in mind, we can also look at planes of direction. Again, as strength coaches we think of sagittal, transverse, and frontal planes but just these affordances in the sporting world would leave you with robotic and low performing athletes.

Shapes also communicate motion.

Are we rising or sinking, spreading, or enclosing, closing, advancing or retreating?

Are we twisting, turning, bending, spinning, pushing, pulling, acquiring balance, stretching and so on? And if we are doing that are we are doing it with some form of flow and coordination.

Now if you are starting to think in this way you are well on the path to creating movement dexterity. We are starting to think about what connects the dots of performance. All these concepts are encouraging the athlete to explore different movement solutions and, in the process, encourages the creation and stabilization of new shapes and movements.

Personally, I believe athletes are under-stimulated from a movement perspective in the weight room. Now before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, I must state the importance of technical models and strength development. However, I am advocating a coexistence with exercises and tasks that invite slight variations and ultimately movement dexterity.

Bottom line - We need to break some rules. The result being a more robust/dexterous athlete. Rules will be broken but real-world athleticism will be built.


Bernstein, N. A. (2014). Dexterity and its development. Psychology Press.

Bernstein, N. A. (1996). Dexterity and its development (ML Latash & MT Turvey, Eds.). Mahwah, NJ: LEA.

Cook, G., Burton, L., & Hoogenboom, B. (2006). Pre-participation screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function-part 1. North American journal of sports physical therapy: NAJSPT, 1(2), 62-72.

Latash, L. P., & Latash, M. L. (1994). A new book by NA Bernstein: “On dexterity and its development”. Journal of motor behavior, 26(1), 56-62.

Williams, A. M., Davids, K., & Williams, J. G. P. (1999). Visual perception and action in sport. Taylor & Francis.

Effect of attentional focus strategies on peak force and performance in the standing long jump. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(5), 1226-1231.


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