“The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way’”- Grace Hopper
Do you ever think about what you’re doing?
Do you ever think about the consequences of what you may be doing? As strength and conditioning and fitness professionals we need to begin to re-examine sacred cows with a more discerning eye in relation to technique cues, what exercises should look like, and the purpose of the exercises selected.
Sacred cows are ideas, customs, institutions held, or beliefs that are above criticism and viewed as incontrovertibly true. We need to start questioning the cues of ‘chest up’ and ‘butt out’ that were shoved down our throats as students and young coaches. We tend to think we are eliciting positive adaptations in training but training has consequences, which implies both positive and negative results. In the opening remarks, I presented a question because you should constantly be asking yourself questions to be self-critical and acknowledge purpose. You need to know yourself and make yourself better before you can help or attend to others.
Q: “Why are you programming that exercise?”
A: “Because I want to increase 1 RM strength.”
Okay, what exactly is strength? Why does your client/athlete need to get stronger? Is that best preparing them for their sport or supporting your client’s health? Is that their goal or yours? Questioning what you do and yourself is a constant process if you truly want to be good at what you do.
Whether you are working with an athletic population (strength and conditioning field) or general population clients (fitness industry) you are responsible for the stress you are exposing someone to during training. If you are a strength and conditioning professional or personal trainer, you are a stress manager. Your job is to help someone adapt to stress. Stress can have consequences and it is your responsibility to understand the consequences of and ways in which to manage stress in relation to performance and health. We are going to explore the term POSITION and the variables involved, as it relates to stress management. Primarily, we will focus on how we can manage stress through appreciating set-up POSITIONS. Let’s go…
Training programs and exercise selection tend to be focused on the muscle being targeted for a physiological adaptation, such as a triceps extension exercise isolating the triceps muscle, without consideration of how a muscle can be POSITIONED in order to produce the desired force or movement. The incorporation of POSITIONAL cues can improve length-tension relationships of the muscle and the range of motion of the joint to express the movement being desired.
POSITION is defined as a place where someone or something is located or has been put. In the realm of strength and conditioning and the fitness industry we are going to define POSITION as the starting place of the axial skeleton and pelvis which will set the foundation for movement of the entire system. The axial skeleton is the part of the skeleton consisting of bones of the cranium, vertebral column, and rib cage. POSITION will allow us to place emphasis on both performance and health. We will explore the orientation of limbs in space, considering the proximal segment to distal segment and how that impacts the placement of the axial skeleton and length-tension relationships of the muscle attached to those segments. We will discuss how the triplanar POSITION and orientation of the axial skeleton is essential for efficient and effective movement, and how it can reduce the cost of the stress we place on our athletes/clients. As an industry, we tend to get caught up looking at the motion of limbs without appreciating the foundation for that movement. An appropriate set-up for an exercise will optimally POSITION the proximal structures that set the foundation to express movement and therefore, create more reliable adaptations to the exercise stress we place on athletes/clients.
To truly understand why POSITION is so critical in the realm of strength and conditioning, we first need to reflect on the definition of a joint. A joint is where two bones meet. While this may seem incredibly simple, more often than not when people speak about joint range of motion or movement of the body they refer only to the limbs without appreciation for the proximal structures that those limbs connect to and move within; that forms the foundation for the expression of movement. If we recognize that a joint is the meeting of two bones, we need to respect both the proximal and distal structures that meet to form that joint, as both structures are dynamic and capable of moving in all three planes, and their relationship will determine the degrees of freedom available to each.
For example, when discussing hip extension range of motion, consideration is usually given to the movement of the femur on the acetabulum. By looking only at the movement of the femur, we are ignoring half of the hip joint, and neglecting the influence that the POSITION of the pelvis can and will have on the ability to express hip range of motion. Likewise, when discussing the shoulder, the movement of the humerus has long been the primary consideration. This ignores the influence of the orientation of the glenoid fossa and therefore, the influence that the POSITION of the scapula has on the ability to express motion of the humerus, as well as the influence that the POSITION of the ribcage has on the POSITION and orientation of the scapula.
The proximal segment of a joint is analogous to a doorframe. The orientation and POSITION of the doorframe allows the door to open and close fluidly and completely. If we rotate the doorframe or move it slightly to the left or right, the movement of the door will be altered or restricted.
We can apply this analogy when considering movement of the upper and lower limbs. If I want to move the lower limb, I need to appreciate the impact that the POSITION and orientation of the acetabulum has on the triplanar degrees of freedom available at that limb. If I want to express motion through the upper limb, I need to be aware of the POSITION and orientation of the scapula, as that will dictate degrees of freedom of the humerus. In order to understand the POSITION and orientation of the scapula, I need to understand the POSITION of the ribcage on which the scapula sits. These relationships can dictate whether the movement we are asking a joint to perform can be expressed authentically and if there will be a cost associated with that repeated movement.
Wait…cost? Strength and conditioning coaches AND personal trainers are just managers of stress. Period. What dose of stress exposure am I going to give you today? We play with variables such as intensity, frequency, duration, and volume to accomplish a specific physiological adaptation for the ultimate goal of improving performance or fitness (adaptation). Training, however, can come at a physiological cost especially with high level training, as your body will need to take resources from other systems to support structural and physiological adaptations; that is stress. The ultimate goal of training is adaptation. Adaptation involves moving a threat threshold up. Threat is a stressor to our system which is imbedded in the ultimate goal of our species, survival. We want to be more resistant to threat and stress, that is adaptation. The higher I move the threshold for assessing threat, the more stress I can handle and the faster I can recover (between sets, sessions, or periods of time) without costing me much. Training can move up the threshold of what our body perceives as threatening in order to handle more stress. This will make me more efficient and my outputs can be repeated. Training involves variables that will put me either above or below this threshold. Training above this threshold is high stress. If I train above this threshold chronically or turn low threshold activities into high threshold activities I am going to put high levels of stress on my system. Threat will decrease movement options. Stress will reduce efficiency, longevity, and HEALTH.
Chronic application of stress to a system during training (via reps, sets, load, mental, etc.) can drive people into greater extended and rotated POSITIONS. These are stress patterns; extension is a threat POSITION and rotation is a safety pattern, which our sympathetic nervous system pulls us into. If we as strength and conditioning coaches or trainers are constantly putting people into extended POSITIONS, especially under load or during low threshold (accessory) exercises, we may be causing unnecessary wear and tear of a system. Constant threat will impact you. This is cost, which will have consequences.
For example, what if the scapula is not in an optimal POSITION (and by optimal POSITION I mean that a curved scapula can sit on a convex thorax) to express the movement of upward rotation? Something is going to have to give, such as recruitment of other muscles to do the job, impingement of a nerve, lengthening of a ligament. Just like in a foundation crack in a house can cause permanent structural damage, a crack in the foundation of movement can result in pathology and pain. If we are in an extended POSITION in which the front ribs are elevated and the back ribs are lowered, the curvature can be lost and the scapula no longer has a surface to glide on to express options for movement. Thus, movement can come at a cost to the system; it becomes a stressor to the joints involved due to malposition. The cost can be pathology of the joint structures, pain or injury.
Creating POSITIONS that manage stress, consequences, and unnecessary wear and tear can benefit athletes, while still accomplishing our goals of specific physiological adaptations, improving efficiency, and performance. Performance and health ARE NOT THE SAME. Performance involves specificity which can negatively impact health. Health involves variability and resilience.
- For general population clients, what are you doing to improve their health? Are you chasing numbers or providing them with movement variability? Do they need so much performance based training? Are you driving stress patterns or improving fitness with POSITIONS that can combat excessive stress?
- For a collegiate athlete you should ask yourself, what you are leaving them with after their four years of training? Did you drive stress patterns with no consideration of the consequences? Did you increase risk of future chronic pain? Did you show them aspects of training for health?
- For professional athletes ask yourself if incorporating these techniques can assist with longevity and assist with injury prevention?
Instructing athletes to utilize the ‘CYLINDER’ POSITION during exercises can be a cue to set the foundation needed for expressing movement. The cylinder POSITION is a term I use with athletes in order to paint an easy picture of what they should try to maintain during a specific task/exercise. The cylinder POSITION is maintaining the congruent relationship between the rib cage and pelvis (thoracic and pelvic diaphragm). The start of an exercise should be setting the POSITION: exhale for at least six seconds allowing the ribs to descend and hips to come underneath you (not posterior tilt). Once this cylinder POSITION is set we are better able to maintain intraabdominal pressure throughout the movement. The cylindrical portion of the diaphragm that apposes the inner aspect of the lower rib cage and allows the diaphragm to dome and creates a zone of apposition. The rib cage orientation influences this zone. The cylinder position also allows the abdominal muscles, more specifically the transverse abdominis and obliquus internus muscles to function in opposing the diaphragm during respiration (see explanation on reaching). This starting POSITION creates a mechanical advantage for both the thoracic and pelvic diaphragm to provide pressure management, postural, and respiratory functions.
Setting up athletes in a good POSITION from the start and encouraging them to maintain the POSITION can also reduce cueing and coaching. THE TECHNIQUES YOU IMPLEMENT REFLECT YOUR PRINCIPLES AS A COACH.
Let’s EXPLORE the techniques that can reduce the cost of training and provide advantages in force production and range of motion to express greater performance and health. We will start with the deadlift:
Much like the squat, the deadlift is a timeless sagittal plane exercise touted for numerous benefits to athletes including:
- Increased force production & max strength
- Increased muscular hypertrophy and body composition
- Development of intra and whole-body inter-muscular coordination
- Development of the hamstrings and glutes, muscles considered critical to effective force application to the ground during athletic movements like sprinting and jumping
The problem is, the deadlift is a much more challenging and complex movement than most people give it credit for, and the systemic cost to performing deadlifts without appreciation to POSITION is great.
As an athlete, I was always told the deadlift was the best exercise for developing big, strong, powerful hamstrings and glutes, but when I deadlifted all I felt was a crippling back pump and tension in my quads and neck. This is a common experience with many athletes, who are unable to hinge at the hips and eccentrically load the posterior chain with control of the ribcage and pelvis, hinging instead through the spine. When this happens, the deadlift goes from being an incredibly effective, trainable movement, to an exercise with a high cost that can lead to chronic pain and injury.
While the deadlift is touted as the ultimate developer of power, strength, and hypertrophy in the posterior chain, no exercise magically works a muscle or group of muscles. The way the exercise is performed as well as the POSITION of integral joints and muscles will determine where the stress and load is placed. Simply put, the deadlift is only an exercise that will develop the hamstrings and glutes if those muscles are POSITIONED to produce force.
To understand why this is, we first need to understand how the length-tension relationships of muscles affect their ability to produce force. It has long been understood that a muscle produces force optimally when it is at a resting length. That is, it is not too long or too short. When a muscle is too eccentrically lengthened, there are not enough actin and myosin filaments overlapping for the muscle to contract optimally and produce tension. Likewise, when a muscle is in an extremely shortened position, the actin and myosin cross bridges are already overlapping, so no further overlap can take place, and tension and force production will be significantly reduced.
The human organism is an extremely intelligent and effective system, and it is going to make use of what is available to it to accomplish whatever the task is at hand. If we anteriorly rotate the pelvis, extend the spine, and elevate the ribcage in the front, effectively moving the individual’s center of mass forward, the length-tension relationship of the muscles that attach to the pelvis, ribcage, and spine are going to be altered. This can have a dramatic impact on our ability to eccentrically load and produce force with a muscle, and therefore, on the neuromuscular system’s strategy for driving movement. Muscles that are poorly POSITIONED will be unable to create tension and produce force effectively, forcing the nervous system to utilize patterns of muscle recruitment that rely on muscles that are strongly POSITIONED.
With this in mind, we can now look at the deadlift with a more discerning eye. The deadlift is a total-body exercise, where the goal is to have the primary propulsive muscles of the lower body (quads, hamstrings, and glutes) produce force concentrically to push the body from the set-up POSITION to the final erect POSITION, while muscles of the trunk (abdominal wall, spinal erectors, lats, etc) work in concert isometrically to stabilize the torso and protect the spine as well as efficiently transmit force from the ground into the bar.
When an athlete begins in an extended POSITION, with the pelvis anteriorly rotated, the spine extended, and the ribcage flared forward, they are actually beginning in a POSITION of hip flexion. The acetabulum moves over the femur as the pelvis rotates forward, decreasing the joint angle at the hip, referred to as acetabulum on femur hip flexion. This has a two-pronged impact:
- Because they are beginning in a POSITION of hip flexion, they have already decreased the amount of hip flexion available to them when they go to perform the hip hinge action characteristic of the deadlift. The elevator analogy can be very effective here. If we get on a 10-floor elevator on the third floor and ask the elevator to go up 10 floors, what will happen? We’ll either blow through the roof, or we’ll run out of room seven floors into the ride. This is exactly what happens when an athlete begins in a POSITION of hip flexion, and then tries to perform a hinge movement that demands the ability to achieve the POSITION of hip flexion. The result is that the athlete will run out of hip flexion range of motion earlier than they should, and will be forced to compensate elsewhere in order to execute the movement. This is not a mobility issue; the athlete limited their own available degrees of freedom before they even started the movement. The repetitive use of a compensatory strategy to complete the movement without the full hip flexion required to execute a proper hinge carries with it an extremely high systemic cost. The cost of repeatedly starting on the third floor and trying to access high level performance, labeled as floor 10, is the manifestation of tissue pathology, pain, or injury. The consequence can be reduced athletic longevity and health (resilience and variability).
- At the most basic level, the hamstrings extend the hip and flex the knee. Since we now know that anterior tilt is a POSITION of hip flexion and most people begin the set-up for their deadlift with straight knees, it’s easy to recognize that the hamstrings are being lengthened from both ends. The glutes extend the hips in sagittal plane, and therefore, are also lengthened. Simultaneously, the abdominals, which include the internal and external obliques, transversus abdominis, and rectus abdominis, are being lengthened at both ends because they attach to various parts of the pelvis and the ribcage and are responsible for pulling the ribs down, in, and back, as well as posteriorly tilting the pelvis.
The result of this POSITION is that the abs, hamstrings, and glutes are eccentrically lengthened and malpositioned to create tension and exert force. The spinal erectors, lats, hip flexors, and quads are strongly POSITIONED, and become the prime movers to lift the weight. Additionally, because the hamstrings and glutes are already eccentrically lengthened in the sagittal plane, there is far less room to eccentrically lengthen them further. Once again this will limit range of motion and force the athlete to apply compensatory strategies in order to execute the range of motion needed to reach the bar, the cost of which is repeated loading and force production in a shortened POSITION by muscles that are not meant to be prime movers in the deadlift.
The key to deadlifting in a way that minimizes unproductive stress and maximizes the trainability of the exercise lies in the set-up. The goal is to optimize the degrees of freedom available at the hip joint and eccentrically load the prime movers of the lower body after establishing and while maintaining the cylinder relationship between the pelvis and ribcage, pelvic floor and thoracic diaphragm. This allows the athlete to maximize circumferential expansion and intra-abdominal pressure to support and stabilize the entire thorax. It is crucial that we set the athlete up appropriately from the very beginning, before they ever touch the load.
Additionally, choosing a loading strategy that places the load directly under or in line with an athlete’s center of mass will support the establishment and maintenance of the cylinder POSITION. When the load is placed in front of the body, such as in a classic straight bar deadlift from the floor, it becomes much more challenging for the individual to not combat the load pulling them directly forward with an extension strategy. The kettlebell deadlift and trap bar deadlift are much more effective and trainable options for most athletes that allow for appropriate training stress to be applied without a high systemic cost.
Let’s see some examples of appreciating the set-up POSITION…
IMPLEMENTATION AND APPLICATION
THE TRAP BAR DEADLIFT
Appreciating the Set- Up POSITION:
- Begin within the bar with a full foot contact, ensuring the big toe, the little toe, and the heel are all on the ground.
- While maintaining weight through the entire foot and feeling the heels, exhale fully to recruit the abdominals to pull the ribcage down, in, and back.
- Soften the knees, reaching them forward slightly so that the hips move directly down in space.
- While exhaling and reaching the knees forward, tuck the belt buckle to the nose or pull the back pockets down towards the floor in order to rotate the pelvis posteriorly and along with the full exhale, establish the cylinder POSITION. Note: this is not to say we are actually going into posterior pelvic tilt, we’re just posteriorly rotating the pelvis from a POSITION of anterior tilt.
- Take a breath in this POSITION, then exhale fully and hinge through the hips, pushing the butt back while maintaining bent knees and a full foot contact, with the weight of the body going straight through the middle of the foot.
- Maintaining this POSITION, reach the arms down to grab the bar. Maintaining active abdominals after exhaling fully during the hinging action, take a breath in, allowing the entire thorax to fill with air
By establishing the cylinder POSITION prior to hinging at the hips, we put the pelvis in a more neutral POSITION to maximize available hip flexion while bringing the hamstrings from an eccentrically lengthened POSITION back to a more optimal length-tension relationship. Once this POSITION is established, the athlete should push through the entire foot, driving the floor away from him or her in order to stand up. The athlete should exhale while pushing through the floor in order to maintain active abdominals and control of the anterior ribcage.
The athlete should finish the movement standing upright with the ribcage still POSITIONED over the pelvis, active abdominals, and bodyweight directly through the center of the foot with three points of contact (big toe, little toe, heel). From there, the athlete would simply reverse the process and lower the weight to the floor, following the same sequence. When performed this way, the deadlift is an exceptionally effective exercise for developing power, force production, and hypertrophy in the lower body. The deadlift is also exceptionally effective for trunk stability, as the demand placed on the ability to manage the pelvis, ribcage, and pressure against some of the heaviest absolute loads an individual will experience is incredibly high.
Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) thorax POSITION 2) placement of the load which changes the center of mass. Squatting is a sagittal plane movement. Our goal is to use glutes, quads, and hamstrings to pull us down and push us up. If an athlete looks like the picture on the left, they may be holding their center of mass on the balls of their feet and be tilted anteriorly at the pelvis and extending through the back and calves, in order not to fall forward. This anterior shift is a mismanagement of their center of mass and they will have a difficult time sitting back into the squat. Abdominals and hamstrings will prevent you from falling forward, so you need to put them in an advantageous POSITION to perform their job.
Keeping with the cylinder concept, the placement of load anteriorly may assist the athlete to manage their center of mass. Changing the load to an anterior placement such as the front squat in the picture on the right, will help the athlete sit back. According to Dr. Pat Davidson, the sagittal plane is about the management of one’s center of mass against gravity forward and backwards.
Aspects of appreciating the set-up POSITION includes 1) the starting POSITION of the axial skeleton 2) management of center of mass 3) reaching. Reaching with the elbows (appendage) will facilitate the serratus anterior muscle to retract the rib cage, allowing the thorax to move backwards offsetting one’s center of mass. Reaching also helps integrate abdominals and the congruent relationship between the rib cage and pelvis (zone of apposition). The axial skeleton POSITION or the foundation of movement will allow the limb to perform the task. This can also include any other anterior weight such as a Kettlebell Goblet Squat. Reaching a limb (appendage) forward will help move the thorax (axial) back allowing the proximal structure to set the foundation for limbs to express movement. Exhaling at the top of the POSITION allows for the abdominals to perform their role in trunk stabilization. These considerations for POSITION will provide the athlete or client an opportunity to express efficient and effective movement.
THE TRICEP EXTENSION.
Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) creating the cylinder. While performing low threshold exercises such as the tricep extension, cable row, or bicep curl incorporate the cylinder POSITION into technique cues. The cylinder POSITION will reduce extension and add beneficial movement of the scapula on the rib cage by reaching forward with the arms. Reaching will allow movement of the thorax backwards allowing for that cylinder POSITION.
THE ROW, THE BICEP CURL, AND THE BENCH PRESS
Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) creating the cylinder 2) reaching. The dumbbell bench press is a great example of reducing wear and tear. Instead of turning the exercise into a whole body, extension based exercise try to limit the back pushing the weight. Create a cylinder starting POSITION and reach to the ceiling with both arms and maintain this reach and cylinder POSITION as much as possible while performing the exercise. You can do this while having your feet on the ground (shorter people may benefit from putting feet on an elevated surface) or putting both feet on the bench (will help keep pelvis underneath you). To make this more valuable you could place a pad between the heels and hips or place the heels at the edge of the bench and instruct the individual to pull the heels into the edge of the bench or pad in order to target the hamstrings.
THE FRONT PLANK
Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) creating the cylinder 2) maintaining the appropriate intensity level. The front plank exercise is only a good exercise if POSITIONED properly. Don’t turn low threshold activities into high threshold activities. The front plank exercise should not include breath holding, grinding teeth, gripping, or extension. It should be a low threshold activity. How does grinding your teeth or gripping (making a fist) turn it into a high threshold activity? Well, according to Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation, the response to neural stimulus for contraction can spread in synergistic muscles and patterns of movement and an increase in intensity or duration will recruit neighboring muscles. So the harder you grip and brace during a low intensity/threshold exercise the more unnecessary neighboring muscles will be recruited to do the work, like extensors or a neck.
Instead push away from the ground to move the thorax back, keep palm of hand on ground (provides sensory), unlock the knees (reduce quad activity), get your pelvis underneath you (cylinder POSITION), and BREATHE. Try to get thirty degrees of cervical lordosis by using your visual system and look forward; this will help reduce the contribution of the neck (sternocleidomastoid), which will ruin your cylinder POSITION and sagittal plane competency. To make this more valuable, place heels on wall (H.O.W) and drive heels into the wall and try to get more hamstring.
Want more? Stay tuned for PART 2! What will Part 2 include? We will explore more examples of appreciating the set-up with more ADVANCED POSITIONS. We will also conclude our reasons and rationale for our coaching techniques and principles.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
- Strength and Conditioning Coach at Northeastern University (Boston, MA)
- PhD. Exercise Physiology, Springfield College
- M.S. Strength and Conditioning, Springfield College
- B.S. Nutrition, Keene State College
- Follow on Instagram @mboland18
- Performance Coach and Education Coordinator at Parabolic Performance and Rehab (Montclair, NJ)
- M.S. Sports Administration/Coaching, Farleigh Dickinson University
- B.A. Communication, Farleigh Dickinson University
- Follow on Instagram @jmsb_strengthtraining