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.
Sensory information dictates our perception of the world around us-whatever world that may be to you. That world may be walking down the street feeling the sunlight on your face, holding a barbell in a gym, or sitting at a table holding a loved one’s hand. Our brain needs accurate sensory information from our environment, in order to connect. Sensory information includes the linkage of both the external environment (sensory) and internal environment (emotions). Representations of our environment can occur with both real and remembered stimuli (1). Human behavior and motor control is based upon ACCURATE sensory information (19,21,22). Vision, vestibular, and somatosensory (pain, touch, temperature, and proprioception) input provides our brain with the information it needs to make accurate motor and behavioral responses. The brain needs this afferent information in order to feel safe and know that it can protect itself against threat. You need the ability to sense and feel.
What we have learned from Part 1 is that physiological adaptations during training are due to the planning of stress. As humans, we need the stress response to survive. Stress is training variables (i.e reps, sets, intensity, loads, velocities, etc.) and the cascade of the HPA axis is the window into performance. But we also need to be able to turn it off when it is not needed.
A chronic state of stress will limit adaptation and performance. A chronic state can lead to changes in environmental perception, behavior, and anxiety (level of tension). Allostatic overload is a term that reflects the pathophysiology that chronic over activation of the stress response of regulating systems can create. These changes can reflect compensation patterns for movement and be reflected physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. Part 2 will be dedicated to the physical adaptations to allostatic overload.
However, we need to appreciate that it is not just physical. Part 1 discussed emotional and behavioral overload such as heightened threat perception, anxiety, increased level of alertness and tension, and difficulty relaxing (parasympathetic access). “Hyperactivity of amygdala may be part of mechanism through which normal fear process translates into anxiety disorder in some individuals” (15). “Stress- related neuroplastic changes are associated with decreased behavioral flexibility” (4,5).
Everything is connected.
“Do whatever you want, just know that it has a consequence” - Chris Chase
What does this look like?
Wolff’s Law states that bone in a healthy human will adapt to the loads under which it is placed; if loading on a particular bone increases, the bone will remodel in order to support the increase in load over time. This law also applies to muscle, the muscle will hypertrophy if there is an increased demand on the muscle. For example, if the body is lateralized to the right, the vastus lateralis is eccentrically loaded to support body weight thus creating hypertrophy.
The pictured athlete is lateralized TO THE RIGHT. Not only is it evident in this picture, but it was determined through testing.
Muscles are SUPPOSE to function in a specific way but the position that the muscle is in due to boney landmarks dictates the function. Function is dictated by position. Stress will pull athletes into an extended position due to an increase in muscle tone of spinal erectors, lats, traps, gastrocnemius, and superficial neck muscles. Performance can be effected due to overreliance on non-
oxidative energy systems in these muscles.
Superficial neck muscles such as the sternocleidomastoid and traps will be recruited to pull clavicles up to create more space vertically when the diaphragm is not in the most efficient/correct POSITION to function. Both the tendon (attachment point) and belly of the superficial neck muscle will hypertrophy due to increased load. Hello, neck pain.
It doesn’t stop at physical properties of the muscle. Firing patterns can be altered, in which neural pathways for breathing are going to be normalized and directed to using superficial neck muscles instead of the diaphragm, internal obliques, and transverse abdominals to breathe. If the rib cage or pelvis positions are altered and pathophysiology develops, neural firing patterns needed for all three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse) may be altered. This may lead to compensation patterns and limit function of major, powerful muscles such as the gluteus maximus.
Impingement may also be a symptom of allostatic overload. An athlete may experience impingement because of lack of anatomical afferent information of where the body is in space. Positional impingement is the instability from misaligned structural position or orientation. Often athletes who experience impingement symptoms (feeling of ‘pinching’ at a joint) lack sensation and resort to a safety pattern. Misaligned body structures can be the result of allostatic overload and impingement becomes the response to threat.
What to do?
Sensory processing will reduce emotional intensity and DE threaten the environment and/or task. A low- resourced environment due to a lack of sensory information is likely to result in high levels of stress. Use tempos to SLOW PEOPLE DOWN. Get people to think, find, feel, and process information. Can you feel this? Can you find that? Feel appropriate muscle working and utilize spatial and ground references to provide athlete with sensory information.
Ground and spatial references that provide perceptual feelings will provide brain with sensory information to respond with the appropriate motor signal. Finding and feeling creates stimulation and stabilization which will help assist symptoms of impingement.
We all need sensory processing for proper motor function; this in combination IS performance.
Consider the pelvic floor when you squat. Pelvic floor dysfunction can lead to pelvic floor pain, poor bladder control (adult diapers), vulvodynia, erectile dysfunction in males, and dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse). “The pelvic floor muscles contribute to postural (control of lumbar spine and pelvis) and respiratory functions” (7). During periods of increased intra-abdominal pressure such as lifting pelvic floor muscle (puborectalis, puboccygeus, and iliococcygeus) activity is increased to prevent or limit rostral displacement (anterior tilt) of the floor, maintain bladder neck, and assist with urethral and anal closure. If the pelvic floor is not in a good position during activity, weakness and dysfunction may result.
If pelvic position is not restored after lifting (external load) and the pattern/position becomes normalized, it further leads to pelvic floor weakness and possible dysfunction. Improper consideration of the position of the pelvis and function (descent) of the pelvic floor during training can lead to allostatic overload. Improper consideration of the position of the pelvis and function of the pelvic floor muscles during external loading (lifting) OR the inability to return to a neutral position after loading may lead to weakness and dysfunction. Consider the health and function of the athlete years after they are done training with you. What are you leaving them with?
Re-think and APPRECIATE how the athlete is anatomically positioned and how this position is allowing and creating movement. How do you do this? TEST. The most beneficial thing I have taken away from Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) course is a greater understanding of anatomy and exercise selection that provides the athlete with the most benefit and least amount of cost on the system. Let’s use the example of a kettlebell swing: The athlete (on right) demonstrated bilateral pelvic anterior tilt with testing. During the KB Swing, the athlete is not maintaining foot contact with the ground, externally rotating the femur into further ranges of external rotation without the ability to flex, adduct, and internally rotate (I know this via testing).
So my question is, why would I prescribe an exercise that forces them to greater ranges of external rotation when I know that they are stuck in external rotation? If I force them to go into a greater range of motion in this position, I am driving them into pathology (overlengthening of ligaments, etc.). Is this beneficial? No. Can I find other ways to work on hip hinging and explosive hip extension? Yes. Be creative and understand the individual.
Address anatomical stress patterns. Promote exhalation and systemic flexion to change entrenched and automatic extension position. Get people to EXHALE. IF your athlete is stuck in extension, is giving more extension the best for that athlete? OR is it leading them down a path of pathology? This doesn’t mean stop training? NO, it means manage the consequences. Are they performing exercises in a safety pattern? Then DE threaten. DE threatening the task and/or environment will reduce stress on the system. For individuals who test as pelvic forward/anterior tilt, trap bar deadlifting may be more beneficial in terms of position to strengthen the posterior chain than squatting under high loads. (Understand the context: I work with collegiate athletes how are not competing for money and will most likely not compete at a higher level, so future health and function is a consideration.)
Create a comfortable, welcoming, and positive environment. Positively influence environment, mitigate athlete’s perceptions of both security and risk (2), create quality relationships/social interactions, and educate/provide awareness. Consider psychological stress, just as much as physical stress; know that they are interrelated.
“We spend so much time and energy designing programs and arguing about ‘best’ exercises or ‘best’ session designs, and yet so little time reflecting on how best to positively manipulate training and competition contexts to optimally reduce the negative impacts of stress.” - John Kiely
As a strength and conditioning coach, the best way to manage cost in consideration of allostatic load is with exercise selection. We shouldn’t just modify exercises if an athlete is injured or has physical restrictions, we should modify exercises to avoid unnecessary wear and tear. Choose exercises that avoid pain, provide appropriate position while maintaining intensity. For example, safety bar squatting instead of back squat to avoid shoulder wear and tear and allow athlete to maintain proper position throughout movement. We all have a tendency to want the biggest and best results as fast as possible, however focus on achieving sustainable long-term returns with the overall health and future of the athlete in mind.
About the Author
– 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
– Visit: www.michelleboland-training.com
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Whether you're an elite powerlifter, a strength and conditioning coach, a personal trainer, or a physical therapist, you've probably been versed in the concept that proper cueing for the squat with the lower extremities is, spread the floor with the feet, and push the knees out. Perhaps you've even gotten the tid bit about screwing the floor with your feet in the direction of external rotation as well. If you've learned that these particular cues are the way to go, then you've probably also learned that knees caving in towards midline, or valgus is the devil. You've probably seen the technique involving putting a band around the knees so that you reflexively push the knees outwards (varus) against the input of the band. The rationale for squatting this way usually involves the concept that you're going to utilize more gluteal tissues since the actions of the femur will feature external rotation, via the feet screwing, and abduction with the feet spreading the floor and the knees pushing laterally. This is the accepted way to teach the squat, and seems to be agreed upon by the people who are super strong with all the in the trenches experience in the world, as well as the people who understand how to get people out of pain and how to perform prehab to prevent people from doing things like tearing their ACL in the first place.
Despite all these recommendations and agreed upon findings, you'll still see elite weightlifters feature the rapid action of knees moving towards midline while squatting up massive weights that they just dove under and caught in positions that require incredible levels of mobility and stability to get into. Some of the most gifted athletes I've ever worked with who demonstrate great sports biomechanics and produce incredible amounts of force production also seem to show this action of knees going towards midline during the upward portion of heavy squatting. I'm here to say that I don't think I have any problem with highly athletic individuals who possess great joint biomechanics demonstrating knees towards midline during the upward portion of a squat. I'm also here to say that I think I have the answer as to why the strongest power lifters and strength coaches amongst us have fallen so deeply in love with the spread the floor, knees out approach. To explain my argument I'm going to walk you through concepts relating to natural femoral biomechanics, and what joint force moments have to do with this approach. I'll also give some recommendations on what to do with this thought process, and what measurements might be helpful with making objective determinations of what's optimal for people regarding squat biomechanics.
During movement, the human body has to absorb forces as well as create propulsive forces. The gait cycle is the most fundamental and stereotypical movement pattern for humans. Gait is comprised of stance and swing, each featuring early, mid, and terminal phases. Absorption of forces, as well as the creation of propulsive forces, are primarily rooted in the stance phase of gait. On a very basic level we could say that early stance is the absorption dominant part of stance, terminal stance is the propulsion dominant phase of gait, and mid-stance is the transitional period. Gait and squatting are certainly not the same movement pattern, therefore generalizations between the two movements should be looked at with skepticism; however, examining gait will help with the formation of the primary reasoning piece helping us understand the biomechanical argument being presented here.
While going through the gait cycle, the femur typically features alternating triads of movement. There are times during the cycle where the femur will group flexion with abduction and external rotation (mostly swing), and there are times when the femur will match extension with adduction and internal rotation (mostly stance). The first triad of flexion, abduction, and external rotation is the strategy the femur uses to prepare for force absorption and to absorb force, while the second triad of extension, adduction, and internal rotation is the strategy the femur uses to prepare for and execute propulsion. Ultimately I see the same sort of strategy used by the femur during the squat, and that is the central premise of this argument. The common link between gait and the squat in this context is that both rely on the femur and the femur ultimately has its preferred strategy for absorption of force and creation of propulsive force.
The descent into the deep squat position would be the force absorption portion, and pushing back up to standing would be the propulsive component of the squat pattern. The natural tendency of the femur during the descent would be to group flexion with abduction and external rotation. Conversely, during the concentric portion of the squat pattern, the natural tendency of the femur would be to group extension with adduction and internal rotation. This would be an intelligent strategy to use as an organism from an energy conservation standpoint because the actions of flexion, abduction, and external rotation would lead to lengthening the extensors, adductors, and internal rotators, which may both maximize the length-tension relationship of those tissues, and provide a stretch reflex to assist the forthcoming concentric phase of the movement.
So why do we cue knees out so hard? My first thought is that the coaches who have figured out that this helps in the ability to squat heavy weights are people who have done a significant amount of training. People with extensive resistance training backgrounds are usually fairly easy to spot. Their bodies have undergone fairly stereotypical adaptations. They've clearly undergone extensive amounts of tissue remodeling, and show demonstrable hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Heavily resistance trained individuals also seem to move differently...you can spot them walking. These individuals seem to present with an anteriorly tilted pelvis more than the general population.
To understand the essence of what kinds of bodily relationships happen with an anterior tilted pelvis, let's use a thought experiment. If you were to prop up someone who was unconscious and you were to anteriorly tilt their pelvis, that individual's femurs would passively follow the anterior tilt of the pelvis, and those femurs would orient internally and towards midline. Ultimately, if you excessively anteriorly tilted an unconscious person's pelvis, they would simply fall on their face (aka, go into prone collapse).
With a conscious human being interacting with the world, things will change, particularly in regards to battling gravity and preventing prone collapse. The typical response of an individual's femurs to a pelvis that is going into anterior tilt, while standing, is that the femurs will reflexively start externally rotating and abducting to prevent prone collapse. This is the typical strategy that will be used by a heavily resistance trained individual, who has an anterior tilted pelvis, to deal with gravity and prevent prone collapse while standing. Where things get interesting is when we lay this person on a table and measure femoral ranges of motion. When the person lies down on the table, we are removing the need for them to fight prone collapse, and the femurs will stop their reflexive behavior of externally rotating and abducting. This individual's femurs will now simply exist in the passive state of adduction and internal rotation because they're simply in line with the orientation of the anteriorly tilted pelvis.
When I test the person for femoral range of motion on the table, they will demonstrate reduced adduction and internal rotation...why? Because the femur is already internally rotated and adducted. The femur has less room to further internally rotate and adduct. So, when dealing with a heavily resistance trained individual who has an anteriorly tilted pelvis, what you're really dealing with is a situation where the more the pelvis anteriorly tilts, the more the femurs are internally oriented and adducted PASSIVELY, and the more the behavior of the femurs in a weight bearing situation will be one where they move by externally rotating and abducting ACTIVELY to prevent prone collapse. Regardless of how you slice it, the individual will demonstrate a lack of adduction and internal rotation from a testing perspective, and from a functional movement perspective. Yet this person needs to utilize the actions of adduction and internal rotation with extension of the femur to be able to create the concentric portion of a squat. How does one obtain that which they do not have?
Picture the following scenario. I am standing with my weight equally on both feet. Both feet are side by side and pointed straight ahead. I see something move to my left. Without moving my feet, I rotate/orient my entire center of mass to the left to look at it. I then hear something slightly to my right, so I adjust myself to examine what made the noise. To do so, I begin rotating back to the right. Interestingly, the noise that I heard was still to the left of my starting orientation in this scenario. Despite the fact that I was rotating back to the right, my center of mass still remained rotated and oriented to the left. This example illustrates the difference between true joint actions and joint action moments.
The true joint actions that took place were vertebral rotations left. When I heard the noise, I started rotating back to the right, but my vertebrae were still rotated left. I was creating the moment of right rotation, but I never got to the point where you could say I was rotated to the right...I was always rotated left. With the heavily resistance trained individual who is squatting, this person, while standing, has an anteriorly tilted pelvis, and their femurs are reflexively externally rotating and abducting. This person overall cannot reach the true joint actions of adduction and internal rotation, but what this person can do is utilize a strategy of further abducting and externally rotating, so that they can utilize the moment of adduction and internal rotation to group with extension to take advantage of the way the femur naturally creates propulsive force.
How would this person do this? They would spread the floor and externally screw the floor with their feet, and push the knees out during the descent to go further into the actions of abducting, and externally rotating their femurs. To reverse the squat and come back up, the person would then begin creating the moment of extending, adducting, and internally rotating...they may never reach the true joint actions of femoral extension, adduction, and internal rotation (likely because they lack those motions), but they can still utilize the propulsive force coming from the moment of that triad to execute the concentric portion of the squat. When watching these individuals squat, you may never see the knees crashing towards midline...because they likely can't...but they're still relying on the same muscular strategy as someone who is demonstrating medial translation or true adduction in their squat. This strategy may also get confused with some sort of pathological strategy where the femur is moving medially and rotating internally, but the tibia/calcaneus/foot complex remains lateral and externally rotated, which will be discussed more in a forthcoming paragraph.
When dealing with young athletes, these individuals likely haven't gone through many of the adaptations (or perhaps stress responses) that heavily resistance trained individuals have, and thus likely do not demonstrate as much anterior tilt of the pelvis. These individuals likely can get into the true joint actions of adduction and internal rotation, so when we see knees moving towards midline, we may just be seeing the manifestation of the true joint actions being driven by the muscular moment of those actions. With elite weightlifters, and other extremely athletic individuals who produce tremendous force during the squat they may also be showing the true joint actions of internal rotation and adduction, and we may be seeing people who have somehow avoided changes that drive a pelvis into anterior tilt that come along with extensive heavy resistance training. With these individuals we may be seeing the most resilient amongst us to consistent heavy resistance training/those who have survived and thrived in the selection process.
The tricky parts to this concept involve the areas that revolve around injury. The mechanism of injury for the ACL is when the knee moves medially and rapidly internally rotates. The catch though is that the injury to the ACL is based on the relationship of the femur to the tibia. There has to be torque, twist, and a difference in direction between the femur and the tibia for this particular knee injury to happen. Frequently you'll see a situation where the tibia, relative to the femur is translating laterally and externally rotating at that same time as the femur is rapidly translating medially and internally rotating. If people are squatting and maintaining a flat foot with the weight evenly distributed throughout the foot, and the foot/calcaneus/tibia complex is not externally rotating during the descent, then witnessing the true actions of adduction and internal rotation of a femur is probably not cause for concern. When we do start seeing the foot/calcaneus/tibia complex start to spin out with concomitant medial translation and internal orientation of a knee, then we are probably seeing torque between the femur and the tibia, which could be threatening to ligamentous and other soft tissue structures of the knee, particularly if the force and/or velocity of those divergent joint movements is high. Fully addressing the entire scope of injury mechanics is beyond the scope of this article; however, supposing that any observable movement of the knee towards midline is threatening, dangerous, likely wearing down soft tissues, and is undesirable is perhaps a rush to judgment on something that may be benign, so long as foot, calcaneus, tibia, and femur are synchronously working together in a fairly natural and stereotypical way for the human squat pattern.
To determine whether seeing a knee translate medially is acceptable or not, testing must be done. I would recommend using an Ober's test to determine if the individual has a femur that can extend and adduct. I would recommend using supine and seated femoral internal rotation to determine whether the individual possesses this joint action. I would also recommend using a Thomas test to confirm femoral extension or determine that the femur is extending through some compensatory/pathological method if it was unable to extend in the Ober's test. If the person passes all these tests, then they possess the true joint actions of extension, adduction, and internal rotation, and this person would probably be fairly safe with demonstrating medial translation of the knee during the ascent of a squat so long as weight bearing on the foot remained appropriate. If someone is lacking these true joint actions, based on test results, and demonstrates medial knee translation during the squat, it's likely that there are some aberrant joint actions that could be problematic.
There are two other specific topics that should be discussed before wrapping up this article. The first is the topic of seeing medial translation during the eccentric portion of the squat. This, to me, would be indicative of someone who would be existing in the state of having an anteriorly tipped pelvis, but is not kicking their femurs into the actions of externally rotating and abducting as their anti-gravity strategy. This is probably a highly untrained person, who is probably going to be fairly unimpressive and lack most of the desirable force production capabilities you'd look for. During the descent of the squat when the femurs should be flexing, abducting, and externally rotating, the pelvis should also be using the moment involving posterior rotating (aka, pelvic inlet flexion). If the pelvis is struggling with this moment and stays in the position of excessive anterior tilt, and the individual is not utilizing compensatory actions of the femur, you'll see this incredibly unimpressive looking, melting candle, squat presentation. This is undesirable, but we should begin the coaching process by trying to get the individual to gain better pelvic control first before trying to coach the femur.
This brings us to our last topic in this article, which is coaching strategy. Where I would start giving recommendations is to quote Charlie Francis in regards to advice to coaches...think twice and speak once or not at all. When you start thinking that you're smarter than the millions upon millions of years of evolution that led to a human organism standing in front of you executing patterns that are the result of protein behavior that were coded for by a genome and wired up by a nervous system that has figured out the most effective way to guide someone through the complex and multi-faceted environment that they've lived in for their entire life, you're starting to border on being someone who is either way too ego driven, or ignorant of the depth of reality, that you could be problematic. Observe people for a while. Check your opinions. Provide the feedback that the person needs, but be careful about what you say and how you say it...be cautious and humble. Then let testing guide you. Find your algorithm that takes decision-making out of your mind. Use the previous tests to determine whether the person has authentic joint actions or if they're resorting to compensatory strategies. Second, if you want to figure out what the most energy/electrically/physiologically efficient and effective squat would be, I would recommend looking at it through EMG, but I wouldn't try to see what the highest EMG would be. In fact, I would look for how I could get the lowest EMG for a squat. If I keep the load constant, and I see that one strategy uses less electrical energy, that should be the least compensatory strategy possible, and theoretically, that would be the best approach. For more on why that is the appropriate thought process regarding EMG readings, see the explanation given in this article.
My concluding thought on coaching and optimal performance with the squat is that the most likely best way to perform the movement would feature performing the pattern in the mid zone of abduction and adduction, and internal and external rotation. If I want the least wear and tear over time, I would want to try to move through the middle of the pathway rather than forcing my way into the boundaries at each side. So I personally wouldn't start coaching a beginner who possesses the true joint actions of extension, adduction, and internal rotation with the cues of spread the floor, screw the floor out and push the knees out. I would cue them to find and feel the middle of their heels on the descent. I would cue them to keep their heels at the bottom and to find their big toe. To push back up, I would have them continue to find and feel their heels and big toes, and then find and feel their medial arch, and to push through the medial arch to drive back up. I would observe their femoral behavior with those cues for a while, continue to monitor joint actions through table tests, progress them with load and reps and sets over time, and not think I necessarily had the right answers. Lastly, I wouldn't treat everyone the same, and I'd be very careful about giving cookie cutter coaching cues to groups.
To progress an industry or advance the overall information available to practitioners within a discipline, professionals should avoid dogmatic thoughts and behaviors. Often times, the degree to which a concept is entrenched in the collective working body of accepted beliefs can blind everyone in that field. I'm not saying that I'm absolutely correct with my assertions in this article. I may be damn well wrong, and somebody may come along and prove it to me so bad that I feel like an enormous fool. I don't think I'm wrong though. In fact, I think I'm very right on this one. It may take you a minute to see what I'm saying here, particularly with all this junk about true joint actions, and moments, and the difference between being rotated and rotating, and all the other blah blah blah. So I ask you to consider what I'm saying here in this article before you blow it off and quickly say that I don't know what I'm talking about and I'm going to get people hurt, and the sun won't come up tomorrow, and stand outside my door with torches and pitchforks, because I'm saying that knees moving towards midline may be no big deal, and perhaps is even natural and appropriate...and if you can't do it, maybe you're stuck and there's a problem. I'm not questioning a long-held assumption because I'm looking to cause a controversy or anything else like that. I like trying to see a puzzle for what it actually is. Active human anatomy is a beautiful puzzle. It can be an extremely vexing puzzle, and often times, what you think you see isn't what you get...but the logic always works if you follow it long enough with the right starting assumptions. Perhaps my starting assumptions are off, in which case this whole thing is wrong, and you can commence throwing a pie in my face. But if my starting assumptions are correct, I believe my Bayesian reasoning throughout this is strong, and you may have to come around to this way of thinking regarding what's actually going on with the squat. Anyways, here's to questioning authority, thinking for yourself, being unafraid of backlash and criticism, and trying hard in the life you've got.
I'd like to thank the Postural Restoration Institute for providing the theoretical foundations for helping me think through the big ideas of this article. They teach the ideas of the differences between being rotated/oriented and rotating. They also teach the idea that if you can't express a joint action, like adduction, it's probably because you're already existing in that position, and therefore are limited in being able to get further into that position. Without the course work and learning I've done with PRI, I would not have been able to conceive of the ideas for this article.
about the author
-Director of Training Methodology and Continuing Education at Peak Performance, NYC.
-Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, 2009-2011
-Assistant Professor, Springfield College 2011-2014
-Head Coach Springfield College Team Ironsports 2011-2013
-175 pound Strongman competitor. Two time qualifier for world championships at Arnold Classic
-Renaissance Meat Head
No one can argue that those who see the most results from training have one thing in common. Consistency.
Being consistent isn’t easy. Life happens; you get busy, you get bored, you get tired, and you get hurt.
You take some time off, hit the refresh button, and, because your last training plan didn’t work out, it’s on to the next program.
Working as a personal trainer, I end up meeting a lot of people when they’re somewhere in the middle of the list above.
Whether you know it or not there are many variables in your exercise programs and your lifestyle that can either set you up for long-term success or quietly de-rail you. Identifying these variables early on will allow you to better examine a training program before you begin, and put you in a position to allow yourself to be consistent and see the results you want.
- Gradual Increase in Volume
Gradually increasing the volume of your training program over the course of weeks and months sounds simple, but it’s often missed by many gym goers. Using the minimal effective dose will keep you healthy and allow you to progress a program all the way to your end goal. Many soft-tissue injuries are the result of a drastic increase in training volume. Perhaps this is most obvious when you look at the number of Achilles, groin, and hamstring injuries that occur at the beginning of NFL camps, or injuries to those going from the couch to Crossfit. A program that steadily increases work capacity and tissue resiliency over time will greatly reduce your risk of injuries due to fatigue and set your body up to be able to handle workouts of greater volume and intensity later on.
Look for whether or not your exercise program has a gradual increase in volume as you progress each week and month. If you’re new to the gym this may mean you start by performing only 12 total sets in week one and 20 total sets by week four. Powerlifting programs like 5/3/1 and The Juggernaut Method also do a good job of managing volume and intensity to help you build specific work capacity in the bench, squat, and deadlift. Group training should accommodate those of different fitness levels and allow some wiggle room for some to perform more work than others in any given class.
- Movement Quality
Appropriate volume is only part of the equation for ensuring a fitness program is going to last. The quality of your movement is what dictates whether or not you develop great hamstrings and glutes or giant calves and back erectors. This is where hiring a coach can be of great value. An educated movement-centric coach will be able to identify if you can:
- Centrate your joints and move in and out of all three planes of motion without compensation
- Execute proper motor patterns while keeping your joints in advantageous positions
- Find, feel, and use the correct muscles during exercises
Keeping your joints healthy and applying stress to the correct muscles will help to improve your durability by reducing your risk of overuse,“wear and tear” injuries, and burnout. It can be hard to objectively measure how well you move. Finding a coach or physical therapist that can assess you and create a plan that teaches you to move better is always a smart place to begin a new training program.
Consider the below situation.
Poor active shoulder flexion. Anterior rib flare, forward head, tight lats. Landmine variations would be a smarter exercise instead of overhead pressing.
Full ROM during active shoulder flexion. Overhead pressing would be more warranted for this client.
- Variability of Movements/Implements/Load/Tempo
Variability in a fitness program will keep you healthy and prevent workouts from getting stale and boring.
Learn how to move in all three planes and master fundamental movement patterns and the list of exercises you will be able to safely perform becomes bountiful. Throughout the course of a workout, or a week of training your program, should include some form of squatting and hinging, pushing and pulling, abdominal work, and loaded carries. Do things on two legs and one leg and with two arms and one arm.
When applying external loads to movements, use different implements and choose different ways to hold them. This will allow you to alter the movement in a manner that will help you train the correct muscles in better positions.
For example, let’s use a squat. You could load it with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, two dumbbells, two kettlebells, a sandbag, or a medicine ball.
You could do a front squat, a back squat, a goblet squat, a zercher squat, a potato sack squat, an offset kettlebell squat, or an offset sandbag squat; the list could go on and on. Knowing where you should start on the progression-regression list will help make the movement safer and more effective and varying the implements will challenge the movement in a slightly different manner and help prevent boredom in your exercise program.
Varying the external load in a training program is also key to getting stronger and staying healthy while doing so. This is why many sub-max training programs that accumulate volume are so successful. Decreasing volume and increasing intensity during the course of several weeks and months is much more suitable for long term strength gains than trying to push to a new 1RM each week in the gym.
Another variable that can be manipulated in an exercise program is the tempo at which the movement is performed. Being specific with the tempo of a lift is often neglected even though it has a huge influence on what adaptations are had from the exercise.
If you’ve been performing goblet squats for the past few months with a 2010 tempo, they’ve become boring and easy for you. Now take the same weight and change your tempo to 3030. Add feeling grounded through both feet, pushing your heels through the floor, and focusing on keeping constant tension on your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abs I can guarantee that your easy goblet squat has become much more challenging.
Varying the tempo of lifts could result in a squat hypertrophying your slow twitch fibers or cause you to increase your rate of force production. Both are important and both are needed. Choosing the right time to apply both and using both throughout the course of a training program can make performing the same old lifts much less monotonous.
Things come up in life.
You have to work late.
Your kids get sick.
Traffic is worse than usual.
And now you either can’t make it to they gym or have limited time. A great fitness program is structured, but also can be flexible. On these days it is helpful to have a few workouts that are lower intensity, take less time to complete, or can be done at home.
Cardiac output and bodyweight circuits are two awesome ways to still get workouts in even when life comes up.
- Premium Placed On Recovery
You may be able to get away with it for a short period of time, but in the end if your recovery efforts don’t meet or exceed the efforts put forth in your training you’ll likely be battling with fatigue and injury.
A good training program emphasizes the other 23 hours of your day. Knowing what you can do to help promote your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and tissue recovery is invaluable.
Go through the checklist below and I’m sure you can do better in at least one and if not several of the categories.
- - Sleep Quality & Quantity- Do you have a good sleeping environment? Are you getting enough hours of sleep?
- - Nutrition- Quality & Quantity- Are you eating quality foods that promote low levels of inflammation? Are you eating enough calories to support your training?
- - Respiration- Are you hyper-inflated? Can you fully exhale your air to help shift yourself to a more parasympathetic state?
- - Tissue Quality- Do you get regular massages, acupuncture, or perform regular self-myofascial release?
- - Active Recovery Sessions- Do you use active recovery sessions when you’re feeling tired or sore?
- Mindset and Environment
You’re now making progress.
You’re moving well and gradually increasing how much you’re doing each workout.
Your sleep is awesome, your nutrition is locked in, and you’re finally taking care of your body by prioritizing recovery.
Even with all of these important physical factors in check it can still be difficult to stick with an exercise program. If this is the case you need to reflect on your mindset and training environment.
Create short and long-term goals. Write them down somewhere next to why you’re training for these goals. A strong WHY, concrete GOALS, and internal MOTIVATION are powerful for sticking with exercise.
Your training environment also needs to be supportive of everything above. Behind the good music, sweat, and banging of weights needs to be a community of like-minded people who can push and motivate you as you work towards your goals.
Wrapping It Up
I know a lot of people who have reached their goals with different training programs. There are a lot of great programs out there that work, but not everything works forever.
I promise that if you use this article as guide you’ll become an informed and confident consumer. You’ll be able to sift through a lot of BS that is currently in the fitness industry and find a program that will set you up for consistency and success.
About the Author
Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA. During his time at Springfield, Mike was a member of the baseball team, and completed a highly sought after six-month internship at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.
Mike’s multi-disciplinary background and strong evidence-based decision-making form the basis of his training programs. Through a laid-back, yet no-nonsense approach, his workouts are designed to improve individual’s fundamental movement patterns through a blend of soft-tissue modalities and concentrated strength training.
He has worked with a wide variety of performance clients ranging from middle school to professional athletes, as well as fitness clients, looking to get back into shape. Mike specializes in helping clients and athletes learn to train around injury and transition from post-rehab to performance. If you're interested in training with Mike, he can be found at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts.
Welcome back for Part II of our Training the Core in the Sagittal Plane series. If you missed Part I, be sure to go give it a quick read. The info in that will really help you better understand the material we’re going over today, and improve your ability to think critically about training the “core.”
The Training Process
While being able to riddle off some anatomy is great, it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t relate it back to training and get people a training effect.
Like all things, the training process can be broken down into three major steps:
This process is something everyone has experienced before, and learning to ride a bike provides a great visual for understanding the separate steps. You start off (at least most people do) with training wheels because you need to give your brain an opportunity to learn (an extra bonus provided by training wheels is that they decrease threat, but that’s a topic for another time). Eventually, as you log more and more hours, the training wheels come off and you get to start experiencing the real thing.
But you still aren’t crushing it yet. It’s not like the training wheels come off and you immediately hop into full fledged down hill racing, or start launching yourself off ramps in the backyard. You still have to practice and train.
After playing around with the real thing for a while, and again acquiring very important hours of exposure for the brain to learn, you start stepping it up and doing some of the sexier things you see on TV.
This is all part of the process, and whenever you’re attempting to learn a new physical skill you and/or your athletes will have to go through it as well.
Now…let’s relate this all back to the core.
Step 1: Learn
Before you can get to what most people would consider the sexy part of training (deadlifting, jumping and doing other such things), you must first give yourself and/or your athletes the chance to learn. In other words, you need to give the brain access to experiences and outcomes so it can begin adapting.
For example, in Part I I briefly touched on what we’re looking for when it comes to core control and strength: the ability to keep your ribs down and pelvis underneath you.
So, go ahead and do that….
Chances are you can’t (unless you’ve been coached through it before) because you don’t know what it feels like. The position is very foreign, and you’re attempting to find it without a map.
Thus, we need to give you a map. We need to figure out where you are so we can properly teach you how to get there, and one of the best places to start is with breathing.
Yes…breathing, and in particular learning to exhale because if you can truly exhale then you’re very close to regaining control over the sagittal plane. In other words, exhaling gives you abs. I’m going to repeat that one more time just so we both know how important it is: exhaling gives you abs.
And it gives you abs because while your internal obliques, external obliques, and transverse abdominis are pushing air out (aka they’re exhalers), they are also bringing your ribs down and pelvis underneath you (sound familiar?). If that doesn’t make sense, look back at the pictures in Part I and envision what happens as those muscles shorten.
Here’s the issue though: most people are terrible exhalers and need some help learning how to exhale again.
Enter our friend the balloon.
*I’d like to pause here for a second to briefly touch on
(The Postural Restoration Institute) because the balloon and everything else we’re talking about today draws heavily on their principles. If you aren’t familiar with PRI, then please go take a course. I can’t recommend it enough, and I’m not going to be going down that rabbit hole today for a handful reasons. The most important of which being that I’m not qualified to do so. It’s a monster of a rabbit hole and I’m going to let smarter people than me teach about it.
The balloon is a wonderful teaching tool because it provides resistance as you exhale, in turn forcing you to actually use your abs to get air out. You may laugh, but I’ve seen plenty of people (athletes I may add) who honestly can’t blow up a balloon.
So…here’s a quick tutorial on how to blow up a balloon:
And here are a few great exercise options to get you started (you can realistically implement the balloon into any exercise we’re going over today to help make sure you are appropriately exhaling):
- All Four Belly Lift and progressions
While the all four belly lift may seem like its over shooting a little on the flexion piece of the equation, you have to remember that I’m assuming we’re dealing with someone who has lost the sagittal plane. In other words, I’m assuming we have a bilaterally extended individual who has no idea how to flex and breath, so I need to re-establish that first before addressing other needs.
Also, let’s think through what’s happening from an anatomy standpoint. In particular, let’s revisit our good friend the serratus and appreciate how the reach in this exercise is helping to draw your rib backs, thus allowing you to better use your abs.
In review: serratus + obliques + transverse abdomins = winning.
- 3 Month Breathing with Band Pulldown
Remember how we’re attempting to give people a map? Well think of the All Four Belly lift as a system reset (in other words teaching them how to flex and breath), which then gives you the opportunity to create a new map with an exercise like 3 Month Breathing with Band Pulldown.
For starters, it gives the person a reference center: the ground. Which in all honesty is one of your best friends as a coach. It makes your life way easier when you can get someone on his or her back (with gravity on their side I might add) and cue him or her to “crush a bug” or “velcro their low back to floor” because they’ll be able to feel that. In addition, it gives you a target for your ribs: “as you exhale here I want you to think about drawing your ribs down to the floor.” In essence, whenever you can make things simple…do it.
Now, a key feature of this exercise, like all other exercises, is how it’s performed. The low back needs to be pinned to the floor, and the ribs need to come down and stay down (to a degree) on the inhale. In other words, your low back shouldn’t pop off the floor when you go to take a breath in because that defeats the purpose of doing the exercise. I want to see if you can get in a good position with some added tension from the band and breath without breaking down.
It’s absolutely essential that the athlete learns what this feels like, and is able to find it on his or her own, because this is the foundation for everything else you’ll be doing.
Step 2: Train
Once the new map has started to take hold, it’s time to up the ante a little and add some more definition to the map. If you ever played Age of Empires, think of it like at the beginning of the game when the whole map is black except for where your few little settlers are.
As you played the game and explored you uncovered more and more of the map, and the black area slowly gave way. The same thing is happening here: you’ve done some of the early exploration work, and now it’s time to set off and uncover more of the map.
Thus, let’s stress the system a little more. Let’s put you and/or your athletes in positions that’ll challenge their ability to hold the rock solid position you taught them earlier.
- Leg Lowering with Band Pulldown
Yeah, this should look really familiar. All we’ve basically done is take the 3 month breathing with band pulldown exercise from above, and make it more dynamic by seeing if you can move your leg without falling apart.
Let’s think on a deeper level though and focus on a big muscle we talked about last time: the rectus femoris. What’s happening to that muscle as you’re going from hip flexion to hip extension? It’s lengthening right. And as that muscle is lengthening what is it doing? It’s attempting to yank your pelvis forward, and make your low back come off the ground. In order to prevent that from happening what better be working? Your abs! Those sexy obliques and transverse abdominis better be opposing that quad, or else you’re going to lose the tug of war.
This, in essence, is exactly what you’re looking to do when training the “core”: how many different ways can you pit someone’s “abs” against muscles like a quad or a lat.
3 Month KB Pullover
I explained pretty much everything in the video, so yeah…not gonna waste your time and repeat myself.
While there are probably 50-100 exercises that could fit into this section, hopefully these two exercises give you a good idea for how to start thinking about “core” training: opposition. It doesn’t matter that you can do crunches. What matters is that you have abs capable of opposing big muscles like your lats and quads. Ultimately, if you understand anatomy then you should have a field day coming up with ways to challenge this.
*challenge homework assignment: think your way through a split squat.
Step 3: Integrate
At the end of the day, the goal is to be bigger, faster, stronger and better conditioned than everyone else. Period. Unfortunately, however, people often mistake what I’ve gone over thus far as being “too low level” or “not intense enough” to reach that end goal. But I couldn’t disagree more. If you aren’t adequately addressing Step 1 and 2 in this process, then you one, aren’t doing your job, and two, are merely setting up your athletes for failure down the road. You’ve gotta build the pyramid from the bottom up.
Now that that short rant is out of the way, let’s talk about integrating because this is what we live for right? I mean who gets excited about lying on the floor and breathing? I know I don’t (I actually hate it). I’d much rather turn on some loud music, hangout with my bros, and throw weight around for an hour.
And assuming you’ve done your homework in Step 1 and Step 2, it gives you the ability to do so because now we can start talking about deadlifting. In other words, movements like the deadlift represent your highest level of “core” performance. It’s where are the boring, shitty work you do on the side gets to shine. Just think through any major, compound, complex movement and you’ll see a beautiful sequence of events that all stems from your basic ability to control the sagittal plane.
And let me make something perfectly clear: this is the goal. The goal isn’t to lay on the ground and breathe. That is merely a tool so that we can get you on your feet, integrate, and turn you into a monster. So PLEASE, do not forget this step. Performing a high quality deadlift is core training. Performing a high quality squat is core training. And so on and so forth.
While there are many exercises that we could have gone over today, I chose to focus just on a few them because I care more about you understanding the principles behind why we do them as opposed to just listing off exercises. Thus, if you feel lost or don’t understand anything we’ve gone over today, please post your questions in the comments below.
Also, I’d like to go over one last tidbit of info before I sign off for the day, and that’s failure. Generally speaking, when someone is performing these exercises I look for them to fail 2 out of every 10 reps because this tells me that I have found something that’s adequately challenging. In other words, if someone can crush something for 10 reps and every rep is literally perfect, then you should probably find a way to progress the exercise or else they won’t get better. Small amounts of failure tell me that I’m imposing enough stress to get an adaptation.
That's about it for today though. Hope you enjoyed the article and post any questions/thoughts you have below.
about the author
What a popular buzzword.
If you’ve read any fitness related article on the Internet over the past 2-3 years you’ve probably heard it.
But what is the core?
What is it supposed to do?
How do you train it?
Where should you start?
Where should you go?
What exercises actually work and what exercises are just fluff (I’m talking to you six pack shortcut peeps)?
In this two part series we’re going to be talking about all the above and a little more with respect to the core and the sagittal plane. In particular, I’d like to outline and give you a game plan for how to appropriately tackle stage 1 of either your own or your athletes program.
And to be perfectly clear, when I say stage 1 I’m referring to the sagittal plane and being able to control flexion and extension. This is absolutely essential because if you can’t control the sagittal plane, then you will never be able to control the frontal and transverse planes as well.
Thus, this two part series you are embarking on is going to focus solely on the core and how it relates to controlling the sagittal plane (when you hear sagittal plane just think flexion and extension).
Unfortunately, we can’t have this conversation if we aren’t on the same page when it comes to anatomy, so Part I of this series (aka what you’re reading right now) will be devoted to talking about anatomy and the basic “job” of the core, while Part II will focus on the training and application side of things.
I know…anatomy isn’t sexy, can be a little wordy, and is often downright boring, but knowing it will make you a better athlete and coach. To help make this a little more interesting, and in hopes that you’ll actually read this, we’re going to be relating it all back to Batman because who doesn’t love Batman.
*side note: the Batman v. Superman move is coming out March 25th and should probably be on your calendar if it isn’t already.
Thus, let’s get started with what in the world the “core” is actually supposed to do.
What’s the Job of the Core
Understanding this concept is essential to tying together the rest of the 2 part series.
To quote Shirley Sahrmann:
“The most important aspect of abdominal muscle performance is obtaining the control that is necessary to (1) appropriately stabilize the spine, (2) maintain optimal alignment and movement relationships between the pelvis and the spine, and (3) prevent excessive stress and compensatory motions of the pelvis during movements of the extremities.”[i]
To summarize that and put it in plain English (and add a little flavor): the job of your core is to stabilize/maintain optimal position of your pelvis and ribs so that your arms and legs can function the way we want them to. And it does this by getting your ribs “down” (rib internal rotation) and your pelvis “underneath” you (posterior tilt is a popular word for this but there are things happening in all three planes of motion).
Let me clarify really quickly that you don’t want to take the “rib down” and “pelvis underneath you” cues too far. That can be just as bad. I’m merely making the assumption that you’re going to be patterned, that you’re going to have a rib flare, and that you’re going to have a pelvis that has a tendency to roll forward into anterior tilt because I haven’t seen a single person in over 2 years who doesn’t present this way. Thus, bringing your ribs back down and pelvis back underneath you is merely getting them where we want them to be. Then you have to learn to maintain it, but that’s more the focus of Part II.
Here’s a quick video to help put this into perspective for you (and it will also serve as a great lead in to Part II of this series where we focus on performance):
To review: the job of your core is to stabilize and maintain pelvic and thoracic position to allow your arms and legs to do what we want.
In order to adequately understand what we are trying to accomplish when we train “the core,” you’ve gotta know a little anatomy.
Of primary concern, for this article at least, are the following muscles:
- -Rectus abdominis
- -Internal obliques
- -External obliques
- -Transverse abdominis
- -Rectus femoris and TFL
- -Serratus anterior
Let’s go ahead and address each of those accordingly
Rectus Abdominis (aka the six pack muscle)
*Couldn’t think of a good Batman reference for this. If you can, let me know.
Who doesn’t love a good six-pack? As far as aesthetics go, it’s probably one of the most sought after traits and that’s totally fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to look like you just stepped out of a superhero movie.
When we’re talking about functionality and overall performance, however, the rectus abdominis equates to little more than a show muscle. And here’s why: it’s attachment sites suck when it comes to creating leverage.
As you can see in the above image, there’s a very tiny attachment site down on the pubic crest coupled with another small (and by small I’m talking surface area) attachment on both the xiphoid process and some costal cartilage.
In essence, this means the rectus abdominis has minimal capacity to truly impact the position of your pelvis and your ribs, which is of vital importance when you think back to what we need the core to do.
Internal Oblique, External Oblique, and Transverse Abdominis (aka Batman)
Take a second and compare the images above to the image of the rectus abdominis. Notice any differences?
I sure hope you do. The internal oblique, external oblique and transverse abdominis are HUGE. Just look at the difference in attachment sites, and try and get an appreciation for how effective these three muscles are at controlling/impacting the position of your pelvis and your ribs (in turn giving your arms and legs a chance to work).
In other words, these three muscles are your Batman: here to fight evil and bring justice to your anatomical system.
Lats (aka Bane)
Oh the lats. A much loved and sought after muscle by many, but like Bane they are very large and wield an incredible power (a power that was actually great enough to successfully break Batman’s back if you’re up on your Batman knowledge)
Let’s start with the pure size and magnitude of a single lat by looking at its attachment sites:
- -Spinous processes of the lower six thoracic and all five lumbar vertebrae
- -Posterior aspect of the ilium
- -The lower three ribs
- -Inferior angle of the scapula in some people
- -Intertubercular groove on the anterior aspect of the humerus.
So yeah…this thing is big.
Now to the function as described by any anatomy textbook ever:
- -Internally rotate the humerus
- -Shoulder extension
- -Shoulder adduction
That’s a nice list but it’s missing a MAJOR piece of the puzzle that I think you’re smart enough to figure out.
So, take a look at the picture below, and imagine what’ll happen if you take both lats and shorten them at the same time.
It’ll produce something like this:
Notice how the back of the body is being closed off and the front of the body appears to be opening…this is called bilateral extension. It creates a position where your ribs pop up and out in the front, and your pelvis rolls forward into anterior tilt (a good visual for a pelvis rolling forward is to think of dumping water out of the front of a bucket).
This, my friend, is why the lats are like Bane: when unopposed they have the ability to completely dominate and wreak havoc upon your system.
*Remember, your goal is ribs down and hips underneath…this is doing the opposite
Rectus Femoris and TFL (aka The Joker)
The Joker represents another arch nemesis that Batman must face routinely to bring balance and peace to Gotham. The Joker, however, is not easily defeated. He is cunning, creative, and always finds ways to disturb the peace…much like your rectus femoris and TFL.
Of particular interest is their ability to pull either innominate into anterior tilt. You can visualize this by thinking of either muscle like a string that’s attached to the front of the pelvis that you’re pulling down on.
Similar to the lats, this is pulling the pelvis into a position we don’t want.
Serratus Anterior (aka Robin)
When Batman is in trouble he can often rely on Robin to provide some much needed help and assistance. Luckily for you, you have a serratus anterior to help your big guns above (obliques and transverse abdominis) get your ribs into a better position by pulling the ribs "back and down."
To help visualize this take a look at the picture above, and imagine what happens if you shorten that muscle in both directions. The scapula is being pulled towards the ribs, but the ribs are also being pulled back towards the scapula. Thus, if you see someone with a prominent rib flare, you should probably start thinking about how you can put Robin in a position to help Batman, but that's what we'll be talking about in Part II so let's not get ahead of ourselves.
While your head may be spinning from the anatomy, I'd like to ask you to sit on it for a few days and think about the relationship between all of those muscles.
Go back through the pictures and try to visualize what happens when a particular muscle shortens/contracts. What's happening to the pelvis? What's happening to the ribs?
As soon as your comfortable doing that, try taking it a step further by thinking your way through how they impact each other (the video at the beginning of the post can help with this as well).
Understanding these relationships will go a long way in helping you transition nicely to Part II of our discussion next week.
I also think it's important to go ahead and address the fact that in this series we're going to be looking at one small piece of a very large puzzle. And in order to do that I'm going to have to make some generalizations, and I'm going to have to talk about things in isolation that are truly meant to be looked at as a whole. For example, nowhere in this two part series am I going to be talking about hamstrings, but when you look at the big picture hamstrings are really, really important. And the same thing can be said for just about any muscle because the human body is such a beautiful, connected and complex system.
Now, I'm not saying that the information being presented to you is worthless because it isn't. I wouldn't have taken the time to write it if I thought it was. I'm merely telling you this so that you don't lose site of the forest while we take some time to focus on a few individual trees.
Always think big picture, and always think about how everything connects.
The core is important, but like I said: it's only one small piece of a very big puzzle.
about the author
[i] Sahrmann, Shirley. “Abdominal Muscles.” Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. St. Louis: Mosby, 2002. 69.
I’m a conventional deadlifter, but I’m a short guy. I’d probably be better off pulling with a sumo style. I’ve tried sumo a couple of times, but they were pretty frustrating experiences. I definitely couldn’t pull as much sumo as I could from a conventional approach the first time. I guess I probably just need to work on it. I certainly wouldn’t enter a meet and try to use sumo for the first time ever under those conditions. Something bad might happen. Every year during spring training you hear about pitchers trying out new pitches to add to their repertoire. These pitchers don’t just decide to add a new pitch in the middle of the season, because they know they have to practice it and work out the bugs before trying to mix it in during games that count. In the world of Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) practitioners there is often times discussion regarding whether it is a good idea to pull athlete’s out of their pattern because this might make them run slower, throw with less velocity, or not be able to jump as high. My personal thought on this matter is that perhaps these quantifiable drop offs are the result of the athlete not having practice performing this skill from the new position that they are performing them from. Perhaps with more practice and the acquisition of training volume in this new position, the athlete would be able to reach the same quantifiable expressions of the sport movement, but do so with a biomechanical approach that would be better for longevity related matters.
Stress, behaviors, exercise, and specific sports movements are associated with driving people into extension/inhalation oriented positions. Extension strategies are used to power up for strength and power movements in competition and training. If movements are practiced in an extension oriented position, then that position becomes the dominant response strategy that you go with when you need to perform that exercise under competitive or high stakes conditions. Extension strategies, which are associated with anterior pelvic tilt, lordosis, and elevation and external rotation of ribs may limit a number of joint movement capabilities, such as humeral and femoral rotation because of bony positions, or result in compensatory strategies to achieve required necessary motion for sports movements.
While there is nothing necessarily wrong with extension positions, problems may begin to occur when people exist in extension during times of rest, and when they are unable to get out of an extension oriented position in general. Excessive extension seems to be related to unnecessary levels of muscle tone, which may increase internal resistance to joint movements. Discussing all of the pitfalls of excessive extension and resting extension positions is beyond the scope of this document. The overall concept that this document is aimed at addressing is the idea that extension is a part of sports, and a strategy that many athletes may over utilize. Chronic pain syndromes may become a part of an athlete’s life if they are unable to prevent excessive extension during the performance of their sports movements, and if they exist in that position during rest/utilize this strategy during activities of daily living.
Extension and Performance
Regardless of the downside of utilization and reliance on excessive extension, tremendous displays of strength, power, and athleticism through extension is a common occurrence in sports. Exercise adaptations that take place with repeated sports movement performance in extension will result in hypertrophy and force production of the tissues used to power those movements. These adaptations will make these extension driven sports movements even more powerful. These adaptations are very specific to the tissues used in an extension position, and adaptations will not present themselves to the muscles that would be utilized in a more flexed position. Therefore, the musculature that would be recruited and utilized in a more flexed position would essentially be untrained.
Perhaps the reason why sprinters run slightly slower following an intervention that makes them neutral is because they haven’t trained the tissues that they’re recruiting to power that movement under those circumstances. Claiming that making sprinters neutral is a bad idea for their sport may be a short sighted statement. Perhaps an individual with impressive quantifiable expressions of force production who witnesses acute reductions in those expressions after achieving neutrality simply needs to train that movement under the conditions of neutrality. New muscles will have an opportunity to power joint actions if someone achieves neutrality after not being able to reach that position previously. These muscles need to be strengthened and then integrated into more complex athletic movements. If proper joint actions can be utilized for sporting movements with the appropriate prime mover and stabilization strategies of muscles and then optimal quantifiable expressions can be reached, this would appear to be the best practice approach to training and competition. Coaches simply should not expect equal quantifiable expression of new positional and muscular strategies to that of older strategies to be instantaneous.
The quantifiable comparison of an extension strategy to a neutral strategy is not necessarily a fair one if neutrality has been recently achieved. If we as a community want to evaluate whether neutrality is a detriment to the quantifiable expression of an athletic movement, we need to properly train the musculature that would be recruited under neutral conditions in the performance of a sport movement for an appropriate amount of time to allow it to experience the positive effects of training adaptations. Appreciating the differences between acute and chronic physiological expressions is an important consideration on this topic, and one that needs further evaluation before any definitive statement can be made.
Fitting the Mold
In the world of sports performance, it seems that there are criteria levels of fitness that must be met as a requisite to be successful at high level sports. Football receivers will be unable to play in the NFL if they run a 4.9 in their 40 regardless of their sport specific skill. In regards to movement capabilities, there is also likely a similar phenomenon. It is highly likely that each sport, and each position inside each sport possesses a specific range of motion profile that would be a requisite for the ability to execute sport specific biomechanics associated with optimal performance of sporting actions. Once the athlete possesses the appropriate levels of joint movement variability, there is probably little additional benefit from going greatly above and beyond that level.
If the athlete is capable of quantifiably reaching a movement range of motion standard and is able to recruit the appropriate muscles in the right sequence, the athlete will likely be able to realize best case mechanics and will be doing everything in their power from a biomechanics standpoint to prolong their playing career. All this being said, the stress of training and competing, as well as the aging process will likely alter the gross range of motion capabilities or alter the sequencing and/or synchrony of muscular action utilized in the active performance of dynamic tasks over the course of the athlete’s playing career.
If the athlete has been trained with an understanding of proximal neutrality, and what sorts of positions and muscular strategies are associated with being able to stay within a criteria motion standard and synchronization pattern that allows for the expression of proper biomechanics, the athlete will potentially extend their playing career and be able to realize more great performances per playing season.
about the author
-Director of Training Methodology and Continuing Education at Peak Performance, NYC.
-Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, 2009-2011
-Assistant Professor, Springfield College 2011-2014
-Head Coach Springfield College Team Ironsports 2011-2013
-175 pound Strongman competitor. Two time qualifier for world championships at Arnold Classic
-Renaissance Meat Head
"Tight" hip flexors have gotten a lot of love on the internet recently, but you need to make sure you're managing them the right way. Just plopping on the ground and driving your femoral head forward isn't going to get the job done. You need to adequately balance stiffness with muscles like hamstrings, internal obliques, external obliques and the like. While a comprehensive training program is necessary to truly manage all of these competing pieces, here are 4 strategies you can start implementing to tame those big, stiff quads of yours:
about the author
You’ve been training for a while now. You’ve noticed gains in strength, size, and body composition. So have your sex partners. But progress has come to a screeching halt. Personal records (PRs) are few and far between. Training is fun and all, but it seems to be going nowhere.
I’ve been there. Years back, I remember having read a few training articles on T-Nation.com and thought I was the shit. Kept working out, pushing my limits, only to get hurt what seemed like every week.
Man, if I could have those days back…
Now that training other people is my career, it is my goal is to prevent you from making the same mistakes I made. Here are the five most common mistakes I see intermediate lifters make.
Mistake #1: They don’t have a structured plan
Everything you do in the gym should have a purpose. To find out what that purpose is, you first need to have an end goal in sight.
Set a goal
I used to bounce around from program to program, spinning my wheels and never making progress.
Find something you’re good at—powerlifting, strongman, intramural co-ed volleyball, whatever—and start heading down that path.
Focus on building strength instead of testing it
You’ve already realized your newbie gains. PRs will not come as easy anymore. They will be hard fought… and much more satisfying.
Your training needs to be planned over the long-term. The term we use in the fitness industry for this planning is “periodization”.
The idea is that you figure out when you’re going to compete, then you work backwards from there.
When your next competition is far away, your training should be focused on building up general qualities that transfer well to all sports, such as work capacity, aerobic power, and general strength. As you get closer to a competition, your training should become more and more specific and focused. Specificity is one of the guiding principles of smart, effective training, but spending all your time being specific with your training doesn’t give you a foundation upon which you can build. You have to do the things that you don’t like to do if you want to get better.
You have to go back to basics.
Track your progress
If you’re not making progress that you can track, then whatever you’re doing is not working.
Talk to a professional to figure out how to accomplish your goal
If you remember only one thing I say in this post, remember this: If you’re serious about your goal, you need a coach.
If you broke your leg, you would go to the doctor. Why would you not refer your training out to a professional who spends all of their time trying to get better at what they do?
Mistake #2: They never learn how to move well
Quality movement is absolutely essential for long-term gains.
Learn how to squat and bend
When squatting or bending under load (like when you’re deadlifting), keep your spine stable and load your legs by “pushing” through the floor instead of trying to pick the bar up. Avoid leading with your shoulders and arching your back.
If you need to relearn how to squat and bend, try a Kettlebell Deadlift.
Learn how to press
When pressing (like with a bench press), keep your shoulder blades stable and elbows tucked. If you don’t do this, it’s like you’re trying to shoot a cannon from a rowboat. A good exercise to try is the Dumbbell Floor Press.
Learn how to row
When rowing, always lead the movement with the shoulder blade. You should feel the muscles in your upper back working. A good exercise to try is the 3-point Dumbbell Row.
Learn how to be move on one leg
Single leg work isn’t fun, but it IS important. A good, albeit difficult exercise to try is the Single Leg Rufus Deadlift.
Do more reaching exercises
If you want to stay healthy, you’ve got to remember how to reach. This is especially important for those general phases of training we were discussing earlier.
When doing push ups, think about pushing your hands “through” the ground (all the way to China) before you finish your rep.
Mistake #3: They don’t get enough sleep
Training hard is only effective if you can recover from it. Restful sleep is essential to the recovery process.
Shoot for 7-9 hours each night.
Avoid electronics before bed. Try to get on a schedule so that you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If you have sleep apnea, go see a doctor.
*Here's a good post by our buddies over at Precision Nutrition if you want to read more about sleep.
Mistake #4: They forget about their nutrition
In addition to sleep, nutrition is also essential to your recovery. Quicker Recovery → Harder Training → More Progress.
Become conscious of what you eat and why you eat it
I like prescribing a 3-day food log. Record everything you ingest, when you ingest it, and what you were doing at the time of ingestion. This is all the info you need to determine the number one change you can make to optimize your food intake.
Fill your gas tank with premium, not crap
If you’re trying to make your body a high performance machine, you should fill it with premium fuel, not sludge.
*Further Reading: Nutrition: How to Pick a Plan that Fits Your Goals
Mistake #5: They do the wrong type of conditioning work
Improper conditioning is a pet peeve of mine. Coaches everywhere run their athletes into the ground, making them worse instead of better.
What are you training for?
There are three basic systems in the body that produce energy. Determine the ones that your sport uses and then train those systems.
Don’t fall into the trap of doing conditioning simply because it “feels hard”. Any coach can make you puke, but can he or she make you better?
*Further Reading: How Do You Train For the Long Haul? Develop an Aerobic Base
Summary of the Top 5 Mistakes Semi-Experienced Lifters Make
Mistake #1: They don’t have a structured plan
Mistake #2: They never learn how to move well
Mistake #3: They don’t get enough sleep
Mistake #4: They forget about their diet
Mistake #5: They do the wrong type of conditioning work
Don’t fall into the same traps that I and so many others have fallen into. My goal is to teach, so if you know someone who you think would benefit from this, please forward it to them.
P.S. I made a whole 16-week program that is great for these intermediate lifters who need some guidance. You can even get the ebook, presentation, and first month of the program totally free of charge.
about the author
Lance Goyke, CSCS, is a Nerd Extraordinaire and secret admirer of lesbians everywhere whose expertise focuses on the human body. His clientele ranges from other trainers to kids to house moms to fighters to baseballers to anyone who needs to be taught how to exercise. Go invade his home base at www.LanceGoyke.com.