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Position Defined: Part 2

Mar 04, 2018

Part 1 explored how certain exercise techniques, cues, or improper prescription of stress can have consequences. The strength and conditioning professional or personal trainer, who is a stress manager, dictates exercise prescription. We discussed how appreciating the starting POSITION of the axial skeleton and pelvis is the foundation for movement of the entire system.  Appreciating the starting POSITION of the axial skeleton and pelvis can reduce stress, unnecessary wear and tear, allow for optimal length-tension relationship of muscles being targeted, and improve the range of motion at joints involved in the movement.

Part 2 will explore a summary of the steps involved in the process of appreciating how you are setting up an athlete or client during the start of an exercise and how to think about ways in which you can reduce unnecessary stress on a system.  We will then explore techniques for advanced POSITIONS you can consider with your athletes or clients when you are providing instruction. The conclusion will summarize our coaching principles and reasons and rationale for this article. Let’s finish up…


  1.  Understand stress patterns
    • What are stress patterns? I’m happy you asked: A stress pattern involves extension, right orientation, and left truck rotation.
    • Stress pulls us to the right and into an extended POSITION. The brain preferentially shifts the body into certain, predictable states and POSITIONS due to stress which cause compensations in the body. When you are stressed, you increase recruitment of extensor muscles and increase muscle tone via the sympathetic nervous system. We can argue what came first, the chicken or the egg, but the body’s feedback systems can become feedforward systems due to chronic cycling of that system. You also have a predictable neural pattern to orientate yourself to the right. Why? It’s the pull of your right diaphragm (attractor), it’s the pull of your left brain, it’s the asymmetry of sensory systems, it’s the increase in extensor muscle tone, it’s the direction of blood ejected from the heart, or gosh maybe it’s the pull of the earth’s rotation (take a long exhale here).
    • This can reiterate the importance of assessment for each individual athlete/client. Understanding and identifying is always the first step.
    • Assess control in all planes of movement and identify patterns that may lead to additional stress in training.
  2. Are there things you can do as a strength & conditioning professional or personal trainer to reduce stress patterns which create wear and tear on the athlete, while still developing performance?
    • Yes, reduce consequences of unnecessary stress during low threshold activities and show athletes/clients POSITIONS that are opposite than what they are stuck in.
    • If an athlete is stuck in a stress pattern this may reduce variability and contribute to pain and pathology not allowing them to access movements (reduce degrees of freedom).
  3.  Is it in your scope of practice to ‘fix’ patterns or treat pain?
    • If you are a strength and conditioning professional the answer is NO.
    • However, you can manage stress patterns and understand what you are doing.
    • We are just taking someone in a certain POSITION and putting them in the opposite POSITION.
    • If you are so far in extension (and most likely you are) showing you some flexion will help bring you back to ‘average’.
  4.  Are there POSITIONS you can put an athlete/client into while performing an exercise that can manage their stress pattern while still crushing weights?
    • Think cylinder POSITION, think everything from above. Think, is this a low threshold or high threshold activity? Consider stress management in both performance and health.
  5. Are you driving more stress patterns into your athletes/clients?
    • Are you doing low threshold work with loaded extension and high levels of tension?
    • If you are you should understand the consequences and the stress you are putting on a system.

Let’s see some examples of appreciating the set-up with more advanced POSITIONS…




Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) creating the cylinder/ZOA 2) reaching. The long seated POSITION provides the opportunity for someone to establish a congruent relationship between the rib cage and pelvis. This relationship provides the diaphragm with a mechanical advantage to maintain its domed shape. This establishes a zone of apposition (cylinder POSITION) that is optimal for diaphragmatic respiratory mechanical advantage, action, and POSITION, which helps manage intraabdominal pressure. Individuals can benefit from this POSITION as apposition of the diaphragm can be lost bilaterally or unilaterally due to stress patterns. While performing the exercise, the individual should inhale through the nose (directed into the back on the side of the arm holding the cable) then perform a long exhale through the mouth while rowing and reaching with opposite arm. The key to the exercise is allowing the cable to ‘win’ on the reach which will drive the rib cage back and not letting the head come forward. Performing the exercise in this POSITION reduces cueing and coaching and reduces the wear and tear of stress patterns.


Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) frontal plane activity of the pelvis 2) reaching 3) creating the cylinder. Okay, you want to perform a row exercise. Cool. Set yourself up in the best POSITION to maximize benefits and reduce stress on the body. A good way to add some benefits and advanced POSITION selection is to mimic stance and swing phase of gait, reach with limbs, and breathe.

 The foot on the ground is elevated which will bring the floor up to you and help the opposite hip position; this will be your stance leg. Your stance leg is the lower extremity that most of the body weight is distributed on or shifted to. Someone’s stress pattern may pull them in swing phase of gait on their left leg/pelvis, so show them what they don’t have = stance phase. Try to feel your adductor, hamstring, and glute on your stance leg and put most of your weight on that leg. Reach with the dumbbell to the floor starting each row and push away with the arm that is on the bench; this will move the axial skeleton back, support the establishment of the cylinder POSITION, activation of the serratus anterior muscle, and proper POSITION of the scapula on the rib cage. Okay, now row.


Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) counter an individual’s stress pattern by doing the opposite. If I have identified that an individual’s stress pattern includes limited right trunk rotation and anteriorly tilted left pelvis. Okay, then let’s do some fitness performing the pull-up exercise while adding right trunk rotation, reaching forward with the left leg (posterior tilt) and hip hiking (get left abs). This is an extremely challenging POSITION to maintain during this exercise, however these concepts can be translated to other exercises.



Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) find and feel stance leg 2) movement drives cylinder POSITION, and integrate breathing. Elevating the stance leg will help get ipsilateral abs, hamstring, and adductor. The edge of the platform is raised which is absolutely clutch; it allows me to pull back on the edge with my heel to really get hamstring. The set-up POSITION involves finding and feeling stance leg hamstring (pullback on edge of platform), adductor, and getting tall through my heel to find glute. The first exhale is to establish the cylinder POSITION and the second exhale is to establish thorax rotation. Holding 1 DB on the side of the stance leg gets abs. Reaching with the opposite hand DB to my big toe gets triplanar movement of my rib cage, which drives acetabular-femoral internal rotation of the stance leg and posterior tilt of the pelvis. To get the most out of it inhale through your nose at the top and exhale through your mouth during the split squat (concentric and eccentric portion). To me the split squat exercise (which is a front/back staggered stance) is the most versatile exercise for incorporating movement variability and POSITIONAL competencies.


Appreciating the set-up POSITION: 1) find and feel stance leg 2) establish cylinder POSITION 3) establish dissociation between thorax and pelvis. This split squat variation is loaded but follows most of the same principles from above. Elevate the front foot to give more acetabular-femoral internal rotation of the stance leg and provide frontal plane activity of the pelvis. Find and feel stance leg muscle: hamstring, adductors, and glute (cue: get tall). Exhale and reach with the elbows to drive axial skeleton and center of mass back. On the next exhale use ipsilateral abs to rotate the contralateral side to the stance leg, then exhale again to get opposite rotation of thorax (dissociation). Maintain these actions while using the hamstring to drop straight down (knee will glide over toe) and push yourself up through the stance leg. The anterior load incorporates the consideration of center of mass, the elevated front foot incorporates POSITION that will optimize goals of the task, and breathing and reaching incorporates the cylinder and axial skeleton POSITION.  


Appreciating the set-up POSITION: the exercise is the POSITION. The exercise is the application of the principles you are trying to accomplish within fitness modalities. When assigning the task of performing a split squat, think about the cues you are giving an athlete/client that will force them into a specific POSITION within the goal you are trying to accomplish. The POSITION of the thorax during the exercise helps drive posterior tilt of the pelvis which gives proximal hamstring more power and helps the individual maintain the cylinder position. The reaching across the body will provide triplanar movement of the rib cage. Acetabular-femoral internal rotation of the stance leg (front foot/lower extremity that most of the body weight is distributed or shifted towards) and posterior tilt of the pelvis will help inhibit the transverse fibers of the glute max (which push the pelvis forward), while facilitating more proximal hamstring along with an IC adductor. The task will mimic phase of gait and be a beneficial technique to improve the principle of incorporating triplanar movement and variability. STOP performing the split squat driving extension and cueing to keep the chest up. STOP driving anterior hip pathology by extending the back-leg hip and walking with long strides.


Appreciating the set-up POSITION:  The single leg RDL is an extremely challenging exercise that demands triplanar control of the entire skeleton head to toe.  The primary focus, however, when appreciating POSITION at the start of and throughout this advanced exercise, is on the ability to shift the individual’s center of mass over the stance leg in the frontal plane while maintaining sagittal plane control.  When coaching the single leg RDL, we need to center the individual’s nose, sternum, belly button, and belt buckle directly over the big toe of the stance side leg.  To do this, we first need to establish sagittal plane control.  Much like a bilateral deadlift, we begin by exhaling and softening the stance-side knee, reaching the knee forward while maintaining a full foot contact and feeling the heel.  This will engage proximal hamstrings on the stance side leg to posterior rotate the pelvis and help the abs (IOs & TAs) pick up leverage to move the thorax back.  From there, to solidify sagittal plane control, we need to ensure that the cranium is POSITIONED directly over the pelvic floor.  When viewed from the side, the cranium should be stacked directly over the thorax, which is stacked directly over the pelvic floor with a full foot contact and the individual’s center of mass directly over the heel.  The individual should be able to sense their abs and hamstrings.

Once sagittal plane POSITION is established, we can now shift in the frontal plane.  The individual should center the cranium, thorax, and pelvis over the big toe of their stance leg while maintaining hamstrings and abs.  As the axial skeleton shifts over the big toe, the individual needs to maintain the POSITION of the femur in order to disassociate movement of the femur from the acetabulum.  The pelvis should be able to adduct and shift toward the stance side while the femur adducts in the acetabulum.  If the individual is able to shift their center of mass over the stance leg properly, they should sense more frontal plane abs and IC adductor. 

Maintaining this POSITION, the individual will slowly hinge at the hips, pushing the hips back while maintaining all sagittal plane and frontal plane sensory and motor landmarks.  The cranium, thorax, and pelvis should maintain alignment as the hinge occurs through the hip.  The knee must be kept slightly bent through this process to ensure that the individual is able to appropriately eccentrically load the hamstrings by hinging at the hip. 

As they hinge, the individual should reach the kettlebell slightly across the body so that it is POSITIONED directly over the big toe of the stance leg.  This contralateral reach will help to solidify frontal plane movement of the thorax, and allow the individual to drive more acetabulum on femur internal rotation of the stance leg by rotating the belt buckle towards that leg.  If done properly, this should give the individual a greater sensory awareness of stance leg adductors, abs, medial hamstrings, and the posterior hip.  It is critical here that the femur stays in place as the acetabulum internally rotates over the femur.  In the words of the great Dr. Pat Davidson, “Femurs that rotate in the same direction as the pelvis are slaves to the pelvis.”  Disassociation is freedom.

To complete the movement, the individual should focus on pushing through the ground or pushing the ground away from them, maintaining a full foot contact with alignment of the pelvis, thorax, and cranium, which should rise in synchrony.  The goal is to drive the concentric action of the lift with the big prime movers of hip extension such as glutes and hamstrings while the thorax is stabilized with active abdominals. 


Training is the application of stress. If you are a strength and conditioning professional or personal trainer, you are a stress manager. We must first understand stress, stress patterns, and the difference between performance and health. Then we can turn that knowledge into application. We shouldn’t be afraid to load people (motor emphasis) to prepare them for sport and life, but you also must provide them with a sensory based experience. We need both motor (efferent) and sensory (afferent) capabilities. Sensory lets you know if someone is performing the exercise with the desired strategies.

On the flip side, we also need to work hard and crush weights.  Activities for performance may be extension based and you won’t feel anything (lack of sensory), but that’s acceptable because extension is needed for performance.  The key is to drive performance without losing sight of health.  If extension is your only strategy and you lack other movement options, you’re going to end up in trouble.

We hope that we have laid out some techniques you can implement in training to minimize unnecessary stress within specific exercisesTraining allows your athlete or client to move up a threshold for threat perception and establish physiological adaptations that will provide them with the ability to handle more stress. The key is the coach or trainer’s ability to apply stress, managing both health and performance in the appropriate ratio to meet the needs and goals of the individual. Managing unnecessary stress through consideration of the set-up POSITION of an exercise can reduce the wear and tear of training and support variability and longevity.

In the field of strength and conditioning and in the fitness industry we have certain sacred cows and dogmas that we blindly follow without truly understanding the reasons and rationales. The cues of ‘chest up’ and ‘butt out’ have been shoved down our throats and it is time to question and address why these are not be the best cues to provide our athletes and clients. We hope that understanding the elevator and doorframe analogies of stress will provide reasons and rationale for our training principles and techniques that we have outlined. We encourage you to question whether high threshold patterns are efficient and sustainable for your athletes or clients that you work with. We encourage you to ask yourself if the POSITIONS you are incorporating in exercises with your athletes or clients allow for optimal length-tension relationships in the muscles you are hoping to target as well as expression of the ranges of motion required from the involved joints.  Consideration of the proximal structure POSITION can improve both the expression of movement in performance and health of the individual you are applying stress to as a strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer.


Michelle Boland
•    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

Justin Moore
-    Performance Coach and Education Coordinator at Parabolic Performance and Rehab (Montclair, NJ)
-    CSCS
-    M.S. Sports Administration/Coaching, Farleigh Dickinson University
-    B.A. Communication, Farleigh Dickinson University
-    Follow on Instagram @jmsb_strengthtraining


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