The Goblet Squat

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Nearly all of my clients squat. Sometimes instructing the squat can be a challenge. Though it’s essentially just sitting down, the squat can become complicated and difficult. It’s easy to over-coach the squat. That’s where the goblet squat comes in very handy.

Big-time strength coach Mike Boyle has done a great job telling us about the goblet squat. I find his instruction to be succinct and easy to follow. Here’s the video. Watch it and squat away!

Breaking Plateaus: the MilitaryPress

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I’m a big fan of the military press (aka the press, the standing press, the overhead press). I like putting the weight overhead. It’s a challenging total-body exercise that in my mind probably delivers more useful strength and skill than something like a bench press. I’d like to press 200 lbs. which is my body weight. For that reason, I tend to lift heavy and I typically don’t go above five reps per set. My progress stalled for a while so I went on the hunt for ways to move it along. This led me to read up on all kinds of interesting ways to break through plateaus.  (Admittedly, a torn ACL didn’t help my pressing. My press was slowing down though prior to the tear.)

To get stronger we generally need to add weight to whatever it is that we’re lifting. This is the simplest, most obvious way to get stronger. It’s inevitable though that at some point our progress will slow and we’ll have to find other ways to move forward in our strength training. Here are a few methods I’ve used to improve my press:

  • Weight: A lot of people tend to lift in the same rep range. I often see people in commercial gyms lifting in the 10-15 rep neighborhood. A good way to make progress is to add weight and move down in reps. The 5-rep and below range is good for getting stronger. In contrast, if we’ve been lifting in the low-rep range, there might be a benefit to reducing weight and adding reps.
  • Speed: We can subtract weight and move faster. To get fast we need to move fast. If we reduce the weight (40%-60% of your 1-rep max) and move very fast then we get a very different type of powerful stimulus to the muscles. I’ll talk about this more below.
  • Different exercises and movement patterns: If progress stalls on the barbell military press then we might want to switch to an incline barbell press, or a dumbbell military press, or a seated military press, or a behind-the-neck press. You see my point? Choosing an exercise that’s the “same but different” can help us make progress in our main lift.
  • Bring up weak points: I’m not much of a fan of bodybuilding-type training in which individual muscles are emphasized. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for this approach. If we look at the particular muscles involved in a given lift then we might use exercises to isolate those muscles and make them stronger and/or add mass. For instance, we could use tricep extensions in order to strengthen that piece of our press. Similarly, we might look at supporting musculature–the upper back for instance–and target those muscles to a stronger foundation from which to press.

Here’s some more on my experience with dynamic effort, “same but different” and some bodybuilding work.

Dynamic Effort

Speed and strength live in the same house. They are very close acquaintances. They have a lot of physiological similarities. Training one tends to help the other. Fast twitch muscle fibers are our strong and fast fibers. They should be trained with heavy weights as well as high velocities.

As we add weight to the bar, the bar slows down. We create more force but we don’t create speed. If we want to train speed then we need to lighten the load considerably and move a lot faster. The Westside Conjugate Method addresses both strength and speed during the week. Max Effort (ME) day has lifters lifting very heavy weights and generating a lot of force but at a slow velocity. Dynamic Effort (DE) day has the lifter using much lighter loads moved at a high velocity. This creates explosion.

Incorporating a dynamic effort day into your lifting may help you break through any current plateaus you may be experiencing. If you’ve never employed the DE method, then you probably have a nice well of untapped potential and you’ll likely see impressive results fairly quickly.

I’ve from pressing 135 lbs. for 2 reps to 145 lbs. for 3 reps in about four weeks since incorporating the DE method. Cool! As advocated by Louie, the DE day came 72 hours after the ME day. I typically did 10 sets of 2 reps, adding 5 lbs. each week.

At no time did I become anything like exhausted by the DE work.  That isn’t the point. Speed is the point. If you get tired then you’ll slow down. Don’t expect to experience a typical workout feeling with DE work.

Louie wrote an article titled Westside Military Press Training for Mike Mahler’s Aggressive Strength site. Here are the tips:

  • Do the seated press with dumbbells. Choose three weights for example 100 lbs, 75 lbs, and 50 lbs. Work on setting a repetition record with one dumbbell weight. the reps should range from 10 to 25 reps.
  • Do dumbbell extensions or barbell extensions for special work along with rear, side and front raises.
  • Do barbell pressing in the following manner. Ten sets of three reps in a three- week wave. 70% the 1st week 75% the second week and 80% the third week. Pendulum back to 70% and start over. Second day 72 hours later do max effort work.
  • Use chains on the bar or JUMPSTRETCH bands to accommodate resistance. (Editor’s note: Usually as the bar gets close to lockout you will naturally slow the bar down. The bands keep the resistance on all the way to the end).
  • Work up to new PR in the incline press.
  • Do rack lockout work on the high pin where 10%-15% highest weight can be done.

Developing the Overhead Press is another good article on Mahler’s site. If you like to press then read it!

The Conjugate System can get a little complicated and hard to understand. For a very good and concise explanation of the system, check out Jordan Syatt’s article The Westside Conjugate System: A User’s Guide.

Other ways to train speed (either lower or upper body) include the following:

  • jumping
  • medicine ball throws
  • plyometric pushups
  • power pull-ups: Do these explosively for 1-3 reps.

Same but different

I’ve varied the way I press–but I’ve kept pressing. In the book Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline talkes about the “same but different” concept. With this concept, we take the main lift we’re working on–the press–and find some way to change it just a little. We offer a little variety to the nervous system, we learn a slightly new skill, and we can improve our main lift.

A similar process is proposed by Bill Starr in the book the Strongest Shall Survive. This system employs a heavy/light/medium approach to lifting where the exercises are changed slightly between each workout. For example, the back squat is used on the heavy and medium days and the front squat is used on the light day. Presses alternate from the bench press to the military press to the behind-the-neck press. Read the book to learn more.

In my case, I’ve incorporated the standing behind-the-neck press as well as seated dumbbell or kettlebell presses in which I sit on the floor with my legs straight out in front. I do these for reps.
Here are some examples “same but different” changes we could incorporate into our press routine

  • military press to behind-the-neck press to incline press
  • standing press to seated press
  • handstand or incline pushups
  • dumbbells and/or kettlebells in place of the barbell

Other things

I’ve also incorporated back-off sets after my heavy pressing days. I reduce the weight considerably and press for 10-12 reps. I expect this to help build some mass.

I’ve used dumbbell rear delt flyes to help build my upper back. I do these for 8-15 reps typically and I vary the weight each workout. This is the type of bodybuilding isolation work that I haven’t done in years.

 Finally

I’ve just scratched the surface with this stuff so I anticipate continued progress. As my ACL heals I expect progress to accelerate quite a bit. This has been a very interesting process. I’ve enjoyed learning about and applying these concepts, particularly the dynamic effort work. I just recently started a little bit of jumping. I expect this to help my squat and deadlift. I plan to keep a speed day as part of my workout plans.

Coaching Movement: Internal vs. External Cues

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I recently listened to an interview with Todd Hargrove of BetterMovement.org at the Well Rounded Athlete.   At about 21:30 in the interview, Todd discusses the idea of internal cues vs external cues as they pertain to learning new movement skills. I found it to be a fascinating concept and one that pertains very strongly to my current study of the FASTER Global curriculum.

What are internal and external cues?

  • Internal cue: The athlete focuses on his/her body parts and how they move.
  • External cue: The athlete focuses on affecting something in his/her environment. He/she focuses on the outcome of his/her movement.

Below are some examples of internal and external cues from an NSCA article titled What We Say Matters, Part I.

(What We Say Matters, Part II is also very interesting. I won’t discuss the whole thing but it goes into feedback frequency, or how much information coaches should give athletes while they’re learning a new skill. Turns out a good bit less feedback is better than giving feedback 100% of the time. Coaches and trainers should definitely read it. On to the internal/external cues.)

Table 1provides examples of internal versus external focus cues for different movements and note that analogies can be considered external cues.

Internal Cue External Cue
Sprinting: Acceleration
  • Extend your hip (knee)
  • Activate your quad (glute)
  • Stomach tight
  • Drive the ground away
  • Explode off the ground
  • Brace up
Change of Direction
  • Hips down
  • Feet wide
  • Drive through big toe
  • Roof over head
  • Train tracks or wide base
  • Push the ground away
Jumping
  • Explode through hips
  • Snap through ankles
  • Drive hips through head
  • Touch the sky
  • Snap the ground away
  • Drive belt buckle up
Olympic Lifting: Snatch
  • Drive feet through ground
  • Drive chest to ceiling
  • Snap hips through the bar
  • Drive feet through ground
  • Drive chest to ceiling
  • Snap hips through the bar
  • Push the ground away
  • Drive/jump vertical
  • Snap bar to ceiling
  • Snap and drop under bar

Which is best?  Internal or External? 

The article cites research that demonstrates internal cues to be more effective than external cues. More evidence comes in an article from Strength and Conditioning Research (a great resource) titled How Much Difference Do External Cues Make? The following studies are cited and they’re summarized:

  • Marchant (2009) – the researchers found that an external attentional focus led to greater force and torque during isokinetic elbow flexion movements while simultaneously decreasing muscle activation as measured by EMG.
  • Porter (2010– the researchers found that directing attention toward jumping as far past the starting line as possible had a much greater effect at increasing broad jump distance compared to focusing attention on extending the knees as fast as possible.
  • Wulf (2010– the researchers found that an external focus led to increased jump height with simultaneously lower EMG activity compared to an internal focus of attention.
  • Wu (2012– the researchers found that an external attentional focus let to increased broad jump distances despite not affecting peak force production compared to an internal attentional focus.
  • Makaruk (2012– the researchers found that 9 weeks of plyometric training with an external focus led to greater standing long jump and countermovement jump (but not drop jump) performance compared to training with an internal focus.
  • Porter (2012– the researchers found that an external focus far away from the body led to greater results than an internal focus or an external focus near the body in terms of standing long jump performance.

“So in general, the main factor that is associated with external focus is an increase in performance. Also, there may be a tendency for reduced EMG activity at the same time. This is interesting, as it may be a mirror image of what happens with internal focus.”

The reference to reduced EMG means that with an external focus, more muscles are actually relaxed during the movement. The benefit to that is that the muscles acting in opposition to the movement are more relaxed, thus allowing for better movement. If too many muscles are contracted then we may move slow.

How does an external rather than internal focus result in superior outcomes? The NSCA article cites work by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf, Director, Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at UNLV:

“Wulf et al. (17) defined the hypothesis, stating that focusing on body movements (i.e. internal) increases consciousness and ‘constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control process that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement,’ and therefore by focusing on the movement outcome (i.e., external) allows the ‘motor system to more naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.’” 

From other research by Wulf in another article:

“Wulf et al. (2001) explained this benefit of an external focus of attention by postulating the ‘constrained action hypothesis’. According to this view, individuals who utilize an internal focus constrain or ‘freeze”’their motor system by consciously attempting to control it. This also seems to occur when individuals are not given attentional focus instructions (2). In contrast, an external focus promotes the use of more automatic control processes, thereby enhancing performance and learning (3,5).”

To me this suggests that the external cueing allows us to tap into reflexes, reactions and movements controlled by the autonomic nervous system. I think any athlete has experienced the situation where we think too much and our performance falters. We think very hard about the individual components of what we’re trying to do and the result is we don’t ski well, we don’t drive a golf ball well, we miss an Olympic lift. In contrast, we’ve been in that “zone” where things just happen.  We don’t think, we do. Everything is coordinated and we’re barely aware of what we’re doing. It seems that the external cues are the best way to get to our ideal way of moving.

Is there a place for internal cues?

So the research tells us that external cues are superior to internal cues. Does that mean we should do away with all internal cues? That issue has been discussed in an article by Bret Contreras titled What Types of Cues Should Trainers and Coaches Provide? and an article by Sam Lahey titled the Science and Applications of Coaching Cues. They’re both in agreement that internal cues are sometimes the best way to go when coaching. As often happens, the coaches in the field have some disagreement with researchers.

Contreras does a very good job in discussing his observations of when internal cues might be superior to external cues, particularly when it comes to getting an athlete or client to feel his or her glutes.  This is from his article:

“When I train beginner clients, it takes me considerable time to get their lumbpelvic-hip complex working ideally during squats, deadlifts, back extensions, and glute bridges. In my opinion, external cueing is not ideal for improving form in the most rapid manner possible. My belief is that internal cueing will get the individual to where you want them to be in a much more efficient manner.

This applies to preventing lumbar flexion in a deadlift, preventing valgus collapse in a squat, or preventing lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt in a back extension or hip thrust.

1) Palpating different regions of their body to make them aware of the various parts involved and what those parts are doing,

3) Having them stop approximately 3/4 the way up on a hip thrust and practicing anterior and posterior pelvic tilt so they can understand how to prevent anterior tilt from occuring,

5) Being ‘hands-on’ during their performance and manually helping place their pelvis in proper position, manually setting the core in neutral, manually pushing the hips upward to ensure full ROM is reached, and poking the glutes to make sure they’re on and the hammies to make sure they’re not overly activated, and

I don’t believe that this heavily ‘internal’ approach can be improved-upon by a purely external cueing approach.”

I tend to agree with Contreras.  I’ve often found that I need to bring awareness to one piece of the overall movement puzzle (glutes are the best example). I want clients particularly aware of glute contraction at the very top of a squat, deadlift or kettlebell swing. Contracting the glutes tightly at the top of these movements is important for keeping the pelvis and lumbar spine in good, safe position and for getting the most “oomph” into the lift. Before I teach these exercises, I want the client to know what it feels like to squeeze their glutes. I simply want them to know what the glute contracting feels like. I don’t need them to move fast or lift heavy. In this case, an internal cue seems to be the best way to go. I’m not sure of a more effective cue than saying “Squeeze your butt as tight as possible,” when I want to make someone aware of their glutes.

(Though now that I think about it, “Squeeze a quarter between your butt cheeks as tight as possible” might actually be an external cue that would work very well.)

Contreras also cites the cues “chest up” and “knees out” during the squat as simple, effective and commonly used internal cues that often work well during the squat. Again, I agree with him that phrases like this are usually effective enough that we don’t necessarily need to construct similar type phrases with an external focus.

Finally, Contreras says that he typically uses more internal cues with beginners during the initial instruction period. As the athlete gains experience and expertise, he moves on to more external cues with the idea of getting maximum performance.  That process matches what I’ve seen and experienced with my own clients and athletes.

Thoughts

The task for coaches and trainers is to use language to express to an athlete how he or she should move. We may use a description that makes perfect sense to us, yet is completely confusing to the athlete. If that’s the case then we need to pick another description of that movement. Further, a description that’s crystal clear to one athlete may make no sense at all to another. From what the research says, using these external cues is probably the best way to get our athletes and clients to move the way we want them to. We may however need several different external cues to paint the best picture in the athlete’s head. If an internal cue works best then we should use it.

What I’ve learned from reading these articles is that:

  1. Less is more. Too much coaching confuses the athlete. Fewer/simpler cues are best.
  2. Directing the athlete’s mind outward will by-and-large get the best performance out of him or her.
  3. Some degree of internal cueing may be necessary from time to time. We don’t want to throw the baby out with all the internal cueing bathwater.

I think we coaches would do well to think of several ways of describing exercises. A good time to do this is during our own workouts. How many ways can we describe moving a barbell or kettlebell? What is important during a push-up and how can we verbalize those points? What are some external cues to describe good running technique?  Or weightlifting techniques?

This whole concept of cues is another example example of that the real target with exercise is from the neck up.  The brain is the real target here, not the muscles, joints or bones.

Size Matters Not: Part I

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I’m very grateful to Jamie Atlas of Bonza Bodies for giving me the opportunity to write a guest post for his blog. He runs one of the big group bootcamps at Red Rocks. He’s been featured in 5280 and has been voted one of the top trainers on Denver’s A-List. Jamie also contributes a fitness column to the Denver Post. So, he’s a fairly big-time presence in the Denver health & fitness scene. He’s also been very generous to me with his time and his sharing of information. So head over to his blog for my post titled Size Matters Not. A Case for Strength Part I.  Parts II and III will appear on my blog.

Worth Reading: What Makes a Great Personal Trainer? Recovery, Pronation, Bringing Up Your Weak Spots

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What makes a great trainer?

The Personal Training Development Center (PTDC) has a lot of useful, informative articles for personal trainers.  Are Personal Trainers Missing the Point is a recent piece with which I agree. The key observation is this:

“The ability to correctly coach exercises is slowly becoming a lost art in the training world, despite that it’s the most fundamental component of being a personal trainer/coach.”

The article advocates for trainers to teach the squat, deadlift, bench press, standing press and pull-up.  (I would ad the push-up to the list.) It’s also suggested that trainers learn to teach regressions and progressions of these exercises. These exercises are the essentials. They have been and still are the basic building blocks of effective exercise programs and they offer the most return on investment of a client’s training time. Read the article to learn three steps to becoming a better coach.

Running recovery

Alex Hutchinson writes for Runner’s World and the Running Times. He recently wrote an article called the Science of Recovery.  He briefly discusses six methods: antioxidants, jogging (as during a cool down), ice bath, massage, cryosauna and compression garments. Anyone who trains hard–runner or not–may find the article interesting.

Pronation

Pete Larson at Runblogger.com gives us Do You Pronate? A Shoe Fitting Tale. Here, he describes overhearing a conversation between a confused shoe store customer and the mis-informed employee who tries to educate her on pronation. Contrary to what many of us believe, pronation is not a dire evil problem to be avoided at all costs. Larson says it well:

 “The reality is that everybody pronates, and pronation is a completely normal movement… We might vary in how much we pronate, but asking someone if they pronate is like asking them if they breathe. I’d actually be much more concerned if the customer had revealed that no, she doesn’t pronate. At all. That would be worrisome.”

If you’re a runner then I highly suggest you learn about the realities of pronation.

Supplemental strength

I love strength training. I love all the subtleties and ins & outs of getting stronger. One area that I’m learning about is supplemental work (aka accessory work). This is weight training used to bring up one’s strength on other lifts (typically the squat, deadlift, bench press or standing press).  With supplemental work, we’re looking to find weak areas and make them stronger.
Dave Tate at EliteFTS is one of the foremost experts on all of this. Thus, his article Dave Tate’s Guide to Supplemental Strength is very much up my alley, and it should be up yours if you’re serious about getting stronger. He discusses several categories of exercises and how to incorporate them into a routine. Below, the term “builders” refers to exercises that build the power lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift):
  1. Always start with the builders. Do not start with the main lift.
    Examples: Floor press, box squat. Sets: 3-5. Reps: 3-5.
  2. Move to supplemental exercises — exercises that build the builders.
    Examples: 2-board press, safety-bar close-stance squat. Sets: 3. Reps: 5-8.
  3. Accessories — Either muscle-based (for size) or movement-based (for strength). Use supersets and tri-sets, as needed.
    Examples: DB presses, biceps curls. Sets: 3. Reps: 10-20.
  4. Rehab/Pre-hab — Whatever you need, nothing more or less. Examples:
    External rotation, face pulls. Sets: 2-3. Reps: 20-30.
This is just a little bit of the article. It’s very detailed. There may not be much here for recreational lifters but for coaches and those of us who have gotten a little deeper into our lifting, it’s a superb article.

4/5/14 Workout

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Oh joyous day! I did several sets of back squats! I love me some squats and it felt like a big breath of fresh air doing them. First time for barbell squats of any kind since the knee went out. I got down to a fairly respectable depth (just below parallel.) The knee felt pretty good. There was some tightness/bruised-type feeling on the outside of the knee but only at the deepest depth. I followed that with deadlifts and some other fun stuff. Here’s what it looked like:

  • Squats: 95 lbs. x 5 reps – 115 lbs. x 5 reps – 135 lbs. x 5 reps, 5 reps, 10 reps
    • Life affirming!
    • Felt very solid.
  • Deadlift: 155 lbs. x 3 – 205 lbs. x 3 – 225 lbs. x 3 – 2625 lbs. x 3 – 290 lbs x 3 reps
  • 1-arm kettlebell clean & press: 16 kg x 10 reps each arm – 20 kg x 10 reps each arm
  • Ab wheel roll out: 7 reps x 3 sets

I followed this workout with intervals on the bike: 1 minute on/1 minute off x 5 sets followed by several minutes easy pedaling, then I repeated it.

Relatively Good ACL News & 4/3/14 Workout

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ACL News

I saw a non-surgical orthopedist yesterday and he walked me through my MRI. It wasn’t the worst news in the world. There were no bad surprises. I do have a grade III sprain aka a fully torn ACL. I have a grade II sprain of my MCL. No surprises there. The good news is my minisci are intact and undamaged. That’s great news! There’s also no bone damage. I’m really happy about both of these things. Surgery will be required but this injury could’ve been quite a bit worse.

I told him about my activities (staying as active and mobile as possible so long as I’m not in pain) and he approved. He said most people who get this type of injury sit down, prop up their leg, and move as little as possible. The muscles whither and their movement suffers. They go into surgery in bad shape and they come out worse. Recovery takes much longer under these circumstances.

This is no good. I’ll meet both meet with a surgeon and start physical therapy in two weeks. Some people have expressed exasperation and frustration at the pace of this process. I’m not one of them. I’m not the only guy wandering around Denver with an injury and this isn’t life threatening. I’m grateful that I have insurance, I don’t have some awful, exotic injury or illness and I’ve got people around me who can help. Anyway, the doc said surgeons typically wait on the surgery for two reasons: 1) We want to reduce swelling as much as possible and 2) We want to restore as much range of motion as possible. This stuff takes time and there’s no way around it.

4/4/14 Workout

  • Good morning: 135 lbs x 6 reps – 145 lbs x 6 reps – 155 lbs. x 6 reps x 3 sets
  • Super set 1
    • pull-ups x 4 reps
    • push-ups x 4 reps
    • goblet squat x 4 reps: I worked up from 16 kg to 20 kg to 24 kg
    • I accumulated 74 reps on pull-ups/push-ups but I didn’t time it.
    • My squat depth is getting better and I’m very happy about that. My knee is tolerating the movement well.
  • Super set 2
    • windmill: 16 kg x 5 x 2 sets – 20 kg x 5 – 14 kg x 5; What’s the windmill? Watch the video.
    • stability ball leg curl: 13 reps x 4 sets

    All’s well. Might get in a bike ride today.

Great Technique Videos: Overhead Press & Pelvic Tilt

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I’m a big fan of the deadlift and the overhead press. Both exercises train movements that are vital for all of us who live on a planet with gravity.  With the deadlift we pick up something heavy off of the ground. The press has us putting something heavy overhead. Both exercises feature minimal equipment (typically a barbell), they train the whole body and they require all sorts of balance, stability, mobility and coordination. While we could argue all over the place about this, I tend to think these two exercises give the most bang for your workout buck. If I were condemned to an eternity of being able to do only two exercises, I’d pick these.

Sometimes these movements are performed in a less-than-optimal way. These two videos do a great job of showing how to correct problems with each exercise.

Where’s Your Weak Link? Using Exercise to Expose Weakness – Part I

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Where's your weak link?

One big concept is on my mind and it’s been expressed by several experts that I look up to. In his book Movement, Gray Cook says “True champions will spend more time bringing up weaknesses than demonstrating strength.” The great powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell says, “The Westside program is all about finding where you are weak and making it strong. Your weaknesses will hold you back. Kelly Starrett discusses the idea of “making the invisible visible.” With this statement he suggests we can use exercise to expose movement problems. (He talks about this concept here, here and here.)  What does all this mean?

All these guys are telling us that rather than going to the gym and doing fun stuff that we’re already good at and simply making our strengths stronger (taking the easy route, really) rather we should find our weaknesses and work like hell to bring them up to speed.

A slightly different paradigm

I think most of us have an equation in our head regarding exercise.  It might look like this:

I exercise → I get stronger.

(BTW, the word “strong” doesn’t just mean muscular strength.  We can get stronger at swimming, biking, driving a golf ball, carrying bags of mulch, etc. “Stronger” means to improve an ability.)

There might be a few more dots to connect between those statements though. With regard to the earlier statements about weaknesses and making the invisible visible (i.e. make hidden weaknesses visible), we might see the equation thus:

I exercise → I expose weaknesses/pain/poor movement → I correct/improve my weaknesses and poor movement →I get stronger.

What often happens is that we find an exercise that we really like and at which we’re very strong.  We really like that exercise! We do it and we demonstrate to ourselves (and let’s face it, others in the gym) how strong and able we are. Therefore our already well-developed ability gets stronger.

In contrast, I think a lot of us have discovered exercises that we really don’t like. The movement pattern feels awkward, painful or somehow asymmetrical or unbalanced. We have a poor ability to execute the exercise.  In other words, we’re weak at this particular movement.  We don’t do it well and we know it. Thus we rarely if ever explore this particular exercise.  What happens?  We probably get weaker and weaker at it.

So while something we’re already fairly good at gets better, a glaring weakness gets weaker.  And what do we know about chains and weak links? At some point that weak link (poor movement pattern) is going to cause us a problem if it isn’t already. We may not even know how strong we could be if we fixed our weakness.

My rule of thumb is: “If it’s really difficult to do and you don’t like doing it, then you probably need to do a whole lot of it.”

My experience

A lot of my clients have movement problems and various aches and pains. Their weaknesses are often rooted in a forgotten ability to move properly and maintain their joints in proper position. We frequently need to dial back the exercise intensity and simply work on slow, proper, mindful movement. Sometimes this requires a frustrating level of concentration. It gets difficult. It isn’t always fun. This frustration may lead a client to say ” I just want to work out!  I don’t want to think!” In other words, he or she want to revert to their hold habits, ignore their movement shortcomings and do what they’re already good at.

This is an important fork in the road. If a client chooses to continue to focus and do the hard work of correcting bad habits–to improve their true weaknesses–then he or she will almost certainly start to see lasting improvement in the near future. This client and I will likely have a long, productive and happy relationship. On the other hand, we have another type of client.  He or she balks at the first sign of difficulty, ignores and avoids weaknesses, and in essence chooses to tread water and only marginally strengthen their limited strengths.  He or she has picked an easy but limited route. In this case, our relationship is thankfully short.

The big picture

I’m going to go into some specifics in the next post, but for now I’d like you to consider the idea that the real way to get stronger is to seek out and wallow in your pathetic weaknesses. If you think you don’t have any, then add weight, reps, range of motion and/or speed to see if things start to come apart. Recognize where you start to fail and dedicate yourself to working on those weaknesses.

An FMS Discussion: Part I

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The Functional Movement Screen is a subject I’ve been studying (and writing about) recently. I recently had the pleasure of traveling to San Francisco to attend the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).  I got to meet some interesting, smart people and some great information found its way into my brain.  So what is the FMS?  From the FMS site:

Put simply, the FMS is a ranking and grading system that documents movement patterns that are key to normal function. By screening these patterns, the FMS readily identifies functional limitations and asymmetries. These are issues that can reduce the effects of functional training and physical conditioning and distort body awareness.

The FMS generates the Functional Movement Screen Score, which is used to target problems and track progress. This scoring system is directly linked to the most beneficial corrective exercises to restore mechanically sound movement patterns.

Movement patterns vs. Muscles

A key component of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) paradigm is the idea of training movement patterns rather than individual muscles. For example, what muscles does the squat use?  Pushups? The deadlift?  For that matter, what muscles does basketball, gymnastics, swimming, or raking leaves use?  The answer is a lot of muscles, and these muscles must work together in sequence to create movement. (A better question might be “What muscles don’t these activities use?) This concept of addressing and thinking in terms of patterns rather than muscles is important in terms of how our brain works.  When we walk, our brain doesn’t say, “Fire the glute max, and medius, now the semimembranosus, now the semitendinosis, biceps femoris, now the gastroc, soleus…”  The brain says, “Extend the hip.”  The brain has a map of our movement patterns and it executes our movements based on that map.  An analogy might be a song.  When we hear a song we hear a song.  We typically don’t listen to the individual instruments absent the other instruments.  We hear a cohesive, coordinated song. While it may be appropriate and necessary to analyze individual muscles in some therapeutic processes, remember that our brain drives our movements via coordinated patterns.  Very typically our pain and dysfunctional movement is due to faulty movement patterns in our brain.  The FMS strategy helps restore those patterns.

Mobility first.  Stability second.

World-class mobility and stability

Gray Cook discusses developmental movement from infancy on up.  Babies start as helpless, wiggly blobs with no balance or coordination of any sort.  At some point in their lives they may become gold-medal gymnasts, top professional tennis players, surfers, piano players, chansaw jugglers, stilt walkers–who knows what?!  In other words they go from a highly mobile yet uncoordinated state to a much more stable and coordinated state.  This ability to blend mobility and stability into movement is called motor control. (Unfortunately due to the Western lifestyle which is chock full of sitting, these former masters of motor control often turn into weak, rigid, unbalanced, uncoordinated zombies racked with pain.  It’s not simply “age” that robs us of motor control.  We choose to avoid moving–and then we become unable to move well.)  The big point here is mobility precedes stability, and we certainly need both.

It’s important to understand that joint stiffness isn’t the same as stability.  A joint often stiffens due to injury or lack of movement.  If we are unable to effectively stabilize a joint, then that joint may stiffen as a sort of a plan B by the nervous system.  A stiff, poorly moving joint is not a healthy joint.  Why?  Primarily a stiff joint brings on poor proprioception.  In the grand scheme, a stiff joint is a poor transmitter of information to the brain, and a poor receiver of information from the brain.  It doesn’t pay attention well.  If you have trouble standing on one leg, it’s very likely that one or more of your joints are stiff.  For an illuminating discussion of the mobility/stability concept, please read the Joint by Joint Approach from Gray Cook.  The concept was born out of the observation that as we look at the skeleton from the ground up, we tend to see an alternating pattern from joint to joint in which one joint tends to be stiff and the next joint tends to be loose and sloppy. It might be a bit technical for some people but the big chunks of information will be digestible for most and it’s a very powerful concept when thinking about movement dysfunction.

Asymmetries

Might an asymmetry be hiding in this athlete?

A key part of the FMS is the recognition of and correction of asymmetries. Often when someone goes through the FMS we’re able to expose asymmetries in range of motion (ROM), balance, coordination, strength, etc. One side of the body is good at a movement while the other side isn’t.  (The half-kneeling exercise often exposes an asymmetry.) Typically the test subject has no idea the asymmetry exists. He or she has been moving through life unconscious that they’re lopsided and out of whack.  In other words, we’re helping create awareness.

 

But why do we care about asymmetries?  Think about this: If we go to perform a squat, a deadlift, a jump, a press–some sort of movement that requires strength, power and coordination–but we’ve got one side of the body that can’t handle the job, do you think at some point we might incur an injury?  If one side is mobile, stable, and strong while the other side isn’t, what do you think might happen?  Could we see a situation where lifting something off of the ground might cause some weird torquing forces through the hips or spine?  Hello herniated disk.

Next I’ll discuss the corrective process and use some of my own issues as examples.