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Training Programs: Are Health and Aesthetics Mutually Exclusive?

Written on September 15, 2014 at 9:00 pm, by Eric Cressey

Roughly once a week, I run Q&A sessions on my Facebook page. Often, they give rise to good blog ideas - and today's post is a perfect example, as I received this inquiry during this week's Q&A:

"How do you think that we, as fitness professionals, can help people move from looks-based result mentality to health-based result mentality?"

This post really got me thinking, as it can definitely be viewed in a number of different ways.

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On one hand, I "get" what this fitness professional is trying to say: there are still a lot of people out there who are steadfastly adhering to old-school "body part splits" for training when it likely isn't the most efficient way to get to their goals. We want training that improves quality of movement if we're going to stay healthy and highly functional as the years go on.

On the other hand, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with folks wanting to look better - and allowing it to dictate their training approach as the "carrot at the end of the stick."  Whether we like it or not, what one sees in the mirror does have a dramatic impact on one's health - psychological health, that is.

In order words, the question seems to imply that looking good and being healthy are mutually exclusive training goals. I simply don't think that's the case - and for a number of reasons.

First, "health" means something entirely different to everyone. We obviously have a ton of different measures of health status with respect to chronic diseases, but what about being "healthy" enough to take on life's adventures on a daily basis? I know some powerlifters who would feel incredibly "unhealthy" if they tried to play racquetball, but I can guarantee you that if you took a racquetball only guy and asked him to train with a powerlifter for two hours, he'd feel really "unhealthy" the next day, too. If you train to be "healthy" in everything you do, you just might wind up not being really good at any one thing.

Second, I'd argue that there are loads of people out there who train exclusively for aesthetics and are incredibly healthy. Natural bodybuilders come to mind, and I know of a lot of people who "recreationally" bodybuild and supplement this training with powerlifting, Olympic lifting, sprint work, and recreational sports for variety and supplemental conditioning. I'm sure there are loads of accomplished "recreational" Crossfitters out there who have perfect blood work and no joint pain to match their developed physiques, too.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it's not our job to tell people what their goals should be; it's our job to help them work toward them, even if it does conflict with our own personal biases.

However, I don't think personal biases should be a problem in this context, though. You see, if you really look at successful strength and conditioning programs, they all have a ton of things in common. In fact, it might be 90% of the program that's comparable across "disciplines."

Everybody can foam roll and do mobility warm-ups, regardless of whether they want to look or just feel good.

Compound lower body exercise can benefit anyone, whether they want a firmer backside, better athletic performance, or just to fit in their jeans a little easier.

Most folks need extra horizontal pulling (rowing), regardless of whether they want to step on a bodybuilding stage or just not wind up with shoulder pain from slouching over the keyboard every day.

Fluctuating training stress and incorporating deloading periods is important whether you want to recovery and develop bigger biceps, or you just want to make sure you have enough energy left over after training to play with your kids at the end of the day.

I could go on and on, but the key message is that we can have both health and aesthetics - and if aesthetics are a goal that helps folks to work toward that end, then so be it. I'd be lying if I said that I don't derive more motivation from seeing my abs in the mirror in the morning than I do from a report that my blood lipid panel looks good. It's human nature that we're more concerned with what is public (our appearance) than what is private (our health), so we might as well get used to it. Health goals are awesome, and accomplishments on this front should be celebrated, but don't think you're ever going to see a population shift toward wanting the "fit look" less than the "healthy feel."

Taking it a step further, though, I think improved performance can be lumped in with aesthetics and health as a result of an effective training program. Successful programs might be 75% the same, but it's tinkering with the other 25% that delivers the benefits on all three fronts.

As an example, with The High Performance Handbook, my goal was to create a versatile "main" strength training program that initially could be easily modified based on posture, joint laxity, ideal training frequency, and supplemental conditioning. On the supplemental conditioning front, folks pick different options to shift the program to athletic performance, fat loss, strength improvement, or mass gain perspectives. Thereafter, individuals can choose from a number of different "special populations" modifications, whether it's for folks who want more direct arm work, those who play overhead throwing sports, or those over the age of 50. Then, there are the obvious nutrition individualization components.

The point is that the best programs are the versatile ones that give people the wiggle room to pursue the goals - aesthetics, health, performance, or some combination of the three - that they hold dear.

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Obviously, this question opens a big can of worms, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Mobility Exercise of the Week: Prisoner Lunge Walk with Pec Stretch

Written on August 21, 2013 at 3:31 pm, by Eric Cressey

Those of you who have followed along with my "Exercise of the Week" series probably can tell by now that I'm a fan of "big bang for your buck" exercises.  This isn't just limited to multi-joint strength exercises like deadlifts, bench presses, lunges, squats, overhead presses, chin-ups, and rows, though.  Rather, it can also apply to mobility exercises because – let's face it – single-joint warm-ups are boring and take too long.  Here's one mobility warm-up drill we'll use to improve thoracic mobility and pec length while opening up the hips.  Simultaneously, you're training the anterior core to resist excessive lumbar extension (arching at the lower back).

For the throwers out there reading this post, be sure to avoid really cranking those elbows back; chances are you already have plenty of range-of-motion.  Just focus more on resisting the excessive arching of the lumbar spine.

Looking for more great mobility drills like this?  Check out Assess and Correct: Breaking Barriers to Unlock Performance.

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4 Steps You Might Have Skipped in Your Strength Training Career

Written on August 1, 2013 at 6:00 am, by Eric Cressey

After he read my blog post from earlier this week, Mike Robertson reached out to me with this great guest post, which highlights in more detail how to be "smart from the start" with your training career.  Mike's new resource, Bulletproof Athlete, has set the new gold standard for safe and effective training for beginner lifters.

As EC discussed earlier this week, a lot of things can go right for beginners, but a lot of things can go wrong for them, too – even if these mistakes aren't perceived.  These problems aren't as simple as dropping a weight on one's foot or misloading a barbell and having it come crashing down.  Rather, they're usually acts of omission – meaning you skipped something (either intentionally or unintentionally) that needed to get done to ensure optimal long-term progression.  Here are four steps a lot of people skip along the way:

Step #1: Developing Quality Mobility and Stability

This is probably the most notorious offender on the list, and yet I think this is the point to which people are the most unwilling to listen.

Case and point: think about how your lifting career started. I can tell you how mine did. Here goes…

The summer before my junior year, we got a bunch of strength training machines at our school. We also got a bunch of hand-me-down barbells and dumbbells from Ball State University. With this mish-mash of equipment, my lifting career started.

Our upper body days were grueling – 5-10 sets of various bench presses, no upper back training, and biceps and triceps work until the cows came home.

And legs? Pffft – well, our leg training left a thing or two to be desired. We didn’t squat – ever – because we didn’t have a rack. And, because they were obviously bad for our knees. My leg training consisted of leg presses, leg extensions and leg curls. Do you see what I’m getting at here?

For most of us, our basic movement foundation is so screwed up, it’s no wonder we’ve either plateaued or ended up injured.

The Fix

Go back to home base. Rebuild your movement foundation via smart mobility and stability training. Teach yourself to squat, push-up, lunge, etc., with good technique and quality movement.

Don’t worry about things like load for now; just get yourself moving better. When you go back to lifting heavy things, not only will you be far more efficient, but you’ll be stronger as well.

Step #2 – Integrating the Core

Let’s quickly return to my first years in lifting.

We had tons of machines, which were great at isolating specific body parts. But we also know they’re virtually useless if you want to coordinate movement like you would in sports, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or any ol’ activities of daily living.

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In my “main” lower body lift (a leg press, at the time) you have a built-in core. No wonder you can throw so much weight around when you’re totally supported and just allow your legs to do the work!

And my main upper body lift (like any young, American male) was the bench press. Again, great for developing the upper body, but not so good at integrating or “tying together” the upper and lower body.

What we’ve ended up doing is training either the upper OR the lower body, but not focusing on exercises that integrate the two.

The Fix

You’re probably already smarter than me early on, so keep doing those compound lower body exercises instead of isolated garbage.

On the upper body training sessions, put an emphasis on upper body exercises that unite the upper and lower body. Push-up variations are awesome here, as are inverted rowing exercises.

Step #3 – Jumping Right Into Deadlifts

I don’t know two guys who love deadlifts more than Eric Cressey and me. Well, maybe Konstantin and Andy Bolton, but we’ve got to be pretty darn close!

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Here’s the thing: if you watch enough people move, you realize that most aren’t ready to do a conventional deadlift on Day 1.

First off, most people these days have zero body awareness. ZERO. You ask them to hinge at the hips and all they really do is extend their back into oblivion.

Then, to make matters worse, they talk about how deadlifts (and hip hinging) “hurts their back.”

The Fix

I like to ease my clients into the hip hinge pattern. If they’re really dysfunctional, we may start with something like a hip thrust to teach them how to extend their hips first.

From there, I want to get them on their feet so they can start to put the pieces together. Whether you choose a Romanian deadlift (RDL), pull-through, or rack pull is irrelevant.

The goal is to get them hinging with a neutral spine, often with a reduced load and through a shorter range of motion than they would a traditional deadlift. Let them groove this pattern and get confident for a few weeks (or months, depending on the client) and then slowly progress them back into full range of motion pulling.

I love deadlifting as much as the next guy, but they may not be appropriate right off the bat.

And along those same lines, here’s one more thing to think about…

Step #4 – Back Squats

I’m pretty sure if I haven’t already gotten my powerlifting man-card revoked, it’s definitely gone after I say this.

Not everyone is prepared to back squat on Day 1.

I know I’m not alone in this sentiment, either. Gray Cook has gone on record as saying, “train the deadlift, maintain the squat.”

I know EC is a big fan of the front squat as well – not just for himself, but for his baseball guys as well.

The bottom line is, the back squat isn’t an easy exercise to master. Does that mean we just forget about it? Absolutely not – I love squatting, and it’s actually become my favorite lift over the years.

But again, that doesn’t mean we should jump right into back squatting Day 1.

The Fix

First and foremost, get that movement foundation first.

Once you’ve got that foundation, then start to re-build your squat technique. I love goblet squats (ala Dan John) and front squats early on in a program. Not only do they lock your spine into an upright position, but they maximize and reinforce good mobility through the hips, knees and ankles.

Plus, if you’re building a rocking posterior chain with your hip hinging exercises, it’s okay to blast those quads a little bit with a really quad dominant squatting variation!

Summary

We’ve all skipped steps along the way. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to find an amazing performance coach when you’re young and start working with them!

However, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the facts.

If you skipped any of the steps above, now is the time to rebuild your foundation, once and for all.

And if you want someone to outline all this for you, pick up a copy of my Bulletproof Athlete program. It’s on sale this week ONLY, and I guarantee you’ll be leaner, stronger and more athletic after you finish the program.

BPA Cover Photo

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 7/24/13

Written on July 24, 2013 at 5:44 am, by Eric Cressey

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading/viewing:

The Mobility Manifesto – This is a series of free videos Mike Robertson just released to kick off the launch of his new product.  It's top-notch stuff that could be a seminar in itself, so take advantage of this free opportunity to get some great information.

Fish Oil and Prostate Cancer – Dr. Hector Lopez has a great response to the recent (media sensationalized) assertion that fish oil may lead to an increase in prostate cancer risk.

Do You Need to Squat Deeply? – This might be the article of the year at T-Nation, in my eyes.  Dean Somerset did a really good job of answering this question – and the answer is different for everyone.

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Exercise of the Week: Challenging Hip Mobility and Core Stability

Written on February 18, 2013 at 11:29 am, by Eric Cressey

In this installment of Exercise of the Week, I introduce the supine leg whip, a great exercise that can be used to challenge both hip mobility and core stability to improve health and performance.

For more detailed exercise demonstrations like this - as well as the rationale for their inclusion in programs - I'd encourage you to check out Ruthless Mobility, a new product from Dean Somerset. This comprehensive resource covers the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" of mobility training in great detail, and is on sale at a great discount through Saturday at midnight. Click here for more details.

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15 Static Stretching Mistakes

Written on February 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm, by Eric Cressey

One of the most debated topics in the strength and conditioning world in recent years has been whether or not static stretching is necessary and, if so, when it should be implemented.  While I don’t think everyone needs it, and that there are certainly are times when it is a bad idea to utilize, I’m still of the mindset that it can have some solid benefits when implemented properly. 

Unfortunately, like all training initiatives, some people do it all wrong. To that end, I wanted to devote today’s article to covering the top 15 static stretching mistakes I encounter.

Mistake #1: Stretching through extreme laxity.

This is the most important and prevalent one of all, so it comes first.  When I see someone doing this, this is pretty much how I feel:

We’re all have a different amount of congenital laxity.  Basically, this refers to how much “give” our ligaments have.  Some folks have naturally stiff joints, and others have very loose joints.  This excessively joint laxity is obviously much higher in females and younger populations, but, as Leon Chaitow and Judith DeLany discuss in Clinical Applications of Neuromuscular Techniques: Volume 1, it is also much higher in folks of African, Asian, and Arab origin.

When you take someone who is really lax and implement aggressive static stretching, it’s on par with having someone with a headache bang his/her head against a wall.  It makes things worse.

This is a tricky thing to understand, though, because many of these “loose” individuals will comment on how they feel “tight.”  Usually that tightness is just them laying down trigger points as a way for the body to create stability in areas where they are chronically unstable.  They’d be better off working on stability training to get back to efficient movement.

I think yoga has a tremendous amount of applications and we borrow from the discipline all the time, but I think this is where many modern yoga classes fall short; they have everyone in the class go to the same end-range on certain exercises. Folks with serious joint laxity should not only contraindicate certain yoga poses, but also modify others so that they’re training stability short of the true end-range of their joints. Unfortunately, most of the people you’ll see in yoga classes are hypermobile women; you see, they like to do the things they’re good at doing, not necessarily what they need to do.

How do you know if you’re lax, though? I like to use the Beighton hypermobility scale to assess for both generalized congenital laxity and specific laxity at a joint. The screen consists of five tests (four of which are unilateral), and is scored out of 9:

1. Elbow hyperextension > 10° (left and right sides)
2. Knee hyperextension > 10° (left and right sides)
3. Flex the thumb to contact with the forearm (left and right sides)
4. Extend the pinky to >90° angle with the rest of the hand (left and right sides)
5. Place both palms flat on the floor without flexing the knees

One of the biggest problems I see in today’s strength and conditioning world is that we assume all “big, strong” athletes are tight and need aggressive stretching.  As an example, take a look at this high Beighton score in a 6-3, 240-pound athlete.  We do very little static stretching with him – and absolutely none in the upper body.

If someone is really lax, nix the static stretching and instead spend more time on stabilization work.  If they still feel like they need to “loosen up,” tell them to do some extra foam rolling.  They’ll transiently reduce some of the stiffness they’re feeling, but they won’t be working through harmful end-range joint range-of-motion in the process.

Mistake #2. Substituting knee hyperextension for hip flexion in hamstrings stretches.

This comment piggybacks a little bit on mistake #1, as lax individuals (who probably shouldn’t be stretching their hamstrings, anyway) are the most likely to have problems with this.  Because the hamstrings are two-joint muscles (knee and hip), folks will often allow the knee to “give” extra because they are subconsciously trying to avoid an uncomfortable stretch at the hip – or they simply aren’t paying attention.  These are the same folks who have terrible hip hinges on toe touch tests, yet can touch their toes without a problem; they just go to knee hyperextension to make it happen.  As an example, this particular athlete scores really high on the Beighton hypermobility score, and he can actually put his palms flat on the floor with little to no posterior weight shift (the wall blocks him). 

How does he do it? Knee hyperextension. 

We’d much rather get a good hip hinge without resorting to excessive joint range of motion at the knee. You get good at what you train, so if you’re always doing your static stretching in a bad position, you’re going to be more likely to wind up in knee hyperextension on the field – and that’s where ACL injuries occur.

Mistake #3: Not creating stiffness at adjacent joints.

In a previous post, I talked about why stiffness can be a good thing, in spite of the negative connotation of the word.  Stiffness is a crucial part of keeping us healthy and enhancing athleticism.  “Good” stiffness allows us to overpower “bad” stiffness that’s occurring in the wrong places, and it helps to transfer force as part of the kinetic chain.  Static stretching can either be an opportunity to foster good stiffness or develop bad habits.

You see, we static stretch to transiently reduce stiffness (or true tissue shortness).  However, if we don’t stabilize (stiffen up) adjacent joints, it defeats the purpose. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say that I want to stretch my hamstrings in the supine position with not just a neutral position (center), but also a bias toward internal rotation/adduction (left) and external rotation/abduction (right).


 

 

 

Now, let’s see what happens to these stretches if one doesn’t engage the lateral core to prevent the pelvis from rolling toward the direction of the stretch on the ones that go out to the sides.

Mistake #4: Irritating the medial aspect of the knee with 90/90 hip stretches.

Most folks are familiar with doing 90/90 hip stretches or cradle walks as a way to improve hip external rotation in a position of hip flexion.  This is the position I commonly see people using at the point of maximal stretch:

The problem is that many folks crank excessively on the medial aspect of the knee by rotating the tibia (lower leg) instead of the femur (upper leg).  This actually parallels what happens during a McMurray’s Test for medial meniscus pathology:

It’s a pretty safe bet that static stretching into a position that replicates a provocative test is never a good idea – and it’s one reason we use 90/90 stretches very sparingly.  If you are going to use this stretch, however, I recommend that individuals grab the quadriceps on the stretching side to ensure that the majority of the pull into external rotation and flexion comes from the femur and not the tibia.  The opposite hand is simply there to support the weight of the lower leg.

Mistake #5: Substituting valgus stress at the knee for hip adduction/internal rotation stretching.

It’s really important than folks have adequate hip internal rotation, as a loss of hip internal rotation has been correlated with low back pain, and it can certainly predispose individuals to hip and knee issues as well. The knee-to-knee stretch is a popular approach for maintaining and improving hip internal rotation, and it’s also my chosen method for demonstrating how incomplete my goatee was at the time of this picture.  Sorry for teasing you with the view down thunder alley, too.

As you can see from the picture, this position can also impose some valgus stress at the knees if it isn’t coached/cued properly.  So, instead of thinking of letting the knees fall in, I tell athletes to actively internally rotate the femurs (upper leg).  The stretch should occur at the hips, not the knees.

In folks with a history of medial knee issues, we won’t use this static stretch.  Rather, we’ll use a kneeling glute stretch, which still gets a bit of stretch into adduction, which will still stretch several of the hip external rotators indirectly.

Lastly, keep in mind that the knee-to-knee isn’t a stretch most females will ever have to utilize because of their tendency toward a knock-knee posture (wider hips = greater Q-angle) at rest.

Mistake #6: Not monitoring neutral spine during hip stretching.

This point really works hand-in-hand with #3 from above, which talked about establishing stiffness at adjacent joints.  Certainly, maintaining neutral spine falls under the category of “good stiffness,” but because it’s such a common mistake, it deserves attention of its own.  When the hip flexes, you shouldn’t go through lumbar flexion. For this split-stance kneeling adductor stretch, notice the correct on the left and the incorrect on the right:

And, when it extends, you shouldn’t go through lumbar extension.  Again, the correct is on the left, and incorrect (hyperextended) is on the right:

Mistake #7: Not monitoring neutral spine during standing stretches.

Again, this is another point that piggybacks off of establishing good stiffness, but I see a lot of people doing upper extremity stretches – overhead triceps, lats, pecs – in terrible spine posture.  Perhaps the best example is the overhead triceps stretch with the lumbar spine in hyperextension, plus forward head posture further up.

Mistake #8: Stretching your lower back.

There may be times when a qualified manual therapist might want to do some mobilizations on your lower back. The rest of you really shouldn’t be stretching your spine out. Stretch your hips, and mobilize your thoracic spine (upper back), where it’s much safer for you to move. Focus on building up some core stability.

Mistake #9: Stretching your calves – and then wearing high heels the rest of the day.

There’s nothing wrong with the “stretching your calves” part; it’s the high heels part that makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Talk about a dog chasing its tail!

Mistake #10: Stretching a throwing shoulder into extension and/or external rotation (and creating valgus stress at the elbow in the process).

I devoted an entire video to this topic last week in my baseball-specific newsletter:

Mistake #11: Stretching through pain or neurological symptoms.

I honestly can’t think of a single reason why anyone should ever stretch oneself through pain. Sure, there may be times when physical therapists may push a post-operative joint through some uncomfortable ranges of motion, but that’s a trained professional making a educated decision.  You stretching yourself through pain is just throwing a bunch of s**t on the wall to see what sticks.  Don’t do it.

Sometimes, an indirect approach is better.  As an example, there is research demonstrating that core stability exercises can transiently and chronically improve hip internal rotation – even without stretching the joint.  If you’re hurting while stretching, see a qualified medical professional to help you devise a plan to work around the issue while reducing your symptoms.

On the topic of neurological symptoms, as an example, intervertebral disc issues with radicular symptoms into the legs may be exacerbated by stretching the hamstrings.  Similar issues can come about if folks with thoracic outlet syndrome perform aggressive upper body stretching. If nerves aren’t gliding the way that they need to be, the last thing you want to do is yank on them.

Mistake #12: Not tightening the glutes during hip flexor stretches.

I’ve written previously at length about how anterior (front) hip irritation is often caused the head of the femur (ball) gliding forward in the acetabulum (socket) during hip extension.  This femoral anterior glide syndrome (described in detail here), was originally introduced by physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann.  Effectively, the hamstrings have a “gross” hip extension pull – meaning that they don’t have a whole lot of control over the head of the femur.  Therefore, we need to have great gluteus maximus contribution to hip extension, as the glute max posteriorly pulls the femoral head back during hip extension so that the anterior hip capsule doesn’t get irritated.

What we don’t consider, however, is that if we stretch a hip into hip extension (osteokinematics), we also need that glute contribution to control the glide (arthrokinematics) of the femoral head.  This is a definite parallel to what I described earlier with respect to stretching a throwing shoulder into extension or external rotation; you don’t just want to do it carelessly. As such, whenever you stretch the hip into extension, make sure that you tighten up the glute:

Mistake #13: Stretching into a bony block.

There are a lot of things that may limit range of motion at a joint.  It could be muscular shortness/stiffness, capsular tightness, muscular bulk, swelling, or guarding due to injury.  In many cases, though, it simply has to do with the congruency of the bones (or lack thereof) at a joint.

In the case of a “fresh” bone spur or loose body at the posterior aspect of the elbow, aggressively stretching into extension could easily provoke symptoms.  Conversely, I’ve seen some elbows with flexion contractures that are a combination of bony blocks and subsequent tissue shortening and capsular tightening that can be stretched until the cows come home with no problem. 

Each case is unique – but at the end of the day, remember that you’re better off being too tight than too loose.  In other words, if you’re unsure about something, don’t stretch it.

Beyond just reactive changes like bone spurs and loose bodies, we also have folks who simply have different congenital or acquired bone structures.  Many individuals have retroverted (externally rotated) or anteverted (internally rotated) femoral carrying angles.  Those in retroversion will lack hip internal rotation no matter how much you stretch them, and those in anteversion aren’t going to be gaining external rotation no matter what you do.  Trying to power through these bony blocks will likely create hip discomfort as well.

We also see retroversion as an adaptation in throwing shoulders, where bones “warp” to allow for more lay-back during the extreme cocking phase of throwing.  This is why most throwers will have significantly less internal rotation on the throwing shoulder than on the non-throwing shoulder in-spite of the fact that they have symmetrical total motion (IR + ER) from side to side; they simply shift their arc.

Before you stretch, you better find out if it’s bone or soft tissue that is limiting you at end-range.  If it’s bone, you’re better off leaving things alone.

Mistake #14: Putting the band behind your head during hamstrings stretching.

This one drives me bonkers.  It screams “I know stretching isn’t hard to do, but I’m still too lazy to put any semblance of effort into doing it correctly.”  Why create forward head posture and neck stress when stretching the hamstrings?

Mistake #15: Not monitoring your breathing.

Nowadays, I’d say that we do just as much “positional breathing drills” as we do actual stretches. The more I learn (particularly from the Postural Restoration Institute school of thought), the more I realize that breathing in specific positions can have a dramatic effect on reducing tissue stiffness. For instance, here is one that all our right-handed pitchers do. 

The left femur is internally rotated and adducted, the left rib flare is “tucked,” right thoracic rotation is encouraged, the lumbar spine is flat, and the right shoulder blade is fully upwardly rotated with a bit of upper trap activation. We cue the athlete to inhale through the nose without allowing the rib cage to “fly up,” and then encourage him to exhale fully, allowing the ribs to “come down.”

We stretch to reduce tone, not increase it – and most athletes are in a constant state of inhalation, which corresponds to a big anterior pelvic tilt and lordotic curve. 

When the rib cage flies up like this, we lose our Zone of Apposition (ZOA), a term the PRI folks have coined to describe the region into which our diaphragm must expand to function.

In this extended posture, rather than effectively use their diaphragm, athletes will overuse supplemental respiratory muscles like lats, sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, and pec minor – and these are all areas where we’re always trying to reduce tone. Check out this great tutorial on apical breathing vs. apical expansion from Bill Hartman, as he hits the nail on the head and shows exactly what you’ll see:

Teaching athletes how to control their breathing during stretching – and paying particular attention to fully exhaling on each breath – goes a long way to help reduce sympathetic nervous system stimulation, get rid of unwanted tone in the wrong places, effective favorable changes to posture, and make the most of the stretches you’re prescribing.  I think the folks in the yoga and Pilates worlds have done a good job of drawing attention to the importance of breathing, and we should appreciate that with respect to how static stretching and dynamic flexibility drills are implemented.

Conclusion

There are really only 15 mistakes that were right on the tip of my tongue – to the tune of 2,800 words!  To reiterate, I have a lot of clients/athletes who do absolutely no static stretching, but that’s not to say that it can’t be of benefit to a good chunk of the population.  Just remember that each body is unique, so no two static stretching programs should be alike in terms of exercise selection and coaching cues. 

If you benefited from this article, please share it via Facebook or Twitter, as this is a very misunderstood topic in the world of health and human performance.  Thanks for your support!

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Mobility Exercise of the Week: Alternating Lateral Lunge with Overhead Reach

Written on December 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm, by Eric Cressey

It’s been a while since I introduced a mobility exercise of the week, so I figured I’d introduce a new one that we use with a lot of our athletes nowadays.

The alternating lateral lunge with overhead reach gives you all the benefits – adductor length, hip hinge “education,” and frontal plane stability – that you get with a regular lateral lunge variation.  However, by adding in the overhead reach, you get a greater emphasis on optimal core stabilization and mobility and stability at the shoulder girdle.

In this position, we’ll coach different athletes with different cues.

If it’s an athlete who is stick in an exaggerated lordotic posture, we’ll cue him to engage the anterior core and keep the ribs down as the arms go overhead.

If it’s a “desk” jockey who is very kyphotic, we may have to actually cue him “chest up” because he’s so rounded over; we have to bring him back to neutral before we even worry much about the anterior core involvement.

If it’s a high school athlete who has really depressed shoulder blades, we will actually cue him to shrug as he raises the arms to complete scapular upward rotation in the top position.

Conversely, if it’s a client is already very upper trap dominant, we may have to cue a bit more posterior tilt of the scapula during the overhead reach.

In other words, this is a great example of how you can take a good exercise and make it even more effective, especially if you individualize coaching cues as much as possible.  Try it for a set of five reps per side as part of your warm-up and let me know how it goes!

Looking for more mobility drills like this?  Be sure to check out Assess and Correct: Breaking Barriers to Unlock Performance.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 21

Written on October 10, 2012 at 10:58 am, by Eric Cressey

Here’s this week’s list of strategies to get your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs headed in the right direction.  This is a collaborative effort between Greg Robins and me.

1. Add amplitude to your conditioning.

Let’s face it: jogging on the treadmill and riding the elliptical or recumbent bike is about as fun as watching paint dry.  While an exercise causing boredom doesn’t mandate that it be thrown by the wayside immediately, it does become concerning with this exercise modality doesn’t broaden the amplitude – or range of motion – that you encounter in your daily life.  Moving better is about improving mobility, which is defined as one’s ability to reach a certain posture or position.  For some folks, this means actually lengthening short tissues or reducing tension in overly stiff tissues, while for others, it’s about establishing stability in the range of motion that one already possesses.  Unfortunately, while you’re burn some calories on these cardio machines, you aren’t going to do much to improve your mobility.

The solution is to implement variety in your conditioning, whether it means taking a bunch of mobility exercises and doing them right after another, or integrating several strength training exercises with lighter loads.  Step-ups, sled pushing/dragging, side shuffles, lateral lunges are all ways to get your hips moving in ways they normally don’t.

In the upper body, innovative rowing and push-up variations can keep things fun while improving your movement quality.

The next time you’re planning to do some interval training on the bike, try substituting some wider-amplitude movements and see how you like it.

2. Get your Vitamin D right.

I’ve seen studies that have shown great benefits from getting vitamin D levels up to normal, but to my knowledge, those effects were most observed with respect to body composition, hormonal levels, and tissue quality.  Interestingly, I just came across this study that showed a significant improvement in power production over four weeks in the vitamin D supplementation group, as compared to the controls. These results are tough to interpret, as the subjects were overweight/obese adults; ideally, we’d study trained athletes with smaller windows of adaptation ahead of them to see just how beneficial vitamin D supplementation is on performance. However, it certainly makes sense that if we’re improving body composition, endocrine status, and tissue quality, folks are going to get more out of their training and make faster progress.

Vitamin D is one of very few supplements that I view as “must-haves’ for the majority of the population.  I’d pair it up with a good fish oil and greens supplement to cover one’s nutritional foundation. This is one reason why I’m a big fan of the Athletic Greens Trinity Stack; you can a high quality version of all three in one place.

 

3. Plan out regressions and progressions.

People like to be good at things. This is especially the case when they are surrounded by a bunch of other people. In the case of group exercise, your attendees are going to have a much better time, get better results, and stay safer if they are performing movements correctly. Group settings aren’t ideal from a coaching standpoint, though, as you can’t spend as much individualized time coaching technique. Therefore, exercise selection becomes paramount to these classes’ success.  In other words, you need to have both progressions and regressions in your exercise library.

A common flaw in group classes is that each week, there are 15 new exercise variations on the agenda. The week before, it was 15 other ones, and the following week, it will be 15 more. I know, I know; people want you to “keep it fresh.” In my mind, by changing the exercises so often you are taking the easy way out.

Instead, have people become incredible at the basics. Have them squat, swing, push up, row – all basic movements. From there, set up progressions and regressions. This is much easier to do when you keep the original exercises basic.

Here are a few examples:

TRX Supported Squat > Counter Balanced Squat To Box > Goblet Squat > Double KB Front Squat > Offset KB Front Squat

Hands-Elevated Push-up > TRX Chest Press > Push-up > Feet Elevated Push-up > Push-up vs. Band

This is mostly for teaching purposes, as an example. The goblet squat is accessible to most people, and it falls in the middle, with two levels of regression and progression built in.

I’m a big fan of more work up front and easy sailing there out. You might need to take some time to develop your class program, but it will make for a better product and better results thereafter.

4. Use leftover vegetables in your omelet.

I don’t know about you, but leftover vegetables never taste quite as good as they do when they’ve just been cooked.  They’re cold, and often soggy to the point that even heating them up in the microwave doesn’t really make them sound appetizing.  Rather than throw them out and skip on your veggies for a meal, try adding them to your omelet the following morning, as the other ingredients – eggs, spices, oils, cheese (if that’s your thing), salsa, and ketchup – can help to liven up their taste.  I’ve done this with previously cooked asparagus, broccoli, peppers, onions, spinach, kale, mushrooms, cauliflower, green beans, and tomatoes.  Some vegetables – squash and turnip, for instance – don’t have the right consistency to make for a good omelet ingredient, though, so experiment carefully!

5. Learn to stand correctly before you even try to train correctly.

Many people think moving well is all about picking the right corrective exercises to get the job done. While that’s certainly part of the equation, the truth is that before you even talk about exercising, you have to educate yourself about how to simply stand with good posture.  As an example, if you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis, you need to learn how to engage your anterior core, activate your glutes, and prevent your rib cage from flaring up up when you’re standing around. Conversely, if you do all your exercises in this aberrant posture, you just get good at sucking!

Have a great week!

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 8/1/12

Written on August 1, 2012 at 7:52 am, by Eric Cressey

Here’s this week’s list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

Four Must-Try Mobility Drills – In case you haven’t already seen this, it’s a article I had published at Arnold Schwartzenegger’s website yesterday, including a lengthy video.

“He’s a Big, Strong Kid” – With the $100 off sale of the IYCA High School Strength and Conditioning Coach Certification this week, it seemed like a good time to “reincarnate” this popular one from the archives at EricCressey.com.

Everything You Need to Know about the Hip Thrust – This is a thorough blog post from Bret Contreras on “everything hip thrust.”  Bret’s devoted his career to glutes and pioneered this exercise, so you could say that he’s an authority on the matter.

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Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding

Written on February 1, 2011 at 1:29 pm, by Eric Cressey

Can I just add some sets and reps of direct arm work?

How about cardio?  Would a few 30 minutes interval training sessions work?

What if I did extra rotator cuff stuff every day?  Just a little tubing, you know?

I’m going to add two extra days of calves, abs, and forearms.  It shouldn’t be a problem, right?

These are just a few of the common questions I receive from people for whom I write strength training programs (plus all the other components of a comprehensive program).  And, it's these kind of questions that make me appreciate just how challenging it is to teach someone how to effectively write strength and conditioning programs – and why everyone gets all flustered when they first start writing training plans.

Very simply, most people don't understand the concept of competing demands.  Everybody wants to add something to their weight training program – but not everyone is willing to take something away in order to do so.

How many elite powerlifters or Olympic lifters do you know who regularly do interval training as part of their quest to get strong?

How many elite triathletes do you know who just want to add a few sets of biceps curls along the road to improving endurance performance?

The answer is, of course, none.  And, it's because – whether they appreciated it or not – these high-level athletes were effectively managing competing demands.

In some cases, different fitness qualities compete with one another; an example would be extensive aerobic training while trying to increase strength.  You can't get strong quickly if you're doing hours of cardio each week.  Somewhat similarly, in an overhead throwing population, it's challenging to regain shoulder internal rotation and flexion range of motion (ROM) and pec minor length when an athlete is throwing – so you have to do your best to get the ROM during down-time in their training year.

In other cases, you may have multiple qualities that contribute to an overall training effect, but you can't prioritize all of them at once.  For example, my professional baseball clients need a host of different qualities to be successful, but the body has limited recovery capacity, so their training programs have to target their most readily apparent weaknesses – and do so at the right time of year.  We cut back on the medicine ball and upper body strength exercises and volume when their throwing volume increases.

And, we can't do as much lower body strength exercises when guys are doing more sprinting and change-of-direction work.  Stress is stress, so you have to apply it judiciously.

Taking this into consideration, I think that one of the best drills for someone looking to get better at writing programs is to take a full-on comprehensive weight training program with supplemental conditioning/movement training where someone is training 6x/week – and then cut it back to 3x/week.  Assume that there is a whole lot of of "other" stress in this athlete/client's life – whether it's work, illness, family issues, or just being an in-season athlete – and figure out how to scale a program back in order to make it productive and safe for that individual.

Lots of factors have to be taken into account: the volume and intensity that individual can handle, how long each session can last, and what specific factors one needs to address most.  A good example to check out would be the differences between the 4x/week, 3x/week, and 2x/week weight training programs (and accompanying optional supplemental sessions) in The High Performance Handbook.

HPH-main

There are loads of factors you have to take into account when you write a comprehensive training plan – from the weight training program, to soft tissue work, to mobility work, to movement training, to energy systems training.  The most important consideration, though, is how they all fit together synergistically to make the program as a whole effective.

So, try the challenge I listed above and see how you do; I think you'll find that it's a lot harder to subtract than it is to add to your weight training programs.

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