Category Archives: Body stretching
I spend most of my day working with sedentary office workers who toil in cubicle mines for an average of 8-12 hours a day. Not surprisingly, most arrive at my door with the mobility of a clam, which makes training them to do even simple things like hip hinges, squats, and other staples of a training program a challenging endeavor.
However, static stretching alone is not the answer. In fact, it barely provides any benefit at all.
No matter how much time a client spends stretching, they typically see only transient improvements in flexibility and negligible improvement in motor control when performing any movement using that new range of motion.
As a result, I’ve dropped almost all static stretching from my programs in favor of some more advanced mobility methods I’ll discuss here.
Banana Hammock Splits
Let’s start with the basics. “Mobility” means increasing the usable range of motion at a joint or joints in the hope that this increased range of motion allows for performance benefits and injury prevention.
This new range of motion should stick, or at least be something you can get back relatively quickly, as the only limiting factor should be the joint structure itself.
Everyone should theoretically be able to do the splits. The hip joint can get to 170 degrees of flexion, and in some angles outside of the saggital plane it can get to more than 200 degrees flexion. It can also extend to between 40-60 degrees, which adds up to way more than the necessary 180 degrees to do a split.
This leaves soft tissue restrictions as the reason most people can’t tea bag the floor. Sure, some have structural issues with the shape of their hip joints, but that can’t be something that could account for the entire population.
Flex Wheeler used to hit the splits on stage, carb depleted and dehydrated while packing more muscle than 95% of the population, proving the concept of being “muscle bound” to be complete and utter horse shit.
Why “Stretching” Won’t Make you Stretchy
The common thought process regarding static stretching is to hold an elongated position for 20-30 seconds to create additional length within a muscle to allow for a greater range of motion.
This is good in theory, but in practice it doesn’t seem to happen. If stretching is supposed to increase range of motion, why do people keep stretching while remaining chronically “tight”?
A better question would be why is that muscle or tissues so tight that they require stretching in the first place? Muscles are stupid creatures and they only do what they’re told to do. The nervous system calls the shots and if it says contract, the muscle contracts.
If the brain tells a muscle “get tight,” it’s for a reason, usually to produce movement (eccentric or concentric action), provide stability, or to protect joints during novel movements or ranges of motion.
The muscles of the hips are getting tight to try to provide some level of stability for another area of the body that doesn’t have it, so you can move efficiently and without pain.
This means that simply stretching a muscle without figuring out why it’s tight will just result in it getting tight again.
Below is a video to show the thought process in action with a live assessment and corrective strategy. Watch what happens with her left hip internal rotation:
She didn’t have to move her hip through any kind of range of motion to gain that new mobility, so we know stretching wasn’t going to be the answer.
Some people claim that static stretching helps increase the length of the muscle, which is almost as possible as me caring about Kim Kardashian or not being glued to the TV when the movie, Blood Sport,is playing.
If you grab a rope and pull it, it gets longer for as long as the tension is applied, but then when you let it go it returns to its normal length. That is unless you start ripping fibers and causing some irreparable damage.
Gymnasts and dancers have crazy mobility for life because they tend to go through deformational changes as children to help them get deeper stretches and more range of motion through alterations to their femoral head and neck, hip capsule, and almost every other joint where freaky mobility is necessary for their sport.
Static stretching a muscle is the same. Sure, it changes length for a little while, but returns quickly. There’s no way stretching will add sarcomeres in series – which would actually increase the length of the muscle – without long sustained holds of about 20-30 minutes, as shown by some studies.
Additionally, static stretching reduces your ability to produce muscular force, meaning you’re less likely to push massive weights and catch the attention of someone who may want to see you naked. Who would want to limit themselves like that?
What Else Could You Do?
While many people think foam rolling is a method of stretching, it’s not. The length of the muscle or tissue isn’t undergoing any kind of length change, but rather a neural down-regulation that reduces resting tone in prime movers, meaning you can move more easily and with a better chance of having balanced tension around the joint.
It’s a testament to how resetting the neural tone of a tissue can help increase range of motion faster than simply stretching.
But again, un-gluing a chronically tight area without restoring stability to the tissues it’s trying to help stabilize will only result in it getting tight again.
Chronic IT band pain? Look at how your hips and feet are moving, how your knees are positioned during your squats, and also your lateral core stability on that side.
Start off by gripping the floor and trying to form an arch in your foot whenever you have it in contact with the ground. You should be thinking of using your heel and the ball of your foot to shorten your sock without curling your toes.
From there, drive the knees out when squatting and deadlifting, so you keep the knees vertical over the feet instead of letting it cave in a valgus stress.
Foam rolling should be the first step to regaining lost mobility, specifically for the hips, typically occupying the first 5 minutes or so of any training session. Go super slow through all the tight spots, slow enough to make glaciers say, “Slow down!”
Traction is another form of mobility that can be applied to anyone and is a very effective form of mobilization to help un-glue sticky joints. I picked up a version of a dynamic traction movement with a thick elastic band from Kelly Starrett.
This involves having the band up high on the thigh, close to the hip joint, and rocking side to side. The elastic is pulling the hip joint slightly apart, while the action of the rocking helps to get the muscles working around the hip while in the new joint position.
(Just watch out so you don’t get your junk caught in the action.)
This can help reduce the resting tension of the muscles around the joint as it reduces the compressive signaling in the muscles supporting the joint.
An additional benefit is that the mild compression on the adductor muscles of the inner thigh can help increase activation and provide a better chance of total joint stability rather than simply addressing hamstrings and glutes.
The adductor magnus also causes a degree of hip extension, so spend some time on that as well when you’re trying to build your posterior chain.
Traction has commonly been used in therapeutic settings to provide a decreased stimulus to overactive muscles and receptors, and encourages an increase of fluid delivery into the joint spaces. Decompression tables for disc injuries are a common method of traction.
In passive settings it’s effective, but again doesn’t address the muscular stabilization component mentioned earlier. Having the dynamic rocking as shown here helps clean this up nicely.
Active mobility comes into play with the newly unlocked joints and tissues. The role of active mobility is to train the body to use the range of motion in the most effective way possible so that the likelihood of maintaining this new range is higher than simply rolling in to the gym at peak hour, squatting heavy, high fiving everyone in the gym and then going home.
The major directions that tend to be lacking in hip mobility are full hip flexion (bringing the knee to the chest), abduction (legs wide apart), external rotation (crossing an ankle over your knee), and even hip extension.
When doing any active mobility, it’s best to try to get all the movements down as fast as possible while focusing on getting the movement to come from the hip and not from the lumbar spine.
Focus on keeping the spine tense and the core active while sinking deep into the stretches, hold each for a single breath per rep, and continue on to the next one.
Putting it all Together
So to outline a plan of attack to get your hips going in the right direction:
- Foam rolling: Super slow, hips, IT band and adductors – 5-10 minutes
- Traction: Super slow and concentrated – 2 sets x 15 reps
- Active Mobility: Core tense and focus on breathing – 2 x 8-12 reps each side
The total time needed to get the hips singing a happy tune should only be about 15 minutes. If this 15 minutes means the difference between squatting deep into the hole and developing a bigger and better squat, or getting your hips back in a deadlift without having your low back flex to compensate, you’ll have a greater chance of pulling big numbers and not getting injured.
I should also say that having more hip mobility opens up more possibilities for exercises you can do, which will help reduce boredom and monotony in the gym. It can also increase the number of, ahem, positions you can get into outside of the gym.
Gene Lawrence is a 73 year-old powerlifter who stays up-to-date with the writings and recommendations of his favorite strength coaches. Like many lifters, he finds the conflicting advice extolled by the various experts to be downright confusing.
I’ve been training with Gene for the past several months, watching him bust out 365-pound deadlifts like it ain’t no thang. Just recently he said to me, “I really wish someone would just write an article that taught me the rules. What are the things you have to do versus the things that are just nice to do?”
I pondered his question for several days, and came to the conclusion that there are only 8 laws in strength training.
At first I figured there’d be more, but almost every time I thought up a potential law, a refuting argument came to mind.
Now of course, it’s difficult to make hard-fast laws due to varying goals and genetics. However, in the end I feel that I was fair with my determinations.
These laws are based on what I’ve learned both as a lifter and researcher, and they’re formed by my current level of scientific understanding, meaning they’re malleable and subject to change.
Bear in mind here that I’m assuming that since you read T Nation, you care about both your strength and your physique.
In Part II of this series, I’ll give you the 8 laws, but in this article I’ll set the stage and present 20 potential laws that got shot down. Many coaches and trainers might determine that some of these are indeed laws, but not me.
The following 20 things are “nice” to do, but not absolutely necessary.
The 20 “Almost” Laws that Didn’t Make the Cut
1. You must foam roll.
Foam rolling feels good. Ask any foam rolling lifter if it makes them feel better, alleviates pain, or prevents injury, and the resounding answer will be yes.
However, there are millions of lifters who don’t foam roll who do just fine. To date, there are only a couple of studies that have been conducted on foam rolling, and to be frank, we really don’t know much about it as far as what it does and doesn’t do (Miller & Rockey 2006, MacDonald et al. 2012).
Right now we can speculate as to what it does, but at this point it’s just that – speculation.
2. You must stretch.
Stretching usually feels good too, and intuitively most lifters feel like it’s a good idea. Nobody wants to lose their flexibility, and it’s no fun being tight.
However, proper strength training itself involves stretching. Research shows that strength training is as effective as stretching at building flexibility, due to several factors (Aquino et al. 2010, Simao et al. 2010; Morton et al. 2011, Nelson & Bandy 2004).
First, the eccentric component of exercise, along with exercises that place sufficient tension on muscles at long lengths, induces sarcomerogenesis and actually increases flexibility through creating new sarcomeres in series and lengthening muscle (Brughelli & Cronin 2007). So resistance training is a viable form of loaded, active stretching.
Next, passive stretching can indeed decrease stiffness and increase pain tolerance to stretch, but it doesn’t regulate muscle length like active stretching does (Weppler & Magnusson 2010, Riley & Van Dyke 2012). If you regularly perform exercises like full squats, Romanian deadlifts (RDL’s), lunges, chin-ups, dips, and calf raises with good form through a full range of motion, you’ll possess good overall flexibility.
3. You must do cardio and/or HIIT.
Cardio sounds good in theory. After all, the heart is the most important muscle, right? But what exactly is “cardio?” Doesn’t the heart beat quite hard during strength training?
While prolonged low-intensity cardiovascular exercise does indeed have its own merits, strength training – particularly performed intensively close to muscular failure – provides many of the benefits that cardio does (Steele et al. 2012).
As long as you have an active lifestyle and lift weights frequently with sufficient intensity, cardio isn’t mandatory. If you’ve ever performed a set of 20-rep walking barbell lunges with 225 pounds, then you know that resistance training works the cardiovascular system very well.
Over the past decade, exercise scientists have raved about HIIT, pointing out that it leads to greater metabolic expenditure and fat-loss over prolonged periods compared to steady state cardio due to the effects of EPOC (Tremblay 1994, Hazell et al. 2012). However, lifting weights is a form of HIIT, as long as you train intensely.
4. You must go heavy (i.e., lift over 90% of your 1RM).
Recently, it’s been shown that lighter weights performed to failure can indeed provide a potent muscle hypertrophy stimulus, perhaps even greater than heavy weights (Mitchell et al. 2012).
It’s too early to tell as the studies have relied on beginner subjects, but at the very least the newer research shows that you can certainly build muscle without using heavy weights.
Ever seen Kai Greene train his glutes? He uses light weight for high reps and focuses on feeling the glutes moving the loads. Jay Cutler doesn’t go nearly as heavy as he did earlier in his career, but nevertheless he’s more muscular due to a shift in focus on muscle contraction.
Few bodybuilders go lower than 6 reps, and for lower body most stick to sets of 10-30 reps. For the most part, Andy Bolton, the first man to deadlift over 1,000 pounds, relies upon Dynamic Effort deadlifts to build his world class deadlifting strength.
5. You must train explosively (i.e., Dynamic Effort).
Many lifters benefit from the Dynamic Effort method. Explosive lifting increases muscle activation at the start of the lift and allows for more frequent training due to lighter loads being used.
However, explosive lifting also diminishes muscle activation in the latter half of the lift due to requisite deceleration of the load (Frost et al. 2010).
Most bodybuilders lift semi-explosively, yet they’re sure to control the weight through the entire ROM. Many seek to keep more constant tension on the muscles to maximize the pump effect.
Furthermore, many powerlifters have gained plenty of strength having never focused on lighter weight for maximum acceleration. Dynamic Effort work is a great idea for Olympic lifters and athletes, but it’s not mandatory for general lifters.
6. You must go to failure.
Growing up reading strength training articles, I was led to believe that the last rep of a set was the only one that counted and the only one that built strength. Now I realize that it was hogwash.
You can build incredible strength staying far away from failure. Sure you won’t build maximum strength if you don’t push the boundaries from time to time, but you can leave a rep or two in the tank and still be quite strong and muscular.
In fact, a recent article showed that maximum muscle activation during a set was reached a few reps prior to failure (Sundstrup et al. 2012). A decent case could be made that by avoiding the increased wear-and-tear on the joints and nervous system induced by going too heavy or too hard might lead to increased progress through decreased stress, pain, and injury, along with increased recovery.
7. You must squat.
The squat is the king of lower body movements, no doubt. But do you have to squat? Some lifters never seem to dial down their form on squats, and this has much to do with their anthropometry.
Ben Bruno has shown that it’s indeed possible to make steady progress with squatting strength through intensive focus on single-leg strength. Research has shown that single-leg strength and power training led to slightly better performance effects than double-leg strength and power training, though the effects weren’t significant (McCurdy et al. 2005).
Strength is highly dependent on the movement pattern, so as long as you perform a single-leg squatting movement such as a Bulgarian split squat or a reverse lunge, your strength on the squat won’t suffer dramatically.
Let’s say that week in and week out you performed a bilateral deadlift or good morning variation along with a single-leg squat variation, yet you never did bilateral squats. Your quads would still be muscular, your spine stable, and your hips strong.
8. You must deadlift.
If the squat is the king of lower body movements, the deadlift is the king of total body movements. Therefore you must deadlift to see great results, right?
Westsiders showed long ago that a lifter could build a very strong deadlift without deadlifting. They performed tons of box squats, good mornings, back raises, pull-throughs, reverse hypers, and glute ham raises – and their deadlifts were incredibly strong.
I’ve found that heavy-ass kettlebell swings can do wonders for building and maintaining deadlift strength. Max Shank can single-leg RDL 315 pounds for reps, which provides a huge training effect for the hip extensors, keeping the deadlift pattern strong while sparing the low back.
In terms of bodybuilding, many lifters prefer the blend of bent-over rows, T-bar rows, and back extensions for their mid and lower back development rather than deadlifts, as they’ve found that the deadlift just isn’t worth the risk to their body.
If your program contained heavy KB swings, box squats, good mornings, bent over rows, T-bar rows, and back raises, your deadlift would be plenty strong, and your back and hip extensors would display impressive muscularity.
9. You must bench press.
Now let’s move on to the king of upper body movements, the bench press. The bench press is without a doubt the most popular exercise in the world, but do you have to perform it? Many lifters’ shoulders just don’t agree with the bench press, and therefore, they need not include it in their programs.
You can build a strong bench press through other pressing movements. For example, a lifter who performed lots of weighted push-ups and/or dumbbell pressing from different angles will have muscular pecs and triceps, not to mention a reasonably strong bench press.
10. You must do unilateral or bilateral exercises.
Let’s say a lifter only performed squats, leg presses, deadlifts, hip thrusts, back extensions, glute ham raises, bench press, military presses, dips, push-ups, bent-over rows, chins, and barbell curls for his entire lifting career. I think we’d all agree that he’d be incredibly strong and muscular, provided of course that he gets strong on those exercises.
Conversely, let’s say a lifter only performed Bulgarian split squats, reverse lunges, single-leg RDL’s, sled-pushes, single-leg hip thrusts, single-leg back extensions, single-arm db bench presses, single-arm DB shoulder presses, one-arm DB rows, single-arm pulldowns, and alternating DB curls for his entire lifting career. He’ll also be incredibly strong and muscular, provided he gets strong on those exercises.
11. You must train your core directly.
Free-weight compound exercise does a good job of activating the core musculature. Getting an aesthetically pleasing mid-section has more to do with being lean than possessing muscular abdominals anyway.
If you perform exercises such as chin-ups, push-ups, squats, deadlifts, farmer’s walks, military presses, and barbell curls, your core will be plenty strong and muscular. Combine this with proper nutrition and your midsection will look great.
12. You must use free-weights.
Free weights reign supreme in the strength training world. They allow for natural movement patterns and require real-world stabilization. Therefore they’re absolutely necessary, right? Not so fast.
Prime-mover muscle activation can be matched with machine training, and a lifter can gain incredible strength and size this way.
Moreover, there’s a big difference between a crummy machine program and an optimal machine program.
For example, if a lifter simply performed leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises, pec deck, straight-arm pulldowns, and lateral raises, he probably wouldn’t get very far in terms of total body strength and muscularity.
However, if a lifter performed Lever squats, Hammer strength deadlifts, leg presses, lying leg curls, Hammer strength upper body presses and pulls from various angles, and cable curls, he’ll be incredibly strong and muscular, provided he gets strong on those exercises.
13. You must always strive for progressive overload.
Earlier in a lifter’s career, progressive overload is mandatory. But later on, there are other ways of progressing. For example, you can use better form, emphasize a particular muscle, or exert better control.
Many bodybuilders, in an attempt to spare their joints and decrease the likelihood of injury, actually place heavy squats and/or deadlifts toward the end of the workout so they can achieve a training effect while not relying on such heavy loads.
Let’s say you’ve built your strength up to a 300-pound bench, 400-pound squat, and 500-pound deadlift, and you decide to stay there for a year while improving upon your form and honing in on your diet. You’d look better despite not using progressive overload. Progressive overload is critical, but it’s not always mandatory.
14. You must incorporate plenty of variety.
Variety is the spice of life. Training can be quite mundane, and it’s always nice to spruce your programs up with new exercises, altered stance and grip widths and ranges of motion, or other tweaks such as pause reps or drop sets. Failure to vary your workouts is said to lead to stagnation and “habituation”.
However, is variety truly necessary? Plenty of Olympic weightlifters from Bulgaria didn’t fall into this trap – they performed around six exercises year-round. And this is the crux of John Broz’s system – back squats, front squats, power cleans, power snatches, clean & jerks, and snatches.
Let’s say that a certain lifter performed the same five exercises his entire lifting career, and for 30 straight years he only did back squats, deadlifts, bench press, military press, and bent over rows. He’d probably have better strength and development than 90% of lifters.
Variety is nice – we all like it, it breaks up the monotony, and it keeps us interested in going to the gym, but if you don’t like change, then you don’t have to change in order to see excellent results.
15. You must periodize your training.
Periodization is essential for lifting success, right? The Russians were all about it, and American sports scientists have gone to great lengths planning detailed cycles of varying lengths. So it has to be mandatory for success, right?
The fact is, periodization is debated in the literature, and studies don’t tend to show a huge difference in gains between varying periodization models (Kiely 2012, Issurin 2010).
If you’re in tune with your body, you possess ample “common sense”, and you know the basics of program design, then you don’t really need to “periodize” your training.
But first let me clarify this statement. What is “periodization” anyway? It’s “planning”. How can any sensible lifter not perform some sort of planning when he trains? Even the biggest fools at the gym know what their “go-to” exercises are for the chest and biceps.
The vast majority of respectable lifters plan their training splits, training frequency, exercise selection, and order. Based on intuition and biofeedback, they tend to vary the intensity and volume on a particular day, but there’s some structure and planning to their methods.
Therefore, every single respectable lifter does in fact periodize his training. But do you need to jot down an annual plan full of cycles and phases? The vast majority of bodybuilders don’t do this, especially the top dogs.
Furthermore, “life” tends to force you into cycles and phases. Stress, new jobs, vacations, injuries, parties, holidays, work, deadlines, new relationships, and travel force lifters into varying their programming.
Moreover, periodization doesn’t allow for “on-the-fly” adjustments and can be too rigid. Chuck Vogelpohl was notorious for maxing out on his Dynamic Effort day; once he got ramped up he couldn’t resist going heavy. Are you going to tell him he’s not lifting correctly?
16. You must deload and/or fluctuate your training stress.
As mentioned above, life forces you into fluctuating your training stress. Nevertheless, should you plan recovery weeks? Probably, but what if you’re the type of lifter who simply “nails” the optimal training variables each week?
Some lifters lack testicular-fortitude and never overreach. These folks don’t need back-off weeks. Some lifters train balls-to-the-wall and are prone to overdoing it. These folks benefit greatly from deloading.
But there are certain lifters who intuitively understand just how hard to push things. They might slightly overreach by Friday, but after taking the weekend off, they’re good to go by Monday. They make steady gains despite never taking a week off or even taking a back-off week, due to the fact that they perform just the right amount of frequency, volume, and intensity for their body week in and week out.
17. You must train frequently.
I’m a huge fan of HFT. But is it absolutely necessary? Some of the best gains I ever made were from a HIT program. Every five days, I performed a full-body workout consisting of big basic movements such as squats or front squats, deadlifts or sumo deadlifts, bench presses or close grip bench presses, and chins or rows. I got incredibly strong and gained a lot of muscle. Mike Mentzer saw great success from infrequent, full-body, intense training, as have plenty of other strong lifters.
One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that you have to be in the gym all day long in order to see results. If more aspiring lifters knew that they could in fact see incredible gains from lifting just six days per month, they’d probably embark on a resistance training regimen.
The caveat is that you have to do it right – no wimpy isolation lifts allowed. Hammer the big basic movements every five days and you’ll see great results.
18. You must perform total body workouts, or you must split your workouts.
The vast majority of bodybuilders split their programs. Many powerlifters split things up too. Total body training works for many individuals, but no single system is ideal for every individual and goal.
On the contrary, Olympic lifters don’t split their workouts, nor do most strongmen or athletes. There are prisoners who’ve gotten incredibly jacked from daily full-body workouts. Split training works for many individuals, but no single system is ideal for every individual and goal.
19. You must perform multiple sets.
Research clearly shows that multiple sets trump single sets for strength and size (Krieger 2009, Krieger 2010, Rhea et al. 2002). However, think of it this way:
Let’s say that a lifter did one exercise per workout and squatted on Monday, benched on Wednesday, and deadlifted on Friday. He performs five sets in each session.
Let’s say another lifter did one set of five compound exercises on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They’re both doing 15 sets of exercise per week. Do you really think that they’d be much different in terms of strength or size?
Aside from a couple of warm-up sets, Dorian Yates performed one set to failure, and he had one of the best physiques in the history of bodybuilding.
The first set is by far the most important, with each subsequent set being less and less important. And if you end up hitting the muscles from more angles due to more exercises being performed, a case could be made that you can see even better results in terms of hypertrophy with single-set protocols versus multiple-set protocols.
20. You must consistently train balls-to-the-wall.
If you don’t go all-out every session, you won’t progress, right? Maybe not. Many experts feel that overdoing things holds more lifters back than underdoing things. Leaving a rep or two in the tank, choosing less-taxing exercise variations, and performing Dynamic Effort work allows lifters to train more frequently by sparing the nervous system and the joints from heavy pounding.
Pavel Tsatsouline advises lifters to “grease the groove” and quit obsessing about maximal performance on every set of every exercise.
Let’s say you train five days per week, never quite going to failure or maxing out on chain close grip bench press, feet-elevated inverted rows, chain front squats, heavy kettlebell swings, and farmer’s walks. You’d be very fit, strong, and muscular, and your joints would thank you.
I’m definitely not telling you that you shouldn’t do the things mentioned in this article. However, some of the tenets listed will be more or less important for you depending on your particular genetics and goals. Just keep in mind that these 20 items are nice to do, but not absolutely mandatory for success.
In Part 2 of this series I will disclose the things you must do to ensure optimal gains in strength training.
Every successful career has hiccups along the way. Making mistakes and learning from them are the bricks and mortar of a long and productive career.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve stolen points from the best of ’em to advance my own training knowledge. In doing so, there were principles and exercises that I readily accepted as gospel and would defend from the tallest tree.
This is how it is. Disagree? Well, you’re just misinformed.
But times change. New research is performed, new information becomes available, and it only makes sense that methodologies would evolve. That is, unless you’d rather stay “right” than admit you were wrong.
1. My Revised Take on Cardio
My one-track mind nearly eliminated the possibility of using conventional “cardio” for fat loss. I sided with the many coaches who argued that slow-go cardio was a potential muscle-waster, not to mention woefully inefficient at burning calories.
Though there is some science to support this position, I realize now that there’s a big fat exception to this:whether to perform steady state cardio depends on the size and musculature of the individual.
Steady state cardio – especially the fasted version – can be a great tool for intermediate and advanced trainees that carry a significant amount of muscle mass.
People generally support interval training as it will have a greater affect on the metabolism, primarily because it promotes two things:
- Oxygen debt
- Utilization of fast-twitch muscle fibers
But if you’re carrying a lot of muscle, chances are you’ve lifted, pushed, and pulled a lot of heavy things to get there. That means your fast twitch fibers have been thoroughly exercised – since they’re the strongest fibers available – so it won’t be the end of the world if you add in a bit of steady state cardio during fat loss phases.
Bodybuilders are perfect examples. While some high-intensity cardio has made it’s way into their fat loss programs, isolation splits combined with a good, clean diet, and fasted and/or post workout cardio still dominate the scene. This improves thermogenesis – heat production within the body – that helps burn fat.
While anaerobic training is what makes athletes like sprinters and running backs get so lean and muscular, most of us are just regular exercise enthusiasts, not pro athletes, meaning we can’t expect to train – or look – like Adrian Peterson.
But we can lift weights and train our strength and anaerobic capacity. Once we’re big and strong, as long as we don’t go overboard, we can use steady state cardio to achieve some solid fat loss.
2. The GHR – A Little-Known Knee Killer?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to completely outlaw such a great exercise. But here’s what I’ve found.
I’ve had several clients complain of knee discomfort during or after a workout that involved a variation of the glute-ham raise (GHR), most often the eccentric GHR.
At first, I didn’t think that this exercise was the culprit, but a couple of sit-downs with a practitioner-buddy of mine had me thinking it might be something to use on a case-by-case basis.
Some say the GHR is a “closed chain” movement since the feet don’t move anywhere during the movement, but here’s the catch. Just like a seated leg extension, a GHR makes only one set of muscles act on the knee joint during the movement (hamstrings). There isn’t a co-contraction of muscles on both sides of the joint.
This can produce the same amount of shear from the opposing side, and therefore pull on the corresponding ligaments that attach to the tibia away from the femur.
With an actual GHR machine, it’s normally not that bad. But when we go into variations like the makeshift eccentric GHR, the shear is intensified since the entire weight of the body is resting on the tibia, inaddition to the hamstrings’ contraction pulling it even further. That means a lot of stress on your PCL.
Still, some are more resilient to shearing forces than others. We all know guys who’ve been doing leg extensions and other open-chain movements for years with zero joint problems, while others get shooting pains if they so much as look at a leg extension machine.
The moral of the story? If you’re using the eccentric GHR in your training, be cautious of its effects. Hopefully you don’t fall into the contraindicated group.
3. “Functional Training” Revisited
The more I looked into it, the more variety I found in trainers’ definition of the term “functional.”
Sure, we have the basic exercises that have carryover into typical day-to-day situations like squatting, deadlifting, and standing pressing. But do we avoid biceps curls, hamstring curls, or bench presses because they seemingly don’t carry over to our daily grind?
Fact is, functional training can take on whatever description we want it to. A hamstring curl action has very little “real life” application, but one of the functions of the hamstrings is to flex the knee, and hamstring curls recreate this movement.
I advocate the big bang movements as much as the next guy. If our muscles aren’t performing their prime actions the way they should, then the number one exercise choices should always be those that enhance those prime actions.
However, I’ll humbly add that most T Nation readers seek strength and hypertrophy. What if we want bigger arms, and we’ve already spent the last three months overhead pulling, farmers’ walking, and close-grip pressing our way to oblivion?
Do we continue to avoid biceps curls because they’re “isolation” movements despite the stimulation for the biceps they provide? Do we still steadfastly avoid skull crushers or pressdowns, even though our horseshoes better resemble shoelaces?
Focus on the must-do’s first, keeping your muscular and skeletal health in check, but sometimes building up your body means training like a bodybuilder. In certain cases, that means isolating right down to the muscle.
4. Stretching and Foam Rolling
For a long time I used this stuff as an “answer.” Today I use it as a “prescription.” In almost all cases, muscles become tight because of a deficient muscle somewhere else. Usually the tight muscle is taking on the role of a muscle that isn’t pulling its own weight. A perfect example would be a pair of tight hamstrings picking up the slack for a set of inactive glutes.
A good rule of thumb is that when a muscle appears deficient, the answer isn’t always to give that muscle more attention. Considering this, we should be able to look at our weak links to see which smaller muscles aren’t doing everything they should to contribute to a functional body.
Flexibility and ROM increases will come immediately through restoring your antagonistic balance. This can be as simple as activating dormant muscles that for a while have been compensated for by the big dogs.
The true “answer,” in my book, is mobility. One of my favorite books is Assess and Correct by Eric Cressey. It has hundreds of drills that make small muscles fire up to create or restore range of motion.
I’m not saying that stretching and foam rolling to respectively lengthen and improve tissue quality is a waste of time. I still use them, and you should, too.
My advice is to turn it into a tactical approach. Instead of prescribing stretching and rolling to any ailment under the sun, start thinking in three ways: improve tissue quality first, activate muscles second, reduce inhibitions third.
Use foam rolling for myofascial release, dynamic warm ups to add range of motion and activate dormant muscles, and then static stretching to muscles that are “blocking” proper movement patterns, such as tight hip flexors affecting pelvic position during a back squat or Romanian deadlift.
5. A Quiet Tweak to Training Volume
This might be stating the obvious, but not all programs are for everyone.
Training volume should be tailored to each athlete, and failing to recognize this is what keeps some athletes from seeing continued progress.
I first experienced this as a collegiate track and field athlete. We sprint athletes would have our workouts set by the coach, though we’d train alongside the athletes from other disciplines (the jump athletes, etc). This was done for simple time management reasons, as it was the easiest way to train a bunch of athletes at the same time.
But each athlete isn’t going to respond to the same training volume the same way – especially when our “base” workouts, usually Mondays, would often look something like this:
- Dynamic warm-ups/flexibility work
- Plyometric/ballistic training – Static jumps, stairs, uphill jumps, med ball work
- Base training workout – 300m + (2)200m + (2)150m @ 85% of max effort
- Core training circuit or weight training circuit
Needless to say, that’s a tough workout and would leave me destroyed. I’d be so sore that it would sometimes affect the practice on Tuesday.
This example is intended to show that quality is everything where training for performance is concerned. Big, tough, and heavy workouts have their place, but if you want to get stronger, bigger, or both, you haveto know when your body is working at its physiological peak, and when it’s starting to go down hill.
Once that line is crossed, it’s a good idea to cut your workout short, or heavily modify its contents.
I’m sure my track coach had the best of intentions, but not everyone’s going to have the same threshold and work capacity. Some levels of DOMS don’t need to be reached, and certainly not repeatedly.
Since you’re not training with a team and can control your workout, don’t be afraid to modify your programming. It may not take longwinded workouts to make your muscles big and strong.
Don’t Worry, I Haven’t Turned Into a Pansy
The smarter I get as a trainer, the more I’m reminded that there are many methodologies, techniques, and strategies for doing things, and many ways to achieve a desired result.
However, true wisdom comes from recognizing that what might work supremely well for person A could be a disaster for person B. In reality, it’s not the exercises that are contraindicated, but the people who do them. Stay aware of that and play your game, not someone else’s.
With age comes perspective and more importantly, wisdom. A lot might change in the next five years, but I can’t see that principle going anywhere.
Tissue quality is paramount when it comes to building a strong, healthy body. For example, something as innocuous as weak scapular retractors or tight external rotators can stop a soaring bench press or shoulder press dead in its tracks.
The body seeks structural balance, and the quicker you accept this and adjust your programming, the more successful your lifting career will be. This means making time for some of the stuff we all hate, namely “sissy” pre-hab exercises and of course, stretching.
Most lifters won’t admit how tight their muscles really are. Each week we make hundreds of loaded contractions; reps upon reps, sets upon sets. Then, when we’re at work or at home “relaxing,” we continue to make our muscles fire by holding all sorts of unnatural positions.
To help offset this, therapists and trainers advocate flexibility and soft tissue work, but oddly, consider someone who spends 15 minutes a day working at it to be doing a good job. That’s not even two hours a week!
It’s important to recognize the vital relationship between a muscle’s quality and its potential to gain size. Rather than being strictly size-obsessed, as we bodybuilders naturally are, a more “outside-the-box” holistic standpoint is at times necessary.
The Good Stuff
Muscles, bones, tendons, fascia, and ligaments all play a role in your welfare in and out of the weight room. Throw off your skeleton, and you get a lack of structural balance. Throw off your structural balance, and you get muscles being overloaded. Overload muscles, and you’re grieved with joint stress and connective tissue issues.
Let’s start things with a simple rule of thumb:
Take a pair of tight hamstrings, for example. Lifters often suffer from hamstrings that have the elasticity of ropes. Yet despite the time spent before and during exercise methodically stretching the snot out of them, they see no improvement in their flexibility or in the performance of their given lifts.
Frustrating as this may be, it makes perfect sense – the hamstrings have all the flexibility they need, it’s thesurrounding muscles that are causing the not-so-pretty deadlifts and squats.
Here are some things that could infringe on muscles’ apparent flexibility or strength:
In the case of tight, inflexible hamstrings, what often hinders ROM are tight hip flexors.
Stand up and try to touch your toes with stiff legs and a flat back. Take note of how close you get. Now, take 30 seconds and static stretch your hips. Now try the toe-touch again.
Notice an improvement? The hip flexors were acting against the hamstrings the first time around. Because they were tight, they inhibited the range of motion the hamstrings could achieve on the opposite site. A simple attention shift like this could be a make-or-break factor whether your muscles function the way you want them to.
Get Your Head Straight!
Your posture is important for more than just looking impressive to the ladies. When you have a head tilt, the corresponding discs of the vertebrae are often being compressed. Not only can this lead to discomfort and chronic muscle imbalance, it can also lower your muscles’ involvement in many major upper body lifts.
Let’s say you tirelessly hit your biceps in pursuit of Thibaudeau-esque guns. Many lifters will crane their necks forward during heavy curls, or even look down at their purty biceps rather than focusing straight ahead while digging in for their set.
This impinges the nerve and lowers the electrical stimulation the nerves can send the biceps from their point of origin. Straighten up!
If it’s a true spinal postural issue and not just a bad gym habit, exercises such as neck bridges can strengthen the neck musculature, along with exercises like the trap-3 raise for the lower traps and thoracic extensions with a foam roller.
Often with muscles that directly oppose one another (like the trap-3 and pec minor, or calves and tibialis muscle), one side can tighten up due to no contributing balance from its antagonistic.
Loose tibialis anterior muscles (the long muscle on the shin that allows you to raise your toes) are often responsible for extremely tight calves that inhibit proper technique. For lifters who suffer from this, it’s as hard for them to drop their heels during squats and lunges as it is for Dennis Rodman to choose an outfit on awards night.
Your muscle fascia is often like a giant, connected chain. Releasing one link can unlock several others.
Try this: Do a standing calf stretch off the edge of a box or step. Now squeeze the glute on the same leg you’re stretching. You’ll feel the calf stretch intensify.
The contraction of the glute tugs slightly on the entire fascial chain, so the stretch is felt right along the back of the leg.
Knowing this, we can apply it to crusty chronic pain spots. Try taking a golf ball or lacrosse ball to your plantar fascia if you suffer from things like foot cramps, Achilles aggravations, or calf tightness.
So We Shouldn’t Stretch?
It would do us well to first distinguish what we’re doing all this stretching stuff for. Stretching work for basic flexibility in everyday life serves a very different purpose than stretching between sets of a 365-pound squat.
Regarding programming, we shouldn’t be quick to focus on stretching as it isn’t always the cure-all “remedy” for everything. Rather, it should be one of many tools in your toolbox to attack a pesky weak point. This way, when we do decide to prescribe stretching, it’ll have the desired effect.
We all sit a lot. We also do tons of work using the muscles on the front of our body and minimal for the stuff we can’t see in the mirror. Flexibility training for health and comfort should be a staple! This brings me to my next point.
Smart coaches preach that we should strive to achieve adequate levels of structural balance. That means the same rule applies for stretching, right?
Stretching both sides of the body evenly is not the answer. Think about it. If one side is tighter than the other side, and you proceed to loosen both sides up, you’re simply maintaining the same imbalanced flexibility ratio, resulting in the same amount of strain and counter strain on the body.
Putting it All Together
Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of muscles to give less or more attention to when stretching.
The Home Stretch
Sometimes we all need a tactful reminder – and a little help – to pinpoint the root cause of a given issue. If working the strength side of things hasn’t been panning out, put some effort into the flexibility side of the equation. You’ll be glad you did.
Bulletproof Your Body
Assessments for the Hardcore Lifter
You lift heavy things. You believe there’s no illness that heavy squats can’t cure. Heck, you’re so hardcore you consider creatine a garnish.
But let your health slip and it’s bye-bye big muscles and new PRs. To prevent the slip, you may need a few physical assessments.
When it comes to assessments, there are a few schools of thought. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got trainers who spend two days assessing someone, taking meticulous notes on everything from how much someone’s left big toe pronates to rectal temperature.
At the other end, you’ve trainers who don’t know their ass from their acetabulum, and so long as their client can stand on two legs they’re good to go, oftentimes leading to disastrous results.
As always, the best approach lies somewhere in the middle.
What follows are some of the common weaknesses and imbalances we often come across at Cressey Performance during the initial assessment process. These are things that, left unchecked, can either really mess up your lifting, create aesthetic “holes” in your physique, or leave you pain-stricken and lying in a hospital with a catheter and bed pan.
But being aware of your weaknesses is only half the equation. You’ll need to know the most practical, effective ways to start fixing those weaknesses to get on the fast track back to being a badass.
Lack of Ankle Dorsiflexion
Poor ankle mobility is a very common weakness. The main issue stems from our affinity to provide “false stability” to a joint that normally wants to be mobile, like taping ankles or wearing those cement blocks we like to call shoes.
Optimally, the ankle should have roughly 20 degrees of dorsiflexion – think pointing your toes towards your shin. If you don’t have it, it’s going to make performing a squat or lunge pattern pretty difficult.
When we lack ample dorsiflexion, a whole host of issues can arise, including anterior knee pain, hip pain, and lower back pain. So fixing it can go a long way in keeping people healthy in the long run.
While I can typically just watch someone squat and tell whether or not he or she has ample ankle mobility (those who lack it tend to be “ankle squatters” and push their knees forward excessively), one of the simplest ways to actually test for it would be the wall ankle test.
Wall Ankle Test
- Stand in front of a wall with the toes of one foot against it.
- Making sure to keep the heel on the ground, simply “tap” your knee to the wall.
- Move your foot back a half inch and tap the knee again.
- Keep moving the foot back little by little, tapping the knee to the wall, until you can no longer keep your heel down.
Ideally, you should be at least three or four inches from the wall. Anything under that and you may be asking for trouble.
To correct it, repeat the test, which is now a suitable drill. Just throw the wall ankle mobilization in as part of a warm-up and you’re golden.
Lack of Hip Internal Rotation
You have roughly 30 muscles that attach to the pelvis alone, so it stands to reason that the hips are a problematic area for just about everyone.
Hip internal rotation deficits are a key player in things such as lower back pain, knee pain, and even contralateral shoulder pain, but what’s surprising is the role that adequate hip IR plays in squatting. Basically, you need a certain amount of internal rotation to effectively go into deep hip flexion.
Hip IR should be tested in two postures, because different structures can limit range of motion depending on whether the hip is extended or flexed.
Seated Hip Internal Rotation
- Sit at the end of a table, with your knees bent over the side, and hold onto the table itself.
- Now internally rotate the hip, without abducting or side bending, which is a sign of compensating with the lower back.
Generally speaking, a minimum of 35 degrees is what we’re looking for in the general fitness population. Comparatively, with rotational sport athletes, we’re looking for a minimum of 40-45 degrees.
Prone Hip Internal Rotation
Additionally, we want to test hip internal rotation in the prone position because as physical therapist Bill Hartman has noted on several occasions, it helps to differentiate whether we’re dealing with a capsular issue or a muscular issue.
- Lie on your stomach and flex both knees to roughly 90 degrees, then internally rotate your hips. Keep both knees together.
If seated hip IR is limited, and prone hip IR limited, then Houston, we have a problem.
If seated hip IR is limited, and it improves with prone hip IR, that’s a little better as you know you’re probably dealing with more of a muscular issue and not capsular.
Here are my favorite drills to improve hip internal rotation:
Prone Windshield Wiper Stretch
Much like the prone hip IR test itself, the setup for this stretch is the same, except here you’ll lie prone on a table (or floor) and only flex one leg.
- Reach back, grab your heel, and pull towards your butt.
- Gently push your lower leg into external rotation, which in turn will stretch the hip into internal rotation.
- Hold for a 20-30 second count and repeat on the opposite side.
Seated Passive Internal Rotation Stretch
This is one I snaked from Dean Somerset, a strength coach up in Canada. It looks at passive hip internal rotation while in hip flexion. As Dean notes, though, the downside of this stretch is that if the posterior capsule or musculature is stiff or tight, this position will be limited.
For some, this may be a more advanced stretch. If that’s the case, stick with the aforementioned prone windshield wiper stretch.
- Sitting at the end of a treatment table, lift one leg back into hip internal rotation.
- From there, grab your ankle and gently lean into the stretch, progressively working your way closer to the table.
- Hold for a 30 second count and repeat on the opposite leg.
Half-Kneeling Hip IR/ER Mobilization with Band
- Wrap one end of a standard band around a power rack and the other around your knee.
- Now actively “pull” yourself into hip internal rotation, and then reverse the direction into external rotation.
- Perform 8-10 reps on one leg, then switch.
Hip Stability (or lack thereof)
Hip stability is seriously lacking in a vast majority of trainees. I’ve seen powerlifters who routinely throw 800+ pounds on their backs struggle to perform a basic bodyweight reverse lunge due to poor hip stability.
Poor hip stability can cause a multitude of issues ranging from lower back pain, knee pain, and even shin splints. It’ll affect performance in the weight room and seriously limit the amount of iron you can lift safely.
While there are several tests you can do to assess hip stability, bilateral or two-legged assessments don’t make much sense because our legs end up doing all the supporting. When the body is supported on one leg, as it is while walking, the body must be stabilized on the weight-bearing leg during each step.
In a single-leg stance, the body is forced to fire what’s been termed the lateral sub-system (adductors and abductors of the standing leg, and the quadratus lumborum of the opposite leg) to stabilize the pelvis. What you’ll see is the affected side going into hip adduction because the hip abductors are too weak to stabilize the pelvis on the femur.
A more functional drill we can use to test hip stability is the single-leg squat:
- Stand on one leg (preferably barefoot) and squat to roughly 60 degrees of knee flexion.
- If the midline of the knee stays in line with the midline of the foot, you’re a rockstar. If, however, the knee caves in or deviates medially, then you’re most likely dealing with a weak glute medius.
To fix it, there are two key drills I use. The first is the side-lying clam, which is a simple exercise but easily butchered by most trainees.
- Rotate your top hip towards the floor to help prevent compensation by the lumbar spine. If you watch the video carefully, you’ll notice that after I flex both my hips and knees, I sorta take my top hip and “close it off.”
- Don’t be too concerned with range of motion here. The important thing is that you do it right!
- If you happen to walk past an attractive female doing this exercise, please, for the love of God, act like you’ve been there before and refrain from making honking noises.
- Perform 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions on both sides.
Taken from strength coach Brijesh Patel, the second exercise is definitely one of my favorites because not only does it integrate and strengthen the feet, but also trains hip stability in multiple planes.
- Stand on one leg (barefoot) and perform 5-8 repetitions in each plane (saggital, frontal, and transverse).
- Try to keep your weight in the middle of your foot and not your toes.
- Be sure to keep the midline of the knee in line with the midline of the foot throughout.
- Ideally, you want to perform all reps without the other foot touching the ground, but I won’t think any less of you if this isn’t doable.
- When performing this drill in the transverse plane (rotating), be sure to move through the hip and not the lower back.
- If this is too easy, you can make it more challenging by adding a reach into the mix.
Poor T-Spine Mobility
Mike Boyle notes in Advances in Functional Training: “The important thing about t-spine mobility is almost no one has enough and it’s hard to get too much.”
It’s important to reiterate that adequate spinal mobility, particularly in the thoracic spine, is essential for normal shoulder function. Lack of t-spine mobility can have deleterious effects ranging from poor length-tension relationships (which can effect proper scapular positioning and stability), to preventing adequate extension (which will undoubtedly affect shoulder range of motion).
I’d go so far as to say that if you spent more time working on your crappy posture, you’d see vast improvements in things like your bench press, not to mention the likelihood that someone of the opposite sex will want to see you naked. With the lights on.
A kyphotic posture (rounded upper back) leads to anterior tilt of the scapulae and poor t-spine mobility. As a result, this places you in a very unstable position to push anything away from your chest, much less a bar with a lot of weight on it. Essentially, it’s like shooting a cannon from a canoe.
So, if we improve t-spine mobility, we can affect scapular positioning (a return from anterior tilt) which provides a bit more stability, and good things will happen.
A favorite test of ours is the lumbar locked rotation. Popularized by Greg Rose of the Titleist Performance Institute, the lumbar locked rotation test is a bit more advantageous because it doesn’t allow for any cheating.
Namely, by sitting back and “locking” the lumbar spine into position, we can’t use it to produce more range of motion. In a sense, we’re forced to move through our mid-back/thoracic spine, which is the purpose of the test in the first place.
- Start in the quadruped position and sit back onto your calves.
- Place your hands behind your back and rotate to one side.
For general population clients, we’re looking for anywhere from 50-70 degrees of rotation. Comparatively, for rotational sport athletes, we’d want to see 70-90 degrees – although 90 degrees is freaky.
If you find that your t-spine mobility needs work, (and trust me, it needs work), try implementing these drills throughout the day or before you train.
Side Lying Windmill
The video is pretty self-explanatory. The only caveat I’d make is that you want to make sure the top leg is at 90 degrees of hip flexion and resting on either a medicine ball or foam roller to prevent lumbar rotation. Also, when you bring your arm up and around your head, be sure to follow it with your eyes all the way around.
Wall T-Spine Dips
This is another great drill to help improve t-spine mobility, specifically extension:
- Stand in front of a wall and place the back of your upper arms against it.
- From there, take a deep breath and “dip” into the wall by pushing your arms up and away.
- Return back to the starting position and repeat.
Lack of Shoulder Flexion
There are numerous things that can affect shoulder health and function. Having the ability to raise your arms over your head is one of them.
Having ample t-spine extensibility plays a huge role here. I mean, round your back and try to raise your arms over your head. Kind of hard, right?
Another aspect that often gets overlooked are the lats. The latissimus dorsi arguably have the greatest affect on human locomotion of any other muscle in the body due to attachments points on the humerus, scapulae, ribcage (breathing patterns), thoraco-lumbar fascia, posterior iliac crest, and the lumbar spine.
The lats actually have a profound influence on our ability to push, pull, and squat big weight. Concurrently, with respect to shoulder flexion – namely, our ability to lift things over our head – having “tight” lats will force someone to compensate with their lower back and go into hyperextension.
This might help explain why many trainees tend to turn an overhead press into a glorified standing incline press. It would also explain why people with limited shoulder flexion oftentimes have chronic lower back pain.
Testing for tightness of the lats is easy:
- Lying on your back, start with your arms on your side, elbows extended, and knees bent (to flatten the lower back and provide more of posterior tilt).
- From there, raise both arms over your head and bring them down towards the table while maintaining a flat back.
- If you’re able to bring your arms down to table/floor level, keeping arms close to the head, you pass. However, if you’re unable to bring your arms to table/floor level, you suck at life and should just jump out of a window and land on a sharp object.
How to Fix It
First off, foam roll your lats:
- Lie on your side and place a foam roller right in your armpit.
- From there, roll down your lat (not your ribcage, you can’t foam-roll bone) and spend a good 30 seconds on each side. For those with tight lats, this won’t be pleasant.
Next is the wall lat mobilization with stabilization:
- Reach across your body and push against the wall.
- With your opposite hand, grab your shoulder blade and pull down to lock it in position.
- Next, all you’re going to do is sit back until you feel a nice stretch in your lat.
- Hold for a two-second count, return back to the starting position and repeat for a total of 6-8 reps on each side.
Assess and Address
If staying healthy and continuing to make progress is important to you, try some of these assessments and see if any “red flags” arise. You’ll be happy you did.