Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Where I learned about training: A list of men smarter than I am

Last week an athlete I was working with in the gym asked me where I learned so much about training. [1] I started to respond by telling him that I went to school and received my degree etc. However, I realized that a huge portion of what I use in my programming and my coaching was learned after I graduated or through independent study and research. That is not meant to discount my degree. I think the University of Miami did a great job preparing me for this field but there is simply too much information out there to cover it all in a one year graduate program.

Additionally, a large portion of what I write about on this site is not original. I am not developing any new theories on how the body functions or the best way to train it. My style is simply a combination of bits and pieces of coaches who I have learned from over the years. So today I want to write a post to give thanks to the coaches who have inspired me most. Most of them have never even met me but I feel that given how much of an impact they have on my writing and coaching they deserve at least one post recognizing their work.

Dr. Brian Biagoli -Brian has been my coach and teacher since I was 16 and no one has had a bigger influence on my training than him. I have read work by dozens of coaches but spent more time with Brian than any other coach and for that reason he has shaped my coaching style and how I interact with athletes a lot. He will probably never read this but some of his current students might and they should know they are lucky to have a teacher of his caliber.

Eric Cressey – I discovered coach Cressey years ago while doing a google search for the best strength training loading protocols. I found an article explaining pro’s and con’s of all sorts of variables in training. I proceeded to read every article in his archives. I even had the pleasure of meeting him this summer at the PERFORM BETTER summit in Chicago. Coach Cressey specializes in baseball players but his general training philosophy was a huge part of pushing me away from more bodybuilding style approaches to the more strength and movement based approach that I use today. 

Dean Somerset – This is an author I didn't discover until more recently. He has had a major influence on my views on stretching/mobility training and core stability training [2]. His work also taught me how to train hard through injury. He writes a fantastic, and usually very funny, blog that everyone in the industry should check out. 

Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John – These two have plenty of differences in their coaching style and specialties but I group them together because I heard of them together, they have collaborated on some works, and because they both teach the same principles. I once thought the kettlebell was little more than a circus trick to amuse bored personal training clients [3] However, I learned the benefits of kettlebell training from reading work by Pavel and Dan John and their principles have shaped my training immensely.

Jim Wendler – Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is an extremely simple yet effective program for building strength. I have used it for multiple 12 month cycles and it helped me gain the strength required to take on challenging Olympic weightlifting programs. It is a fantastic routine for any beginner to intermediate weightlifter, although I would adjust some of the accessory work a little bit. [4]

Charlie Weingroff -  By far the smartest coach I have ever seen speak. If I am on the fence about attending a seminar and I see his name on the docket I pull out the credit card and sign up. His hands on seminars always have me walking away full of new ideas and questioning the way I had done things up to that point. Not as active online as some of these other names but when he does write it’s fantastic stuff. 

Kelly Starrett- KStar has become a household name in the crossfit community and his work has influenced athletes and coaches in other sports as well. His unique approach to gaining and maintaining mobility has had a huge influence on how I warm up and cool down as well as how I spend my off days. I highly recommend his book, becoming a supple leapord. Check out his site here:

Greg Everett – One of the top Olympic Weightlifting coaches in the US. His work along with that of Glenn Pendlay changed the way I approach my Olympic Lifts. Their work is more for the sport of Olympic weightlifting than general athleticism but as a coach that works with a lot of crossfit athletes being able to increase someone’s clean or snatch is crucial and coach Everett has helped me to do that. If you are interested in learning more about the Olympic lifts I would highly recommend his work

Mike Boyle - I don't read Mike Boyle's writing often, but his ideas are influential not only in my training but in the field of strength and conditioning at large. He is the driving force behind the "joint by joint" theory and one of the biggest proponents of heavy unilateral training. These ideas as well as some of his other philosophy's have been absolute game changers for me and my athletes.

Joel Jamieson – I heard a lot about Joel and his book “Ultimate MMA conditioning” before eventually caving in and buying it. I usually don’t think much of books with shirtless men on the cover. However, marketing shtick aside, this is the best resource I currently have for gaining a comprehensive understanding of energy systems and how they function together. My one complaint with the book would be that it does not provide enough samples for how to apply the principles to sports outside of MMA but that shouldn’t take away from the rest of the information provided. Joel is a step ahead of the rest of the field with regards to conditioning and anyone dealing with a conditioning based sport (all of them except lifting and throwing) would be wise to read his blog and his book.

Gray Cook – I personally didn’t find his book Movement all that helpful, lot of words for relatively simple concepts, but his FMS system is a fantastic way to perform assessments on both weekend warriors and high level athletes

Stuart McGill – when I am pleading with people to stop doing crunches this is the research that I cite most often. It usually shuts people up or leaves them grasping at straws. His work on the spine and proper “core” strengthening has influenced an entire generation of coaches and therapists

This list is a just a sampling of the coaches that have shaped my views on training. Hopefully you find the time to follow some of the links and learn more from these industry leaders[5]. Enjoy

[1] I don't actually know that much, but hopefully I will one day
[2] The two are intimately related and I'm hoping to cover that topic sometime soon
[3] Sadly, this is how most personal trainers are still using this tool
[4] Wendler's simplicity is great but a little too sagittal plane and bilateral dominant for my taste
[5] I just realized there are no women on this list. The lack of women in the training community is disappointing but I would love to feature some good female coaches on this blog as well, so feel free to drop a comment if you feel there's someone good I don't know about

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Brief Introduction to Janda's Lower Cross Syndrome

It's a beautiful negative 15 degrees outside today so I figured, what better to do than crank up the heat and work on my writing. My goal for this weeks posts was to introduce readers to the two most common postural distortions that you are likely to encountered as an athlete or coach. Earlier in the week we discussed upper cross syndrome, a condition that causes athletes to walk through the door face first, rather than standing upright like us homo sapiens are supposed to do.

Hopefully now we all have a solid grasp on how posture affects performance and injury and we can address another prevalent distortion, this time focusing in on the lower body. Lower crossed syndrome (LCS) is also a concept defined by Dr. Vladimir Janda. Like Upper Cross, LCS refers to a series of muscles or muscle groups that are either too tight or too weak relative to their antagonist group, and that imbalance pulls the body into unfavorable positions.

Lower Cross Syndrome

LCS is a combination of four factors (much like Upper Cross). It is a combination of weak abdominals and glutes as well as overly tight hip flexors and low back extensors. When uncorrected this combination of factors often leads to the pelvis sitting in what is called an anterior tilt. Imagine the pelvis as a bowl and when the contents of the bowl spill out the front that position is an anterior tilt. When the contents spill out the back that is a posterior tilt. This will be important later on. 

Let's address the problems individually and how we can fix them. Like last time we will start with tight areas and move from there to weak areas.

Tight lower back: This tension in the lower back is mostly a result of tension in the hip flexors pulling the pelvis (and therefore lower back) into compromised positions, as well as a lack of strength in the trunk musculature and glutes to maintain neutral spine. Stretching of the lower back is something I tend to avoid with my clients. In my experience and reading the lower back should have minimal range of motion and tightness there will dissipate by working on the rest of the areas in this article as well as mobility of the mid/upper back (ie thoracic spine)

Tight hip flexors: The hip flexors exert a downward pull on the pelvis, tipping it forward into an anterior tilt position. This inhibits the force producing capacity of the glutes (ie performance) and can lead to lower back pain. 

Anterior Tilt

Fix: Stretching the hip flexors feels great but in my experience most people are doing it wrong. We just covered how the hip flexors are located in front of the pelvis and they tilt it downwards, meaning that when the pelvis is tilted down and forward the hip flexors are all in a shortened (ie. not stretched) position. In order to stretch the hip flexors the pelvis needs to go into a posterior tilt direction in order to lengthen the muscles we want to stretch.

Emphasis on posterior tilt via gluteal contraction and abdominal bracing
Excessive low back arch. Zero hip flexor stretch occurring 

Some people may be thinking "Wait, I do that second one all the time and I totally get a stretch out of it. I can feel it" What you are most likely feeling if your stretch looks like that second picture is actually not a stretch at all. That aggressive leaning forward causes the head of the femur to push up against the anterior capsule of the hip, giving you the "Stretch" sensation at the front of your leg, close to where the hip flexors are. Best case scenario you are wasting your time. Worst case you are creating instability at the hip that over time can lead to pain. 

Some people will do the hip flexor stretches perfectly and find no improvements in posture, performance or pain relief. The reason for that is that this postural distortion is a four part problem. When the glutes and abdominals don't properly stabilize the pelvis the hip flexors (especially the psoas) try to "pick up the slack" and become tight to provide a sort of false stability. This reactive tension can't simply be stretched out of and requires strengthening the posterior tilting muscles.

Weak abdominals: Talking about core strength is opening a big can of worms and I don't want this piece to get too long [1] so I will try to keep this brief. The ability to resist extension is one of the primary actions of the abdominal muscles along with the obliques and the inner unit core musculature. When the trunk cannot resist extension lower back pain often follows. Try this exercise out to fix things up

I know that planks have been beaten to death by a lot of coaches and trainers and maybe you think they are too easy. And maybe they are for you. But pay close attention to his spinal position when he engages the plank. The glutes fire hard and cause a slight posterior tilt and the head pulls back into the double chin position that I mentioned in the last post. If you can do this perfectly for 30 seconds then start worrying about making it more advanced. 

Weak Glutes: The gluteus maximus is responsible for hip extension and posterior tilting of the pelvis. When it is not functioning properly the hamstrings and quads take over the movement and lead to incomplete hip extension, decreased force output and diminished work capacity, as well as increased likelihood of hamstring strains, lower back pain and a host of knee injuries.
Fix: Start by working the glutes directly with basic body weight exercises and be sure to focus on achieving a good squeeze during full body movements. There are a million glute exercises out there. Choose whichever you like, just make sure you are getting full extension with each rep. Squats and deadlifts are classic staples but single leg variations work effectively as well. I personally have found most success with walking lunge variation because the locomotive aspect of the lift forces you to get full hip extension to go into the next step. 

I hope that the last two articles have given you a good look at common movement impairments and help you and your clients achiever perfect posture and performance while avoiding pain and the nagging injuries that hold back progress.

[1] A piece solely devoted to core strength will be coming soon 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Introduction to Upper Cross Syndrome

With my last post I discussed the value of creating stability in the shoulder through reactive stability drills and exercises. However, like every joint the shoulder requires some degree of both stability and mobility. Today I want to address some of the common postural distortion patterns for the upper body and corrective strategies. 

There are an unlimited number of potential injuries and imbalances that can occur in the upper body but today's post will focus on problems arising from the postural distortion known as upper cross syndrome (UCS). It was a concept defined in 1979 by Dr. Vladimir Janda [1]

Upper Cross Syndrome
Aside from having no skin the image above should look very familiar to anyone who frequents the gym. This is the standard presentation of upper cross syndrome (UCS). It is identifiable by the forward head and internally rotated shoulders, as well as a hunchback position and winging scapula in more advanced cases. Difficulty achieving an overhead position is also common. UCS has two main areas of weakness and two main areas of tightness. Before we begin a piece by piece breakdown let's discuss why this is a relevant impairment. 

Weakness across the deep cervical flexors and lower trapezius combined with tightness in the pectorals, upper traps and levator group leads to joint dysfunction in the spine from the mid thoracic area all the way up to the atlanto-occipital (top of your spine) joint, as well as in the glenohumeral joint. These specific patterns lead to forward head posture, and exaggerated curvature of the spine (increased lordosis of the cervical region and increased kyphosis of the thoracic region), as well as internally rotated, elevated and protracted shoulders (aka douchebag shoulder syndrome). 

The cervical spine position and upper trapezius tightness has been associated with migraine headaches and the internally rotated shoulder position makes overhead movements challenging, decreasing performance and significantly increasing likelihood of shoulder impingement, as well as a host of other much nastier shoulder injuries. Hopefully through this brief breakdown you understand the relevance of upper body posture. So let's examine the details of the movement disorder and discuss how to fix these issues, starting with the muscles that are too tight and then looking at the areas of weakness.

Tight: Pectorals. The pectoral group, both pectoralis major and minor, are tight for a multitude of reasons. Primary among them is the way that most people sit throughout the day. An excessive amount of training for the chest in relation to the back also contributes. 
Fix: Stop doing so much volume on your pressing movements and stop sitting like a caveman. Additionally some soft tissue work on the pec minor can be very beneficial. This video has some awesome tips, but it's an aggressive drill so if you aren't accustomed to a lot of soft tissue work start with just a lacrosse ball against a wall. Mobility work in the warmups can be beneficial as well

Advanced soft tissue work

Tight: Upper trapezius/levator scapulae. Similar problems to the pecs. Poor posture throughout the day places constant tension on the upper trapezius and levator group. Direct training for the upper trapezius is also a detriment to posture in many cases, as the ratio of strength between upper and lower trapezius is skewed heavily in favor of the upper traps. If you didn't know before you will know now. I hate shrugs. Do some real exercises (deadlifts, oly lifts, rows and chinups) and your traps will grow without developing the distortions discussed here.[2]
Fix: There are some stretches for the traps as well as some soft tissue work but in my experience when the lower trap is strengthened the upper traps will calm down. Also, no more shrugs, seriously. You're killing yourselves with this crap.

Weak: Lower trapezius and rhomboids. Can you tell me what the ratio is in your current program of protraction to retraction exercises. Or internal rotation vs external rotation. Probably too much of the former, not enough of the latter. Weak lower traps allow the upper traps to take over movements and weak rhomboids allow the pectorals to exert a greater pull on the humerus.
Fix: This one is easy. Add in some extra rowing variations and lower trap drills like Y pulls on cables or TRX. The line of pull on the lower trap is about 130 degrees so that is the angle we aim for when directly targeting the lower trap. It will lead to a pull that resembles the letter Y. Here as some great examples.

                                       Beginner exercise for the lower trap

                                   Lower trap strength training progression

Weak: Deep cervical flexors. These muscles help pull the head back into a position of cervical retrusion, or the "double chin position". This position feels unfamiliar to most people but only because we are all living with our heads too far out in front of our bodies. Do this quick test. Stand up with your normal neck position and hold your hands out in front of you. Have someone try to knock you over by pushing your hands. Try it again while actively pulling your head back into the double chin  or packed neck position. I've done this with dozens of athletes and they are always stronger in the double chin position. Always.

Good neck position
Bad neck position. Bad everything position
Fix: In addition to lifting with proper neck position check out this video for additional exercises for the deep cervical flexor muscles. These can be incorporated into a warmup, cooldown or as filler between strength sets. Additionally it serves as a great time to work on proper belly breathing patterns [3]


That covers all of the components of Janda's upper cross syndrome. Hopefully this has given you the ability to identify and treat the most common upper body postural deviation in both athletes and weekend warriors. Next post will look at lower cross syndrome. 

[1] Dr. Janda's work revolutionized the field of physical therapy and influenced some of the best therapist in the world today. If you are interested in this field I would highly recommend reading his work.
[2] The upper traps do play a role in aiding upward rotation of the scapula, allowing for safe overhead activity for many. In this instance train the movement in question. Add an overhead shrug with bodyweight or low load as an activation drill.
[3] proper breathing will be a post all on it's own