Quick Tips to Assess Your Squat

We use a squat based movement pattern in near enough every session. Their inclusion in some form in every warm up we perform highlights how functional and fundamental to effective training the squat movement is.

When we squat we see flexion at the hip, knee and ankle. This movement is performed in all of the major Olympic lifts, deadlifts and jumping so making sure this movement is dialled in is pretty important.

One of the most common impairments to this movement especially in more experienced lifters (not necessarily better) we tend to see is more anterior rotation of the pelvis meaning excessive strain is put on the lower back in order to avoid flexion or forward bending. This is often when load is added in order to counter flexion forward. It makes the lifter think they are getting lower but the movement really isn’t gaining depth through the lower body musculature. In fact the change in angle of the pelvis and forward lean of the individual is providing the extra “range.” This means there is more strain on the lower back.

So if this is the case try this challenge to help you clean up your squat. This is a good challenge to old and new trainees- aim to maintain balance while sitting all the way down to their heels while not leaning forward or coming on to the balls of your feet. Check the guy out on the right- if you look more like that than the guy on the left it may be wise to leave a bit of weight of the bar and work on your positioning.

If you fall forward it’s a good sign that your back extensors, hip flexors, quads and calves may be overactive and taking on a little too much work. Some people will remedy this by squatting with a wider stance to get lower- this is just hiding mobility issues by creating a stable wider base with less range to move through. Look where the centre of gravity is going (tip: forward). This will happen without load as you will find greater range of movement than the likely half range that you are squatting through loaded.

Why is this a negative? Well, allowing the abdominals and the other muscles around the pelvis such as the glutes to pick up the slack will result in less loading on the lower back and better force transfer. In turn not just in the squat movement but in rotational movements as well as the back and quads take the work on as opposed to the abdominals and glutes.

A good question to ask yourself is does squatting leave you with a sore lower back- if so consider dropping a bit of weight (your ego won’t suffer too much) and look to clean up your squat movement by balancing your programme and placing more emphasis on making your squat better by adjusting your strength leverages.

 

 

A bala

 

position of joint

muscular action

pressure/ breathing

 

 

 

 

 

Burpees: Saint or Sinner?

One of the most poorly programmed exercises in the history of fitness is Burpees. This post looks to examine their placement in training and the rationale for their inclusion in different parts of your workout.

Predominant more in bootcamps, outdoor fitness and when working with limited amounts of equipment the rationale for their inclusion in training can vary.

As it is such a big exercise which mobilises the whole body the question to be asked initially is what level of fitness are you?

Burpees commonly feel like the end of the world to new exercisers. They cause a massive elevation in heart rate and ultimately poor exercise form limits performance (which is caused by fatigue).

With most boot camps they seem to be included in the middle of circuits as well as used as finishers (the last thing that you do in a session which leaves you lying on the floor in a puddle of your own sweat). If included with other exercises in a circuit format to induce fatigue then their form may be compromised if their repetition range is too high. By nature they are not an exercise you should struggle through so when do you tolerate bad form? In my eyes never. Therefore, beginners are suited to low repetition numbers predominantly at the start of a session. If you are not combining it with resistance training it is likely to be the most neuromuscular fatiguing exercise you will perform. So for beginners it is as much a strength exercise as it is a conditioning drill. In my experience most coaches place them in the middle or at the end of sessions to invoke fatigue? My question is that if it is the hardest thing you do in a session should it not go at the start so form is maintained if you are a beginner?

With advanced exercisers does the parameters move? Well, the ability to perform the exercise against fatigue does as does power output (in theory). The limiting factor to the exercise is still failure of form so in that case it’s pretty much the same compared to beginners. Someone who has good recovery therefore can do more repetitions for longer but as it is still an explosive exercise should it not be placed at the start of all routines or does the training focus dictate its position?

If the training focus is on strength and power development it could be considered more sensible to place it at the start of a session or at least early on after your primary loaded exercises. If looking to use it as an energy systems training tool e.g. Fat loss or full body conditioning sports then it can be used as a supplemental exercise in essence in the second half of your training session. As advanced exercisers generally recognise good posture and bad form compared to beginners then it is suitable for this to be used as a finisher.

What is the relevance of this post then to training. Beginners need to recognise form and body position first and will find this harder if already fatigued. Advanced exercisers can use certain exercises to build up their capacity to do more but like beginners will ultimately be limited by fatigue. Often though beginners are thrown Burpees too early in too large amounts to develop suitable strength while advanced exercisers could throw them in to the start of a session as an explosive “primer”.

Exercise of the Month: The Perfect Press Up

The press up is one of the most commonly used but most abused exercises used in the gym for upper body strength/endurance. We use a lot of press ups in our programmes at Results FAST. The reason being that unlike traditional bench pressing the shoulders are allowed to move freely into abduction (out) and protraction (forward around the rib cage) maintaining a normal scapular motion if performed properly. In certain cases the shoulder blades can become fixed in abduction or downward rotation, usually due to poor posture cues (“Keep your shoulders back and down/ stand up straight!”) or indeed because of excessive bench pressing or fixed scapular pushing. The press up encourages correct scapular movement and is a useful exercise in maintaining strong stable shoulders.

Commonly the faults associated with the press up are dropped hips (sometimes called anterior tilt) and forward progression of the humerus (upper arm bone) in joint. While these are more torso strength issues that can be remedied by taking the press up on to a raised platform one of the key teaching points that can remedy poor form is to use the perfect press up.

A lot of the time we see people who can perform a form of press up…. what I mean by that is a bad form press up. Typically the hands are wider than the shoulders, the elbows are placed at a 90 degree angle and the movement looks like it is coming from the neck. The reason we see this change in form is two fold. Firstly, the individual is shortening the range  to move- typically you see a forward head position leading to an assumption that they are achieving a suitable depth in the press up. Secondly, the chest hollows up creating a rounded back (sometimes the hips flex upwards as well) again shortening the distance moved. In both cases the shoulder blades are placed in their end of range abducted position before the movement starts, this is synonymous with being overdeveloped through the anterior shoulder and trapezius muscles where the press up is performed without the scapula moving from square with the spine to its abducted position at the end of movement.

Allowing the shoulder blades to move through range  it differs from the barbell bench press as it does not (if performed correctly) fix the shoulder blades in downward rotation. While this is neccesary for force production on heavy loads on the bench press and heavy dumbbell pressing the press up provides an alternative allowing movement through the shoulder blade.

As a teaching cue the perfect press up is a handy tool for those that have good strength but are generally unsure on elbow and shoulder positioning during movement. The turn of the hands cues the shoulder blades to tuck in to the torso. The end position allows protraction of the shoulder blades. The key point of this exercise is also safety. The shoulder joint is at one of it’s most unstable positions when at 90 degrees. A poor form press up therefore places unnecessary stress on the tendons and ligaments of the shoulder. Using the perfect press up cleans up form allowing good scapular movement and is a good refining tool for reformed press up addicts looking to take care of their shoulders.

 

High Rep Upper Body Training, Exercise Form and Why Your Shoulder Hurts

Pull Ups are perhaps one of the best upper body strength exercises. Training predominantly your ability to lift your own body weight (plus if you invest in training hard enough a bit more) they are an exercise that deserves it’s place in most strength and conditioning coaches toolbox.

That said with the advent of higher intensity conditioning programmes which are en-vogue pull ups have transcended away from being a strength exercise in to what could be termed a high rep conditioning exercise. When programmed with high rep bench pressing, press ups or shoulder press it adds a lot of stress to a joint that craves stability.

When you perform high repetition work we create fatigue- this is great for conditioning. Not so great though if stronger and more dominant muscles start to do the work of other muscles. This is where we get muscle imbalances and ultimately injury. Almost everyone reading this probably has had a niggle or injury in the neck or shoulder so it makes sense that your training does not cause these niggles…. indeed it should act against the imbalances developed in day to day life should you be a full time athlete or indeed a full time desk athlete.

There are a number of reasons I avoid high rep upper body training in compound exercises in my programmes.

Take the example of a pull up…

1. Bad form uses momentum to mask fatigue.

2. If momentum is masking muscular fatigue then where is force being generated from?

3. At the base of the movement the shoulder joint is being forced forward (out of socket) to induce a recoil to propel you upwards.

4. All though in some “kips” the individual generates force from the legs being in front of the body and throwing them backwards. In this context the shoulder is not hyper extended at the base of the movement. That said it is still a major challenge not to hyper extend the shoulder at the base of the movement- especially if performing multiple repetitions.

To refine this point I want to go back a bit to human anatomy.

Your shoulder joint or specifically the top of your humerus is held in place by a multitude of musculature. This musculature is designed to stabilize the humeral head and control movement. I have in the past heard it described as a golf ball on a tee with the wind blowing in 5 different directions.

NB This is a great read if you are a personal trainer/ strength coach/ anatomy geek. Skip a few paragraphs if the why doesn’t interest you too much

The rotator cuff aims to internally and externally rotate the humeral head as well as playing a role in maintaining the humeral heads position during movement. If you generate force by momentum what is holding on to your humeral head to stop it’s hyperextending if it can’t keep it’s position?

Specifically from a muscular sense the dynamic stabilisers muscles such as the supraspinatus which resists superior and inferior translation of the humeral head and subscapularis which resists anteroinferior translation. During movement the rotator cuff muscles are active throughout. Infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor produce an inferior shear force to counteract movement. Supraspinatus generates a compressive force across the glenohumeral joint. The force couple resulting from these actions maintains the humeral head centred on the glenoid to within 1mm throughout the range of motion. This is known as dynamic functional stability.

Non anatomy geeks resume here…

In a “normal” shoulder (which is often hard to find in the average office worker and definitely not in the swimmers and tennis players I work with) the actions of the internal rotators (subscapularis) and external rotators (infraspinatus) are balanced but the internal rotation action is enhanced by the action of pectoralis major.

If an individual over uses the shoulder, fatigue is likely to take place in the external rotators before the internal rotators resulting in an imbalance. This will cause the control of the humeral head position to be lost (it sort of highlights that doing a load of theraband external rotations and labeling it as shoulder rehab perhaps is not the best course of action as well as it does not influence dynamic stabilistation of the humeral head).

The humeral head impinges against the coracoacromial arch with resultant compression of the subacromial bursa and pain in the epaulette region and the upper arm/front of the shoulder. Sorry slipped in to anatomy again…. in simple terms this is an instability impingement and everything gets sandwiched together causing pain.

In individuals who work with the hands overhead e.g. throwing athletes and swimmers the role of the external rotators is pertinent as it acts as a humeral head depressors keeping the humeral head in place. Repetitive activity at this level resulting in fatigue of the external rotators meaning depression is not maintained and impingement may occur. This also highlights how shoulder laxity develops in to instability when fatigue becomes an issue.

It’s not all just about the rotator cuff though. Shoulder instability can be found if the scapular stabilisers are fatigued. Specifically subscapularis and the serratus anterior which control the scapular which if fatigued means that during scapular elevation impingement may occur as a product of scapular instability.

Again in more simple terms…. Your shoulder blades stability effects how the rotator cuff works- poor shoulder blade strength and stability therefore can result in poor humeral head stability.

It has been suggested that once instability impingement occurs then stretching of the anterior capsule takes place and a tightening of the posterior capsule occurs. Often in shoulder problems the stock recommendation is to “stretch your chest”. This may result in more anterior stretching and begin to put movement in to an unstable range of movement. This so-called capsular tightening predisposes to further anterior translation (forward movement) of the humeral head thus contributes to impingement.

So in round up…. stability of the shoulder blade leads to stability of the humeral head. Humeral head position is a product of maintaining stability. Excessive strengths or weaknesses acting upon the scapular or humerus can cause a imbalance which may lead to injury.

But how does this relate to high repetition training? There is always going to be an adaption to training but the key is to maintain suitable joint integrity. In high rep circuits the prime mover big muscles will overpower the stability based muscles. Typically we will say the exercise is in poor form as the exercise is performed in poor posture.

The one question you need to ask when training the upper body (as pretty much every movement from pull ups to bicep curls and the Olympic lifts will effect shoulder joint positioning) is what is the effect on scapular stability or numeral head stability, does the movement look good enough to broad cast or has fatigue masked form. Form should always be maintained when you consider the risk and reward of the exercise choice, intensity and volume.

Fascia, Pain and Corrective Exercise

A recent study has found that individuals with recurrent lower back pain have 25% thicker fascia in the lower back area than those with no pain. This was also reproduced in the neck area where increased fascial thickness of the scalenes (front of neck) was found in those with neck pain. Also it has been seen in the Achilles tendon as well.

thoracolumbar-fascia-xl

Your first question is what is fascia? Fascia is basically connective tissues that encapsulates the muscles, supports organs and transmit movement of the bones in the body allowing movement to occur. Fascia is in effect the clear, cling filmy substance that on a piece of chicken seems to wrap the main muscle tissue (preparing and cooking chicken is after all an anatomy lesson). For effective movement to occur the muscles must be able to glide past each other. If there is not clear movement then there may be a lack of proprioception, poor coordination of muscle function and possibly pain. Fascia is reactive to stress- place more stress on it and it will start to build up. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it will enhance the tensile strength of the body. However, excessive build ups clearly cause pain.

From a training perspective this highlights two things:

1. Fascial thickness is related to pain. Training on it’s own does not correct fascial thickness. The main way to remove these tightness’s is to increase the body temperature of these areas of fascial thickness. The major way of doing this is by deep tissue, high friction massage.

2.Postural issues related to fascia thickness that cause pain need to be helped by reducing the amount of cumulative stress to the thickened area. This may be termed corrective exercise as it highlights that the tissue is overworked and therefore surrounding and supporting muscles and tissue needs to be picking up the slack.

You typically see this in individuals with forward head position developing shoulder and neck pain as well as in those with flatter back postures. You can also sometimes see what is called a Dowagers hump develop on the upper back as a protective mechanism. What happens here is that the neck is in a forward position and as the muscles of the upper back try to hold on to the head extra stress to that area means that as a protective mechanism the body lays down more tissue to provide stability. Interestingly you can sometimes see this on the Achilles tendon where as a protective mechanism the body will lay down more tissue if the joint is under excessive stress. Sometimes this is seen as a bit of a lump next to the heel.

You can tend to see poor movement in a lot of things, knee alignment in particular can be affected by tight fascia down the outside of the thighs. This doesn’t mean just pain in the knee- it can also relate to lower back and hip issues. No amount of cueing or form adjustment will really help if structurally the tightness’s are caused by excessive tissue. In this case a more holistic approach of soft tissue work and strength exercise will be key.

In summary, what to do if you know posture is poor and painful even on occasion. Strength train in an organised fashion to correct any strength imbalances and restore tissue quality by deep tissue massage.

How To Stop Your Scapula Winging

Winged scapular is something that is common that I find when I asses a lot of my personal training and gym members. The best example of this is if you place the back of your palm in the small of your back the bottom of your scapular lifts away from the back and “wings” up. In extreme cases it may even wing up when your arms are in front of you. This is synonymous with shoulder pain and poor muscular balance around the shoulder joint.


winging

 

Understanding this condition though is vital for resolving this issue. The anatomy is very relevant in why there is an issue at the shoulder. Now commonly in this situation I have seen people who have been told to strengthen their back or have been giving a theraband and told to strengthen their  rotator cuff. In the first line of advice this may be the actual problem and as for strengthening the rotator cuff… well it is probably a waste of time. Hence a lot of shoulder issues become chronic over a period of time.

If you look at the following picture of the shoulder blade you will notice the rhomboids and the serratus anterior muscle are separated by your shoulder blade. In fact you could consider that that shoulder blade is in a constant tug of war between these two muscles. Tightness or over strong rhomboids can pull the scapular away from the rib cage causing an anteriorly tilted scapular which may cause shoulder pain. If the serratus anterior is not strong enough it will not be able to keep the shoulder blade pinned to the rib cage.

 

scpular rhomboid and serratus anterior

 

If the serratus anterior isn’t fully effective at producing an upward rotation force (keeping the scapular close to the rib cage) and the rhomboid (a downward rotator as it pull the bottom of the scapular downwards towards the spine) is getting trained with both pushes and pulls then you can end up making the condition worse while maintaining a traditional training pattern. Often this leads to tighter rhomboids and tight muscles at the chest. Twining this with peoples habitual posture while driving, at the office and at home and it shows you why some shoulder issues take an age to clear up.

So in this situation what is the answer? Typically we start with waking up the serratus anterior. One exercise we use is 4 point back rocking where we encourage the shoulder blade to move laterally and upwards while not letting the scapular wing away from the rib cage. Please see below- it’s a simple exercise but phenomenally effective.

 

Poor scapular position also leads to poor rotator cuff strength and excessive challenge to the stability muscles in and around the shoulder such as the rotator cuff. But what exercises can help resolve this? Well the mighty press up- if done properly can be an amazing exercise but is often performed incorrectly. I will cover these in my next post.

The Serratus Anterior: The Shoulder Saver?

The serratus anterior is divided up in to three parts. All three parts pull the shoulder blade forward and on to the rib cage. The muscle is an antagonist to the rhomboids which are found between the shoulder blades. When the inferior and superior parts act together, they keep the scapula pressed against the rib age together with the rhomboids and therefore these parts also act as synergists to the rhomboids.

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The inferior part can pull the lower end of the scapula laterally and forward and thus rotates the scapula to make elevation of the arm possible. Additionally, all three parts can lift the ribs when the shoulder girdle is fixed, and thus assist in respiration.

The serratus anterior is largely responsible for the protraction of the scapula — that is, the pulling of the scapula forward and around the rib cage that occurs when someone performs a press up or chest press.

The serratus anterior also plays an important role in the upward rotation of the scapula, such as when lifting a weight overhead. It performs this in sync with the upper and lower fibers of the trapezius.

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Commonly in those with shoulder pain you will see the scapular wing or there is an anterior tilted scapula. This is related to having an over active pec minor which causes the change in shoulder position. In this case the serrated anterior is not strong enough to maintain the position of the scapula flat against the thorax.

Having a healthy functioning serratus anterior is vital for the shoulder joint. Without sufficient strength in this muscle poor scapula position will lead to shoulder pain specifically from shoulder impingement. This is where tendons are pinched as they don’t have enough space to sit in the shoulder joint. In an exercise programme this is usually caused by excessive amounts of pushing work such as shoulder press and bench press. In the next post I will upload some videos of drills we use to wake the serratus anterior up in our personal training sessions.

Why Soft Tissue Work on Your Shoulders Will Improve Your Squat and Take Away Back Pain.

At some point anyone who trains regularly will have an incident of shoulder pain. While looking to maintain healthy shoulders it is important to maintain good tissue quality in and around the shoulder.

The musculature of the posterior shoulder plays a direct role of how your shoulder posture positions itself. To the back of the arm pit you have two muscles that play a large role in shoulder position and generally stabilizing the shoulder joint. However stability and stiffness isn’t all that great if you don’t have enough mobility and stability as you raise your arms. This can commonly be seen in individuals who through training (the chest usually) or by their posture (usually desk based) can’t put their hands above their heads without moving their torso forwards. In fact the two pictures of an overhead squat highlight this quite well as someone with good range and someone with poor range.

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The musculature that can help release the shoulder is located just under the arm pit. The teres major has a tendon, at its insertion that lies behind that of the lats (the big prime muscle down your sides which form your “bat wings”…. If you are a guy) from which it is separated by a bursa or fatty pad that acts as a shock absorber, the two tendons unite along their lower borders for a short distance.

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The teres major is not part of the rotator cuff but it does play a role in humerus position in line with the lats. The lats when trained obviously recruit the teres major. As the lat are connected to the spine tightness or restriction in movement of the lats will not only cause back pain but also shoulder pain. The lats also act as internal rotators of the arm- just as the pectoralis major does. Typically in the situation I have seen a lot of aggressive chest stretches to try and create mobility here. Simply the pecs may not be an issue but the posterior shoulder may be causing the mobility issues.

The exercises that tend to be effected are any that necessitate barbells being placed on the shoulders and being stabilized by the hands such as barbell back squat as well as any overhead exercise. What you will typically see on a shoulder press is extension from the back- this effectively means that you perform a back extension as there is not enough space in the shoulder joint for the movement to clear without a bit of friction in the joint.

The following exercise is a great way of removing posterior shoulder stiffness- typically we have seen some people achieve a better hand position with a barbell on the shoulders as well as improvement in range of movement in overhead work.