Wednesday, December 19, 2012

5 Basic movements that ALL athletes should master this off-season:

1. The Overhead Squat

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

Few things within the fitness industry are as misunderstood as ‘functional training’. If your gym is anything like mine, the popular definition among the bulk of personal trainers and their misguided followers appears to be “Get the client to perform as many circus tricks (& elicit as much attention as from the potential market of non personal training gym members) as possible within the workout! Having a client get to a standing position on a stability ball while throwing a medicine ball a couple of times may look cool but if your last name isn’t Barnum or Bailey, how ‘functional’ is it really?

Let’s be honest here. In the modern world, getting people to the point where they do basic movements (walking, running, lifting common objects, jumping and landing, getting up from the toilet seat) truly functionally is challenging enough! The amount of adults who injure themselves doing everyday tasks like shoveling snow, or playing catch with their kid or moving a table is testament to the lack of physical functionality of modern man. Putting said modern man on top of a stability ball or even a Bosu is inviting dysfunction.
Why are we so dysfunctional?

Dysfunctional movement begins when muscles become excessively short &/or excessively weak.

The body is highly adaptable and even when muscles become short or weak, 99 times out of 100 it will still figure out a way to 'get the job done'. The problem is that the way that your body comes up with is fine in a pinch but far from optimal over a long period of time. When movement patterns lead to long term degenerative issues, we call them dysfunctional.

Take your prototypical "day in the life of" an office worker/triathlete as an example..
·         Roll out of bed
·         Bend over the kitchen counter as you make breakfast
·         Slump at the table while you eat
·         Sit in a closed, cramped position for an hour or so as you drive to work
·         Walk into the office and resume said cramped, closed position at your desk (add in a bit more scapula protraction and back rounding as you assume the typing position and some forward craning of the head to see the monitor)
*      Then you head to the pool....

With the above lead in are you going to look like this....?

Or more like this...?

The same principle applies to the run. After sitting with closed hips for hours on end, when you go for a run at the end of the day, the hip extension of Rinny isn't just going to happen automatically, especially if you never run at Rinny's pace!

Bottom line – Especially for the adult athlete, with the mobility limitations and compensatory patterns that build up through the years, effective movement must be prepared for.

This is true in both an acute sense (i.e. movement preparation as part of the warm up before the specific work of each training session) & also in a chronic sense (i.e. movement preparation at the start of each season to counterbalance the limited number of movements that we have time for when 'things get serious')

So how do we assess when we are appropriately mobile/flexible?

Speaking generally, the bulk of sporting motions are comprised of a combination of what Paul Chek has termed the primal movement patterns, i.e.

* Squat
* Lunge
* Push
* Pull
* Bend/Hinge
* Twist
* Gait

These are general movement patterns that are commonly found in the bulk of movements from sport to everyday life. I would also add 'throw' which is a little distinct from a push, but you get the general point.

For example, a baseball pitch is a lunge followed by a bend/twist of the trunk followed by a throw from the shoulder. A less obvious example, the freestyle stroke is a similar composite of a twist from the thoracic spine and a 'throw' from the shoulder.

Due to the general applicability of these movements, all athletes (dare I say  all people) should have the flexibility to perform ALL of these movements functionally within an appropriate range of motion.

A number of strength and conditioning experts have taken this concept and run with it to come up with a test for appropriate functionality. Gray Cook is the expert when it comes to these assessments. His unique blending of his physical therapy background with the practicalities of the fitness industry have led to a concise series of functional mobility and stability tests that integrate a number of mobility and stability demands called the Functional Movement Screen.

The first test/exercise in his screen is the Overhead Squat shown with excellent form in the first picture of this post.

The overhead squat incorporates a host of mobility demands all in one movement. To execute it with perfect technique requires…

Ankle dorsi-flexion of 25-30 degrees

Knee flexion of 130-145 degrees

Hip flexion of 125-135 degrees.

Hip Horizontal Abduction 45 degrees

Thoracic Extension of 180 degrees

Shoulder Flexion of 180 degrees.

Basically hitting 6 mobility norms in one exercise. Not bad! The caveat of course, is that the movement is done with perfect form. Most athletes, especially adult athletes will not have these range of motion #s out of the gate & so will not be physically able to do the movement with perfect form. In this case, achieving perfect form becomes a 'work in progress'. Testing yourself periodically with the whole (unloaded) movement will make evident the current weak points in the chain and serve as a good test of how your mobility is improving.

So what does 'perfect form' look like?

1.  Feet spaced wider than hips and pointed out at an angle

2.   Knees directly over toes (both viewed from the side and the top, i.e. not knock kneed or bow legged)

* Knees behind toes with heels on the ground may  indicate a  functional discrepancy in ankle dorsi-flexion
*  Knees going forward over toes may indicate a lack of hip flexion – butt goes back so ‘stuff’ has to go forward to counter balance
Knees knocking or bowing may indicate a lack of hip flexion and an attempt to compensate with internal or external rotation.

3.       Butt BELOW parallel.
 Butt has to go below parallel (no more than 25-35cm from the floor) in order to have a sufficiently upright position to safely keep the bar overhead. An inability to do so is indicative of a functional discrepancy in hip flexion (hip extensor tightness)

4.       Neutral lumbar lordosis.
Core must be tight & back must remain in a normal concave arch as the butt is low. It is not safe to have a load overhead with a rounded spine. Only go as low as you can keeping a neutral lordotic curve. Inability to do so may indicate tightness in hip extensors that pulls the pelvis underneath you as you descend or a weakness in the core.  Chest should be up and open.

5.       Bar directly above ears (when grasped 25-35cm wide of shoulder on each side)
Related to the above, lumbar lordosis plus thoracic extension plus a good range of shoulder abduction allows the bar to rest directly above the ears. This is the only safe position as anything forward of the center of gravity will place excessive load on the back & shoulders. An inability to do this may indicate a functional discrepancy anywhere down the chain so it’s important to start from the bottom and work your way up.

As I said above, chances are as you go through this checklist, you won’t get a pass grade the first time through. The area that you ‘fail’ on is very revealing in terms of potential areas of dysfunction that may lead to compensation and injury if not addressed.

The first practical step in designing a mobility routine to address these weak points is descending the movement to the appropriate level (i.e. taking out the stuff that you can't do to make it easier to focus on limiters). If ankle dorsi flexion is the limiter, forget squat depth & all the overhead stuff for now until you get it sorted. For starters, descend the movement to a basic squat aiming for that knee over toes position (perhaps using a wall as a marker). Getting to this position can be facilitated by soft tissue work (massage, foam rolling) & stretching (static and PNF) prior to practicing the movement.

Progressive ‘assisted’ adjustments can also be made to the movement itself. For example, starting with the heels slightly raised on a block and progressively moving to a shorter block.

Once you get this area down, work your way up the chain. Is hip flexion limiting? Can you get your butt below parallel while keeping your lordotic curve? Progressively work your way up from one joint to the next.

The 'whole' version of the overhead squat should be seen as an 'end goal' that indicates good general mobility for the athlete.

It is also important that each movement is done UNLOADED until it is done perfectly (i.e. something light like a broomstick or light body bar). As you move from joint to joint, you may find that you check the box on some before others, e.g. your lower body squat form is good but you lack shoulder ROM to do the whole movement. In this case you may begin loaded training in one part of the exercise while continuing to work on mobility in the whole movement e.g. w/up with broomstick overhead squats before moving to a loaded bar for back squats (assuming all other mobility requirements are in place).

Once mobility norms are attained and the end movement is technically solid, the overhead squat can be used as a great part of the warm up routine prior to a back squat workout. I like a set of overhead squats with a light weight, followed by a set of front squats with a moderate weight before moving into the main set(s) of back squats. This encourages a nice upright technique & reinforces thoracic extension before heading into the back squats.

Making it a priority to take the time to work through this sequence in your off season will not only lead to more generally functional movement in your everyday life but will also have direct benefit on your triathlon performance. 2 areas in particular in this movement have direct applicability to triathlon:

1.       Hip flexion on the bike.

Greater mobility in hip flexion permits a more aggressive aero position without reductions in power. It also prevents the athlete having to rock the hips to go through the pedal stroke. This movement is very damaging to the low back and can lead to both disc degeneration and facet issues over the long term.

2.       Upper body mobility and core strength in the swim.

 A long swim stroke begins from 180 degrees of shoulder flexion & 150 degrees of abduction. An athlete who doesn’t have this range of motion is giving up inches of water each and every stroke. An athlete must also have the core strength to apply force from this position.

A great swim specific mobility alternative is to do the movement with the palms pushing out on a band overhead, i.e. incorporating external rotation with the abduction/flexion. This movement plus its direct opposite, i.e. the prone arrow, are 2 basic shoulder exercises that all swimmers should do.

Your early season strength routine should place a big emphasis on general movement literacy. Not only will integrated movements like the overhead squat improve your athletic function, including regular integrated movements over a full range of motion will decrease your general risk of injury & improve your functionality as a human being.

Tune in next time as we take an in-depth look at lunges and split-jerks.
Train Smart,



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