October 22, 2018
With USAPL Raw Nationals just wrapping up, and what felt like a long (yet successful) competition prep, my brain is filled with fire as I write some athletes training blocks, and think about what the next step for me is.
I’ve wrote articles about what your time should be spent doing after competitions, but I feel it’s important to revisit concepts, and update your ideologies. If your ideas and thoughts are never changing, you’re probably not looking/trying hard enough to force your own growth. With that, let’s jump in.
Squat, Bench, & Deadlift. That’s Powerlifting in as few words as possible. Pressing, squatting, and hinging. The big 3. Some believe this is enough to get you strong and healthy, and maybe it is to some degree for some people. But, I’ve coached lots of lifters, and I’ve only had very few that never needed some supplementary, extremely non-specific work for injury prevention, or injury reaction. Let’s think about what the traditional powerlifting movements force, for the most part.
When we squat in a powerlifting sense, we’re looking to lift the most weight possible, not necessarily looking to do the most natural, properly loaded squat. This can cause some issues when left unchecked. Think about it - we force ourselves to squat very deep due to the rulebook, and we shove our knees out to do it. We think about driving our chest up a lot to keep us from rounding over, and put a lot of tension into our low back muscles. When we extend like that, your pelvis translates forward, and your quads get very short, also known as concentrically oriented, and in turn, turns your hamstrings off a bit. Pretty much all the same happens on your Deadlift as well. Extend hard, shove your knees out if you’re a sumo puller, etc.
If you’re looking to be super competitive, I’m assuming you’re arching as much as you can, you’re pulling your shoulders back (retracting), and down (depressing) as much as you possibly can, and you keep them pinned there. This helps you lift a ton of weight, and cuts the range of motion. But again - you’re extending/arching a ton, and your shoulder blades aren’t moving the way they’re meant to/have the ability to.
Now, for me to tell you we do too much of this would be wrong - we don’t do too much, but we’re not doing enough of the opposite actions of all these movements. So, what does that leave on the table?
This is a lot to dive into, but is what I truly believe makes a huge difference in making, and keeping athletes healthy, and builds good context in building and refining motor patterns in the big 3 as well.
This will most likely be the most controversial of all the topics, as I’ve heard lots of coaches say before that we shouldn’t ever flex our spines, since that’s pretty much the opposite of what we want to do in the big 3 - but I disagree. We spend all of our time extending back, and our spinal extensors get very developed, and very high tone. As a human, spinal flexion is something we should do. Training your abs through flexion in a controlled manner, can help your low back chill out. I’m not telling you to always being doing crunches, but a few weeks out of the year spent doing dragon flags, reverse crunches, cable crunches, etc, can only lend itself to a healthy back, with lots of motion controlled across the board.
Ever notice after a few years, or even months of consistent bench training, feel like you have a really hard time feeling symmetrical in both shoulders while setting up? One shoulder won’t retract as much as the other? One shoulder starting to get beat up? You could probably use some protraction. Reaching can make your shoulders glide around your ribcage, and kind of grease that shoulder up. While doing that reaching type work, getting air into your upper back/scapula area can help regulate some pressure (aka air) that’s up there. Lots of times, we get air stuck into certain portions of your torso, and now that trapped pressure can dictate the way our scapula sits on your torso. I know, it sounds crazy. The same can happen on the other side, if you CAN’T get air into an area. Regulating this can help get some motion back in your shoulders, and help them move & feel a bit better.
Some exercises I like to use for this are push ups (done properly, really reaching/protracting at the top), single arm landmine presses, focusing on leaning forward and reaching long, and bear crawl holds, focusing on breathing into the upper back, along with some protraction.
Like I said about the squat and deadlift before, we extend hard through our spine, which dumps our pelvis forward, and makes our hamstrings super long, and we shove our knees out, which also further accentuates this. It’s important to train your hamstrings through a posterior translation, focusing on getting the pelvis a bit more ‘under you’ - think about a dog putting it’s tail between it’s legs. Training this action will help to further bulletproof your knees, make your hamstrings stronger at holding good pelvic positions, and just keep you moving and feeling. One of my favorites here is a Bench Hemibridge w. Reach. This exercise, above all else, is one that almost all of my athletes do in their programs, as I feel the time it takes to do it, is a huge return on investment in their long term health and development.
If you don’t know anatomy very well, then you wouldn’t know the femur is the your thigh bones, which inserts into your pelvis. Now, the muscles that connect to these bones controls how the femur moves. We squat heavy, and shove the knees out, and our adductors and glute med never get any love through their contracting action. This can cause problems with hip shifting in the squat and the deadlift, and think about it - you don’t use the muscles associated with a movement, pretty much ever, they get weak (because they can), and they make it more difficult for you to use certain ranges of motion, so it’s probably a good idea to do some work in more internally rotated positions in order to be proactive with your hip, back, and knee health. One of my favorites here, is split squats - but it’s all in the quality of the movement, and how you cue it. Keep that front knee stacked over that front foot at all times, don’t let it move side to side at all. Tuck your hips slightly, and make sure you keep your hips squared up with one another.
This one is kind of a secret weapon when I see some movement discrepancies with an athlete. Think about the last time you did some rotational work as a powerlifter - and I’m not talking about your russian twists. I’m talking about taking a stable hip, and forcing your trunk to move and produce force AROUND that stable hip. A little lost? I’ve been there, too. Let me explain.
As humans, we have the natural ability to rotate both to our left and right side - but our anatomy & structure is not built symmetrically. If you look on the outside, most of us are built pretty similar left to right, but it’s quite the opposite on the inside. We have a heart on one side, kidneys on side, liver on one side, etc. So, what does this cause? Discrepancies in movements from side to side. We’re going to circle back to this in a minute.
Now, going back to the rotational stuff; our body likes to remain in equilibrium. It likes to FEEL neutral and balanced, even when it’s not. So, let’s say you have some arbitrary degrees of rotation in your trunk - 25 going left, and 50 going right. In order to feel like it’s neutral, it may start to favor that right side a bit, since that’ll be around the middle ground of your full rotation. Why does this happen exactly? What causes these discrepancies? Well, it’s hard to say for sure, but go back to the organs from before. Think about how you live, how you stand, how you pick things up. We all naturally favor sides, and do weird things. When you’re standing for a long time, you probably bend one leg and hike into one hip. When you’re sitting, you probably kick one leg more than the other. This stuff all adds up.
Ever notice when you’re squatting that you twist toward one side? Or, when you’re benching, as you approach your chest, the bar starts to tip more toward one side? I can’t tell you exactly why this stuff happens, because it can be 1 thing, or 1,000 things, and frankly, I’m not the guy that knows how to go to the absolute root cause, but I have seen this many times, and have helped fix it with many athletes.
When we bias one side in rotation, it can show up almost everywhere. So, what should we do? Restore the rotation to the other side. And I’m not talking about tossing medballs around. I’m talking about some slow, controlled, deliberate movements with an emphasis on your breathing patterns. One of my favorites is a staggered stance (or ½ Kneeling) cable push/pull. Here’s an explanation of it right below. This should make your adductors and and obliques fire up a bit, and assuming rotation is what you need, it should show improvements in other movements pretty quickly.
Just the other day, I was at the gym with my buddy Jared, who was dealing with some issues getting both of his scaps to retract and depress the way he needed to, in order to bench comfortably. I noticed he was having that bar tilting the closer he got toward his chest, and had him do 2 sets of a bear crawl hold, emphasizing the protraction and getting air into his upper back, and had him do the staggered stance cable push/pull for a few sets, and voila! His bench immediately felt better, and it showed. This stuff works when done with good intent.
This stuff is important. You should be using and loading the movements that you don’t utilize in the powerlifts, for at least a few weeks out of the year. It’s a good way to be proactive about keeping your body healthy and high(er) functioning. You don’t want to be one of those guys who’s elbows and pecs hurt all the time in 5 years because you never cared enough to take care of yourself. Your joints and tissues will thank you.
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