Articles & Resources

Why Athletes Should Avoid The Bars by Guest Author

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Sep 27, 2010 6:04:00 PM

(An intemperate look at barbell-centric training)

by Steve Myrland


“Get out of the weight-room boys.  I don’t need you weight-room strong . . . I need you farm-strong.”

Irving “Boo” Shexnayder
LSU Track & Field Coach
(to his team)


Perhaps the most persistent blunder athletes and coaches make in training to compete is regularly mistaking “strength” for “athleticism,” so let’s clear this up right away:  Athleticism—the ability to express one’s physical self with optimal speed, agility, strength, balance, suppleness, stamina and grace while avoiding injury—is the goal.  Strength, as you will note by re-reading the sentence, above, is a single element of the collective term:  athleticism.  You cannot be athletic without being strong; but you can be strong without being athletic. 

Peek into any high school weight-room and you will see big, slow guys lifting weights under the misguided notion that strength is the holy-grail.  It isn’t.  Big strong guys are a dime-a-dozen. Big strong guys who can move get recruited . . . get scholarships . . . get drafted . . . get rich. Therefore, the strength you create in training must necessarily be strength that augments the whole, rather than constrains it.  It must be athletic strength; that is, it must always promote better movement.

Strength and stamina are among the easiest athletic qualities to improve—provided you disconnect both from all other athletic qualities (speed and agility, for instance).  Absent any connection to those genuine game-breakers, it is not at all difficult to create stronger muscles and bodies that are conditioned to work for longer and longer periods of time.  Creating better athletes, however—athletes that are able to project the qualities most rewarded in competition—requires a more refined approach to training.

In the quest for athletic strength, the lines of the argument are generally drawn between the free-weight advocates and the health-club machine crowd.  I tend to fall in with the free-weight folks in this but such a simplistic line of separation gives a free pass to one particular piece of equipment that is every bit as non-functional as any chrome-plated, stack-loaded, one-plane-wonder health-club machine:  the barbell. 

On a “functional continuum” of training equipment, I would place machines well down towards the non-functional end of things and I would place the venerable Olympic bar right next to them, even though it sails under the free-weight banner.

Here’s why:  When you grab hold of a barbell with both hands, you are virtually locking yourself into the sagittal plane.  Movement in the other two available planes of motion, frontal and transverse, is theoretically possible, but it is unlikely, at best; and if you are doing a traditional barbell exercise (squat, deadlift, snatch, clean, bench press) your body will do all it can to minimize any potential movement in those two unwanted planes.  Effectively, the bar locks you into one plane and out of two.  It restricts—not unlike health-club machinery. 

Unfortunately, the neural patterning that results from this kind of training is decidedly unfriendly to a body that will be regularly required—in competition and life—to move; to react, stop, start, twist, generate speed and withstand impact.  Strength-training programs based primarily on barbell lifts do a poor job of preparing bodies for the competitive environment because they “teach” the body to be stiff and unyielding—brittle—rather than strong and supple.

If you think of the spine as a length of chain, with each link making its individual contribution to movement in three planes, you get a sense of what a wonderfully elegant, supple design the human spine is.  If several links in that chain are (effectively) fused together, all flexion, extension, leaning and rotation that would normally come from those links will necessarily be handed on to the nearest available segment of the chain where the links are still able to move. 

Moreover, with the exception of back-squats, a barbell puts the resistance on the front of the body, contributing to the development of shoulders that round forward.  This front-emphasis affects all bodies differently because of individual differences in lever-lengths (arms, legs and torsos). Big-chested, short-armed power-lifters always have the advantage when it comes to bench-pressing.  Short-legged, short torso, long-armed lifters make the best squatters and deadlifters. 

Barbells are an insult to the inherent “uniqueness” of human beings. A bar treats all bodies as if they were the same by limiting things to the sagittal plane and by requiring loads to be carried either in front or behind, not where an individual’s own center-of-gravity is optimized. This requires all manner of nasty postural compensations that are directly or indirectly related to many athletic deficiencies and (even) injuries.  After all: a barbell is designed to accommodate the load rather than the lifter; while dumbbells and other similar resistance tools both require and allow bodies to be wholly integrated, connected and self-organizing. 

I have trained two high level hockey players in the past few years (one male and one female) who are both strong, but who suffer from significant movement impairments and all the recurring pain that generally attends dysfunctional athletic bodies.  I realize that two athletes hardly constitute a reliable research cohort; but even so, both of these athletes share one significant training detail: both relied (heavily!) on the barbell as their primary off-ice training tool.  I believe this to be a major mistake.

The female hockey player competed in the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, and was desirous of competing in the 2010 Games as well, but she was struggling with chronic back pain and feared it would end her playing career prematurely.  Her strength-training and strength-testing were predominantly barbell based.

In watching this athlete move, it was evident that a large segment of her spine didn’t (move, that is).  Her thoracic spine appeared to be a single undifferentiated mass, never contributing its share of rotational or lateral movement.  There didn’t (even) appear to be much flexion and extension in that part of her back; so even in the sagittal plane, she struggled.  Her lower back-pain was a constant constraint on her ability to perform—in training and on the ice.  She worked with a chiropractor/active-release therapist, a physiatrist and me, and we all combined efforts to try to re-mobilize her thoracic spine and provide her with training strategies that would permit her to maintain and enhance that mobility, herself.  Prominently included in that sackful of strategies was the admonition to “STAY AWAY FROM THE BAR!”

The male hockey player left college early, a high draft-choice; but he spent three years in the up-and-down (minor-league – NHL) holding pattern that is often a frustrating feature of the professional experience.  When I first worked with him, he weighed 205 lbs, and he moved pretty well.  Two years later when we trained together again, he weighed 215 lbs and he did not move as well as he once did.  His additional ten pounds wasn’t fat; but neither was it muscle that enhanced his movement capability.  In fact, it detracted from it.

In both these cases, I believe the problem was far too much emphasis on barbell generated strength.  I know the female player agrees;  I hope the male player does too—but male athletes (and male coaches) are far more easily seduced by the charms of the bar than females.

For both athlete and coach, the bar offers the ripest, low-hanging, easily quantifiable fruit.  It is so simple to measure barbell progress.  You can do absolute one-rep max-testing and force your athletes to be power-lifters and Olympic lifters for one day each month (a risky idea!); or you can project 1RM’s using any of a number of mathematical models.  I learned this one from Jerry Martin (U-Conn) when he was the head Strength & Conditioning coach at Yale:
(.03 x reps [failure]) x weight + weight

so:  (.03 x 7) x 200 + 200 = .21 x 200 + 200 = 42 + 200 = 242.

An athlete who “fails” at seven reps using a weight of 200 lbs has a projected 1 RM of 242 lbs.  I found this formula to be acceptably accurate—for barbell lifts.  (Still do; I just don’t have much cause to use it, these days.)

It is probably the ease with which strength can be quantified that makes the bar so irresistible to athletes and coaches.  Walk into any weight-room and ask any male in the place: “Who benches the most?  Who squats the most?  What’s your max in the deadlift?”  You will get quick answers to all your questions.  Or:  you can simply consult the inevitable “record board” listing the top bench-pressers, squatters, deadlifters etc., etc., etc..

The bar is an easy way to measure strength and (I believe) easily measured strength is the first refuge of a poor coach.  We can happily report strength-gains to convince sport-coaches that we are doing our jobs in the weight-room and that the coach’s athletes are benefiting from the time they spend with us.

Unfortunately, easily measured strength is rarely competitively useful strength. That is something far more difficult to quantify in the simplistic terms of pounds lifted.  Better measures of the efficacy of any strength program would be such things as acceleration speed; multi-directional speed and agility; vertical / horizontal jump and lateral bound; balance; speed-stamina; and the real holy-grail of all evaluative criteria by which any training program ought to be judged:  injury rates.

It is my contention that if more athletes were as devoted to gaining true athleticism as they are to enhancing their numbers in the weight-room, we would have more good athletes and fewer injuries. 

The strength-training required to build bodies that are adaptable rather than simply adapted—bodies able to survive and thrive in the wholly unpredictable (and therefore dangerous) competitive arena—cannot be done using a steady diet of restrictive barbell lifts.  Rehearsing single-plane movements with an awkward, restrictive tool does not provide performance benefits or insurance against injury when the ball is snapped, the pitch is delivered, the puck is dropped, the serve is struck or the gun goes off and chaos reigns. A barbell tells a body what it can do rather than asks a body what it can do, and that is the real line of functional differentiation.
“Simplicity yields complexity.”  I heard Vern Gambetta say that in the first seminar I ever attended as a young coach and the statement hits the bullseye.  Equipment that poses genuine physical puzzles for bodies to solve has a far greater chance of being useful in creating truly athletic athletes than equipment that “dumbs ‘em down” as the saying goes.

We work, after all, with people who are generations removed from naturally physically challenging childhoods.  Movement for all young people is now entirely optional throughout the childhood years.  Indeed, movement is now the least likely choice for children and adults, which partially explains our current health crises of obesity and diabetes.  We must coach physically inarticulate people to be able to perform physical tasks that were once taken for granted in all young people (like the ability to skip!) but which are often maddeningly beyond reach for many these days.

Our job, as coaches charged with improving the performance capabilities of athletes, requires that we be prepared to continually evaluate and re-evaluate our tools and methods and jettison all those that fail to achieve our desired objectives, even if the tools we must jettison include a few sacred-cows like the much revered—and still ubiquitous—barbell.

We have so many excellent ways to impose athletically appropriate resistance challenges.  Dumbbells, medicine-balls, kettlebells, stretch-cords, water, sand and hills all share performance enhancing advantages that barbells lack.  All are (relatively) inexpensive and most are also portable, as well, adding a huge measure of program versatility into the bargain.  Why not choose and use them?

Topics: Strength Training, Guest Author

Corrective Exercise Specialist, Bill Hartman Talks Training The Tall Guys

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Sep 21, 2010 6:21:00 PM

by Art Horne

everything basketball


Bill, can you describe some common themes that you’ve observed when it comes to evaluating and treating the basketball athlete?

Absolutely.  Most of our basketball players initially present with very poor lumbopelvic stabilization.  Because of the this you’re going to see compensations associated with an anterior shift of their center of gravity associated with an anterior pelvic tilt.  Think of the classical Janda lower crossed syndrome.  The portion of the oblique that controls the pelvis will tend to be lengthened and weak, the glutes will be rendered ineffective because of the pelvic tilt, hamstrings may test stiff or short, and ankle mobility into dorsiflexion is reduced.

Shifting the center of gravity forward puts these athletes in a constant state of active plantar flexion which will result in relative weakening of the toe extensors and dorsiflexors.  Every squat, cut, or jump becomes knee dominant.  What you end up with is a quadriceps dominant athlete with potential for multiple injuries from lower back/sacroiliac problems, to patellar tendinopathy, to Achilles tendinopathy, or even plantar foot pain diagnoses.

Depending on severity of the pelvic tilt, you’ll see a proportionate loss of hip extension, hip rotation, especially internal rotation, and adduction.  Not only does this affect performance in general, but the resulting deficits can cause premature wear’n’tear on the hip joints themselves as a bony block can be created by the altered acetabular angle associated with the pelvic tilt.  This doesn’t even consider the soft-tissue adaptations that will occur.

Hip external rotators will lengthen and weaken, adductors will become stiff or short, quads will stiffen increasing loads on the SI joint, hip joint, and the knee. 

When it comes to training college teams, I’m always looking for the most bang for your buck.  What “global” or “general” corrective exercises can strength coaches, athletic trainers and physical therapists employ to help alleviate these dysfunctions?

It basically comes down to emphasizing  opposing muscle groups to that get overemphasized during practice and play.  For instance, agility, shooting, and jumping all place huge demands on the quads and knees.  Your corrective elements should try to shift emphasis away from the knee and toward the hips.

First this may be a little more specific but use your warm-up time for corrective purposes.  Active forms of hip extension like glute bridging progressions, active hip internal rotation, and active adduction, which often gets ignored, will go a long way to improving and maintaining hip mobility. Without this mobility, your chances of even accessing the necessary hip musculature is much less.  Make sure to reinforce a stabile spine throughout.

Prioritize restoring and maintaining lumbopelvic stability.  If you don’t, the adaptations up and down the kinetic chain will persist no matter what exercises you throw at them.  Many times we’ll have to start simply with floor exercises in supine, quadruped, and sidelying to teach our athletes how to recruit the core musculature, especially the external oblique, and hold pelvic position/neutral lumbar spine.  Most athletes tend to be rectus abdominis dominant.  You’ll see this in a typical plank exercise with rectus dominant athletes showing a large thoracic kyphosis.  This often gets ignored and the faulty pattern gets reinforced.

Emphasize posterior chain.  Box squats with the athlete pushing the hips back throws the emphasis on the hips versus the knee, so we can still get our athletes strong and emphasize weak points without the concern of adding overload to the knee.   Romanian deadlifts, low cable pullthroughs, and even back extensions can have corrective properties if proper movement patterns such as hip extension are reinforced.

Split stance exercises like split squats, Bulgarian split squats, and reverse lunges allow the athletes to work on hip mobility in hip flexion and extension as well as improving stability.  Again, a vertical tibia is essential to prevent adding to knee stress.  Make sure you’re getting good hip extension of the trailing leg.  Asymmetrical loading is a great way to enhance trunk stiffness/pelvic stability that you’ll need to gain hip extension mobility.

I’d also include a little bit single leg stance activity.  It’s not about getting incredibly strong on a single leg but more about enhancing stability.  I don’t buy the play on a single leg, train on a single leg mantra.  Overemphasize single leg work and you’ll end up with athletes that can’t handle the high force conditions associated with basketball.  Your primary exercises should be double leg.  Single leg work is merely a supplement.

What is the one thing most people miss when dealing with knee pain in the basketball athlete?

The knee pain is a symptom of the problem, not the problem.  Focusing on the knee and not the influences on the knee will only result in ongoing knee pain.  We know that a lack of lumbopelvic stability, hip rotation, hip abduction strength, and hip external rotation strength will all contribute to overload on the knee.

Prospective studies on anterior knee pain show these deficits develop in athletes with anterior knee pain.

During your presentation at the 2010 Basketball Symposium hosted by BSMPG you touched upon the importance of breathing and beside the obvious need for breathing, can you elaborate on the relation to performance?

We’re really emphasizing developing better breathing technique for a couple of reasons.  Our primary concern initially was to restore effective breathing to strengthen the diaphragm and improve lumbopelvic stability.  Because of the arrangement of our internal anatomy with the liver on the right and the heart on the left, the left side of the diagphragm tends to be flatter or less like a canopy than on the right.  Mechanically this reduces effective stabilization on the left compared to right.  The left side of the pelvis will tilt anteriorly with a relative right side posterior pelvic rotation.  This in turn will affect hip mobility or trickle upward affecting shoulder girdle and spine function.  Performing the breathing exercises has allowed a lot of our corrective programming to “stick” a little more effectively

What we didn’t expect was a secondary effect which was an increase in cardiac output which we identified by our athletes experiencing a reduction in resting heart rate by as much as 4-5 beats per minute.  After talking with Larry Cahalin and then reading the resisted breathing study that you guys did with the hockey team at Northeastern University, we’ve concluded that our breathing work is improving cardiac output via an increase in venous return.  Typically we will have our athletes perform cardiac output development work for longer durations up to 60 minutes in a heart rate zone of 120-150 bpm.  By adding in the breathing exercises and resisted breathing protocols from the study I mentioned, we’ve been able to cut way back on the long slow duration work which the athletes really appreciate.

I know you have an extensive library – what 5 books would you recommend for those working with basketball athletes primarily in a rehab setting should read?

Keep in mind that I don’t think there is a singular resource that has all the questions answered, but here’s  my short list and in the interest of overdelivering throw in a couple extra:

Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance by McGill
Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques, Volume 1: The Upper Body by Chaitow
Clinical Applications of Neuromuscular Techniques: The Lower Body, Volume 2 by Chaitow
Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance:The Janda Approach by Page, Frank, and Lardner
Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes by Sahrmann
The Malalignment Syndrome: Implications for Medicine and Sports by Schamberger
I’d also recommend the courses from the Postural Restoration Institute

Topics: Guest Author, Health & Wellness

Just Say No To Low Calorie Diets

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Sep 21, 2010 7:12:00 AM

by Travis Illian, MA, Specialist in Performance Nutrition, CSCS, USAW, SCCC, University of Alabama

Travis can be reached at

So you’ve heard it said, over and over again, “If you want to lose weight, then you have to burn more calories than you consume.”  Before you decide to eat just a salad today because you want to lose weight, understand that losing weight is not always a good thing.  If you lose water or muscle, you lose your ability to burn calories – making it a whole heck of a lot easier to get fat or fatter again!  Never let yourself talk about “losing weight,” only talk about “losing FAT”.  It’s the FAT we don’t like.  Fat causes us to have a great deal of health problems and most of us would agree that fat doesn’t look too pretty either.  Today, we are talking about one thing – Just Say No to Low Calorie Diets! 

Low calorie diets do not work!  The quicker you learn this, the better the rest of your life will be.  It’s like eating a bag of chocolate for comfort and emotional reasons – at first it tastes great and it makes you feel good (for a split second) but in the end it always leaves you feeling full and disgusting.  And then you get mad because you know it just made you fatter.  As addicting as stuffing yourself with unhealthy food is, it will never satisfy you and neither will low calorie diets. 

Here’s why.  When you go on low calorie diets you slow down your metabolism with the loss of muscle, you cause a cascade of hormonal changes, and your body becomes more efficient at putting on fat (“starvation response”).  When you hit the dieting plateau you get frustrated and start eating normal again and you start to put on fat easily.  You start to think you have bad genetics and that there is no way out.  Yep, this is a vicious cycle.

What’s happening in the body?  When you go on low calorie diets your body starts to use muscle as energy.  When muscle is used for energy it is easy to lose water weight as well.  Muscle breakdown causes nitrogen release and your body has to wash nitrogen out of the body so you will lose an obvious amount of weight on the scale.  Losing muscle and water weight is a very bad thing because muscle burns FAT!  Yep, muscle is metabolically active (meaning it uses energy, i.e. FAT).  One pound of muscle burns FAT just to maintain itself – that’s whether you are sleeping or watching television! 

If a dieter has lost 10 lbs. of muscle, they have lost their ability to burn the amount of calories that those 10lbs of muscle burned each day!  So, this dieter would have to eat less calories each day to maintain their weight loss.  That doesn’t sound too bad, but since the low calorie dieter has been on such a low calorie diet for an extended amount of time, when they start eating normal again, the body has a rebound effect where it has revved up its fat storing enzymes so that any calories above the low-calorie diet will be stored as fat!  This is where the inevitable weight gain comes back – anyone who has ever tried a low calorie diet knows exactly what I am talking about!  What stinks about this weight gain is that it is FAT gain, not muscle gain.  So, now you may weigh the same as you did before dieting, but with less muscle mass – making it harder to keep the weight off and this is why most people put on more weight than they lost. 

Solution?  Change your mindset and change your lifestyle.  Start trying to build muscle – remember muscle burns FAT even if you are sitting on your butt (which most of us do too much of anyways). And ladies, don’t worry you will not look like a muscle bound freak (I’ll cover this in another article).  Stay away from fad and low calorie diets!  I repeat – Stay away from fad and low calorie diets!

Remember – fat loss is slow and steady.  Eat lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  Make a plan to eat 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day.  A healthy diet is one that is permanent!  It’s a lifestyle, not a diet that you go on and off.  With that being said, no food should be “off limits.”  Unhealthy foods (and you know what those are) should be eaten rarely.      

Make positive changes in your life.  The power to choose is only as good as the choices we make!  Make powerful choices! 

Topics: Guest Author, Nutrition