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Topics: Strength Training
by Art Horne
In the vast majority of well planned programs in both Strength and Conditioning and Sports Medicine, athletes and patients must “qualify” for a particular exercise prior to being introduced to it as a formal part of their training or rehabilitation program. For example, it would be ill advised to simply ask an athlete to perform depth jumps without knowing they had a sufficient strength base first (1.25 x BW for females and 1.5 x BW for males seems to be standard). Hang Cleans are rarely taught until an athlete or patient shows proficiency in a box jump, good front squat technique and a reasonable strength base. Even in Sports Medicine, one must “qualify” to drop the crutches after injury in favor of full weigh-bearing so long as they are abel to demonstrate normal, pain-free gait. Yet, when it comes to addressing “core” exercises many are often prescribed without thought or prior planning. This is especially true when evaluating rotational exercises.
McGill has demonstrated time and again that people with troubled backs simply use their backs more during activities.
“But you need a strong back don’t you?”
Well yes, but there’s more to it than that. In fact, the guys that have these troubled backs most often have much stronger backs but are less endurable than matched asymptomatic controls (McGill et al, 2003). In addition, those that have back pain (and a stronger back mind you) tend to have more motion in their backs and less motion and load in their hips. And we all know what poor hip mobility means don’t we – you got it, back pain. (McGill SM et al. Previous history of LBP with work loss is related to lingering effects in biomechanical physiological, personal, psychosocial and motor control characteristics. Ergonomics 2003;46:731-46.)
"So what does all this hip, back and stability stuff have to do with rotational core and power training? I just want to throw some heavy medicine balls against the wall and wake up the neighbors!”
Not so fast, as I mentioned, mobile hips and a stable and strong mid-section are paramount and a MUST prior to any type of rotational medicine ball or rotational power training. The Mobility-Stability/Joint by Joint Approach to Training made famous by Boyle and Cook is of course a must, yet very few actually test to see if their athletes have “stability” where stability should lie – the lumbar spine. This is especially important for post players who require a decisive and strong drop step to establish position in the post. Any leakage in energy or disconnect between their shoulders and lower body will surely afford them a less than desirable position on the low post.
Isn't being on a poster great?
Prone Touch - A Rotary Qualifier
The simple “Prone Shoulder Touch” or “Prone Touch” is a simple test to ensure your athletes are able to lock in their lumbar spine while undergoing and controlling a very basic rotational force. In this test the athlete is resisting rotary forces by picking one hand off the ground, touching the opposite shoulder and replacing. If your athlete cannot hold their pelvis and shoulders level to the ground they are simply not ready to “produce” rotary forces due to the fact that they just demonstrated that they could not even “resist” a simple rotary force. You wouldn’t depth jump an athlete unless they could produce the required force first right?
Remember, the core, more often than not functions as a preventer of motion and not as an initiator. Good technique in both daily living tasks and sports demand that force be generated at the hips and transmitted through a stiffened core. (McGill, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance)
Not sure if your athlete is holding their spine in place? I often ask athletes to touch each shoulder 20 times total after lifting up their shirt and exposing their low back. (Baggy basketball shirts and shorts won’t allow you to view and make an appropriate decision.) Being able to hold this position, and ultimately resist the 280 lb power forward trying to dislodge you from the block requires not only strength but strength that endures. Twenty touches may seem like a lot, but dysfunction rarely presents itself at first, and requires a bit of fatigue before it jumps out at you.
Note: many tall athletes will automatically find this exercise to be difficult. Starting them on their knees or bringing them up to a box serves as a nice starting position.
Athletes that struggle to hold the Prone Touch position should start with simplier exercises such as McGill's Bird-Dog and Stir the Pot prior to beginning more advanced exercises.
Anti-Rotation Press Progression
Key Points: maintain a capital "T" posture with shoulders level and spine perpendicular to the ground. Don't let the resistance or cable rotate your torso. Encourage athlete to breathe normally.
Mastering the Chop prior to the Lift or other more advanced core lifts in important as it provides for a good understanding of body position, awareness and handling outside forces while maintaining a stable spine.
Key Points: place your hand on your athlete's head and ask them to push into your hand to ensure they have good posture and a tall spine. Progression much like the Anti-rotational press starts in a tall kneeling position, to a half kneeling position, and finally to a standing positon.
Most athletes have trouble understanding body position and thus mastering the Chop prior to the Lift is key in developing appropriate rotary resistance strength.
Key Point: Lift should be broken down into two distinct components during the teaching phase. 1. pull towards mid-line, and 2. press away (I like to remind our basketball athletes to finish strong as if they were powering up with the ball towards the hoop). Maintain tall posture and capital "T" position throughout.
Looks a lot like Dwight's about to do a dynamic lift pattern doesn't?
Besides a variety of medicine ball throws which incorporates producing force, the landmine is the last in the progression to resisting rotary forces. Posture, technique and breathing are key here as well.
Anti-rotation exercises don't have to be exclusionary of eachother and can be programmed either within the same training session or within the same week and do not necessarily have to follow the progression outlined above. However, strict attention should be given to your athlete's ability to reduce motion/force, not produce it. Lowering the outside resistance on either a Keiser or weight machine will allow your athletes to maintain proper position and ensure your athletes success while resisting rotary forces and preparing them to do the same on the court. However, demonstrating clearly that your athletes are first able to begin this progression starts with qualifying your athlete's ability to do so with a simple Prone Touch.
• Aultman,C.D., Scannell,J., and McGill, S.M. (2005) Predicting the direction of nucleus tracking in porcine spine motion segments subjected to repetitive flexion and simultaneous lateral bend. Clinical Biomechanics, 20:126-129.
• Kavcic, N., Grenier, S., and McGill, S. (2004b) Determining the stabilizing role of individual torso muscles during rehabilitation exercises. Spine, 29(11):1254-1265.
• Koumantakis GA, Watson, PJ, Oldham, JA, Trunk muscle stabilization training plus general exercise versus general exercise only: Randomized controlled trial with patients with recurrent low back pain. Physical Therapy, 85(3):209-225.
• Marshall LW and McGill SM. (2010) The role of axial torque in disc herniation. Clinical Biomechanics. 25 (1):6-9.
• McGill SM et al. Previous history of LBP with work loss is related to lingering effects in biomechanical physiological, personal, psychosocial and motor control characteristics. Ergonomics 2003;46:731-46.
• McGill, S.M. (2007) Low back disorders: Evidence based prevention and rehabilitation, Second Edition, Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, IL, U.S.A.
• McGill, S.M., (2007) (DVD) The Ultimate Back: Assessment and therapeutic exercise, www.backfitpro.com
• McGill, S.M. (2009) Ultimate back fitness and performance – Fourth Edition, Backfitpro Inc., Waterloo, Canada, (www.backfitpro.com).
• McGill, S.M., Karpowicz, A. (2009) Exercises for spine stabilization: Motion/Motor patterns, stability progressions and clinical technique. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 90: 118-126.
• McGill, S.M. (2010) Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal, Vol. 32;3. 33-46.
• McGill, S.M. Presentation at Third Annual Distinguished Lecture Series in Sports Medicine, 2009. Northeastern University.
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(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?
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