I am fortunate enough to have another thought provoking article from my man Pat Davidson. Pat has worked with many elite level strength athletes, and is one in his own right. He is also a great mind, that thinks objectively about how to get people to the highest levels of strength. Have a look!
So a lot of people don’t have the option of going to a really good physical therapist or an outstanding performance coach to get a legitimate assessment and corrective exercise strategy. If this is the case, then your corrective exercises and warm-up moves are guess work as to whether they make sense for you. Now that being said, if you’re a lifter, you’re probably fairly predictable. You’re probably stuck in a position where your pelvis is anteriorly rotated bilaterally, your ribs are positioned in external rotation bilaterally, your spinal erectors are huge, your traps are monstrous and tight, and you get calf pumps and shin splints when you have to walk fast for any given distance. If this is you, then there’s a couple of things that I’d like to tell you about yourself.
In ideal situations, your deep abdominal muscles and your glutes and hamstrings are your anti-gravity muscles. You’ve turned your hip flexors into your abs, your calves into your glutes, and your low back into your hamstrings. Another real world phenomenon that is ideal is a situation where you inhale with your diaphragm. If you’ve got super tight shoulders and monster traps you’ve turned your neck into your diaphragm. When you ask muscles to do jobs that aren’t originally intended for them, they get really tight. The reason these tissues get tight is because if you’re trying to defy gravity and breathe, you’re using them all day.
If you’re using them all day, you’d like them to work oxidatively. If they’re not muscles intended to be postural or respiratory, they don’t possess the histological properties of the super slow twitch authentic anti-gravity and respiratory muscles. These muscles are a little more type II glycolytic fibers. Faster twitch fibers attempt to use glycolysis more than slow twitch fibers do. Glycolysis doesn’t have the fatigue resistance capacities that the oxidative energy system does. When these fibers work with tremendous duration they fatigue and then become incapable of rephosphorylating ATP. When this happens, the myosin globular head is unable to uncouple from the actin binding site, and the muscle tissue goes into lockdown mode. Stretching these muscles might provide temporary relief, but in no way will stretching provide you with a more permanent fix. What you really need to do is get your abs, glutes, and hamstrings to regain their anti-gravity capabilities, and you need to get your diaphragm to be your inhalation driver. If that happens, those overworked, over-tight muscles get to turn off and stay off. So maybe we should figure out how to get abs, glutes, hams, and diaphragms to work appropriately.
Let’s start with hamstrings and glutes (pelvic floor glute max) first (for no reason in particular). The hamstrings flex the knee and, “extend the hip”. The hip extension part is the area where a lot of people seem to get confused. The proximal hamstring attaches to the ischial tuberosity. When the hamstrings pull on the ischial tuberosity they cause the pelvis to posteriorly rotate, which is referred to as ischium extension as a biomechanical movement. The movement of ischium extension is the exact same motion as ilium flexion. So one of the weird things about “hip extension” is that it’s part of the anterior chain’s flexion motions. What this means is that you can be in femoral flexion and simultaneously be performing “hip extension” as long as we’re talking about the ischium bone. Most lifters are stuck in a position of ischium flexion and ilium extension, aka, anterior pelvic tilt. A good corrective exercise strategy would be to mirror this and try to bring yourself back to neutrality in the sagittal plane. Long story short, you need to posterior tilt your pelvis.
What’s the best way to posterior tilt the pelvis? Posterior tilt (ilium flexion) is linked to the lower limb triple flexion mechanism of the human body…
1. Femoral flexion
2. Knee flexion
Interestingly, dorsiflexion is the real driver of all of these lower quadrant flexion responses. So whatever exercise you’re doing that would involve triple flexion, put the majority of your emphasis on dorsiflexion. Try it in whatever position you’re in while reading this article. I’m guessing you’re sitting, so put your feet flat on the ground. Don’t let your feet leave the ground (toes/forefoot in particular), but really dorsiflex the ankle joint. You should feel it start dragging your butt forward on your chair through a posterior tilting response. Keep the dorsiflexion going, now try to flex your knees. Your hamstrings should light up like a Christmas tree, and your pelvic floor might feel like it’s going to touch your throat. Do you want to feel your inner thighs? Turn your heels out and turn your toes towards each other. Do the same thing as previously described, but squeeze your knees towards each other too.
There’s plenty of other positions that you can perform this same action in. Sidelying is a pretty easy position to really feel this response in. Ultimately, the real importance of this response is that this is the muscular and joint actions that we use to pull ourselves down into a beautiful deep squat with the legs and pelvis. If you’re lacking this triple flexion mechanism, you’re probably someone who’s toes turn way out automatically when you squat, and you probably complain about being too tight to get down into the hole, and your low back probably gets really tight from squatting and in life in general. You’re probably tight, but the reasons behind this tightness probably involve a loss of sensory awareness of your foot and ankle joint, pelvis, and an inappropriate muscular firing strategy that induces impingement rather than authentic stability. So more than likely if your fix is stretching your hamstrings, you’re pretty far off course from getting to the root of your issues. I’d recommend finding your heels and learning how to create anterior chain flexion through the dorsiflexion driver in a variety of positions such as supine hemibridge, supine hooklying, sidelying, and quadruped before progression to standing variations.
Now that we’ve taken care of hams and glutes, let’s talk abs. If you think I’m talking about developing a six pack, I’m not, let’s be clear about that. If you have a six pack, you’re probably very dysfunctional. Our culture has become obsessed with the aesthetics of rectus abdominis. If you have a six pack, it’s very likely that your rectus can’t shut off. Mine can’t. I’ve got a six pack. I don’t move too well, and I’m a recurrent neck pain and trap tightness dude. If you’ve got a six pack, it’s very likely that your ribs are flared and the anterior ribs live in a state of external rotation. If this is the position of your ribs a couple things are going on. Your thorax is existing in a state of extension, the internal obliques are too long to be effective at depressing the rib cage and moving it towards anterior midline in the transverse plane. You have a flat thoracic spine. Your sternum is moving superiorly. You have a big lumbar lordotic arch (and your pelvis is anteriorly tilted). If this is the position you’re in, the only muscle you have left to prevent your sternum from flying away from your hips superiorly is the rectus abdominis. The rectus will be constantly on in a lengthened position, acting eccentrically all day. This is not a situation to be living in. The worst thing that is happening in this position is that the rib cage is not in a position where the diaphragm can work underneath it appropriately. If the rib cage is flared, the diaphragm gets stuck flat (contracted). If can’t dome and relax. If the diaphragm can’t dome and relax, it can’t perform the appropriate subsequent contractile motion to bring air in. You’re a living creature so you must breathe. You do whatever you possibly can to get air in at this point. You have very few options left. Basically the only thing you can do is try to elevate the clavicle to create more volume inside the thorax to get air to come in. You’ve got a few muscles that attach to the clavicle that can elevate it and rotate it open. You’ve got an upper trap and you’ve got a sternocleidomastoid. You have to breathe somewhere around 12 times a minute. There are a lot of minutes in a day. That’s a lot of “shrugs” you’re doing all day.
So how do a shut off my traps and rectus abdominis? You need internal obliques, transversus, and the triangularis sterni to fire appropriately. How do I get these muscles to work? Gain thoracic flexion. How do you get thoracic flexion? Exhale, and pause at the end of the exhale. What else can you do? Reach your arms. Reaching forward (and down if you really want to turn those traps off) will make your thoracic spine flex if you really reach. If you’re lazy and aren’t really trying to reach it’s possible that your spine won’t flex. If you can maintain your reach when you inhale, you’ll feel your whole back fill up with air. It might be a very foreign feeling for you. That’s what it feels like when your diaphragm drives the inhale rather than your traps.
What are my can’t miss corrective exercise recommendations for tight lifters and lifters who are in pain? Quadruped round back breathing. Get on your hands and knees. Create the dorsiflexion driver for lower half flexion. Think about reaching your knees through the ground through. This should pull your tailbone under like a scared dog. Don’t lose that position, and don’t let your butt move backwards towards your heels. You’ve got to keep your hips over your knees. Now really reach your arms. This should flex your thoracic spine like crazy. Blow the air out. Don’t be lazy when blowing out air. Empty the tank. Then eat it when all the air is gone. You have to earn your inhale. Put your tongue on the roof of the mouth and seal your lips. No air may enter your mouth. The inhale is a nasal driven phenomenon. Exhale and reach, inhale and let the air fall into your back. What’s another good exercise? Touching your toes. I’m not talking about some sloppy toe touch where the hips translate backwards. I’m talking about finding your heels and dorsiflexing your ankles while you reach for your toes with your hands on an exhale. You’re not allowed to let that butt move backwards. You need to own your ischium with hamstrings. This is not a hamstring stretch. This is thoracic flexion and ischium control. This is a deep abdominal and hamstring exercise. This is a breathing exercise. This is the road to inhibition and feeling good. A modified down dog also works well. You might need to elevate your hands. Place your palms on a block. Push through the palms and the heels. Reaching with the extremities is always a good thing. Exhaling is always a good thing. Gaining thoracic flexion is always a good thing. Letting the air fall into your back is always a good thing.
If all the things you were doing before worked, they would have worked by now. If traditional recommendations worked, they would have worked by now. Anatomy and physiology is confusing. When you have a partial view of the puzzle, you believe you’re looking at a certain image. Then a few more pieces come together, and you realize that your view was incomplete and perhaps even incorrect. Don’t ever stop the pursuit of learning the locks, levers, mechanisms, and truth behind how the human body works.
Good talk. As you were.