Of all the things that will stop you from being able to perform a movement correctly, joint mobility and inhibited muscular contraction are probably the most significant. I can count on one hand the clients I have had over the years that have not had a ROM restriction or altered muscle patterning that didn't need rectifying before I prescribed a range of exercises for them. And to be honest, I struggle with ROM every day myself; this old man needs some serious warming up before a session!
So in honour of all of you robots out there, here are three hot tips from my series that will help you and your clients achieve better mobility while squatting, rowing and racking.
This first video is to help improve front rack position for barbell lifts. This position can sometimes be awkward as it's not one we naturally get into throughout the day: forward flexion, horizontal flexion and external rotation at the GH joint combined with extreme pronation and extension under load at the wrist. Forearm flexors, triceps and lats can be really locked up, especially if the whole shoulder girdle isn't moving freely against the ribs. This stretch is perfect if your client struggles with mobility in any of those areas.
Watch this second video below, to understand the proper mechanism for a rowing movement. Sure, you can get your clients to pull on a weight or band, but is it actually doing them any good? When you look closely at the mechanics of a row, you have the opportunity to improve the contraction of the lower traps and rhomboids, but in reality most clients will find it VERY difficult to actually do that. Instead, the upper traps kick in as usual, the biceps assist and the trunk starts to rotate to assist with the ROM required.
The only way to fix this and actually improve the overall mechanics of the shoulder is to work SPECIFICALLY on the correct form by breaking down the row and regressing clients where necessary. Once they have achieved this, they actually have a hope of contracting the scapula stabilisers and reducing their risk of chronic injuries such as impingements in the coracoacromial arch, bursitis under the biceps or supraspinatus tendons and even low back and neck pain.
The final video below outlines a Cassock Squat. I give these to my beginner clients as an introduction to leg strength, co-ordination, lumbar rotation, adductor and hamstring flexibility, hip ROM and overall balance. It's also great as a warm up for my clients who come straight from the office and are keen to get into a leg session. Following the ARAS principle (Assess, Release, Activate, Strengthen), I always make sure to give a specific warm up to release the problematic hyperactive muscles the client has THAT DAY, activate the muscles I want them to be strengthening and then smashing out some good solid reps. That way I know I'm not strengthening muscles that will give them long term problems, but the muscles that will give them long term quality of life through quality movement. What's not to love about the Cassock Squat?
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It’s fair to say a large portion of what we do as fitness professionals revolves around the strength world, and for good reason too. An improvement in our client’s strength levels has a profoundly positive effect on our client’s physiological and psychological wellbeing. How we decide to obtain that strength with our clients however varies hugely from professional to professional and when we put aesthetics aside it’s very easy to see that not every training methodology is equal, in fact in this article I’m going to argue that some are even detrimental to your clients wellbeing.
If we look back on the recent history of strength training within the context of fitness centres it’s fair to say body building put strength training on the world stage and turned people’s perception of it on its head. The wider community’s perception went from “these guys are a freak show” to “wow that’s incredible sign me up!” and with this change of perception the fitness industry we work in was born. A large amount of thanks needs to go to the body building community for the opportunity we have today as exercise professionals.
What has transpired in western society (not limited to however) over the past 40 plus years though is a skyrocketing obesity rate, increase in sedentary lifestyle and then of course a host of medical issues that we all know too well which relate back to these two key issues in our society. This of course is no reflection of the fitness industry but more of a society that has become increasingly lazy, with less people willing to take responsibility of a nutritional system that is failing them in a society that’s becoming increasingly more high tech which is only promoting longer periods of inactivity.
As personal trainers I believe a key responsibility we have is to teach people how to fall back in love with movement. Somewhere between childhood and the stresses of adulthood many people fall out of love with movement or at least don’t see it as a high importance in their ever busy lifestyles. The problem is movement plays a critical role long term in dealing with so many psychological and physiological issues that currently ravages our society. Now in relation to human movement, the problem the fitness industry has begun to acknowledge since around the early 2000’s is that the traditional isolation training models that the fitness industry was built on by the body building movement doesn’t have ‘improvements in human movement’ as a central focus. It is as we know focused on creating aesthetically beautiful bodies.
Hence the birth of ‘functional training’ as we know it today, Kettlebell Swings, Squat Presses, Box Jumps, Power Cleans, Suspension Trainer exercises, Gymnastics Rings, Bosu Balls, Swiss Balls the list goes on.
Now these training methodologies are nothing new in fact some have been around for hundreds of years, the new found importance of combating the sedentary lifestyle has brought these training styles into vogue if you like. These types of movements have a proven track record as effective tools for improving human movement.
Now don’t get me wrong I love the concept of functional training and I buy into it whole-heartedly, for the reasons stated above, not to mention they are just plain fun! There’s a missing link however, a skills gap if you like, that hurts the reputation of us as exercise professionals like no other.
This is the fact that many fitness professionals don’t assess or prepare our clients well enough before prescribing these types of movements which can only be considered advanced and complex.
Let me deep dive into this a little to explain, a large portion of the typical ‘functional training’ exercises we see and use in a gym in this day in age requires high degrees of co-ordination, kinaesthetic awareness and most importantly joint stability because of the higher level of instability found with many of the movements. All of which a fair portion of our clients don’t have due to the fact they are de-conditioned, have poor body awareness and in some cases haven’t moved in decades. Fitness professionals have all the good intentions in the world for their clients and apply ‘functional training’ to get them moving how the body was designed while forgetting one very critical rule in the strength world which is:
‘Strength levels should never be increased around a joint when stability isn’t first present’
This rule as a strength training concept I call Strength through Stability. The problem with performing complex exercises when stability isn’t present is that the body then sets up compensations to deal with the instability. An Upper Trapezius will dominate a movement when our Rhomboids and Lower Trapezius is weak, creating shoulder dysfunction. Our Quadriceps and hip flexors like to dominate a movement when our Transverse Abdominis, Hamstrings and Gluteals are weak creating lumbo-pelvic dysfunction.
When these compensations are not corrected it creates poor neuromuscular patterning, which is the long term problem with not abiding by this rule as a fitness professional.
Think of a golfer that has played a hundred rounds of golf before finally going to see a golf pro to correct their swing. It’s extremely hard for the pro to make large and effective changes to their swing because the neuromuscular pattern has been engrained by 100’s of poor swings. Weightlifting is no different. So when we prescribe an exercise that the client performs incorrectly because there’s no stability around the joint, it becomes very difficult to correct the muscle imbalance present because the primary movers have become so strong and hungry to work that the stabilisers have no chance in activating and doing their fair share of the work.
Over time this means excessive wear and tear on joints as bony structures don’t track correctly and ultimately leads to a more rapid degeneration of the muscular-skeletal system. All this just because we either weren’t prepared or educated enough on how to correct the poor neuromuscular patterning present in our clients .
We effectively then are doing our clients a disservice and I’ll go as far as saying this whole topic is the major reason why fitness professionals have such a poor reputation generally speaking within the allied health profession. This is because it’s the physiotherapist, osteopath or other allied health professional that picks up the pieces when the client starts complaining of knee or shoulder pain for example.
What do I do then?
Understanding ‘Strength through stability’ is just a case of understanding 'cause and effect', a very simplistic example is knowing that when the knees bow in medially during a squat that chances are the clients Gluteals are weak while their hip flexors are overactive for example. Now I appreciate this deeper level of understanding doesn’t happen overnight and certainly doesn’t come with a Cert IV in Fitness, however you don’t need a degree in anatomy & physiology either, some sound dedication to learning the basics around which muscles are associated with dysfunctional movement is all that is required along with the corresponding activation and release exercises that go with the issue.
Having this level of detail in your personal training service is the difference between being labelled a ‘thrash & bash’ fitness professional verses one that is fully conscious of the causes and effects that exercise results on the human body which sets you apart from 95% of the pack and skyrockets your clients results.
So remember never underestimate the importance of having a sound technique while perform an exercise. If it doesn’t look right then chances are it’s not, if you’re unsure of what’s going on then consult a senior fitness professional, research information and up skill so the next time you come across the dysfunction you know how to take your clients experience from an average one to an amazing one and ensure that like us, they too fall in love with movement.
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Whether you want giant hamstrings or not, they most definitely should be on your wish list! Generally speaking, the hamstrings are the ‘ugly duckling’ to the more eye and ego-pleasing quadriceps. Yet from a performance perspective they offer so much, and also play a critical role in staying injury free. So much so in fact, that it’s worth highlighting that the hamstrings, along with the gluteals, play a vital role in knee stability and prevention of knee injuries, in particular ACL injuries which are about as common as a protein shake in a gym.
Having strong quadriceps without strong hamstrings is like strapping a V8 engine onto a bicycle. The bike (or in this case your hamstrings) have no chance in dealing with the power that your V8 quadriceps can create and it can be a recipe for disaster as the hamstrings just can’t deal with the torque that the quadriceps create, resulting in a torn hamstring or blown knee.
THE BEST HAMSTRING EXTERCISES
So now that we have clarified the importance of the hamstrings, which exercises are the most effective at building strength and size? We need to remember that the hamstrings are responsible for both knee flexion and hip extension, so a combination of these movements that simultaneously stretch the muscle while putting it under load at both its origin and insertion will put the most strain through the muscles.
There is one key characteristic that you will find is generally consistent across most great hamstring exercises: when the hips are forced to extend while the knee is also extended, this creates unparalleled lengthening of the hamstring muscle and also loads both ends of the muscle during the contraction phase of the exercise.
A study conducted by The University of Memphis took a group of untrained individuals and had them perform four well-known leg-focused exercises while measuring muscle activity. The exercises were the leg curl, Good Morning, Glute-hamstring raise and Romanian deadlift.
Although all four exercises successfully activated the measurable muscle groups, there were two exercises that stood out above the rest with an emphasis on hamstring activation. Those two exercises were the glute-hamstring raise (GHR) and the Romanian deadlift (RDL).
Both the RDL and GHR create positions where the hamstrings are placed on a huge stretch with a large amount of load. During a RDL, we hinge at the hips while the knees are virtually extended (maintaining soft knees). The focus of the movement around the hips with the knee position fixed is extremely effective at lengthening the hamstring, with the load managed at both ends due to the requirement of stability at the knee insertion and strength at the pelvic insertion.
The GHR is almost the opposite to the RDL, where the hips are fixed in an extended (stabilising) position while the knees flex and extend (strengthening) to lift your bodyweight against gravity. The midpoint that is created by a GHR is extremely intense and slightly unsettling at first as the position of your whole body prone and under load is manufactured by the machine and is not a natural position the human body would find itself in. That being said, there’s a reason why virtually every Olympic Lifting facility has one of these machines: the movement is particularly effective at strengthening the posterior line and of course in particular the hamstrings and gluteals.
Comparing these two exercises with the lying hamstring curl can give us further perspective. The research paper ranked this commonly found exercise dead last as an effective hamstring recruiter. Where’s the justice in that? After all, it’s the only exercise out of the four that more or less completely isolates the hamstrings, right? Wrong. The ‘trusty’ lying leg curl unfortunately at no point extends or loads the hips during the movement. In fact, if you have a look at a lying hamstring curl machine next time you’re at the gym, you’ll see that the machine actually flexes the hips 15-20o to help place the hamstrings on stretch. But because there’s no hip extension, all work is done around the knee joint which is only half the job of the hamstrings.
Also, we might think that the Good Morning is a very similar movement to the Romanian deadlift, so why wasn’t it as effective? Sure, it is probably better than an isolated hamstring curl, but there is something to be said for the position of the weight that is being moved. In this case, with the bar being on the shoulders the weight is a long way from the fulcrum (hips), so there is more load placed through all the joints between the hips and the weight in providing stabilisation. Therefore the spine and particularly the lower back will contribute significantly during a Good Morning and take the focus off the hamstrings, effectively reducing muscle fibre recruitment.
There are dozens of exercises that can target the hamstring muscles as a compound movement or in isolation. If you’ve been spending weeks, months, or years trying to bulk up your hamstrings without success, remember to focus on movements that actively extend both the hips and knee at some point during the movement. That way you can be sure your hamstrings are getting stressed the way they’re designed to be and you will be on a winner. If you’re not really one for mixing it up too much then be sure to keep to Romanian deadlifts and the glute-hamstring raise for best results.
• Begin by holding a pair of dumbbells or barbell
• Stand tall and keep a flat back
• Slightly bend the knees and drive your hips back
• Legs will remain stationary as you lower the weight with straight arms
• Again, keep the back flat throughout
• Pause once your body has come to a parallel position with the floor
• Return to the starting position
• Secure your feet into the pads of the Glute-Ham Raise machine
• Begin by crossing the arms against the chest
• Straighten your body, resting your hips on the center pad
• Activate the gluteals, hamstrings and calves to pull your upper body straight up
• Simultaneously, drop your knees slightly against the pad
• Your back will be flat throughout the movement
• Once you reach the top, slowly lower yourself back to the starting position, focusing tension in the hamstrings and calves
Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises, McAllister MJ, Hammond KG, Schilling BK, Ferreria LC, Reed JP, Weiss LW, Exercise Neuromechanics Laboratory, The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this question by clients I’d be a millionaire.
Shallow squats, push-ups, presses and partial chin-ups all fall into the same argument of “Does it make a difference if I go full range or just partial”
What follows is a breakdown of why we should ALWAYS work through a full range of movement when we lift.
GREATER LEVEL OF GROWTH
How many times have you heard that squatting is the key to large legs? This is one of the main reasons why the squat is in the top 4 exercises to have in your repertoire. To go one step further, if you’re looking to really increase the size of your legs, then you need to start squatting deep. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that subjects who squatted to a full 120 degrees of flexion showed significant increases in thigh muscle mass.
HUGE BOOST IN STRENGTH
You don’t have to be a powerlifter to enjoy the strength benefits that come with performing squats. If you are a power athlete, then listen up: squatting deeper is the key to leaps and bounds in gaining strength. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had two groups: one doing shallow squats and one performing deep squats. At the end of the first half of the study, the deep squat group excelled in every measurable area with an emphasis on strength. What’s interesting is that for the second half of the study, both groups were not allowed to train for 4 weeks! The shallow squat group saw the fastest reduction in muscle and strength. The deep squat group maintained most their muscle and strength!
IMPROVES OTHER AREAS OF FITNESS
Imagine training legs on Monday and boosting your performance in other areas on Wednesday. Squatting deep has been shown to improve other areas of fitness, with an emphasis for those athletes looking for greater jumping power. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that subjects who squatted deep saw a significant improvement in their vertical jump and explosive power.
SAFE FOR KNEES AND ANKLES
A primary concern during the squat (and a tell-tale sign that something is wrong) is when you feel unnecessary strain in your knees and ankles. Yes, the squat is a multi-joint exercise but if you are ONLY feeling it in your knees then you need to change what you are doing. As demonstrated in this study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, squatting deeper will help to shift the load into the hips. This shift will alleviate excess pressure on the knees and ankles while strengthening the hip muscles.
The benefit of full range of movement and strength training is well documented. For a lot of us this makes the next step to obtain a full range of movement. This can be easier said than done at times so be sure to keep working hard with your stretching routines so you can gain the necessary flexibility. This way you can get the most out of your gym program each and every workout.
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It’s easy to get carried away with the term Functional Training. It’s a term that is given to forms of training that mimic the individual needs of clients, and it just so happens to be that the average ‘Joe Blogs’ is our bread and butter client. Therefore the typical needs of our clients are everyday movements: squats, lunges, pushes, pulls, bends and twists.
And although I’m in massive favour of all of the above, don’t forget about specificity! Just because a Squat Press lends itself nicely as a functional movement doesn’t necessarily mean it’s specific to the needs of an average Joe. What if the average Joe naturally carries a lot of stress through the shoulders/upper traps? Sure, the exercise itself might still be a functional one, but the application is inappropriate for that individual because this exercise could put this client at risk of a shoulder impingement as the scapula retractors are inhibited.
Just as I wouldn’t give an Overhead BB Walking Lunge to a client who has lax shoulders even though it’s a fantastic exercise; the risk posed by the local instability verses reward for compound exercises probably won’t work out in favour of the client.
So then why do I see Personal Trainers time and time again taking that risk? For a number of reasons, but lack of exercise vocabulary is usually the main one. They don’t have a list of progressional exercises to take the client from a beginner to an advanced level movement. Think you need some inspiration? We have an easy tool to create virtually limitless progressions for exercises in our eBook: Functional Training Zone Specialist, which you can download now for FREE! Just click here.
So the next time you’re writing up a client’s program with plenty of popular functional exercises, be sure to ask yourself: are these movements also specific to the needs that I have found during my client assessment, or do I need to give them something safer and more relevant?
I’m expecting some controversy around this blog; of course if you are treating your clients holistically you wouldn’t ignore ANY muscles and I could list another ten that warrant attention in most clients! However in the context of a sedentary lifestyle, some muscles are likely to have more of an impact on the prevention or creation of imbalances, postural issues and injuries. So here is a BRIEF run down, in no particular order.....
Serratus Anterior (SA)
Also known as the ‘boxer’s muscle’ for the way it shows itself on the side of the chest during a jab, this muscle inserts onto the medial tip of the scapula from its origin on several of the ribs. Besides holding the scapula flat against the ribs and assisting with protraction, what’s more important is the Serratus Anterior’s role in scapulohumeral rhythm. It works with the Lower and Upper Trapezius during abduction of the humerus. If the Serratus Anterior is weak, the Upper Traps pick up the load and can become overactive, which in turn inhibits the function of the Lower Traps. During abduction, this causes the head of the humerus to get jammed into the top ridge of the glenohumeral joint rather than pulled down neatly into the socket as is supposed to happen. The risk is that the client is opened up to shoulder impingement injuries as the humerus rubs excessively against the superior labrum.
Gluteus Medius (GM)
Now don’t get me wrong: your gluteals as a whole are extremely important, and I’ve had countless clients where neural activation in this region is next to nothing! The Glut Med however, which originates from the Ilium and inserts onto the femur (on the outside of the hip) is extremely important for pelvic stability. When your GM is inhibited your hip drops which sends your knee rotating medially; this has a detrimental effect on the biomechanics of the leg and increases the general wear and tear of the joint. Furthermore, the dropped hip also plays havoc on the lumbar spine as the vertebra become misaligned which places excessive stress on the facet joints and vertebral discs. Be sure to program plenty of single leg work if you know the Glut Med isn’t firing and ensure your clients’ hips remain on a horizontal plane at all times and their knees don’t buckle medially.
Transverse Abdominis (TA)
The latest statistic I read from the Chiropractors Association Queensland was that 80% of Australians will experience disabling lower back pain at some point during their lives! That is a telling statistic and one I’d believe given the lifestyle choices we make (read: sedentary). Your TA is your human weight belt, wrapping around your torso to support your lumbar spine and much more. Sitting down all day switches it off, need I say more? If your clients are struggling with this one, practice supine and prone drawing the belly button towards the spine. A subtle movement, but SO important.
Vastus Medialis Obliquus (VMO)
The VMO plays a vital role in how the patellar tracks in the patellofemoral grove. If the VMO is weak, the patellar gets pulled laterally by the ITB and Vastus Lateralis and can cause pain in the knee joint due to the increased friction. This muscle also has an interesting length-tension relationship with the Glut Med; they work together to stabilise the leg, hip and pelvis as a whole. If there are VMO problems, there are likely to be issues further up the chain so ensuring gluteal activation and correct leg alignment during movement is critical when addressing the VMO and knee.
Your Rhomboids originate from your upper thoracic spine and insert onto your scapula. Their primary role is to retract the scapula and someone who has an excessive kyphosis will have inhibited rhomboids as they are permanently on stretch. Lack of control of this muscle means the scapula sit in a chronically protracted position. This position inhibits the ideal mechanics of the whole shoulder girdle, and during abduction places the head of the humerus into a vulnerable position in the glenohumeral joint and in danger of gaining injuries such as shoulder impingements, bursitis and so forth. Be sure to release the client’s pectorals before performing activation exercises to help create neural pathways to this incredibly important muscle. By releasing the opposing muscles first it helps to improve the clients ROM and gives them a greater chance to active the correct muscles. This process will at least set your client on the right path to correcting their posture and avoiding some nasty shoulder injuries.
What are your top 5 muscles that you find come up over and over again when you are training clients? Leave us a comment below!
Fitball, swiss ball, birthing ball, therapy ball or stability ball (SB) – it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are all the same thing and as the various names suggest, there are many uses for them. The primary benefit for using SB’s in an exercise program is suggested to be lumbopelvic stability, working off the theory that actively causing instability in the region will heighten neuromuscular activation and therefore improve the body’s ability to stabilise the joints when performing everyday tasks because of a heightened nervous system and therefore greater muscle contraction. Once the axial skeleton is supported, the forces created through movement can be efficiently transferred from one area of the body to another.
For example when throwing a ball, a pivot at the hips can generate more power for more distance than could be achieved by the arm on its own. When performing a movement of any sort, lumbopelvic instability results in an “energy leak” where the forces generated do not get transferred for use in the limbs and overall strength is compromised, leaving opportunity for injury.
When utilised properly, the SB can be a fantastic complement to traditional strength training to resolve any joint instability, particularly in a rehabilitation setting or for a client with significant weakness. Whether you’re looking at glenohumeral, pelvic, thoracic or lumbar stability, the SB can offer industry professionals a massive range of supplement exercises. J.Carter et al (2006) performed a study on the use of a SB by sedentary people in relation to spinal stability, and it was concluded the SB could be an effective intervention tool in worksite wellness programs after very favourable results were shown after a 10 week SB training program was completed and all participants markedly improved their spinal stability.
In separate studies by Mills et al and Butcher et al it was found that athletes with the largest improvements in lumbopelvic stability via a core strengthening program also had the greatest improvements in their vertical jumps. This highlights the importance of a strong trunk region for energy transfer and the benefits of including specific core work into any program. A SB is a great way to do this as you can keep it interesting and relevant to the needs of an individual by including different planes of motion, open/closed kinetic chain exercises and any number of progressional movements. You can be as creative as you like while incorporating similar movements to those that the client may perform in a work, home or recreational setting: otherwise known as functional training.
The flip side to the SB story is knowing the right time and place to prescribe them. Some of the negative literature around SB’s is in strength training circles and perhaps rightly so. A study by Anderson et al found that adding an unstable surface to maximum lifts saw a 30% decrease in force output in most participants. Therefore it was concluded that if maximum force could not be produced then this will have negative effects on power and strength outputs which is critical in the sports industry in particular.
So, the use of stability balls is very much about knowing your clients’ needs. As fitness professionals, as a broad stroke we generally come across clients with extremely poor overall joint stability, core strength and kinaesthetic awareness and have goals for weight reduction, general strength and better well-being. This makes the SB an effective tool to combat multiple issues at once as part of a balanced program. However SB use could inhibit a client who has maximum strength based goals. As fun as they are to practice party tricks, make sure your prescription of SB exercises is in line with the desired outcomes of the individuals you are working with.
**NB** From a point of safety, it is critical that any client has mastered a movement pattern in a stable environment before introducing instability or else their risk of injury is increased dramatically.
Butcher SJ, Craven BR, Chillibeck PD, Spink KS, Grona SL, and Spriqinqs EJ. The effect of trunk stability training on vertical takeoff velocity. J Ortho Sports Phys Ther 37: 223–231, 2007.
Mills JD, Taunton JE, and Mills WA. The effect of 10-week training regime on lumbopelvic stability and athletic performance in female athletes: A randomized control trial. Phys Ther Sport 6: 60–66, 2005.
THE EFFECTS OF STABILITY BALL TRAINING ON SPINAL STABILITY IN SEDENTARY INDIVIDUALS (2006) JACQUELINE M. CARTER, WILLIAM C. BEAM, SHARI G. MCMAHAN, MICHELLE L. BARR, AND
LEE E. BROWN California State University, Fullerton, Division of Kinesiology and Health Science, Fullerton, California
Tristan Hill, Masters of Sports Coaching, author of Lifting the Bar and mentor to Personal Trainers.