In case you haven't been following this blog (looking at you, people of Mongolia), the last few posts have centered on the appraisal of threat by the limbic system of the brain, the resting tone of the nervous system based upon said threat, and how consistency and security provide an environment for better learning. Light reading, no doubt. As I've alluded to in those writings, learning is optimized when resting tone of the nervous system is low and attention can be sufficiently diverted to the task at hand.
A question we must ask ourselves as coaches/clinicians is are we truly teaching a new skill versus further engraining a conditioned response that has been adapted for survival? Without a knowledge of what we're actually affecting, improvements are more random and less reproducible. So here's a brief discourse on conditioning and how attention is a valuable resource in altering habits.
But first, a quick definition: Learning as I'm operationalizing it here, is the state in which novel skills or neural patterns are developed. Novel learning requires prefrontal cortex activity, attention (mediated thru the nucleus basalis), and mild transient stress to capture the pathways. As I've stated previously, mild stress/arousal is necessary for a baseline of attention but needs to come from a place of underlying security to allow errors to occur without threat that sends the nervous system into freakout and repeating conditioned responses.
Conditioning is the automatizing of habitual, previously learned patterns that are reinforced by the immediate environment. Novel learning can eventually become a conditioned response (or is it a conditioned prediction?) provided the stimulus and repetition are sufficient, however a conditioned response cannot become novel learning. The same machinery that allows for psychomotor variability can also make conditioned responses "deeper" and more conditioned, this is the plastic paradox discussed below.
So when we are working on changing a movement pattern, or changing perceptions, we need to be acutely aware of one's current state. Are we teaching a new skill or are we further engraining a habit? My position is that those who are locked in a neurologic state of being — as measured by loss of HRV, loss of triplanar movement, persistent apical breathing, or whatever measures you use — are likely to further engrain their conditioned responses rather than novel learning unless we give them a reason not to. This is because we do what we know, particularly when under duress. We have to be given a reason to produce a different output.
It should be mentioned that I don't think conditioned patterns (aka habits) are inherently "bad". Like everything in life, it is context that gives them value. Conditioned patterns provide efficiency in neural processing. Patterns are what allow high-level performers to function in flow states and for Average Joes to streamline their morning routines and drive to work whilst thinking about their day.
In an example of stress and survival, someone under acute duress will typically hyperinflate and extend the spine in an attempt to improve oxygenation - this is an adaptive response to modify respiration in a sympathetic state. This is a good thing and highly effective to maintain survival for the organism but may make us more rigid when stressors are no longer present. From Stress Signaling Pathways That Impair Prefrontal Cortex Structure and Function:
high levels of dopamine release in corticobasal ganglia circuits during stress serve to capture whatever successful behaviour has just rescued subjects from danger and engrain this pattern as a habit. But this same evolutionary solution could make humans vulnerable to maladaptive behaviours
So when stressors are not present such as in what should be a low tone position like laying down trying to sleep, these folks will often continue to extend and hyperinflate literally driving their backs into the mattress. Seriously, palpate a stressed client's paraspinals while they're supposedly "relaxed" on your treatment table. No wonder the neurotag associated with back pain or fatigue is continuously facilitated. The chronic facilitation of a habitual pattern then makes that pattern more likely to be called upon in less and less stressful situations. This is the definition of classical conditioning - the innate response to a potent stimulus comes to be elicited in response to a previously neutral stimulus. Now you have a habit on your hands.
The Plastic Paradox
The problem with conditioned patterns lies in the inability to get out of them when the task/environment requires it. The neuroimmune process of neuroplasticity is inherent to the system and this machinery can allow for novel learning or the further conditioning of a response. This is the plastic paradox as defined by Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself.
The same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behavior can also allow us to produce more rigid ones
The more practiced a pattern becomes, the deeper and deeper the subcortical groove, increasing the demand of attentional resources to unlock the pattern and learn something new. The conditioned response is therefore self-sustaining without a significant redirection because they are subconscious, occurring without our attention (see pictograph above). And our addition of stressors, whether purposeful or not, only serve to drive that further because conditioned responses are what's easy for a stressed organism.
So, first we calm them through parasympathetics which we've discussed at length on this here blog, then we redirect.
Attention and Redirection
Regulation from the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as well as the anterior cingulate cortex and insula (the executive homeostatic network) allows us to respond to numerous inputs and cues and assign meaning to them - this is essentially the explicit learning of a new skill. And it requires attention. Redirecting our attention is what breaks the habitual cycle, opens valuable cortical real estate for novel learning, and changes our perception of reality.
So, HOW do you redirect attention? That depends on the individual and their particular conditioned response. Sounds like a cop-out I know but n=1, bro. Respiration, interoception, therapeutic neuroscience education, altering sensory stimuli (visual, auditory, and stomatognathic have a lot of receptors devoted to them if you're looking for a place to start). This will probably require several future posts so stay tuned.
I am big fan of internal cues, particularly early in this process of novel learning, and my friend Dr. Aaron Swanson has a fantastic piece on it that brings the information in this post full circle. James Clear also has an interesting post on habit stacking - a technique I use often in those with persistent pain or fatigue syndromes in order to change the nervous system's appraisal of threat.
Ultimately, an awareness of the difference between novel learning and conditioning of a previously learned response is critical because when we allow a previously facilitated behavioral output to persist, we are only serving to perpetuate that response - context will provide whether or not that's valuable for the client's goals.
Our brain's ability to accurately perceive what is going on in the body depends on our mind's representation of said body via brain maps. Those who are well practiced at a particular skill have an appreciable gain in the cortical mapping of that area - think of a pianist and their hands - and are better able to modulate attention and reaction to stimuli in those areas. (I've discussed previously the large representation of the foot and hand in the brain and how to train them.)
On the flip side, the inability to discern right vs left in those with persistent unilateral pain is well established. As is the loss of 2-point discrimination and fine motor control in acute and chronic pain states. The brain maps can and do become distorted based on various stages of disuse and loss of non-threatening stimuli. They shrink and we can't access them as well - essentially they are blind spots on the map. Like we can't even visualize the body regions clearly. I think this happens even in uninjured people who become neurologically locked into specific patterns of movement such as the Left AIC or PEC in PRI-nomenclature. Interestingly, when the mind wanders and attentional focus is lost even our visuospatial system loses symmetry. These asymmetries become further facilitated with each movement that produces successful completion of a task - which only serves to make the existing pattern stronger and perpetuate the blind spots. This can become an issue for those seeking improved output and performance because the brain will not allow high force output to a body region that it does not feel can safely tolerate it - like areas with blind spots. I often see this in people who are segmentally strong but poor integrators.
I mean, we see this everyday as coaches and physios. Here's a test: pick a problematic movement or body region that you or your athlete is struggling with like a chronic ankle issue. Have them visualize the area without actually looking at it. I will typically utilize the body scan method. A body scan is a mindfulness technique used to bring attention and awareness to the body in a thorough and systematic way. Here's a script and here's a guided one I'll often use - I really like how Todd Hargrove describes it in his most excellent book A Guide to Better Movement.
Have them focus on mentally tracing the outline of the affected region - is it clear? Can they picture the nuances and anatomy of the region as well as they can on the other side? Typically, the weaker and non-dominant side (usually the left side) is fuzzy in the mental eye with blind spots and inaccuracies. The lumbar spine is also often poorly visualized likely because we struggle with segmental control here as well as it's smaller real estate in the homunculus (might this be why so many experience poor lumbopelvic control and often revert to an extension dominant patterning?).
I find this body scan both diagnostic and therapeutic (and it is not going soft, for all the meatheads out there isn't this what Arnold did when he talked about visualizing the peak of contractions and the pump). Finding these blind spots seems to nearly always correlate with a current or old injury region or area of decreased output. Often they can't feel sensory input as well and struggle with even identifying the space around the blind spots. It is truly fascinating to try this as you will find areas that are a general struggle to visualize despite the preconceived notions of self.
Improving one's awareness of the blind spots can improve attentional focus and potentially optimize motor output without inducing a maladaptive response - such as pain, anxiety, excess muscular tension. Because the brain has already "been there" and explored the region, the sensory input (whatever the mode) is likely much less threatening to the system. And it makes the outputs more efficient as found by the lead researchers in my former lab at PT school. The ability to shift attention from one body region to the other has been found to improve with practice and aids motor control by allowing the brain to recognize salient inputs for processing. Look, informational processing is what sets apart those who are robust high performers from the posers.
Think of this as an augmentation or extension of the movement practice. Most recommendations are for 10-20 minutes per day with a systematic toe to head approach using guidance (such as the script above) initially. Though I don't think we necessarily need to limit it to a separate time of day away from our movement practice. In fact this visualization can occur right before or during a big lift or planned movement - clearly visualizing the left hip and getting deep into left stance during a deadlift for example seems to help prime the nervous system. Just as true motor learning takes time, so does the ability to focus attention - but over time this becomes more automated and effective at shrinking the blind spots and maintaining healthy brain maps.
The bottomline is to seek out the blind spots and then gradually shrink them over time - improving performance in the process.
This is going to be Part 1 in a multi-part series on the feet as a doorway into the nervous system.
We know that having flat feet or collapsed arches has been touted as a risk factor for injury (albeit somewhat inconsistently). And it just doesn't pass the eyeball test... Flat feet just look unathletic. However, the static assessment of having feet flatter than Frodo is just that -- static. A more appropriate assessment of the feet should include a dynamic element that allows for pronation when they're supposed to pronate and supination when they're supposed to supinate. Which illustrates the point here: the foot is a dynamic system of sensory inputs and neuromuscular outputs. One way that we can upregulate and harness this dynamic system is thru maintaining the short foot position during movement. Or, to steal my own thunder, generation of the short foot may be an indicator of neurological readiness and capacity to safely tolerate high volume and load.
Developmentally, the foot has a few fixed points that were crucial when we learned to bear weight and eventually walk; points which we can reclaim as adults and undo our shoe-wearing, flat-footed foolishness. And most babies are not born with flat feet - we develop collapsed arches with our propensity for cushioned, heeled shoes and artificial arch supports robbing the foot of the demand to maintain the perfect balance of mobility and stability.
But I digress...
The three crucial points of the weight-bearing foot:
Essentially, this is the tripod or short foot position. This foot position is absolutely vital for powerful lifts, big jumps, and at the end of stance phase of gait when the foot re-supinates. Short foot puts the 33 joints of the foot on tension, centers the foot, and fires off the high density of proprioceptive nerve endings which are relayed to the brain. This stable position allows for a system-wide increase in force output and motor control. The strength of this stimulus probably improves motor learning due to the positive, feedforward stimuli. A centered foot position tells the brain that the position is a stable one and it is safe to generate a lot more force without risk of destabilization and injury.
It is no coincidence that the external cue to "screw the feet into the ground" helps to foster this short foot position. The system seeks joint centration for max output, so by bearing weight predominantly thru these 3 points the foot is most centered. The other thing you'll notice with this cue is that the foot is not a static, inanimate object! It is a prime source of neurological input and output (more on that with an upcoming post). Maintaining the short foot position can generate an arch and produce a monstrous feed-forward loop that maintains tension and stability throughout the system reinforcing to the brain that force can be safely produced. When the arch collapses the nervous system quickly downregulates in an attempt to avoid excess force thru the entire lower quarter while in an unstable position, yielding decreased output. This is not unlike how head/jaw position influences spine control or how chronically "tight" hamstrings are likely a protective response to prevent neurologic injury when in untenable positions.
Also, check out Charlie Weingroff and Andreo Spina for their take on this topic.
For this week's post I wanted to feature an article written by my friend Dr. Dan Pope of FitnessPainFree.com. This guy has some great ideas on functional assessments and correctives and this piece on the deadlift pattern is one of them. Dan has some of the best information out there on improving performance, optimizing programming, and increasing training longevity. Not to mention he's a beast of a CrossFit athlete himself.
We all know how important it is to keep a neutral spine while deadlifting. For most, just cueing to keep your back flat is enough to square things away and get the spine in a neutral position. For others it’s not so easy. If you’ve coached people in Olympic lifts or deadlifting for long enough you’ve probably encountered this.
For some athletes as they reach the bottom of the deadlift, their lumbar spine starts to round. It’s even worse with a snatch grip or deficit deadlift. Your first intuition is to tell the athlete to keep their back flat. Then their snatch or deadlift ends up looking like this:
So your next logical cue is to keep the knees back so the bar travels up in a straight line and doesn’t grind your patient’s knee caps off. So now the lift looks like this again:
The lumbar spine starts to round again. Despite all of the cueing you give your athlete, you can’t clean things up. If you’re looking for a more in depth explanation of why this happens and why it’s important to correct this, then read my article HERE.
This is where a bit of corrective exercise is going to be needed. However, the first thing that is needed is an assessment or screening tool to determine if there is a problem. If you’ve got an athlete like the one I just described above then you can bet that you’ve got some issues that need to be addressed. A major assessment I like to go through with my patients is whether they can keep a neutral spine on their way through a snatch grip deadlift. Here’s the test:
What you’re looking for is whether your athlete can keep a neutral spine while keeping a straight bar path throughout the lift:
If you have someone who fails the test then it would be wise to avoid any loaded deadlifting patterns that expose this fault. In the meantime, you can modify the patterns by deadlifting from an elevated position or performing your olympic lifts from a hang position.
Then it’s time to hammer away at this issue with some correctives. Here are my favorite corrective exercises to address this issue:
These exercises can be performed as often as you’d like (I tell my patients to perform them twice per day for best results with the exception of the eccentrics). Make sure you test your snatch grip deadlift before and after to ensure you’re making a change with the exercises.
Seth's thoughts: I love the systematic assessment and correctives laid out here by Dan. As he says, it is crucial to maintain a neutral spine throughout in order to optimize position and ensure efficient mechanics. Those who are able to maintain neutral spine under load are those who can lift more weight and maintain longevity, period. Loss of neutrality is a dead giveaway for performance loss and injury risk.
For more from Dr. Dan Pope check out his most excellent website at FitnessPainFree.com
P.S. My last post on grip training and hacking the nervous system was extremely popular - thanks for the readership fellow performance junkies! Expect more on how to hack the nervous system and optimize adaptation in future posts.
What is the target organ/system of training? While many think it's the muscular or cardiovascular systems, the true target is the nervous system. The brain exists to move us thru, and interact with, the environment. The sensory input our nervous system receives from interacting with the environment drives the motor output from the brain to the neuromusculoskeletal system. By altering sensory input, we can change and potentially improve neuromotor output. One way to hack the nervous system and increase stability throughout the system is through challenging the grip.
This image is a homunculus (literally meaning "little man") and it is both grotesque and informative - not unlike the founder of this website. It is essentially a representation of the processing regions devoted to each area of the body. The importance here is the tremendous amount of sensory and motor cortex devoted to the hands and feet (more on them in a future post). Our evolution has clearly indicated the importance of sensory input and motor output through the hands given it's large representation in the brain. We know sensory input is absolutely critical in the motor development of kids and those who struggle with sensory integration have some serious movement problems. So why not better utilize sensory input with our training and optimize adaptation?
By challenging the grip and maintaining a fist we provide a rich sensory input to the brain that allows us to produce more stability and a system-wide increase in force output (which is what we really want). The strength of this stimulus probably improves motor learning too. A big grip tells the brain that the position is a stable one and it is safe to generate a lot more force without risk of destabilization and injury.
Don't believe me? Try flexing your biceps without making a fist - it's really hard to generate much of a contraction. Then make a crushing fist while contracting your biceps. The result is a much greater biceps contraction as you are amplifying the motor output of the brain - often called irradiation or overflow. By augmenting the stronger parts of the pattern, we can facilitate improved neuromuscular activation thru the weaker parts.
Seriously, try making a fist as hard as you can - you feel the tension all the way up to the middle of your back as this overflow sets the scapulae and thoracic spine (spinal control is always crucial) allowing a stable platform for power generation by closing the circuit. Pavel has used this for years with the Soviet Special Forces and his Kettlebell training paradigms.
So how do we train grip and hack the system?
1) To initiate grip training I like to start with having the athlete grip the bar, club, or bat way harder than they think they need to. This is important to train initially as it helps to improve a strong grip pattern on demand in order to progress to more dynamic movements when rapid and powerful upper extremity stability is needed.
2) Challenge grip demands by varying the grip width of the bar - wrapping a towel around the bar is probably your cheapest route though you can buy various thick bars if you're sitting on some disposable income. By training the grip we can improve adaptation without adding more load to the system which may aide in recovery and lessen the odds of injury without losing performance (Charlie Weingroff has some great insight on the nervous system as well as minimizing system load).
3) For unilateral and one-arm movements (farmer's carries, kettlebell swings) maintain a strong, closed fist in the non-working hand. This is crucial. By stabilizing the system thru a closed fist the circuit itself is closed, the scapulae and spine are fixated, and increased force is transmitted thru the working arm and not lost via a limp wrist on the non-working hand.
4) Work more with kettlebells. The uneven weight distribution of the bell and the ballistic nature of many kettlebell movements really challenges grip and allows for some serious neural input and adaptation to occur. Kettlebell work really challenges the reflexive component of grip which is crucial for performance - generating a powerful, stabilized arm and torso on demand for maximum efficiency.
The best athletes can create tons of force AND control on demand and grip training is a way to tap into the nervous system and optimize adaptation. The more we can impact and alter the sensory experience the more we can improve movement quality.
The following post was featured by my friend and Endurance coach/beast Jeff Ford of Conviction Training Facility on his site FireCoachingConsulting.com (I was stoked to talk ideas with their coaches and athletes a few weeks back).
Look, my purpose here has always been to blend and coordinate the languages of strength and conditioning, rehab, and performance as it truly is, and should be, a continuum. Rather than guarding information in different fields, perhaps we should promote the sharing of it with the ultimate goal of building more resilient, adaptable, and efficient humans in sport and function. The physio who's also an S&C coach is often able to blend these principles for a powerful perspective on human movement and performance. Physio-coaches like Charlie Weingroff, Kelly Starrett, Danny Matta, Dan Pope, (and myself) are doing some awesome stuff - and it's just the start. Thanks to Jeff for this kick-ass primer.
This past weekend, CTF (Conviction Training Facility) had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT, CSCS and Movement Specialist extraordinaire. With no specific topic planned for the session, we quickly realized that Seth could drop knowledge bombs with anything we asked and even suggest techniques to try. In the United States (and anywhere for that matter) Physical Therapy is a competitive field. Only the best of the best get selected into schools and given how people are moving these days, professionals in this field couldn’t be more important. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics this field will grow by 30% from 2008 to 2018.
Coaching is one thing, but being a highly trained DPT is a whole other ball game. Physical therapists must receive a graduate degree from an accredited program before (if they can get in) and then sit for a national licensure exam. Physical therapists have the most specialized education to help people restore and improve human movement. That means their goal is to help clients avoid surgeries and the need for long-term prescriptions. It’s this idea of fixing the actual problem causing the issue.
As Coaches we set up the initial program and have the ability to evaluate how a person moves with our knowledge in functional movements and experience. The best coaches know how to scale movements and provide reasonable substitutes that hit the intended muscle group or promote a similar metabolic response in the event an athlete cannot execute a movement safely. Every great program should scale up or down. We’re even pretty solid at providing sound suggestions on mobility or self-myofascial release techniques to target where a person may be lacking range or motion or experiencing pain. With guys like Kelly Starrett and Seth Oberst, we have an increased number of experts to learn from and grow our coaching knowledge. Along these same lines, great coaches should have the knowledge to implement mobility techniques before and after workouts. At CTF, mobility happens before our warm ups and after our conditioning in order to prep our athlete’s for the days positions and promote proper recovery. Sounds like we got a pretty good handle on everything huh?
Let me ask you this though, what happens if even after you start moving more and implementing all these techniques you still can get a handle on your motor control or mobility issues? Maybe your strength plateaus or you’re simply just unable to perform certain exercises? I think you know where I’m headed. A coach’s scope of practice only runs so deep.
Here’s what you need to know about Physical Therapists (other than that they’re awesome):
1) Get to them before they get to you – If you’re experiencing pain or not functioning in a certain area anymore its already too late. What if we all started with a mobility screen before beginning exercise programs? Coaches know how to program and the best ones know the purpose behind their program with the ability to target it to the general population or an individual. The beauty of working closely with a DPT is that they can tell you the exact needs of the individual including the movements that can be executed safely as well as areas to target in between sessions. Whenever we get a nagging injury it has to go back to the movement pattern. We have to remember to fix the actual problem. DPTs come in to provide and correct movements that can get someone back to normal much quicker. Their knowledge runs quite a bit deeper than a coach and they have a greater tool box in this department. It takes years of schooling, experience and practice of mobility techniques to be a reputable DPT. Above all, these professionals attempt to get in front of the lagging indicators with their clients. I know this is Seth Oberst’s mission and a good one!
Lagging Indicators “It’s already too late”
Leading Indicators Movement
2) Not all are equal – DPTs know their stuff, but you have to find a good one with a reputable track record who fully understands human movement. This is an evidence-based, evolving field and the best DPTs stay up with the times and the research of various techniques. In any field, professionals can get complacent. Who wants a car from the 1980s? Great DPTs will adjust when an application isn’t working. They’ll do their best to try different techniques while going thru a mastered step process. What’s incredible is this can happen all in their heads. Recovery time can vary depending on the situation, but the top DPTs like Seth have quick recovery times with their clients. Improving movement and fixing the actual problem can take a ton of time, but the sooner one of these “great” guys or gals gets in front of you, it will surely pay off.
3) Find one working closely with a well known Strength and Conditioning Facility and your life will change forever. At CTF, we understand the importance of movement and technique focused coaching. We implement mobility before and after sessions and by what visitors tell us more so than most CrossFit Facilities. Having a resource such as Seth Oberst to simply shoot a line to is quite incredible. Imagine the opportunity to see someone like that on a regular basis? After you learn what’s causing the issue and receive treatment from DPTs the work won’t ever stop there. Changing movement is just like changing a nasty nutrition habit or bitting your nails. You’ll have to remain conscious of your movement, normalize a mobility pattern and strength the muscles surrounding the issue. This is where the strength and conditioning side of things comes into play. Check out Evolution Sports or San Francisco CrossFit these guys have squads of incredible professionals and have established themselves as one stop shop facilities, pretty cool. No matter your goals it will take a number of professionals and supportive people around you to get you there. No one can be truly great without the push from a collective team of people who care and understand human movement. It’s a pretty powerful thing.
Thanks to Jeff for this awesome post - look for more from the guys at CTF in the future!
Olympic lifts and their derivatives are complex, powerful, and pretty awesome movements. We feel that a graded approach is necessary in coaching these movements in order to maximize performance and efficiency as well as prevent injury. Here's a guest post from my friend and performance beast Steven “Keith” Scruggs, CSCS, USAW, USATF-2. Keith is a Sport Performance Coach and a PhD Candidate at The University of South Carolina (get at him at firstname.lastname@example.org):
From Joe’s to Pro’s it seems as if every fitness enthusiast is fascinated by the power clean and the snatch. We have Crossfitters that want to perform high volume. Sport-specific athletes are focused getting a new “max”. Lastly, we have competitive Olympic lifters that focus on technique, form, and attempt to improve their art.
Regardless of your mindset, goal, or sport the clean and snatch movements are some of the most complex resistance training exercises in our arsenal. In my experience I’ve witnessed youth athletes to weekend warriors wanting to impress me Day 1 in the weightroom with their bastardized versions of what they call “weightlifting”.
Some common errors I see:
* Noodle Back - inability to remain taut from initial pull due to weak mid-section (abs & back)
* Muscle Man Syndrome - inability to differentiate between a deadlift & a clean pull (no Double Knee Bend aka stretch reflex)
* “Short-Strokers” - inability to achieve triple extension (ankles, knees, and hips)
* Reverse Curlers - inability to control center of mass and/or lack of elbow/shoulder flexibility
Generally, I see a combination of 2 or more of these common errors because every component of the movement series sets up the next movement. We need to develop a strong fundamental base of movements in order to get strong skill transfer and ultimately improve athletic performance.
I have developed a “Tier System” (shoutout to Joe Kenn - Carolina Panthers) that I use prior to implementation of full weightlifting movements. Though I am all about implementing scientific & sound programming, there’s not a whole lot of information out there on progressive development of the Clean & Snatch. Be patient though...one of my key mentors, Dr. Brad DeWeese, is in the process of publishing some information through the NSCA on proper progressive implementation of weightlifting movement derivatives (see suggested readings below).
Prior to advancing into more complex training for any athlete (competitive or weekend warrior) I want to ensure that they can at least perform basic fundamental weightlifting movements. For a competitive athlete I would prefer to plan long-term & perfect each segment with progressive overloads prior to advancing complexity and load. Remember folks...SAFETY FIRST & excellence/best performance don’t just appear under your pillow from the Weightlifting Fairy! Below you’ll find a graph & descriptions of each movement along with a brief video description.
All of these exercises demonstrate crucial movements within the Power Clean. I prefer to take a “short-to-long approach” (see Charlie Francis reference below) with teaching weightlifting movements. We should focus on building foundational components of the weightlifting movements prior to trying to be the best at it. Let us not disregard the fact the WEIGHTLIFTING IS AN OLYMPIC SPORT! Some of these guys & gals eat, breath, sleep, & demonstrate weightlifting technique like the majority of us WISH we could.
Bottom-line: Treat weightlifting with respect...and it will repay the favor. Take it slow... learn what makes it flow, tick, click, and giggle. Take the time to learn the in’s & out’s of the movements so that they’ll be as smooth & as flawless as we all wish for them to be. A Maserati was made to be driven for power & with precision speed…just as the bar was made for strength, power, & speed lifts. An inexperienced driver may not (in most cases...WILL NOT) be able to handle the power, torque, and handling of the Maserati, at first. Just as a skilled driver becomes one with their car before taking it to an advanced road course we must become one with weightlifting derivatives before progressing into full movements. WEIGHTLIFTING ZEN!
Clark, J. (2005). From the beginning: A developmental perspective on movement and mobility. QUEST,57, 37-45.
Comfort , P., Fletcher, C., & McMahon, J. (2012). Determination of optimal loading during the power clean, in collegiate athletes. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(11), 2970-2974.
DeWeese, B., & Scruggs, S. (2012). The countermovement shrug . Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(5), 20-
DeWeese, B., Serrano, A., Scruggs, S., & Sams, M. (2012). The clean pull and snatch pull: Proper technique for weightlifting movement derivatives.Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(6), 82-86.
DeWeese, B., Serrano, A., Scruggs, S., & Burton, J. (2013). The midthigh pull: Proper application and progressions of a weightlifting movement derivative.Strength & Conditioning Journal, 35(6), 54-58.
DeWeese, B., Serrano, A., Scruggs, S., & Sams, M. (2012). The pull to knee—proper biomechanics for a weightlifting movement derivative. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(4), 73-75.
Garhammer, J. Power clean kinesiological evaluation. Strength Cond J 40: 61-63, 1984.
Garhammer J. A review of power output studies of Olympic and powerlifting: Methodology, performance prediction, and evaluation tests. J Strength Cond Res 7(2): 76-89, 1993.
Hori N, Newton RU, Andrews WA, Kawamori N, and McGuigan MR. Does performance of hang power clean differentiate performance of jumping, sprinting, and change of direction? J Strength Cond Res 22(2): 412-418, 2008.
Stone MH, Stone MH, and Sands WA. Principles and practice of resistance training. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 3-4. 2007.
Suchomel, T., Beckham, G., & Wright, G. (2013). Lower body kinetics during the jump shrug: Impact of load.Journal of Trainology, 2, 19-22.
In case you missed it, here is the piece I wrote for my buddy Dr. Dan Pope's site FitnessPainFree.com:
Proper squatting forms the basis of any performance system and is essential to meaningful function as an athlete and human - which includes the elderly (might need to scale though, bro). As an athlete and as a practitioner who treats fellow CrossFitters frequently, one of the things I love is the emphasis on the squat pattern. But with high squatting volume in any performance system we need to ensure it’s reproducible.
I understand and share the pride that comes with the ability to squat deep while lifting some serious weight. However, many athletes are unable to squat deep with load due to hip or low back pain. Femoral-acetabular impingement is often the culprit here, where the neck of the femur is literally jamming into the acetabulum of the pelvis. Dan goes into much greater detail in one of his prior posts on FAI. These same biomechanics also cause butt winking where there is a reversal of the lumbar spine causing a loss of segmental control. This spinal shear under load is dangerous and never okay - a butt wink is an immediate fault and nobody gets a pass. Altering squat width is a strong start to fixing these train wrecks.
So how do we determine best squat width for depth and performance (and to help prevent hip pain and butt winking)? “Shoulder width” is often used however that differs for each individual. Many times we just start with a random width and that becomes the default. However, factors such as motor control of the entire system (particularly the over-extended spine), hip and ankle mobility, and individual structural differences in acetabulum and femur alignment all influence squat width and depth.
The sooner the femur runs into the pelvis, the less depth you’ll achieve and squat numbers will plateau. But you don’t need an x-ray to determine how you should squat. Rather, we need to find the best squat width that allows the most depth while maintaining movement integrity (such as a neutral spine). The best position yields the best performance and the fewest injuries. The test below helps find where these limitations are least restrictive and determines the best starting squat width.
I like this test (originally from Dr. Stu McGill, spine biomechanist) as a screen for new lifters, those who are having hip or low back pain, and athletes whose squat numbers are plateauing.
Things to consider with this test:
1) Performing this test on your hands and knees allows you to assess the hip and core without bringing other structures into the equation. You’re also performing this in an unloaded position (i.e. not standing) which helps eliminate movement inefficiencies you might find while standing.
2) Demonstrates lumbopelvic motor control. If a strong contraction of the anterior core allows greater depth prior to butt winking or decreases pinching in the front of the hip, motor control deficits are present. This is not an anatomical variation, you need to improve trunk stiffness as the lumbar spine is over-extended causing the pelvis and femur to meet prematurely. In so many cases, we can prevent butt winking and un-impinge the hip with appropriate movement patterns and control rather than rushing to surgery to correct bony deformities. Improve motor control first and foremost regardless of structure.
3) Once you’ve found the width that allows the most depth without impinging or butt winking, this is where you should start when squatting. Can use this screen for those new to squatting as a way to determine the most effective width to start while you work on motor control and mobility to allow for a variable squat program.
4) Those who show poor motor control in this test and have hip or low back pain will most likely need to correct this for successful rehabilitation and return to squatting.
So ultimately, what is the best squat width? The one that allows the best depth while preserving a neutral spine. Regardless of starting squat width or structural variation, this does NOT change the essential movement principles of the squat. Feet should be straight, knees tracking over the foot, shins vertical as possible for as long as possible, hips externally-rotated. You MUST prioritize and control the lumbar spine and pelvis, above all else. In my opinion, the ability to control the spine and pelvis is a prime determinant in the performance ceiling of athletics and human function so don’t lower that ceiling with improper movement patterns. Squat depth and width do not matter if these principles are not upheld.
Acknowledge what we can’t change (structural alignment), optimize the many variables we can change including squat width, and then vary it for an effective motor program.
I know this piece will sting some deeply as I have found that those who do love ellipticals seem to really love ellipticals. But the fact of the matter is, ellipticals are pretty awful and if you respect yourself as an athlete - don't use them. Many of you already have given up this evil machine (there's a reason we don't have any ellipticals in CrossFit boxes). But if you are serious about performing optimally as a human, you will avoid this scourge of the modern athlete and think of ellipticals only as barriers in your path to the barbell area of the gym.
Here's the problem:
1) Reinforces poor motor programs. The arc of motion available on the elliptical causes you to heel-strike (if there is such a thing as strike on these things) too far in front of the center of mass which only serves to teach you to over-stride when you go to run. We already know heel-striking is costly and injurious. I also think it drives the femur forward in the hip socket repetitively via the iliopsoas and we never get to triple extension (full extension of the hip, knee, and ankle = maximal force). Furthermore, instead of falling thru the ankles as with proper running form - you smash into them while grinding and pulling each step.
Essentially, the entire arc of movement occurs in front of the body. Many clients I've ended up seeing report hip pain with symptoms of impingement when on an elliptical - not a surprise after they sit all day driving their femurs forward then reinforce that for 40 minutes on the elliptical while watching television. *If you can watch television while exercising, please don't call it training*
2) You can't feel the ground. Proprioception (joint position in space) is seriously limited on these things. When we can't feel the ground, we adapt thru maladaptive co-contraction (like walking on ice) in the leg musculature reducing movement efficiency for when it matters most - like doing actual athletic or sport movements, even walking. The timing of muscular onset and activity is crucial to movement efficiency and performance but on an elliptical you're just grinding through muscles that stay on way too long. And if you can't feel the ground, you can't generate force which is necessary in all athletic movements.
Don't believe me? How do you feel as soon as you get off the elliptical? You're gait is jerky, almost ataxic, and it feels like you're still floating. The knees stay bent throughout the gait cycle and you're looking for a foam roll as soon as possible - it's a nightmare.
*And why have injured athletes use this, especially as a warm-up? We just end up spending the rest of the training session undoing all of these faulty mechanics incurred on the elliptical.
3) "Low Impact". Ellipticals are marketed as low-impact. However, all the aforementioned co-contraction around the joints causes a lot of compressive forces - especially to the knee. The running literature supports this too, showing increased joint forces when running in cushioned shoes (which are supposed to lower the impact) vs. barefoot - the exact opposite of "low impact". Besides, ground-reaction forces are necessary to build bone mass. Essentially, we're getting all the negative joint forces from improper muscle activity without the benefits of skeletal loading.
4) Broken midline position (over-extended or over-flexed). The set-up of the elliptical really makes it difficult to maintain neutral spine, instead causing you to look like either a bent-over tree or a broken pole-vaulter. Glutes are under-used and hamstrings are over-used on the elliptical altering lumbopelvic control and contributing to the chronic hamstring and/or back irritation I've seen in clients who love the elliptical. No wonder gait mechanics are jacked up.
From CrossFit Endurance coach Jeff Ford:
If the goal is inefficient movement patterns, tight ankles, and trashed hips and low back by all means keep plowing away. But if you are serious about performance - whether it's becoming a better athlete or more efficient human - avoid the elliptical. If you require "low impact" activities due to injury (which is way over-prescribed anyways), consider that faulty mechanics are causing this injury. Simply improving those mechanics and reducing volume is the way to go rather than reinforcing them even more by jumping on the heinous elliptical.
As a physio, I see a lot of running-related injury, dysfunction, and performance loss. Depending on who you read, injury incidence among runners can be as high as 85% many of which are due to training errors and poor mechanics. In that vein, this week's post is from Jeff Ford, a CrossFit Endurance and USA Triathlon Certified Coach, Owner and Founder of Fire Coaching Consulting, and excellent endurance athlete. Great dancer. Drives a nice car.
Foot-strike: Time and time again, I watch runners on the street and I just want to pull over. A large majority of the endurance athletes I get on tape are landing out-front and breaking themselves while landing on their heels as they chronically over-stride (increasing peak forces on the body). Your heel was not meant to land first guys. Trust me. Take your shoes off and have someone video-tape you running. Your body physically will not let you heel strike. It wasn’t meant to. When you strike heel first, you land primarily on bone and lose the ability to harness muscle elasticity in your foot/ankle complex. What that means in KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) terms is that you’ve lost the ability to absorb your weight as you land. You’ve shut down your muscles ability to stretch and contract when force is applied. Not good at all, especially as the distance gets greater. So fall from your ankles, don't smash thru them. Seth and I recommend a consult prior to switching strike patterns as this is a daunting task on your own.