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.
Shoulder pain is the 3rd most common orthopedic complaint (behind the low back and knee) and it's no wonder considering how so many of the sports, exercises, and skills we perform are 'shoulder expensive'. Olympic lifts, volleyball, throwing sports, swimming all require a tremendous combination of mobility and stability at the shoulder joint itself as well as the scapulothoracic articulation (though it's not a true joint, people, just the interaction between scapula and thorax). Classic interventions/corrective exercises target the rotator cuff and potentially the periscapular muscles - though it is surprising (disappointing) how many physios will neglect even this. However, the purpose of this post is to draw attention to how screwed up your lumbar spine position is with overhead tasks and it's impact on shoulder mechanics. Check it:
Here's the deal: Before we can even attempt to fix your messed up shoulder we first have to look at the ability to globally control the midline. Last week's post is a good start in looking at motor control and stability though it doesn't account for the extreme demands on the torso seen in overhead positioning. Without accounting for the ribcage flying open due poor control of the spine, our best efforts to fix the shoulder are thwarted by the undue loads placed upon it due to lack of spine control. We can get the scapula under control, mobilize the thoracic spine, and optimize the rotator cuff, but once we go back to throwing, pressing, or spiking all is lost if midline control is compromised. Not to mention loading an overextended spine is dangerous for the facets (hello spondy) and nerve roots being crushed by the vertebrae above.
But most importantly, this robs force generation and power production. Minimal active tension prevents control at the end-ranges where we need it most. Want a stronger spike, faster pitch, better push-press? Proximal stability will buffer poor mechanics much better than a soft spinal position. Otherwise we're just blowing through our much smaller engines at the shoulder and elbow and asking them to do what they aren't built for.
Try it yourself: take your arm up overhead. If you can't get your arm to your ear (with your elbow straight!) without flying open and exposing your rib cage, then there's a problem. Why is it a problem? Well if your a thrower, opening up too soon alters the load to the shoulder and elbow - there's a ton in the pitching mechanics world about the detriments of opening too soon and over-extending. It also changes the positional relationship between the arm and torso and can cause excess anterior translation of the humeral head (not good for your labrum and biceps tendon) making it more difficult to actively stabilize the shoulder - particularly in Olympic lifters and overhead pressers.
Key Point: The question then becomes, is the athlete flying open because their thoracic spine is stiff? Maybe but if they're over-extended then they're.... over-extended. Fix this first then we can address the t-spine. Otherwise the learned pathomechanical motor pattern remains, such that even if we do loosen up the thoracic spine the athlete will not likely utilize this new range during the task. As evidenced in the hip by Dr. Stuart McGill, a must read. We need to organize before and while we mobilize! The athlete can loosen up the thoracic spine as much as they want (and I do think that thoracic spine mobility is hugely important) but without the training to overcome the hundreds or thousands of reps they performed overextended, the carry-over will be minimal.
You will be shocked at how organizing your spine (squeezing your butt and bracing the abs) generates much more stability and power with overhead tasks. Try an active brace while holding something overhead, you literally feel the difference. One point I should make - this often feels weird for athletes who are used to being so over-extended. They feel as if they are pitched forward (another indication their sense of midline control is lost). Hollow rocking is a great way to initiate anterior core function while making the connection to overhead position prior to reloading the athlete overhead. Nothing in sport happens statically, so we need to progress to dynamic isolation quickly where possible.
Bottomline: organize your lumbar spine and pelvis first (noticing a theme here from previous posts?) then we can address the thoracic spine, scapula, and rotator cuff when dealing with overhead positioning. More to come....
Here's a quick vid on hollow rocks:
Last week we discussed the importance of load ordering on squat mechanics. Had some great response to it so this week I want to discuss the analog to this in the upper extremity - pressing/pushing movements.
Here's the problem:
Are there any movements that have destroyed the human upper extremity more than the bench press, push-up, and dip? Seriously think about how many guys at the gym throw up a ton of weight on bench only to sneak away and rub their anterior shoulder in the corner. Or insidious elbow pain that kicks in after your set of dips. Nasty levels of performance and skill transfer to athletic and everyday movements - such moving boxes or blocking a defensive lineman - require proper load ordering of the joints and tissues.
There are two main foci when looking at pushing mechanics: load ordering (essentially motor control) and mobility (particularly of the shoulder into extension and internal rotation - read this post on how to improve shoulder position for pressing). Both are pertinent but in sticking with our theme from last week, let's look at load ordering as motor control is always the top priority when improving human movement. As discussed, the joints and tissues loaded first in a movement are the joints and tissues loaded most. Specifically, erroneously loading the elbow first during pressing activities (think push-ups, bench press, or moving/lifting things in the home). Just as with loading the knee first in a squat, loading the elbow first in presses (including dips - a huge elbow destroyer!) subjects the elbow and triceps complex to crushing forces that cannot be avoided once under tremendous external load. And good luck generating triceps force with such over-tension in the elbow/triceps complex.
Proximal stability of the shoulder drives distal (elbow) mobility. Without properly loading the shoulder, which is the powerhouse of the upper extremity (analogous to the hip), the elbow and triceps are unable to do their job which is to straighten the arm. The result: crushing elbow pain and shoulder instability due to your movement inadequacies! By screwing up the load ordering (elbow instead of shoulder), athletes have now lost valuable stability of the upper extremity; bleeding power and performance throughout the kinetic chain - and think this doesn't carry over to other movements of the upper extremities? Think again bro, you move how you move. Imagine starting in a poor shoulder position as an offensive lineman trying to block a large human coming at you - less than optimal loading results in poor performance and injury potential.
Dropping into a dip, push-up, or bench press with the elbows bending first is an immediate fault. Try this yourself: set up for a push-up in the mirror. As you initiate the movement, if your elbows shoot back or flare out first, that's a fail. And once the elbows are loaded and the athlete tries to unload them, the shoulders come forward in the socket and destroy the anterior labrum and biceps tendon - not good.
Here's the solution (these apply to push, press, and dip movements):
1) Organize the spine. Midline stability is ALWAYS priority #1. Squeeze the glutes and tighten the abs. Overextension of the spine can impact shoulder position creating loss of internal rotation.
2) Load the shoulders. Imagine separating the floor with your hands (read this on how to set-up your grip width) and having the cubital fossa facing forward - basically get your elbow pits facing forward. This will stabilize and activate the external rotators, helping to optimize the position of the shoulder in the socket prior to the movement.
3) Drop towards the floor with forearms vertical. This is huge - just as you'd keep your shins vertical during squatting, you must keep your forearms vertical to prevent dangerous elbow forces and over-tensionng the triceps complex. The athlete should think about pulling the body towards the floor/bar to load the shoulders first. Just as with squatting, the first 6-8" of the movement is crucial. The body should move forward and over the hands/forearms to keep the center of mass over the hands and load the shoulder (and unload elbow and wrist). Athletes tend to drop straight down over the hands, causing the elbows to shoot back and breaking the vertical elbow rule. Instead, the body's center of mass should move forward as you descend to maintain vertical forearms (note the differences in the relationship of my center of mass in the pictures above). This optimal position also helps to improve the concentric (or 'up') phase of the press and improve movement consistency and repeatability as the triceps are able to function as an elbow extensor without being over-tensioned.
4) Box push-ups in which a box (such as a shoe-box, phone book, etc.) is on the floor between the athlete and floor is a great way to teach the first 6-8" of the movement. Motor control is huge here and that initial loading is crucial for optimal movement. This also allows adequate gradation depth of the movement (can do the same for dips, bench, etc. - get creative) to progress the athlete with emphasis on the initial 6-8" of the movement. For athletes that struggle with this, I will have them practice creating an actively stable shoulder at the top of the push-up, dip, or bench prior to even initiating the movement.
Here's the bottomline: athletes must be able to appropriately load order ALL movements and the upper extremities are no exception. Too many athletes (novice AND "experienced") load presses/pushes/dips poorly resulting in ugly skill transfer to more dynamic environments causing broken performances and bodies. Try the steps above and post your results/thoughts to comments - let's optimize this movement!
Anterior (front) shoulder pain is a common complaint in athletes and gym-goers, particularly with high-rep push-ups and presses. This problem may be a motor-control issue (poor movement pattern and muscle activation/control), but oftentimes it appears to be a positional fault of the scapulothoracic complex (shoulder and scapula). How do we know this? Improve the athlete's position and push-up performance improves while nagging pain is ameliorated. Check out the video below:
It appears that pain and poor performance during movements involving shoulder and scapulohumeral coordination are often a result of positional inhibition. What I mean is that as a result of our desk-driven, sitting on the computer way-too-long liftestyles, often the shoulder is forward in the socket and the scapula is stuck down and moves poorly against the ribs. The scapula provides a stable base for the shoulder and rotator cuff to function. When put into a poor position, such as the shoulder too far forward in the socket, the rotator cuff's ability to stabilize the shoulder is altered and movement control is lost.
Ever see someone with those rounded, forward shoulders? Yeah, that affects their scapular coordination and muscle activity and may cause shoulder impingement. By better positioning the shoulder complex and particularly the scapula which is where the rotator cuff actually attaches, you may improve activity of the rotator cuff (which acts to provide active stability to the shoulder explained here) and in turn cultivate better stability and function of the shoulder girdle.
The guy in the video above (don't worry, what I lack in genetic height is made up for with pristine movement) also has a history of an AC joint (acromioclavicular joint) sprain in which there is a separation of the clavicle from the acromion process of the shoulder blade. Because the AC joint needs to move to accomodate scapulohumeral position, this further disrupts the mechanics at the shoulder and underscores the need for improved positioning. You will see poor scapulohumeral positioning in those whose elbows fly out to the side during pressing/pushing which is typically indicative of a lack of internal rotation of the shoulder. You can see on the push-up test and re-test in the video that he is better able to maintain his elbows close to his side, indicating that the humerus is more towards the back of the socket allowing better expression of motor control instead of relying on non-contractile tissues like his joint capsule and labrum causing nasty dysfunction and chronic pain in his AC joint.
Try this technique for a few minutes (2 minutes at minimum) to improve your push-up or possibly bench press. I tend to like this technique for push-ups due to the kinetic chain demands: we need to mobilize in a closed-chain to match the position of restriction during push-ups. Remember, the goal is to train the movement so we need to treat the movement. If you are doing a lot of push-ups (and you better be) try this out.
P.S. You can vary the load/intensity by making your body more parallel to the ground. Use a bench to increase the load of the stretch compared to the wall.
I have had several athletes (and coaches) ask me about wide grip bench press (i.e. hands more than an inch outside shoulder width) and whether or not it's appropriate to use in the weight room, especially for young lifters.
In order to effectively and safely generate lots of force, we have to cultivate a stable and organized environment rather than rely on our passive structures (joint capsules, ligaments, etc.). The inability to generate sufficient stability in the wide grip bench press is not a good recipe for those attempting to throw up some serious weight.
** I should mention that I am all for changing grip width to vary the stimulus but not at the expense of decreased stability and ultimately decreased performance and skill transfer which is what really pisses us off (not to mention your shoulder and elbows.). My athletes have to demonstrate active stability and excellent shoulder internal rotation range prior to varying grip width.
The other HUGE advantage to setting the shoulders (creating shoulder external rotation against the bar) is that it optimizes the length-tension relationship of the pec major muscle allowing it to have sufficient capacity to contract forcefully throughout the whole range. Google the pec major and you'll see that it's fibers actually spiral onto its insertion on the arm, so by creating an actively stable shoulder we can open up that anterior compartment and take advantage of the pec's considerable cross-sectional area (which increases force). With the wide grip, we lose that tension and you'll see this with an athlete when he's unable to finish at the top of the press.
Seth - power farmer - Oberst