Align Your Pelvis to Increase Performance

The term “core” is thrown around a lot these days. Most people think of the core as being the abdominals, or midsection. But if we consider the classic definition of the word, which is “the central part of something,” it means your body’s true core is the pelvis. The pelvis is where the upper and lower segments attach, so it’s the central part of your body.

This also means that if your pelvis is out of proper alignment, it can create unwanted compensations up and/or down your body’s chain. Indeed, problems in the pelvis can cause knee or foot pain, and it can cause low back or shoulder pain.

What’s relevant here are three of the articulations within the pelvis: the two sacroiliac (SI) joints, and the pubic symphysis. These joints make it possible for parts of the pelvis to rotate or tilt, due to the attached muscles being shortened (i.e., overactive) or lengthened (i.e., weak/inhibited).

Now, it’s important to mention here that these joints don’t allow for much motion. In fact, some clinicians still question if they can move at all. But anyone that has a hypermobile pelvis or SI joint pain will tell you they can move. And when they move the wrong way, pain and poor performance follow.

The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) teaches courses that focus heavily on restoring pelvic alignment. I’ve taken their Myokinematic Restoration and Pelvic Restoration courses, and I recommend them to any progressive trainer or clinician.

Nevertheless, becoming proficient at assessing and correcting pelvic alignment can be a complicated task. There are a myriad of muscles, ligaments and tendons in play, and any one of them can be the culprit. Physiotherapist, Diane Lee, is one of the experts that’s giving seminars to help progress this area of practice. I’m talking here about something called “muscle energy techniques,” which simply means you’re activating key muscles to improve function within the body.

Test Yourself

Before we get to the muscle energy technique that I use to restore pelvic function, it’s important to begin by testing yourself (or a client) so you’ll know if the drill worked. I recommend tests similar to the ones I outlined in the Ultimate Glute Development article I wrote last week.

  • Stiff hamstrings? Do a standing toe touch assessment, then perform the pelvic alignment correction and immediately retest it.
  • Knee or low back pain? Do a movement that causes you to feel the discomfort, then perform the pelvic alignment correction and immediately retest it.
  • Need more hip mobility for the squat, lunge or deadlift? First perform the pelvic alignment correction, and then test if your hips/low back feel looser during the exercise.

For the following Pelvic Alignment Correction, you’ll need a PVC pipe or strong dowel, as well as a basketball or light medicine ball that’s a similar size.

When should you do this drill? First in your workout. It doesn’t make any sense to warm-up, with even a light jog, if your pelvis is out of alignment. To paraphrase Gray Cook: Don’t put fitness on top of dysfunction.

Give the following drill a try before your next sprint, squat, deadlift or jump session, and your hips and alignment will probably feel much better.

Stay Focused,
CW

Ultimate Glute Development

Everyone wants better glutes, whether you’re a guy or gal, athlete or non-athlete. That’s because glutes that are awesomely developed not only make your body look better, but they can also drastically improve your performance. When the glutes are strengthened and built using the correct combinations of exercises, you’ll run faster, jump higher and improve the strength of all your lower-body lifts.

In order to build a muscle to it’s highest level of size and performance, all of its fibers should be recruited by the end of a workout. The glutes are a tri-planar muscle, which means it can function in all three planes of movement:

  • Sagittal plane = hip extension
  • Frontal plane = hip abduction
  • Transverse plane = hip external rotation

The problem is that most people only train the sagittal plane function of the glutes: hip extension. I’m talking here about the typical squat, deadlift and lunge variations.

Last fall I spent four months working with Christopher Powers, Ph.D., at his Movement Performance Institute (a glute-focused sports medicine facility if there ever was one). I worked with athletes and non-athletes that had a myriad of knee, low back or hip problems.

The early stages of Professor Powers’ system focuses heavily on strengthening the glutes in the frontal and transverse planes – hip abduction and hip external rotation, respectively. Pure hip extension isn’t usually trained until about 6 weeks into the system.

There were two key observations I made after training athletes primarily in hip abduction and external rotation for up to 6 weeks straight:

  • Their glutes got substantially larger
  • Their hip extension strength increased

Their glutes got bigger because they were recruiting muscle fibers that perform hip abduction and external rotation, which had been neglected in the gym from doing nothing but squats, lunges and deadlifts.

Prof. Powers has been a pioneer in research that demonstrates a link between frequent glute activation and a stronger mind-muscle connection, which is an essential component of strength and hypertrophy development. So even though pure hip extension wasn’t trained, that movement got stronger because the brain was better able to recruit the entire gluteal fibers in any future task.

My point here is that ultimate glute development requires a strong emphasis on hip abduction and hip external rotation. Those two movement planes must be frequently trained in order to build the glutes to the highest level of size and performance.

Test Yourself

Before you watch the video where I outline my favorite 7-minute glute-building sequence, test yourself (or one of your clients).

  • Stiff hamstrings? Do a standing toe touch assessment, then perform the glute sequence and immediately retest it.
  • Knee or low back pain? Do a movement which causes you to feel the discomfort, then perform the glute sequence and immediately retest it.
  • Need to improve your squat, lunge, deadlift, sprint or vertical jump? Do the following sequence twice each day for 2 weeks, then retest the exercise you’re trying to improve. Your performance will definitely go up!

The following Ultimate Glute Development sequence requires a mini-band. I use the bands made by Perform Better, which can be found at this Amazon link. Most females should start with a yellow mini-band; males can start with a green. The key is to progress the band tension as your strength improves.

  • Goal for males: perform the entire Ultimate Glute Development sequence with a black Perform Better mini-band.
  • Goal for females: perform the entire Ultimate Glute Development sequence with a blue Perform Better mini-band.

Here’s the Ultimate Glute Development sequence, a collection of my favorite glute-building exercises, all crammed into a 7-minute drill. Do this sequence at least once per day (preferably twice), at the beginning of your regular workouts or as a stand-alone drill.

I highly recommend you make this a foundational activation sequence for you and your clients, for years to come.

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CW

Get Your Feet in Control

The human foot is a marvel of complex engineering. Each one is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 soft tissue structures that form muscles, tendons and ligaments. Not to mention the 150,000 nerve endings that you have on the bottom of each foot.

Your body needs all of those components to be working at full capacity in order to achieve an impressive vertical jump, sprint or deadlift. But more often than not, your feet have lost that ability, and the negative consequences can be far-reaching. Indeed, progressive doctors that specialize in treating jaw disorders (e.g., TMJ) look at the patient’s foot posture and control when designing a treatment plan.

Many active people take up to 10,000 steps per day. Pair that with the fact that most people don’t wear properly-fitted shoes, or have stiffness in one or more of the 33 joints, and you’ve got a perfect scenario for lousy foot mechanics that can cause ankle, knee, low back or the previously mentioned jaw pain.

Shoes are often the culprit, because they impair isolated action of each toe. And if you wear high heels or cowboy boots, the situation becomes exponentially worse because your toes are crammed together like clowns in a compact car during a Shriner’s parade. This results in poor motor control of your feet – essentially, your feet become “dumb” since your brain loses the ability to effectively control their joints and soft tissues.

Test Yourself

Here’s a simple, basic test to determine if you have adequate motor control of your feet. Stand barefoot with your feet shoulder width apart. Can you lift the big toe without elevating the other four toes? Can you elevate the four smaller toes while the big toe remains on the ground?

If you weren’t able to pass the test, your feet lack the motor control they need. Practice this drill throughout the day while seated, and then progress to the standing version since it’s more challenging. It will probably take a few weeks to get it right, and at first you might need to use a free hand to hold down the toe(s) that should remain static.

The next step is to focus on the shoe dilemma. Remember, regular shoes will keep your toes from moving freely. The solution is to wear toe socks, which isolate the toes so your brain can reconnect with each one. You can find them on Amazon at this link.

And for the times when you want to walk or lounge around the house barefoot, you can find rubber toe spreaders on Amazon at this link.

Now you have a simple way to test, and improve the motor control of your feet. And when you don’t feel like practicing the motor control drill, be sure to wear toe socks or rubber toe spreaders so your toes can come back to life. Your ankles, knees, low back – and maybe even your jaw – will reap the rewards.

Stay Focused,
CW

How to Run Without Pain

Since 2017 is just around the corner, droves of people will be lacing up their running shoes to shed what was gained in 2016. Yep, come January 2nd everyone will love to run…until about January 15th. That is about how long it takes before shin splints or knee pain really kicks in.

First, I stand by the assertion that you should get fit to run, not the other way around. Whether you’re jogging or sprinting, a high level of strength is required throughout the ankles, knees, and hips. Running is an advanced exercise because it requires much more single-limb stability strength than most people have. Indeed, people that are relatively unfit would be much better off doing 200-300 fast, quarter squats with no additional load, spread over 15 minutes as their “cardio.”

But telling a guy or gal not to do something as simple, and seemingly effective, as running in the new year is a lesson in futility. Hundreds of thousands of people will start doing it in January, so I might as well outline the steps they can take to minimize joint stress.

Limit running to 20 minutes at first: It is tempting to go balls-to-the-wall at first in order to hasten fat loss, but that’s the quickest route to injury and pain. Most people want to start jogging 45-60 minutes in the new year, and unless you’ve been a consistent runner in late 2016, that’s a bad idea. Limit your duration of running to 20 minutes, every other day for the first few weeks. Also, run slower than you think you can go. When you’re out of shape it takes very little exercise to ramp up your metabolism and burn fat. Take advantage of it, and your joints will thank you.

Wear Hoka One shoes: All the technique and training advice will do little if your shoes are worn out, which causes faulty running mechanics. You can tell a lot about how people run by looking at their souls…er, I mean, soles. Do you see considerable wear on the corners? If so, it’s time to get a new pair. I suggest Hoka One running shoes since my clients favor them most.

Increase your step rate approximately 10%: Start by running at a pace that’s most natural for you, and then shorten your stride so you have to take about 10% more steps without slowing your speed. Research by Heiderscheit et al 2011 and Luedke et al 2016 demonstrate that a shorter stride length (i.e., increased step rate) will provide three benefits:

  • Less impact forces to the knees, shins, and hips.
  • Less impact forces that can cause knee valgus.
  • Greater metabolic demand while running.

So increasing your step rate will minimize stress to your joints and augment the amount of calories you burn while running. You can’t beat that combination.

Roll your plantar fascia with a lacrosse ball: Research by Novacheck 1998 demonstrates that stress forces within the plantar fascia can reach triple your body weight while running. Since that thick band of tissue on the bottom of each foot takes a real beating, spend a minute or so rolling each bare foot over a lacrosse ball before and after running to keep the plantar fascia supple and healthy. Furthermore, the bottom of each foot has 150,000 or more nerve endings that, when stimulated, can relieve tension throughout the hamstrings and low back.

Now you have four tips that will help you run pain-free well into the new year.

Stay Focused,
CW

Should you ice it?

blog-ice

At one time in your life it’s likely that you’ve had an injury, such as an ankle sprain or hamstring strain. It’s also likely that you applied ice to the damaged tissues, probably because your physician or physical therapist told you to do so.

Was icing that sprained ankle a good idea? It depends.

Let’s start by covering the intended goals of icing. There are four of them:

  • Limit edema formation via vasoconstriction, which reduces the metabolic and vasoactive agents that contribute to inflammation..
  • Reduce pain via decreased nerve conduction velocity.
  • Facilitate muscle relaxation via decreased neural activity.
  • Limit secondary hypoxic tissue injury via decreased metabolic and oxygen demand of living tissues.

Applying ice to an injury will reduce inflammation. That sounds like a good thing, but it might not be.

You see, inflammation is a natural part of the healing process. After an injury, the inflammation process kicks into gear and releases macrophages, which are a type of white blood cells that eat up cellular debris at the site of injury (macrophages literally means “big eaters”). When you ice a body part, vasoconstriction of the blood vessels decreases the amount of macrophages that can arrive at the scene of damage.

The other benefit of macrophages comes from the release of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) at the site of damage to promote tissue healing. Therefore, it appears that icing can slow the healing process, and that’s obviously something you don’t want.

However, research demonstrates two possible benefits ice can provide after an injury.

First, it reduces pain. That’s important because pain can change your brain for the worse – specifically, at the somatosensory cortex. Suffering through high levels of pain, when it’s not necessary, will increase the time it takes for you to clear it from your mind.

Second, icing can promote muscle relaxation by decreasing neural activity to the cooled area. This can be beneficial when muscles are overridden with protective tension and filled with painful trigger points. However, this also means that icing can reduce your strength and power. So don’t ice your quads before a heavy set of squats.

So back to that ankle sprain you iced after trying to impress the skaters at the park. If your goal of icing was to expedite healing, it probably wasn’t a good strategy. But if your goal was to reduce pain and promote tissue relaxation, well done!

If you choose to ice an injury, how long should it be applied? There are five stages of sensation when you apply ice to the skin, and they occur in this order:

  • Cold
  • Stinging
  • Burning
  • Aching
  • Numbness

Once you feel numbness in the area, stop icing because the possible benefits it can provide are maxed out at that point. Furthermore, icing beyond the point of numbness increases the risk of tissue damage. This is one of the reasons why icing an area with impaired circulation or damaged nerves is a bad idea.

Even though rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) has been viewed as the gold standard recovery protocol for decades, there’s always room for progress. Indeed, Gabe Mirkin MD, the sports medicine doctor that created the RICE acronym back in 1978, has distanced himself from it. Dr. Mirkin now recommends moving sooner rather than later (after it’s confirmed there are no broken bones), applying ice only to reduce pain within the first 6 hours after injury, and compression/elevation if there’s swelling.

In summary, whether or not you ice after an injury depends on your goal. If you’re trying to reduce pain and calm trigger points, stick with it. But if it’s been more than 6 hours since your injury, keep in mind that icing will reduce inflammation to that area, which can slow recovery.

Finally, this discussion about icing an injured body part shouldn’t be confused with cryotherapy in general. There’s some evidence that entering a cryogenic chamber for a few minutes, thus exposing the entire body to a frigid temperature, might promote recovery and potentially provide some health benefits. We’ll have to wait and see how that pans out.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Test and Build Your Glutes

blog sprinter It is difficult to overstate the importance of the glutes for achieving athletic prowess. When they are strong, you can run faster, jump higher and help protect your lumbar spine from injury. Of course, a well-developed set of glutes also make you look damn good in a pair of jeans or yoga pants.

You probably already do a handful of different exercises each week that are intended to strengthen and develop your gluteal muscles. The problem? It’s easy for your nervous system to prioritize the hamstrings and low back muscles, and neglect the glutes, when you do a deadlift, squat or glute bridge. There are two common reasons why.

First, the motor cortex portion of the brain that controls movement devotes very little real estate to the glutes. This is probably one of the reasons why it’s difficult for people to make a strong mind-muscle connection between the brain and butt. Second, since we spend considerable time each day sitting, which requires zero activation of the gluteal muscles, they get weaker and lose their neural input. Therefore, many people have what Stuart McGill, Ph.D., an expert in treating low back pain, refers to as “gluteal amnesia.”

Over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with a way to easily measure a person’s gluteus maximus strength, based on an assessment that some progressive physical therapists use. Since their version requires a partner, I modified it so you can do it on your own.

Professor Vladimir Janda used to say, “Every exercise is a test.” He was right. And in this case, the opposite is true: the single-leg hip extension test is also a great strength exercise. So you’ll first learn how to use the movement to test your glute max strength, and then we’ll cover the parameters for strengthening it.

Single-Leg Hip Extension Test

How to do it: To test the strength of the left gluteus maximus, first stretch your left hip flexors so you don’t get a false positive. The test should measure your glute max strength, therefore, it’s important to eliminate any soft tissue limitations. Then, lie on your back with your left leg straight and left heel resting on a flat bench. The toes are pointed up, as depicted below.

glute test 2

Next, pull down through the left heel to elevate the hips/trunk as high as possible. The test position (aka, screen) is when your hips are at your maximum range of hip extension.

glute test 1

In order to pass the test, you should be able to hold the left hip in full, end-range extension without any rotation of trunk/pelvis, for 10 seconds (shown above). Repeat the test/screen with the right leg elevated, after stretching the right hip flexors.

Explanation: The gluteus maximus and hamstrings are both hip extensors. Therefore, this exercise doesn’t completely isolate the glute max. However, the hip flexion angle at the starting position creates a favorable biomechanical advantage for the glute max to develop force, so that’s why it’s a good strength test.

As is the case with any glute exercise or test, I always run it by my buddy, Bret Contreras, Ph.D. Here’s what Dr. Contreras had to say about the single-leg hip extension test:

This screen will assess the ability of the gluteus maximus to achieve end-range hip extension, while a rotational load is simultaneously placed upon the hips. If you’re up to par, your glutes will be sufficiently strong to resist being pulled eccentrically into hip flexion. If you didn’t pass, this indicates that you need to include extra glute activation drills into your daily warm-ups until proficiency is reached.

How to fix the weakness: What should you do if you didn’t pass the test/screen? You have two options that revolve around high frequency training (HFT) since the glutes respond especially well to it.

One option is to use the same movement we just covered to build strength. Let’s say you didn’t pass the test for the right glute max. In that case, perform 2 sets of the single-leg hip extension hold for as long as possible at the end-range, using the right leg, twice each day. Continue until you can hold the end-range lockout position for 10 seconds. Of course, the same strategy is used for the left glute, if it’s also weak.

The other option is to use a different glute activation exercise for one, or both glutes. For example, if your left glute didn’t pass the test, you could do 2 sets of the single-leg left hip thrust, for as many full reps as possible, twice each day (shown below). Then, retest your strength using the single-leg hip extension test every 10-14 days until you pass.

blog single leg hip thrust1photo courtesy of Bret Contreras

The purpose of the single-leg hip extension test is not to see if you can stop training your glutes with specialized exercises. Instead, the test helps determine if you need extra glute training throughout the week to correct an imbalance.

Now you have a simple way to do it.

Stay Focused,
CW

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