Improve Your Shoulders with the Elbow Walk

There is no doubt that many people have cranky shoulders. This is especially evident when they try to lift their arms fully overhead, or when they’re trying to military press with proper form. When you see a guy or gal excessively arch the lower back when pressing weights overhead, it’s likely that compensation is due to a lack of overhead shoulder mobility.

During my first year of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at USC, I got to fully dissect a cadaver. I’ll never forget the week I spent on the shoulder region. Once you see how many muscles, ligaments, vessels, and structures are jam-packed within the shoulder, it’s amazing we could ever lift our arms overhead without pain. Furthermore, the timing and sequencing of muscle activation the nervous system must coordinate while reaching overhead is pretty astonishing.

Indeed, when you consider the plethora of structures within the shoulder complex, and the motor control that’s required for smooth, full range of motion movement, it’s no surprise why a lack of overhead mobility is a widespread problem in the fitness community.

It’s worth mentioning here that there can be 100 different reasons why you lack overhead mobility. And this is also why there are over 100 different special tests used by physical therapists and orthopedic doctors for assessing the shoulder complex. But there are a few common problems that most people need to correct.

One of my favorite corrective exercises to improve overhead mobility is the elbow wall walk. The benefits of this exercise are numerous, but there are three primary goals when you do it correctly. First, it activates the shoulders’ external rotators, which helps pull the head of the humerus into its ideal position. Second, the exercise activates the serratus anterior, a muscle that’s essential for upward rotation of the scapula. Third, the elbow wall walk teaches your client to reach overhead without extending the lumbar spine.

Test Yourself

The elbow wall walk is a terrific shoulder activation drill to perform before upper body training or Olympic lifts. Nevertheless, if you or your client has problems with overhead mobility it’s important to determine if this exercise provides the benefit you seek. You’ll perform 3 sets of the elbow wall walk, and each set should last 45-60 seconds.

  • Do you lack the ability to reach your arms fully overhead? Perform an overhead reach and have your buddy take a picture of your end range of motion. Measure the shoulder joint angle using one of the many Smartphone apps. After that, perform the elbow wall walk, and then retest (and remeasure) your shoulder joint angle to determine if it improved.
  • Shoulder pain when reaching or pressing overhead? Find the overhead position that causes discomfort, and rate it on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being “emergency room” pain. Perform the elbow wall walk, then retest the overhead position and see if the pain intensity has decreased.
  • Poor shoulder stability when holding weights or a barbell overhead? Perform the elbow wall walk, then retest the exercise to determine if your shoulder stability has improved.

The elbow wall walk requires a TheraBand or some type of light resistance band that can be wrapped around each hand. Be sure to “walk” the elbows up the wall very slowly during this drill, and follow the cues outlined in the video below.

Give this activation/strengthening drill a try and it will likely decrease shoulder discomfort and improve overhead performance.

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.

Stay Focused,
CW

How to Customize Your Training

When you train to get bigger, stronger, faster or leaner, your program must fit your body type. The program must address your specific weaknesses. Those weaknesses could be from a lack of strength, muscle or mobility. Indeed, a training program is only as good as its ability to cater to your physical structure, available equipment, and goals.

When it comes to finding and fixing weaknesses, Eric Cressey is one of my top resources. What’s unique about Cressey is his ability to create and implement assessment techniques that help you determine exactly how your program should be structured.

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I recently chatted with Eric Cressey about his approach to training, and how it’s evolved over the years. Check it out below.

CW: Eric, you and I have been in this industry for well over a decade. We’ve both seen a lot of dysfunctions and imbalances whether we’re talking about a person’s physical structure or his exercise programming. With your experience, what would you say is a big mistake people make in pursuit of more muscle, strength and athleticism?

Eric Cressey: I think a lot of people head down a bad path early in their training career because they lay fitness on type of dysfunction. In other words, they build a lot of strength through poor movement patterns. The longer people train in those terrible postures and incorrect patterns, the more ingrained they become.

CW: I want to first make the connection between posture and performance. Posture goes beyond standing up straight. The position your ribcage and pelvis are in during training can make a huge difference in terms of how much muscle and strength you gain. It also determines how well you move.

Let’s talk about posture. You’ve come up with a simple, self-assessment technique to help people determine which type of posture they have. 

EC: Most people have a normal, subtle anterior pelvic tilt. For men it’s 3-5 degrees, and in women it’s 5-7 degrees. Problems typically occur when they deviate beyond those ranges, whether that means a more extreme anterior tilt, or for others, they could have a posterior pelvic tilt where the low back arch flattens and the hips tuck under.

The majority of people will have an anterior pelvic tilt that causes as an extension posture. However, a cyclist or people who spend a lot of time hunched over at their desk can develop a posterior pelvic tilt that causes a flexed, hunched over posture.

It’s important for people to identify what type of posture they have because it helps determine which exercises they should emphasize or avoid.

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CW: So the first step for determining how a person should train is based on their posture? 

EC: Yes, they could have a flexion, extension, or neutral posture. From there, the exercises I have them perform will help correct poor posture, assuming they have it. This is easy to identify with the self-assessment video I created.

CW: With that evaluation out of the way, what’s the next programming factor you address?

EC: Next up is their frequency of training. Within my program you have options for anywhere for 2-4 times per week for strength training based on a person’s recovery capacity and available time. If you’re a marathon runner who runs five days per week it’s probably not ideal to strength train four days per week. In that case, twice per week might be best. Or a younger, fit guy might choose to train four times per week to quickly gain strength and muscle.

CW: And the third factor for determining how a person should train is based on their goals. A young guy who’s training for maximal strength shouldn’t train the same as an older person who seeks fat loss, right?

EC: Correct. My programming allows people to choose between four different goals. They can choose whether they want to emphasize athletic performance, fat loss, maximal strength or maybe they have no specific goal at all and they just want to get in the best shape of their life. I even modify the training parameters for people over 40.

CW: Flexibility work is often where people miss the boat, and I don’t blame them. Between the contradictions regarding how and when a person should stretch, it can become very confusing. I appreciated your video segment where you help people identify if they have joint laxity. 

EC: Not everyone needs static stretching. That’s why I help people determine if they should supplement their training with stretches. Some guys are naturally flexible. For them, foam rolling and a dynamic warm-up will be enough to meet their mobility needs. Other people will benefit from static stretches and my system shows them which ones they’ll need.

CW: Ok, let’s recap. So if a person is trying to figure out exactly how he or she should train to meet their goals, they follow your four-part assessment that addresses posture, training frequency, goals, and joint laxity. I think that covers the gamut.

EC: Exactly.

CW: I frequently check your blog and I’m really impressed by your relentless pursuit for creating top-notch instructional videos. I don’t know where you find the time to shoot all those videos!

EC: Ha! I drink a lot of coffee. All kidding aside, my new training system, The High Performance Handbook, has over 200 exercise videos. Each video has 30-120 seconds worth of verbal cues so people will learn exactly what to do, and why.

CW: Thanks for your time, Eric, it’s always great to talk shop with you. 

EC: You bet!

Eric Cressey’s new training and nutrition system is one of the best I’ve seen. He put a prodigious amount of work into creating a system that caters to your unique structure and function in order to catapult your muscle, strength and athleticism.

I give The High Performance Handbook my highest rating. I can’t think of a better investment into your training future. The entire training and nutrition system is on sale until Friday. You can check out more information at this link.

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Squat Deeper and Enhance Hip Mobility

The ability to perform a full, pain-free squat with your torso at least 60 degrees relative to the ground is an essential component of athleticism. This ability relies on a myriad of mobility and stability qualities that run from the ankle to t-spine. If you can’t maintain a relatively erect torso in the full squat, oftentimes a trainer or therapist will recommend a wall squat to improve your technique.

A quick overview of the wall squat: stand facing a few inches away from a wall with the arms hanging straight down in front, between your legs. With your feet wider than shoulder width and angled out slightly, squat as deep as possible. Stand and repeat.

The wall squat has the potential to be a great drill for people with the right body structure, but most people find it uncomfortable and awkward. It’s not natural to squat down with a wall hitting your face, and it’s too easy to fall backward as you try to maintain an upright torso.

That’s why I’ve merged away from using the wall squat with my clients. These days I use a goblet squat with a lateral shift to mobilize tight hips. By holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest, you create a counterbalance load that allows you to really push your hips back without falling over backward. This counterbalance also allows you to maintain a more erect torso. And since this exercise doesn’t require you to stand directly in front of a wall, you don’t have to worry about that nuisance.

Key Points for the Goblet Squat with Lateral Shift
1. Maintain an arch in your feet: it’s common for people to pronate their feet in the bottom position of a squat. Be cognizant of your arches as soon as you start to descend – don’t let the arches flatten.

2. Push knees out to the side: as soon as you squat focus on pushing your knees out to the sides to avoid valgus collapse (inward movement of knees). Keeping your knees pushed out will also help you maintain an arch in your feet.

3. Maintain an erect torso and neutral head position: there should be a straight line from the base of your neck to your pelvis when you’re in the bottom position of the squat. Have a partner cue you the first few times until you get the feel for the correct position.

4. Relax in the bottom position: when you’re in the bottom position (hole), maintain a normal breathing pattern. If you have to strain or hold your breath the new position won’t stick. After shifting side-to-side four or five times, exhale deeply as you achieve a deeper position.

Now that you know the correct technique, the key point of this exercise is the lateral shifting to mobilize the hips by creating a more intense stretch on the hip capsule and surrounding muscles. I learned the value of the lateral shift many years ago from Pavel Tsatsouline. When you do the lateral shift correctly it induces a feeling that’s similar to hip scouring, a technique that my friend Dr. Trisha Smith frequently performs on me to mobilize my hips.

Use this exercise to not only improve your squat technique, but also your Olympic lifts, lunges, and kicks. Plus, enhancing hip mobility will take stress off your knees and back. Perform this exercise at the beginning of your workouts and anytime you need to loosen your hips.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Perfect Your Single-leg Squat

Single-limb exercises, especially for the lower body, are essential for everyone, regardless if they’re a pro athlete or weekend warrior. The benefits of single-leg exercises are numerous, but a few key points to mention are that they recruit additional hip muscles that often get minimal stimulation with double-leg exercises, and they make the core play a larger role in each movement.

The single-leg squat has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years. But there’s a problem: most people do it with terrible form, as evident by extreme spinal flexion. It’s not your fault, as the saying goes. You just haven’t been given the right information to make it work for you. To perform a full single-leg squat requires a lot of strength, mobility, and stability. So you must improve those qualities to get it right.

I could honestly write an entire book on perfecting this exercise. I mention this because I’m about to outline the common problems that are probably holding you back, but there could be other factors working against you.

Now, before I get to the good stuff I must differentiate between a single-leg squat and a pistol. A pistol is the exercise that requires you to squat on one leg with the opposite leg held straight out in front and off the ground. It was popularized by my friend, Pavel Tsatsouline. It’s a good exercise, but it’s extremely advanced. To get it right you must have crazy hamstring flexibility and plenty of strength. Most people are severely lacking the hamstring mobility needed to keep your spine from bending like a fresh twig.

Perfecting the pistol requires another set of guidelines. This post is about the single-leg squat for people who have average mobility. Here’s how to get it right.

Step #1: Start with a few minutes of rope jumping or similar exercises to increase your body temperature. Do some foam rolling at this time if you wish.

Step #2: Stretch your hip flexors: the rectus femoris and psoas. I’m not a big fan of static stretching before a workout, but when it comes to the hip flexors it’s usually a good idea. Stiff hip flexors can diminish your ability to build maximum tension in your glutes and lockout your hips. That’s why stiff hip flexors are often referred to as a “parking brake” that’s partially engaged, thus limiting your hip power. Another reason to stretch your hip flexors is that it allows you to remain more upright in the single-leg squat.

Step #3: Groove the right motor pattern with a single-leg squat facing a wall. When most people do a single-leg squat they shift their torso forward. This can be caused by subpar thoracic extension and a lack of dorsiflexion in the ankle joint. This exercise restores both. It’s a fantastic technique-builder that I learned from spinal expert, Dr. Craig Liebenson. Perform 10 reps with each leg.

Step #4: Activate your hip abductors. Another problem people tend to have is that their leg buckles in as they squat. This is caused by weakness in the gluteus medius/minimus muscles that must fire strongly to hold your leg in proper position. The hip external rotation exercise strengthens and activates those muscles. This can be used as a stand-alone exercise when weakness is evident, or as an activation drill.

Step #5: Perform the single-leg squat on a high bench. The first way to build this exercise is to start by standing barefoot (or with Vibram shoes) on a relatively high bench. The key point is that you must be able to maintain an arch in your low back. If you step down and you feel your low back round (your spine will flex), the bench is too high. Start at a height that allows you to maintain lordosis (low back arch) and increase the height – or the distance you drop down – to build your single-leg squat. The goal is to be able to perform a range of motion that allows your hips to drop below knee level while maintaining an arch in your low back. This can take time so be patient.

Perform these exercises a few times per week and focus on increasing your range of motion with the single-leg squat while standing on a bench. Your hips, legs, and core will get stronger and more powerful than ever!

Stay focused,
CW

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An Interview with Eric Cressey Part II

Eric Cressey is one of the few people I keep in my circle of advisors. He’s been training, studying, lifting and writing with passion and enthusiasm that’s rare in this field. Cressey Performance is definitely a place to check out if you’re in the Massachusetts area. So if you missed part I of my interview with him, be sure to check it out here.

Now we’ll pick up the rest of his interview where Eric discusses his awesome new training manual, Show and Go, for a bigger, stronger, healthier body.

CW: I got a good laugh reading your statement in the introduction of Show and Go. You said, “This book is for people who give a sh*t.” Care to elaborate?

EC: I was actually pretty excited to be able to swear whenever I wanted; I guess that’s the beauty of self-publishing!  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll share a little excerpt from the text that I think will answer the question:

““…you’ll find that the tone of this manual is much less conversational and entertaining, and much more “troubleshooting” and “do this and get diesel.” Fortunately, just as you’re more tolerant to cursing, you’re also more tolerant to training programs that will challenge, educate, and motivate you to all news levels of strength, performance, and health. My feeling is that you didn’t purchase this e-book to be entertained; you purchased it to get direction and results. Continue reading