Balance Your Shoulder Strength and Build Power

We could all benefit from stronger, healthier shoulders. Typically a guy will try to make his shoulders stronger with overhead press variations, side raises, and the like. While those exercises certainly have their place in any strength program, they often provide little stimulation to the external rotators.

So a guy will train hard and neglect the external rotation movement. Then one day he tears his rotator cuff or experiences a shoulder injury. One of the reasons this can happen is because there was a significant strength imbalance between the internal and external rotators. Few guys need more internal rotation work because they’re already getting so much of it from a plethora of horizontal pressing exercises.

One thing a guy can do to make his shoulders stronger and healthier is train his external rotators. When you think of training the external rotation movement you probably have visions of isolated exercises with red rubber tubing or 5-pound dumbbells.

However, one exercise that has always been part of my athlete’s strength programs is the upright row with external rotation. The benefit of this movement for power athletes is that it also engages the posterior chain since it starts from a high hang position that engages the hips. Plus, it’s about as explosive as an external rotation exercise can be. Those two factors allow you to train with heavier weights: something every power athlete loves.

I’m not a fan of most upright row variations anymore, thanks in large part to the writings of shoulder experts like Eric Cressey. Nevertheless, in terms of shoulder health I like this exercise for two reasons.

First, the movement consists of only a partial upright row so that reduces the risk of impingement. Pulling any higher can place undue stress on the shoulder joint, even if they’re healthy. Second, the exercise smoothly transitions into external rotation and most of us need more strength in those muscles to balance out the shoulder joint.

Also, the upright row with external rotation is an excellent intermediate step before merging into more complex Olympic lift variations such as the hang snatch. And it’s also a great stand-alone muscle builder.

Before we get to the video, I must clarify which type of athletes should perform the upright row with external rotation because it’s not for everyone. Even though it’s great for strengthening the external rotators, it’s not for someone who recently injured his shoulder or had shoulder surgery. In the early stages of physical therapy slower, lighter exercises should be emphasized.

But if you’re a guy who wants to build some muscle and balance out your internal/external rotation strength while engaging the posterior chain, give this exercise a try. Start with 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps twice per week.

Stay Focused,

Weakness in This Muscle Will Rob Your Power

If you’re a trainer, your job is to have the tools and knowledge to take your client’s performance to the highest level. Throughout that pursuit many underlying dysfunctions can surface. For example, if the deadlift hurts the left side of your low back, the problem probably isn’t the deadlift: the deadlift identified an underlying problem. To paraphrase Gray Cook’s famous line: don’t build performance on top of dysfunction.

The training program a power athlete such as an MMA fighter or running back must follow is replete with explosive strength exercises that challenge full body stability.

An essential component for progressively building an athlete’s performance while keeping him healthy hinges on a strong, stabile foundation of support from the core musculature. I’m not just talking here about building strong abs: your lats and glutes are just as important, if not more. And everyone knows that you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

One muscle that I’m constantly seeing as problematic is the quadratus lumborum, or QL as it’s commonly referred to. Thanks to my work over the last few years with Dr. Craig Liebenson, owner of LA Sports and Spine, I’ve come to realize just how important this muscle is for power athletes, including anyone with back or knee pain.

The importance of the QL becomes evident when you look at its anatomy and function. First, the medial fibers that attach to the spine also connect the ribcage to the pelvis. So these medial fibers play a crucial role in stabilizing your torso in the frontal plane. If you’re holding a heavy briefcase in your right hand, the left QL contracts to keep you from leaning to the right. In fact, research (Knapp 1978) suggests that paralysis of the QL makes walking impossible, even with braces. And when you throw or kick explosively, the QL must fire hard to maintain the correct torso position and provide the spinal stability to transfer power throughout your body.

Second, the lateral fibers play an important role in lateral bending mobility. When you lean to the side, the lateral fibers must lengthen and then contract to pull you back up. Although, from a training standpoint, Dr. McGill demonstrates that it’s best to strengthen the QL with static exercises to preserve the intervertebral discs. Bending to the side, especially under load, is very stressful to the discs so that movement should be avoided. Another key point I learned from Dr. McGill’s research is that the QL needs endurance strength since its primary role is to provide lumbar stability.

The QL, like many muscles in the body, can have far reaching, deleterious effects when it’s weak or spastic. Through Dr. Liebenson, I learned a series of compensatory actions that can occur when people have patellar tendonitis, that annoying dull pain directly below your knee cap.

You see, the QL works with the contralateral glute medius muscle when you’re walkig. So if you’re walking with a heavy briefcase in your right hand, the left QL and right glute medius are firing hard to maintain correct posture and gait. However, when those muscles are weak excessive stress can be put on the right knee because the hips and core can’t stabilize the movement pattern.

Put another way: when someone has right knee pain the right glute medius is usually weak. And since the right glute medius works with the left QL, there’s usually weakness or trigger points in the left QL. In other words, if you have right knee pain, strengthen your left QL and your right glute medius in order to take stress off the knee.

Indeed, the QL is a vastly important muscle that must have plenty of endurance strength, and even more important, that endurance strength must be balanced as you test the QL on each side. If you can hold a right side plank for 70 seconds and a left side plank for only 4o seconds your left QL needs help.

A strong, healthy QL is essential for everyone from fighters to those who have knee pain. That’s why I shot the following 12-minute video with Dr. Liebenson to teach you how to test and strengthen this often neglected muscle. If you missed my discussion with Dr. Liebenson on the role of the QL for performance, you can check out the YouTube video at this link.

Strengthen the QL and you’ll become a stronger, healthier, more explosive athlete!

Stay Focused,

Should You Bench Press?

Here’s a question I recently received:

Question: Hi Chad, I have read many of your articles and books and I appreciate the insight that you have provided me and others. My question is regarding the standard bench press. I am an amateur mma fighter with aspirations of competing at the pro level and an avid weight lifter. It is no surprise that I have become attached to the bench press, but after reading some of your work I question its usefulness.

So my question is this: does the bench press or exercises like it (incline, decline, db) have a place in a fighter’s program? Would you recommend I focus on vertical pressing movements, dips, and maybe standing cable presses. Any info you can give me would be greatly appreciated.


CW Answer: The bench press is a very polarizing exercise, much like the barbell squat. On one hand, the bench press has been a mainstay in strength building programs for 50 years, and most guys love to do it. On the other hand, when you consider the alternative exercises to train the same muscle groups, the bench press is not a very good choice.

The problems with a typical barbell bench press arise when you look at the structure and function of the shoulder joint. The shoulder complex consists of the scapula, clavicle, and humerus. It’s the collective movement of these three segments that lead to the greatest gains in strength while preserving or improving joint health.

So what’s wrong with the bench press? Your scapulae (shoulder blades) are locked into place during the movement. This creates imbalances since the muscles that move the scapulae aren’t recruited. Second, the lack of scapular movement puts excessive strain on the soft tissue around the anterior portion of the shoulder joint. Anyone who’s spent any effort on the bench press knows exactly where this shoulder pain is.

Even though there are dozens of bench press variations that incorporate dumbbells and various angles, the overriding problem is still the same: there’s very little scapular movement.

One muscle in particular, the serratus anterior, is essential to build punching strength and improve your shoulder health by holding the scapulae in their proper position. When you throw out a long jab toward your opponent, the serratus muscle is what gives you that powerful “pop” at the end of the movement. The bench press when performed with the shoulder blades pulled back and locked into place all but eliminates this important muscle.

So does a fighter need the bench press? No. There are more effective ways to strengthen the muscles that surround the shoulder complex. You should focus on upper body pushing exercises that allow your shoulder blades to move freely, thus activating the serratus anterior.

Now for a simple drill. Make a knuckle with each fist and hold your arms straight out in front. Next, push your knuckles another 3-4 inches forward and feel your shoulder blades move apart. This is the movement that recruits the serratus anterior.

Any typical barbell or dumbbell bench press, when you’re lying on your back, doesn’t allow for full scapular movement. Plus it doesn’t engage the core and hips as much as some of the other alternatives. To have a strong punch you must have strong hips and a strong core.

That’s why I use the one-arm floor press with rotation to build a fighter’s punching power. This exercise allows for full scapular movement and it builds strength in the hips and core.

In addition to the one-arm floor press with rotation, I use many variations of the push-up, handstand push-up, and standing cable chest press. The key with those variations is to push past the normal end range of motion to spread your scapulae. Remember, the humerus, clavicle, and scapula are designed to move together so you should train exercises that allow for natural, fluid motion in the shoulder complex.

I’m also a huge fan of dips from rings. With rings you can gradually increase the range of motion to the point where your thumbs touch the outside of your pecs when you’re in the bottom of the movement. Building strength through this full range of motion is excellent for improving shoulder mobility strength that lasts. Ever since I started using the rings exclusively for my upper body work I haven’t had to stretch my pecs and my shoulder health and mobility is better than it’s ever been in my life.

That’s why I use rings with all the athletes I train.

The only people who should train a traditional bench press on a regular basis are powerlifters. If you’re not a powerlifter stick to variations of the push-up, handstand push-up, standing cable chest press, dips from rings, and the one-arm floor press with rotation.

If you want to learn my system for building explosive power, check out my upcoming seminar in Phoenix, AZ on February 2-4 by clicking this link.

Stay Focused,

Step Down for Stronger, Healthier Knees

Knee pain is something virtually all of us hard-training folks encounter at some point in our life. The cause of the pain can be attributed to many possible problems such as a fallen arch or weak outer hip muscles. However, your vastus medialis muscle is often a major factor because when it’s weak it can’t hold the patella (knee cap) in its proper alignment. Faulty alignment of the patella can irritate the patellar tendon and cause pain below the knee cap.

I prescribe strength exercises for the vastus medialis whenever a client comes to me with knee pain and it always helps. It might not completely rid the person of knee pain because, as mentioned, there can be other factors at work. But sometimes it’s all that’s needed.

Whenever you have joint pain, start with the simplest solution first. Strengthening the vastus medialis muscle should be your first line of attack.

The lowest portion of the vastus medialis, closest to the inside of the patella, is thought to contain fibers that run in a more oblique direction than other parts of the muscle. These vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) fibers are often mentioned in clinical settings as being the ones that are typically weakest and most difficult to recruit. The jury’s still out with regard to the possibility that those VMO fibers even exist because anatomists have had a tough time finding them on cadavers.

In the past, trainers and physical therapists often used the leg extension exercise to strengthen the vastus medialis. On paper, this approach seemed valid. However, in practice it rarely helps and sometimes exacerbates the problem due to the large shear forces that accompany the leg extension movement.

The best exercise I’ve found to increase the strength of the vastus medialis, and maybe the VMO (if those fibers exist), is the step-down. It effectively strengthens the vastus medialis without putting excessive strain forces on the patellar tendon. When you perform the step-down correctly, you’ll feel tension directly on the inside of the knee, in the vastus medialis.

The video below shows the proper technique for the step-down. But before you watch it keep these three points in mind.

1. Perform the exercise slowly: it’s not easy to target the vastus medialis so you must move slowly to develop the mind-muscle link you need to activate the correct fibers. Push through the ball of the foot on your working (elevated) leg throughout the contraction.

2. Hold weights if necessary: if you can easily perform 15 reps without feeling much tension in your vastus medialis, you’ll need some external load. Start light, maybe a pair of 20-pound dumbbells if you’re a strong guy, and work up from there.

3. Stop if the exercise causes more pain: prescribing rehab exercises is rarely simple since your problem might be more complex than one exercise can fix. With the step-down, or any other rehab exercise, if you experience more knee pain after the exercise you should not continue. You should feel less pain and more strength around your knee after each set is finished.

Step-Down: perform 3 sets of 15 reps with each leg, every other day, until the knee pain goes away.

Finally, I’ll be covering all of my best joint rehab exercises in my seminar in Phoenix, AZ on February 2-4. To find out more seminar details, click this link.

Stay Focused,