Category Archives: Training Philosophy

Should the Rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning Professional Abandon “Traditional” Bi-lateral Leg Exercise for Single Leg Exercise Performance?

Today’s article is from Rob Panariello, a regular contributor to this blog. I always appreciate Rob’s insight, logic, and thought-process. I finally got to meet Rob in person at the NSCA National Conference last month, which was great. I’m very pleased that guys like Rob are still putting out content – we have some legends in the S&C game who have a ton of knowledge and wisdom to share, and Rob is one of these guys.

Should the Rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning Professional Abandon “Traditional” Bi-lateral Leg Exercise for Single Leg Exercise Performance?

Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York

During the past few years I have made a number of national and international platform presentations at both Strength and Conditioning (S&C) and Physical Therapy (PT) Conferences. While presenting at these conferences I have also attended my share of presentations including single leg exercise lectures and had numerous discussions on this topic with both conference presenters and attendees. Over this period of time I have also read many citing’s of single leg exercise performance in both the literature as well as on the Internet. In recent years there appears to be a trend by many professionals to supersede traditional bi-lateral leg exercises (i.e. squat, deadlift, RDL, etc.) in favor of single leg exercises. To be clear, I am not stating that there is the addition of single leg exercises to the athlete’s rehabilitation and athletic performance training programs, but the actual replacement of traditional bi-lateral leg exercises with single leg training in the rehabilitation and athletic performance (weight room) program design.

BSS

During my conversations regarding this topic of rehabilitation and performance training program design philosophy, the most common responses I receive are something to the effect of “Single leg exercise is more sports specific than bi-lateral leg exercises as we run on one leg, skate on one leg, etc.” as well as “traditional bi-lateral lower extremity exercises place the low back at risk of injury”. To be totally transparent I personally am not opposed the inclusion of single leg exercises in the rehabilitation and/or athlete’s training program design as this category of exercise, when appropriate, does provide benefits to both the patient and athlete. I myself, when applicable, will also institute single leg activities with both my patients and the athletes that I train. However, with that stated, the question remains if bi-lateral leg exercises should be removed from the rehabilitation and performance training environment? Prior to making the decision to discard bi-lateral leg exercises the rehabilitation and strength and conditioning professional should review the advantages and benefits of bi-lateral leg exercise performance, some which will be the topic of this discussion.

Are all single leg exercises really single leg exercises?

During the process of selection from the single leg exercise category for the athlete’s program design some professionals consider exercises such as the lunge, the Bulgarian Squat/Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS), etc., single leg activities. During the performance of these exercises one will note that both feet are in contact with a stable surface area. (As a side note, with regard to the “Bulgarian Squat”, during my time studying the science of S&C in Bulgaria with the National Weightlifting team under the supervision of their Head Coach Ivan Abadjiev, I did not witness, not once, the performance of a “Bulgarian squat” nor any other type of single leg work being performed by any weightlifting athlete. The same may be said during my time studying at the Soviet Institute of Sport in the former USSR as well as my time studying in the former East Germany.)

pistol

During the performance of these types of “single leg” exercises, although the emphasis of applied stress may be placed at a primary extremity i.e. the front leg, isn’t the secondary extremity i.e. the rear leg also sharing the applied load? Isn’t the rear leg also assisting in body balance and control during the exercise performance? So are these exercises truly single leg exercises or are they also bi-lateral in nature? However, with a traditional bi-lateral exercise leg posture the body achieves a greater (wider) platform of stability. This enhanced stability allocates many advantages during weight intensity exercise and athletic performance. As an example, if the rear leg was eliminated as a pillar of stability from the split leg exercise performance resulting in a true single leg exercise such as the pistol squat, could the same levels of exercise weight intensity possibility be utilized?

Are the exercises that are performed in the weight room really “sports specific”?

As previously indicated, many statements for the utilization of single leg exercise performance includes the notion that these exercises are “sports specific” as the examples commonly sited are activities such as running or skating that do comprise a period of single leg support. However, conversely, it could also be stated that no exercise performed in the weight room is sports specific. To defend this position it is important for the Rehabilitation and S&C Professional to acknowledge the distinct differentiation between the relationships of an athlete’s “athleticism” vs. the athlete’s level of “skill”. For example in review of the jump shot in the game of basketball two basic important factors occur, (a) the athlete must jump high prior to shooting the basketball and (b) the athlete must be able to effectively shoot the basketball at the peak height of the jump. The ability of the athlete to jump high is dependent upon their “athleticism” whereby successfully shooting of the basketball (scoring) is based upon their level of “skill”. As a basketball player trains in the weight room to improve the physical qualities that correlate to optimal basketball performance, this will often include an improvement in their vertical jump (athleticism) performance. However, one may also ask what also occurred in the weight room to enhance their ability to improve their shooting accuracy (skill)? The answer is likely nothing.

The weight room provides an environment to enhance the athlete’s physical qualities (strength, power, elastic abilities, and speed) in an attempt to improve athleticism. The S&C Professional does little if anything to enhance an athlete’s level of skill as that is the responsibility of the skills (head or assistant/position) sport coach. The athlete enhances their skill level by repetitively practicing the skills of the sport as well as those necessary for their specific team position of participation. In discussions with my good friend Derek Hansen, the protégé of world renown sprint coach Charlie Francis, Derek would remind me that Charlie would state that nothing in the weight room is anywhere close to the velocity and output of sprinting. The utilization of heavy load intensities was utilized by Charlie for “recruitment” purposes that may indirectly transfer to the track via a conversion/transition period. Charlie would always characterize his weight training programs as “general” strength work as specific strength work occurred during training on the track. He was also of the opinion that sport specificity did not exist, particularly when comparing an athlete’s training to competition as the athlete’s training is never completely specific to their competition efforts. Charlie was of the belief that the athlete needed a specific number of competitions to prepare them for their peak race performance. He believed that 100m sprinters needed 6-8 races as 400m runners need 4-6 races for this preparation philosophy.

During the rehabilitation of a post-surgical rotator cuff in a throwing athlete one of the end stages of rehabilitation is the implementation of a long tossing program. Long tossing is a mechanism of enhancing the physical quality of strength in the athlete’s throwing shoulder/arm. How does successful long tossing enhance the pitcher’s strike to ball ratio/accuracy (skill) from the pitcher’s mound? In other words how do long tossing activities improve the pitchers proficiency in throwing strikes? It really doesn’t, therefore, are these exercises as well as the exercises the athlete performs in the weight room really “sport specific”? I personally am of the opinion that they are not.

What about the “single leg” statements that occur during the discussion of running and skating activities?

Certainly during running and skating there is a period of time where the athlete is supported on a single extremity. However, does this mean that the contribution of bi-lateral leg training is not an important contributor to this phase of the movement cycle? The running gait cycle comprises 3 phases, the swing, the float, and the stance phases. In review of a single leg during the running cycle, 60% of the cycle is spent with the foot off the ground (swing + float phases) and 40% of the cycle is spent with the foot is in contact with the ground surface area (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The running gait cycle

Figure 1. The running gait cycle

Since a minority component of the running gait cycle occurs with the foot in contact with the ground surface area, the athlete must take advantage of this brief ground contact time (stance phase) by placing as much force into the ground in the allotted period of time. Two of my mentors in the field of S&C, Hall of Fame S&C Coaches Al Vermeil and Don Chu have taught me this concept over 30 years ago. Their lessons in training were based on the fact that the greatest athletes in the world are the one’s that apply the greatest amount of force into the ground surface area in the shortest period of time. This concept has been documented in athletics and sprinting by many including Mann and Weyand.

Other than sprinting during track and field competition, one would have to observe if most sports are dominantly played with each leg in an alignment in front of each other or are most athletic activities performed with the feet positioned at their hip width alignment or wider, the same foot alignment that occurs during traditional bi-lateral exercise performance. Most athletic activities also begin and end on two feet. This includes the start of a sprinting or running activity as well as jumping, blocking, skating, fielding a ground ball, throwing, swinging, cutting as in the instance when a football player “jump cuts”, and of course deceleration type activities such as landing from a jump. Since most athletic movements are initiated on two feet, optimal force must then be applied at the time of the initiation of movement via a bi-lateral leg posture.

Ice skating is another interesting reference often included in the “single leg” discussion. In a research paper by Bracko, who identified and analyzed the different skating style characteristics of National Hockey League (NHL) forwards, the highest mean percentage of skating time spent by a NHL forward during participation in an NHL hockey game occurred on a two foot glide (double leg stance), more that any other type of skating position. In fact Bracko noted “The primary difference between a high and a low point scorer was that a high point scorer spent more time on the ice, and had a higher mean percentage of time spent in a two foot glide with and without a puck.” One may also inquire what is the position of the lower extremities and feet of arguably the most important player on the ice, the goalie.

What are the advantages of “traditional” bi-lateral leg exercise performance?

There are a number of advantages to the traditional bi-lateral leg exercises when compared to single leg exercise performance. These advantages include, but are not limited to:

1. Exercise Weight Intensity (Load) – High weight intensity is required for the body’s adaptation to build strength, power, elastic abilities and speed. The more stable the foot (feet) and lower extremity position, the heavier the load that may be lifted. Heavier loads enhance the physical quality of strength, the physical quality from where all other physical qualities cultivate. Strength is also the foundation for the application of optimal levels of force. Heavier loads may be applied to the athlete during traditional bi-lateral lower extremity strength exercise performance such as the squat, RDL, and deadlift when compared to the weight intensities applied during the performance of these same or similar type exercises when executed on a single lower extremity.

SLRDL

Load is also very important in the recruitment of a muscle’s motor units (MU) as well as fast twitch (FT) muscle fibers resulting in a greater overall muscle fiber contribution and force output during lower extremity exercise performance. Heavier weight intensities will also enhance a muscle’s rate of force development (RFD) and ground reactive forces (GRF’s) as well as the development of soft tissue structures such tendon and ligament strength (Davis’ law) and bone density (Wolfe’s law). Ask the athlete of their interpretation of the contribution of the musculature of the shoulders, arms, back, CORE, hips and legs when lifting a heavy weight as compared to the effort of lifting a lighter weight during the same type of exercise performance. There likely will not be any surprises upon hearing their response.

2. Velocity – Barbell velocity has been demonstrated to be a very important factor in the development of the physical qualities of power and speed. If this were not accepted why do so many coaches measure barbell velocity during training with tendo units and other similar types of equipment? Higher exercise performance velocities will occur with a bi-lateral exercise posture when compared to the exercise velocities generated during single leg exercise performance. During a specific exercise performance with the weight intensity remaining consistent, higher exercise velocities will assist to recruit more MU and FT muscle fibers as well as enhance RFD and GRF’s when compared to the same load lifted at lower exercise velocities.

An additional benefit of high velocity training is the effect upon the body’s joint co-activation index. This concept was taught to me years ago by Charlie Francis and Al Vermeil at the time the three of us were hired as consultants to work together with an NFL team and has been re-enforced in recent years by Derek Hansen. A simple co-activation index description with regard to the weight room setting is that slow strength type movements are usually correlated with heavier weight when compared to the weight intensities of power movements performed at higher velocities. Time is not a factor when performing strength type exercises. The slower exercise tempo associated with lifting a heavy weight results in joint stability as both the agonist and antagonist muscle groups of a particular joint work together simultaneously. Thus the co-activation index of these two muscle groups working together to stabilize a joint during a strength exercise performance is close to or at a 1:1 ratio.

High speed exercise movements for the development of power and speed are dependent upon a brief factor of time. These high speed weight room exercise activities i.e. the Olympic lifts require an emphasis of high contribution from the agonist muscle group while the antagonist muscle group of the joint(s) must have as low a contribution to exercise performance as possible. This emphasized contribution of the agonist muscle group allows for a shift in the co-activation index in favor of the agonists resulting in optimal high speed propulsion, as well as a fluid motion of the body in the desired direction of movement. Tudor Bompa has also exhibited that the highest skilled athlete’s have the ability to completely relax their antagonist muscle groups during movement and that ridged and rough movements are a result of poor coordination between the agonists and antagonists.

In the area of sport rehabilitation RFD, GRF’s and improvement in the co-activation index are criteria that need to be instilled in the athlete as well. Angelozzi has demonstrated that post-operative ACL reconstruction athletes restored their strength to 97% of their pre-injury strength levels at 6 months post-op. However, in the same period of time the RFD was measured to be only 63% of documented pre-injury levels. In fact it took approximately one year for the RFD to reach 90% of the pre-injury level. In the area of sports rehabilitation high speed weight exercises should be implemented appropriately and without risk to the athlete, as soon as safely possible, to enhance both RFD, GRF’s, and to induce a proper co-activation index for optimal high speed athletic performance. Higher exercise performance velocity is another advantage for the incorporation of traditional bi-lateral lower extremity exercises.

3. Lower extremity exercise and foot position – Most athletic activities are not only initiated and conclude on two feet, but often occur with each foot positioned at hip width if not outside the alignment of the hips, not usually with one foot aligned in front of the other. Remember when your sport coach taught you/told you to assume an “athletic position”? Where was the alignment of your feet positioned? What is the athlete’s common foot position when applying force during blocking, tackling, wrestling, jump cutting, jumping, landing, and yes even skating? Which lower extremity posture of the common sports of participation i.e. football, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, etc. provides the athlete with the base of support that optimizes both stability and force production, a posture with a single leg support, a foot position in a straight alignment with each other, or a posture with the feet positioned at hip alignment or wider (Figure 2)?

Figure 2. Lower extremity and foot posture during skating and cutting

Figure 2. Lower extremity and foot posture during skating and cutting

Performing traditional weighted bi-lateral leg exercises will result in low back injuries

“Performing traditional weighted bi-lateral leg exercises will result in low back injuries” is another response provided to me during the bi-lateral vs. single leg exercise discussion. As previously discussed stress is necessary for adaption to occur. Hans Selve has demonstrated with his General Adaption Syndrome (G.A.S.) Model that stress must be applied to the body for the disruption of the homeostasis of the body and for supercompensation and adaptation to take place. Therefore for an athlete to enhance the physical qualities required for athletic participation, unaccustomed levels of high stress must be applied to the athlete for this adaption to take place. Therefore, it may be stated for this adaptation to occur, regardless of the exercise performed, single leg or bi-lateral leg, applying unaccustomed yet appropriate high levels of stress (intensity) to the exercise performance will result in the exercise not being 100% safe for the athlete. Since unaccustomed high levels of exercise stress are necessary for adaptation (improvement) to occur, and these applied levels of stress place a risk to the athlete’s anatomy during the exercise performance, one may ask is there truly a safe exercise? All high intensity weighted exercises (applied stress) have a risk component, thus the only entity occurring with “safe” exercise performance is a wasting of training time as a truly safe exercise will not apply the necessary level of stress needed for supercompensation and adaptation.

Traditional bi-lateral leg work will apply stress to the low back i.e. back squat exercise, deadlift, RDL’s, etc., however single leg as well as the split leg posture exercise i.e. lunge, Bulgarian/RFESS, etc. place high levels of stress to the Sacroiliac (SI) joint which has been documented to be responsible for approximately one-third of all low back pain. Why is this SI joint statistic ignored during the same bi-lateral vs. single leg exercise discussion? The fact is that no exercise performed with an significantly applied load is 100% safe, as it is the talent and responsibility of the S&C Professional (the art of coaching) prescribing the exercises to be performed, as well as the appropriately prescribed exercise weight intensities and volumes (program design), that will assist to prevent injury.

squat

One other notion to assist in the prevention of weight training injuries taught to me by my friends and mentors, Hall of Fame S&C Coaches Al Vermeil, Al Miller, and Johnny Parker is the preparation of the athlete prior to the ensuing participation in performance training. This concept is not implemented as often as a coach, parent, or athlete may like as often times the athlete is brought into the weight room, and whether the athlete is physically ready or not, they are required to immediately execute the prescribed training program design. If the athlete is to squat during training, shouldn’t the low back be prepared prior to the initiation of the squat exercise performance? The same may be said of the anatomy of the SI joint prior to single and split leg exercise performance. Preparation of the anatomical area in question for the eventually application of high stress training will also assist to reduce the risk of weight room injury and the discarding of a valuable exercise.

What about exercise fatigue?

It is well documented how excessive fatigue negatively impacts joint biomechanics and muscle force output during athletic performance. If this were not true then why does a pitcher have a pitch count? Excessive fatigue will also have a negative effect upon weight room exercise technique, force output, as well as enhance the risk of injury.

My friend and former competitive Olympic style weightlifter, now a coach and researcher with a PhD in biomechanics Dr. Loren Chiu raised an interesting concern during a conversation that occurred between us years ago. Dr. Chiu pointed out that during single leg exercise performance, since each leg is exercised individually, twice the amount of repetitions per exercise set must be performed when compared to bi-lateral leg exercise performance. Therefore fatigue due to exercise performance may more readily occur following prolonged single leg exercise execution when compared to bi-lateral leg exercise execution. This is especially true with regard to the musculature of the body supporting the weight intensity as the time under tension is twice that when compared to bi-lateral lower extremity exercise performance i.e. a set of 10 repetitions in a bi-lateral lower extremity exercise becomes a set of 20 repetitions as each leg of a single leg exercise must perform 10 repetitions independently. This matter of exercise fatigue should be an important consideration during the program design of single leg and split stance exercise performance.

ReverseLunge

Closing Remarks

I am not against the implementation and utilization of single leg exercise performance during both the rehabilitation and performance training of athletes. I myself utilize this category of exercise performance, when appropriate, with both my patients and athletes. However, there are circumstances where bi-lateral leg exercises provide many superior benefits in both the rehabilitation and performance training setting when compared to the single leg exercise performance. To underestimate these benefits and to exclusively perform single leg or split leg in line posture lower extremity exercises would be a disservice to both your patient and athlete.

Threat and Performance: Central Governors

Threat and Performance: Central Governors
By Todd Hargrove

Imagine getting the keys to a Ferrari. You like speed, so you floor it to see what’s under the hood.

Ferrari

After a few seconds of acceleration, you notice your mom is in the passenger seat telling you to slow down.

You’re all grown up now, so you tell Mom to chill out, blast the radio, and continue your quest for speed. But for some reason the car won’t go past 65. Then you notice Mom has her foot on a brake that has ultimate control over the car’s velocity. Whenever she thinks you’re driving too fast, she uses the brake to slow you down.

At some point you realize the only way to go faster is not to hit the gas harder, but to convince Mom you can drive safely at high speed. How would you convince her?

Why your nervous system is like an overprotective mother

This ridiculous story provides insight into how the nervous system governs the physical limits of our strength, endurance, or flexibility. If it perceives that a particular movement is unsafe for some reason, it can “put the brakes” on that movement.

For example, if the movement involves dangerous levels of force, the nervous system can limit neural drive to the muscle. If the movement has an excessive range of motion, it can stiffen the muscles. If the movement has been going on for too long, it can create an overwhelming feeling of fatigue.

Like an overprotective mother, the nervous system doesn’t care very much about how many trophies you take home. It just wants you to pass your genes to the next generation. Its priority is survival not performance. And these priorities evolved in an environment where minor injuries had major implications for survival – a sprained ankle or torn hamstring could be the difference between life and death.

kid

So even if you are not consciously concerned about injury while deadlifting, sprinting, or running a marathon, unconscious parts of your brain are very concerned. They are always analyzing potential threats related to movement, and deciding whether to protect you from yourself, by making you weaker, stiffer, or fatigued. Therefore, if you want to truly max out on your physical potential, you need to convince the nervous system that maximal performance is safe.

At this point I hear you saying: “OK this little metaphor has some logic and intuitive appeal. But is there any science to support it?”

Central governors

In the case of endurance, researchers like Tim Noakes have been gathering significant evidence that the brain acts as a central governor on prolonged exercise performance.

Runners

According to this theory, the brain monitors the state of the body during exercise and analyzes physical dangers related to energy depletion. When the brain perceives threat, it produces the feeling of fatigue that makes continued work undesirable and eventually impossible. So we never really reach our true physical limits. Our brains take steps to shut things down before we get there.

Here are some common observations that are explained by the idea of a central governor on endurance:

  • During prolonged exercise, skeletal muscle is never fully recruited, and is limited to 35–50%.
  • Fatigue is affected by the expected duration of exercise
  • Athletes run harder in competition than in training
  • Athletes speed up at the end of exercise (the end spurt)

Further, athletes can be “tricked”into working harder in numerous ways, such as deceiving them about the time or distance they have exercised, cooling hands to fool the brain into thinking core temperature is less elevated, or using a carbohydrate mouth rinse to falsely signal the availability of new energy sources. To use the car analogy, this is kind of like showing Mom a fake speedometer with a lower speed.

Governors on flexibility

The concept of a governor also helps explain how we increase range of motion through flexibility training. Like prolonged exercise, moving your joints through a very large range of motion is potentially dangerous because it can cause muscle strains and joint injuries. So we should expect the nervous system to involuntarily stiffen muscles to prevent joints from reaching ranges of motion perceived to be dangerous.

Consistent with this idea, it appears that programs to increase flexibility work by increasing the nervous system’s “tolerance” to stretch, not by making the tissues physically longer. To use the car analogy, increasing range of motion is more about getting mom to take the foot off the brake then putting a bigger engine in the car.

stretch

Governors on strength 

Like flexibility and endurance, strength is to some extent governed by unconscious and involuntary processes.

Arnold

The “Governor of Strength”

Extreme muscle contractions create forces that are potentially dangerous.
We can appreciate their destructive power by considering the effects of severe electric shock, which causes involuntary maximum muscle contractions. These are so powerful they can dislocate joints, break bones, and throw the body across the room.

Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a professor of kinesiology and exercise science, estimates the average person can voluntarily utilize only about 65 percent of her potential muscle power. A trained power lifter might reach 80 percent. As kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline says, your muscles are already capable of lifting a car, they just don’t know it yet. That is a bit of an exaggeration of course, but it is true that most of us have significant untapped potential in our musculature.

Based on the logic of the central governor, one way to tap that potential is to reduce perceived threat associated with force production. This will give the nervous system the “green light” to use maximum force. There are several lines of research that support this view.

First, experimentally induced pain will weaken a muscle, while anesthetic injected into a painful joint will increase strength. Thus, it seems that pain has a “red light” effect on muscle force.

Second, interventions that create novel proprioceptive input, such as joint mobilizations, often lead to immediate increases in strength. Why? Mobilization could reduce nociception and pain through sensory gating. It could also temporarily increase awareness and coordination at the mobilized joint. A coordinated joint is necessarily a safer joint. Just as you wouldn’t move quickly in a basement with poor lighting, your brain doesn’t want to move joints quickly and powerfully without a good awareness of what is going on there.

Further, anecdotal evidence suggests that increasing stability and coordination with respect to a particular movement will also increase strength. Of course, one reason that stability improves strength is that it allows more accurate channeling of forces to their target. But another reason might be that it signals a safe context for maximum force production.

Have you ever noticed feeling less inhibited in your ability to create maximum force when you did something to increase stability and control, such as wearing a weight belt, using a machine as opposed to free weights, or simply improving your technique in the movement? If so, maybe you have found a way to signal to your nervous system that higher levels of force are safe.

This does not imply that strength (or endurance and flexibility) is “all in your head,” or that a ninety-nine pound weakling could perform great feats of strength with the right mindset. (Despite urban legends to the contrary, my research does not reveal any documented cases of grandmothers lifting cars off children in emergencies!

But it does suggest that reducing threat associated with forceful move- ments through safe and pain free repetition, developing control and stability, and eliminating pain associated with movement, are key ingredients in a strength training program.

Put another way, we can look at weakness as a protective mechanism of the nervous system, and we can reduce the use of that mechanism by reducing perception of threat.

Conclusion 

So how do you convince mom to let you drive the Ferrari faster? Several obvious strategies spring to mind. You show her that you are a safe driver by avoiding accidents (and close calls.) You keep the car in good condition. You establish a record of many safe trips at slow speed before progressively increasing your pace. You show her that you know the roads, and have skills in use of the brake and steering wheel. Maybe you even pretend there’s an emergency (pro tip: this doesn’t work every time.)

Similar strategies would apply in a program to achieve maximum strength, flexibility or endurance. You stay pain-free and healthy. You use a plan of graded exposure and progressive overload to manage training stress. You work on your technique to ensure your movements are controlled, stabilized, pain-free and related to a useful function. And you respect the role of the nervous system in being the ultimate governor on your performance.

__________________________________________________________

To learn more about the science of pain, movement and performance, and how the nervous system protects us by creating weakness, stiffness, fatigue, pain or changes in coordination patterns, check out my new book:

Guide-to-Better-Movement

A Guide to Better Movement: The Science and Practice of Moving with More Skill and Less Pain (not an affiliate link)

About the author

Todd Hargrove is a Rolfer, Feldenkrais Practioner and author. He writes a blog at bettermovement.org about practical science related to movement, pain, and performance. He recently published a book called A Guide to Better Movement.

 

What The Gambler Can Teach You About Strength Training

Kenny Rogers sang The Gambler in 1978. On the surface, the song appears to be about gambling, but there’s a much deeper meaning pertaining to life in general. The song is very appropriate for the field of strength & conditioning, and the lessons contained within take most lifters two decades to fully comprehend. Here’s the video:

And here’s the chorus:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

kenny_rogers Consider the training week. Say you lift four days per week. Typically, one of these days will rock, one will suck, and two will be mediocre.

Consider the training year. A few months will kick ass, a few months will suck, and half the year you’ll feel like you’re just plugging away. Strength and physique gains are never linear.

Do you have the fortitude to stick it out, or will you quit as soon as the going gets tough?

Some days, you’ll have something you want to accomplish in mind, but it just won’t be there. Will you be stubborn and grind away, allowing your form to turn to crap and risking injury? Or, will you be disciplined enough to walk away and live to train another week?

Other days, you’ll feel like superman. On these days, you might get a little carried away and do too much. The next day or day after, you might be wiped out. Will you stick to the exact recipe even though you’re drained? Or, will you modify your training accordingly and back off a bit to allow your body to recover?

There might be an exercise that consistently causes you pain or injury. Assuming you’ve taken the time to learn proper form and strengthen the appropriate supporting muscles, will you be stubborn and keep grinding away at this exercise, or will you find a suitable substitution and live to train another week? Here’s another line from the song: “Every gambler knows, that the secret to survivin’, is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.”

Your body is pretty good at sending you signals (biofeedback, if you will). Will you pay attention to them? Or, will you be stubborn and ignore them?

Is there a particular area of your body that is acting up on a regular basis? Have you identified the culprit? Many people assume that they need to perform special corrective exercises in order to rid their pain, but many times simply removing the offender will alleviate the discomfort.

Are you disciplined enough to walk away from an exercise for a brief period of time, even if it’s one of your favorite movements? Many times taking a step backwards will allow you to take two steps forward. Or, will you grind away and turn an acute situation into a chronic situation? front-squat Do you know what your personal “money” exercises are? I can guarantee you that they’re going to be slightly different than those of your colleagues, depending on individual goals, anatomy/anthropometry, injury history, and logistics.

Lifter A might choose the back squat, deadlift, hip thrust, bench press, military press, and bent over row. Lifter B might choose the front squat, trap bar deadlift, glute ham raise, farmer’s walk, weighted chin up, and weighted dip. Lifter C might choose the Bulgarian split squat, single leg RDL, sled push, heavy kettlebell swing, weighted push up, and inverted row. Lifter D might choose the hip thrust, goblet squat, weighted back extension, American deadlift, dumbbell incline press, and one arm row. Lifter E might choose the Cybex leg press, kneeling leg curl machine, glute blaster machine, Hammer Strength chest press, Hammer Strength row, and cable lateral raise.

Have you taken the time to master technique, experiment with different exercises, and tinker with different protocols so that you can understand how your body responds to different stimuli? Or, do you just follow someone else’s template or someone else’s orders without questioning it?

The quicker you can master the advice uttered by the lonely gambler, the better off you will be as a lifter. I can assure you that if you’re consistent over the long haul, if your training is generally pain-free, if you’re strict with your form, and if you pay close attention to your body, you’ll see markedly more progress than the lifter that doesn’t. band hip thrust

Should Strength and Conditioning Professionals Attempt to Incorporate “Everything” into Their Training Program Design?

Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York

In a recent conversation with my good friend Hall of Fame Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coach Johnny Parker, he commented on his recent visit to a D1 University where in discussions with this University Head S&C Coach regarding the review of the football team’s weight room program design, it was stated that approximately 80% of the program design placed emphasized toward athletic performance and approximately 20% placed emphasis on “prehab” and injury prevention. A breakdown of this football training program design revealed a 50%/50% split of the program exercise volume for both athletic performance and prehab/injury prevention and not the assumed 80% to 20% originally stated.

Coach Parker and I had previously spent time together at a D1 University to present on the topic of program design for the S&C staff at this institution with an emphasis on football program design. We also observed and made recommendations during the football team’s participation during their off-season training.

squat

During our first “classroom” session with the football S&C staff, they were asked to list in order of importance; the exercises they felt should best be incorporated in their football program design. The top 2 exercises listed were the squat and the Olympic lifts. A breakdown of this particular D1 football program design revealed that approximately 10% of the total program volume was dedicated to the squat exercise performance and approximately 12% was dedicated to the Olympic lifts. Just as in Coach Parkers recent visit, you could imagine the surprise of this D1 football S&C staff when the actual numbers presented were very far below the program design perceived squat exercise and Olympic lift volume of work. These examples of the misconception of the actual work performed occur more often than assumed. Why does this incident of perception vs. reality of program design exercise (athletic performance) volume occur? Before I proceed I would also like to mention that these two D1 programs have excellent Head S&C Coach’s and staffs. These S&C coaches have the respect of their players, football coaching staff, and university administration. They are very organized and run outstanding and successful programs, i.e. conference championships, bowl game appearances, etc.

Why does Perception vs. Reality in the Program Design occur? 

With all of the available training information presented at conferences, in books, articles, and videos, as well as the gazillions of internet articles and blogs, etc. available, the S&C Professional is faced with a significant dilemma, which exercises to include and which exercises to omit from the athlete’s training program design. What appears to transpire is that the S&C Professional attempts to include everything they can in their program design i.e. as many exercise’s as possible for athletic performance and prehab/injury prevention. This seems to occur because the S&C professional is faced with the concerns of (a) if I don’t include all of these exercises am I cheating my athletes from being the best that they can be and (b) If I don’t include everything in our training program design and my competition does, do my opponents now have an unfair advantage over our players?

This trend also occurs in the field of rehabilitation as I have witnessed less experienced physical therapist’s and athletic trainer’s who will appropriately add more advanced exercises as their patient’s/athlete’s condition progresses, yet do not remove the easier basic rehab exercises performed at the initiation of care. As this tendency continues over time the total volume of work performed by the patient/athlete may become excessive and may lead to the risk of overuse type pathologies.

With regard to the S&C program design, how does the S&C Professional determine which exercises to include and which ones to omit?

Establish a Training Philosophy

It is important for the S&C Professional to establish an athletic performance training philosophy. Once this philosophy is established, regardless of the type of philosophy, the S&C Professional should adhere to this philosophy to allow enough significant time for this philosophy to make its impact upon the athlete regardless of all the “outside noise” of additional exercises of which the coach may continue to be bombarded. Now does this infer that the S&C Professional should not continue to strive to progress and improve to achieve the best training program design as possible? Of course not as to do so would be certainly be foolish and limit the positive outcomes of the athlete during the training process. However, with that said the S&C Professional should not ignore the successes of the past.

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As an example when establishing the selection of the specific strength and power type exercises to incorporate into the athlete’s program design the S&C Professional should review the exercises that are performed by some of the strongest and most powerful athletes in the world. Arguably the most powerful athletes in the world are the Olympic Weightlifters and Track and Field Throwers. A review of these competitive athletes training programs would include exercises such as the squat, Olympic lifts, and overhead pressing and jerking type activities.

The next question that may be asked is why are these specific exercises utilized? The answer obvious answer would be because they work. These exercises have been utilized for athletic performance for over 100 years and are still being utilized by the best athletes in the world today. Why would this occur as there are so many other training exercises to choose from? Unlike some of the exercise fads that have come and gone through the decades, these exercises have passed the stringent test of time, over a century of time. When something passes the test of time it’s because it has value and obtains results.

Lessons from a legendary football coach: “Know what is important and don’t worry about the rest” and the “Birthday Rule”

Through the years of working many off-season training periods with Coach Parker and his football players during his tenure as the Head S&C Coach with the NFL New York Giants not only did I learn a tremendous amount from him but I also met and over time developed a friendship with NFL Hall of Fame Football Coach Bill Parcells. Coach Parcells is a very wise man and over the years he has also been instrumental in teaching me many lessons with regard to working with players and coaching. One of the many lessons I received during my conversations with Coach Parcells, as well as with Coach Parker was “Know what is important and don’t worry about the rest”. In regard to the performance training of athletes this would necessitate, based upon the training philosophy, the selection of the exercises that are most important for the athlete’s development and performance and don’t worry about the other exercises. The S&C Professional may ask “but what about all my prehab and injury prevention work?” I do get this question often and will address this topic a little later.

Coach Parcells also had an instituted a rule called the “Birthday Rule”. His birthday is August 22nd and this rule stated that no additional football play was ever to be placed into the NY Giant playbook after August 22nd. Why? Because the Giants were going to master and be proficient in the running the plays in that playbook by repeatedly working and practicing these selected plays that were important to them. Opposing teams were going to have to beat the Giants at their game. The NY Giants didn’t add fancy plays during the course of the season to beat teams; opponents were going to have to beat the NY Giants. If you ever watched one of Coach Parcells football teams play, there was not a lot of trickery or fancy plays. Parcells’s teams were physical with their opponent. They did what they did best time and time over the course of the game. Coach Parcells knew what was important and he didn’t worry about the rest. The S&C Professional should place emphasis upon the exercises that are most important for the development of their athlete’s physical qualities and performance, and train the athlete to become proficient when executing them.

The relationship between Science, the Program Design and the connection to Athletic Performance, Prehab, and Injury Prevention

Science and research will provide the S&C Professional with valuable information for athletic performance training as well as for the prehab/injury prevention of the athlete. Three of the various topics of my personal interest in exercise science and sports rehabilitation are the joint biomechanics and forces that occur during exercise performance, muscle activity during exercise performance, and the effect of muscle fatigue upon exercise performance. How does this information assist in the program design of the athlete? When incorporating exercises for athletic performance as well as prehab/injury prevention, the S&C Professional must acknowledge both the risks and benefits of each exercise selected as well as the relationship of the similar muscle activity that is present during the performance of these two exercise categories. This concept is often ignored during the process of the program design development. In the establishment of a sound program design wouldn’t the exercises performed during the training for athletic performance enhancement include many if not all of the same muscles/muscle groups and muscle activity that are incorporated during the application of prehab/injury prevention exercise performance? There certainly are situations where additional isolated prehab/injury prevention exercise prescription may be necessary, but this should be determined on a case by case basis.

As an example many prehab/injury prevention programs I have reviewed incorporate the performance of numerous rotator cuff and deltoid muscle exercises for the prevention of shoulder pathology in football players. This was also the case in both D1 program examples mentioned above. When considering the muscle activity during the performance of overhead weight type exercises the anterior and middle deltoid, rotator cuff and scapular musculature have been demonstrated to be very active. The addition of rowing/pulling type activities to the program design will likely include all the necessary components for optimal shoulder development and shoulder health. Depending upon the athlete, the sport and position played, as well as the athlete’s medical history, it may be necessary for the athlete to perform additional rotator cuff exercises as part of the prehab/injury prevention portion of the training program. That said does the athlete have to perform TEN different rotator cuff exercises? If exercises such as overhead pressing and pulling type activities demonstrate high deltoid muscle activity is an additional exercise prescription with the intension to both isolate and train the deltoid musculature of the shoulder also necessary to prescribe?

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By attempting to incorporate “everything” presented in discussions and lectures, read, and seen with regard to the training of athletes, the following is likely to occur:

  1. The volume (percentage) of work performed with the exercises considered the foundation and most important for athletic performance is likely diluted by the overprescribed volume of additional training exercises as well as the prehab/injury prevention exercise performance, thus the appropriate exercise volume for the foundation and advanced athletic performance exercise program design being performed by the athlete becomes a perception and not reality.
  1. The NCAA regulations allow the S&C Professional only 8 hours of performance training per week. Isn’t this important and limited training time better spent with the athlete on the more substantial facets of training vs. the overprescribed and excessive additional volume of exercises including the prehab/injury prevention type activities?
  1. Incorporating “everything” into the athlete’s training program increases the overall exercise volume. This increased exercise volume may produce excessive muscle fatigue, especially in smaller muscle groups such as the rotator cuff. Therefore while the S&C Professional may be of the perception they are preventing injuries with this high volume of assistance and/or prehab/injury prevention exercise prescription, the execution of these types of exercises in conjunction with the corresponding muscle activity that occurs during the athletic performance based exercise execution may actually be setting the athlete up for overuse type injuries.

Don’t forget the guys with the rings

Three of my very good friends are now retired Hall of Fame S&C Coach’s. Together they have 15 Professional Championship rings including 10 World Championships. These S&C Coaches are Al Miller, Johnny Parker, and Al Vermeil and all are leaders in the field of S&C. They are all very successful S&C Coaches and all have won Professional and/or World Championships during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Presently we are now in the year 2014 so one may ask why are the successes of long ago so important at this time. During the 1980’s and 1990’s these three S&C Coaches did not have the information that is available to the S&C Coaches of today. However these coaches where very successful with the information available to them at the time they were coaching. Although these three Hall of Fame professionals coached different professional teams, they all won championships (Al Vermeil is the only S&C Coach in history to win both a Superbowl and 6 NBA Championships) and their program designs were very similar. They all achieved their goal of getting their athlete’s strong and powerful and kept them strong and powerful throughout the competitive season. What about the “prehab/injury prevention” programming? Well although these coaches were very serious about injury prevention and protecting their players from injury, the term “prehab” likely didn’t exist at that time.

To win championships a team not only has to have players who have championship caliber talent, but these talented players must remain healthy to play day in and day out and survive the stresses of a long physical season, the playoffs, and championship games. These three coaches time and time again led their respected league with the lowest team injury rates and if they were not the best (led the league); their respective teams were always in the top 5 in this particular category. How did these S&C Coaches achieve this accomplishment if they didn’t focus on “prehab/injury prevention” type exercises? They achieved this landmark by developing athletes who were very strong and powerful as acquiring optimal strength and power also assists to prevent injury.

bosuI am not insinuating that injury prevention and the incorporation of “prehab” type exercises are not an important aspect of the training program design. I also am aware that some individual athletes may need more of this type of training than others. However the S&C Professional should remember that many exercises incorporated for the foundation of athletic performance also work the same muscles during the execution of “prehab” type activities. The S&C Professional should also remember that the successes of the past can assist to lead to the success of the future, and when developing the training program design, to remember what is important and to forget the rest. The S&C Professional should develop a training philosophy, and based upon this philosophy, select the best exercises that will optimize your athlete’s performance on the field and don’t worry about including “everything” else in the program design. There are certainly many instances where incorporating everything may lead to achieving nothing or as my good friend Derek Hansen and Charlie Francis would state, “You wind up creating a junk pile.”

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