Cool Diagnostic Tests
Just about every arrogant bastard I see at the gym is in a woeful state of ignorance or just plain denial. Even the rare physical specimen whose training loads match their ego is often so chock full of imbalances and glaring weaknesses it's a wonder they don't fall over while texting between sets.
While much has been made about achieving and maintaining muscular balance, what really calls the shots is your structural balance.
Structural balance isn't a new concept, having been first introduced to T NATION readers nearly a decade ago by strength coach guru Charles Poliquin. The problem is, it's just not a sexy topic, not even for my fellow kinesiology nerds who fist-pump the computer at the sight of a new article by Eric Cressey or Mike Robertson.
But sexy or not, achieving structural balance can be the difference between a jacked physique on the cusp of injury, and a jacked physique that's also healthy, strong, and kicks more ass than a Steven Seagal marathon.
If you think this stuff is boring, difficult to assess, or just not worth your time and effort in the gym, you might want to reassess your way of thinking.
Issue 1 – Achieving Full Squat Depth – A Look at Your Construction
Some people squat to parallel, but just can't get down any further. Even if they religiously work on their hip mobility, VMO activation, and posterior chain flexibility, something still seems to block them from getting that extra range of motion that's so vital.
The fix for this can be as simple as foot position. Many 'rules' of squatting state that the lifter should place his or her feet just outside shoulder-width apart, with toes turned slightly out. The truth is, not everyone's bone construction supports this.
The hip joint is a ball and socket joint. The acetabulum (the "socket" located on the pelvis) where the femur links in is not in the exact same place on every lifter. Knowing this can tremendously affect the depth achieved in your squat.
If your acetabula are located more on the anterior, or front side of the pelvis, a narrower squat width would allow a greater ROM, as the femoral head will be properly placed in the socket and not blocked by being forced into an angled position by way of too wide of a stance.
Adversely, if your acetabula happen to be more towards the lateral sides of the pelvis, then a wider stance with toes pointing outwards will probably be best as far as achieving your full depth is concerned. Having your proper stance should be step 1, then comes working on your relative flexibility and other muscle-related performance.
Here's the easiest way to figure out what foot width will work best for you in promoting the deepest squat you can get.
- After you finish stretching, find a mirror and get on your elbows and knees with the knees far apart.
- Keep a flat back and make sure your head and shoulders are closer to the floor than your hips are.
- Then, by slowly rocking backwards, push your butt towards your heels and take note of where your spine starts to curve.
- Repeat this test with a narrow knee and foot width and with a mid width. Keep playing around with different widths.
You'll notice that you'll be able to keep a flat back for longer in a certain position versus others. Take this as an indicator of what your foot position should be when you squat.
Note: I've noticed that with many taller, long legged lifters, a slightly wider stance works best, whereas shorter-legged lifters benefit from a slightly narrower stance. (See figure below.)
Issue 2 – The Pelvic Tilt
If you've ever noticed after leg day that you're more sore in certain places on one leg than the other, or that you can't seem to get both glutes to "feel it" during the workout, chances are you have a pelvic tilt or rotation. Most commonly seen is some kind of pelvic tilt, where basically one side is "higher" than the other, making the leg on that side feel "shorter."
A pelvic tilt can affect the lumbar vertebrae as a compensatory scoliosis can take place to balance out the rest of the body, including even the eyes and ears (for spatial awareness). This scoliosis results in added compression on the lumbar vertebrae, which inhibits the strength of the electrical signals the nerves can send from the spinal cord to muscles of the lower extremities.
Take a few seconds to see if your hip flexors are in proper working order. If there's a pelvic tilt, there will often be an imbalance in the activation of this group.
To activate the psoas, find a box or step that you can plant your foot on. It should be high enough to make your hip flex to 90 degrees.
- Without twisting or changing your body's upright position, pull your knee up toward your chest using your hip flexors and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. (It's not as simple as it looks.)
- Keep your foot tucked in under your knee and don't let it kick forward. Remember, we're trying to activate a couple of small muscles; this calls for a lot of focus, so focus on just the hips pulling the knee up.
- If you have to contort the body on one side, or one side is just noticeably weaker than the other and can't maintain the 10-second hold, the proof is in the pudding. (See figure below.)
In Eric Cressey's book Assess and Correct, he makes it clear that pelvic tilts also suggest external rotation deficiencies and tightness of the inner thigh musculature. Fittingly, these need to be addressed by way of proper mobilizing exercises.
- Walking Spidermans. This exercise combines a dynamic stretch to the hip flexors with one for the adductors group. (See video below.)
- Cradle Walks. This exercise adds a dynamic stretch for the external rotators. Remember to hold the foot and ankle for proper support. (See video below.)
Lastly, during weighted split stance work, the muscles have less of a chance to compensate for one another, even more so when the load is unilateral (or even offset). Farmer's walks, step-ups, and rear leg elevated split squats with an offset load (heavier on the high-hip-side) are great choices.
Upper body training can either help or hurt imbalances. Proper care must be taken to avoid poor positions, and it goes beyond posture.
Issue 1 - Thoracic Curvature
Reach down with nearly straight legs and try to touch your toes. Don't worry about keeping your back too flat like you do in a stiff dead.
Take a look in a mirror beside you. Does your mid back curve like a camel's hump? Also, take note of how much curvature exists when simply standing straight. A big kyphotic curvature in the thoracic area is often seen but is just as often neglected. Even with people who train and have decent overall development, this issue can stymie their progress.
There are a couple of reasons why this happens. First, the upper back musculature needs some strengthening. Second, the deeper tissue on the front side of the body may be tight and lack the flexibility needed to keep the spine from deforming to compensate.
There's more to it than just working on keeping a flat lower back. If you transfer this issue into your heavy exercises that demand the most spinal stability (like deadlifts and front squats), this deficiency of thoracic extension comes to the forefront big time. It can lead to serious issues like rhomboid strains, even disc herniation. Not fun.
Any takers on how to get rid of the turtleback?
First, let's focus on the tissue quality of the posterior muscles.
- Foam Roller Extensions
Take the time to foam roll the spinal erectors and lats. Focus on 5 passes in each direction. Then, with the foam roller resting just above the lumbar region (mid back) cross the hands over the shoulders and gently work to extend the thoracic region to move the shoulders towards the floor (see figure below).
The next thing to do would be to make sure the abs, intercostals, and pec minor aren't inhibiting the back's ability to not round your back.
- PNF Intercostal Stretch
Kneel on your knees facing any bench. Interlace your fingers with your hands behind your head, and point your elbows forward. Lean forward at the waist, and planting your elbows on the bench, apply downward pressure for 5 seconds. Really try to squeeze your abs and pull down with your elbows towards the floor. Breathe in, and relax.
Sinking your chest downward and inching backwards with the knees will offer slightly more range of motion. Repeat this 3 times, increasing the range of motion each time. This comes in quite handy between your sets of front squats or deadlifts. (See figure below)
- Trap-3 Raises
The traps are divided into three sections, Traps 1, 2 and 3. Trap 3 is lowest of the three and the least targeted through basic exercises. Subsequently, as far as performance goes, they often fall as far behind as the token white guy in the 100-meter finals. Remember to keep your upper body close to horizontal to ensure the deltoid doesn't take over the lift. (See video below.)
Issue 2 – What Makes a Healthy Shoulder?
Many coaches, me included, have written a billion and one pointers on training for the stability of the shoulder capsule. The normal trend is to focus on exercises that work on the strength and retraction of the scapulae, where the rotator cuff muscles originate. We also suggest other isolation exercises and modified exercises for the deltoids to increase subacromial space and add freedom of mobility.
What's forgotten here is activation of the long head of the triceps. Along with beefing up the upper arms, the long triceps head also serves to stabilize the shoulder from the rear side.
If you've noticed that during overhead movements like skull crushers and French presses your arms are shaking like a leaf, or that your shoulders always bug you during incline bench pressing, it's a safe bet that the long head of your triceps needs work.
Remember that the farther away your elbow moves from your torso, the greater the role of the long head, so a couple key exercises to bring up these bad boys would be:
- Overhead Triceps Extensions
- Decline triceps skullcrushers
Issue 3 – Straight Up, Dude, You're Training your Core the Wrong Way!
Core malfunction is never something that just "happens." It comes as a product of either not training it at all, or training it incorrectly.
The core is responsible for many different movements, including trunk anterior and lateral flexion. It also produces rotation. Having said that, keep in mind that rather than training the core to create movement, it's more important that we train it to resist movement.
As Mike Robertson noted in "21st Century Core Training", the core is foremost a stability unit for the spine. Furthermore, spending too much time doing twisting ab exercises like side med-ball throws, twisting sit-ups, or woodchoppers may start training the lower back to dysfunction.
Collectively, all the lumbar vertebrae are responsible for only about 10 to 15 degrees of rotation. Are twisting flexions really worth the risk? Doubtful.
Recent studies have suggested that holding planks alone (or other core isometrics) aren't the greatest choice for making the abs stronger. Since there's no shortening or lengthening of the tissue, the muscles are simply being deprived of oxygen, so if you think you're still doing good for your abs of steel with your half-hour plank, you might as well stick with your BOSU one-legged deadlifts.
Here are a couple of other options to enforce the correct movement chains in the abdominals and low back.
- Side plank row – Make sure you keep the body completely straight, and don't allow the body to move at all during the lift! (See figure below.)
- Palof press. (See figure below.)
- Crossover plank. (See Video below.)
That's a Wrap
In training, it's all about the little things, and getting that "next level" body means you have to take a step back, check your ego, and have an objective look at yourself. Everyone's different, and even if your exercise selections seem correct, they could be ass backwards when you consider your individual construction.
Considering one wrong move in the weight room could sideline you from days to months, it's time to make preventive care the order of the day. You'll be glad you did.
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Lee Boyce is a sought-after strength coach based in Toronto, ON. His work for strength training, size training, and athletic conditioning has been featured in many major publications including Stack, Men's Fitness, and Men's Health. When he's not writing, he keeps busy doing media segments, giving lectures, and working with private clients for strength and performance. Lee was a varsity National level sprinter and long jumper while studying kinesiology in university. You can visit his website www.leeboycetraining.com to contact him and to view more of his work. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @coachleeboyce and Facebook.