I don’t care for zealots, especially of the health and fitness ilk. The type of person whose life was changed by discovering yoga or Pilates has never appealed to me.
I initially felt the same way about the kettlebell people. It was all about the kettlebells and kettlebells only, so naturally I turned away.
It took me at least five years to finally warm-up to incorporating kettlebells into my business, but in the case of yoga and Pilates I never did come around. Some might say that it’s my innate need to be right about absolutely everything. I don’t know, but I do live and learn, and try to admit when I’m wrong.
There are three big areas in which I’ve changed my opinion in recent years: getups, loaded carries, and deadlifts.
Five years ago I would’ve told you these exercises were either foolish (getups), irrelevant (loaded carries), or maybe even dangerous (deadlifts). My how things change.
There’s a Buddhist proverb that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I’m of the belief that the teacher is always there, it’s just at the point of readiness that the student is enlightened enough to notice the teacher. In my case, the teachers were Gray Cook, Stuart McGill, Dan John, and a 60 year-old client.
Get Up Stand Up
I’d heard Gray Cook praise getups for a few years and found myself wondering why such a smart guy had let himself become a kettlebell guy. I admit, I felt that he had sold out on me.
A short time later I experienced an epiphany of sorts, yet it wasn’t through Gray but through a sixty-year-old client.
My client had difficulty getting up from the floor. The process often looked painful and uncoordinated. Often I was tempted to help him up but resisted, as it seemed a necessary skill for him to learn for his own survival.
One day as we both stretched, my client struggled to get off the floor, sometimes getting onto all fours to get up, sometimes standing up from a deep squat. He never looked comfortable. I, on the other hand, seemed to bounce right up.
I started to explain to my client how I got up. I said, “Roll onto your elbow and then up to your hand. Then get up on one knee, then… “
It hit me. I was teaching him how to “getup,” and with that the Turkish getup (I always say “getups” as I’m not a fan of naming exercises after countries) went from a silly YouTube gimmick into a basic primal motor pattern. The getup was simply how we get up off the floor.
Nowadays, just about everyone we train works on getups just like they do squats.
The next teacher was Stuart McGill. Stuart is like Gray, wise and always ahead of the curve. When Stuart started to do studies on strongman training a few years ago I thought he was wasting his time. When he lectured on his findings, my initial thought was, “Who cares?”
However, something he said made me keep listening. As Stuart lectured he began to describe the huge core and hip loads in things like yoke walks and farmers carries. Instantly, I recalled another great coach, Dan John.
Dan always considered loaded carry variations like farmer’s walks and suitcase carries essential. I, unfortunately, saw them as silly finishers or grip work, two things that didn’t interest me in the slightest.
Suddenly Stuart’s words were hitting me like a ton of the bricks these guys carry. Loaded carries were not grip work or strongman events. In fact, when done well, they were probably the highest form of core training. Again, the teacher appeared when the student was ready.
Last and certainly not least was my deadlift epiphany. I’d thought my early years as a powerlifter would’ve turned me against deadlifts for life. To me, deadlifts were an ugly “any way you can get the weight up” lift that I never advocated for my athletes.
I was more of a squat guy. Squats required not only strength, but also an element of elegant technique not seen in powerlifting meet deadlifts, which were most often rounded-back demonstrations of poor technique and ammonia-infused stick-to-itiveness. What I didn’t realize was that as coach, I was responsible for deadlift technique, just as I was for technique in every other lift.
Two things cemented my newfound respect for the deadlift. The first was the use of the trap bar. The trap bar allowed deadlifts to be done in more of a squat style and eliminated the bloody shins that were frowned upon by athletes and regular types but seen as a badge of courage to the powerlifter.
The second was realizing that poor shoulder mobility in the squat was causing a great deal of our back pain.
(I must first confess, sometimes when these ideas pop up I can’t decide whether I’m smart or dumb – am I smart because I just had this thought or dumb because it took me so long?)
A member of my staff and I were talking about wall slides, a great exercise borrowed from physical therapy to develop the combination of shoulder mobility and scapular stability. Wall slides are one of my favorite upper body warm-up/correctives.
As the discussion progressed, my young trainer asked about the tendency of our athletes to have to arch their backs to get into a fully externally rotated position to perform the exercise. Strangely, up to that point I hadn’t really thought about the relationship between external rotation, shoulder flexion, and lumbar extension.
I suddenly realized that the compensation for poor shoulder mobility was lumbar extension. This brought shoulder mobility into a whole new light for me. Suddenly poor shoulder mobility became a major causative factor in back pain. How could I have missed this for so long?
If I try to overhead press and lack shoulder mobility, what do I do? I extend my lumbar spine. If I try to position the bar to back squat and lack shoulder mobility, I arch my back. If I try to get my elbows up in the clean or front squat and lack shoulder mobility, what do I do? Just like in the wall slide, I extend my lumbar spine.
Just as we’ve realized that the hip and spine are linked, so are the lumbar spine and the shoulder. Next time you have an athlete with low back pain, don’t just look at hip mobility, look at shoulder mobility and exercise selection.
I believe this might be why we have less low back pain when we dumbbell or kettlebell split squat or when we deadlift instead of squat. The elimination of forced external rotation in those who lack it may cause a significant decrease in back symptoms.
I’ve been working with athletes for a lot of years now, and I’ve got a pretty good grasp of what works and what’s just flash-in-the-pan marketing BS. But I’m also not above admitting when I’ve been flat-out wrong, so my advice is to always keep your ears open and your brain on – it’s amazing what you can learn when you listen and think.