Photo Credit: CrossFit Impulse, Alabama
The other day I was meandering around my local bookstore and came across a book called The Book of Awesome, in which the author uses each page (or two) to expound on various events, people, things, and everyday idiosyncrasies that he deems to be, well, awesome.
As I stood off to the side reading, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, and even chuckling out loud at quite a few of his choices – finally getting that tiny piece of popcorn out of your teeth, correctly guessing if the door is push or pull, waking up to the smell of bacon – when one nugget of awesome struck a chord with me. And that was the whole concept of "glue movies."
For those unfamiliar, a glue movie is a movie where, no matter how many times you've seen it, you still react like a giddy school girl at a Justin Bieber concert every time you stumble across it while flipping through the channels. No matter what you might have planned to do that day, you inevitably waste the rest of your afternoon watching it, much to the chagrin of your long-suffering wife or girlfriend.
For me, my glue movies are the standard Testosterone-inducing staples like Goodfellas, Predator, Saving Private Ryan, and Titanic. Uh, I mean Rocky 4.
It got me thinking, what about "glue" exercises? What exercises do I gravitate towards or default to when designing my own programs?
I let the thought marinate for half a second and came up with the following: deadlifts, chin-ups, reverse lunges, some form of loaded push-ups, some form of row, barbell hip thrusts, Pallof presses, and overhead dwarf tossing.
If you look at my list, it's not very exciting. It might even be considered lame to some, and stands in stark contrast to many of the cool or complex exercises you can find on YouTube.
However, complexity rarely trumps the basics when it comes to training, and one of the biggest fallacies is the notion that because you've been training for "x" amount of time (or have "x" number of posts on a training forum) that the basics no longer apply.
This train of thought is mind-numbingly retarded, and the day things like squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, push-ups and yes, dwarf tossing don't work, I'm going to call it quits and become a Hobbit.
Here's the rub: these same so-called "experienced" lifters that are on a never-ending quest to find new and exciting exercises are usually guilty of absolutely butchering the basic ones.
To illustrate my point, let's take a closer look at two of my personal favorites: seated rows and push-ups.
Maybe I'm a little biased because I'm a strength and performance coach, but nothing tells me that someone has put in their time in the gym more than a thick, muscular upper back.
Unfortunately, in my experience, most trainees butcher every rowing variation. One-arm dumbbell rows, chest supported rows, bent over rows, TRX rows, you name it, all too often there's some form of compensation pattern rearing its ugly head.
I picked seated rows for a few reasons. First, they're a glue exercise, and one of my favorites to prescribe for those looking to yolk up their back while improving shoulder health.
Second, walk into any gym and you're bound to see a seated row "station" of some form, and invariably, someone performing them with God-awful technique.
I usually see one of three things happening:
1 – Too Much Scapular Elevation/Glenohumeral Extension
Most people are already upper trap dominant and this pattern just feeds into the dysfunction. Worse still, because the upper traps will cause a bit more scapular anterior tilt as one pulls the weight toward the body, they'll inevitably go into excessive glenohumeral extension, which in turn leads to increased anterior instability of the shoulder joint itself. In short, this is not a good thing.
2 – Forward Head Posture (Extension)
These types usually have the mobility of a crowbar along with limited scapular retraction and glenohumeral extension, among other things. As a result, they'll poke their head forward to give off the illusion that they're attaining a full range of motion. Nice try, but you're not pulling the wool over my eyes, son.
3 – Too Much Lumbar Extension (Or, Just Using Way Too Much Weight)
These are the yahoos who try to be a hero and forget that this is supposed to be an upper back movement, insisting on using a ton of "body English" through the lumbar spine in order to move the weight.
Of course they could just take a little weight off, but that would be too easy, especially when looking like a douchebag suffering an epileptic seizure is such an attractive option.
To clean things up in all the scenarios above, I usually revert to the following coaching cues:
- Don't round the back. A little shoulder protraction is fine, but let's not get carried away.
- Chest out (or tall) throughout.
- "Set" the shoulders (think together and down).
- Pull through the elbows and try to squeeze the shoulder blades.
- Pull all the way to the sternum.
- Don't suck.
All in all, if you follow these cues, you're on the right track. Here's a video to help you along.
Something to Consider
A few months ago, we picked up on a repeating trend with some of our clients at Cressey Performance.
We started noticing a lot of extension-based back issues, particularly through the thoraco-lumbar (TL) junction. More specifically, we started to observe more of a gross extension dominant posture in many of our athletes and clients.
The chest up position, which we have been taught and have been preaching for the better part of the past decade, might have been an overreaction to the poor posture that many non-exercisers typically exhibit.
Much like what happened with the low fat craze in the 1990's, the anti-stretching phase from a few years ago, low intensity steady state cardio vs. HIIT, and the never-ending debate over Jessica Alba vs. Jessica Biel, things often get blown out of proportion and taken to the extreme.
In discussing this matter with my colleague Mark Bubeck, a trainer in Ridgefield, CT, these extension-based types of pain from being locked in that position can be seen in all types of people, especially those with an over-exaggerated lower crossed posture (i.e., excessive anterior pelvic tilt).
The issue is that we're starting to see this pattern in a lot of trained individuals too, and not just those who "pretend" to work out.
Those who've been training "correctly" for many years with what we thought were correct positions have seemingly developed the reverse posture of what we set out to correct in the first place!
Stating it succinctly, we know that the hunched over Neanderthal posture isn't good, but the reverse (promoting chest way up with a huge rib flare and the movement coming solely from the TL junction) isn't doing anyone any favors, either.
This, of course, isn't to say that we shouldn't still use the same cues as above – especially with those who do exhibit poor posture – but there's something to be said for not taking things to the extreme.
To that end, here are a few updated cues with regards to the seated row:
- You still don't need to be rounding your back. That's just dumb.
- You still want to think about keeping the chest up, but also think "ribs down," locking them onto the pelvis.
Confused? Check out this video to see what I mean:
In the end, this is just some food for thought. 90% of the time, for 90% of the people reading, the original recommendations stand.
Push-ups are like the Rodney Dangerfield of the fitness community, as they get no respect.
Often deemed a waste of time, or worse, "too easy," push-ups are usually an after thought, or at best a contingency plan for when travelling and the hotel gym consists of a stationery bike and a half-deflated Swiss ball.
Nevertheless, if I were to make a top five list of exercises that give you the most bang-for-your-training-buck, push-ups would rank high, which is why it's no coincidence that push-ups (and their many variations) are a staple at Cressey Performance.
I've seen plenty of guys walk into the facility with impressive bench press numbers, yet can't even perform ten clean push-ups.
Most of the time you see the following:
- Head juts down (chin reaches for the floor).
- Excessive lumbar curve/abdominals "sag" (they have a hard time resisting the pull of gravity) due to a weak anterior core.
- No scapular protraction (at the top).
- Excessive rounded upper body (rectus abdomimus picks up the slack for woefully weak external obliques).
- Limited range of motion (whatever that herky-jerky thing is where the elbows move a little bit isn't a push-up).
While I'm not going to break it down joint-by-joint or cue-by-cue, we're usually looking at weak core and hip stabilizers as the chief culprits.
For these individuals, I'm going to feed them a healthy dose of core stabilization exercises like Pallof presses, various chops and lifts (ensuring proper pelvic positioning), and maybe even some reverse crunches (to help strengthen the external obliques).
Furthermore, they're also going to receive a fair share of "corrective" exercises for the hips such as side lying clams and any number of single-leg movements to help improve control of the lumbo-pelvic area.
More importantly, and at the expense of sounding like Captain Obvious, it's also a good idea to work on general push-up technique.
- Keep chin tucked – don't poke it towards the ground.
- Abs should stay tight or braced (sometimes I'll gently tap the stomach to help the trainee engage their core).
- Squeeze the glutes (provides more posterior pelvic tilt and keeps people out of lumbar hyperextension).
- Hands/elbows should be directly underneath the shoulders.
- Likewise, hands should be around shoulder width apart.
- Knees should be locked and legs in a straight line.
- The entire backside should make a straight line. Here, placing a PVC pipe on one's back can help teach what a neutral spine should feel like. There should be three points of contact: the back of the head, in between the shoulder blades, and the sacrum.
- Elbows should not flare out during the set (it places far more stress on the shoulders), nor should they be glued to your sides (which causes too much "crowding" and will cause people to go into excessive scapular anterior tilt). Instead, the upper arms should make a 45-degree angle to the body.
- Chest touches floor on every rep, not just the first and the last.
That's Cool and All, But Why Should You Perform Push-Ups?
Compared to the bench press, push-ups are a closed chain exercise, which offers many advantages, particularly concerning scapular kinematics and overall shoulder health.
In short, when you're lying on your back performing a bench press, your shoulder blades aren't able to move. Conversely, with a push-up, the scapulae are able to move more freely, which pays huge dividends towards overall shoulder function.
It's not uncommon for someone to walk into our facility complaining of debilitating shoulder pain (in no small part due to the amount of benching they do), only to realize that they can perform push-ups pain free.
Additionally, push-ups offer a lot of variety. Whether I'm working with an elite athlete, a newbie, or with someone who has a bum shoulder, push-ups provide considerable leeway, and I can make them as easy (or challenging) as I want. Literally, the options are endless. Check out the videos below:
Lastly, and arguably most important of all, from an anterior-posterior perspective, push-ups are a fantastic way to train the core in a more functional manner, as you must learn to "engage" all the stabilizers in the lumbo-pelvic-hip area to achieve better pelvic alignment.
With this established, the prime movers now appear stronger because the stabilizers are doing their job and force is more easily transferred from the lower body to the upper body, and vice versa.
Not coincidentally, it's typical for trainees to see marked improvements in all their lifts once they master the push-up.
And That's It
My larger point – that I hope you picked up on – is that simplicity in training is a good thing and should be pursued, not avoided. What's more, while your particular glue exercises may be different from mine, at the end of the day, quality execution of the basics matters more than the latest gimmick exercise – no matter what Mr. 10,000 forum posts tells you.