Corrective work has exploded over the past decade. As with most things in life, we went way too far in one direction and now the pendulum is swinging back to the point that some are saying it's all "a waste of time."
Corrective work can be anything from hands-on work like chiropractor adjustments and massage to rolling on a lacrosse ball. Of course, it can also be basic stretches or simple gliding mobility moves. Doing mobility work is important for everyone. Now, telling me that your special brand of mobility work is going to cure cancer or disease (or regulate the ascending colon, as I was told) is a bit suspicious, if not downright idiotic.
So yes, I want to know how to better move my neck, but closing one eye and moving my neck isn't going to cure a necrotic hip, no matter how much you spent on that certification last weekend.
I always look for the connections in successful sport programs to see what the best and brightest are doing and simply imitate them, and the same goes with corrective work. The problem is with "enough is enough."
The key to correction is for the coach to have a toolkit of regressive movements that allow one to deload and destress so that they can perform the fundamental movements comfortably and pain free. Pavel Tsatsouline maintains that safety is simply part of performance. Putting a weight correctly back on the ground is going to do more for your back health than all the correctives I can teach you after you haphazardly lower the load. Performance in the weight room should be like gymnastics – you should be striving for perfection the moment you enter the room.
When it comes to correctives and corrective work, we must first make sure we're dealing with the basics of risk. After that, we have to get a bit smarter. As I always tell people, "Sure, you can do this and that, but what about the rest of us with these things called 'lives'?" So before you spend two hours a day with your magic wand, get back to the basics, which, in my weight room, approaches strength training from a list of basic human movements:
- Loaded Carry
- The Sixth Movement (basically everything else)
The first step to addressing any corrective work is to find your gaps. If you looked at the list and argued instantly for Vertical Push versus Horizontal Push and Vertical Pull versus Horizontal Pull but you've never done a deadlift, swing, squat, or farmer's walk, well, there's your first gap.
I look at it three ways. First, are you doing each of the basic human movements at least weekly? I argue you should do each of them daily – just the movement for a few reps with a light load. A daily light set of goblet squats will do wonders for your hip mobility and overall squat pattern.
Second, how many total reps are you doing for each movement? For pushes, pulls, and squats, I like to see the weekly and monthly numbers to be almost equal. So if you do 75 presses, do 75 squats.
For many, it would be wise to increase the number of pulls to undo the damage of years of being too "pushy." Similarly, I argue that you should keep a running list of your exercise variations. If you do dozens of different presses but only one kind of pull, that might slowly become an issue, too.
Third, do you have some level of balance between your basic human movements? I've come up with lots of small standards. For instance, your power clean, front squat, and bench press should all be about the same. This works well for throwers, but not so well for many others. I don't want to beat on it too much, but a balanced level of strength across all movements tends to keep the athlete healthier.
So the movement approach is the first step to correctives – do all the basic human movements and then balance your total reps and total load as well as you can.
From there we can take a global look at correctives by looking at the muscles. For that, we have to look at life and living. If there are indeed some rules, here they are:
- Most adults need to strengthen the phasics and stretch the tonics.
- Next, deal with a lifetime of asymmetry issues.
- Finally, deal with too much sitting and not moving.
The phasic muscles – the glutes, deltoids, triceps, and abs – are also the muscles that tend to respond best to strength training. Theodor Heittinger made this clear in The Physiology of Strength (written in the early 1950s) as these muscles – the glutes – respond quickest to strength training.
The tonic muscles – chest, biceps, psoas, etc. – are often overtrained in many settings. Bench press, curl, and lat pulldown workouts tend of tighten the muscles that need to be stretched back into place. The modern gym with its myriad of seated machines lock that poor, tight hip flexor and hamstring muscle into the same place it's been all day while sitting, driving, typing, and in general, not moving.
Dr. Vladimir Janda came up with these two classifications based on those that tend to shorten when tired (tonic) and those that tend to weaken under stress or age (phasic). A simple chart:
|Muscles That Get Tighter (Tonic)||Muscles That Get Weaker (Phasic)|
|Pectoralis Major (Chest)||Mid-back|
|Pectoralis Minor (deep chest muscle)||Gluteus Maximus|
|Psoas (The hip flexors that get bad press)||Deep Abs|
Athletes make a Faustian deal when entering into the world of sport as it's a rare sport that doesn't end up causing massive asymmetries. Elite sport demands world class strength at the cost of ignoring other weaknesses and issues.
Over time, performance improves because of this focus, but it leads to long term issues. Randy Matson, former world record holder in the shot put, was once asked if he still threw at all. He answered, "I can barely pick up my brief case with my right hand." That's the deal with the devil elite athletes need to make to get to the top.
As such, we need to address the weakening and tightening of nature plus the effects of life, sports, and everything else when we address corrective work. So corrective work should be seamless with the entire program. I strongly discourage trainers and coaches from having a mobility section of training, a flexibility part, and a corrective part.
If because of injury, trauma, or life, you can't do the big movements (bench press, deadlift, squat, and Olympic lifts), you should step back and do even more basic moves. I call these "regressions" and regressions are the best correctives.
Recently I had a group of elite Navy personnel doing pelvic tilts/hip thrusts for sets of 25. The next day, the head of the group told me, "From now on, I'm doing these – alone, mind you, but I'm doing these."
Hip thrusts are your one-stop shop for stretching your hip flexors, building the butt, and giving you an insight about how you cheat on butt work in general (a condition characterized by Janda as "gluteal amnesia"). You need to get on the ground and squeeze those cheeks together.
Under load, you certainly may call these "hip thrusts" and I'm very interested in the work of Bret Contreras and Nick Horton in showing people the value of this movement not only for show, but for go. Nick's Olympic lifters are using the hip thrust as a basic training move and making great progress.
This movement is what I call a regression and please don't discount any of them. Use every one you can in general warm-ups or, as I prefer, during rest periods on other movements. It will keep the heart rate up and make sure things go well for you.
Of the five fundamental human movements (push, pull, hinge, squat, and loaded carries), the one that typically needs the most regressions is the squat.
My regressions for the squat are as follows:
- Six-Point Rocking. The six-point position is on your hands, knees, and feet. From there, simply squat your butt to your heels. There you go. Widen your knees out as you wish, but this is the basic move. If you can do this and still can't squat, load is your issue. You need to learn to squat between the legs, which leads to the next regression.
- Doorknob Drill. Stand arms length from a doorknob (or partner). Grab the handle with both hands and puff your chest "up" – imagine being on a California beach when a swimsuit model walks by – which tightens the lower back and locks the whole upper body. The lats will naturally spread a bit and the shoulders will come back a little. Continue with the arms in the "hammer throwing" position (hands grabbing the doorknob), the Muscle Beach chest, and lean back away from the door.
- Goblet Squat. I came up with this while trying to teach large groups of adolescents to squat. With a weight cradled against your chest, squat down with the goal of having your elbows – which are pointed downward because you're cradling the 'bell – slide past the inside of your knees. It's okay to have the elbows push the knees out as you descend. Allow the elbows to glide down by touching the inner knees and good things will happen.
Goblet squats are all the squatting many people need. What people discover at this moment is a basic physiological fact – the legs are not stuck like stilts under the torso, rather, the torso is slung between the legs. As you go down, leaning back with arms straight, you'll discover one of the true keys of lifting: you squat "between your legs."
You don't fold and unfold like an accordion; you sink between your legs. Developing the ability to squat snatch or squat clean hinges on this point. Foot stance, handgrip, and most questions aren't as relevant as the key point of sitting between your legs.
To determine stance, I often just have someone jump two or three times. Note where they land on jumps two and three. Have them look at their heel to toe alignment. That's the stance. A touch wider or a touch narrower, it takes a few tries, but it's fairly natural.
If someone can six-point rock and do the doorknob drill, the goblet squat is usually just a few reps away.
So, to summarize the goblet squat:
- Sit "between your legs"
- Minimize shin movement
- Keep a big chest and big arch in your back
Done correctly, squats may be the only exercise you need to do for success in sports.
- Down on hands and knees
- Crush grapes in the armpits
- Grip the ground (don't let the pads of the fingertips come off the ground)
- Gently "rock" or squat "up and down"
- Butt back and knees out
- Shins stay vertical
- Drive though the heels and straight up (pretend there's a glass of wine on your head)
- Drop down and aim the elbows for the insides of the knees
- Push the knees out with the elbows
- Get a big chest
- Drive through the heels and come straight up (do not let the hips shoot up first)
You can add corrective work between sets of any exercise. My rest periods are now almost entirely devoted to stretching the tonic muscles or working on some skill. The basic regressions you can apply today are:
- For the Push: Planks
- For the Pull: TRX or suspension work (especially one-arm rows)
- For the Hinge: Pelvic tilts/hip thrusts
- For the Squat: Squat regressions listed above
- For Loaded Carries: The farmer's walk teaches the key concepts of lifting (tall posture, shoulders packed, pelvis in line, solid grip)
I'm a huge fan of progressive resistance, but we must also keep our eye on the quality of movement. I work corrective movement, all of it from foam rolling to regressions, into my basic training program.
An area of training that most ignore is the old concept of tonic workouts. These are training days where you go into the gym and move a lot but don't stress anything. It's simple – you go to the gym and do a workout with your normal moves but with fairly light weights. If you're experienced, 40% is a fun number to train with here.
Now, for me, I suggest doing these at home so you can just get the movements in and feel good. On this day, increase the amount of stretching, foam rolling, and other tissue work that you do. I often suggest increasing this to two days a week, especially if you're doing a high-volume squat routine. Those who squat heavy a lot understand the odd kind of soreness that it brings.
If I had an empty schedule and unlimited time to train, I would love to throw every corrective exercise and soft tissue modality at my old body and see how supple I could get. The fact is, no one has that kind of time (or patience), nor is it even necessary. Take it from me: regressions are the best corrections.