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Stop Complicating Mobility Work

Stop Complicating Mobility

Read Time: [5 minutes]

It’s been interesting to see how Crossfit has affected the consumption of goods and services across the entire landscape of fitness.

I was talking to a good friend of mine who has been a personal trainer for over 20 years. He was there well before Crossfit became a fitness phenomenon and he’s been able to see how the landscape changed because of it. He was telling me that  rowing machines used to just collect dust and chalk used to cost pennies on the pound.

One of the more interesting trends is the rise in demand for better ways to take care of yourself. People are actively looking up videos about mobility, stretching, and exercise to help make their bodies feel and function better.

If you were to talk to people in the world of therapy, corrective exercise, or sports medicine, they would tell you that getting anyone to do home care was like pulling teeth. People wanted quick fixes and for the doctor or therapist to do all of the work for them. Even getting professional athletes; people who get paid to keep their bodies in shape; to do home care was a chore.

The rise of guys like Kelly Starrett (MobilityWoD), Ryan DeBell (The Movement Fix), Zach Long (The Barbell Physio), Tim Simansky (The WoD Doc), and Scott Mills (The Full Body Fix) have seemingly done the impossible. They’ve made self-care a lot sexier.

But Then It Got So Complex

Chiropractors and physiotherapists all over the world saw how well these pioneers executed their programs and started blogging and making videos showing their tips and tricks for mobility.

But does anyone get the feeling that a lot of the tips and tricks are turning into a competition to see who can make their drills look more complex or complicated than the last guy?

It also feels like there’s a bunch of tools and objects being sold that are redundant, but look crazy enough to be worth buying. For example:

Supernova vs Lacrosse Ball

 

Anyone need to up their stability exercise game?

 

For most people, the best mobility is time spent in the desired position

I was working with a guy that just started Crossfit. He came from a traditional body building background so he was in phenomenal shape, but he really liked the Crossfit style workouts and wanted to be great at it. However, he was having a lot of issues with his squat.

If you know anything about Crossfit, you know that the squat and all of it’s variations are fundamental to success. It had never really been part of his regiment, so his mobility was lacking and was complicated by his sheer bulk and strength.

His heels would come off the ground, lower back would round, and knees dived inward in a squat with no weight.

His coaches gave him a variety of advice like:

  • Mash your ankles with the lacrosse ball
  • Mash your quads with a foam roller
  • Tie a band to the rig and floss your hips
  • Do this yoga pose

He did all of these things for several weeks, but he just wasn’t getting anywhere from an improvement stand point. This isn’t anything against the knowledge of his coaches, because they weren’t wrong, they were absolutely right to make the recommendations they made.

The problem was that those recommendations wasn’t the primary issue. His biggest issue was that his body spent very little time in a full squat position. Sometimes the mobility answer is just that simple. Spend time in the desired position.

So what’d we do?

His goal was to get to the bottom of his squat. So we got him to spend time in the bottom of the squat for minutes at a time.

I had him perform this drill against a wall every day for a total of 5 minutes.

Static Wall Squat Drill

Static Wall Squat Drill

Within 2 weeks, he could squat with his heels on the ground. In another 2 weeks he could keep his chest up 50% more.

Once he could squat with good technique, then we had him perform the drill off the wall in neutral, and on the wall with his hands over head so he could prepare for the overhead squat.

Overhead Wall Squat

 

It isn’t mindblowing or sexy, but sometimes the answers just have to be….

Simple.

Sometimes mobility means training the muscles and your nervous system to just spend time in the desired position.

We just have to make sure that we keep the person’s goal in mind for a mobility recommendation.

Start Easy, Master Skill, Increase Load, Increase Difficulty

This isn’t to say that different tools and complex movement patterns aren’t important. They are! The better your body is able to handle and tolerate simple tasks, then complexity of movement is what allows for further growth and improvement.

But sometimes we have to take a step back and look at where we currently are, and ask ourselves if we are ready for a more complex movement.

As an example, I like to use the average person doing an overhead squat. If your overhead squat causes you to bend your elbows, lean off your heels, and collapse your lumbar curve then you have some glaring mobility issues in the overhead position.

If you cannot do a basic overhead squat, do you think it is going to benefit you to do more complicated drills like a snatch or a Sots press? Probably not. You need to get your Overhead Squat position right first.

Here is the basic formula:

  1. Perform the easiest variation of a movement.
  2. Mobilize and practice movement in desired range of motion
  3. Master complete movement with full range of motion
  4. Increase weight
  5. Increase difficulty and complexity

So if you want to do the same with the squat:

  1. Being with partial squat using a ball or bench.
  2. Use mobility techniques and practice being in the desired range of motion
  3. Master a full depth squat without assistance
  4. Slowly increase to using a barbell and increasing weight
  5. Progress to pause squats, overhead squats, pistol squats, etc

Going from steps 1 through 5 can take weeks and weeks of practice. In some cases, it may take several weeks just to perform a basic movement to mastery. But you will get their a lot better, safer, and faster when you tackle this with a plan as opposed to throwing together random mobility strategies from a Youtube video in a haphazard way.

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The #1 Lifting Error Seen in Every Crossfit/Lifting Gym

#1 Lifting Error

Reading time:  [10-12 minutes]

Outline:

  • The counter intuitive movement that is causing most back injuries
  • Set up and clean up are where the most glaring lifting faults happen
  • Can light weight with broken form cause injury?
  • How we lift heavy things is how we should lift everything

Despite my general dislike for the lift in the title graphic, this post isn’t going to attack the sumo deadlift high pull. In fact, it’s not going to address the deadlift, snatch, clean, squat, or any of primary movements in Crossfit.

I am a firm believer that almost every exercise has an appropriate time and place when it is performed well and programmed appropriately. Despite the bad rap that Crossfit has gotten for poor instruction, most Crossfit coaches and long time Crossfit enthusiasts actually understand the general mechanics and teaching of the primary movements.

My beef in this post has to do with what happens BEFORE and AFTER workouts.

Set-Up and Clean-Up: Where Good Form Becomes Trash

So let’s talk about what happens for the average Crossfitter when they’re about to perform a heavy lift off the ground. Imagine the times in your life where you are lifting something for 90%+ of your 1-rep max:

  • You approach the weight straight-on to optimize the direction of force.
  • You hinge from the hips to grab the weight.
  • You create a straight lumbar and thoracic spine making sure you reduce your back curvatures as much as possible.
  • You breathe in and brace your abdominals.
  • You lift and generate a powerful upward force through your hips

Whether you nailed the lift or missed it, you complete the attempt satisfied that you at least had decent form and that you’ll be back to lift another day.

Time for clean-up:

  • You reach down to the bar lumbar and thoracic spine fully curved
  • You pick up the bar slightly with at an odd angle with no abdominal brace whatsoever
  • You pull the 45 lb plate off the bar with a relaxed hunch back and load all of the lumbar soft tissue
  • You reach down and grab the 45 lb plate flat off the ground again with a curved back, lifting almost entirely from the lumbar spine.
  • Repeat until all of your weight is gone

“Dr. Chung, those weights are light. They can’t hurt me.”

For the coaches and experienced lifters who are reading this: you know you would never let someone get away with a slouched posture when you are teaching them to deadlift. It doesn’t matter what fitness level that person is in, you know that lifting with a rounded spine is mechanically flawed, so you will always give them cues to change their pattern, even if it was an unloaded barbell.

 

Thanks to Coach Rachel Locker from Crossfit Liger for the demo

Thanks to Coach Rachel Locker from Crossfit Liger for the demo

 

There’s an interesting thing that happens to a trained lifter as you add more weight to a barbell. Instinctively, you know that if you don’t brace your abdomen and bring your spine close to neutral, you will be unable to get the weight off the ground. Plus, you know your back will become more exposed to danger.

There are couple of things that happen when you lift with an unbraced spine:

1. You exponentially increase the amount of shear force going into the lumbar spine.

Shear is when you have part of your back moving one way, and another part moving in the opposite direction. In of itself it’s not bad, but when you add compression by picking up a weight or applying load, it’s like rubbing sand paper against each other….except the sand paper will be your discs and ligaments.

Just as an example, the deadlift on the image on the above left may place about 2000 N of shear force into the lifter’s back, while a braced spine can reduce that force down to 200 N. When you keep your back close to neutral, you activate your extensor muscles which help to reduce that shearing force to the disc and ligaments. Rule of thumb: muscles like to be loaded, but ligaments and discs are sort of like a “break in case of emergency” system, you want to load them lightly, and not terribly often.

2. Repeated rounding of the back (flexion) peels away layers of your spinal discs.

This is why sit ups are generally an exercise that is associated with back pain because the repeated flexion has the ability to peel away layers from the discs like an onion. This creates a weakening of the disc tissue which can increase the liklihood of herniation.

The muscles of your trunk are designed to prevent the veretebrae from moving too much. The muscles of the trunk are best utilized to create stiffness and to resist bending under load. Approaching weights with a braced, neutral spine is the body’s defense to load. Doing static trunk holds like a plank instead of repeated bending motions (sit ups, toes to bar) can save these layers in your discs.

When you are lifting heavy objects, you are doing it for less repetitions, and your’e also more likely to lift with a braced spine. When are lifting light objects, or just going through the motions of clean up, you are lifting for a higher number of reps with a spine that’s less likely to be protected.

In a way, you may be placing MORE shear forces into your spine lifting a 45 lb plate off the ground unprotected, than lifting a 135 lb bar off the ground with a braced spine. You’re also picking up that 45 lb plate off the ground with broken mechanics day after day.

Biomechanically picking up the plate off the ground like this is similar to picking up the barbell with a flexed spine.

Biomechanically picking up the plate off the ground like this is similar to picking up the barbell with a flexed spine.

Remember that it’s USUALLY the slow and gradual wear and tear that ends up hurting people. You may not hurt yourself while cleaning up equipment, but you are creating an environment that can make a back injury increasingly likely.

I have patients that tell me all the time:

“I went down to pick up a pillow, and then my back just seized on me”

It’s really unlikely that the pillow itself caused the back to go out. The truth is that the discs and tissues of the back were degenerating for a long time before that incident.

How you lift anything is how you lift everything

Whether you have a current episode of back pain, never had pain before, have a history of pain, lifting something light, or lifting something heavy, the process of picking something off the ground should be the same.

After working with thousands of patients and numerous organizations, I’ve seen that you can dramatically improve the life of a patient with back pain by simply teaching them how to move differently.

One of the concepts that I teach is to approach ANY type of lifting with that of a weight lifter. Why like a weight lifter? Because they are literally capable of moving weight far beyond the average human without becoming a victim of catastrophic injury. They are also lifting heavy loads daily without aggressive deterioration like we would normally see in occupational lifting.  In other words, they have a great model to follow.

If you’ve read this far and are still interested, that means you have to be a Crossfitter, so let’s compare and contrast where these common movement faults happen during clean up.

Stripping the Bar

Lumbar flexion occurs commonly when stripping the bar. The bending plus the lifting of the bar to strip the weight can be awkward on the lower spine.  Some can straighten the back and pull off the weight like the picture above. Alternatively, a straight leg hip hinge can be used without lumbar bending.

Lumbar flexion occurs commonly when stripping the bar. The bending plus the lifting of the bar to strip the weight can be awkward on the lower spine.
Some can straighten the back and pull off the weight like the picture above. Alternatively, a straight leg hip hinge can be used without lumbar bending.

Lifting Weight off the Ground

People often bend down from their knees and their back to pick up weights from the ground. With these weights, the bending isn't as much of the problem as the lack of abdominal and lat bracing. Bringing a flat back can cue bracing strategies easier and treat the lift as a deadlift instead of a sloppy forward bend.

People often bend down from their knees and their back to pick up weights from the ground. With these weights, the bending isn’t as much of the problem as the lack of abdominal and lat bracing.
Bringing a flat back can cue bracing strategies easier and treat the lift as a deadlift instead of a sloppy forward bend. ***The same strategy applies to lifting an unweighted bar off the ground***

Take a look around the gym next time and observe how people set up and clean up their weights. Does the image on the left look pretty familiar? Compare and contrast to how the image looks on the right. No matter what the load is, you can apply weight lifting principles to execute the task at hand.

My Own Personal Experience

When I was getting ready to open my practice in Wellington, I spent an entire week painting baseboards in a broken and slouched position. It was the first time in my life that I ever had back pain. Not from 10+ years of weight lifting and 3+ years of taking care of patients. Nope, just 1 week of painting baseboards.

It blew my mind that people can do this every day of their lives.

Of course I didn’t want to stop training, and I couldn’t stop working to get the office ready for our grand opening. I had to figure out how to move without worsening the mechanical stresses on my spine.

On top of getting my spine corrected by my chiropractor, I applied the same principles in today’s post to doing all of my tasks. I was hip hinging to pick up every object, whether it was a paint brush or a heavy desk. I braced my trunk while painting to limit any further shear. I was also paying way more attention to how I set up and cleaned my weights.

Sure enough, I didn’t have any back pain when I started implementing these strategies.

While these steps are useful for people who don’t want to have their backs wear out as a preventative measure, they are critical for the patient with back pain to preserve their spine and still maintain the ability to work and play.

Start playing around with this the next time you’re at the gym or at work and see how it feels. If you want a more comprehensive assessment of your movement and your structure, then feel free to comment or message me below.

 

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