Written on April 21, 2016 at 1:04 pm, by Eric Cressey
In his outstanding new book, Back Mechanic, spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill speaks frequently to how he works with patients to “expand pain-free abilities” over the course of time. This begins with practicing good “spine hygiene” throughout daily activities while avoiding any positions or movements that provoke symptoms.
As a patient gets some asymptomatic time under his/her belt, new movements and exercises are gradually introduced. Over time, the individual’s pain-free movement repertoire can be integrated into a comprehensive exercise program. Effectively, it’s a way to test the waters without simply jumping into the deep end. This is an especially important process for patients who have lived with chronic back pain and need to break the cycle to relearn what it actually is like to feel good. As Dr. McGill writes,
“The approach that has produced the best results for us over the years has been to teach the patient pain-free movement. This is based on the ‘gate theory’ of pain. Finding simple movements that do not cause pain floods the proprioceptive system with joint and muscle sensor signals, leaving little room for pain signals to get through the neural ‘gates.’ These pain-free movements are repeated to encode the pattern in the brain. Slowly, the patient’s ability repertoire of pain free movement increases until they are able to move well, and for longer periods. They successfully replaced the pain inducing patterns wired into their brains with pain-free patterns.”
As I read through Dr. McGill’s work, I couldn’t help but think about how it can be adapted to other realms of the rehabilitation and fitness communities. As an example, speaking to my main realm of interest – training baseball players – we have to consider how this applies to return-to-throwing programs in the baseball rehabilitation world. Truth be told, this approach traditionally has not been applied well in most rehabilitation scenarios in overhead throwing athletes because they have just about the most specific kind of mechanical pain there is. In other words, the elbow or shoulder only bothers them in this position, and usually at higher velocities:
Most of the significant upper extremity throwing injuries you see don’t involve much pain at rest. Rather, the arm only hurts during the act of throwing. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), nothing in our daily lives really simulates the stress of throwing. As such, for a thrower, expanding pain-free abilities really have just traditionally meant:
You’d actually be surprised to find that there often aren’t any progressions that “link” one phase of this progression to the next. In the “not throwing” phase, we often see a lot of generic arm care exercises, but little attention to speed of movement, integrating the lower half and core, and incorporating training positions specific to an athlete’s arm slot. Unfortunately, just laying on a table and doing some exercises with a 5-pound dumbbell won’t necessarily prepare you to throw the ball on a line at 120-feet.
For this reason, we always seek out physical therapists who treat the athlete “globally” and appreciate the incremental stress of various phases of throwing. The name of the game is to incorporate several “test the water” steps between each of these three categories. We do the exact same things as players ramp up their off-season throwing programs. As physical therapist Charlie Weingroff has astutely observed in the past, “Training = Rehab, Rehab = Training.”
How do we bridge the gap between not throwing and flat-ground throwing as much as possible? For starters, rotator cuff exercises need to take place near 90 degrees of abduction to reflect the amount of scapular upward rotation and shoulder elevation that takes place during throwing. Moreover, it’s important to work closer to true end-range of external rotation in testing strength that “matters” during the lay-back phase of throwing. And, we need to test how they do with the external-to-internal rotation transition.
To this point, in my career, I’ve seen a lot of throwers who have passed physical exams of cuff strength in the adducted (arm at the side) position, but failed miserably in the “arm slot” positions that matter. Picking the right progressions really matters.
Additionally, more aggressive rotational medicine ball drills can help to teach force production, transfer, and acceptance in a manner specific to the throwing motion.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the only thing that can truly reflect the stress of throwing is actually throwing. And this is also why there have to be incremental steps from flat-ground work to mound work (where external rotation range-of-motion is considerably higher).
Fortunately for most rehab specialists and the fitness professionals who pick up where they leave off, most return-to-action scenarios aren’t as complex as getting a MLB pitcher back on the mound. A general fitness client with a classic external impingement shoulder presentation might just need to test the waters in a progression along these lines:
Different people might start at different places on this continuum, and some folks might not need to progress all the way along. The point is that there needs to be a rhyme and reason to whatever continuum you create for expanding individuals’ pain-free abilities.
A lot of folks have a pretty good understanding of “progression.” This, to me, refers to how we sequentially teach movements and make training more challenging. Unfortunately, not nearly as many professionals understand “pain-free progression” under the unique circumstances surrounding injury.
This is one of many reasons why I think understanding post-rehab training is so important for the modern fitness professional. It’s a tremendous competitive advantage for differentiating oneself in the “training marketplace.” Moreover, on a purely ethical level, having a solid understanding of various injuries and their implications helps a coach deliver a safe training experience.
With all this in mind, I'd really encourage my readers to check out Dean Somerset's resource, Post-Rehab Essentials. It's a fantastic product that also happens to be on sale for $50 off through Sunday at midnight. You can learn more HERE.
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