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Making Movement Better: Different Paths to the Same Destination

Written on October 21, 2015 at 8:27 pm, by Eric Cressey

Lately, I've been posting more training pictures and videos on my Instagram page. The other day, I posted this video, and it led to some good discussion points that I think warrant further explanation:

One responder to the video asked the following:

You had an Instagram post the other day about an athlete not being able to differentiate between hip and lower back extension. I have a client with what seems to be a similar problem and just wondered how you generally go about teaching them the difference.

The answer to this question really just rests with having a solid set of assessments that help you to understand relative stiffness. I was first introduced to this concept through physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann's work. Relative stiffness refers to the idea that the presence or lack of stiffness at one joint has a significant impact on what happens at adjacent joints, which may have more or less stiffness. Without a doubt, if you've read EricCressey.com for any length of time, the most prevalent example of this is a shoulder flexion substitution pattern. 

In this pattern, the "bad" stiffness of the lats (among other muscles) overpowers the lack of "good" stiffness in the anterior core and deep neck flexors - so we get lumbar extension (arched lower back) and forward head posture instead of the true shoulder flexion we desire. Truth be told, you can apply these principles to absolutely every single exercise you coach, whether it's an 800-pound squat or low-level rotator cuff exercise.

As an example, when you cue a wall hip flexor mobilization, you're working to reduce bad stiffness in the anterior hip while cueing an athlete to brace the core and activate the trailing leg glute. That little bit of good stiffness in the anterior core prevents the athlete from substituting lumbar extension (low back movement) for hip extension, and the glute activation creates good stiffness that impacts the arthrokinematics of the hip joint (head of the femur won't glide forward to irritate the anterior hip during the stretch). 

In the upper extremity, just use this back-to-wall shoulder flexion tutorial as an example.The "reach" would add good stiffness in the serratus anterior. The shrug would add good stiffness in the upper traps. The "tip back" would add good stiffness in the lower traps. The double chin would add good stiffness in the deep neck flexors. The flat low back position would add good stiffness in the anterior core. Regardless of which of these cues needs the most emphasis, the good stiffness that's created in one way or another "competes" against the bad stiffness - whether it's muscular, capsular, bony, or something else - that limits overhead reaching.

Returning to our prone hip extension video from above, if we want to get more hip extension (particularly end-range hip extension) and less lumbar extension, from a purely muscular standpoint, we need more "good stiffness" in rectus abdominus, external obliques, and glutes - and less stiffness in lumbar extensors, lats, and hip flexors. As the question received in response to the video demonstrates, though, this can be easier said than done, as different clients will struggle for different reasons.

Sometimes, it's as simple as slowing things down. Many athletes can perform movements at slow speeds, but struggle when the pace is picked up - including when they're actually competing.

Sometimes, you can touch the muscle you want to work (tactile facilitation). Spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill has spoken in the past about "raking" the obliques to help create multidirectional spinal stability. I've used that cue before with this exercise, and I've also lightly punched the glutes (male athletes only) to make sure athletes are getting movement in the right places.

Sometimes, a quick positional change may be all that's needed. As an example, you can put a pad under the stomach to put the lumbar extensors in a more lengthened position. In fact, doing this drill off a training table (as demonstrated above) was actually a positional change (regression) in the first place; we'd ideally like to see an athlete do this in a more lengthened position where he can challenge a position of greater hip extension. Here are both options:

Sometimes, a little foam rolling in the right places can get some of the bad stiffness to calm down a bit. Or, you might need to refer out to a qualified manual therapist to get rid of some "tone" to make your coaching easier. I do this every single day, as I have great massage therapists on staff at both our Florida and Massachusetts Cressey Sports Performance facilities.

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Sometimes, a little positional breathing can change the game for these athletes, as it helps them to find and "own" a position of posterior pelvic tilt while shutting off the lats.

TRXDeepSquatBreathingWithLatStretch

The take-home point here is that there are a lot of different ways to create the movement you want; coaching experience and a working knowledge of functional anatomy and relative stiffness just help you get to the solutions faster and safer.

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