With 2016 winding down, I'm using this last week of the year to direct you to some of the most popular content of the past 12 months at EricCressey.com, as this "series" has been quite popular over the past few years. Today, we start with the most popular articles of the year; these are the pieces that received the most traffic, according to my hosting statistics.
1. 5 "Combo" Core Stability Exercises - Great strength and conditioning programs are all about delivering results as efficiently as possible. Here are some exercises that'll help you do so by making your core stability training more efficient.
2. 10 Ways to Remain Athletic as You Age - The popularity of this article makes me realize that I need to devote more of my writing to the more mature athlete who still likes to get after it in the gym!
This is the second half of my collection of take-home points from reviewing The Complete Shoulder and Hip Blueprint from Tony Gentilcore and Dean Somerset. In case you missed the first half, you can check out Part 1 here. Additionally, I should offer a friendly reminder that the introductory $60 off discount on this great resource ends tonight at midnight; you can learn more here.
6. Shifting low threshold exercises to a high threshold strategy may yield faster results.
Dean goes to great lengths to discuss how proximal (core) stability affects distal (extremity) mobility. In doing so, he cites four examples:
a. Doing front planks may help one to gain hip external rotation.
b. Doing side planks may help one to gain hip internal rotation.
c. Doing dead bugs may help to improve your deep squat.
d. Training active hip flexion (one joint) may help one to to improve a straight leg raise (multiple joints).
With that said, there is a HUGE clarification that must be made: these exercises are all performed with HIGH TENSION. In other words, if you can do eight reps of dead bugs, you aren’t bracing hard enough.
To some degree, this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that there are high-threshold exercises and low-threshold exercises – and most folks would assume the aforementioned four drills would fall in the low-threshold category. That said, I think a better classification scheme would be high- and low-threshold STRATEGIES. In other words, there is a time to treat a plank or dead bug as a low threshold drill, but also scenarios under which bracing like crazy is appropriate. Trying to create distal mobility is one such example.
That said, don't go and turn everything you do into a high-threshold strategy! This leads me to...
7. Improving mobility is a combination of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.
I loved this quote from Dean so much that I replayed it a few times so that I could type up this quote:
"If you hold your breath, you're going to limit your mobility. If you breath through the stretch, you're going to access a greater range of motion than you had before. So, it's kind of a dance between parasympathetic and sympathetic and neural activation. You want to be able to use high-threshold sympathetic type stuff to fire up the nervous system and produce that stability, but you want to use parasympathetic stimulation - that long inhale, long exhale - to be able to use that range of motion after you've built the stability."
That's pure gold right there, folks.
8. The term “scapular stability” is a bit of a misnomer.
Nothing about the scapula is meant to be stable. If it were meant to be stable, it would have so many different muscular attachments (17, in fact) with a variety of movement possibilities. A better term would be something originally popularized by physical therapist Sue Falsone: controlled mobility.
9. Don’t assume someone’s "aberrant" posture means an individual will be in pain.
Posture is a complex topic, and the relationship between resting posture and pain measures is surprisingly very poorly established in the research world. We can walk away from this recognition with two considerations:
a. It's important to assess movement quality, and not just resting posture.
b. Use posture as information that guides program design and coaching cues rather than something that tries to explain or predict injuries.
10. Teach movements from the position where relative stiffness principles are challenged the most - but cue high-threshold tension.
During one of his presentations, Dean was coaching a hip flexor stretch in the lunge position, and it immediately got me to thinking about the principle of relative stiffness. In this position, if there isn't adequate anterior core control, lumbar extension will occur instead of hip extension. And, if there isn't solid glute recruitment, there will be a tendency of the head of the femur to glide forward in the socket during the hip extension that does occur.In other words, being able to brace the core and have solid glute activation is key to making sure that the individual is in a good place at this position where movement is challenged the most.
In this instance, Dean cued a high-threshold strategy that allowed him to effectively coach the movement from the most challenging position - which is somewhat counterintuitive to what we've always assumed as coaches ("win the easy battles" first by owning the simple ranges-of-motion). However, if you can get to the appropriate position (adequate passive ROM) and educate a trainee on how to establish a bracing strategy, chances are that you can speed up the learning process.
As I thought about it, this is something we do quite commonly with our end-range rotator cuff strengthening exercises, but I simply haven't applied it nearly as much at the hip as we do at the shoulder. It's definitely something I'll be playing around with more moving forward.
Last, but certainly not least, just a friendly reminder that today is the last day to get the introductory $60 off discount on The Complete Shoulder and Hip Blueprint. As you can probably tell from these posts, I've really enjoyed going through it myself, and would highly recommend it to any fitness professionals and rehabilitation specialists out there. Click here to learn more.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
I haven't posted an update to this popular coaching cues series since December, so I figured this article was long overdue. Here are a few coaching cues we use regularly with our clients at Cressey Sports Performance:
1. "Keep your hips in the hallway."
Birddogs are a fantastic exercise for building core stability and educating individuals on how to differentiate between hip and lumbar spine (lower back) movement. Usually, though, folks just discuss differentiating these motions in the sagittal plane, so the focus is on hip flexion/extension vs. lumbar flexion/extension. In the process, a lot of folks overlook what is going on in the frontal and transverse plane. A lot of side-to-side movement is a good sign that the athlete doesn't have sufficient rotary stability (control of the center of mass within a smaller base of support).
A cue I've found to work great is to put my hands about 1" outside the hips on both sides, and to cue the athlete, "Keep your hips in the hallway." If the outside of the hips contact my hand, it's a sign that they've lost control of the frontal and transverse plane.
2. "Scaps to the sky."
We coach our wall slides with upward rotation and lift off a bit differently for just about everyone that comes through our doors. Really, it comes down to appreciating what their starting scapular positioning is. If someone is really anteriorly tilted, we'll guide the scapula into posterior tilt. If they have more of a "scaps back" (adducted) military posture, we'll help the shoulder blades to get out and around the rib cage. If someone starts in a more depressed (low shoulder) position as in the video below, we might cue them to incorporate a shrug to facilitate better upward rotation.
When you teach the drill, though, you want to make sure that the motion is coming from not just movement of the humerus (upper arm) on the scapula (glenohumeral movement), but moreso from movement of the scapula on the rib cage (scapulothoracic). I love the "scaps to the sky" cue for this reason. Usually, I'll manually help the shoulder blades up a bit, too.
3. "One inch per second."
I blatantly stole this one from Shane Rye, one of my business partners at Cressey Sports Performance - Florida. When athletes foam roll, they always seem to have a tendency to race through each "pass." It's far better to slow down, recognize areas that need more attention, and gradually work your way along. The "one inch per second" cue always seems to get athletes to pace themselves better.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
Core stability exercises are kind of like visits to the dentist. You know you need to do them - and they keep you healthy - but they aren't really all that sexy and enjoyable. With this in mind, I think the concept of "minimum effective dose" is an especially important consideration when it comes to programming core stability exercises. We want to pick the drills that give the biggest bang for one's buck: a great training effect in only a few sets.
Fortunately, if we understand how to classify core stability exercises, we can quick recognize that there are ways to deliver more efficient training prescriptions. Speaking broadly, you have four core stability exercise categories: anterior core stability, posterior core stability, lateral core stability, and rotary core stability.
Anterior core stability exercises teach the body to resist excessive lumbar spine extension (arching), and encompass a variety of drills, starting with the likes of curl-ups, prone bridges/planks, and reverse crunches. In prepared individuals, they progress all the way up through more advanced exercises like stability ball rollouts, and TRX flutters and fallouts.
Posterior core stability exercises train the body to resist excessive lumbar spine flexion (rounding). These drills include everything from the birddog all the way up through more conventional strength training exercises like deadlift variations.
Lateral core stability exercises teach you how to resist lateral flexion; in other words, your goal is to avoid tipping over. These drills may start with basic side bridging drills and progress all the way up through more advanced TRX drills and 1-arm carrying variations.
Rotary core stability exercises teach you to resist excessive rotation through the lumbar spine. Examples include drills like landmines, lifts, and chops.
Once you appreciate what each of these core stability exercise categories entail in terms of functional demands, you realize that you can combine these drills into options that train 2-3 at a time. Here are a few examples:
1.Reverse Crunch to Dead Bug - A reverse crunch would be considered anterior core drills, but in adding the dead bug component, you get an increased challenge to rotary stability because of the alternating leg/arm component. Of course, the dead bug is already a solid "combination" core stability exercise by itself.
2. 1-leg TRX Fallouts - As I noted early, fallouts are a great anterior core training progression. Going to a single-leg stance makes this an awesome rotary stability and lateral core challenge, too.
3. Tall Kneeling Cable Press to Overhead Lift - Asymmetrical presses are usually only a big challenge to rotary and lateral core stability, but adding the overhead reach component kicks up the anterior core challenge.
4. Lateral Lunge with Band Overhead Reach - This one gets some extra bonus points because it's an excellent hip mobility challenge, too. It takes a lateral and rotary core stability drill and incorporates more anterior core because of the overhead reach. It's a game-changer when an athlete can own the frontal plane with sagittal plane control, too.
5. Dumbbell Suitcase Deadlift - You won't find a better posterior core stability exercise than a properly performed deadlift. You won't be able to load it as much in the suitcase set-up, but you'll definitely increase the challenge to lateral core stability.
These are just five of countless variations you can create to cover a few core stability exercise categories with one drill. I've found them to be particularly useful with in-season programs, when athletes have limited time to train.
If you're looking for more exercise progression strategies - and a comprehensive overall system you can apply with your clients/athletes - I'd highly recommend Mike Robertson's new resource, Complete Core Training. It's on sale with an introductory $50 off discount this week. Mike's a sharp guy and trusted resource, so I'm enjoying going through his progressions to see how we can tinker to improve our approaches at Cressey Sports Performance.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
Back in my early-to-mid-20s, my focus shifted into powerlifting and away from a "traditional" athletic career. While I got a ton stronger, I can't say that I felt any more athletic. In hindsight, I realize that it was because I trained strength at the exclusion of many other important athletic qualities. Since then, I've gone out of my way to include things that I know keep me athletic, and as a result, at age 34, I feel really good about taking on anything life throws my way. With that in mind, I thought I'd pull together some recommendations for those looking to remain athletic as they age.
1. Stay on top of your soft tissue work and mobility drills.
Without a doubt, the most common reason folks feel unathletic is that they aren't able to get into the positions/postures they want. As I've written in the past, it's much easier to do a little work to preserve mobility than it is to lose it and have to work to get it back. Some foam rolling and five minutes of mobility work per day goes a long way in keeping you athletic.
2. Do a small amount of pre-training plyos.
I think it's important to preserve the ability to effectively use the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). That's not to say that every gym goer needs to be doing crazy depth jumps and sprinting full-tilt, though. A better bet for many folks who worry about tweaking an Achilles, patellar tendon, or hamstrings is to implement some low-level plyometric work: side shuffles, skipping, carioca, and backpedaling. Here's a slightly more advanced progression we use in The High Performance Handbook program:
The best bet is to include these drills right after the warm-up and before starting up with lifting.
3. Emphasize full-body exercises that teach transfer of force from the lower body to the upper body.
I love cable lift variations to accomplish this task in core exercises, but push presses, landmine presses, and rotational rows are also great options.
4. Emphasize ground-to-standing transitions.
Turkish Get-ups are the most well-known example of this challenge, but don't forget this gem:
5. Get strong in single-leg.
Squats and deadlifts will get you strong, no doubt, but don't forget that a big chunk of athletics at all levels takes place in single-leg stance. Lunges, 1-leg RDLs, step-ups, and split squats all deserve a place in just about everyone's training programs.
6. Use core exercises that force you to resist both extension and rotation.
Efficient movement is all about moving in the right places. The lower back isn't really the place to move, though; you should prioritize movement at the hips and upper back. With that in mind, your core work should be focused on resisting both extension (too much lower back arching) and rotation. Here are a few favorites:
7. Train outside the sagittal plane.
It's important to master the sagittal (straight ahead) plane first with your training programs, but once you get proficient there, it's useful to progress to a bit of strength work in the frontal place. I love lateral lunge variations for this reason.
8. Chuck medicine balls!
I'm a huge fan of medicine ball drills with our athletes, but a lot of people might not know that I absolutely love them for our "general population" clients as well. I speak to why in this article: Medicine Ball Workouts: Not Just for Athletes. Twice a week, try adding in four sets at the end of your warm-up and prior to lifting. Do two sets of overhead stomps and two sets of a rotational drill, starting with these two variations in month 1:
In month 2, try these two:
Trust me; you'll be hooked by the "8-week Magic Mark."
9. Be fast on your concentric.
If you want to stay fast, you need to keep a fast element in your strength training program. This can obviously entail including things like Olympic lifts, jump squats, and kettlebell swings. Taking it a step further, though, you can always just make a dedicated effort to always accelerate the bar with good speed on the concentric (lifting) portion of the movement.
In a given week, on top of my normal lifting, I might catch bullpens, sprint or condition with my athletes, play beach volleyball, or run a few football receiving routes at the facility. The old adage, "Variety is the spice of life" applies to fitness and athleticism, too. Don't be afraid to have some fun.
The longer you've been training, the more you realize that your strength and conditioning programs have to be versatile enough to preserve your athleticism and functional capacity while still keeping training fun. If you're looking for a flexible program that's proven effective across several populations, I'd encourage you to check out my flagship resource, The High Performance Handbook. It's on sale for $30 off through the end of the day today.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
This is my first installment of this series since October, so hopefully I can atone for that with a solid January performance. Here goes!
1. On several occasions, I've written that if you are going to include an exercise in a program, you absolutely have to be able to justify how it's going to create the training effect you want. In particularly, this is a question that should be asked constantly during sprinting and agility progressions. The end goal is obviously to (safely) put a lot of force into the ground as quickly as possible to create powerful athletic movements in all three planes of motion. Sometimes, I feel like we get very caught up in just programming drills for the sake of programming drills. There are a million different types of skipping drills, for instance, and we use a lot of them. Athletes certainly ought to be able to skip, but at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves if making a skip more advanced and elaborate is really going to make an athlete move better. Or, would we be better off devoting that training volume to actual sprint work? There isn't really a "correct" answer to these questions, but I do think it's important to critically analyze our programs to see if the carryover from drills to actual athletic performance is really that good.
2. Earlier today, I was discussing outfield "jumps" with a few of our Cressey Sports Performance clients, including Sam Fuld, an Oakland A's outfielder who is well known for making some pretty crazy plays in center field. We were talking about lower-body movement (hip turn, crossover run, etc.) during the initial break as he reads a ball off a bat, but as we went to actually find some video online, my attention went elsewhere. Check out this play where Sam traveled 58 feet to make a diving catch:
What I noticed was the fact that he never actually got upright. He stayed in acceleration mode the entire time. If you replay the video from above, watch the :08 through :11 second interval. You'll rarely see a player cover more ground in the field.
This is yet another reason why I think a 30-yd (or home-to-first) time is more appropriate for assessing baseball-specific speed than a 60-time. Baseball players rarely get to top speed, whether it's in running the bases or playing the field. And, more importantly, they'd never do it in a straight line. I'm beginning to think that a 60-time is about as useful for a baseball evaluation as the 225lb bench press test is for NFL players...
3. Remember that not all your anterior core work has to be slower tempo drills like rollouts and fallouts, or low-level isometrics like prone bridges. Rather, remember that any time you go overhead while maintaining a neutral spine, you're working to resist excessive extension at your lumbar spine. In other words, overhead med ball drills can be great anterior core progressions - and here's a way to take them to the next level:
4. Resistance bands are awesome on a number of training fronts. They can be used to accommodate the strength curve, making the movements more challenging at the points in the range of motion where we are strongest. They can also be used to deload certain movements at positions where we are weakest.
In sports performance training, though, I'd say that their biggest value is in teaching direction - and subsequently loading it. As an example, I like band-resisted broad jumps because they allow us to produce force in a path that would be challenging to load in any other way. And, we need to produce force in this path during everyday athletic endeavors:
This is an area where Lee Taft really excels. When I watch experienced coaches teaching and coaching, I look for patterns that stand out: strategies that they return to frequently. In his new Certified Speed and Agility Coach course, Lee uses a band a ton to teach direction of force application and create appropriate angles for acceleration. It made me realize that we can get more efficient in some of our coaching strategies by busting out the band a bit more.
Speaking of Lee, the early-bird $100 discount on his new certification wraps up this Friday at midnight. I'm finishing it up myself and really benefited on a number of fronts - and our entire Cressey Sports Performance staff will be going through the resource as well. You can learn more about the course HERE.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
I've spoken at length about how much I love the bench t-spine mobilization. Candidly, it's far more than an upper back mobility exercise - but you only can get the myriad of benefits it offers if you coach this drill correctly and prevent all the common compensations that can occur. Check out today's video for more details:
Today's five tips come from Cressey Sports Performance coach, Miguel Aragoncillo.
1. Approach your sets and reps intelligently.
Whenever I start a new program, I’m always excited to attack the given sets and reps and put some weight on the bar. However, I won’t come into the gym every day of every training program as fresh and ready to go as I did on Week 1, Day 1.
When writing programs for our athletes, I want them to do the following things during their training sessions:
a. Move with quality and integrity.
b. Move with intensity, focusing on force production.
If you can’t bring either to a lift, one of two things is happening: you are fatigued, or the weight is too heavy. There are many causes of fatigue, whether it be from the previous day of training, previous weekend of traveling, or recent competition.
To account for this, I can do two things: regulate sets and reps (volume), or weights used (intensity).
Fellow CSP coach Greg Robins uses the phrase:
“Programs are static, and training is a dynamic process.”
A program is a piece of paper that does not factor in your life: lack of sleep, outside stress, or fatigue from a previous competition. Training is a process that should respect how you recover from day to day.
So, if you fail or miss a rep for example, you can do one of two things:
If your program calls for 3 sets of 5 reps, that is 15 overall reps at a specific intensity. If you can’t complete the given numbers, you can:
a. Flip the numbers: 15 reps can be done using 5 sets of 3 instead. Mentally, 3 reps is easier to digest than 5, you can recover better in between sets, and you can evaluate how your body is reacting to the exercise on a more micro level. Essentially, you can do any amount of sets to accommodate for the same amount of total volume.
b. Maintain the same amount of volume and decrease the weight used: If the weights are feeling heavy for 8 sets of 3 reps, down the weight until you feel like you are moving without a significant grind.
2. Set goals by reverse engineering them.
If you want to achieve the goal of playing baseball (or any other sport, for that matter) beyond high school, keep these numbers from the NCAA in mind:
Out of 482,629 athletes in high school, less than 7% get the chance to play in college. Out of those student athletes, only 8.6% of draft-eligible players actually get drafted by a professional baseball organization. Even when combined with players who are drafted directly out of high school, you're still dealing with an incredibly low of moving on to professional baseball. And, this doesn't even take into consideration the number of players who make it to Minor League Baseball, but never advanced to the Major League level.
What's the point? Being in the top 0.5% of anything in life is very challenging, and baseball is certainly no exception.
So the question remains: if you want to achieve something great, how can you best achieve it?
There are a lot of ways to dissect and reverse engineer how to efficiently get to your goals. Locke and Latham (1) note that “specific goals direct activity more effectively and reliably than vague or general goals.”
While the path you may take will vary greatly because of the opportunities that are presented, there is always one thing you can control in the face of uncontrollable external factors, and it is your reaction to the given situation.
• If you got cut from a team, what is your plan of action to display your strengths, or improve your weaknesses?
• What is your reaction when something does not go as planned?
Using the SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound) is a great place to start, and whether or not you desire to play professional sports, it can also help improve your likelihood to achieve aesthetically minded goals as well.
Also, the SMART method of goal setting can be used as a metric towards modifying behaviors to more positively align yourself with those goals. Are your behaviors allowing you to achieve your goals? If not, what can you do to alter these behaviors or habits?
3. If you stray from a diet, focus on your next meal, not the next day!
When it comes to healthy nutrition, you'll often hear of people "falling off the bandwagon" for a meal - and it leading to several days of poor food choices. For this reason, I always encourage folks to "right the ship" as quickly as possible.
If you go out with friends and indulge, binge eat, or just mess up your macros, don’t give up hope for the day and plan to start over tomorrow. Tomorrow may turn into the next day, and into the next day. So what do you do?
Gather your losses and do better on your next immediate meal, instead of restarting the next day. Don’t let a bad meal turn into a bad day of eating.
This is also one reason why I don't generally advocate full-on "free" days, where folks eat anything they want as a means of "de-stressing" from six days per week of quality nutrition adherence. It's a lot easier to get things back on track after a single bad meal (whether planned or unplanned) than from a full day.
4. Reduce time “lost” training by continuing with low-level exercises.
If you consider training at an established gym with a great training environment as “going all out” as a “100%” of your efforts, what happens when you train elsewhere?
For example, I’ll refer to four days of lifting with extra days of working on sprints/shuffles/conditioning as 100% of the whole product. If you miss one day, that is 17% of your whole workout week missing. If you miss two days, that is 34% of your workout week that you have “lost” because of travel, long days, or other extenuating circumstances.
Take this day for example:
A1. Barbell RDL - 3x4
A2. Prone Horizontal Abduction - 3x8/side
B1. DB Bulgarian Split Squat - 3x6/side
B2. Half-Kneeling Cable Chop - 3x8/side
B3. Half Kneeling 90/90 External Rotation Hold - 3x(2x6)/side
You have two arm care exercises, one lower body bilateral strength exercise, one lower unilateral exercise, and a rotary core stability exercise.
If you can’t get to the gym to do these, give this a shot:
A1. Supine Bridge March, or 1-Leg Hip Thrust with 3 Sec Pause - 3x10/side
A2. Prone Horizontal Abduction (Off Bed) - 3x8/side
B1. Bodyweight Split Squat with 3 second Pause - 3x10/side
B2. Feet Elevated Side Bridge - 3x30sec/side
B3. Standing External Rotation to Wall - 3x(2x6)/side
Certainly this is not the same, but when comparing these exercises, you can begin to identify that there is still something you can do despite not having access to coaching or equipment.
It won’t be 100% of the full effect, but any percentage of that 100 percent will be worth something when you look back over a longer period of time to evaluate your results.
5. Use density training to get more work done in less time.
Along with decreasing or regulating caloric consumption, increasing caloric expenditure can help you towards your fitness goals. Basically, doing as much work as possible in the form of density training can burn a lot of calories in a little amount of time. Utilizing non-competing muscle groups in a superset or giant set fashion will prevent fatigue and allow you to get more work done.
For example, performing a tri-set with a TRX Inverted Row, KB Goblet Reverse Lunge, and then a Stability Ball Stir the Pot will provide several biomechanical and force production benefits.
Rather than doing 3 sets of 10 for each exercise, waiting around in between sets, and then performing each set with no pre-determined intensity, do this:
After reading Bobby Tewksbary's great resource, Elite Swing Mechanics, I've been thinking about the characteristics of elite hitters. Just as Bobby breaks down swing mechanics to identify growth areas, I'm always looking to find physical limitations that might interfere with an athlete's ability to best "acquire" the swing mechanics guys like Bobby are seeking. Here are six physical attributes I've noticed in most elite hitters.
1. Sufficient Hip Mobility
You don't have to look any further than the rise in hip injuries over the past decade to recognize just how aggressive the hip rotation is during the baseball swing. In particular, it's essential for hitters to have sufficient hip internal rotation and extension. Unfortunately, these ranges of motion are usually the first to go in the dysfunctional lumbopelvic (hip/lower back) postural presentations we see. As the pelvis dumps forward into anterior tilt, it blocks off internal rotation - and the athlete will preferentially extend through the lower back instead of the hip.
This leads to not only limited hip function, but also an increased risk of injury. The athlete may develop bony overgrowth (femoroacetabular impingement; read more here) on the head of the femur or the hip socket, a torn labrum, a sports hernia, or a number of other hip issues. There may also be extension-based lower back pain, including stress fractures and disc injuries. This loss in hip motion is generally related to point #2...
2. Sufficient Core Control
Many of the hip mobility restrictions we see in these athletes aren't just because muscles are actually short, or bony blocks have developed to restrict range of motion. Rather, they may be in place because the athlete's core control is so out-of-whack that alignment issues actually limit range of motion. Imagine driving a car that's out of alignment; turning to one side will ultimately wind up being more difficult. The good news about this scenario is that it's often possible to get quick changes in an athlete's hip mobility just by modifying posture, incorporating positional breathing, and doing a bit of activation work. I've seen athletes gain more than 30 degrees of hip internal rotation in a matter of 30 seconds without manual therapy or stretching, so adding some core control in the right places can definitely be a powerful thing.
Remember, the research clearly demonstrates that the core works to transfer - not develop - force during the baseball swing. Its job is to take the force developed in the lower extremity and make sure that it is delivered to the upper extremity and, ultimately, the bat. This function should be reflected in the exercise selection we use, as we gravitate toward rotational medicine ball variations and chops/lifts rather than sit-ups, crunches, and side bends.
3. Sufficient Thoracic (Upper Back) Mobility
One of the key points Bobby made in his article earlier this week was that Pujols - like all elite hitters - gets his hips moving forward while his hands are still held back and up (and actually moving further back and up). To do this, you need three things. We've covered the first two: hip mobility and core stability. However, you also need sufficient mobility through your upper back to allow this "separation" to occur. Even if the hip and core components are ideal, if the upper back isn't sufficiently mobile, the hands can't stay back to allow a) force transfer without "energy leaks" and b) the right timing for this transfer. As Bobby also noted, if the hands can't stay back long enough, the hitter has less time to see and react/adjust to the pitch that's thrown. In short, a physical limitation can quickly become a mechanical issue. I should note that while thoracic rotation (transverse plane) is predominantly what we're seeking, you can't have sufficient rotation if you're stuck in a rounded upper back posture (flexion/sagittal plane). If you look like this, you'll need to get your extension back to help unlock the rotation you seek.
4. The Ability to Hip Hinge
This point really goes hand-in-hand with #1 from above, but I think it's important to distinguish the hip hinge (hip flexion with a neutral spine) as pre-loading, whereas the extension and internal rotation that takes place is actually unloading. In other words, the former stores the elastic energy we need, while the latter releases it over a sufficient range of motion. Candidly, I'm shocked at how many young athletes have lost the ability to hip hinge correctly. You'll see it quite a bit in more advanced hitters as well, and they're usually the higher-level guys who have hip and lower back problems. If you can't effectively pre- load your hips, you'll have to go elsewhere to get your power - or you just won't create it. A detailed review of what a good hip hinge is and how to train for it could be (and is) a full-day seminar. Basically, this is as much a stability limitation and patterning problem as it is an actual flexibility deficit. Put these three components together, and you have your "mobility" potential.
Without getting too sidetracked, here's a quick rule with respect to the hip hinge: players need to be able to touch their toes without a huge knee bend (greater than 30 degrees) or hyperextension of the knees.
Sure, we need to consider how much posterior hip shift there is, whether they can reverse the lumbar curve, and whether they return from the toe touch with predominantly hip or lower back motion, but I think the quick screening rule from above is a good place to start.
5. Lower Body Strength/Power
You don't have to be an elite powerlifter or Olympic lifter to hit home runs. However, you do need enough strength and - just as importantly - the ability to display that force quickly. On the strength side, I seriously doubt you'll find many hitters in the big leagues who aren't capable of deadlifting at least 1.5 times their body weight, and if you do find some, they're probably guys who have been around for quite some time and gotten much more efficient with their patterning to use every bit of force they have in the tank. Or, they're just carrying too much body fat. On the power side, it's not good enough to just be a weight room rockstar. It's also important to be able to take that strength and apply it quickly in more sport-specific contexts with drills like rotational medicine ball throws, sprinting, jumping and, of course, hitting and throwing. Once you've got the foundation of strength, your power training can really take off - and that includes your swing mechanics. Until you're able to put more force into the ground, it's going to be difficult to generate more bat speed unless you have glaring deficiencies in your swing mechanics that can be cleaned up.
6. Great Sports Vision
You can't hit what you can't see - and elite hitters almost always have elite vision. Some of this is outside your control, but I always encourage all our baseball guys to get thorough yearly eye exams. I'm a bit biased because my wife is an optometrist, but I've seen players for whom vision corrections with contact lenses and glasses has been a complete game-changer.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of physical attributes of high-level hitters, but it's a good start. Building on this point, as examples, you'll notice I didn't say "tremendous forearm strength" or "a huge bench press." Some guys might have these "proficiencies," but that doesn't mean they're absolutely essential for high-level hitting. Many hitters might develop appreciable forearm strength from the act of hitting over many years, but that doesn't mean they had to specifically train it to make that advancement. And, on the bench press front, there may be guys who've trained the bench press heavily, but never recognized that it might not have had much of an impact on their hitting performance. This is why we have to look at the big picture and see what ALL elite hitters are doing to be successful.
If you're looking to learn more about the technical aspects of hitting that go hand-in-hand with these points, be sure to check out Bobby's Elite Swing Mechanics e-book. I highly recommend it - especially at such a great price.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive Instant Access to a 47-minute Presentation from Eric Cressey on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!
Today's guest post comes from Dean Somerset. Dean's made a name for himself as a "low back and hip" guy, and this post demonstrates this expertise. It's especially timely, given the release of his new resource, Advanced Core Training.
I’ve had the distinct honor of working with a wide variety of clients. Some have been fresh from spinal surgical intervention following an injury, others had congenital issues where they were born with some sort of spinal irregularity, others just had low back pain. I’ve also worked with some Olympic champions, Paralympic hopefuls, professional sports teams, and pretty well every type of client in between, and today’s post is all about highlighting some of the commonalities among these very broad and different types of clients.
#1: They Usually Do Something Poorly.
I had the opportunity to do end-of-season testing on a local professional hockey team a few years ago. This meant I had direct access to some of the best hockey players in the world to see how they moved. While they could likely outskate and maneuver anyone on the ice, their ability to control their movements in the specific tasks asked were somewhat shaky on occasion, and in some instances, consistently so through the entire team.
Consider hockey players live their entire lives with their sticks on the ice and bent over. Shoulder pads prevent a lot of overhead movement, and getting checked into the boards frequently can cause some significant wear and tear on the shoulder joints, not to mention the rest of the body. Its no surprise very few of them had the ability to score well on an overhead squat assessment since they only ever put their arms overhead when they score a goal, and if you’re on an offensively challenged tem, that won’t happen much.
Additionally, since flexion is such as important position for their sports, they had no problem doing that, but had a lot of trouble controlling their spines into extension. The goalies could hit the splits in any direction, but many of their leg movement testing would have indicated that they were “tight” and required more stretching. If someone can go in and out of the splits in multiple directions, they don’t need more stretching.
With many people who aren’t elite athletes, they’ll also have some sort of a wonky movement pattern here or there. These may not directly cause injury, but they might increase the relative risk that something could happen. Think of a hip hinge, for example. A known mechanism of injury is low back flexion with loading and some degree of rotation. This is the common first timer setting up for a deadlift and not knowing what the heck they’re doing. In fact, that’s how Rob Gronkowski injured his back when he was a standout at Arizona and almost cost him a shot at the NFL.
The thing about increased risk is it won’t guarantee an injury occurs, just that there’s more likelihood that it would. If I bought a lottery ticket, there’s a 1 in 15,000,000 chance that I win big. If I bought 1000 tickets, there’s now a 1,000 in 15,000,000 million chance that I win, or 1 in 15,000 chance. It doesn’t mean I will win, just that my odds are higher.
Now, if I were to teach that beginner how to hip hinge well and reduce the pressure on their low back while also using their hips to produce the power for lifting the weight, there’s a greater chance that they will be successful and less of a chance they will get injured. Gronk showed even a great athlete who is unfamiliar with a certain movement can still do it with risk, and still get injured, just like a beginner stepping foot inside a weight room for the first time.
#2: The Value of Isometric Exercise Can’t be Overstated.
Dr. Stuart McGill’s lab at The University of Waterloo just released a very interesting study that looked at the effects of using isometric exercises like planks and dead bugs as well as more dynamic exercises such as Russian twists and rotational throws to train the core in two very different groups:
a) beginners who were naïve to resistance training and exercise in general,
b) Muay Thai athletes who were savvy to training concepts and instructions.
Half of the naïve group did isometric training and half did more dynamic training, and the same went for the savvy group. There was a control group as well; they didn’t train for the 6-week duration of the study.
Afterwards, all training groups saw improvements in both their fixed core strength and range of motion, and also in their response to more reactive stress to the spine. The isometric groups in both the naïve and savvy groups saw bigger improvements than the dynamic training groups.
While isometric exercises may seem very rudimentary and “beginner,” they can still prove beneficial to more advanced athletes and lifters, especially in terms of ease of set-up, relative risk to the individual doing them, and - most importantly - in quantitative outcomes, such as those measured in McGill’s research. It’s very exciting to see that a basic staple exercise, performed well, can benefit individuals of all experience level.
#3: Breathing is More Than Just Inhale/Exhale.
Getting beginners to do core-intensive training usually results in one question from me, repeated consistently through the entire series:
“Are you breathing?”
A go-to response for many is to hold their breath through core intensive movements. While this isn’t a bad response per se - especially if they’re trying to use a valsalva to increase spinal stability during a movement like a deadlift - not being able to inhale and exhale in pace with an exercise can actually reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. Additionally, the speed of breathing can dictate whether a movement is more of a relaxation or mobility movement or whether the goal is speed and reactive capability development. In either case, being able to breathe through an entire set is vitally important to see the best potential improvements.
When breathing for improving mobility or parasympathetic activity, inhales and exhales should be long and full. I usually recommend 3-5 second inhalations and 3-5 second exhalations. For speed and power development, inhales are best with more of a sniffing action where air is taken in quickly and with some development of negative pressure through the ribs and abdomen, and exhaled forcefully and quickly, much like a martial artist throwing a strike. Boxers do this very well, exhaling on impacts to improve not only their ability to not gas out, but to improve the stiffness of their spine to improve the power of their punches.
This short, sharp exhale causes the abdominal muscles to brace very hard and very quickly, essentially momentarily turning the core into stone to allow for a solid strike to generate some impact.
Try this while you’re reading this article: place a hand on your stomach and sniff in quickly through your nose and feel what the abdominal muscles do. Then exhale sharply through pursed lips, like you would if you were throwing a very crisp jab. Did you feel how hard the abs became for the second you inhaled and exhaled? That’s your power center.
Clients along the entire continuum from rehab to elite performance can benefit from learning how to use their breathing to develop the specific goals they’re looking to accomplish. Rehab clients can use the sniff inhale and hard exhale effectively, as it doesn’t necessarily apply aberrant stressors to the spine or connective tissue, but does have a beneficial effect on the strength and reactivity of the core girdle as an entire unit. Simply doing forceful breathing, when appropriate to do so, is itself an effective conditioning tool for many.
#4: Core Strength Training Should Trump Core Endurance Training.
What’s more likely to lead to problems: having to lift 5 pounds 50 times, or having to lift 50 pounds 5 times? Most people would say lifting the heavier weight would be riskier, and I would say if the person didn’t know how to move it to reduce their risks and to take advantage of their leverages, then yes.
However, many training programs heavily prioritize development of core endurance, with higher rep ranges and longer duration isometric holds. While endurance is important, I would argue the ability to generate repeated bouts of higher threshold contractions would have much greater implications to spinal protection, athletic development, and resiliency, while also making the lower threshold contractions less stressful to the body.
A simple way to do this is to alter the methods used to get to a specific volume of training. For instance, let’s say you want to do three minutes of planking. You could do one long sustained plank for 180 seconds, or you could do 18 bouts of maximum intensity 10 second holds, where the goal is to try to contract everything so hard that your hair follicles turn into diamonds and you make it rain like never before. The three-minute sustained plank will challenge you, but you’ll be able to still do something afterwards. The 18 rounds of 10 seconds max effort planks will wreck you.
Consider it for strength training as well. Instead of doing 3 sets of 10 with a moderate weight, use a more challenging weight to get through 6 sets of 5 and using an appreciably heavier weight.
For lower capacity clients, this can be a great way of building up volume for those who may not have the endurance to go through longer sets or bigger volumes all at once. It also allows for more set-up and learning opportunities for each exercise than doing one or two larger volume sets would allow.
#5: Core Training Should be Vector, Speed, and Intensity-Specific, Not Just Muscle Specific.
Training a movement like an anti-rotation press to overhead raise sounds awesome and does a lot to work on controlling stability through transverse and frontal plane, all in a relatively slow and controlled manner. Asking, “What does this work? Like, your obliques or something?” can be a fair question, but only scratches the surface of what’s going on.
For athletes who compete in relatively specific directions and actions without the elements of contact and chaos, they can benefit from training with a high degree of specificity to their goal activities. For the less specific athlete or for the non-athletic client, they can still benefit from more variable-dependent training, depending on their goals. For instance, a 50-year-old accountant with a history of low back pain may not need to do max velocity rotational throws, but they could still benefit from some rotational velocity training to help prepare them for the eventual frozen sidewalks that they’ll have to walk around in Edmonton in a few months, or perhaps for the games of golf they’ll play when they Snow Bird south for the winter.
For rehab clients, the direction-specific element speaks volumes to whether they have a directional intolerance to certain movements. For instance, some clients can’t handle flexion-based movements very well, so involving some flexion progressions they can work with would be good, whereas full range crunches probably wouldn’t be beneficial. Slower movements to develop control would be important, but involving some higher velocity movements they could control and replicate would also be beneficial in case they encountered those kinds of scenarios on their own. An example would be if they stepped off a curb and had to catch their balance before falling or jerking their spine into a potentially disastrous situation.
To recap, everyone from elite athletes to recovering spinal injury clients and everyone in between can involve core training into their programs in very similar ways, but with minor differences here and there to accomplish their specific goals. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to do, if you know how to do it.
This is where Advanced Core Training comes in. Dean has created a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to programming and coaching core stability exercises. You'll pick up new assessment ideas, innovative exercises, and coaching strategies you can employ to improve outcomes with your clients and athletes. The resource also includes NSCA CEUs. Click here for more information.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!