Home 2013 November

10 Ways to Progress Inverted Rows

I'm a big fan of inverted row variations, as they not only build a strong, functional upper back, but also challenge core stability at the same time.  Unfortunately, for more advanced lifters, they can become too easy very quickly.  With that in mind, I thought I'd use today's post to introduce ten ways that you can progress these variations to increase the difficulty.

1. Do them correctly!

The first progression for most people is to simply perform the exercise with correct technique.  The most common errors I see in most folks' technique are:

  • forward head posture
  • elbows drifting behind the body (scapula doesn't retract, so the lifter substitutes extra movement of the humerus)
  • hip sagging (the body doesn't stay in a straight line)

If you'd like some quick refreshers on how to make these look good, check out these three posts from Greg Robins:

2. Change the grip.

Just as we see with pull-up variations, going to a pronated (overhand) grip will increase the difficulty of inverted rows, as compared to neutral (palms facing one another) and supinated (underhand) grips.

3. Try some mechanical advantage drop sets.

While we're on the topic of which grip set-ups are harder than others, we can use this to our advantage to do some drop-off sets.  If you're someone who can bang out inverted reps pretty easily and want a crazy challenge, try doing the first half of your set pronated, and then switching to supinated for the second half when you fatigue.  I like suspension trainer variations for this approach, as it's easiest to go pronated, to neutral, to supinated without having to let go of the handle.

4. Add isometric holds at the top.

The top position is without a doubt the most challenging, so you can increase the time under tension - and therefore the difficulty - by adding 1-3 second pauses at the top of each rep.

5. Elevate the feet.

This progression is somewhat "assumed," but most people overlook the fact that you can elevate the feet a lot further than you might think.  I like to use the 24" box.

You can also utilize various elevations for mechanical advantage drop sets.  Go from a more extreme elevation, to a subtle elevation, to no elevation, and then even to a more upright position to finish things off.  A set of 20-25 inverted rows can be a fantastic finisher.

6. Load with chains.

Chains might be the single greatist luxury one almost never gets in commercial gyms.  We're fortunate to have them at Cressey Sports Performance, and they're a complete "game changer" if you can get your hands on them.  They're also a great way to add extra loading to inverted rows:

7. Wear a weight vest.

This one seems logical, but there's a problem: there still isn't what I'd consider to be a great weight vest on the market.  The heaviest ones are too bulky and always seem to fall apart.  The lighter one are simply too light, and the velcro straps always seem to stop working in a matter of months of use.  If you've got one, by all means, use it - but I actually prefer #7...

8. Load with a backpack.

About 5-6 years ago, I bought a Dell computer that came with a padded backpack.  The computer was mediocre at best, but the backpack proved to be really useful in the gym!  You see, the extra padding made it conducive to adding extra loading, as you can slide plates up to 25 pounds (the diameter on anything heavier is too much to fit).  Just strap it on your chest and wear it in reverse for your inverted rows. I've got two 25-pound plates in for this demonstration:

9. Use Fat Gripz.

Adding load and range of motion aren't the only way to increase the difficulty of inverted rows; you can also challenge the grip more aggressively.  I really like Fat Gripz for this purpose, as they're super affordable and wrap over any barbell, dumbbell, or suspension trainer to make for a thicker handle.

fatgripz-300x222

10. Go to one-arm variations.

You can do inverted row variations one arm at a time, too.  In doing so, you add a little more of a challenge to rotary stability of the core.  Here's the basic version, although you can expand upon it by adding a reach at the bottom (toward the floor) and top (toward the rack) with the non-working arm.

Inverted rows are a staple exercise, but that doesn't mean that they need to be boring!  Try these progressions - and even combine some of them - and you'll find that you're able to include an inverted row variation in just about every strength training program you complete.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 11/27/13

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

Food is Not Fuel - This was a fantastic post from the crew at Precision Nutrition.  In it, they demonstrate that quality nutrition is about a lot more than just calories or energy.

Throwing Programs: Not One-Size-Fits-All - With a lot of our pro baseball guys starting up with throwing in mid-to-late November, it seemed like a good time to reincarnate this post from the archives.  I talk about a lot of the considerations that go into writing up a throwing program.

5 Hacks for Half-Kneeling - Mike Robertson does a good job of discussing the benefits of half-kneeling exercises, and provides coaching cues and examples you can use.

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Big Sales This Week!

We're just short of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two big holiday shopping days when a lot of stores offer great prices.  If you're like me, you'd rather take your time making your holiday purchases, rather than rushing out with the crowds to do it in a small window of time.  With that said, we've decided to put a bunch of our products on sale from now through next Monday (12/2) at midnight.  Here are the details:

Collaborative Products with Mike Reinold

Enter the coupon code BLACKFRIDAY2013 to get 20% off on Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body, Functional Stability Training of the Core, and Optimal Shoulder Performance.

FST1

Collaborative Products with Mike Robertson

The 20% off discount is already applied on Assess and Correct, Building the Efficient Athlete, and Magnificent Mobility.  No coupon code needed!

Solo Products

Enter the coupon code BLACKFRIDAY2013 to get 20% off on on Everything Elbow, Understanding and Coaching the Anterior Core, The Art of the Deload, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, and The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual.  All of these are 100% digital products that you'll be able to download immediately after purchase.  Just head over to my Products Page to get more information on each individual product.

AnteriorCore

Finally, whether you purchase any products this week or not, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you very much for your support over the past year.  EricCressey.com wouldn't be what it is without my great readers, customers, and contributors.  I hope you all have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

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How to Set Up the Shoulders for Optimal Back Squat Technique

There are a lot of people out there who struggle to get the upper back, shoulders, and arms in the right position for the back squat - whether it's because their technique actually causes pain, or simply puts them in a bad technical position.  With that in mind, I thought I'd use today's video to touch on why it can be a problem for some folks, and some quick technique modifications you can make to clean things up.

These cues can work hand in hand with a lot of the shoulder mobility drills you've seen here at EricCressey.com and on my YouTube page.

If you're looking for a collection of mobility drills and strength and conditioning progressions - as well as detailed coaching videos like this - be sure to check out The High Performance Handbook, a versatile resource you can tailor to your individual needs and training goals.

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The Truth About CC Sabathia’s Weight

Earlier this week, the New York Times published Joe Brescia's article, For Yankees' Sabathia, It Appears Less (Weight) is Less (Success).  It stirred up quite a bit of controversy among those "in the know" in the baseball world, particularly those with a knowledge of how the body actually works.  As is often the case with articles targeted toward the lay population, this piece didn't delve into the specifics in too much detail, so I thought I'd use this post to do so.  Be sure to read the article before proceeding, if you haven't already.

The Body Mass - Pitching Velocity Relationship

To begin, research has demonstrated a clear relationship between body mass and pitching velocity, so this is at least a question that has to be asked.  However, I think it needs to be answered fairly - via a compilation of anecdotal reports and actual research. And, most importantly, nobody except CC Sabathia knows how he feels at different body weights - and certainly nobody can speak to his injury history better than he can. Instead, we got some heavily dated and biased opinions with some cherry-picked interviews by Mr. Brescia.

CC_Sabathia_2009

The problem with cherry-picked interviews in this realm is that they always seem to fall back on a sample size of just a few pitchers.  "Greg Maddux did this, so everyone has to do this."  The problem is that not everyone has Greg Maddux's abilities with respect to pitching location, movement, and sequencing.  Other guys need to make it up with athleticism, especially in today's game - where fastball velocities blow those of yesterday out of the water. The game has changed dramatically; it's played with faster throwing, running, and swinging velocities than ever before (one of MANY reasons for the increase in injuries, contrary to what Lou Piniella and Leo Mazzone seem to think) - and if you want to compete at the MLB level, you don't have the option of not pushing your body to be better.  With that in mind, we have to look at what the majority of players have done to get to improve their bodies. To speak to Piniella's assertions, players don't get hurt or fall off in performance simply because they train; these problems occur when they train incorrectly, whether it's poor exercise technique, excessive volume, imbalanced programming, inappropriate loading, lack of attention to mobility and soft tissue quality, or any of a host of other factors. 

I've devoted my career to helping players get better and stay healthy by avoiding these common errors. To that end, at Cressey Performance, I work with over 100 professional players each off-season on top of a large college, high school, and middle school clientele - so I feel that I'm in a good position to give valid anecdotal evidence in the context of this weight gain vs. weight loss discussion. 

ECtable

While weight gain is almost universally beneficial at the younger ranks, as kids get past ages 17-18, things shift a bit.  As an example, in our professional pitchers crowd, I'd estimate that about 70% can really benefit from gaining weight.  Roughly 20% are at a good weight - and need to focus on improving body composition rather than actually making the scale go up or down.  Finally, only about 10% need to actually lose weight.

As it relates to throwing, weight gain is a perfect example of the Inverted-U curve.  In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell writes,

Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic.  There's the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better.  There's the flat middle, where doing more doesn't make much of a difference.  And there's the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.

In other words, there is a weight that helps performance, but gaining more doesn't help past a point. Here's what the inverted U looks like graphically, with body weight on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis:

invertu

The 40 pounds Tim Collins has put on at Cressey Performance since he was drafted have had a profound impact on his pitching velocity, as he's gone from 82mph to the mid-90s.  So, as you can imagine, I look to take advantage of this weight gain window whenever possible.

TimCollins250x_20110610

The Body Mass - Pitching Stress Relationship

Unlike examples like Collins, I don't think Sabathia is a candidate to thrive with weight gain. You see, pitching is a combination of absolute and relative strength and power. From an absolute standpoint, more body weight equates to more force to push off the mound, and more momentum moving downhill; that's why gaining weight can have such a profound impact on pitching velocity.

On the other hand, from a relative strength and power standpoint, you eventually have to "accept" all the force you create.  We know that there are substantial ground reaction forces taken on by the front leg, and research has demonstrated that they are (not surprisingly) directly impacted by body weight.  Additionally, according to 1998 research on professional pitchers from Werner et al., at ball release, the distraction forces on the shoulder are approximately 108% of body weight.  You could also make the argument that these forces are even higher now, as average fastball velocity has crept up significantly since 1998, and the subjects in that study averaged only 89mph.  As is the case with body weight increases, as arm speed rises, so do shoulder distraction.  With this research in mind, there should be no question that carrying extra body weight at this critical instant in the delivery wasn't helping his cause:

CCSabathia

And, at risk of playing Monday Morning Quarterback, if you look at his recent injury history, you shouldn't be surprised. He had torn meniscus in his right (landing) leg repaired in 2010, and bone spurs removed from his left elbow in 2012.  Both are ball release/deceleration mechanism injuries to passive restraints.  In other words, they take place because the active restraints (muscles and tendons) can't keep up with the workload placed on them.  If you can't keep up with shoulder distraction forces, you only have two options, when you're in panic mode and trying to get big league hitters out:

1. Let your arm fly off your body.

2. Crank your elbow into more aggressive extension, increasing the likelihood of bony injury (loose bodies) or protective adaptation (spurs).

Clearly, gaining weight won't do much for his longevity - and, to be fair, the New York Times piece did discuss that. I'd also argue that it'd make it more difficult to field his position and run the bases during interleague play. Plus, his fat loss will make any future diagnostic tests - MRIs, x-rays, etc. - more accurate, should he encounter additional musculoskeletal problems. Here's what radiologist Dr. Jason Hodges had to say when I interviewed him five years ago:

By far, the biggest limitation is obesity. All of the imaging modalities are limited by it, mostly for technical reasons. An ultrasound beam can only penetrate so far into the soft tissues. X-rays and CT scans are degraded by scattered radiation, which leads to a higher radiation dose and grainy images. Also, the time it takes to do the study increases, which gives a higher incidence of motion blur.

I also found it interesting that there was no mention of the reduced risk of chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes; I give him a ton of credit for getting the weight off so that he can be a healthy role model for his kids (not to mention fans who've witnessed his transformation).

Your velocity doesn't matter if you're on the disabled list...period.  However, we have to ask the question of whether CC's velocity drop in 2013 was really just a function of him losing weight.

Finding the Right Body Weight to Maximize Velocity

If there are two thing I've learned over years of working with pitchers, it's that no two deliveries are alike, and every body is unique.  What works for Steve Cishek (6-6, 220lbs) won't work for Tim Collins (5-7, 170lbs).

CresseyCishekCollins

Beyond just height and weight differences, some guys have more joint laxity than others.  Each pitcher has a unique injury history. Some throwers have more retroversion in their throwing shoulders, or a larger valgus carrying angle at the elbow. 

crazyvalgus

I could go on and on about these individuals differences, but the point is that it's dangerous to assume that all guys will respond exactly the same to a given stimulus - whether it's a mechanical adjustment, modified throwing program, added athleticism, a change in body weight, or something else.

On the body weight side of things, I've had a few years to develop a sample size of where pitchers seem to fit in best weight-wise.  Obviously, there are individual differences in body weight distrubtion, limb length, and body composition, but we can generalize a bit if you think about the average build of a professional pitcher.  Being about 220-225 pounds for a 6-3 pitcher, as an example, seems to be a sweet spot.  If their weight drops, so does their velocity.  If their weight climbs, they don't necessarily benefit - and may actually feel worse.

By contrast, go to someone who is 6-5, and 240-245 pounds seems to be a good spot - so you could make the argument that each inch equates to about 10 pounds.  At 6-7, I'd estimate 260-270 pounds.  This is something that's been reflected in my conversations with the really tall guys I've trained over the years:

Really tall guys simply don't thrive with weight gain like shorter guys do.

While there are obviously exceptions to this rule, in the 6-7 and above pitchers I've encountered, we're usually focusing a lot more on improving body composition (dropping some body fat while gaining muscle mass, even if the scale weight doesn't change).  It all depends on their starting points - but I can't say that I've ever pushed hard for a guy to go from 250 to 270 pounds.

I should also note: interpreting online height/weight listings in MLB pitchers is tricky, as guys are always listed about an inch tall without a change in body weight. Plus, they are rarely updated - and guys don't grow much after they enter pro ball, but they do gain weight.  As an example, Felix Doubrant is currently listed at 165 pounds by Yahoo Sports, but ESPN.com and MLB.com have him at 225 pounds.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the "norms" I just set forth.  As an example, Cishek is more comfortable slightly lighter than typical 6-6 guys because he drops down and throws across his body, landing really closed off.  This gives him more deception and movement, but also requires a lot more mobility and athleticism than a big donkey who just stands upright and throws downhill. That same argument could be made for Jered Weaver and Andrew Miller, who are both listed at 6-7, 210 pounds.

Based on what I've heard and seen in his delivery, Sabathia is also a super athletic guy - and you can tell from the way he really gets down the mound.  I'd argue that he's better off at 270; it's a happy medium between velocity and health, in my eyes - and that's the Holy Grail of pitching we're always working to find.

The Mathematics of Sabathia's Weight Loss

According to the New York Times piece, Sabathia has lost 45 pounds over the past two years - effectively bringing him from 315 to 270 pounds. If these numbers are accurate, he lost 14% of his body weight over the course of 24 months - and that's certainly a notable reduction that has to raise his eyebrows.

However, those eyebrows are only raised if you look at things in absolute terms.  A 14% loss for a 6-3, 225-pound pitcher would be 31.5 pounds - and would certainly equate to a huge drop in velocity.  However, that 225-pound pitcher wasn't starting out from a point of what could actually be classified as obesity.  The 45-pound drop brought Sabathia back to a more normal range, whereas the 31.5-pound drop would put a 6-3 pitcher far too light to thrive. Unless he's got an insanely quick arm, it's not going to work.

This parallels my own experiences in cutting weight as a competitive powerlifter.  Losing 5-10 pounds would lower my lifts dramatically, but I knew guys in the 242-, 275-, 308-pound weight classes (and super heavyweights) who could do it in a matter of minutes without noticing a thing.  The heavier you are, the less sensitive you are to changes - especially when they happen over the course of two years.

Heavy people (especially taller ones) who diet don't experience the serious lethargy and lack of satisfaction lighter-weight dieters notice because of the total amount of calories that are still being taken in.  I remember talking to a world-class bench presser who wanted to stay above 350 pounds to shorten the distance the bar had to travel while pressing.  He told me he was drinking three gallons of Powerade a day on top of his normal diet just to keep his weight up - and was absolutely miserable.  He also couldn't go for a 1/4 mile walk without his lower back tightening up.  So, we can kill off the myth that CC was starving himself to take the weight off; he was probably just making better food choices - which actually meant he probably ate a higher volume of food.

Regarding mechanical changes that occur with significant weight gain or loss, I simply haven't seen it.  I've put 25 pounds on guys in off-seasons on countless occasions, and can't ever recall someone saying it interfered with their mechanics.  I've also had guys lose that same amount, without ever complaining about it throwing them off.  It's a much more dramatic change at these lighter weights, too.  Losing 20 pounds during an off-season when you're 320 pounds doesn't dramatically change your mechanics. And, even if it did, a high-level, intelligent athlete like Sabathia would sort it out, particularly with the video analysis resources at his fingertips.

In fact, I'd actually argue that his weight loss would improve his ability to get to the positions he needs to be successful with his delivery, as Sabathia lost a lot of abdominal fat. 

CChomeplate

When you carry a lot of weight in your midsection, there is a tendency to slip into lumbar extension (lower back arching) to counteract it.  This is one reason why pregnant women often have back pain; beyond the mechanical impingement on the posterior aspect of the spine, the muscles of the anterior core are excessively lengthen as the pelvis tips forward and rib cage slides up.  CP pitching coordinator Matt Blake and I discussed this common fault in our recent series, Understanding Trunk Position at Foot Strike (part 1, part 2, and part 3).  A larger belly would shift a guy like Sabathia into a more extended (arched) posture - similar to what we see with Lincecum on the right - as opposed to to the more neutral core positioning we see on the left with Zach Greinke.

grelin

Greinke is older and has thrown more innings over the past two years than Lincecum, yet his average fastball velocity this year was 1.5mph higher. According to Fangraphs (Lincecum vs. Greinke), since 2007, Lincecum has dropped from 94.2mph to 90.2mph, while Greinke has dropped from 94.0mph to 91.7mph.  This is one of many factors that may contribute to Greinke's ability to sustain his velocity better than Lincecum has, but I'll take a neutral core posture and clean drive line over the long haul over a heavily extended one - and that's where CC's larger abdomen was shifting him.

Finally, from a common sense standpoint, I don't think anyone would call 6-7, 270 pounds "light" - especially when we're talking about a guy who still looks pretty damn intimidating on the mound. His body weight is fine, people - as much as that doesn't sell controversy in the New York Times.

How, then, do you explain his loss in velocity? Read on.

Fatigue Masks Fitness

As the Lincecum vs. Greinke example demonstrates, getting older and throwing a lot of innings means a velocity drop. Sabathia's average fastball velocity is consistent with this trend, going from 94.7mph in 2005 to 91.1mph in 2013. Let's have a look at the active leaders in innings pitched (courtesy of Baseball Reference):

IP

As you can see, Sabathia is an outlier.  He was among the youngest on this list (if not THE youngest) to make the big leagues - and he's certainly the only one with a track record of sustained success without missing considerable time due to injury. 

Throwing a baseball is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, and CC Sabathia has done it at the highest level more than anyone else on the planet over the past 13 years.

It's virtually impossible to compare him to anyone on this list in terms of both innings pitched, admirable health, age and consistently. The only four parallels who can help for the sake of this discussion are Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, and Mark Buerhle.

Haren is the same age as Sabathia and also made his MLB debut at age 21. While he's averaged 186 innings per year over the past 11 years, he's thrown 729 innings (almost four full seasons worth) less than Sabathia, who has averaged 213 over the past 13.  Haren's average fastball velocity has declined from a peak of 91.9mph in 2005 to 88.9mph in 2013.

Beckett, like Sabathia, was an absolute stud in his early 20s and threw a ton of innings over his first decade in the big leagues - but his 149IP/year rate can't touch CC's because of the amount of time he's spent on the disabled list, especially in light of this year's season ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.  He is a good comparison for Sabathia in terms of velocity, though, as Beckett's average fastball velocity dropped from 94.7mph in 2006 to 91.4mph in 2012 (his last full season). 

Jake Peavy is the same age as Sabathia, but got to the big leagues a year later than CC, and like Beckett, Peavy has missed too much time with injuries to really be a valid comparison (averaging 162IP/year). Peavy's average fastball velocity drop has been more subtle - 92.5mph in 2007 down to 90.7mph in 2013 - but you have to wonder where it would be if he'd thrown over 800 innings more during that time period - as Sabathia has.

Buerhle is a bit different, though, as he's averaged 205IP per season over the past 14 years - making him the only guy who can touch Sabathia's streak of longevity and performance.  The main difference?  Sabathia throws a lot harder than Buerhle, and that's a lot more stress.  Make no mistake about it: you don't pull your hamstrings if you don't run fast (even Lou Piniella's strength and conditioning approach supports that) - and the same applies to pitching.  Still, Buerhle's average fastball velocity has dropped from a peak of 87.1mph in 2004 to 84.2mph in 2013.

I've often heard that many front office people in baseball consider the prime of a player to be age 26-31. It's the point at which increased knowledge of the game coincides with peak athleticism and recovery ability.  After 31 - as each of these examples shows, things start to decline.  It stands to reason that power pitchers like Beckett and Sabathia, who rely heavily on athleticism, will fall off faster than those like Buerhle and Peavy, who rely more on location and movement.  I'd also add that those with considerable congenital laxity (loose joints) will fall off the fastest (more strength = more stability = better force transfer) - and based on what I've seen of Beckett and Sabathia, they are both freakishly flexible. Getting old sucks.

CCBack

What do these examples - and literally hundreds more in guys who weren't even close to as successful as Sabathia - show us?  Fatigue masks fitness.  If you throw a ton of innings (impose fatigue) and get older (reduce recovery capacity), your performance suffers. We saw it early this season after Justin Verlander's heavy workload in the playoffs last year.  And, this is true of every single sport in the history of mankind. 

That is, of course, unless you're CC Sabathia, in which case it's only because you lost some fat, at least according to a few of Brescia's cherry-picked interviewees.  To me, it's proof that there are scenarios where professional athletes can never win with the media.  Sabathia should be lauded for taking control of his health - and for taking the ball every time his team needed him to do so, pitching in some cases on three days rest.  We hear complaining all the time about how today's pitchers are soft and can't do what the pitchers of yesterday did.  How about praise for a guy who has made more sacrifices on the mound for his teams than anyone in MLB over the past 13 years?

And, who is to say that he would have pitched at all in these past few years if he hadn't taken the weight off?  If he'd come back and reaggravated the meniscus, then everyone would have been calling him too fat to perform.  There's literally no way to win without having the ability to predict the future - and that's why you have to apply common sense, anecdotal evidence, and research - none of which support the idea that being over 300 pounds is healthy or productive for a pitcher.

I, for one, am a huge CC Sabathia fan and think he can be a successful pitcher at this body weight given the right management in the years to come.  It's unfair, however, to expect him to throw 200+ innings per year in perpetuity and not anticipate a velocity loss to ever kick in.

And, more specific to the New York Times piece, it's incredibly shortsighted and borderline irresponsible to even attempt to to blame it on weight loss - which in all likelihood was necessary for him to continue to be able to perform at a high level in spite of the insane physical demands placed on him.

Note: A big thanks goes out to Matt Blake for the great photos from Right View Pro, and to the good folks at Fangraphs.com, who provide awesome stats info in the baseball world.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 11/18/13

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

The Most Startling Trend in Baseball - Jeff Sullivan did a great job of not only bringing attention to the significant increase in average pitching velocity in Major League Baseball, but also quantifying these changes and discussing some of the possible reasons for the increase.

Protein Power: 5 Tasty Recipes to Help You Stay Fit - These are some great healthy recipes from Anna Sward for Precision Nutrition.  I'm going to be trying a few of them out in the next week!

19 Squat and Deadlift Variations - Bret Contreras never disappoints, and in this article, he covers a ton of different variations of the "Big 2" from which you can choose. I prefer the puggle deadlift.

TankTrapBar

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The 5 Best Indirect Core Stability Exercises for the Upper Body

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Performance coach, Greg Robins.

These tips came about out of necessity in my own program, but can be tremendously useful to just about all gym goers. In the past, I placed most of my core work on lower body training days. Typically, I only have three days where I can really train hard, and only one of those days is upper body focused. That means I need to pack in a lot of volume into that one day.  Realizing that core stability was one of my major weaknesses, I tried to figure out a way to include more core stability exercises without adding time to my training schedule or losing out on volume elsewhere.

With that in mind, I started to do more indirect core work via my upper body accessory movements. In light of this revelation, here are my five favorite movements, why they’re worth a look, and how to perform them. I should note: I have intentionally included a balance of push and pull type movements.

1. Kettlebell Overhead Press Variations

Overhead pressing, when done correctly, presents a tremendous challenge to the anterior core, as we must brace to prevent excessive arching of the low back.

If we make the movement one sided, we add the additional challenge of not side bending. In other words, it becomes a rotary and lateral core challenge.

Additionally, I prefer to overhead press a kettlebell over a dumbbell. The shape of the KB, and the way it’s held, promote a much smoother groove in which to press.

Lastly, the KB press offers some very simple, yet challenging, variations. You can perform them half kneeling (one knee down), tall kneeling (both knees down), or simply hold the KB upside down (bottoms-up) for an added stability challenge.

Check out this video on how to perform the tall kneeling KB press, one my favorite variations. The points discussed in the video carry over to each of the other variations mentioned.

2. Band Resisted Ab-Wheel Rollouts or Barbell Rollouts

Here’s one that probably caught most of you by surprise. In many people’s eyes, the ab wheel rollout is a direct core stability exercise. In many cases, I would agree with you. When a person first begins to learn this movement, without the band, it is far more challenging to hold the proper spinal position than it is to roll back to the start.

Furthermore, the demand on your upper body to roll back isn’t that high when the wheel is unloaded.

Once someone has become proficient at the unloaded wheel, you can actually load this movement. Adding bands to the wheel, or using a loaded barbell, creates quite a bit more work for the upper body, and in turn the core, which is trying to resist unwanted movement.

These two variations will help you not only build a strong midsection, but also add volume targeting the lats and long head of the triceps as well.

3. Split Stance Overhead Triceps Extension

This one is a killer, and I love it. It gets thrown out the window completely by most people, as if it’s just another triceps extension that’s just a waste of time. The truth is, it as a brutal exercise in anti-extension when done correctly.

With the lever arm being so far away from the lower back, even a small amount of weight can create a serious challenge in keeping the core braced and the ribs down. Not to mention, the movement also goes along way to develop the triceps. Lastly, the need to control the load more, and stay strict with the form, usually leaves people’s elbows feeling a lot better than other extension exercises.

4. 3-Point Dumbbell Row

Anyone who has ever done a 3-point dumbbell row – somewhat strictly and with enough weight – knows that is a brutal test in anti-rotation. If you think about exercises like the renegade row, or even a 1-arm push up, the 3-point row offers much of the same benefits.

If you need to be more efficient with your training, and add some additional core training into the mix, I would choose this row over the traditional 1-arm DB row every time.

5. Half-Kneeling Push/Pull

This one requires some set-up, but it’s worth the hassle. The half-kneeling push-pull is the ultimate challenge in moving your upper extremities around a stable mid-section. Unlike many off-loaded push or pull exercises, you do not get the opportunity to brace one side of the body and focus your attention mainly on the moving side. Instead, both sides are actively going through concentric and eccentric motions while you brace the midsection and engage the glutes to keep the pelvis under control. Check out this video, and give it a try:

That wraps it up! These exercises are great additions to the bottom half of your programming on an upper body day and work extremely well in a more full body type programming effort as well. Enjoy!

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Why You Struggle to Train Overhead – and What to Do About It

A while back, I posted the following on my Facebook page:

"Fill in the Blank: ________ is the exercise that gives me the most trouble in the gym."

I've received 132 replies.  Of that 132, 21 were people trying to be funny on the internet, so they're thrown out the window - which leaves us with 111 replies.  Not surprisingly, more respondents highlighted trouble with an overhead movement - snatch, military press, overhead squat, etc. - than any other category of strength exercise.  In fact, it was one-third of people (37/111).  In a distant second place was squat variations, which comprised 19% of responses (21/111).

Digging a bit deeper, the most common "subcategory" of this overhead movements trend was the snatch, with 12 people saying that it was the exercise that gave them the most trouble. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the most high velocity movement in this category would be the most commonly cited, but what should surprise you is the sheer volume of people who are woefully unprepared to train overhead who try to fit a round peg in a square hole in this regard. 

If you can't get your arms overhead correctly at rest, do you really think you'll be able to do it when you're in panic mode just trying to catch a barbell you've launched over your head?  Heck no!  You're going to hyperextend your lower back and slip into forward head posture. And, chances are that you'll have already set up with an ultra wide grip to ensure that you can catch the bar with as little shoulder mobility as possible.

Before we proceed, let's cover this classic presentation in more detail. Here's a video I originally filmed for Wil Fleming.

(Side note: if you're trying to learn to Olympic lift, definitely check out Wil's fantastic DVD on the topic: Complete Olympic Lifting.)

The people who struggle learn the snatch - or really perform any overhead lift - are generally adults.  Why?  Because they've lost a fundamental movement pattern - overhead reaching - that everyone should have!  Barring some developmental disorder, everyone has the ability to get the arms overhead when they are kids, whether it's to reach for the cookie jar or to climb on the jungle gym at the playground.

Think about it: the overwhelming majority of teenagers can learn to Olympic lift in a matter of a few weeks or months.  And, it's been discussed time and time again how Eastern European kids would practice Olympic lifting patterns with broomsticks to maintain these crucial movement patterns to prepare for the day when they'd load them up.  They understood this very important lesson:

[bctt tweet="It's much easier to maintain mobility than it is to lose it and try to get it back."]

This isn't just because tissues can become fundamentally short and degenerative.  And, it's not just because resting posture becomes more aberrant or individuals accumulate more wear and tear.  It has a lot to do with the plasticity of the human brain.  Just like it's a lot easier to train a puppy than it is to teach an old dog new tricks, it's much easier to shape the neuromuscular patterning of a developing child or teenager than it is to change the more concrete patterns of an adult with poor movement quality - especially when that adult insists on trying to learn the pattern with 65 pounds or more on the barbell (rather than just a broomstick) - and after years of sitting at a computer.

Really, we're just reaping what we've sowed over the past 15-20 years.  The new generation of adults spent more time on Instant Messenger than on the basketball court. Fewer kids than ever did manual labor in their teenage years.  It became cooler to get an iPhone than a bike for your birthday. And, society pared back on physical education classes and recess time.  While this was happening, kids got more specialized on the sports front, meaning they were exposed to even less variety in movements when they actually did get exercise. Our health has obviously suffered, but so has our movement quality.

Before I get off on too much of a tangent, though, let's circle back to the back-to-wall shoulder flexion test from the video I posted earlier. If you failed it miserably, don’t worry! The "good" thing about struggling to get overhead correctly is that you know that there are a number of different things that could be limiting your ability to get there:

  • Limited shoulder flexion (short/stiff lats, long head of triceps, teres major, inferior capsule)
  • Limited shoulder external rotation (short/stiff pecs, lats, subscapularis)
  • Lack of scapular upward rotation (weakness of lower traps, upper traps, and/or serratus anterior; and dominance of levator scapula, rhomboids, and pec minor)
  • Poor thoracic spine extension
  • Lack of anterior core stiffness

With all these potential problems, chances are that improving each just a little bit will yield big results, especially since they interact with each other on a number of fronts.  For instance, if you reduce stiffness in your lats, your anterior core won't have to work quite as hard to overpower that stiffness, so its relative stiffness improves.

Below, you’ll find six videos of exercises you’ll want to incorporate in your warm-ups daily to gradually build up your range-of-motion and overhead stability. Be sure to perform them in this order:

1. Supine Alternating Shoulder Flexion on Doubled Tennis Ball: 8 reps/side

(Note: perform the rest of your foam rolling series, too - and make sure to spend some extra time on the lats and pecs.)

2. Bench T-Spine Mobilizations: 8 reps

3. Side-Lying Windmills: 8 reps/side

4. Dead Bugs: 8 reps/side

5. Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion (it's a test and a training exercise): 8 reps

6. Wall Slides with Upward Rotation and Lift-off: 8 reps

Do these drills each day during your warm-ups and - if schedule allows - another time during the day.  You'll find that it'll be much easier to get overhead in a matter of days and weeks. In the meantime, gradually build toward your ultimate goal with some regressions in your strength training program.  You can use a landmine press instead of a true overhead press, and cleans or high pulls in place of snatches. Eventually, once your body is ready to tackle these more complex movements, you'll find that learning them will be much easier.

Looking for more great self-assessment and mobility tips like these – as part of a comprehensive strength and conditioning program? Check out my resource, The High Performance Handbook, which features versatile strength and conditioning programs you can modify to suit your needs.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 11/11/13

First off, a big thank you goes out to all the veterans out there who have served our country.  We appreciate all that you've done to protect our freedom!  With that said, here are this week's recommended strength and conditioning readings:

Lift Big by Bracing, not Arching - Tony Gentilcore covered a lot of ideas and coaching cues that get a lot of attention on a typical day at Cressey Performance.

Suprising Supplements: Five Effective Nutrients You've Never Heard Of - This was an enlightening post at Precision Nutrition from my pal Brian St. Pierre, who co-authored the nutrition guide for The High Performance Handbook.

HPHNG_Cover

Freaks of Nature: When Biomechanics Go Out the Window - I always enjoy Dean Somerset's stuff, and this "outside the box" post is no exception.

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Cissus Quadrangularis Supplementation: What You Need to Know

Today's guest post comes from the guys at Examine.com, who take unbiased looks at all sorts of topics related to health and fitness.  They'll be discussing a supplement of which you may have never heard, but should be aware. This post is timely, as their popular Supplement-Goals Reference Guide is now on sale to celebrate their hiring of new researchers to kick out great new content.

Cissus Quadrangularis is a traditional medicine used to reduce inflammation and accelerate post-fracture bone regeneration. It is one of the "go-to" recommendations for athletes struggling with joint pain.

However, many authorities have not taken official positions on cissus because, despite the vast collection of anecdotal benefits, there have been few human studies on the supplement.

Studies published in eastern journals have suggested cissus speeds up bone healing, but the dosage amount was not disclosed. Also available as evidence is a documented failure to ease hemorrhoids and a study suggesting cissus can reduce weight in obese people. Researchers in the second study had funding issues and dosed the supplement in the form of gum, taken with water before a meal. Gum and water before a meal will reduce food intake, regardless of the kind of gum taken. Not very compelling evidence!

There is good news, however. The first preliminary human trial on joint pain in adult athletes and cissus has finally been published and results are promising. Adults with nonpathological joint pain due to exercise took 3,200mg of cissus daily. After eight weeks, subjects reported a reduction in joint symptoms by about a third.

The study lacked a placebo control, and cissus was not tested against a reference drug, so more evidence will be required determine cissus’ true efficacy.

450px-Cissus_quadrangularis_MS0938

Muscles and Joints

Cissus has a few properties that may benefit the musculoskeletal system. The following has been observed in rats:

  • Cissus is anti-inflammatory agent, though with questionable potency.

  • It is a painkiller with a quick onset.

  • It has minor muscle relaxant and sedative properties, which occur within 30 minutes of supplementation.

Due to its mild sedative effect, high doses of cissus should not be used as a preworkout.

Effects on Bone

Cissus increases IGF signalling in bone cells, which promotes mineral retention and growth. These effects have been observed in low concentrations, which suggests oral supplementation is a suitable way to take cissus. Rodent studies have shown that cissus promotes bone growth, mineral density and increases the bone’s ability to withstand force.

There are numerous studies published in eastern journals that support cissus’ positive effects on bone regeneration, but methodologies vary and actual evidence is scant.

Other properties

The sedative effects associated with cissus supplementation are not well studied, but it has been observed to enhance sleep time in benzodiazepine-induced animals. This suggests that cissus might best be supplemented before bed.

The herb has also traditionally been used to reduce stomach ulceration. Animal studies support this property.

Take-aways:

  • Cissus quadrangularis is a well-known supplement for reducing exercise-induced joint pain.

  • There is a serious lack of scientific evidence for the effects of cissus quadrangularis.

  • It is a potentially relaxing compound, not suited for a preworkout.

  • Cissus quadrangularis has promising but unproven benefits for bone regeneration.

  • It the future, it may be used to treat and prevent ulcers.

Looking for more unbiased reviews of supplements - both popular and obscure - to which you'll constantly be referring for years to come?  Check out the Supplement-Goals Reference Guide; it's a fantastic product that is "Cressey Approved" - and on sale through this Friday at midnight. Perhaps the coolest part is that you get a lifetime of updates, so when new research emerges, the reviews are updated to reflect this new information.

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