Home Posts tagged "Dana Santas"

Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 4/11/18

I hope you're having a great week. Just in case you need some help getting over Hump Day, here's some good reading to brighten your mood:

Should You Squat Tall Athletes? - This was an absolutely outstanding blog from Mike Robertson.

Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief - My good friend Dana Santas recently released this user friendly book that draws on decades of experience of incorporating yoga the right way.

Three Awesome Mobility Drills That Will Make You a Pain-Free Golfer - This is some excellent stuff from Cressey Sports Performance coach Frank Duffy, who heads up not only our strength camps, but also our weekly Kinstretch classes.

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Yoga for Athletes: Why Activation and Inhibition Matter More than Stretching

Today's guest post comes from yoga expert, Dana Santas, who is "changing the game" when it comes to yoga for athletes. Enjoy! -EC

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Ten years ago, I taught yoga to athletes; literally, that’s what I did. I spent my first year in the yoga-for-sports niche teaching athletes how to be “good” at yoga. My goal was to help them be-come more flexible. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. A decade later, after working with hundreds of pro athletes and dozens of teams, I’m extremely averse to the idea of “flexibility” as a priority.

But, like many yoga instructors, I started my career with a well-intentioned emphasis on length-ening muscle tissue that seemed short and tight. Despite that misguided intention, it was my Type-A, drill-sergeant insistence on precise alignment and proper breathing that inadvertently delivered results for my clients. Once I recognized the real reasons I was positively impacting them—which had little to do with stretching—I went from providing temporary relief of tension to creating lasting increases in functional mobility, stability, and mental stamina.

Yoga didn’t benefit my clients because of flexibility gains; rather, it helped them:

1. activate/inhibit muscles
2. use their diaphragm
3. initiate their parasympathetic nervous system

In this article, we’re addressing the first item. However, my next article “5 Compelling Reasons Athletes Should Practice Breathing,” will cover why proper diaphragm use and breathing biomechanics are not only paramount for leveraging the autonomic nervous system but also facilitating integrated core strength, pelvic floor function, shoulder girdle integrity, shoulder mobility, and more. But I digress….

Because many yoga positions require multi-planar movement in a controlled manner or positional hold, demanding perfect alignment in those poses forces athletes out of compensation patterns. Taking them out of these patterns activates muscles that have been dysfunctionally dormant, and inhibits the overactive compensators (effectively turning off the tension). It’s the activation and inhibition initiated in yoga—not stretching—that actually helps athletes become more mobile.

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When you simply stretch chronically tight, overactive muscles—without correcting the cause of the overactivity—you can provide temporary relief, but you risk tearing the muscle and increasing potential for injury. You might also reduce strength and power, since the athlete has likely been using that muscle as a primary source of movement in their sport.

Why do I assume that significant tension in athletes is due to compensation? I see it all the time! Consider the most popular, traditional strength and conditioning movements—the ones we love to do (i.e., squats, bench presses, bicep curls, crunches, etc.). What do they all have in common? The sagittal plane. And that’s where too many athletes place their training effort, despite the fact that most sports require multi-planar movement; think about a baseball swing. Consequently, athletes learn to compensate through powerful multi-planar movements in their sport by using the muscles they’ve strengthened in the weight room.

Understanding this phenomenon, we can better identify the contributing factors to areas of chronic tension and leverage yoga to concentrate on specific activation of the muscles that have been inhibited (agonists and synergists) by the tense area’s overactivity/compensation. In this way, you use reciprocal inhibition to not only relieve tension but restore kinetic chain firing and functional range of motion. Stretching, alone, can’t accomplish that.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at a typical area of tension: the low back.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked by teams and athletes to “stretch” tight low backs…almost as many times as I’ve been asked to “stretch out hamstrings.” Of course that’s not a coincidence, since most athletes with “tight” backs also have “tight” hamstrings…because they’re both part of a typical dysfunctional posterior chain firing pattern!

Before I explain my activation-and-inhibition rationale and strategy for approaching low-back tension, let me offer this interesting piece of info:

According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), in 2010, lower back strains were the most common reported reason for ER visits relating to yoga. I believe this is the case because the sequences of some popular yoga styles, including Bikram's Hot 26, feature poses that feed into compensatory back-extension patterns by promoting hyperextension, and counter them with stretches encouraging extreme low-back flexion. Understandably, that combination of movements can be especially dangerous for anyone with a tight low back!

Athletes with low-back tension usually have excessive anterior pelvic tilts that contribute to in-creased lumbar lordosis. Overactive hip flexors holding the pelvic tilt, inhibit glute firing, which then forces back extensors to compensate as hip extensors.

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If we just stretch the low back—which often isn’t even possible because the back extensors can’t release—we’re not fixing the problem because the low back will immediately reengage in response to the hip flexors pulling on the pelvis. And, as the ER-visit data shows, we could strain the low back in the process.

Here’s a sample breakdown* of an introductory activation-and-inhibition yoga strategy for low-back issues:

*Note that these are just a few examples and don’t represent all of the possible yoga-based movements that could be used to initially address low-back tension. Once you’ve had success with simple—yet challenging—postures and movements, like those below, you can move into multi-planar twisting poses variations that emphasize t-spine rotation while maintaining a stable low back, as well as more challenging positions that emphasize hip mobility through a functional range. Often, low-back issues are aggravated by a locked-up thoracic spine and/or hip mobility limitations that force compensatory rotation from the lumbar spine. But you don’t want to jump right into more complicated movements until you’ve reinforced low-back stability and function and ensured that the back extensors can actually shut off appropriately.

Start with movements that promote glute activation and hip flexor inhibition, like Bridge. Maintain pressure in the lateral heels and medial arches to facilitate glute and adductor engagement. Avoid lifting into back extension. Inhale as you lift your pelvis. Exhale to bring your pelvis down. If the knees bow out or you have trouble maintaining medial arch awareness, hold a foam yoga block or ball between your legs to ensure adductor engagement.

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Incorporate core and pelvic floor work to inhibit back extensors. This includes practicing poses, like my version of a Modified Boat pose with feet down. Keeping the knees and feet together integrates a focus on adductor engagement for hip and pelvic floor stability. Inhale as you reach arms out to the sides, aligned with shoulders. Exhale as you bring the arms back to the front (as pictured). Supinating the forearms as you take the arms out helps engage lower traps and re-lease upper traps to avoid drawing the shoulders up next to the ears.

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Functional Squat encourages the pelvis to move through a posterior tilt and release back ex-tensors. Like the traditional yoga Child’s Pose, functional squat also lengthens the low back; however, it does it actively rather than passively. Keep feet hip-distance apart with weight in the lateral heels and medial arches. Hold for three deep breaths.

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After going through the moves above, I recommend finishing with a longer-held, low-back stretch. Yes, I did say “stretch.”

I’m not a yoga trainer who doesn’t stretch my clients. I stretch them all! It’s just not the focus of my programs. But I use dynamic stretching (I call it dynamic “mobility”) in warm-ups, and I close out sessions with targeted, deeper stretches. For example, check out this video clip from a re-cent Tampa Bay Rays development camp. We'd already worked on glute and core activation to inhibit low-back extensors, so then we were doing targeted quadratus lumborum (QL) stretching.

In the interest of brevity, the sample yoga strategy I’ve shared above doesn’t specifically address asymmetry, but it’s important to note that there are typical contributing factors that lead to tension presenting more on one side than the other—particularly the right. These can include: left-to-right pelvic rotation with the center of gravity stuck in the right hip (the foundation of Postural Restoration Institute philosophy) and poor breathing mechanics causing the diaphragm to pull into the right low back, where it has a thicker, longer right lumbar-spine attachment.

Asymmetrical low-back tension is also exacerbated by an athlete’s sport, position and hand dominance. Using baseball as an example, consider how the movements of the following players would add to right low-back pain: a right-handed batter, a left-handed pitcher, and a right-handed a catcher, who stays on his toes due to an inability to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. Consequently, when developing a yoga-based program for an athlete with a low-back issue, the postures you select and the cuing and emphasis need to take into account the asymmetrical nature of the athlete’s tension and corresponding compensation patterns they’ve developed as a result of their sport.

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All this said, I’m not claiming that athletes can’t get anything positive out of flexibility-focused yoga. Stretching, in and of itself, can feel great and increase blood supply to muscle tissues. I just think it’s important to understand the risks versus benefits. And, as I explained from my own experience as a novice instructor, there can be “inadvertent” benefits. However, when you’re a pro athlete, whose body’s function determines the trajectory of your career, it’s probably not in your best interest to waste your time with anything that’s “inadvertently” good for you…and could possibly be detrimental. My advice for teams and athletes, who want to add yoga to their training program, is to seek out instructors who understand functional mobility and breathing biomechanics, and don’t over emphasize flexibility.

About the Author

Dana Santas is creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga-based mobility and sports-training style designed specifically to help athletes move, breathe and focus in ways that enhance performance and decrease injury. Nicknamed the “Mobility Maker,” she’s the yoga mobility expert for CNN and team yoga trainer for the Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays, Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as sports mobility consultant to more than half a dozen other teams and hundreds of MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL, MLS, LPGA & WTA pros. You can learn more about her at www.RadiusYoga.com.

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The Best of 2014: Guest Posts

I've already highlighted the top articles and videos I put out at EricCressey.com in 2014, so now it's time for the top guest posts of the year. Here goes…

1. The 5 Biggest Mistakes Women Make With Their Training Programs - With this great post from Molly Galbraith, for the second year in a row, my top guest post related to the topic of strength training for females. I think it's safe to say that I need to feature more female-specific content moving forward!

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2. 5 Strategies for Quickly Increasing Your Mobility - This post from Dean Somerset only ran a few weeks ago, but quickly became one of the biggest hits of the year.

3. 5 Ways You've Never Used a Barbell - Greg Robins shares some outside-the-box thoughts on how to get the most of barbell training beyond "the basics."

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4. Squats vs. Hip Thrusts: Which is Better? - Nobody geeks out about glutes like Bret Contreras, and this article is a perfect example.

5. The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make With Yoga - Dana Santas goes to great lengths to apply yoga "the right way," and in this article, she talks about where many athletes and yoga instructors go astray.

I'll be back soon with the top strength and conditioning features from 2014. In the meantime, have a safe and happy new year!

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The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make With Yoga

Today's guest post comes from yoga expert, Dana Santas. Dana has built up an impressive client roster of professional athletes and teams, and it's no surprise, given how educated she is in applying yoga the right way. Enjoy! -EC

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Yoga is a popular topic in the sports world these days. Undeniably, yoga can offer some amazing benefits for athletes. However, those benefits can only be realized when it’s taught correctly and adapted specifically with the goal of increasing sports performance. Otherwise, at best, yoga can be marginally helpful in sports, and, at worst, can actually be dangerous.

These are the five biggest mistakes I see athletes, coaches and trainers making with yoga:

1. Viewing Yoga as a Harmless “Stretch Class”

The most prevalent misconception about yoga that I encounter is that it’s best used for “stretching.” In my opinion, yoga applied for sheer flexibility has no place in sports. Flexibility without stability is nothing more than a recipe for injury. If you only use yoga to “stretch out” athletes without understanding and addressing the cause of the tension, you’re only applying yoga for temporary relief and can actually do more damage than good. A perfect example is the typical complaint: “I need to stretch my hamstrings because I can’t touch my toes.” When the hamstring tension is caused by an anterior pelvic tilt pulling the hamstrings into a lengthened yet inhibited position, attempting to stretch the hamstrings without correcting the pelvic tilt will only lead to tearing the hamstrings.

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Most tension in athletes is caused by dysfunction or compensatory movement patterns. Fix the pattern and you release the tension--without unnecessary static stretching (like in the hamstrings example above).That’s why I never call what I do “increasing flexibility.” Is it a byproduct? Certainly. But I focus on using yoga for mobility, which--to me--means increasing stable, functional range of motion.

2. Not Understanding the Differences (and Dangers) of Yoga Styles

Saying “I do yoga” is like saying “I drive a car.” Really, what kind? There’s a big difference between a Hyundai and a Ferrari. When it comes to yoga, the variety of styles goes on and on...Hatha vs. Ashtanga vs. Bikram vs. Yin vs. Power vs. Blah Blah (everyone is making up their own version); I even have my own style! Athletes, coaches and trainers have to take the time to educate themselves about the techniques and rationales of the different styles before jumping into a class.

Personally, I believe some styles should be entirely contraindicated for athletes. I realize I’m going to piss off all the hot-yoga disciples by saying this, but one such style is Bikram, where the heat is turned up to an obnoxious 105 degrees. Yes, I know this is popular with athletes because they love to sweat. Great--push yourself properly in 75 degrees to sweat (or go to the sauna), but steer clear of a yoga style that teaches its instructors to shout commands like “lock your knees” while you slip and slide in sweat over the course of 90 minutes. Of the 26 poses used in Bikram, there are two I don’t think most athletes should attempt because of stress on the knees (Reclined Hero) and cervical spine (Rabbit). Another style that I’m not crazy about – Yin yoga – is widely marketed to athletes. The deep, static stretches of Yin are intended to stretch out the connective tissue--including ligaments. I don’t agree with encouraging athletes to stretch out areas that provide joint stability.

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3. Not Vetting The Yoga Instructor

Most people don’t realize that yoga instruction is almost entirely unregulated. As such, there's no law requiring any specific certification to teach yoga. So, anyone can buy a certification online. Consequently, there isn’t a requirement for any anatomy training at all. In fact, even the current gold standard of certification through Yoga Alliance only includes a limited number of anatomy hours, which can be entirely comprised of energy anatomy (chakras, nadis, etc.) rather than muscle and joint function.

Despite this, yoga teachers are encouraged to manually adjust their students in postures. If you’re asking yourself how anyone without anatomy and biomechanics training can properly adjust someone into alignment in complicated yoga poses, you’re contemplating a very valid question. What happens when ill-advised instructors adjust students in classes? Well, injuries aren’t uncommon. One of my MLB clients suffered a cervical spine injury when an instructor in a gym placed a strap around his neck and did “traction” to help him “rest comfortably” while supine at the end of class. Yikes!

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4. Trying to Become a Yogi

Simply learning to do a particular style of yoga as a form of cross training is like a baseball player playing basketball in the off-season. He may benefit from the cardiovascular exercise and even improve his agility, but nothing he does playing basketball is specific to him becoming a better baseball player. And, it could even put him at a greater risk of injury as he feeds into existing dysfunctional patterns within the movements of the new sport. The same logic applies to athletes learning to be yogis.

Consider this: a MLB player came to me as a new client after practicing yoga the two previous off-seasons. His movement across the transverse plane was poor and his right SI joint was jammed due to pelvic rotation left to right. He knew how to do yoga sun salutations (albeit while employing myriad compensatory movement patterns), but he lacked the ability to shift appropriately into his left hip and tap into core power and hip mobility for powerful, fluid rotation. He was a left-handed DH, not a yogi, and should’ve approached his yoga practice as such. Consequently, I designed a custom yoga practice for him that focused on establishing the ability to properly shift into his left hip while increasing fluid movement of his pelvis and hips supported by integrated core strength. That’s the kind of yoga he needed!

Another point I have to make about athletes not striving to become yogis is regarding learning advanced inversions and arm balances. Yes, standing on your head looks really cool, but, can easily cause disc herniations when done incorrectly. And arm balances are awe-inspiring, but offer no benefit to athletes (especially throwing athletes) that outweigh the risks. When pressed by clients to teach these poses, I ask them: “Are you an athlete who wants to reach the top of your game or would you rather join Cirque du Soleil?”

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5. Wasting Hours in Yoga Classes

The standard format for a yoga class is a 60- to 90-minute class. With grueling training and game schedules, athletes have limited time to get the best possible training and have any semblance of a life outside of their sport, so every second counts. In my opinion, spending an hour-plus in a generic yoga class is not time well spent.

When taught athlete- and sport-specifically, yoga can be applied in a variety of ways that require little time commitment (i.e., a yoga mobility warm-up can be done before a workout or game, restorative yoga and/or deeper stretches can be done after games and/or on off days, yoga moves used as corrective exercise or functional training can be added into workouts in between sets of complementary moves). My clients’ in-season programs never include anything more than 20 minutes at a time and are also broken down into individual movements intended for integration into other parts of their strength and conditioning programs.

The bottom line is that all of these mistakes and potential dangers can be avoided by practicing due diligence. When athletes are smart about why and how they add yoga to their training, they can use it tap into another level of function, awareness and control that will help them move, breathe and focus in ways that directly translate to enhanced sports performance and decreased injury.

About the Author

Dana Santas is creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga-based mobility and sports-training style designed specifically to help athletes move, breathe and focus in ways that enhance performance and decrease injury. Nicknamed the “Mobility Maker,” she's currently the team yoga trainer for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies, as well as sports mobility consultant to more than half a dozen other teams and hundreds of MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL and MLS pros. You can learn more about her and get information about her upcoming workshop in Waltham, MA at www.RadiusYoga.com.

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