Soft Tissue Work Isn’t The Enemy

It bothers me when people, even the educated ones, say that muscles are “just not firing”, as if there is a total lack of innervation in an otherwise healthy individual (i.e. no radiculopathy or motor unit issues). Sure, muscles can be rendered ineffective because of tightness or bad mechanics — and thus their inclusion in movement is impaired — but they aren’t “not firing”. Subsequently, you don’t “teach muscles to fire” in the absence of the pathology mentioned above. This was my first issue with the article “Your IT Band is Not the Enemy” by Robert Comacho.

There’s so much silly in-fighting in the strength and conditioning world I feel the need to preface this god damn article by saying I’m sure Robert is a nice guy, an effective coach, and I don’t think he’s a piece of shit. I’m just going to disagree with the point of his article and I’m sure he’s man enough to accept that. And if he’s not, then he’ll scream into his pillow.

I’m actually disappointed in this article since it said the foam roller may be the enemy, yet there wasn’t much evidence supporting the statement. There are a lot of things that can result in a tight iliotibial tract, or IT band, because there are quite a few structures that interact with it. The author is right in the roles of the TFL and the gluteus medius in how they attach to the IT band with their inferior (or lower) attachments and help stabilize the knee. The vastus lateralis (the outside quad) also has some IT interaction and can affect function in the area as well. Note that other muscles that don’t actually touch the IT band can exacerbate tightness or pain too. But describing articulations with the IT band is incomplete because movement and mechanics will dictate muscular function and therefore tightness and pain at the IT band.

Bad posture, movement, and lifting mechanics will influence what muscles are used, overused, or ineffectively used (though they will still fire, mind you). This is the stuff that will dictate whether or not muscles like the TFL, glute medius, or vastus lateralis are tight and whether or not the IT band incorrectly receives stress and loading. It leaves the scope of this article to detail a comprehensive look at mechanics that effect the IT band, but some mechanic faults include the navicular drop (collapsed foot arch), knees moving in on any movement including walking, running, squatting, etc., and having tight internal rotators at the hip and weak external rotators (for the IT band’s purposes, I’m referring to the posterior fibers of the glute medius). If none of that made any sense, it just means doing athletic stuff with shitty technique will cause IT band issues and that a coach should be fixing it.

But I want to focus on two ideas:
1. Soft tissue work is being demonized.
2. Readers are so quick to hear someone’s opinion and immediately accept it as gospel, stroke its dong, and revel in its post-coitus warmth.

The Demonization of Soft Tissue Work

Foam rollers increase range of motion and reduce pain. My IT bands are tight and my knees hurt. Therefore I should apply the roller to my IT bands to solve these problems, right? Unfortunately, more often than not the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” It’s quite possible you’re actually doing more harm than help and further stretching an already abused and over-elongated piece of tissue. (From Robert’s article)

 

Unfortunately, most people do roll on their IT band excessively to try to fix it. Robert is right to criticize this, but he makes it seem like there is no place for it and fails to acknowledge that good coaches will not prescribe this. In his defense, he does clarify that, “It wasn’t my intention to state that foam rolling/stretching have no place in this type of rehab, It was more to point out…that the solution may be a bit more complex. (From a reply of his in the comments).

Fair enough, but then why suggest in the title of the article that the foam roller is potentially the problem? That’s like saying guns are a problem instead of the psycho pieces of shit who wield them against innocent people. It may be Breaking Muscle’s fault (the website that published the article); I know that The CrossFit Journal gave my article a shitty title when they published it. A website or journal needs to sell, and unfortunately people are more likely to click something if it’s controversial or big boobs.

As much as people want to say foam rolling or using lacrosse balls is actually harmful, the practical evidence suggests otherwise. Should we just mash on shit when it hurts? No, sir. But well thought out and executed soft tissue work can not only improve a lot of issues, but they are necessary in the absence of a good physical therapist. If you — whether you’re a trainee or a coach — want to improve your knowledge about this, then get your nose in a book or a college class and learn musculoskeletal anatomy. Learn about biomechanics and how to optimally distribute force efficiently. Learn about trigger point therapy and different types of injuries. I wrote two articles (“Why Anatomy Is Important” and “Learning About Strength and Conditioning“) that include some resources about this material, but I’ve learned most of it by doing and thinking.

This article isn’t a guide on how to do soft tissue, but I want to defiantly stand against the notion that it’s the enemy. Stupid soft tissue work is the enemy, just like the stupid use of Valium and a heavy machinery is the enemy. Coaches and trainees who actually give a shit need to think, which leads me to my next point.

Use Your Fucking Noggin

Below is something I saw on Facebook.
CaptureA few things:

1. The post the person linked to is from “I Fucking Love Science”, which is a stupid fucking piece of shit Facebook page that is the epitome of irrelevant material and aims for self popularity instead of the dissemination of knowledge. Read Maddox’s entertaining article about it.

2. I really wanted to be way more of an asshole, but I actually have a pretty thick filter. The point: if there were a giant ligament in every person’s knee, don’t you think somebody would have noticed in the last 2,000 years?

3. People ate this steaming bullshit up and then asked for seconds and thirds. This is a problem.

Readers are so god damn quick to immediately and irrevocably believe whatever they are being told, regardless of the qualifications of the person writing it. It could be written by some goober who has never coached anyone or someone who has many degrees and athletes, but is borderline retarded.

As a consumer about training information, you need to be openly skeptical about everything you read or hear. Hearing something that makes you feel good or that you agree with doesn’t make it 100% true. If the coach who has been watching you squat for two years tells you to do something, they should have the ability and the proverbial balls to explain it to you, even if it’s merely a hunch or experiment.

When a guy like Robert writes an article that says your foam roller is the problem, don’t immediately say, “I FUCKING KNEW IT. THIS PROVES WHAT I’VE THOUGHT ALL ALONG.” Read what the dude is actually saying, question it, and see what info you can use. Discuss it. Think about it.

Foam rollers, rumble rollers, lacrosse balls, and Theracanes are not the enemy; our brains are. Let’s hold them accountable.

Efficient Training: Conditioning Technique

My travels have led me to many gyms ranging from performance centers for special operations personnel to CrossFit gyms, from storage containers to globo gyms. There is a constant in all of these facilities: inefficiency.

One of the biggest training abominations is the lack of proper technique during high intensity conditioning workouts (which includes “met-cons”, CrossFit workouts, or otherwise). Typically lifting exercises, or derivatives thereof, are infused into high intensity conditioning with an attached performance standard. This is a fantastic way to create an abnormally high work output as an adaptive stress, yet not at the expense of making a decrepit athlete.

It’s hard to maintain technique while fatigued with a high ventilation rate (breathing hard). In fact, it’s actually beneficial to test an athlete or trainee’s ability to use quality technique while under duress as it can help them do so in their sport or job. For example, if a football player or soldier can’t maintain mechanics in the middle of the 4th quarter or towards the end of a mission, their body position could be compromised and opened up for poor performance or injury.

Yet executing poor positioning in a workout specifically designed to maintain it while fatigued is obviously missing the point entirely. Training needs to serve a performance enhancement purpose — an adaptive stress — instead of merely completing a task or workout.

Don't know if this is CF, and it's a power clean, but it has all of the same faults as a crappy thruster

I don’t think this is CF, and it’s a power clean, but it has all of the same faults as a crappy thruster

Using poor technique can have a future debilitating effect because of the trainee learning bad positioning, but crappy mechanics also loads musculature ineffectively. If a workout includes thrusters, then faults like the knees caving in, thoracic spine rounding, elbows dropping, and wrists cranking back into extension results in a) structures not being loaded properly and b) focusing the force application on the wrong structures. The former means the trainee doesn’t receive beneficial work on the related musculature and the latter means they end up putting stress on specific structures that cause or contribute to injuries. Nagging soft tissue injuries are almost always caused by doing many reps with poor technique. Mobility work can treat the symptoms, but the root cause will almost always be poor mechanics.

Proper technique that distributes the force across the musculature will use the maximum amount of muscles intended for a given movement. More muscles working most efficiently means more force production which results in optimal performance. Good mechanics = optimal performance.

If or when you conduct high intensity conditioning, ensure that you don’t compromise technique for the sake of doing the workout faster. If the work is too difficult — whether the weight is too heavy or the reps are too high — then account for this by adjusting the workout as you go, doing fewer reps per set, or by not programming that weight or number of reps in the first place.

If you are a coach, then ensure your trainees can conduct relevant movements properly before increasing the duress in a high intensity environment. Don’t put your trainee in a workout that allows bad positioning, and if their technique degrades, then cue them into efficient technique or throttle them back so they can maintain it. Sure, showing that your trainee hit a performance PR is nice, but not at the expense forgoing efficient movement mechanics. Your job as a coach is to instill good, natural movement mechanics that are transferable to any activity. This will always improve performance and mitigate injury.

Sacrificing good movement mechanics in high intensity conditioning training can lead injury, performance loss, and wastes everybody’s time. Aim to be efficient.

For more on mechanics and high intensity conditioning:
Quality > Quantity
The CrossFit Quads

Efficient Training: The Squat

My travels have led me to many gyms ranging from performance centers for special operations personnel to CrossFit gyms, from storage containers to globo gyms. There is a constant in all of these facilities: inefficiency.

Though I’ve rehashed topics like this ad nauseam in the past (see additional links at end), it’s always good to revisit them and put them back in the fore front of readers’ minds.

Typical 5x5 weight for me was 445

445 for 5×5

The squat is the most important exercise anyone can do for any goal. 

Want to get stronger and/or bigger? You’ll need to squat since it strengthens the legs and hips through a full range of motion while the trunk isometrically maintains position; it’s a full body exercise. And since it’s training the majority of the musculature in the body, it garners a systemic (i.e. large scale hormonal) response in order to heal the damage done from an effective squat workout. This systemic response is what augments any other lifting you’ve done in the same training session and is the adaptive stress that spurns recovery and strength gain.

Want to lose body fat? The systemic stress response from squatting means hormones are working in overdrive to recover — a process that requires calories and stimulates muscle repair and growth. By using calories and growing new muscle — and doing this regularly with consistent training — the body is in a hormonal environment that facilitates body fat loss. To this day I’ve never had a female trainee not lose body fat on a strength training program.

Want to get faster? The squat takes the hips through a full range of motion and accentuates hip extension — the fundamental athletic movement. The squat also inherently involves a stretch reflex out of the bottom; the musculature about the hips and thighs moves into a position of tension and quickly shortens, or contracts, to explode out of the bottom. The squat perfectly prepares the related musculature for speed and power training as well as teaching the trunk how to stabilize the spine and hips to efficiently transmit force while moving (an important aspect of sprinting). The act of improving absolute strength will decrease the difficulty of repetitive movement, resulting in the capacity for higher or faster rates of work.

By regularly loading the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones with a full-body movement like the squat through a full range of motion, these structures adapt to be stronger, more dense, and ultimately less likely to be injured.

However, in order for all of this to be the case, the squat needs to be performed efficiently with adequate mobility. And the first god damn step is squatting all of the way down — a point in which the hip capsule (acetabulum) is below the top of the knee (or patella). If you’re reading 70′s Big, then you most likely squat to full depth on each rep, but statistically speaking there are a few of you who don’t.

As I’ve said before: Every time you don’t squat to depth, I pour a beer down the drain. And I HATE wasting beer.

For the sake of the gods, let’s make this simple: a cue to help reach depth on any squat type is shove your knees out”. Sure, there is a lot of other things we could focus on like stance width, toe angle, torso alignment, breathing techniques, chest positioning, eye gaze, and so on, but anyone can squat to depth if they shove their knees out. The rest will figure itself out.

Dat depth.

Shoving the knees out externally rotates the hips to point the femur out away from the mid-line. It helps clear the femur from impinging on front of the hip capsule and surrounding tissue and allows for more hip flexion, AKA depth. It also helps create the “torque” at the hip that Kelly Starrett frequently talks about and results in distributing the force application across the hips and thighs efficiently (more on that here). It can help if the “knees out” cue is originating at the outside of the hips (imagine a twisting motion on the lateral hip that results in the knees out).

Since I’m preaching to the choir about squatting to depth, it’s up to all of you to help your friends do the same. If you frequent a gym and establish relationships, then it is your honor-bound duty as a lifter to help them. Don’t be a dick and just ask them if they mind if you say something about their squat — most people are very open to this because they secretly have no fucking idea what they are doing and ultimately have six pounds of anxiety building in their chest. Don’t over-complicate the matter — make simple and quick adjustments and give them a single cue before sending them back to the bar. For example: narrow up the stance, change the toe angle, then just have them think knees out — the first two are passive cues that they don’t have to think about and the last is the only active cue they worry about.

Whether you’re a half squat abuser or you are guilty by proxy, spread the word that the only way to squat is to full depth.

More 70′s Big articles on squatting:
A Half Squat Is Not A Squat
Squat All of the Way Down
Low Bar vs High Bar Squatting

AC Discusses Squats

Here’s the third installment of “AC teaches you how to do stuff more awesomely.” So far, he has gone over some tips on how to press better and how to bench better. Today, he goes over how to coach the squat.

 

There are two basic variations of the back squat: High Bar and Low Bar. They’re two different squats, but there are semi-similar ways to go about learning/doing/coaching them.

I want to help you teach the squat in general. First and foremost, you are going to to have the athlete stand in front of you like a mirror. Next, you are going to tell them to place their feet shoulder width apart. Just like the grip on the bench, this stance will provide the longest ROM with the most musculature utilized in the lift. It’s similar to the bench in that it’s harder to put your femurs into external rotation the wider you go (shoving your knees out). Next, their toes are going to be slightly pointed out. This will allow the athlete to shove their knees out to perform full ROM and get external rotation more than if their toes were pointed straight. depthIf the toes are straight (most athletes don’t have the mobility to accomplish toes straight and knees out) and the athletes knees are forward instead of out all that muscle and bone and fleshy area of the hip/femur mash into one another making it harder to achieve depth. With that said, have the athlete squat down to depth and stay down there. Note: this is without the bar. Have the athlete take his hands, put his palms together and with his elbows, shove the knees out. All of this is being down while maintaining extension in both lumbar/thoracic spine (WE ARE STILL AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SQUAT).

Now this leads into the low-bar squat. Low bar uses a little more hamstring than a high bar, but if your athletes are doing a lot of cleans (full cleans) then the high bar may be of more use to you because the squat in the clean is similar to a high bar squat.

In case I lost your attention…

bane

From there you are going to walk around behind the athlete and place your hands on their low back/hips and apply slight pressure. The weight should be placed right over the middle of the foot, roughly where you tie your shoe laces. THIS IS WHERE ALL THE WEIGHT IS ON A LOW BAR. You are then going to tell them to “DRIVE” their hips into your hands. This emphasizes “Hip Drive,” which is what low bar squatters use to rebound out of the hole.

Notice my hips driving me out of the bottom. Also notice how I maintain my bar position because my spine is in extension. Have them do this once or twice to get a feel for it. Another thing to note here: Their head position is neutral with their eyes fixed on a reference point a few feet in front of them. They ARE NOT LOOKING UP. Looking up destroys the tension that you attained through eccentric contraction in the hamstrings. The hips and knees move forward losing that stretch reflex. You can demonstrate this by doing a 3rd and 4th rep with the athlete in this demo phase. Have the athlete look at the ground a few feet in front of them and then command them to drive up (hands still on the hips), then have the athlete look up as hard as they can (like most coaches tell them too). Squatting should be significantly harder now. Keep in mind this is for the low-bar. You can get away with that more in the high-bar, but it’s not a good spinal position.

Now you can take them to the barbell. Start with just the bar and then move from there.  For the low bar, the barbell sits along the spine of the scapula. It’s almost like a ridge that your body creates when you place yourself under the bar. When the athlete is under the bar, move so you can be in a position next to them. From there you are going to give them the last little touch up cues. When they unrack the bar it should coincide with a large breath of air and extension of the spine. Reference my video if you need to look again. Also, when they unrack it their elbows should be applying downward pressure on the bar. Do not let their elbows slack down. All the weight of the bar is on their back NOT on their arms. Again, notice in the video how my elbows stay high. They are going to take roughly two steps back and take the same stance they had when you were teaching them before. Now right before they go, you will tell them 2 last things: A: They are going to have to shove their knees out without their elbows, and B: They are going to REBOUND out of the bottom, so basically they aren’t pausing at the bottom.

Notes:

Take a big breath and hold it for each rep. Each rep gets a new breath and it gets held FOR THE WHOLE REP.

At all times their eyes should be fixated on a reference point. It is hard to maintain balance if they are looking around.

Cues for Low Bar Squats:

“Knees out.” The athlete shoves their knees out for external rotation. Easier ROM, more musculature in the lift.

“Mid-Foot.” If you see the athlete shifting their weight, it can change the mechanics of the squat. This cues them to put their weight back on the middle of the foot.

“Drive.” This will remind the athlete to use his/her hips when they rebound out of the hole.

“Bounce.” This is tough for some people to get, but they essentially have to rebound out of the hole off of their hamstrings, using that eccentric contraction we talked about earlier. This is more of an advanced cue – for beginners, think “control down, fast up.”

 

Moving on to High-Bar Squats

The High Bar is similar in a few ways, but the bar placement is placed (higher) on the traps. This bar placement changes a few things. The torso has to maintain a more vertical position throughout the lift. The more vertical the torso, the more acute (closed) the knee angle will be. The “knees out” cue stays the same – it’s crucial for both styles of squats. The cue that changes here is “Mid-Foot.” The weight is emphasized on the heel, NOT the mid-foot. Put emphasis on “heels” on the way down and up. “Knees out” is just as important — common for lifters to bring them in at the bottom and on the way up in the high bar variation.

 

For more discussion on Low Bar and High Bar squats, see Justin’s article on the subject. Remember, neither of these articles is telling you exactly which is better for your situation, or demonizing either variation. If you’re confused, discuss the subject with your fellow lifters, your coach, and contemplate the issue quietly in the godswoods. Or, you know, try ‘em both, and shit. If you can’t hit 4 or 5 plates with both variations, you should probably just do more of them. – Jacob

Sumo Deadlifts Are The Devil!! …Right?

Today’s post is brought to you be the letters A and J, as in AJ Loreto. AJ trains out of Just Lift Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His best competition lifts (all USAPL) include a 240kg squat, 150kg bench, 297.5kg DL, and 687.5kg total at 90kg body weight. He also has a boat, and runs a sweet t-shirt company. So read what he has to say, and learn from one of the top raw lifters in the country…that has a boat. – Jacob

 

The sumo deadlift. Competition legal for powerlifters, but hated worse than carbs in a Crossfit gym. Why do sumo pulls receive so much hate? It seems everyone’s got a hard-on for deadlifts nowadays – probably because you can stack some plates on the bar, pick it up, and feel like a bad ass. Crossfit, Strongman, Powerlifters, Bodybuilders; everyone can use them, and move a lot of weight. Feels Good Man. Now, I suspect sumo is disliked because it APPEARS you can be able to move even more weight compared to conventional, and well, haters gonna hate. So how many people in the 70sBig community have tried to pull sumo? Why not get out of your typical routine and give a barbell a tug with your legs spread wide? I bet you’d be surprised at what your strength is like going from conventional to sumo.

Why did I start caring about sumo? I was training on an afternoon with friends who dared me to sumo in a typical pissing match that occurs training hungover on Saturdays (editors note: Yessssssssss). It turns out I managed almost 90% of my conventional best for a double. This was pretty good motivation to give sumo a real go. Anything to increase my powerlifting total is a good thing, and if I get bigger and stronger in the process, I would probably like that as well.

To begin incorporating sumo, oddly enough, I maintained my conventional pulling as prescribed by the program I was running at the time (a modified 5/3/1). To add in the sumo, I began pulling each warm up weight both sumo and conventional. Then, at each work weight I would tug a single at each weight sumo. By doing only a single I was not changing the volume of my workout significantly. After 1 wave (phase, cycle, whatever) of this (4 weeks of training), I switched the movements. I pulled a single conventional and the prescribed reps sumo. Again, the intention was to keep my volume similar. As it turns out, I was smashing the shit out of my rep maxes sumo (nearly twice as many reps as I could hit conventional at a given weight but with consistent small increases in work weight – the changes in volume after the switch were not extreme). I ran this programming for several waves and believe it was effective and getting my form in order and increasing my strength.

Initially, pulling singles sumo helped develop the ‘groove’ for sumo and helped stretch out my hips a significant amount. Sumo requires, just like the squat, for you to keep your knees tracking out over the toes. Without enough flexibility to keep your knees out, many people will complain about knee pain pulling sumo. Maintaining enough ‘knees out’ will also work to get your glutes involved and is paramount to a good sumo pull. Of course you can consult your favorite coaches for advice on knee and toe placement, but I would bet that by and large most coaches would recommend knees and toes in a line, and pointed out.

 

Knees Out = Good

Knees caving in = pain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because of the change in relative angles of your body parts, when pulling sumo, the back of the trainee will tend to be more upright than a conventional pull.

Conversely, the femurs will be more horizontal and the knee angle more acute. Because of the changes in the joint angles for the lifter, most will note that their back is not the limiting factor in the pull, but rather the legs and or hips will be the weakest muscles involved. What does this mean for you? If you suspect your back is weak-sauce when pulling, why not try sumo to grab a few extra pounds in the ego bank? If your back is as thick as thieves, maybe your hips and legs are lame and sumo can get them up to par with your upper body (why you no train legs bro? why?). In any case, developing strong hips at the bottom of a sumo pull should carry over nicely into a great number of lifts: your squat, conventional deadlift and even stone lifting.

 

Sumo: Note the vertical torso and knee angle

Conventional: Note the more horizontal torso and larger knee angle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stone lifting is an item that I personally have not read much (anything) about. I learned to pick up stones in a garage where my friend told me to ‘pick it up.’ No matter how one is coached (or not coached) in stones, one thing WILL happen, and that is the lifter will straddle the rock in some capacity. The spreading of your feet to the outside of the stone will put your legs outside of your conventional deadlift stance (unless you’re some weirdo who hates Vince Anello and has their feet super wide and grips the bar even wider). Granted, your foot width might not be as wide as a sumo stance when handling stones, but the idea still remains: you’re grabbing an object off the floor, using plenty of hip and hamstring, and trying to push your chest up off the floor. Attempting to keep your stance narrow and the stone in front of the feet will not be an easy task, if it is possible at all. The stones are generally large enough in diameter that even if you had the strength, you physically would not be able to balance with your feet behind the stone (imagine picking up a barbell greater than your body weight that is 6+ inches in front of your toes). So spreading your legs and pulling with similar joint angles to stones will probably make sumo a tasty movement for strongmen.

For me and some teammates, I have found that my 1 rep max is incredibly close for both versions of the deadlift. Interestingly, for a given percentage of 1RM, I have noticed many lifters will hit more reps sumo. This has been my personal observation, and I’d encourage you to see how your numbers pan out. Training with a higher percentage of 1RM in a given rep range, or using higher reps at a given percentage of 1RM, may prove to be helpful in your training. Either of these will increase working volume and, if recovered from correctly, should increase ones strength. Increasing volume over time is a staple to most (if not all) training philosophies (when considering a consistent, long, multi-cycle period of time – not a single training cycle). With this in mind, if the overreach in volume is not too great to prevent adequate recovery, switching to sumo and achieving more reps or using a higher percentage should be a benefit to your training.

Initially, when training sumo the differential in reps can be deceiving and you might think that your 1RM will be significantly different. Therefore, it will be worth your while to hit some heavy singles in the gym before you hit the platform and end up making a bad attempt call. Most trainees will find properly performed sumo attempts to be slow off the floor, but fast towards the lockout of the repetition. With this in mind, if your attempt is too heavy, the bar will be glued to the floor, whereas a conventional pull will break and might wind up stalling around the knees.

I hope you give sumo a go at some point or another. I know it’s made me a more well rounded lifter, and I believe it will add to your strength in other movements, from squats to stones (note: I really believe it is huge for stones) and even your conventional deadlift. As always, Implement changes carefully and track your progress! And stop hating on sumo, fool.