The Other Shrug

I’m sure a lot of coaches and athletes out there have seen the overhead shrug done before but may wonder why it’s good for shoulder health. 

Lets start out by examining the anatomy of the scap a little bit.  There are three muscles responsible for upward rotation of the scapula.  Again, upward rotation of the scapula is extremely important for athletes in general and overhead throwing athletes especially because it helps to create space in the subacromial space.  Highly, highly important to help prevent impingement.   The three muscles that create upward rotation work as a force couple and are the upper trapezius, serratus anterior, and the lower trapezius.   The diagram below shows exactly how these three muscles work together to create upward rotation. 

Force couple for upward rotation

We talked about the serratus anterior earlier this week and how to get it functioning again.  If you didn’t see that post you can find it HERE.   We clearly see an example here of why the serratus is so important.  Often times the serratus as well as the lower trap is inactive and inhibited.  This happens by improper training  as well as today’s sedentary lifestlye.   If these two muscles are inhibited upward rotation is clearly compromised.  The result is dysfuction in the scap, and possible future shoulder problems. 

Now when we do regular barbell, or db shrugs we get lots of work from the levator scapulae.  The LS is responsible for scap elevation but is also a downward rotator of the scap.  This isn’t a good thing for the reasons we touched on earlier and why upward rotation is so important.  We don’t want downward rotation of the scap.  We never want to close down the subacromial space.  

Levator Scapulae - Evil Downward Rotator

So when we perform the overhead shrug, we create upward rotation of the scap.  Hence, we get activation out of the lower trap, serratus anterior, as well as the upper trap.  The levator scapulae is the left out of the picture because as upward rotation occurs the LS is put on slack.   In many people the levator scapulae is very overactive.  Tension in the LS can cause scap dysfunction as well as headaches. 

Start of the overhead shrug

 So for our athletes we mostly perform the overhead shrug with a light weight for high reps, usually 20+ reps.  We start with the bar and gradually progress our athletes to weight only when full range of motion can be acheived.  Use a grip similar to a snatch grip.  Emphasize driving the shoulders to the ears and all the way back down.  Compensations occur when the athlete bends the elbows to get movement and or pecks the head forward and back with no motion occurring in the scap.  Some may not be able to perform the overhead shrug because of pain in the shoulder with any overhead activities so use common sense when prescribing the exercise. 

Finish position

Coaching the Olympic Lifts

Today our new strength and conditioning interns at TCU got their first taste of the olympic lifts.  They learned the progressions to the lifts, coaching cues, and how to perform the lifts themselves.  Over the next several weeks they will work on perfecting their technique with each lift and its variations as well as learn how to coach and correct errors in the lifts.  This group actually did impressive job.  It was probably picked up faster than any other group of interns that we’ve had, and some of them had never cleaned before. 

Nice Rack!!!
Even though I don’t use the lifts with most of my athletes at this point, I think it’s essential to be able to perform and coach the movements.  Under the bar experience is a great asset to have when working with athletes.  It not only gives you constant feedback on how to perform the lifts and in turn coach the lifts, but it helps to give you credibility with the athletes.   If coaches aren’t able to perform the lifts or at least demonstrate the postitions that must be achieved, they had better be damn good coaches in my opinion. 

So tonight I thought I would post a link to a YouTube channel.  Coach Manuel Buitrago has put together an excellent resource on the olympic lifts and various drills to improve technique in the lifts.   Make sure you check out the demo’s as there is a lot of information on correcting each portion of the various lifts.  A great resource.

Couple of quick notes for those beginning and intermediate coaches and athletes. 
  1. When you watch the olympic lifts, notice the speed change at the mid thigh level.   Too many times athletes pull as hard as they can through the entire lift.  Use a controlled tempo until the bar reaches the mid/upper thigh and then explode.
  2. Notice that he doesn’t jump in his clean technique.  The triple extension of the ankle happens somewhat naturally and jumping up and stomping the feet shouldn’t happen.  Now, there is a loud stomp, but the coach is dropping under the bar so quickly it causes his heeled shoes to make that noise.  He isn’t trying to jump and stomp the ground.  This throws off coordination of the lift and causes problems. 

What you don’t know about the pushup!!!

The pushup is quite easily one of the best exercises athletes can do.  Most will only associate pushups for the chest, and triceps.  But it’s a great exercise for the total body and even more so the upper back. Reaping the benefits of the pushup means focusing on correct technique first and foremost.   Quite possibly the best part of a correct pushup for my athletes is the scapular protraction we get at the top of the movement.  Why is this important?  
As the serratus contracts the scap rotates up

It activates the serratus anterior.  If you didn’t know, the serratus is a commonly inactive muscle that is extremely important for any overhead athletes, throwing and non-throwing.  Dysfunction in the serratus causes the scapula to wing out, and creates instability where we want stability at all times.  The function of the serratus is to help assist in upward rotation of the scapula.  We want upward rotation in order create space for the glenohumeral joint and avoid impingement when we raise our arm.   Very very important for overhead athletes! aka: pitchers, throwers, etc. 

Inactive serratus causes winging!
Where the benefit lies is trying to push as far away from the floor as possible at the top of the pushup.  Many athletes fail to get the benefits of the pushup by not completely finishing the rep.  They may have locked out the arms but by letting the upper back sag in instead of extending out the serratus is deemed inactive.  Also, don’t let the lower back, and/or torso sag to the ground.  Doing so not only hurts your efforts to fire the serratus but isn’t doing your low back any favors.  When this happens the scaps go into anterior tilt  and the serratus is shut down once again.  Many coaches have heard of the pushup plus exercise where the athlete does a pushup to extension then pushes their shoulders out a bit more.   To me this is how a standard pushup should be done. 
Fully extended!
Once your athletes have mastered the standard pushup, elevate their feet onto a 12″ box.  Serratus activation is highest in the feet elevated pushup position.  I could go on and on all day about the benefits of the pushup and why all your athletes should be perfecting them.  But I’ll leave the rest for a future article on the subject. 


Power for the Anterior Chain

A large majority of training revolves around working the posterior chain, and rightly so.  The posterior chain is the primary powerhouse of athletics.  The grouping consists of the hamstrings, glute complex, low back, and I even include the mid and upper back as well as the calves into the posterior chain grouping, while most will refer only to the hams, glutes, and low back.  Well in many sports the anterior chain plays just as important role as the posterior chain.  When I refer to the anterior chain I’m referring to the corset of muscles comprising the abs, and also the hip flexors.  This doesn’t invovle crunches and oblique twists, and such.  (Quick note)  I do NO traditional ab training.  #1 These isolated movements don’t take place in athletics, and #2 they involve repeated flexion of the lumbar spine which is a giant no-no unless your interested in undergoing a 9 month rehab for a disc replacement.  If you don’t believe me check out Stuart McGill’s Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.   Being able to brace and create stiffness in athletics is what allows one to dominate and another to fall to the wayside.  Two perfect examples of the anterior chain importance would be a tennis players serve or a pitcher in mid stride to the plate. 
Considerable elasticity in the anterior chain!

  Each one of these movements requires a combination of anterior chain stiffness and elasticity.  If Roger Federer couldn’t create super stiffness in his core during a serve at the moment of impact, all energy transfer from his hips to his racket would be lost, and a sub-par serve would result, not the 130+ mph gas that he usually produces. 

Super stiffness in the anterior core at impact

Our recent topic of T-Spine Mobility really pertains to the training of the anterior chain as well.  I’ve beat to death having the ability to extend and rotate the T-Spine in rotational sports lately. Having super-stiffness in the anterior core and a mobile t-spine will allow for more much powerful rotational movements and help prevent injury to the low back.  You can find the t-spine posts listed below.  But in order to keep this post on topic I’ll let readers look at those on their own.

Our first progression with our power training for the anterior chain involves medball slams.   In all of the following movements notice that the core stays stiff and back stays straight.  These movements don’t involve crunching of the abs and lumbar flexion.  They involve dropping of the hips and hip flexion into an athletic position, but power is transferred from the hips through the super stiff core into the arms and the throw.  I apologize for the video quality.  We somehow originally filmed this sideways and when rotating it to vertical the picture quality suffered.  

After medball slams we add a rotational component.  The hips stay square and we rotate and extend the t-spine into a front slam again.  This is a great movement for tennis players. 

Our last video is or rainbow slams where we block the front hip and rotate the back hip through.  Again this isn’t a crunching of the core.  The core musculature must remain stiff to ensure power is transferred to the throw.  If it doesn’t remain super stiff energy is lost resulting in a lackluster throw.  The exact same thing that would happen on a baseball field or tennis court if the core musculature didn’t brace properly. 

Email Question

A few days back I got a question in an email from student and thought I would tackle the issue on our readers mind. 

“How would you best develop speed/power/explosion?”

The question is very general when it comes to training.   In this sense I have to answer it very general.  With a more specific question, we can develop a more specific plan to attack speed, speed-strength, strength-speed, power, explosion, etc.  My problem with the phrase “power” is that it doesn’t necessarily convey any parameters.  Power in what?  Power can be increasing a fastball from 89mph to 92mph.  The pitchers power has increased.  I’ve alo seen an example once of an 80 year old man walking up a flight of stairs 1 second quicker than he previously had done.  This would also be an increase in power, wouldn’t it.  So without giving the meaning “power” any parameters it makes it difficult to define how and what your increasing. 

When most people think of explosion or power they immediately think of olympic lifts.  While olympic lifts do have the ability to increase “power” there are many other options available, and sometimes better options in my opinion.  Again in a general sense, the olympic lifts will help to increase “power” in novice and intermediate athletes.  As athletes climb the ladder of sporting ability, improvements in speed, power, etc must become more specific to the dynamics of the athletes skill and/or event.   Many people believe that sprinting and the olympic lifts have a high correlation and that improving your clean will directly improve your 40 yd dash.  When we truly look at their correlation we find it isn’t as it seems.  With novice and even some intermediate athletes there is a correlation, but as sporting proficiency increases the correlation ceases to exist.  High level sprinting usually equates to movement around 7 meter per second, while the olympic lifts average around 1.25 meters per second.  Nothing in the weight room ever comes close to the speed reached, and angular velocities of body segments reached during sprinting.  So when we compare something like olympic lifting to sprinting, they are separate motor qualities.  

For our rotational based sports such as golf, softball, and baseball, I like to be more specific to the movement patterns that dominate the sport.  These patterns are rotation movements in the transverse plane.  For this type of work we rely heavily on medicine ball throws and variations for increasing our “power.”  You can perform throws in a multitude of directions training the entire body.  Whether performing a backward overhead throw for triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hips, or using roped medicine ball swwings for core stiffness and stability, medballs have so many applications. 

As for the speed part of the questions, there is no better way to develop speed than to run fast.  Sprinting at 95-100% is by far the best method for developing pure speed.  No other activity requires the muscle elasticity, speed of contraction and relaxation, coordination of firing patterns, and so on as full speed work.  Not only is sprinting tops for speed development, but can also contribute to strength gains.  It’s a case of the chicken or the egg theory.  It’s hard to say which one comes first, but sprinting can and does have an effect on strength gains.  High speed work just like plyometrics in the next paragraph is extremely CNS taxing, so caution must always be used when it comes to training.  That’s also one of the main reasons speed work is such a powerful training stimulus to the human body. 

My last method for developing speed, power, and or explosion would be the inclusion of jump training, and plyometrics.  Make sure you note the difference in the two.  Jump training is simply that, jumping exercises and variations.  These take many different forms and can progress from introductory jumps, like box jumps, jumps in place, to more advanced jumps, such as repeat hurdle jumps, etc.  These are usually an introductory before plyometric training is introduced.  Plyometric expecises are a powerful eccentric contraction followed immediately by a concentric contraction.  The prior eccentric motion creates a stronger concentric contraction through elastic energy and the stretch reflex.   High level plyometrics are generally considered the strongest training stimulus on the nervous system, and therefore require expertise when programming.   They are powerful in their ability to increase power, but many coaches aren’t aware of their proper application.   These were developed for high level athletes in Eastern Bloc countries and were never meant to be done by young novice athletes.

Sorry for the rant.  When we talk about power it really helps to define what we’re talking about in the end.  I don’t necessarily use the word power because it is so encompassing.  It could refer to a myriad of things.  I refer to speed-strength, and strength-speed when I’m referring to “power” type motor qualities.   We’ll get into all that on another day though.

The overlooked ankle

If your big guys can’t get low when it comes to squatting chances are their ankles and calves may be balled up like shotputs.  The ankle is the most overlooked joint in the human body when it comes to sports performance.  Ankle mobility has huge implications on not only squat depth but especially knee pain and can even affect the low back, and shoulders.   One of the reasons we see Elite Olympic weightlifters wear special heeled weighlifting shoes

Ankle mobility at its finest!

 is they compensate the need for less ankle mobililty to drop into the bottom of a full squat clean or snatch.  So what steps can your half squatters take to cure their ails?

First, get them rolling!  Have them perform soft tissue work up

and down the calf complex on a foam roller.  Generally, we hit the achilles tendon for 10 reps, the gastroc for 10 reps, then all the way up and down for 10 reps.  Foam rollers are a poor man’s massage.  They’re one of the most important aspects to an athletes training in my opinion.  Another great alternative or even progression is to use a tennis ball.  Using a ball for soft tissue work will really get at those knots and tight spots like you’ve never seen. 

Second, get them mobilizing the ankle with wall touches.  Have the athlete start 1-2″ away from the wall and try to touch it with the knee.  Don’t let the heel come up off the floor.  If they can touch back them up by 1″ until they can no longer hold the heel down while touching.  When they find this distance we move back up 1″ and touch for 10 reps with a 2-3 sec. hold on each. 
Third, after they’ve loosened up the calf complex, now get them squatting in the proper range of motion or newly gained range of motion. 

We want to create mobility in the joint first, then have them go through proper movement patterns.  Too often athletes ingrain poor motor patterns because of tightness, when all we have to do is eliminate the tightness then ingrain a the proper pattern.  Eventually, the pattern will become second nature and now you have a deep squatter.

Beginner T-Spine Mobility

Today, I’m putting a few more of our rotational t-spine mobility movements.  The first is Knees Side to Side.  Most coaches have probably seen this one done.  The emphasis should be reaching out with the arms as far as possible.   Make sure the shoulders don’t come off the ground as the knees approach the floor.  When this occurs reverse the movement in the other direction.  Knees side to side is usually done in the warmup for 5 reps on each side.

The second movement today is the Upper Body Clamshells.  Again the key in this exercise is to open up and reach out as far as possible activating the thoracic rotators.   Make sure your athletes turn their head and look with their reach.  We place a half foam roller between the knees to keep them aligned as well as the pelvis aligned.  This isn’t a must but the same can be achieved with a towel.  Again, this can be placed easily into the dynamic warm-up for 5 reps each side.