If you haven’t noticed late in the week it becomes more difficult to post with the start of baseball season recently. This weekend we are in Fullerton, CA playing the Titans. Game #1 was a 5-2 victory by the Frogs. I’m going to keep my due diligence and continue to post but there will be times when the frequency will decline, such as this weekend has. GO FROGS!
In the meantime here is what all the hard work goes to. If this video doesn’t get your heart going a little bit, then maybe you should check your pulse.
Activating the transverse abdominus has received a lot of publicity in the last ten to fifteen years. For a time people believed not training the deep core musculature was where we were going wrong with low back pain and proper core training.
Back in the mid 90’s the transverse abdominus became famous when a physical therapy lab in Australia conducted a study on people with low back pain. From that they believed that people with low back pain did not activate their transverse abdominus, thus causing the pain. Although the results were mixed, the sucking in during exercise concept caught fire and became the thing to teach in training the torso.
But according to Dr. Stuart McGill, who is a strict opponent of the sucking in concept, the amount of load that the spine can bear without injury is extremely decreased when athletes are told to activate the transverse abdominus and pull their belly buttons toward their spine. This is a recipe for disaster as the spine should be strong and stable at all times.
Dr. McGill, however, is a huge proponent of bracing. Bracing is activating all of the core musculature to support and strengthen the spine. All of the muscles associated with the core are important for stabilization, not just the abs on the front side. Contracting the entire corset of muscles that surround the spine produces strength and stability. Something we want when it comes the spine and lower back health.
The study in the Australian lab produced some positive results with low back pain because they were in fact training the core musculature, and rehabilitating patients with low back pain. We shouldn’t misconstrue this for how the spine or core should be trained in healthy individuals and athletes. Teaching people to brace the entire torso is the key to strength and stability. Don’t get caught up in hollowing the abs for anything. Take it for what it was worth at the time.
A great movement for training scapular depression is the scap dip. Scap depression is extremely important for shoulder health as well as stability. Depression helps to keep the scapulae out of a rounded over, and pulled forward position. The pec minor as well as the lower trapezius are responsible for scap depression. Often, the lower trap is inhibited, and has been lengthened through training, or as a result of lifestyle. Any work we can do activate the lower trap is important. When we do pulling movements we want to emphasize not only retraction but depression as well. I touched on the importance of that in a post found HERE a few days back.
An important muscle that often gets left out of scapular health is the lats. The lats can play the role of the devil as it is an internal rotator of the humerus. However, in the case of the scap dip the lats assist in scapular depression as well. By focusing on depression we can even out the pull exerted upward by tight levator scapulae, and upper trap, as well as the rounded posture possible with tight pec major / minor. With this posture comes an increased risk for shoulder problems, and instability.
Again, it’s important to focus on technique when utilizing scapular movements. A perfect example is in the top portion of the scap dip. If poor technique is used the scap will move into anterior tilt at the top of the motion. The movement is now completed by the pec minor. This takes out the lower trapezius and actually puts it on stretch rendering it useless. We know that the pec minor is commonly a tight, overactive muscle. We don’t want to make it any shorter causing a natural anterior tilt of the scapula, again putting the shoulder at risk. All too often athletes don’t maintain proper technique throughout the scap dip to gain any true benefit.
Athletes have to make sure they keep a tall chest throughout the scap dip and the shoulder blades pulled back and driven down to complete the movement. This will fully activate the scapular depressors, which is what we’re after in the first place.
Check out this video from Mark Young. He shows exactly what can and does happen with countless reps of traditional ab training (spine flexion). I found it on another website and thought it was too good to pass up. It may be a little graphic but it is just a pig spine.
I’ve said it several times that I don’t do traditional ab / core training, as in crunches, situps, russian twists, etc. with our athletes. We train the lumbar spine for stability and anti-rotational strength. To do this we use ISO ab variations (planks), ISO hip raises variations activating the glutes and spinal erectors, pushup variations that move the arms and legs creating torque within the torso, and a countless array of other exercises based on stabilizing the spine, while mobilizing joints around it. If you don’t know my thoughts on the low back you can find some of them in the previous post Quick Notes on the Low Back.
Crunches and such just are worth the risk in my opinion. Not only does spinal flexion create disc problems, but when you look at the big picture the torso doesn’t function like that in sports. I believe it should be trained like it is utilized in sport and in life, for rock hard stability and to resist movement.
When we do pulling movements we should be thinking about retraction and depression of the scapulae (shoulder blades). Many athletes perform pulling movements incorrectly, compensating with humeral hyperextension. In humeral hyperextension the humerus moves behind the torso with no action coming from the retraction of the shoulder blades.
As athletes pull only with the arms the scapula goes into anterior tilt, and loses all stability. Essentially, none of the scapular stabilizers are doing their job. Not only that but when the scaps move into anterior tilt we contract the pec minor instead of actually training the back. Putting the humerus into hyperextension isn’t a good place for it. It is extremely stressful on the anterior capsule putting athletes at risk.
This is my best attempt at humeral hyperextension when pulling, instead of true scapular retraction and depression. The following video is a better look at how the pull should be done. Notice that the arms don’t move behind the toso. It’s the scap performing a large majority of the movement with retraction.
Teach athletes to retract and depress the scaps first then pull with the arms. Sometimes it may make more sense to athletes when you break the movements up into parts. We actually use 2 part movements at various times throughout the year with baseball. Before we begin regular pullups we learn the scap pullup. After scap pullups we move to our 2 part pullups. From there we implement a full pullup. Using this progression helps our athletes to integrate their scaps into the movement, and stop shortchanging themselves.
To really activate the backside musculature like the middle and lower trap I like to have athletes visualize squeezing the scaps down and back throughout the entire movement. I’ve found cueing athletes to get a big chest helps in this department.
The foam roller should be every athlete’s best friend. It is essentially a poor man’s massage. Not every weekend warrior, or college athlete can afford a deep tissue massage every other day, and the foam roller is the perfect substitute. It is essentially deep tissue massage that causes relaxation in the muscle. It still surprises me how many coaches don’t fully know about foam rolling and self massage. Its probably the best thing most athletes don’t take time to do.
Foam rolling helps to decrease muscle tone instead of creating tissue length changes like stretching. We don’t always want to induce tissue changes. Often times muscles are just hyper active causing problems. Having hyper activity in the muscle, and or tight fascia (sheath that surrounds the muscle) can cause chronic joint pain, reduced flexibility, decreased mobility, and eventually injury. If we reduce the muscle tone we can eliminate those problems. Generally foam rolling gives all the benefits of stretching and then some.
Here’s a good video from Coach Eric Cressey showing how to foam roll, if you’ve never seen the proper application
Now for some science. Part of the reason that foam rolling works is because of the golgi tendon organ, or GTO. The GTO tells us how much tension is in the muscle / tendon. When this tension exceeds a certain threshold, it triggers the muscle to lengthen, which inhibits the muscles from contracting and causes them to relax. This is known as autogenic inhibition. This basic function of the GTO protects the muscles, tendons, and ligaments from injury. Basically, what you need to know is foam rolling stimulates the GTO and allows the muscle to relax. The more you foam roll, the higher your threshold will become.
Rolling helps to breakdown adhesions in the fascia of the muscle as well as scar tissue. These are things we don’t want building up over time. Soft tissue massage like foam rolling helps to break up trigger points, and muscle knots. These form as a by-product of everyday training, lifestyle, posture, etc. It improves mobility, and flexibility while decreasing hyper-activity in muscles. Foam rolling improves the quality of the muscle tissue and improves the quality of your movement as well.
Yes, just like stretching, it will be uncomfortable. It takes consistency to see improvement in your tissue quality and have the pain subside. Once that happens you can increase the intensity by stepping up to a harder roller. Our rollers start soft, and increase in density all the way up to a 4″ round PVC pipe. Obviously, PVC pipe isn’t the most comfortable thing to dig into your muscles and working to this level takes quite some time. So don’t run out and buy 25 PVC pipes for your athletes just yet.
Foam rolling has too many benefits not to do it, and for such a small cost it can not only improve performance, but quality of life. My baseball athletes at TCU foam roll everyday of the week. From a personal standpoint, foam rolling is one the most important aspects of my training. It has improved every quality of my training. I suffered from nagging knee pain for almost 4 years. Since beginning foam rolling three years ago I no longer have that problem. I can’t say enough about foam rolling. It makes me feel like a million bucks when I’m done. Start doing it today.
I get a lot of athletes who are after the quest of the holy calves. A large group always in that hunt are baseball pitchers. I’m not sure what it is but everywhere I’ve been, including the Angels, pitchers have always asked about how to make their calves bigger. Part of the problem recently was the lower body of Cubs pitcher Mark Prior. Mark Prior is known in baseball circles as the pitcher with “huge legs, and even bigger calves.” Now, huge legs are a good thing most likely, especially for a pitcher. In reality, huge calves probably don’t have any effect, positive or negative, on the act of pitching. However in speed oriented sports it can play an outcome.
Many athletes believe larger calves increase your vertical, or make you faster. This isn’t generally the case as the calf complex contributes very little to overall power. The gastroc, and soleus should be trained to store and release elastic energy. That is essentially its job during sprinting. We don’t want it to give way and absorb force upon the foot strike during a sprint. This would increase our ground contact time and slow us down.
Here’s the problem with creating huge calves on purpose. The larger the calf complex, the more the lower leg weighs. Having more weight below the knee and towards the ankle can actually hinder running speed, according to Charlie Francis. It increases the lower leg lever, and slows leg turnover. We want less weight towards the distal end of the leg and more on the proximal. In other words, we don’t want a large calf muscle, we want large thighs, hams, and glutes. It an extreme case, it’s almost like wearing an ankle weight.
So in the end what are we to do? Don’t directly train the calves with strength work. It takes valuable time away from more important needs as we know the calves contribute very little to overall power. All our training for the lower leg comes in the form of barefoot warmups, sprinting, explosive jumps, hops, medball throws, etc.
Now there are cases where this information may not directly pertain. One such example would be basketball. Basketball players may need direct work due to previous injury history, weaknesses, or deficiencies. Training the calf / ankle for proprioception would be highly important as well in preventing ankle injuries in basketball athletes.
The lower leg generally doesn’t need to be trained directly with strength work. Again, the elastic properties can and should be obtained through explosive jumps, hops, plyometrics, and sprinting. I’ve heard top level track coaches comment that the faster athletes usually have a small calf muscle high up on the lower leg, as opposed to a longer, fuller calf muscle.
Sprinting, jumping, throwing, etc. all involve powerful movements around the hip. Train for hip extension and hammer the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors, and leave the calves to benefit from sprinting and jumping.
In the end direct calf work most likely isn’t going to be worth the training time. It can be trained through other means just as effectively.
Sports Training for Coaches, Athletes, and Parents