The Application of “Pain Science”

The Application of “Pain Science”

There has been a recent rise in the popularity of “pain science”. While I am not completely on board with some of the more extreme opinions/theories (read the above story highlight “Injury Rehab” to read my full breakdown of this), I think there is much to be said about the overreaction many have to pain, and I am 100% guilty of this in my own training. When it comes to drug free lifters in particular, severe acute injuries are fairly rare. Injuries such as muscle tears and tendon ruptures typically do not happen to natural lifters. This is comes down to the fact that enhanced athletes can increase their strength at rates that the soft tissues cannot adapt to quick enough, so these severe acute injuries occur due to how much they are overloading these tissues past their tolerable levels. Natural athletes on the other hand tend to suffer more from overuse issues, such as tendinopathy or chronic strains. These are injuries that start out typically as just some slight discomfort and slowly build over time due to neglect.

So when a natural athlete finds themself experiencing what they believe to be a very acute injury that seemingly came out of nowhere, my first action is to create optimism versus pessimism, as there is good likelihood that it is more of a pain response versus an actual serious injury. It doesn’t mean there isn’t something that was slightly tweaked, but the issue is the 10/10 pain level far over estimates the actual seriousness of the issue. Let’s take the example of Dan, who a week ago during a backdown set on squats felt a “pop” in his quad. The picture HERE notates the spot of the “pop”. The immediate reaction of most powerlifters feeling a “pop” would be immediate freak out mode and thinking their powerlifting career is over, as we tend to over dramatize things. But with Dan, he had never had a single issue with that quad before, ever. So to think he went from zero pain or discomfort to full on muscle tear was a very, very unlikely scenario. The one thing that is certain is that some recovery factor must have played into this sudden pain. Any and all injuries are caused by a tissue being pushed past its loading ability, so if absolutely nothing has been changed in training there must be something outside of training that can be attributed to this. And sure enough I found out Dan had spent the weekend moving his brother to Colorado, picking up heavy things for hours on end, and sleeping on a coach with his knees fully flexed so that he could fit. He had produced added stress to that quad, so even though his training had been very similar to what it had been, there was now a different response due to the added stimulus over the weekend. So while Dan may have tweaked his quad a tad, I was fairly certain this was just one of those fluke little tweaks due to this added stress, and we had him do some soft tissue release throughout the week and backed down the volume and intensity on his second squat day to return his fatigue/stress levels back to baseline. Fast forward to one week later, and Dan is hitting the 365lb. pause squat you see HERE on the right, with zero pain.

This doesn’t mean someone should train through injuries or push through pain, but the point I hope to get across is that the more you can remain optimistic and not over-dramatize these acute out of nowhere pain signals, the faster you are likely to return back to training. In these scenarios, many times just a couple slight adjustments during the week can get you back to training pain free again in no time.

Why I Am Not A Fan Of The Cue “Bend The Bar”

Why I Am Not A Fan Of The Cue “Bend The Bar”

A very popular cue for increasing lat tightness is to “bend the bar”, entailing that you trying are to supinate/externally rotate your hands/arms to create tension and “bend the bar”. There is one big issue with this though, and that is the latissmus dorsi have nothing to do with external rotation of the arm. The reason someone may feel increased lat tightness using this cue though is that the action of external rotation can cue shoulder depression, but then you are left with an externally rotated humerus that is putting your shoulder in a compromising position. Notice the video HERE of myself. On the top I am using the cue of bending the bar, and you can see the rotation of my elbow as I perform this. As I descend my elbow tracks in front of the bar, creating a constant rotational force bearing down on my shoulder. Our goal is to have our joints stacked, with the elbow tracking directly under the bar to allow for the most optimal transfer of force possible, and this externally rotated position does not allow that. In my opinion, this is a cue that was more beneficial back when equipped lifting was the popular form of powerlifting, and should not be utilized in the same manner by the raw lifters of today. And within the raw powerlifting realm, this cue seems to be carried out more so by the heavier weight class benchers who use a close grip. This is important to note, as externally rotating the arm for a super heavyweight close grip bencher has a very different affect on the lift than someone who may require greater ranges of motion or uses a wider grip. The pec internally rotates the humerus, so what happens when you externally rotate the arm is it instead lengthens the pectoral muscle. Taking that information, think about the different demands on the pec that would create for a lifter who has a larger range of motion or a wider grip that places increased emphasis on the pec. That means that due to the lengthening of the pec, they are putting even a greater stretch/stress on it at the bottom range of motion. A muscle is weakest in its lengthened and shortened state, so the externally rotated humerus decreases the potential of the pec to produce maximal force from the bottom position due to its further lengthened position. So what should we do instead? We need to depress and retract the shoulders in the same manner as the “bend the bar” cue leads to, but without the external rotation of the arm. So how do we do that?

1.) The most successful way I have found to cue/force shoulder depression and retraction is during the initial setup and leg drive. If you watch the second video (HERE) of Aisling, you will see the difference between the top video where she externally rotates her arm to cue depression, versus the bottom video where she utilizes her leg drive to force depression. When setting up on the bench, we want to start with the contact of the upper traps driving down into the bench. This will allow for that elevated rib cage position and putting the shoulder naturally into a depressed and retracted state. To maintain that position though, initiating leg drive from the start and maintaining that drive throughout creates the necessary force to keep the shoulders pulling down and back. You can see in the bottom video with Aisling that as she drives back using her legs, primarily through the quads, her traps dig into the bench and her shoulders stay put, but the rest of her body slides backwards. She is utilizing the bench to hold her traps and shoulders in position, but then using her legs to create the necessary movements back to create the depressed and retracted position.

2.) While the leg drive may force that position, it is still beneficial for the lifter to also pull with the lats and scapular retractors simultaneously. There are many cues that could possibly lead to this action and just depends on what a lifter may internalize best, but for me personally I try to think about trying to touch my shoulders toward my butt, and vice versa. I am a big fan of directional cues such as this, as it gives a clear frame of reference for where the movement/cue should lead to.

3.) Lastly, if you have trouble finding this position, some type of activation work like a straight arm pullover can be done to help feel the ending position you are trying to achieve. To take even a step further, you can watch the final video (HERE) where I perform a straight arm pullover while spreading may arms to the width of my bench press, utilizing a circle band. This brings me to a very similar position as the above two points, allowing me to feel how the lats and scapular retractors are pulling the shoulders down and back so that I can recreate that tension on the bench press.

Powerlifting Accessory Movements I Find Myself Programming Most Often

Powerlifting Accessory Movements I Find Myself Programming Most Often

A big thing that seems to differ from coach to coach is their use of accessories, and I fall in the category of being a big proponent of accessory work. While there are many reasons for this, my main 3 reasons for programming a larger amount of accessory work than most is…

1.) The obvious reason, and why most program accessories, is for the hypertrophy benefit. I may even lean more to this side than others as well, as I am not a fan of high repetition squats and deadlifts, and typically keep squats at 7 reps or less and deadlifts under 6 repetitions at most. Even for bench I rarely go over 8 repetitions, so accessory work allows us to increase volume through higher rep schemes, leading to hypertrophy benefits.

2.) The less obvious reason I program accessories is that I use it as a progression model for building volume tolerance. After a meet, I use high volumes of accessories to build tolerance to higher workloads, and then as blocks progress I will slowly bring down the accessory work and allocated that volume now to the competition movements. Rather than just immediately adding 1 or 2 sets to squat, bench press, or deadlift when I feel the time is right to add volume, I first add that volume through accessories. Typically if I add an extra 3 sets of accessory work, that will eventually translate to 1 or 2 added sets to the competition movements down the road.

3.) Leading back to both points, accessories can be used to help with reducing injury risk. Rather than doing super high rep squats and deadlifts, or immediately adding more sets to heavy barbell movements, accessories can accomplish similar tasks with significantly less loading requirements. This in return reduces risk of injury and increase longevity in the sport.

So with that being said, I want to list the accessory movements I find myself currently programming most frequently. I could easily go in depth with each exercise, but to save you time of having to read another essay from me, I am going to try to a bit more simple with the explanations. With that being said, here are the 8 accessory movements I am currently programming the most (listed in order of the videos HERE):

1.) Weighted Dips- Especially when done as pictured using a belt squat machine for the loading, the angle of weighted dips can be adjusted to mimic the bench press position of someone who tends to have a larger arch and elevated rib cage. Which for as a coach tends to be most of my athletes.

2.) Belt Squats- This one has been becoming very popular lately, and for good reason. It’s a great way to get added squat volume without the same fatigue on the back. Barring that someone has access to a Pit Shark, I have found that I actually like the free hanging loading pin belt squat more than most of the other belt squat machines.

3.) Dumbbell Single Leg Assisted RDL- I absolutely love these and for good reason. You can provide a fairly large overload stimulus unilaterally to the hip extensors without nearly as much strain on the lower back as regular RDLs. This “assisted” version also helps to take away the stability demands of regular single leg RDLs.

4.) Back Extensions- When it comes to building the lower back for the deadlift, I have found back extensions to be the best bang for the buck. They do a great job of building the lower back without seeming to create excessive levels of fatigue.

5.) Nordic Curls- This is a very challenging exercise to perform, but when done correctly I find many benefits to it. Sprinters have long been known to use them for reducing hamstring injury risk. Also, I find that the demands on the knee flexors are similar to that of a deadlift, where those knee flexors are fighting against the urge of the knee to want to lockout too soon.

6.) BFR Leg Accessories- Blood Flow Restriction has been shown time and time again within research to display excellent hypertrophy benefits while using significantly less load. BFR is very commonly used for arms, but I think is greatly underutilized for the lower body.

7.) Alternating Dumbbell Pendlay Rows- I really like these due to the added contralateral stabilization demand, as well being a bit easier on the lower back that a regular barbell pendlay row.

8.) Copenhagen Planks- Powerlifters rarely do direct adductor work, yet we also have high frequencies of adductor injuries. I have found that copenhagen planks more than anything seem to do a good job of limiting adductor issues. And for those with adductor injuries, it can be a great rehab exercise.

Why and When You Should Try Squatting Barefoot

Why and When You Should Try Squatting Barefoot

One of the more effective corrective variations I have found for the squat is going barefoot. The issue with shoes, especially as the heel gets higher and higher, is that it is hard to find the connection between your foot and the floor. When improper foot displacement occurs, the shoe masks the potential issue due to the larger surface area. So instead of receiving negative feedback from improper rooting and weight distribution of the foot, shoes many times hide the apparent issue. And the fact is, many issues with the squat lead directly back to the foot. Things such as knee valgus, chest fall patterns, anterior vs posterior weight distribution bias, improper knee vs hip flexion rates, and more. I am not saying these issues are always caused by the foot, but with the foot being the only part of your body actually being connected to the floor, it often times is the culprit. It is the first item in the chain of force production, making it many times the first item to address.

Adam is a great example of this (Click here to see videos). He has long suffered from fairly extreme leg shakes, and as can be seen in the 2nd video, he also suffers from a case of the twinkle toes. Adam had an issue with heavily biasing the weight towards his heels, not only on his squat but also his deadlift, which can be seen in the 3rd video. This forced a more posterior dominant squat and deadlift, but when the weight got heavy and his quads needed to be more involved, his legs started to shake back and forth to try to find that happy medium of quad vs. hamstring tension that he was missing. It was almost hard to tell at times though because the shoes masked the issue. When you rock back onto your heels with an elevated heel squat shoe, the surface area and stability of the shoes helps to prevent the negative feedback that this heel bias should produce. But once you take the shoes off, you’ll notice that it is immediately uncomfortable to displace all that weight on your heel. Even just standing without a barbell on your back, rock back barefoot onto your heel and notice how uncomfortable and unstable it is. So for Adam, taking the shoes off and requiring proper rooting and weight distribution of the foot almost immediately changed his squat. Without even adding in any extra cues, he started to more evenly distribute the weight of the barbell over his mid-foot, as naturally that was the most comfortable thing to do.

So should everyone squat barefoot? No, but I do think in certain situations it is one of the more effective variations you can do to improve your foot’s weight distribution. Below are some examples of times I’d recommend giving this variation a try:

1.) If you notice that you tend to either bias towards your heel or your toes, going barefoot to relearn proper rooting and mid-foot weight distribution can be highly beneficial. For those who bias towards their toes, other issues could be at play, specifically ankle mobility. But surprisingly at times, I have athletes who had heavy pronation of the foot and what I thought was apparent ankle mobility restrictions, then squat barefoot and be able to keep their foot perfectly planted. As for those who bias towards the heel, this is my go to exercise to get a lifter to redistribute that weight over their mid-foot. It works almost immediately and with little to no cueing, as biasing towards your heel barefoot is very uncomfortable and that immediate negative feedback corrects your positioning quickly.

2.) When looking at side and and rear views of the squat, one of the main things I look for is what the ankle is doing. If someone is consistently pronating at the ankle at the bottom of the squat, this could be a sign of either ankle mobility or foot rooting issues. Going barefoot can help decided which of these is the case, as if it is ankle mobility it usually will be come even more prominent once someone goes barefoot. If it stays the same or actually improves though, they very well likely have an issue with rooting and weight distribution of the foot, and squatting barefoot may be a great variation for them.

3.) In general when teaching someone how to properly root their foot, have a nice stable arch, and 3 points of contact, doing this barefoot will be a great teaching tool. Once they can master the positioning barefoot, then it’s time to add the shoe and use the same cues and connected feel to keep the foot stable and planted.

4.) Going back to point 1, some people do more of a rocking pattern, where they start by biasing towards the heel then shift towards the toes at the bottom, then back to the heels. This pattern would like up exactly with the notorious hip shoot and chest fall issue, so trying a barefoot squat variation will help to provide better feedback through this back and forth loop the lifter is going through.

5.) If you go back the blog “Why A Hip Circle Won’t Fix Your Knee Cave” I made a week or so back, I talked about the downfalls of excessively driving the knees out. If someone is in a bad habit of this, a barefoot squat can help to force them into a more natural position of the knees tracking between the external vs. internal rotators.

There are other scenarios as well, but these 5 sum of the majority of the circumstances of when I may program a barefoot squat variation. Trying a barefoot squat is very much like going back to the basics. It’s building a foundation of stability and support at the foot, which therefor creates improved stability and support up the chain of the prime movers within the squat. Its also hard to say exactly when a variation like this should be used, but in my experience there is very little drawback to implementing this, especially far out from a meet, as it will inevitably improve your foot support and weight distribution, or at a minimum reinforce the good patterns you already have achieved.

Why A Hip Circle Won’t Fix Your Knee Cave

Why A Hip Circle Won’t Fix Your Knee Cave

Whether it be in the squat or deadlift, a very common issue is that of knee valgus. The degree to which the knees may cave can vary, whether it be very slight or extreme. But the one thing I can tell you is that the common fix of throwing on a hip circle and doing endless abduction work is rarely, if ever, the fix. Weak abductors more times than not are not the issue, and a better understanding of how the internal versus external rotators work will show this. Above is @_hmcg, and what we can see specifically in the video on the left is the internal rotation that occurs when she breaks the floor. The typical cues you will see for this is to push the knees out more and maybe add some of that magical hip circle work in as a warmup, but I can tell you it won’t fix the issue. The reason being is that you cannot stop the adductors from doing their job. When someone forces themselves into overly externally rotating, by either going into a stance that is too wide for them or ducking their toes out too far, they are ignoring the fact that the adductors are a primer mover of hip extension within the squat and deadlift. So what you are seeing with Haley in the video on the left is not weak abductors, it is an over reliance on the abductors, and as she pulls and the adductors engage, they pull her slightly into internal rotation causing her knees to slightly cave. The fix was fairly simple and maybe not even noticeable at first, but we brought her stance in maybe a 1/2-1 inch on each side. And as you can see on the right, there is no caving at all. We just needed to put her into a position that allowed her to optimally use her internal and external rotators cohesively, rather than forcing herself into abduction. So my recommendation for those who struggle with knee valgus is rethink what the issue might be. If your current fix is to jam your knees out as far as you can during the squat and deadlift and doing endless hip circle work to no avail, weak abductors are probably not the issue. The issue is not a simple as weak glutes, but rather a list of possible positioning errors that lead to this unwanted movement. I am being careful not to give some specific “fix” for this, as its an issue that is too individual to truly address in a broad spectrum. The aforementioned issue for Haley is just one of many reasons knee cave may be occurring. Stance width, foot position, foot rooting, ankle mobility (this and rooting probably is the #1 cause), knee extensor vs hip extensor tensioning, differences in low bar vs high bar, and lateral shifts are just some of the reasons knee valgus may occur, but weak abductors and glutes is rarely one of them.