It’s pretty obvious why taking care of your shoulders when you train is important. It is one of the most injured joint in the body, or at least one of the joints people often have some kind of issue with. Let’s face it, who many people you know that play sports (especially baseball, tennis and basketball) or have been training consistently for a couple of years that has never had some sort of shoulder pain?
There is a more than just a couple of things you can do to help prevent shoulder injuries. Scapular stability, thoracic spine mobility, soft-tissue work on key muscles, gleno-humeral range of motion and rotator cuff strength are just a couple of examples of what needs to be adressed for optimal shoulder performance.
Let’s take a closer look at the last one: rotator cuff strength. What’s the rotator cuff exactly? It’s a group of 4 muscles that include the infraspinatus, the supraspinatus, the teres minor and the subscapularis.
I’ve outlined in a post on Endeavor’s blog a couple of months ago that there is more than one way to train the rotator cuff, other than doing endless reps of external rotation. If you haven’t read it, you check it out HERE. Another problem we encounter when doing tons of external rotations is that we leave out a big player: the subscapularis. The subscapularis is the only one of the rotator cuff muscles to perform internal rotation. That can cause a problem since the other 2 major muscles that create internal rotation at the humerus are not part of rotator cuff; these 2 muscles being the pec major and the latissimus dorsi. Here is why that is a problem:
If you take a closer look at the insertions of these 2 muscles, you’ll see that they do not attach directly on the humeral head, but rather a little lower on the humerus. So what happens at the gleno-humeral joint if the subscapularis doesn’t have appropriate strength when internal rotation happens at the shoulder? The pec major and latissimus dorsi are going to do all the work, and since they don’t attach directly on the humeral head, they can’t stabilize it. As you’ve probably figured out by now, internal rotation plus unstable humeral head equals not very good.
The best way to train the subscapularis is when the humerus is abducted 90 degrees; that way, there are less chances that the pec major or lat will take over.
Here is one of my favorite ways to strengthen the rotator cuff:
As you lay on your back on the ground your elbow is going to be stabilized more easily and that way you’re going to make sure you don’t compensate with other muscles. You want to make sure that your arm and your elbow are both at a 90 degrees angle and that your shoulder is pulled back against the ground the whole time.
Try to always include subscapularis work in your programs for optimal shoulder health and performance, especially for athletes in sports where the shoulders take a beating like baseball, tennis, basketball, hockey and football just to name a few.
I mentioned in a previous post that single exercises like reverse lunges, back leg raised split squats and 1-leg squats can have great value in a training program as it improves your strength, your stability and your balance on 1 leg, which is the way most sports are played. Whether it is when you run, when you change direction, when you skate (if your sport is played on the ice) or when you decelerate, all of these actions take place on one leg at a time.
For these reasons, single leg exercises might be more “functional” than 2-legs exercises like squats. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love squats, but they might not be as useful as single leg exercises when it comes to transferring strength gains to your sport. You just need to know which one to use and when.
For many years I have been a big fan of single leg exercises as they help develop strength and balance in the knee extensors (quadriceps), hip extensors (glute maximus and hamstrings) as well as hip abductors (glute medius) and hip adductors (adductor magnus, longus and brevis) all at the same time. But I have to say that I have always been hesitant to use single leg exercises as a main lower body lift in the past because I always thought that you could load 2-leg exercises like the squat a lot more than you could with single leg exercises. And more loads also equals better strength gains….Well that’s what I thought a couple months ago….Not anymore.
With all the athletes we’ve seen at Endeavor this summer, I am now convinced that you don’t NEED 2-leg exercises to significantly load a lower body exercise and see great strength gains.
We’ve had numerous hockey players use over 225 pounds for a barbell reverse lunge with a front squat grip, a couple of them going up to around 265! These guys were D-1 College players or Junior League players around 18-19 years old.
Here is Endeavor athlete Charlie Vasaturo, 19 years old, doing reverse lunges with a front squat grip with 255 for 6 reps:
This is also not uncommon to have younger kids(around 14) do dumbbell reverse lunges with over 50 pounds in each hand.
Here is a video of an other Endeavor athlete, Conor Landrigan, 14 years old, who started training with us about 6 months ago and had pretty much no lifting experience before that. Here he is doing a dumbbell reverse lunge for 6 reps with 65 pounds in each hand:
The fact is that once you get used to the movement pattern of a single leg exercise, you can load them up almost as much as you can with 2-leg exercises like squats(in fact, we have our athletes front squat as well and their number are not that much higher than they are for reverse lunges and split squats).
So don’t be affraid to use a single leg exercise as your main lower body lift, as you will be able to load them significantly, your strength gains will transfer better to your sport and you will improve your balance in a sport-specific way.
A strength and conditioning coach job is to make athletes better. Making athletes better means improving their performance and reducing their risk of injury. But the big question is: which one comes first? Which one is really more important than the other?
As in many things, I will give the ‘it depends’ answer. It depends on the age of the athlete, his level, his current inury situation, the amount of time he spends practicing and playing his sport, etc. There is simply a ton of factors to consider, and I would advise you take all of them in great consideration.
It might be tough sometimes to achieve a good balance of both injury prevention and sport-specificity in an athlete’s program. The reason I say that is because you need to consider this: A LOT OF ATHLETES (IF NOT MOST OF THEM) SPEND WAY TOO MUCH TIME PRACTICING THEIR SPORT. And it starts at younger ages nowadays than ever before. Kids start playing their sport year-round and specializing in only one sport at a very young age. What it does is put repeated stress on the same muscles and joints and always in the same way; this is exactly what leads to overuse injuries over time and why so many athletes get injured all the time. And the situation just gets worse and worse as the athlete gets older and reaches higher levels (college, junior, pro).
Unfortunately we CAN”T prevent this type of injury though!
Taking that into consideration, do you still want to be as sport-specific as possible when it comes to strength and conditioning? Do you still want hockey players to condition on the ice during the off-season? Do you still want to have basketball players perform a lot of plyometrics/jumps in their training? I think you get the idea…
To some extent, you want to use training to reverse the patterns that are making athletes develop muscle imbalances through the practice of their sport to prevent overuse injuries as much as possible. That being said, if you continually use sport-specific movements for speed & agility, for plyometrics, for weight lifting and for conditioning you’re also probably reinforcing those same imbalances that lead to overuse injuries.
So the big question arise: How much is too much?
Again it depends. The answer will probably be different for a 13 year-old kid trying to make the AAA team and for a 20 year-old guy who has been drafted at the pro level and trying to make the team.
I am all for sport-specific and functional training, but you need to keep in mind that training should also be used to reverse the damage done throughout the practice of the athlete’s sport to keep them healthy in the long run, so they can keep performing as long as possible.
Find a good balance for each and every one of your athletes and make sure they stay healthy in the long run!
I usually want to put original content on my website, but for today’s post I am just gonna simply put up 2 very interesting links you should definitely check out.
1. This is an interview my colleague Kevin Neeld did with me last week that he posted on his website. He asks me questions mainly on hockey development, but also on supplements and the personal training business versus the strength and conditioning business. When Kevin sent me his questions, I just answered them right away without asking myself any questions. But when I re-read it when it went on his website last Friday I was proud of the way it turned out; I realized that there is a lot of valuable information, especially on the development of hockey players at different levels, that is definitely worth the read. If you haven’t already checked it out, you can right now by clicking HERE.
2. The second one is a blog post written by Brian St. Pierre on conventional dairy products. I read that post just last week and to say it was an eye-opener for me would be an understatement. Brian presents some shocking facts about how dairy products are handled and produced. This is a MUST READ for anyone concerned about their nutrition. Since reading it last week, I am truly reconsidering my dairy intake on a daily basis and might just cut the majority of it from my diet sooner than later. make sure you check it out HERE.
Functional training is a term used quite a bit these days. Functional training might have totally different meanings depending on who you talk to. It can also be used for a variety of training methods and exercises. One that is refered to a lot as “functional training”, and in my own opinion is just a load of crap is unstable training surface.
This is probably the stupidest thing I have ever seen:
And don’t get me wrong, this is not just because I dislike it; unstable surface training is totally useless and counterproductive from a performance training standpoint. Before I get too much hate mail about this, I am just going to prove my point.
- First of all, I don’t know of any sports that are played on a surface that is unstable and/or moving under you (with the exception of alpine and water skying). As far as I know, sports are played on floors, grass and ice which are all really stable surfaces.
- From a safety standoint, I am not sure how safe it is to perform this kind of exercise in training. There is a significant risk of falling off the stability ball, Bosu or whatever implement you’re using. Keeping in perspective that my first two goals as a strength and conditioning coach are to avoid hurting my athletes during training and preventing their risk of injuries, I want to stay away from anything that ressembles loading my athletes with weights on a very unstable surface.
- Performing exercises on unstable surfaces require extra stabilization at the joints involved (mainly the hips, knees and ankles for lower body training). At first, more stabilization might sounds interesting, but consider this: while performing an exercise on an unstable surface, your antagonist muscles are required to activate to take care of the unstable demand placed on the joint(s). On the other side, if you’re trying to improve strength and power in your athletes’ program you need the exact opposite; you need the antagonist to relax as much as possible if you want to improve the force expression at the involved joint. So right here, we have two totally conflicting situations and different goals. Why not improve both at the same? Well, the bad news is that studies have showed that incoporating as little as 5% of your total training volume in unstable surface training decreases maximum force output in trained athletes. Doesn’t sound too good to me.
I don’t think I need to go much further; if you’re looking to improve speed, power, strength and overall performance you might want to reconsider using unstable surface training if it is unsafe, totally non-sport specific and decreases force production.
The only valuable use unstable surfaces might have is to reestablish proprioception in people who had ankle sprains, as there is sufficient proof in the litterature to support that, but that is pretty much all it is good for.
As for as training for improved stability, I am all for it; but I think it should be done in a more sport-specific context. For example, single leg exercises might have tremendous value in a training program as almost everything in sports happen on one leg at the time, for example running and skating. Using single leg exercises like the reverse lunge will take care of all the stability you need.
But I won’t go into more details about this, as it could be the topic for a whole other blog post.
If you want to learn more about the use of unstable surface training, you need to pick up The Truth About Unstable Surface Training by Eric Cressey. Eric goes into great details on everything that touches unstable surface training.
Sprints are a very good way to develop speed for athletes from almost every sports. With sprints, you can use a whole variety of starting positions as progressions to improve agility and reaction time in different sport specific positions.
This one is coming from my good friend and colleague Kevin Neeld, and it is called a Side Falling Lunge Start. We use this starting position for sprints with a lot of our athletes.
You want to take a big step forward, drop as low as possible into a lunge position and immediatly explode out of the lunge position into a sprint in an opposite direction. We usually cue the athletes to make the transition as quick as possible.
It is a great way to improve their reaction time, their agility and their transitional speed as it teaches them to quickly change direction as they need to move to one plane of motion to another. And when you think about it, it is as sport specific as it gets, as almost any team sports requires athletes to quickly change direction.
Core Training. One of the most important component of a training program. We all include in our program exercises like planks, rollouts, knee tucks, rotation/anti-rotation exercises to work the core in all possible ways.
But what happens when you perform these exercises with high loads or you go to failure on them?
You overload the rectus abdominis, external obliques and in some cases the lumbar erectors.
But isn’t that the whole purpose of core training?
The answer is, in part. The rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques as well as the lumbar erectors are part of what we call the outer core. The thing is there is also an inner core. The inner core is a term I learned from Dr. Perry Nickelston and it is used to describe the core muscle group formed by the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the multifidus and the transverse abdominis (TVA).
The inner core is responsible for the muscle activation that support respiration and segmental stability at the lumbar spine. When these muscles are not properly activated, more stress is applied to the outer core muscles to stabilize the spine and this can further lead to back pain.
So how do we train the inner core?
First of all, the inner core needs some low load exercises to activate properly without having the stronger, more dominant outer core muscles compensating if the load is too heavy. The inner core is also easily activated by squeezing something between your knees or by reaching overhead with your arms. With that in mind, I am currently using a variation of the dead bug series that combine both activation patterns of the inner core muscles.
When performing this exercise, you should focus on keeping your belly thight the whole time, crushing the ball with both knees and you should avoid arching with you lower back as you reach overhead (you want to keep a slight natural arch in your back though).
I’ve had great results from implementing this movement in my own training program. I still need to play around a little more with these inner core activation exercises, as I’m just starting to understand their true function. I do believe that inner core training is a good complement to any core training program.
Dr. Nickelston also wrote a very interesting blog post on Carson Boddicker’s website about the inner core where he demonstrates 2 simple progressions of exercises that work on activating the inner core. You should definitely check it out HERE.
Becoming a better athlete means a lot of things. It takes EFFORT. Of course you want to be surrounded by good coaches, have a good training program to help you achieve the best gains possible, but without effort, you’re going nowhere. As strength coach Christian Thibaudeau once said: ”You can have the worst program in the whole world, if you bust your ass, you will still make a lot more progress than someone with the greatest program in the world who doesn’t work hard”.
It couldn’t get more accurate than this. Every athlete willing to get better and reach the next level is always seeking for the best strength coach/trainer out there with the best program; one that will have that “magical ingredient” to his programs that nobody else has heard of and that will make their gains skyrocket.
Let me clear something out; I am all for good programming and I truly believe that every athlete should have a program that suits their needs. But let’s be honest, there is no such thing as a magical training program that will bring you to the next level. Once you’ve covered all the essential components, all you need to make the greatest gains possible on a specific program is to put all your effort and dedication on it.
I’ve seen way too many athletes in my career looking for the perfect program that would take them to the next level. I’ve seen way too many guys like this who talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. Success is guided by effort, dedication, sacrifice and commitment.
Your training program is just a piece of paper after all. It’s what you decide to do with it that will guide your success.
Working with athletes also involves dealing with all sorts of pain and injuries. Even if as strength coaches we try to minimize the risks of injuries, the sad truth is we deal with injured athletes on a regular basis. All of these injuries happen for different reasons: overuse injuries for playing their sport year round, contact injuries from a hit, muscle imbalances or simply poor posture reinforced by modern life (sitting all day, driving, slouching in front of the TV) which is not affecting our body in a very good way. This is just the reality of things; even if you train athletes the right way, you will have to deal with people walking through the door with some kind of pain or injury. And trust me there are more than you think; at our facility, there is probably not a single day where we don’t see someone with some kind of pain walking in.
One type of injury we see almost on a daily basis is some sort of knee pain. And since we can’t send everyone to the physical therapist that has a slight knee pain, we need to train around these pains and try our best to get them better, so they don’t end up being forced to go to the PT. There are a couple of things you can do, depending on the nature of the pain and obviously how bad it is. Here are a couple strategies you can use to maintain their strength levels and help them allievate their pain.
1. Decrease the range of motion. I’m talking about lower body exercises that will reproduce the pain. Most of the time, this will include all variations of squats (on one leg and on two legs) and lunges. Knee pain rarely occurs in the higher range of motion, so that could be a good option to maintain strength levels. Another good option, that also involves decreased range of motion at the knee and can still be really helpful to maintain strength levels is all variations of sled drag or sled push. This last option is a pretty good one as you can load them up pretty good without any pain most of the time.
2. Make sure the athlete’s pushing through his heels and he is keeping his shins as vertical as possible. This is another strategy that would apply to exercises like squats and lunges.
As simple as it sounds, this is a quick fix in many situations. The reason is simple: athletes in general are very quad dominant, which means their knee is going to travel forward more during every type of lifting exercises. And more stress on the quads also means more stress on the knees. By keeping the shin vertical and having them push through their heels will shift some of that stress the posterior chain, and by doing that you might relieve some, if not all, of the athlete’s knee pain.
3. Doing soft-tissue work on quads(especially the VMO), ilio-tibial band and glutes. This is a tip I got from listening to other coaches and from experimenting myself. Let’s just put it this way: these areas get really knotted up and directly affect the knee.
4. Strengthen the posterior chain muscles. That would include your gluteus muscles and your hamstrings. As I mentioned earlier, some stress can be shifted from your quads and knees to your posterior chain muscles; strengthening these important posterior chain muscles will help take some of that stress off of your quads and knees.
5. Stay in the pain-free zone. That might sound really stupid, but I’ve just seen too many people trying to work through pain thinking that their knee problem will magically disappear; well, bad new! that’s just not going to happen. Pain is a signal sent to your brain that says something is wrong; which means there is inflamation, and as long as there is inflamation, your knee is not getting better. Be smart about it!
There is obviously a ton of things you should and can do when you’re dealing with athletes with knee pain; THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE IS KNOWING WHEN TO REFER OUT. Remember you’re not a physical therapist.
Hopefully this post gave you a good place to start when dealing with athletes with knee pain.