The Foundations of Strength

November 8, 2010 at 6:12 AM | Posted in Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment
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At some point, you have to ask yourself the obvious question: Why, after almost two straight years of not being able to train or work out to any appreciable extent, is Frank still bigger, stronger and faster than me?

A great question. Let me begin by listing off the obvious reasons I’m still better than you:

  • I’m more intense and way more serious than you.
  • I eat far more than you do.
  • I know what I’m doing.
  • I’ve been doing it for a lot longer.

You may also find the following table very helpful:

If you listen to… And you want to be taken seriously… Replace with…
Eminem ———-> Tool
Kanye West ———-> In Flames
Linkin Park ———-> Chevelle
Rihanna ———-> Breaking Benjamin
Lady Gaga ———-> Killswitch Engage
The Beastie Boys ———-> Unearth
Kings of Leon ———-> Lamb of God
Lil Wayne ———-> Sevendust
Nelly ———-> Five Finger Death Punch
Katy Perry ———-> All That Remains
Queen Latifah ———-> Bullet for My Valentine
Maroon 5 ———-> As I Lay Dying
P!nk ———-> Disturbed
Plain White T’s ———-> Sick Puppies

Table generator

This especially goes out to you “hard gainers” who claim genetics as your enemy at every turn. Two chicken breasts per day and a cup of oatmeal isn’t going to make you bigger. And neither is lifting 135 pounds on your benchpress for a set of 10. And, for that matter, neither is lifting 315 pounds once. And if you’re one of those trashbags who goes to the gym to bench and curl exclusively, just leave now. You have to know what you want and how to train for it if you ever expect to get anywhere.

But, assuming you’re actually on the ball with all of those things I mentioned, you’re still wondering what gives. Well, I have a few tricks and tools that have gotten me pretty far along in the iron game, and a lot of knowledge I’ve bothered to grunge up here and there due to overcoming injuries and strength imbalances.

First, let me talk about what I like to call the “foundations” of strength. It’s a laundry list, probably not exhaustive, of a set of muscles and joint articulations that are most likely profoundly weak in you, and not in me. This is because I have given special attention to these areas and strived to keep them in balance with all of the bigger, stronger muscles and more dominant movements. Here we go.  These are in no particular order.

  1. Rotator Cuff Strength: Yes, you’ve heard about the rotator cuff forever now.  Maybe you’ve even devoted some time to strengthening it.  But by the time you learn about this set of muscles, it’s usually too late to implement standard training.  This is because you’ve gotten your shoulder so out of balance that training the external rotation move is pointless – it’s inhibited by stronger internal rotators.  And, oddly enough, so is your subscapularis.  In most habitual benchpressers (read: most athletes), the subscapularis is either a) injured, or b) about to be injured.  I’ve already belabored this point to death, but a strong, functioning subscapularis in and of itself is almost certain to keep you from overhead injury and allow you to progress in both strength and functionality.  And, of course, pay attention to external rotation strength as well.  You usually can’t build it until the subscapularis is freed of injuries though.
  2. Rhomboids: The rhomboids are a set of deep muscles that act in scapular retraction.  However, from a myofascial point of view (look up anatomy trains), these muscles are even more pivotal in arm movements.  The rhomboids are part of a deep fascial line that connects your spine, shoulder blades and arms together.  They’re absolutely necessary for almost any movement at the shoulder.  In most athletes and even laypeople, the rhomboids are tight and weak and require considerable attention.  They are often overpowered by the middle fibers of the trapezius because weightlifters continue to pound the movement to death with horrible form.
  3. Lower Trapezius and Serratus Anterior: The fibers of the lower trapezius are known to work in scapular depression/upward rotation.  In order for any overhead movement to go off without a hitch (as in avoiding impingement), scapular upward rotation must be perfect.  The serratus anterior is a muscle that works in conjunction with the lower trapezius, keeping the shoulder blades from winging.  Aggressive benchpressers and lazy normal people almost always exhibit some kind of scapular winging.  The serratus anterior and lower trapezius can be directly trained with the right moves.  Most people simply neglect them.  Also, remember that relative strength is an important concept here.  For you more developed athletes, training these muscles with 20 pounds is probably worthless.  Don’t be afraid to put up some weight once you have the mind-muscle connection working.
  4. Lower Abs: Whenever I’m in the gym, I see people trying to train their lower abs using leg swings or leg lifts all the time.  The fact of the matter is the actual ROM through which the lower abs do any sort of movement whatsoever doesn’t even move the legs.  Consider this: the rectus abdominis basically attaches to the ribs at the top and the pelvis at the bottom.  Is any mention of the hip joint made at all there?  NO.  So stop fucking swinging your legs around like an idiot and train the lower abs.  But the problem is just that: most people don’t even know what contracting the lower abs feels like.  You can activate this portion of the muscle by practicing pelvic rotations.  A lot of people, many an athlete including, are stuck in anterior pelvic tilt and don’t know they even have lower abs.  There’s a difference between lower abs and hip flexors.
  5. Iliopsoas:While I’m ranting about the hip flexors, let me make mention of the one no one trains: the iliopsoas.  This muscle is infamous for causing all kinds of lower back pain, pelvic twist, pelvic tilt and instability.  And while it’s true that squats work the iliopsoas to some degree, they certainly don’t hit it that hard.  And since most of us are born and bred weak in this muscle, the more powerful hip flexors tend to take over and become overworked.  However, a strong iliospoas not only prevents back pain and unwelcome pelvic tilts, but it’s a powerhouse for speed production during sprinting.  That’s why this muscle is so easily overworked during sprinting routines, by the way.  Direct work for this muscle a few times per month (so as to not overwork it) is a fantastic way to add speed and power.
  6. Internal Hip Rotators/TFL: How many of you even knew that you had internal hip rotators?  How many of you knew that squatting trains external hip rotation?  Well, you’re not alone.  The tensor fascia lata (TFL) is known to be a hip flexor, yes, but it is also responsible for internal rotation, along with the gluteals and some smaller muscles deep in the thigh.  Internal rotation at the hip is usually lost by most athletes due to training in the squat move and general overuse during performance.  However, the best sprinters have phenomenal internal hip rotation ROM.  Think of internal hip rotation as being very similar to the shoulder: paradoxically, loss of internal rotation hinders the external rotation move and causes general weakness at the joint.  If you pay attention to your internal hip rotators and give them some TLC, your squat and your speed will reap the rewards.
  7. Adductors: While I’m unsure about recommending you get on the adduction machine, think about it: how many “great” athletes get benched for a season due to a groin tear?  Your adductors serve you in speed and power at the hips, and play an important role in quickly changing direction.  Furthermore, the adductors are easily injured during squatting if they aren’t conditioned properly and can become the weakest link in the lower chain if you don’t give them enough attention.  Most athletes exhibit poor frontal plane stability.  Eric Cressey has covered this subject in much more depth, so I’m not going to repeat it.
  8. Hamstrings: Hamstrings are underrated.  Sure, they’re not as showy as amazing quads, but when it comes right down to it, powerful hamstrings = speed and strength.  Take a look at your favorite runningback.  Compare the back of his legs to the back of, say, a wide receiver or a basketball player.  Hamstrings are tremendously important in terms of athletic performance.  However, even if you don’t take that into consideration, it’s important to develop them for knee stability and injury prevention.  And most average people are tight in the hamstrings because of sitting all the time.
  9. Tibialis Anterior (the shin muscles): Training the shin muscles is a challenge, and it usually involves (for me) some kind of ad-hoc method that varies with the available gym equipment.  However, it’s well worth the trouble.  Tibialis anterior is the first muscle to get injured from lots of running, especially on hard surfaces.  It will give you shin splints in a minute.  Furthermore, developing this muscle puts your calves in better balance and contributes to speed production.  If it’s bigger, it also shields your shin bones from potentially shattering impacts.  Of course, if you already lack ankle mobility, training for any part of your calves is automatically worthless, so work on that first.
  10. Neck Strength: Training the neck is underrated as well.  First of all, if you play any kind of contact sports whatsoever, neck training should be one of your top priorities.  This is because when you get demolished on the field, you want your head to stay on your shoulders.  But even for normal people and gym rats it’s worth the effort because, as I spent my last blog post ranting, a tight muscle is a weak muscle.  Most people have tight necks.  See a correlation?  Also, the cervical spine is a vulnerable structure that houses a myriad of important nerve roots, and a nervous system injury here is debilitating for life.  A disc problem will also shut down all but the most ambitious of persons for the rest of his or her pathetic life.
  11. Grip Strength: Direct training for grip strength is all but a lost art.  Only the most cult-like circles of powerlifting still know anything about the subject.  The next time you’re at the gym, look around carefully.  If there’s a guy hardcore enough to actually do deadlifts, is he using straps?  A lot of guys complain about having small forearms, yet they use straps as a crutch to doing lifts requiring grip strength.  This is counterproductive at best.  Maybe it’s just ignorance, but more people should be doing this.  A weak grip is going to hold you back on almost all of your lifts, regardless of the rest of your body.

There you go.  When we as athletes go into the gym to bang out yet another week of squats, benchpresses and (maybe) deadlifts, we set ourselves on a path of specialization.  However, the body does not like specialization.  Traditional squats, lunges and deadlifts all train the external rotation of the hip.  Sooner or later, you’ll hit a wall as your body refuses to develop that motion any more until internal hip rotation is restored.  Perhaps you’ve noticed a nagging burning on the outside of your upper hips each time you squat, or tightness and weakness in your armpit every time you bench.  This is your body telling you that you’ve become far too one-sided in your strengths.

Aside from being stronger than you on all or most of the things I mentioned in the list above, I also have a recovery toolbox that I’m guessing you don’t know anything about. Recovery is more important than what you do in the weight room. You can claim to believe this, but you aren’t doing it right if you aren’t eating enough and sleeping enough. However, there are some extra things that you need to do if you really want to be on the top of your game.  Here’s another list (it’s short though…hardly worth a list).

  1. Mobility Training: Mobility is the ability of a joint to move freely through a full ROM.  Before you “duh” me, let me just tell you that you don’t have it.  Very few people are lucky enough to be born and have a lifestyle that permits effortless full ROM at all joints.
    • Pelvic mobility: Can you do a pelvic tilt?  Do you have full, conscious control over the angle at which your pelvis sits when you stand?  Can you consciously call into action your lower abs and glutes at the same time?  SI joint dysfunction is a leading cause of injury in our country.
    • Ankle mobility: reason No. 2 no one can get big calves without steroids has everything to do with ankle mobility.  There are a number of reasons no one really has enough ankle mobility (walking/running on concrete, being a lazy ass, muscle imbalances, etc.), but it’s easy enough to train.  Look up a few drills.
    • Knee mobility: tight hammies, ’nuff said.
    • Glenero-humeral mobility: any kind of instability at the shoulder will cause the body to limit ROM through any of its ridiculously many joints, especially the G-H joint.
    • Thoracic spine mobility: Bet you didn’t think your spine needs work, did you?  Thoracic spine restrictions will cause or perpetuate poor posture and destroy scapulo-humeral rhythm.

  2. Trigger Point Therapy: Trigger point therapy is the No. 1 reason why most guys have tiny calves.  I wrote a blog about how if you have a trigger point in a muscle, it’s not going to grow.  But the problem goes even further, really.  If you’ve got a trigger point hanging out in your gastrocs or your soleus, training the tibialis muscle is going to be like paddling up a strong river.  It’s possible but excruciatingly slow.  And direct training of the gastrocs or soleus is worthless.  Trigger points work hand-in-hand with mobility reduction in order to provide protection against injury.  The other form of injury prevention is strong, healthy, elastic, balanced muscles and full joint mobility.  Which one do you think an athlete wants?  Which one do you think hurts less?  Exactly.

Hopefully you get the picture by now.  Most or all of my blog posts are related somehow to these ideas.  So the next time you’re hitting a plateau or wondering why you can’t beat me after years of inactivity, get smarter about your training.  Also, get on your horse, because the years of not training are over for me :).

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