Reduce and Prevent Shoulder Pain

Poor posture combined with heavy lifting and poor exercise programming (or lack of any programming) can wreak havoc on the shoulders.  If you find yourself with achy shoulders or care enough to keep them healthy, then keep reading.  Here are three tips that you can do to help reduce and prevent shoulder pain from occurring.

It’s advisable to consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program and even more important if you currently suffer from shoulder pain.

  1. Improve Your Posture– Most of us sit for hours each day with hunched shoulders and rounded backs. This not only has a negative long term impact on the spine, but it also affects the shoulders and surrounding muscles. Continuously putting your body in a poor position, such as hunched over a computer screen for hours on end can lead to tightness and shortening of the pectoral muscles. This can lead to muscular imbalances and increase the risk of injury.

Do this: Make a conscious effort to improve your posture throughout the day. Sit up tall, pull your shoulders back, and sit in the back of your chair. To develop this habit, set a simple calendar reminder for every two hours during your work day.

  1. Improve Thoracic Mobility– The thoracic spine is the middle section of the spine that is attached to the ribs. Having poor movement in this area will often affect the available range of motion for the shoulder. Try this: slump your shoulders forward like you just heard some very depressing news and then try to lift your arms overhead. Didn’t work too well? Now try standing up tall with a proud chest and lift your arms overhead. See the difference?

Do this: Improve muscle tissue quality through foam rolling and soft tissue work (maybe even a massage).  Focus these efforts on the mid-back. Be sure to also target the chest and lat muscles of the back. Then work on improving the range of motion in the thoracic spine through stretching and mobility drills. These can serve as part of warm-up before a workout or can be done by themselves throughout the day.

  1. Strengthen Shoulder Muscles– In order to counteract poor posture habits and tightness in the front of the shoulder, most people can benefit from strengthening the muscles on the posterior, or backside, of the body rather than the anterior, or front, of the body.

Do this: Organize your workouts so that for every anterior-focused exercise you perform (e.g. any type of press), you also perform two posterior-focused exercises (e.g. any pulling or rowing motion). Also, spend time developing the smaller, deep muscles of the rotator cuff. Simple exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff require only a band or light weight.

See a knowledgeable fitness professional to learn more and design a workout program to fit your needs. If you experience chronic shoulder pain or have an injury, visit a physical therapist for a thorough evaluation.

-Dan

Training with Strength Bands – Beyond Speed Work

A good pair of strength bands can be a very useful and portable tool for anyone in the gym.  If your gym doesn’t have these readily available, I would suggest purchasing a set and carrying them with you to the weight room.  The most common uses for strength bands in the fitness world are for speed work by applying them to a barbell (variable or accommodative resistance methods) and mobility drills (joint traction and distraction).  There are plenty of other ways to utilize a set of strength bands.  Below are just a few of the ways in which I commonly use bands in my own training or with clients that I work with.

 

Band Over-and-back Chest Stretch

Using a band instead of PVC pipe for this warm-up allows some “give” for those that need it.  You can also pull against the band better than you can against a PVC pipe.  I will utilize this as a warm-up or occasionally in between sets of heavy pressing.

 

Band Single Arm Chest Press

This drill is great for teaching tightness in a bench press.  The band, when tucked under the arm, provides a good feel of how your shoulder position should be during a bench press.  Use this as an instructional drill and as a warm-up for pressing.

 

Band Chest Press and Band Pushup

This drill works well as another bench press warm-up and for some a good strength exercise.  For a more advanced version, try bringing down into a pushup.

 

Band Overhead Triceps Extension

This works well for those with cranky elbows and tight chest and shoulders.  Also another good heavy pressing warm-up.

 

Band Triceps Pressdown

A great way to burn out your triceps with burning out your elbows.  Those with elbow pain will appreciate band work as it can be easier on the joints.

 

Band Pull Apart

This is one of my favorite drills.  I’ll use it to warm-up before heavy presses and in between heavy presses.  It is a great exercise to work the rear shoulders and mid to upper back.

 

Band 45-degree Hip Extension

This is great variation to the 45-degree hip extension or low back extension.  With the constant and increased tension at the top of the movement with the bands, you can focus on feeling the hips drive the movement.  I try to mimic a deadlift lockout at the top of this exercise, locking out the hips and avoiding too much extension or “hyperextension” of the hips and low back.

Band Deadlift

This has to be one of my current favorites for teaching someone how to deadlift.  The bands are unloaded in the bottom making it safe to perform for virtually anybody.  The increase in band resistance at the top can help an athlete “feel-out” the muscles that drive the movement.  This way, when the athlete transitions to barbell deadlifts, they can have a focus of what muscles to fire to drive the movement from.

I also like the bands for warming up my deadlift and to work on a light speed set in between heavy sets.

Band Ab Pull-ins

One of my favorite ab training exercises.  I like that this variation is done standing; just as in the squat and deadlift.  Note here that the goal is flex the abs and not the hip flexors.  This will create a rounding in the back, the hips should stay fairly still.  I will work this with my breathing; exhale and tighten up as much as I can at the bottom of the movement.

 

Band Assisted Pullups

This method is quite common and it is likely that you have seen this before.  I prefer this method for people over using the assisted pull-up machines with the counter balance weight.  The bands provide the feet to move more freely than the machines and the assistance decreases towards the top of the movement requiring more strength to finish the movement.

-Dan and Tasha

As seen on The Alpha Project

Peaking for Strength with Weight Cycling

One of the beautiful things about training is there really is no right or wrong, just better and worse.  I’ve spent the past few years experimenting with different programs and reading about different methods to get stronger.  From what I’ve found, the best program for me has been quite simple to follow and flexible with the workouts.

I have been following the method of weight cycling for my squat, bench press, and deadlift which is described below.  I do have to attribute the thought process behind the weight cycling method to Andy Bolton, world class powerlifter and the first man to deadlift over 1,000 pounds.  Bolton describes his technique with weight cycling in his book Deadlift Dynamite (highly recommended read).

Here is my interpretation of weight cycling and how to do it:

For those without a specific date to peak

  • Establish your 10RM for squat, bench, deadlift
  • Weekly cycles with planned increases of 5-15lbs
  • Start the first micro-cycle with 10RM and perform up to 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Continue pushing forward each week increasing 5-15lbs as long as you can complete at least one set of 5 reps.
  • When you have exhausted your (hopefully new) 5RM, and can no longer hit 5 reps, set your goal to complete as many sets (up to 5) of 3 reps. Continue increasing each week.
  • Once your 3 rep sets are exhausted, re-start the program with 5 reps again but increase the starting weight of the first cycle 5-10lbs from the previous first cycle’s starting weight.
  • After completing two full rotations of 5’s and 3’s, test your new 1RM.

For those with a specific date to peak (within 12 weeks from today)

  • Establish your goals for the competition
  • Work backward from the competition date to today’s date and determine how many weeks are left.
  • Keep the week before competition as a deload week (no more than 60% of 1RM) and start planning from 2 weeks out from competition.
  • Work backwards from the goal weight planning with 2 weeks out being a 2 rep PR (10-15lbs lighter than your goal weight). 3 Weeks out should be 10lbs lighter for 3 rep sets.
  • This may result in a few cycles depending on how far out the competition date is. For example, planning 12 weeks out for a competition, you may plan two 6 week cycles with a peak after the first 6 weeks.
  • Start each cycle with 5 reps until 5’s are exhausted, drop down to 3’s, then 2’s, deload, and blow away the competition on the cycle before your competition.

Here is an example of a 135lb female powerlifter planning 12 weeks out from a powerlifting meet:

Goals:

Squat 275

Bench 175

Deadlift 345

 

Current:

Squat 254

Bench 165

Deadlift 325

 

Week Squat Bench Deadlift
1 185 x 5 135 x 8 235 x 8
2 185 x 8 140 x 5 265 x 5
3 195 x 5 150 x 5 275 x 5
4 205 x 5 160 x 3 295 x 3
5 225 x 5 165 x 2 315 x 2
6 235 x 3 170 x 1 330 x 1
7 245 x 3 145 x 5 295 x 2
8 250 x 2 155 x 3 315 x 3
9 255 x 2 165 x 3 325 x 2
10 270 x 1 170 x 1 335 x 1
11 (Deload) 165 x 3 to 5 115 x 3 205 x 3
12 (Peak) 275 175 345

 

Realizing that the body can only take so much heavy or intense training, I only have three heavy days a week which will consist of my programmed main lift and a few assistance exercises.  I will typically add three additional days where I will work on technique/speed work, a bodybuilding pump workout, or stability and core with single limb exercises.  I consider these lower intensity workouts to be flexible as they are hardly planned and done by feel that day.

-Dan and Tasha

The Best Back Exercises You Are Not Doing

The following exercises are by no means the king of the crop when it comes to training your back.  Exercises such as the deadlift, pull-ups, chin-ups, and rows should comprise the bulk of your back training.  The following exercises are “not-so common” but effective exercises that you should give a try.

Good Morning

The Good Morning is one of my favorite accessory exercises for the squat and deadlift.  If you back squat with a low-bar placement, or would like to at some point, the good morning allows for a lifter to practice the low-bar placement with a lighter load.  During the entirety lift, the lifter must maintain tightness throughout the entire back to maintain control of the bar and to push the load onto the hips (see video).  Through emphasizing a low-placement, the center of mass (COM) stays closer to the lifter’s COM allowing the lifter to sit back and load the posterior chain.  Through using this technique, not only will the lower back and hips benefit but the mid and upper back will also feel the weight of this exercise.

Chest Supported High Row

The traditional chest supported row is a popular exercise and for good reason.  With the traditional version emphasizing a lower row position, it is great way to overload the lats, mid, and upper back while minimizing the load on the lower back.

The high row version of the chest supported row is a great variation to build up the upper back.  Using about 60% of the weight used for the traditional version, flare the elbows and pinch together the traps, pulling the weight towards the face rather than the armpits.  Your mid and upper traps will benefit from this version.

Face Pulls

Like the chest supported high row, the face pull is a great exercise to add to the arsenal for building the upper back.  Unlike the chest supported high row, face pulls have the added benefit of strengthening the external rotators of the shoulder.  Since the torso is unsupported, the face pull also calls for more core stabilization than a chest supported row.

Face pulls can be done with a number of different stances (half-kneeling, split-stance, seated), and in many different angles/directions (low-to-high, high-to-low, and straight on), and with many different apparatuses (cable station, resistance bands, suspension trainer).  My favorite variation is the half-kneeling cable face pull pulling from a slight high-to-low angle (as seen in the video above).  I like this because of the ability to brace your body to handle greater weight and the high-to-low angle also emphasizes the mid-back.

Band Pull-Apart

Simple yet effective the band pull-apart is one of the best exercises to prepare you for the bench press.  I use this exercise mostly as a warm-up exercise to get a “feel” for my shoulder blades pinching as they should during a set of bench press.  Keeping the bench press in mind, the band pull-apart should simulate the same technique of creating tightness in the upper and mid-back.  When utilizing the band pull-apart, aim for high repetitions and keep some tension throughout the movement.  This will not only work as a great warm-up or prep move but it will also help to bring up the rear delts and upper back.  I like to use this in a super-set or tri-set of back exercises as well.  Another plus side of this exercise is it can virtually be done anywhere as long as you have a band handy.  This makes it a great compliment to almost any exercise as a super-set.

-Dan

The Static Stretching Hangover

A recent study evaluated the effects of dynamic stretching and static stretching against a control group (no stretch) on explosive movement drills after a 24 hour delay (Haddad, 2014).  They tested subjects’ on 5 different jump tests and on their repeated sprint ability.  The findings suggest that static stretching done 24 hours before a maximum effort explosive movement (jump tests) can impair performance while the dynamic stretching group showed improvement in their jumping abilities.

NOTE: Static stretching consists of lengthening muscle(s) to end range of motion with a pause (usually 10 to 30 seconds).  Dynamic stretching involves moving a joint/muscle through a normal to full range of motion without a pause.

According to another study, static stretching between bench press sets of 80% of 1RM performed to failure had no significant effect on performance (Ribeiro, 2013).  The takeaway from both studies suggest that static stretching may potentially have a negative effect on maximal effort performance but has little to no effect on submaximal performance work.

If you plan to crush any strength PR’s in the next 24 hours, you should hold off on any static stretching today.  This is not to say that static stretching doesn’t have its place in your program.  If you need to improve your flexibility, static stretching may be useful but be mindful of when you use this technique.  Plan on refraining from static stretching within at least 24 hours of any strength PR attempts.  The first study did find that the group that performed dynamic stretching 24 hours prior to testing did notice an improvement in their jump performance.  Based on these findings, dynamic stretching should be your primary source of stretching in at least the day before leading up to a PR attempt.

Haddad, M, Dridi, A, Chtara, M, Chaouachi, A, Wong, DP, Behm, D, and Chamari, K. Static stretching can impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours. J Strength Cond Res 28(1): 140–146, 2014

Ribeiro, Alex Silva; Romanzini, Marcelo; Dias, Douglas Fernando; Ohara, David; Pereira da Silva, Danilo Rodrigues; Júnior, Abdallah Achour; Avelar, Ademar; Cyrino, Edilson Serpeloni. Static Stretching and Performance in Multiple-Sets in the Bench Press Exercise. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: POST ACCEPTANCE, 25 September 2013

-Dan

5 Reasons You Are Not Getting Stronger

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  1. Lifting Too Heavy Too Frequently

Unfortunately, this was a lesson learned the hard way.  Until competing in powerlifting, almost all of my training sessions for the past couple of years have consisted of one of the major three lifts (Squat, Bench, and Deadlift) working with weights 80% or higher of my 1 rep max.  I had been training 5-7 days per week, deload weeks were almost always neglected or shortened, heavy weights were lifted, and minimal progress was made over time.  It wasn’t until my first powerlifting meet that I truly appreciated the value of a deload week.

In preparing for my first meet, I was able to convince myself to hold back on the heavy weights for the week prior to the competition.  During the meet, I was easily able to set new personal records on all three of lifts.  Sure, some of this could be attributed to the adrenaline drive of competing but not all of it.

Since that first competition, I have been able to bring my strength to new heights simply by implementing lower intensity training sessions more often.

If you are reading this, I am assuming that you like to lift heavy like I do.  If the first paragraph sounds like you, try this for a change:

  • Limit yourself to 1 heavy squat or deadlift training day per week
  • Alternate between heavy and light days with squat, bench, and deadlifts.
  • Focus your light days on single-limb variations, altered resistance (bands, chains, etc.), and/or speed work.
  • Deload for a week every 4-6 weeks or as your program calls for.
  1. Lacking Intent With Sub-maximal Lifts

Make every rep count.  When training for peak strength, lifting at sub-maximal loads (<95% 1RM) are crucial to your success at obtaining a new PR.  Warm-up sets and build-up sets are a chance for you to properly assimilate your body to handling heavier weights.  These sets should be treated exactly like maximal sets.

Lifting with the same intent on sub-maximal sets that you would with a maximal set should be the focus.  Practice the same set-up and technique and accelerate the weight with the intent of driving the weight with the same explosiveness as a maximal set.

Think of it as neurological training.  You are training nervous system to repeat a motor pattern repeatedly with the same technique and effort regardless of the resistance.  Therefore, sub-maximal sets should be done with speed and intent.  Do not waste your time and discredit lighter sets as simply warm-up for the joints and muscles.

  1. Not Sleeping Enough

Sleep is your body’s only chance to recover between grueling workouts.  You may be able to function fine throughout the day off of 5 hours of sleep but if you are chasing after PR’s, you need more.

  1. Not Eating Enough

To develop strength, you need muscle.  To develop muscle, you need calories.  Physique may be equally important to you.  Balancing the appropriate amount calories and macronutrients in your diet can be tricky when training for strength and improving or even maintaining a lean physique.  If you are considering going on a restrictive diet (low-carb, fasting, etc.), do not expect your strength to increase much beyond what it is at now.

  1. Too Much Time Spent On Isolation Exercises

If you are after maximal strength, most of your training sessions should consist of heavy compound exercises.  Following the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule), 80% of your effort and training should consist of heavy compounds with only 20% percent focused on isolation exercises.  Do not waste your time building up individual muscles separately (unless bodybuilding is your goal).  Use that time working muscles synergistically to move heavier weight to achieve a greater overload stimulus.

-Dan