Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reconsidering Assistance Work, Part 1

Somewhere along the way, we've only paid lip service to the SAID principle and forgotten the its true meaning. We speak of working on "sticking points" and "weaknesses"--lockouts for the triceps and extra hamstring work on the GH bench. Some people use these as excuses for exercise variety instead of just doing the hard work that is required to make real progress. Others, truly find success working these areas. The rest of us may just be confused.

But the reality is, great poundages have been hoisted on simple programs, probably more so than all the advanced programs combined. I say "probably" because I am no Iron Game historian--I just a casual follower.

After spending almost 2 years re-mobilizing--for lack of a better term--my body, I can say definitively that movement feels different--better, and yet sometimes strangely harder. I am writing this after completing the first day of my new training program, and although relatively high in volume (75 total work reps), my legs feel shakier and more taxed than I can recently remember and from doing very simple exercises--Snatch Grip Deadlifts and Front Squats (Separated by Military Presses).

From my vantage point on this side of "re-mobility," it is fair to say that trainees mistake lack of strength, or "weak links" for lack of mobility. Mobility work is by strictest (and admittedly newest) definition strength training. We tend to separate the two, but whether you're performing back squats or shoulder circles, you are providing your brain with proprioceptive input--one just happens to be loaded.

So far, we're just talking theory, so let's get down to brass tacks and look at a very simple exercise: the Squat.

Traditionally, the Squat is categorized as a "quad dominant" movement. Indeed, in the latest Strength and Conditioning Journal from the NSCA, they spoke of research using EMG analysis regarding muscle recruitment in the squat. Surprisingly, very little activation was reported in the hamstring musculature. I say "surprisingly" because now during the "re-mobility" period it seems they are one of the only muscle groups I feel after a squat session! At this point, I need to clarify that the squat they defining is not a full Olympic squat or a Westside-style power squat--it is an "athletic" squat, which is very similar to the traditional powerlifting squat.

Now, back to the hamstrings. What is the major difference between my experiences and the latest findings in the research? Well, for starters, I am an experiment of one, if you don't include my clients, who also perform mobility work and squat. Secondly, and here's the part I'm trying to sell, mobility work, especially Z-Health mobility work, changes everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING.

Let's look at why a scientific study in a well-thought of journal would consider the squat a quad-dominant exercise. Traditional performance of the squat dictates a tight arch in the lower back with an upward eye position. These two variables alone are enough to eliminate the contribution of the hamstrings during the squat. Let me explain. The upwardly- fixed gaze usually results in the trainee fixing his eyes on one spot on the wall and keeping them there for the entire performance of the lift. This means the head and neck will rotate about the eyes resulting in cervical hyperextension. This movement causes compression of the cervical vertebrae and results in what's known as the arthrokinetic reflex. This reflex inhibits muscular recruitment when a joint becomes jammed. Cervical hyperextension inhibits the proper recruitment of the hamstrings as hip extensors during the squat, thereby shifting the load primarily to the glutes (for a little while, until that tight arch catches up to you--but more on that in a second or two) and the lumbar erectors.

But it gets worse. The tight arch in the lower back initiates an anterior pelvic tilt, which shortens the hip flexors, inhibits the recruitment of the deep abdominal wall (thus exposing the spine to potential harm), and pre-stretches the hamstrings and gluteals, which at first, doesn't seem like such a bad thing. Three things are actually occurring here:

1. When a muscle shortens (contracts) it's antagonist relaxes. This is called reciprocal inhibition. As the hip flexors shorten, the hip extensors relax. This would normally be a good thing except in this case, your spine is under load. So something needs to counter that anterior pelvic tilt which is busy compressing your vertebrae from L3-S1. Normally, this "something is supposed to be your gluteals, which act as a neutralizer against the pull of the hip flexors during the squat. This leads us to the second point:

2. Leaving a muscle on stretch, through passive or active means, decreases force production by up to 30%. That's huge! What's that got to do with squatting? That tight lumbar arch you're initiating when you squat is putting those glutes and hamstrings on one long stretch, decreasing the neural drive from the brain to the muscles effectively weakening them both during the squat and in the long run. But wait--it gets even better!

3. Adaptive Shortening. Sounds like some form of Crisco and it can be just as bad, if not worse for your long term health. That tight arch shortens your hip flexors which happen to be your psoas, illicus, and rectus femoris at a bare minimum. If proper hip mobility is not restored, these muscles remain short and then tighten keeping that pelvis in a permanent anterior tilt. This causes a permanent decrease in neural drive to the hip extensors (gluteals and hamstrings) which in turn leads to sensorimotor amnesia (use it or lose it). This of course causes problems all over the body, not just at the hip and low back, but also at the shoulders, thoracic spine, and neck, at a bare minimum.


Blogger Mike T Nelson said...

Preach on brother Neupert!!!! Exactly!

This also explains why many people who squat and deadlift in a "good" position (arch, eyes up and neck up), have low back pain and less than stellar movement.

As you point out, performance and movement go hand in hand and you can improve BOTH at the same time.

I've found that lifting has become harder, although my weights are going up again now--but everything else is way easier. Even stuff that I have never done or rarely do. Awesome!

rock on
Mike N

11:07 AM  
Blogger Franz Snideman said...

Great post Geoff! I have to say I agree.........but sometimes their are exceptions.

What has always mystified me is looking at the typical black sprinter (either male of female). Most of them have huge lumbar curves (some of them much higher than 45 degrees of curvature in the low back / normal is 30), yet they seem to be incredibly explosive and have very well developed glutes and hamstrings.

These athletes structurally are built that way and the protypical posture of a world class sprinter is HUGELY LORDOTIC! The question is; would these athletes be even better if we could take some of that anterior pelvic tilt away?

Interesting question IMO. Or, are sprinters just born this way? I have some clients over the years that I could not get the lumbar curve to flatten out.....some people correct easier.....but some people, like sprinters, do not!

11:32 PM  
Blogger Geoff Neupert said...

Thanks, Mike.

Franz, I agree--there are ALWAYS exceptions to everything.

I guess the questions for you and your sprinters would be the following:

1. Manual muscle test the glutes and hamstrings in a "functional" position: If they're weak, then you've got weaknesses to address.

2. You automatically assume that the methods you were using to reduce the lumbar curvature to normal were correct. They were "correct" as taught to you, but were they "absolutely" correct? The answer must be "no" since the athletes' bodies didn't respond. As a weightlifter, I've had hyperlordosis for, well, ever. Employing Z, I'd say I'm close to "normal," if indeed there is such a thing. Still got the big butt too. Some people are easier to "fix" using the conventional methods we were taught, i.e.: addressing soft tissue, etc. Others such as myself, reap zero benefit from that approach. The question becomes how much mileage does that individual have on him in that particular event, and how much time can he spend correcting himself. the higher the mileage, the longer it takes to fix that individual. Most of us do not have the time or patience that our brother Rif exhibited in his earlier years of rehab. Two to three hours a day, every day is just not a viable option for most of us.

3. We are assuming that 30 degrees of lumbar curvature is "normal," but as you already mentioned, could it be abnormal for an athletic subpopulation? Could the body's structure predispose an athlete to a particular sport or does that sport shape the athlete? Obviously the answer is "both" but we don't know exactly which has the stronger influence on that athlete.

Just my current thoughts.

More to come and will probably change in the future. Ah, learning!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Reifkind said...

one thing to remember though Geoff, the squat is considered an assistance exercise for the snatch and clean and jerk,no?

11:14 AM  
Blogger Brett Jones said...

A thought on the spriter lordosis - could it be that since the structure is "normal" or in alignment for that individual that it doesn't cause the arthrokinetic reflex issues?
Assumptions of normal or abnormal have to be made carefully IMO

Also - it doesn't surprise me that the NSCA would look at the squat as quad dominate - why not just look at it as a hip dominate push for the lower body.

6:19 AM  

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