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How to Fix Your Overhead Squat

The frustration must be absolutely maddening. I’m shocked you haven’t pulled your hair out or punched a hole in the wall yet.

I can’t think of a more humbling exercise than the overhead squat.

On the flip side, there are few exercises as impressive as a nice heavy overhead squat.

Continue reading “How to Fix Your Overhead Squat”

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What I Learned from the 2015 Crossfit Open…

The 2015 Crossfit Open is officially over and was it ever an eye opener! The competition was fierce and the workouts were humbling to say the least. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Crossfit Open, it’s a worldwide competition to find the fittest man and woman on Earth (believe it or not, there is no other contest to determine this).  It’s a 3 stage process that includes the Open, Regionals, and then the Crossfit Games.

I’ve been competing in the Open since it’s inception in 2011.  As a fitness professional who is passionate about training and always enjoyed some good, healthy competition, this was and still is a natural fit for me.  I know there’s a lot of pundits out there that turn their nose up at Crossfit, but if Crossfit can get over 200,000 people worldwide to participate in this thing they must be doing something right.  Any fitness enthusiast who appreciates elite athletic performances should take a closer look at what is happening in the Crossfit community.  There were some absolutely mind-blowing performances during this year’s Open that would make even Stevie Wonder do a double take!

The Open is a 5 week process that consists of 5 different workouts with one workout being performed each week.  Each workout presented a different challenge and targeted different aspects of one’s overall fitness.  Absolute strength, relative strength, muscular endurance, and aerobic/anaerobic conditioning are some of the main elements that are tested across various exercises and time domains (i.e. long workouts vs. short workouts).  As someone who enjoys being challenged and always looking for different ways to get the best results, I was able to learn quite a few lessons from this year’s Open.

Here’s what I learned from each workout:

Workout 15.1/15a – For the first time ever in the history of the Open, there was a 2 part workout. Part 1 (15.1), being a traditional 9 minute AMRAP (as many rounds/reps as possible) of 15 toes to bar/10 deadlifts (115#)/5 snatch (115#) followed immediately by 15.2 – 6 minutes to establish a 1RM clean and jerk.

15.1 was a true test of core strength and muscular endurance with toes to bar being the limiting factor in this workout.  You needed to be able to perform this exercise in high volume if you wanted to separate yourself from the rest of the field (assuming you had no issue with 115# deadlifts and snatches).  The ability to move one’s body through this range of motion at high intensity requires a degree of core strength that no amount of situps or crunches could ever duplicate.  For all you meatheads out there, add this exercise to your repertoire to build a titanium core.

15.1a was curveball to say the least.  Traditional thinking would lead anyone to believe that testing a 1Rm max under a state of fatigue would be completely ridiculous.  How can anyone expect to lift anything close to their max if they’ve just completely exhausted themselves with 9 minutes of some crazy bodyweight/barbell complex?  The truth of the matter is that most participants were able to hit 90%,  if not more, of their 1RM – myself included.  Whether it’s a combination of adrenaline from being in a competitive environment and conditioning your body to do anything at any given time, maximal strength can still be expressed under a reasonable amount of fatigue.  In no domain other than Crossfit would this type of performance ever be revealed.  Who says strength needs to come before conditioning?

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Workout 15.2 – This workout was a repeat from 2014 that included a challenging couplet of overhead squats and chest to bar pullups.  You had 3 minutes to complete 2 rounds of 10 overhead squats (95#) and 10 chest to bar pullups, the next 3 minutes you to had complete 2 rounds of 12 reps of each movement and the rep scheme kept increasing by 2 reps until you could not  complete the reps within the 3 minute period.

Can you say “Pullup City!” This workout definitely epitomizes Crossfit with its high demand for pullup capacity.  Kipping or butterfly pullups go without saying if you expected to do well in this workout.  Much like 15.1, the barbell movement was not the limiting factor unless you really struggle with overhead squats.

There’s always been a lot of debate over the value of kipping and butterfly pullups. Here’s the deal, if you want to do more work in less time then kipping/butterflying is a must.  If you simply want to get strong and build more muscle then you can get by without ever learning to kip or butterfly.  Having said that, the ability to kip or butterfly can help you squeeze out a few extra reps if you are working to failure on any given set.  This will lead to more time under tension putting greater stress on your lats, biceps and forearms which can ultimately lead to increases in strength and muscle mass.

Making sure you have a solid base of strict pullup strength is key before progressing to kipping or butterfly in order to reduce the risk of shoulder injuries.  Kipping/butterfly pullups also make a traditionally strength based exercise more metabolic because of the speed and volume that they can be performed.  This movement definitely isn’t for everyone, but for the stronger, more athletic gym rats this exercise will definitely add shock value to your training.

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Workout 15.3 – This was a workout that separated the men from the boys.  For the first time, there was a workout that started with muscle ups.  It was a 14 minute AMRAP of 7 muscle ups/50 wall balls/100 double unders.

High skill gymnastics, muscular endurance, and aerobic capacity were put to the test on this one.  Being technically proficient in all 3 movements was important as there was a small degree of “interference” in this workout.  Interference is when the same muscle groups are being used across multiple movements.  In traditional strength and conditioning workouts, this could be referred to as “pre-exhaustion,” or “contrast training” and has many benefits but in Crossfit workouts, this is suicide.  Being efficient would reduce the amount of energy used and muscle fatigue throughout the workout.  There was no heavy barbell in this workout so absolute strength was not a factor.

The ability to perform high skill movements at a steady yet fast pace are commendable feats of human performance.  This workout really gave new meaning to energy system training.

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Workout 15.4 – Yet another test of high skill bodyweight exercise in this couplet of handstand pushups and power cleans.  This 8 minute AMRAP looked something like this:

3 handstand pushups

3 power cleans (185#)

6 handstand pushups

3 power cleans (185#)

9 handstand pushups

3 power cleans (185#)

12 handstand pushups

6 power cleans (185#)

15 handstand pushups

6 power cleans (185#)

18 handstand pushups

6 power cleans (185#)

etc

In the world of Crossfit, the handstand pushup is the new pushup.  This workout was a great test and really pointed out my weakness (well one of them at least).  The power cleans were moderately heavy but again not the limiting factor in this workout.  I’m not quite sure if there is any direct substitute for the handstand pushup as it presents its own unique set of challenges.  Just do more handstand pushups I suppose.

One thing is for sure, no amount of shoulder pressing and push pressing can prepare you for the stability and strength required in the handstand pushup.

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Workout 15.5 – No Crossfit competition is complete without the infamous thruster.  In the grand finale, we had a fairly straightforward yet lethal couplet of rowing and thrusters.  For time: 27/21/15/9 row for calories/95# thrusters.

Nothing crazy here, just go hard and fight through the pain.  I’ve always said the thruster is pound for pound the toughest barbell exercise and is utterly destructive when paired with anything.  In a true test of grit and pain tolerance, this workout symbolizes what people fear most about Crossfit.  “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” if you will, this workout left the biggest, strongest and baddest flat on their backs.

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After this thorough analysis, there are a few major areas that I need to address to have greater success in the future including:

Shoulder mobility – I’ve always had strong and stable shoulders however, I’ve never had the greatest shoulder mobility, specifically external rotation.  This has always hindered my thrusters and clean and jerks.  A long and concerted effort is needed to improve this and will greatly enhance my movement efficiency.

Muscular endurance – There have been many cases during workouts where my muscles will give up before my lungs.  A combination of muscle stiffness and larger muscles makes it difficult for them to work for extended periods of time.  Handstand pushups and chest to bar pullups were a perfect example of this.  I do lots of mobility work but more is needed along with some soft tissue work to break down my sticky muscle fibers.

Lose weight – I’m fortunate that my weight does not fluctuate too much throughout the year (210lbs) but my ability to pack on muscle easily doesn’t work in my favor so much when it comes to high volume bodyweight exercises like muscle ups and handstand pushups.  To be more competitive, I’m going to need to shed a few pounds of muscle.  Time to dust off my running shoes and start jogging!

Overtraining – 3 out of the last 5 years, I’ve come down with a cold either in the first or second week of the Open.  It could be purely coincidence, the time of year, or possibly that my body was in an overtrained state that was made vulnerable through intense competition.  In the future, I need to keep a closer eye on my training volume and intensity leading up to the Open to ensure adequate recovery.  There’s nothing more frustrating than to train hard all year only to have your body break down right when you need it most.

Pacing – Believe it or not, Crossfit workouts require a lot of strategy and pacing to be successful.  Very rarely is it like a drag race where you just put your foot on the gas and hope your engine doesn’t explode before you cross the finish line.  Over the years, I’ve learned how to pace myself better through workouts but this is always an area that can be improved by getting to really understand the limits of my body.

Programming – The most successful people always have someone to model themselves after.  The best athletes have coaches to guide and monitor their progress.  I’ve always taken things from various coaches and made it my own and I’ve had reasonable success. The problem is, it’s too easy to systematically leave gaping holes in my training.   I would like to see how my performance would change if I follow some other successful programming.  Hey, even the best barber needs to get his hair cut by someone else, right?

The fitness game is constantly evolving and the limits of human performance are continually being stretched to new thresholds each and every day.  As someone who tries to maintain a panoramic view of the fitness industry, Crossfit has done a bang up job of getting more people off their asses and training with some intensity while defying what we think we are physically capable of.   I know my training regimen over the next few months will be inspired by my experience in this year’s Open.  With nothing to lose and everything to gain, I’m excited to see how the next few months shake out. “Do more work in less time.”  I’m still shockingly impressed by the genius of this concept.

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How to Build Strong Shoulders and Prevent Nagging Injuries

I’ve always referred to training as a journey and I always say “the journey is the reward.”  What I forgot to mention is that along this journey there may be a few bumps in the road.  Depending on your training age, genetics, and lifestyle, you may have an injury or two along the way.  If you’ve been training for a long time and never had any setbacks consider yourself lucky – maybe you should even write a book!

The point is, although injuries do happen from time to time, you can overcome them and become even more resistant to them in the process.  Being disciplined and taking a systematic approach is the key.

It’s safe to say that I’ve had my fair share of sprains and strains over the years – 3 achilles tendon ruptures and multiple hamstring strains to name a few.  As a result, I’ve had to learn how to work through and around various aches and pains.  Over the last few months, I’ve been suffering from some bicep tendonitis in my left shoulder.  I have good days and bad days.  Do I ever get frustrated? Absolutely.  Have I stopped taking my body for granted and become more strategic with my training? Absolutely.  Have I become wiser and more savvy as a result of dealing with this injury? ABSOLUTELY!

Coincidentally, this brings me to our main topic of discussion – building strong shoulders and preventing nagging injuries.  There are a number of factors that contribute to shoulder injuries that include but are not limited to:

  • Bad postureKelly Starrett said it best “sitting is the new smoking.”  If you sit at a desk all day then you aren’t doing yourself any favors.  Excessive sitting leads to rounded shoulders, tight traps and pecs and destroys your shoulder mobility.
  • Over development of the pecs – If you’re a meathead that lives and dies by the bench press, then you will most likely run into shoulder problems at some point in your training career.  Too much pec work pulls the shoulder joint forward making it vulnerable to impingement and other chronic injuries.

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too much heavy pec work can lead to shoulder problems

  • Poor thoracic mobility – Also known as the “T” spine, thoracic mobility plays a huge role in your ability to perform overhead lifts without putting stress on your lower back.
  • Poor external rotation – Having trouble holding a proper “rack” position in a front squat or thruster?  Your external shoulder rotation is most likely limited.
  • Hyper active upper traps – Unfortunately, when we are stressed we tend to carry it in our neck and shoulders which makes these muscles hyperactive (they compensate for other muscles that should be doing the work).
  • Weak back muscles – A strong upper back is necessary to stabilize the scapula and keep the shoulder joint in a neutral position.  Muscular balance is critical to healthy joints.
  • Over use – You CAN have too much of a good thing.  Because the shoulder joint is involved in so many exercises it can easily become overused and develop chronic injuries.  Knowing how to moderate training volume can save your shoulders a lot of stress in the long run.
  • “Behind the neck” exercises – Loading the shoulder from behind the neck puts it in a very vulnerable position and can lead to dislocations and ligament tears.  Play safe and keep the weight in front of you.
  • Not “packing” the shoulder – During certain exercises like a chin-up or a push-up, the shoulder acts as a stabilizer and can only do so if it is in a “packed” position.  This is done by engaging your lats and rhomboids to pull your shoulders blades down and together. This protects the shoulders and makes the movement more efficient.

bad-posture1

“sitting is the new smoking”

The shoulder joint is a complex structure comprised of a number of muscles, ligaments and bones allowing it to move through multiple planes of motion.  The recommendations outlined will help to build strong healthy shoulders, prevent various chronic and acute injuries, as well as help to actively rehabilitate common shoulder dysfunctions.

If you want to have what Eric Cressey refers to as “bulletproof shoulders,” there are 3 main areas you need to address in your training:

  1.  Strength – The ability to load the shoulder joint and move those loads efficiently.
  2. Stability – The ability to load the shoulder joint and HOLD those loads efficiently.
  3. Mobility/Flexibility – The ability to move the shoulder joint through various ranges of motion without any pain or restriction.

To develop these areas,  there are many approaches you can take but at the same time it’s important to have a solid foundation which is built on basic fundamental exercises.

To develop strength, the following exercises should serve as the foundation of your training:

Overhead Exercises

Depending on the current state of your shoulders, overhead exercises may or may not be in your best interest.  If you have strong, healthy shoulders with good mobility, then going overhead will only reinforce those movement patterns.  If you suffer from an impingement and lack the thoracic mobility to lift overhead efficiently, then you might have to address these issues first.  If you’re pain free, these exercises should be a part of your shoulder training:

  • Strict Shoulder Press
  • Push Press
  • Strict Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • 1 Arm Dumbbell Push Press

The strict presses and push presses are the best for overall strength and muscular development.  Single arm variations are also a great option to address any muscular imbalances.

tspine

your thoracic mobility will determine your ability to go overhead

Pulling Exercises

Too often, injuries like tendonitis and impingement are a result of bad posture, and over development of the pecs and anterior deltoids.  This pulls the shoulder joint forward making it more difficult for it to move freely overhead or in any direction for that matter.  To offset this anterior rotation, it’s important to develop strong back muscles such as the lower traps, rhomboids, rear deltoids and lats.  The law of gravity states the “what goes up must come down.”  The law of healthy shoulders states “for every push there must be a pull.”  Here are some pulling exercises that your shoulders will thank you for later:

  • Pull-up/Chin-ups
  • 1 Arm Dumbbell Rows
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Inverted Rows
  • Incline Dumbbell Rows
  • Face Pulls
  • Band Pull Aparts (front and overhead)
  • “Y”s, “T”s and “W”s

inclinerow

inclinerow2

incline dumbbell rows are great for the lower traps and rhomboids

Pull-ups and chin-ups are vertical pulls that strengthen the lats while the rowing exercises and pull aparts are horizontal pulls that will target the lower traps and rhomboids.

Rotator Cuff Exercises

I mentioned earlier that the shoulder is made up of a number of different muscles.  There are two main muscle groups that make up the shoulder – the deltoid and the rotator cuff.  The deltoid has 3 heads (front, lateral, and rear) and the rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor).  The rotator cuff sits under the deltoid and holds the shoulder joint together.  These muscles, if weak and neglected, can lead to a host of shoulder problems.  It’s important to take the time to strengthen these muscles  in isolation to protect them from strains and tears.  Here are some rotator cuff exercises:

  • Internal/External rotation with shoulder abducted/adducted

The external rotators generally pose the most problems and more time should be spent strengthening them.

Stability Exercises

Strength and stability go hand in hand which leads us to the best exercises for building shoulder stability:

  • Kettlebell Windmill – Builds shoulder stability while develops hip and lower back mobility.

windmill

windmill2

windmills are great for shoulder stability and lower back/hip mobility

  • Turkish Get-up – Builds shoulder stability while develops core strength and balance.
  • Overhead farmer’s walk – Builds shoulder stability while develops core strength and balance.

overheadwalk

the overhead walk will BULLETPROOF your shoulders

  • Overhead lunge – Builds shoulder mobility while develops core and leg strength.
  • Overhead squat – Builds shoulder mobility while develops core and leg strength.

The limiting factor in these exercises is the ability to hold and stabilize weight overhead. This is arguably the best way to build shoulder stability.

Mobility/Flexibility Exercises

Keeping your shoulders healthy also requires adequate mobility/flexibility through all the major planes of motion – flexion/extension, internal/external rotation, and abduction/adduction.

Here are some great mobility/flexibility exercises to get the shoulders moving freely:

  • External rotation with stick
  • Handcuff stretch with band
  • T-spine stretch on foam roller
  • Shoulder dislocates with stick
  • Towel stretch

Towel-stretch-IR

towel stretch

handcuffstretch

handcuff stretch

It’s important to note that too much mobility/flexibility (aka laxity) in a joint can be just as bad as not having enough.  If you have lax shoulders, then your primary focus should be on building strength and stability to prevent injury.

The shoulder plays either a primary or secondary role in a wide range of upper body exercises which makes it so critical to keep them healthy if you want to train hard and continue to make gains.  Don’t wait until shit hits the fan to start taking care of yourself.  Use these exercises as a PREVENTATIVE measure to a long lasting, pain free training regime.  Check out the video below for a great shoulder warm-up routine!

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