Hello everyone! Welcome to article number thirty-two (thirty-freakin’-two!) in the Challenger Strength Blog Series. Yes, I am just as shocked as you are that my initial blogging effort has transformed into such a consistent and weekly publication. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because as the weeks go by it is increasingly hard to find unique and fresh topics to write about. However, my creativity has prevailed thus far so have no fear. What I will say though is if you have any topics you would like to see covered please drop a comment on our website, Instagram or Facebook. In addition to this, I will continue checking out various Instagram stories and find inspirations from the unfortunately stupid things I see on a day-by-day basis.
One thing I have seen a lot lately that is becoming an issue is improper shrug technique and ideology. Basically, many people have the wrong idea of what they should be doing when they shrug. They treat a barbell shrug like it is an Olympic lift. Hands all chalked up, belt on nice and tight, 200 plates on each side of the bar, and then they shrug and they look like they are receiving an exorcism in one of the conjuring movies. I am here to tell you to remove your ego from the equation and learn to shrug properly and effectively.
Goals of Shrugging
I have said this countless times before and I will say it again. IF YOUR GOAL FOR A BODY PART IS TO INCREASE MUSCLE SIZE THEN REPS AND FORM ARE KING. Now, after you imagine me screaming that at you, please stop attempting shrugs with hundreds of pounds on the bar. We are aiming for reps of 12-15 with a great emphasis on the contraction of the muscle and the time under tension (time a muscle is contracted for each repetition and set). Shrugging insane amounts of weight and jumping while you barely move your shoulders accomplishes nothing. No one cares that you can hold a bar with 495 pounds on it and that it sounds really loud when you throw it down after a set. Your traps will continue to stay the same size and the only thing that will receive growth is your ego! In my entire lifting life (unless using an assisted machine at the gym) I have never loaded more than 275 pounds on a barbell when I shrug. It is extremely pointless.
This section will be short as I only have one comment. Basically, once you have the weight adjusted properly your last focus should be form. I see countless people circularly shrug their shoulders. That is, they internally rotate, roll them back around and then repeat the motion. I mentioned time under tension previously and you can give it a try for yourself. You have no tension placed on your traps when you are rotated internally or when you roll back around. Instead, take your shoulders to your ears, pause and then return straight back down. This is a huge mistake that is so commonly made and adversely effects gains to the traps.
Last week I talked about some general tips to use in order to grow a strong and big upper back. I also gave you some of my favorite exercises for the upper back and how to develop it. This got me to thinking and I realized that not many people know how much of a role the upper back plays in pressing movements (Bench press, military press etc.). Many people neglect the involvement of the scapulae (shoulder blades) in their chest workouts and pressing exercises, and fail to see how much they can develop this aspect of their body if they simply focused on a few key details. This would provide a multitude of benefits for athletes as their upper back plays a huge role in their health and performance. For rotational athletes (hockey, lacrosse, baseball), the upper back plays a huge roll in not only their swing or shot (think lacrosse and hockey), but it can also limit shoulder injuries if trained effectively. A strong upper back can help improve posture and limit the internal rotation of the shoulder (internal rotation can lead to labrum injuries due to the compression and force constantly placed on the acromioclavicular (AC) joint). So not only can we contribute to an aesthetically pleasing upper back by making some adjustments in our pressing, but we can also limit injury and contribute to increases in performance for athletes! So, here is a quick breakdown of how to promote external rotation and my favorite exercise variations to do so!
In my opinion the best analogy to use to explain external rotation of the shoulders would be to have someone imagine that their arms are outstretched and fully extended with their hands on a wall. On that wall is a big sheet of paper, and your goal is to tear the paper down the middle without moving your hands. How exactly do we do that? Well, think as if you are trying to “screw” your hands into the wall, only without moving your hands outwards. External rotation is created when we drive our right hand clockwise and our left hand counterclockwise. If we do this without actually moving our hands then we create torque, and that imaginary paper is now torn! The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, meaning that the humeral head rotates about inside the cup like socket of the shoulder blade.
Now I know you are all saying “Great Gerry please explain how this applies to my training.” Well, basically many of us perform presses without external rotation, which not only leaves us susceptible to injury, but also does not allow us to develop the upper back and shoulder blades to the best of their ability. This is due to a number of factors, which include hand and grip positioning and the side effects of performing presses on a bench. Basically, when our back is on a bench the bench itself does not allow for full scapula activation and retraction, which can limit external rotation and use of the upper back. Experienced lifters know how to properly activate the upper back and can get around this, but many others struggle. Lastly, bilateral movements (presses with two hands), can negate the need to isolate each individual shoulder blade due to the fact that using both hands does not require as much stabilization as unilateral movements. With that being said, here are a few variations that makes use of these fundamental principles.
Dumbbell Piston Press
I have most of my rotational athletes perform presses with dumbbells due to the fact that they require more focused stabilization of the scapulae then barbell presses. However, an even better way to guarantee shoulder blade activation and external rotation is to perform dumbbell presses in a piston like manner. That is, perform each press individually (one side at a time) so that the athlete or lifter has to pay attention to activating the upper back and externally rotating at the shoulder in order to properly stabilize the weight.
The barbell push-up not only is a great tool to use in order to teach the art of pressing, but also it eliminates the use of the bench (as I mentioned), which can teach an athlete how to cue and activate the upper back. Since we are performing presses without the support of the bench we can fully retract the shoulder blades with each repetition and learn how to activate the upper back. This is a simple movement for advanced athletes, so I will usually implement slower movements, isometric holds and even increase the load (with chains) in order to progress the movement and make it more challenging.
Bottoms-Up Kettle Bell Presses
This last variation is the most advanced and ties in all the principles I have previously mentioned. Firstly, holding the kettle bells in a bottoms-up position makes external rotation a necessity, and is why I love this variation. If you do not properly externally rotate it is almost impossible to stabilize the kettle bell. In addition, we are once again removing the bench from the equation and requiring true activation of the upper back and retraction (pinching) of the shoulder blades. Lastly, if you really want to advance this variation and take it to the next level you can perform the presses unilaterally (one hand at a time), and tie in the same principles you would be when performing the dumbbell bench press in a piston manner!
Having a muscular and strong upper back has a multitude of benefits. Strong upper backs can help avoid shoulder injuries, which often arise due to an overemphasis on pressing movements. In addition, a strong upper back will give way to performance benefits as well. For example, the scapulae, rhomboids (no this isn’t geometry) and trapezius muscles will help improve the bench press and also help maintain neutral position with the spine in the deadlift. Also, for my female followers out there if you have ever envied the woman who can rock a backless dress (going slightly out of my area of expertise here but bear with me), you’ll want to stick around and check this article out and see some tips and exercises that will help build a strong upper back!
I am going to stick with the theme of cardio for this week and address something that I feel a lot of people fail to realize. We have all heard it before. The main excuse people use for why they don’t do cardio is that it is boring and monotonous. What I am about to share with you may not be ground breaking by any means, but I am still so amazed that more people do not realize it!
My quick tip for this week is to add variety to your cardio! I get it. People want structure while also experiencing new and challenging things. So, you can have a goal for the number of minutes of cardio you would like to do each session and make sure you either reach or exceed that number. Here is where my advice comes in. Don’t feel like you need to be stuck on the treadmill or bike everyday! Mix it up. I keep placing emphasis on shorter bouts of higher intensity interval training, and there are so many options to use for that type of training. As long as you are working hard for 20-30 seconds and then supplementing that with rest intervals you can do anything!
Have Fun with it!
We have seen it everywhere. From gimmicky DVD’s and training systems that instruct you to pound out countless numbers of crunches, to personal trainers who break their clients back with repeated bouts of sit-ups. Have no fear. I am here to breakdown how our core actually works and how you can use this information to effectively train it.
Overview Of The Core
Let's break it down this way. The deep/local stabilizers or breathing muscles (pelvic floor, diaphragm, transverse abdominis and multifidis) are not only involved in deep, 360 degree and proper breathing, but also are responsible for bracing and stabilizing the spine. The global stabilizers (obliques, add/abductors etc) resist rotation under loads and the global movers (lats, glutes, etc.) are specifically for joint movement while bracing the spine.
With that being said, we know that we can essentially target the core with simple bracing exercises and then progress to more advanced exercises in which the core braces and stabilizes the spine while the extremities are in motion. Instead of continuously flexing and extending your spine (and adding undue stress to it I might add) and performing hundreds and hundreds of mind numbing crunches, look to find exercises that call on a proper bracing of the spine under minimal loads of tension and then also implement variations where your joints are in motion. After all, the true function of the core is to provide stabilization while your extremities are in motion so why not train it in that manner!
Two Simple Bracing Exercises
As I said, exercises that require true bracing of the deep breathing muscles can go a long way in developing a powerful and strong core. Abdominal rollouts and planks are some basic examples, but here are two of my favorite variations for understanding and developing proper bracing and spine stabilization.
Essentially, this is a more advanced plank where you simply alternate between bouts of high tension (this is where you literally squeeze and activate every muscle group in your body while holding the plank) and regular planks. Try and perform a minute where you alternate every five seconds.
Plank Pot Stirs
Place your elbows on a physio ball and get into a regular plank position. Brace your spine while stirring your arms clockwise and counter clockwise. I usually perform 15 in each direction for every set.
My Favorite Advanced Bracing Exercise
The loaded carry, or farmer’s walk, is one of my favorites and most used core exercises in both my programming and the programming I draw up for my athletes. Essentially, you walk with heavy loads in each hand and this is the bracing while your extremities are moving that I have been talking about. This also really works on your grip and forearm strength. It is truly one of the best ways to develop a strong and powerful core!
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.