mobility

Too much assessment - The real role of personal trainers and exercise professionals.

I like to think that the health and fitness industry has grown in leaps and bounds – resulting in (most) personal trainers having a thorough education in amatory, physiology, and the underlying principles of both exercise prescription and resistance training.

This, for the most part, is an extremely positive thing.

It has greatly increased the service quality of the industry in its entirety, effectively weaseling out those trainers who are in it for nothing more than just a ‘quick buck’ (which is ridiculous: anyone with half a brain realizes a quick buck in the fitness industry doesn’t exist).

This has come with an increased value being placed on assessments, and subsequently, the evaluation of an individual as just that – an individual – becoming the norm. This has led to a premium being placed on individualized exercise prescription, corrective exercise interventions, and of course, specific training programs.

But there is also a downside associated.

A number of personal trainers have veered too far to the dark side, spending way too much time assessing the function of individual muscles, while spending too much time focusing on corrective exercises - when they should in fact be training.

Do we really need to assess every little thing...

Do we really need to assess every little thing...

It is our role as exercise professionals to assess an individual’s capacity for movement as means to improve movement while also ensuring they are training both safely and effectively so they can meet their training goal.

If you find yourself spending 50% of a session on a foam roller or on a massage table, then you probably aren’t doing anywhere near enough training.

Yes assessment is important.

It allows us to establish a baseline for each individual, providing valuable information on areas of weakness and dysfunction. But more than that, it gives us an idea of where we can start training. It tells us what squat regression we should use, what hip hinge movements we should start with, and what single leg exercises will provide us the most benefit.

It is not our role to find out every tight piece of tissue – it is our role to get people moving better – building strength, stability, and function in the process.

 

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Is Stretching Really Dead?

With the rapid rise of foam rolling and a host of other effective (and often brutal) modalities of self-myofascial release, stretching has experienced a huge decline in popularity.

This has also coincided with some studies appearing within the scientific community demonstrating that prolonged periods of static stretching can lead to significant reductions in power production and force output (AKA it makes you weaker).

But, does that mean that stretching has no place in our training programs?

hunter bennett performance adelaide based personal training

 

Stretching and power output.

The first point I do want to address with this blog post is the impact that static stretching has on power output. After the initial research undertaken on this topic, stretching was demonised as useless, pointless, and harmful.

As such, while it is often considered common knowledge that static stretching leads to reductions in performance, this isn’t actually the whole story.

While longer duration static stretching (greater than 60 seconds in duration) can lead to reductions in power output immediately after stretching, this effect is not seen for stretches performed for 45 seconds or less.

And seriously, who actually stretches an individual muscle for more than 60 seconds at a time?

So this suggests that short bouts of static stretching will have NO negative effects on performance, which means that you can stretch without the fear that your workout will suffer.

 

Should we stretch?

So if stretching doesn’t affect our physical performance, does that mean we should stretch?

Like almost all of my answers to any training related question…… it depends.

We know that stretching does indeed increase flexibility – that is fact. But whether we need to stretch is a different story entirely.

In my opinion, stretching certainly has its uses – when used correctly.

With the excessive (and often detrimental) amount of sedentary activity we perform each and every day, some muscle tissues will become short and stiff. It is these shortened tissues that, in my personal experience, respond well to stretching.

By stretching these specific muscles, we can return length to muscles are in a shortened state, while also improving joint range of motion, and movement quality as a whole. This can often lead to improved performance, and a decreased risk of injury.

AKA it is good.

But, there is a bit of a kicker.

It is extremely rare that those muscle groups that feel tight, are actually tight.

I have written about this extensively HERE, but often, those muscles that feel tight are actually in lengthened state, due to; A) An antagonistic muscle group being in a short and stiff state; B) excessive weakness of that lengthened muscle group; or C) a combination of the two.

A simple example of this would be the guy who is always stretching his hamstrings because they feel tight, despite them never getting better. This is probably because those hamstrings are in a lengthened position and already under stretch (hence why they feel tight). The issue is most likely tight antagonistic muscle groups (rectus femoris and the hip flexors) and weak hamstrings.

Not tight hamstrings.

 

hunter bennett performance stretching

 

So how do we know what to stretch?

This is pretty simple.

Assess and then reassess.

Check movement, and If movement is poor check range of motion at specific joints. If ROM is limited, then a specific muscle is likely tight. Stretch that muscle (or muscle group), then reassess. If A) range of motion has increased, or B) movement has improved, then you have probably found the tight muscle.

An example of the process might look something like this.

We assess a squat, and get early pelvic tucking. We then perform the Thomas test to assess hip flexor length and find that they have tight hip flexors. We then stretch the hip flexors and ideally, Thomas test improves AND the squat improves.

Now this is an extremely simplistic (and idealistic) scenario. In the real world there is a chance that the squat performance will not improve despite and improvement on the Thomas test – this would suggest either a stability issue, or a motor control issue.

But, I am getting a little off topic here.

With all that in mind, I am trying to demonstrate the potential benefits of stretching, and why it should not me discarded completely.

More so, stretching can become an extremely useful tool to improve both movement and range of motion when used correctly, and should not be ignored because of some of the early research showing its influence on performance.

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Improve Thoracic Mobility to Reduce Injuries and Increase Athleticism

‘Thoracic mobility’ (OR T-spine mobility, depending on who you talk to) is one of the buzzwords in the health and fitness industry at the moment.

And for good reason.

Poor thoracic spinal mobility can lead to a number of dysfunctions, including low back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain. 

Poor thoracic mobility can also limit our movement quality and athletic performance.

The thoracic spine describes the 12 vertebrae of the upper back and abdomen that sit between the cervical spine of the neck and the lumbar spine of the lower back.

Each thoracic vertebrae has articulations between its neighbouring vertebrae (above and below), and to the attaching ribs.

Now, if we were to look at each segment of the spine, they each play an important individual role in movement.

The lumbar spine is a stable segment that provides a strong supportive base for the muscles of the trunk.

The lumbar spine does not have much mobility, as it is designed to bear and withstand load rather than create movement.

By acting as a stable support structure, it can aid movement and force production at the hips.

The cervical spine is similar.

While it allows much more movement than the lumbar spine (we need to be able to look around) it is still considered a stable joint, as it provides essential stability to the fragile neural structures of the neck.

But the thoracic spine is somewhat different.

It is actually considered a mobile joint, and is the spinal section that has the largest range of movement.

This is important as it allows us to rotate, flex, and extend. 

All of which are extremely important during running, sprinting, changing direction, jumping, and during throwing movements.

BUT.

In the wonderful age of technology that we currently live in, we spend a lot of time sitting (and not a lot of time moving).

This results in REALLY stiff and immobile thoracic spinal segments, which as you can probably guess, is not good (this thoracic stiffness is often typified of excessive kyphosis and forward head posture).

If a segment of the body is lacking essential mobility, we tend to find it at another segment.

This is a compensation pattern that allows us to complete the movements required, despite lacking the mobility to do so.

While these compensation patterns are helpful in the short term (they allow us to move), they can lead to chronic dysfunction further down the track.

In the case of the thoracic spine, if it is lacking mobility we are going to find mobility at the lumber spine.

Now, as we mentioned earlier, the lumber spine is not actually made to move much at all.

Rather it is meant to act as a stable base from which both the thoracic spine can rotate, and the hips can move freely to produce force. 

If it is forced to become more mobile, this is going to lead directly to dysfunction, and may also have negative effects further down the kinetic chain.

Firstly, we lose stability at the lumbar spine.

This is an issue in itself, because if the lumbar spinal segments move more than they are supposed to, we can irritate both neural structures of the lumbar spine, and the passive support structures around the spinal segments.

This can lead to low back pain and low back irritation.

Secondly, by losing stability at the trunk, the lower limbs no longer have a stable base to produce force.

To try and get the point across with analogy (who doesn’t like a good analogy?), picture a slingshot.

If you hold the base of the slingshot firmly, you can load and shoot much further. If the base of the slingshot is held lightly, it is going to be loose and weak, and your ability to shoot with it is going to be limited.

Now, the base of the slingshot represents the trunk, while the top portion represents the hips (or upper limbs… works for both really).

When the trunk is stable, we can produce great amounts of force at the hip.

If the trunk is too mobile, that force production is limited.

Additionally, it is quite common to see the muscles surrounding the hips try to produce the stability lost at the spine.

This results in shorty and stiff muscles surrounding the hip joint, which can lead to limited movement of the hips, potentially leading to a soft tissue injury, or an injury of the surrounding joints.

And, just to make things worse, having poor thoracic mobility can also increase our risk of developing shoulder injuries.

Many movements above the chin require a significant amount of thoracic extension to be completed safely and effectively.

If we think about overhead movements such as overhead presses, push presses, overhead squats, snatches, etc, etc, etc (the list goes on and on), they all have something in common.

They require the ability to get our arms over our head into full shoulder flexion.

Now, thoracic extension is a big part of this.

If we have a mobile thoracic spine that can extend easily and with good range of movement, it actually requires less shoulder flexion to get our arms over our heads.

This ensures we rely on the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint and shoulder girdle for stability.

BUT,

If we have poor thoracic spinal mobility (stuck in thoracic flexion), we have to use more shoulder flexion to achieve the same overhead position.

This can place unnecessary load on the passive support structures of the shoulder joint, increasing our risk of developing injuries.

So to summarise, if we have poor thoracic spine mobility we are at an increased risk of lower back, shoulder and hip injury, AND our force production is limited.

AKA it’s not good.

Fortunately, there is something we can do about it.

We can use specific thoracic mobility exercise to increase our range of movement at the thoracic spine, making it more mobile.

 

Improving mobility of the thoracic spine

Thoracic spine mobilization on the foam roller

The trick here is to slowly extend the thoracic over the foam roller as you exhale.

The movement should be controlled and gentle.

Try and spend a 4-5 of deep, slow breaths on a single vertebra before moving onto the next one.

By supporting the head you limit cervical extension.

 

Thoracic spine extensions on a bench

This is an awesome drill that allows us to improve thoracic spinal extension while also stretching the lat’s.

The idea here is to slowly sink into extension while exhaling.

You should spend a little bit of time and the end of the movement, slowly increasing range of movement in the bottom position.

 

Side lying thoracic rotation

The idea here is to slowly rotate and extend through the thoracic spine while keeping a tight hold on a foam roller between the legs.

This ensures that the lumber spine remains stable and locked into a neutral position, allowing the thoracic spine to move freely.

You can also spend a bit of time hanging out at the end of the rotation, ideally taking some deep breaths.

This allows you to increase that end range of movement.

 

Quadruped thoracic rotation

Another great way to increase movement at the thoracic spine.

Again, keep the lumbar spine stiff and still in extension.

All the movement should come from the thoracic spinal segments.

The movement should be slow and controlled, while trying to get a little more range each rotation.

 

So now all we need to do is put it all together.

These exercises should be included as part of our warmup on both upper body and lower body days as it can improve our stability at the lumber spine while improving our capacity to produce force at both the hips and shoulders.

A sample warmup on an upper body day might look something like this:

Foam roll:
Pecs, Lats, Thoracic Spine

Mobility:
Thoracic spine extension on the foam roller x 15
Thoracic spine extension on bench x 15
Side lying thoracic rotation x 15/side
Quadruped thoracic rotation x 15/side

 Individualized upper body activation/ dynamic movement preparation

Individualized upper body session

 

I hope this post provided a thorough explanation as to why having adequate mobility of the thoracic spine is important for both injury prevention and performance, while also providing some simple and effective exercise to improve thoracic mobility.

If yo want to have a chat, or organise a time to train, contact me today!

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