I recently had an old friend reach out for help. Below is her question and my response.
I recently had an old friend reach out for help. Below is her question and my response.
Working out is about finding a balance. Train too hard and you break down, but don’t train hard enough and you won’t get anywhere.
Those who tend to train too hard are people I call “fitness junkies”. They usually enjoy Crossfit, screaming, and a burning sensation in their muscles.
Let’s talk about why you need some easy days if you really want to get strong.
Making progress in the gym is about busting your butt, so I used to figure that training hard ALL the time would be better than just SOME of the time.
Taking one week easy to “deload” every month was the most boring thing ever OH MY GAWD. It took every ounce of willpower I had to train easy on those weeks.
I couldn’t exercise enough. I loved being in the gym. That’s how I got into coaching.
More is better, right?
Well… not all the time.
As my body got older, I gradually transitioned out of “getting euphoria from training” and into “getting pain from training”. This was highest during my days of powerlifting.
I remember the moment I realized it was a problem. My training partner and I were squatting. I set up with this huge arch in my back; I looked like a freaking archery bow. Every squat I did, I would feel pain in my hips. I had felt it before, but it wasn’t going away this time. I wasn’t going to be able to hit an adequately deep squat or lift any considerable weight at my next meet. At the end of each workout, I’d sprint a sled as fast as I could for 15 minutes.
All four of my training days each week were High/High/High/High intensity level.
And it was beating me up.
After I learned some new things, I changed my training a little, shifting away from lactic training and towards more alactic/aerobic and solely aerobic training. We’ll talk more about what those words mean here shortly.
There was a huge shift in how I felt once I started incorporating planned low-intensity training.
Intensity is a measure of how much weight you’re moving. When we say intensity, we’re referring to the intensity placed on your nervous system, which is primarily responsible for your gains in strength relative to your bodyweight.
So if I’m training with low intensity, I’m training with low weight.
It seems counter-intuitive, right? If I want to move more weight, I should probably move more weight!
Yes, you want to move more weight, but you don’t have to do it more often. That was my biggest mistake.
You see, if you try to use as much weight as you can every training session (say you work out 4 times a week), then you will have have 4 training sessions with decently heavy weight, but you’ll never have the energy to break through a plateau.
But if you have low-intensity days that are supplemental and regenerative, then you can move some really heavy weight on your high-intensity days.
Think about it…
Now, it seems like I’m only talking about strength work, but I’m actually talking about ALL training. Even your conditioning has an element of intensity in it.
The best way to think about this is through the three systems of your body that produce energy: (a) alactic anaerobic, (b) lactic anaerobic, and (c) aerobic.
|(a) alactic anaerobic||(b) lactic anaerobic||(c) aerobic|
|Produces energy at a fast rate||Produces energy at a fast rate||Produces energy at a slower rate|
|Turns on immediately||Turns on almost immediately||Takes a while to turn on|
|Lasts for about 10 seconds||Lasts for about 2 minutes||Lasts for about forever|
|Does not use oxygen||Does not use oxygen||Requires oxygen|
|Used during high-intensity exercise||Used during high-intensity exercise||Used during low-intensity exercise|
|Causes fatigue to accumulate||Fights off fatigue|
|Competes with the aerobic system||Competes with the lactic system|
|Traditional alactic athlete example: 100m sprinter||Traditional lactic athlete example: 400m sprinter||Traditional aerobic athlete example: marathon runner|
|Least trainable||Most trainable|
The alactic and aerobic systems are actually really good partners. Team sport athletes (e.g. football, soccer, hockey) primarily use these two systems to beat their opponents.
For example, a football player goes really hard for a really short period of time, relying mostly on his alactic system. Then, during his rest period, he uses his aerobic system to recover from the play. He works very hard, but as long as he has a strong aerobic system, he doesn’t feel fatigue accumulate.
I meet a lot of fitness junkies who like to stay in the lactic zone. They like to try really hard for really long periods of time and see if they can make themselves vomit. Or pee themselves. Or make their kidneys bleed. Or whatever.
There’s a place for some hard training, which we’ll discuss in the last section of this post, but if you want to improve your ability to recover (and you do, whether you know it or not), you need to incorporate some low-intensity training and some high/low training.
Take the football example and make it your own. Load up the sled with more weight than you usually do. Push it as fast as you can for 8 seconds, then stop and rest for 52 seconds. Then do it again 7 more times. There’s 8 minutes of alactic work with aerobic rest. This trains not only your alpha qualities (i.e. strength, speed-strength, power), but also your ability to recover. It teaches your aerobic system to turn on faster, helping you produce more energy with less fatigue.
Get a heart rate monitor and start testing yourself.
You’ll want to measure your resting heart rate, your heart rate recovery after a One Minute Go Test, and your 6-minute Modified Cooper Test. If you’re unfamiliar with those tests and training methods, see my post on How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor to learn how to do them, what they can tell you, and how to fine-tune your training.
I want to make it clear that I am not demonizing lactic training or working hard, neither am I suggesting that aerobic training is the secret to eternal wealth and power. I simply want to illustrate that they are different.
When I think lactic training, I think mental toughness and fatigue.
When I think aerobic training, I think recovery, energy development, and fatigue buffer.
Neither is bad, but aerobic adaptation is probably more useful for more people more often… especially those meatheads who train like I used to.
What are your goals?
If you’re training for performance, don’t listen to articles on the internet because they cannot be specific enough to optimize your training. Get a coach instead.
If you’re training for health, too much exercise is just as bad as too little exercise. You can still get stronger, but you’re not going to set world records if you prioritize health.
If you just want to have fun, then do whatever the hell makes you happy. If you need to throw up to feel like you got a good workout in, then throw up all you want.
If you’re unclear on how to use a heart rate monitor, be sure to check out my other article on that topic.
Exercise gets more useful (not to mention more interesting) when you turn it into a science experiment.
The easiest way to do that is to get a heart rate monitor.
But there are a ton of heart rate monitors out there. And even if you have one… what are you supposed to do with it?
The process of finding and using a heart rate monitor can be complex, but it’s easier when you break it down step-by-step.
Today we’re going to talk about
A heart rate monitor tells you how fast your heart is beating and is one of the easiest training tools for anyone to use. Using a heart rate monitor, you can…
From all of this information, you can modify your training on the fly and plan it out with much more focus than you’d otherwise be able to.
Heart health can be measured in many different ways. You’ll want a heart that’s free of disease, has valves that work, and cardiac muscle tissue that is alive. But heart health doesn’t help much if the rest of the body isn’t doing well, so it’s more important to look at the health of your heart AND your blood vessels (i.e. veins, arteries, and capillaries). We call this cardiovascular fitness.
What makes a healthy heart? Well, when looking at training the heart, we normally presume that it is free of major defects. That’s why you should always ask your doctor if exercise is safe for you. Once you’ve done that, it’s about efficiency: is your heart overworking or not? This is where your heart rate monitor becomes really useful.
Unhealthy hearts can only pump a little bit of blood, so they have to pump really fast to get enough blood out to the rest of the body. Healthy hearts take in a lot of blood, then have a lot more downtime between beats to rest up. If your heart rate monitor tells you that you’re heart is beating more than 70 times a minute immediately after waking up, then your heart is probably not too healthy.
What makes for healthy blood vessels? After blood leaves the heart, it’s carried to the rest of the body by little pipes we call blood vessels. But these vessels are so much more complex than the generic water pipes in your house because they can change their shape. Sometimes you want your blood pressure to increase so that you can get blood all the way throughout your body, so the blood vessels get skinnier, helping push the blood through. Then they relax when you relax, opening up the vessels and decreasing your blood pressure.
When someone has unhealthy blood vessels (that is, poor cardiovascular fitness), they suck at changing the size of their pipes. These pipes get all clogged up and have a hard time relaxing when you’re trying to chill out. This is known as hypertension.
The heart and blood vessels work together very closely. If the pipes are clogged and can’t relax, then the heart has to work harder to get blood to the rest of the body. And if the heart is pumping harder, the blood vessels get damaged more easily, clogging them up even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
So when we measure cardiovascular fitness, we are concerned about addressing both the heart AND the blood vessels. A heart rate monitor can tell you which of these need more training (with some tests we’ll talk about later) and how to train them (with some training methods we’ll talk about later).
You need energy to do an activity, and your body produces energy in three different ways. Some of these ways produce chemicals that are toxic to your body when they build up in your system for a really long time (don’t worry, they’re removed quickly).
This is why your heart still beats hard when you’re resting after an exercise; it has to help clear out the byproducts of hard work. If your cardiovascular fitness is high, then you’ll be able to recover from exercise much faster.
Let’s do a thought experiment together.
Why? That minute of jumping left all this crap in our two subjects’ bodies that they need to clear out. Our fit friend is able to pump a lot of blood and deliver it to the muscles so that they can clear out this crap. But our unfit friend doesn’t pump much blood EVEN THOUGH his heart beats just as often as our fit friend (actually, over time it beats more often). It takes longer to clear out all the gunk.
You can use this idea to see how well you are recovering from an exercise and when your heart is ready for more.
Remember all that talk about about cardiovascular fitness? If you measure your resting heart rate every morning, you can get an idea of how efficiently your heart beats (more on this soon).
If you measure your resting heart rate every morning, you will notice that it’s not the same every morning, even if you’ve slept for the same amount of time each night.
Just like your heart helps you recover from an exercise, it also helps you recover from a day of doing stuff. This can be used to measure of your stress levels. An even better method is to get an app that will track your heart rate over minutes, then compute the differences in time between beats. This is known as heart rate variability (HRV) and is an even better measure of your stress levels.
NOTE: It is my understanding that some watches do this, but Polar’s marketing department does not make it very clear which models will give you this information. You’re probably best using the app and a Bluetooth Smart heart rate monitor strap (e.g. Polar H7).
This method isn’t foolproof, but it can still give you good insights (more on this soon).
There are many different ways to measure your heart rate.
This is what most people picture when they think of a heart rate monitor. It is three pieces:
Cost increases as the watch does more cool stuff. Basic models essentially just tell you your heart rate, while the more expensive models will take that data and tell you things like HRV, the time spent in specific training heart rate zones, and even how fast you’re traveling.
Ultimately, this is a good option if you want a heart rate monitor separate Polar is one of the leading producers of heart rate monitors. Their FT4 model is an example of the basic sensor strap with watch. Click the picture below to see more.
The Bluetooth Smart sensor is similar to the one mentioned above, except it is compatible with more technology. These sensors, in addition to working with most watches, can also send data directly to some computer like your phone.
If your phone has a flash right next to the camera, you can even use a phone app alone to measure your heart rate.
Since you’ll usually have your phone with you, this is really convenient for getting a heart rate reading throughout the day. This method gets a little shotty when you start trying to use it during exercise.
Samsung (if you’re into that Android thing) has the S Health app, which you can use to track all sorts of things:
There are even other partner apps that you can add to increase functionality. Samsung has actually put together a pretty cool central hub for tracking not only your heart rate, but your general health markers of choice.
Let’s pretend you’re hypertensive and pre-diabetic. If you want to start taking control of your health, you can enter your daily resting heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose measures and evaluate them every two weeks to see if you’re making progress. If you’re not, you know to step it up, but if you are, then you get a nice reward knowing that all the hard work you’ve been putting in is finally paying off.
Ultimately, the this is a good option for day-to-day lifestyle changes and measurements, but if you just want to track your heart rate for exercise purposes, they can distract your from your workout because they don’t provide continuous readings. Look into a dedicated strap with sensor instead (e.g. above).
Similar to the S Health app, fitness trackers can do more than just measure your heart rate.
Fitbit is the current leader and innovator of this field. The problem is that if you want to track your heart rate, you’re going to need a higher end model.
Ultimately, this is a good option if you want to fit in. Due to their popularity, you’ll probably be able to initiate a discussion or two with the cute barista about your Fitbit, then theoretically take her/him out on a date, fall in love, get married, have children, resent each other, stay together until the kids move out, find love again in Paris (with a new person), finally get divorced, then retire from your career to lead a new love life and open a coffee shop in Florence.
The Fitbit Charge HR is the cheapest model with heart rate functionality that Fitbit offers and will currently run you $150.
This is hands down (pun unintentional) the cheapest method for measuring your heart rate.
Measuring your heart rate with your hands is usually done on the wrist or on the neck, but if you know your anatomy, you can try other spots, too. Heart rate is most often measured in beats per minute, so you can count however is most appropriate for your exercise.
Ultimately, using your fingers is good for when you just want a general idea of your heart rate, but don’t have any equipment or technology available to do it for you.
PRO TIP: If you’re in the market for a new heart rate monitor, check with the company before you buy to make sure they will be compatible with your phone and perform the tasks you want. Here is a list of the best selling heart rate monitors on Amazon.
Now that you’ve got a heart rate monitor picked out, let’s talk about how you’re going to use it.
There are tons of things you can measure with your heart rate monitor, but here are the most helpful things that I suggest you worry about:
Your resting heart rate (RHR) is a measurement of the how fast your heart is beating when your body is under minimal stress. This is a good measure of how efficiently your heart beats. A low RHR indicates that you can pump more blood with one beat.
It is suggested that average ranges from 60-100 beats per minute (bpm), but well-trained athletes are usually between 40-60 bpm (American Heart Association, accessed 17 Jul 2015). I want most of my clients below 60 bpm, but if you’re above 70 bpm, then the main thing you need to focus on improving is your RHR, which you can do with the Cardiac Output Development technique (more on that later).
The same thing you do with RHR can be done with Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which may be a better indicator of things like your response to stress.
To figure out HRV, the application just needs to compute the time between each heart beat, then do some statistical math. If the time between beats is relatively constant, then you have low HRV, but if that time is all over the place, you have high HRV. For more science on HRV, check out this post.
To measure HRV, follow the instructions given to you by the application you’re using (here’s a suggestion).
Here’s an example screenshot from the Elite HRV app.
There’s a test called the One Minute Go Test that measures your ability to produce energy. You’re going to measure how far you go and how your heart responds. Usually I just make people run back and forth down the length of our turf (~70 feet).
Set up your heart rate monitor beforehand because you’ll want to start measuring as soon as the activity is over.
This One Minute Go Test measures the ability of all three of your energy systems to turn on and work as fast as they can, but you can also use this to test your heart rate recovery.
You want to be able to produce as much energy as possible, but you also want to be able to shut down as quickly as possible once you no longer have to work hard. This is a good indicator of work capacity and the speed at which your aerobic energy system can turn on. The aerobic system produces more overall energy, but it is slower to work initially. Warming up helps turn this energy-producing system on so that you don’t fatigue as quickly during an event.
One Minute Go Test with Heart Rate Recovery Instructions
The goal for most people is to recover to under 130 bpm in one minute or less. Only very well-conditioned athletes can do this because they have very strong aerobic systems.
Here’s a graph to illustrate the difference between a well-conditioned individual and a poorly conditioned individual.
If you’re not able to get under 130 bpm in one minute or less, you’ll want to do some sort of training method when you work really hard, then rest really hard. An example of this would be repeated sprints (more on those later).
The anaerobic threshold (AT) is the point where your primary means of developing energy switches from aerobic (with oxygen) to anaerobic (without oxygen). This threshold is usually designated with a specific heart rate and once you cross it, fatigue accumulates much quicker.
To illustrate AT, picture a mixed martial artist. These athletes generally fight around this threshold most of the fight. Those who stay above it for too long are the ones who gas out, appearing to get extremely tired at the flip of a switch. If you can fight off fatigue, it means you have a strong aerobic system.
Anaerobic threshold training is high-intensity aerobic training meant to push your threshold higher. It teaches you to maintain a high intensity without fatiguing and can be considered a form of endurance.
To measure AT, I suggest using a Modified Cooper Test. There are other ways to measure anaerobic threshold, but this method is the cheapest and easiest to set up.
This average is an approximation of your anaerobic threshold. You can use this number to do some Threshold Training Intervals to train high-intensity aerobics (more on this later).
This method is similar to measuring your heart rate recovery after a One Minute Go Test. Here are some questions you can answer with some simple heart rate monitoring:
Tracking your heart rate for minutes after an activity can shed light on how stressed you are and how stressful that activity was.
For example, if I do 5 sets of 5 reps of front squats at a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) of 8, I can track what my heart rate is at the beginning of each set. If I notice it’s higher than it usually is at set 3, maybe I don’t want to do all 5 sets today. Or maybe I don’t want to keep increasing the weight. Alternatively, maybe I’ll do an extra set because my heart rate didn’t show any accumulation of fatigue until the 5th set.
But what about this: MAYBE I DON’T EVEN WANT FATIGUE. For example, when I’m trying to build my power-endurance work capacity. Say I’m doing three reps on the bench every 60 seconds until I start to slow down. Monitoring your heart rate throughout this can give you a more objective view of your training state.
A final scenario: when an athlete comes in and their heart rate doesn’t recover to 130 bpm after a One Minute Go Test until 7 minutes later (yes, I’ve had this before), then there are two things I want to do with them:
Now, if they can’t fight off fatigue, sprint repeats are probably not the safest option for them. But we live in a world that is anything but ideal, meaning this athlete probably has 8 weeks with me until practice starts and they can’t make it in anymore. They will need to sprint at practice because their coach was never trained in human physiology. In this case, yes, I will give him some repeat sprints. I will teach him about fatigue, recovery, and energy systems to illustrate the importance of doing things correctly. I will tell him to look at his heart rate monitor and rest until his heart rate comes back down (more on this later).
Hopefully all of these ideas have given you a good idea on how you can use your heart rate monitor to guide your training. Now let’s talk about how to actually train with it.
Once you’ve measured what you want to measure, it’s time to train what you need to train.
In addition to giving you an idea of your heart’s efficiency, your resting heart rate also gives you an idea of how fresh your body is. You do this by comparing your daily RHR to your baseline/average RHR. If there’s a big difference (i.e. more than 6 bpm), you should switch up your training for the day.
If your RHR is higher than normal, then you may want to exercise a little easier today. For example, if your baseline is 52 bpm, but you wake up and measure 61 bpm, this is an indicator that your body is trying to help you recover from the stress you’ve recently put on it.
If your RHR is lower than normal, then you may want to exercise a little harder today. For example, if your baseline is 52 bpm, but you wake up and measure 42 bpm, go into the gym and kill it.
If there isn’t any major difference, just do whatever you had planned for the day. For example, if your baseline is 52 bpm and you wake up and measure 50 bpm, do whatever you had planned for the day.
Heart rate variability generally has a similar response to resting heart rate, but the relationship to health is flipped.
The Elite HRV app I mentioned before encourages you to do Morning Readiness readings and gives you a score on how ready you are to train that day.
This method is by far the most versatile for people because it has one very simple requirement: keep your heart rate between 120-150 bpm. If you’re less in shape, err on the side of 120 bpm. If you’re more in shape, err on the side of 150 bpm. The goal here is usually to lower your resting heart rate over weeks, months, or years, but this method can also be used as an active recovery day to help speed along your rest and regeneration.
The heart rate range is so specific because it’s trying to teach your heart to pump as much blood as possible with each beat. If you get above 150 bpm, there isn’t enough time for enough blood to get into the heart. If you are below 120 bpm, there isn’t enough demand for blood to fill the heart. When the heart practicing pumping as much blood as possible with each beat, it learns how to become more efficient. Then the resting heart rate lowers.
Most people try to build a healthy heart by just going out for a run because they think it’s good for them. The problem that I see time and time again with new people who come in to see me is that they start running before their bodies are ready to support the demands of running.
Too many people run to get in shape instead of getting in shape to run.
There are three main ways I’ll program cardiac output development.
The first is simple: run, bike, swim… whatever you want to do that allows your heart rate to stay between 120-150 bpm. This option is good for people who:
The second option is my favorite to program for my clients. This allows me to pick exercises that I know are helpful and appropriate so that I can clean up their movement while also training their heart. This option is good for people who:
Here’s an example circuit workout that I stole from a popular post of mine.
Do exercise 1 for 45 seconds, then rest for 15 seconds. Do exercise 2 for 45 seconds, then rest for 15 seconds again. Go through all five exercises 6 times for a total of 30 rounds. The goal is to keep moving, so keep the weights light. If your heart rate is too low, move faster. If your heart rate is too high, lower the weights.
The third option is my favorite to do. This way I can get out of my head a little bit and do something fun. Some of my favorite games to play are handball, wall soccer, and soccer tennis.
Honestly, all you need is a little creativity. Figure out something you can do and will enjoy. The only thing you have to pay attention to is your heart rate monitor.
Threshold training is a little more difficult than traditional cardiac output development. To do threshold training, you want to do an activity at about the average heart rate you found from the six minute Modified Cooper Test.
This is an approximation of your anaerobic threshold which, as we discussed earlier, is the point where your activity turns from aerobic & manageable to anaerobic & unsustainable (that is, your lungs feel hot like an erupting volcano).
You need an activity that you can perform well enough to sustain high heart rates. Traditionally, running works well.
Main points of threshold training:
NOTE: These values can be changed based on what you need to train. Choose the numbers that you can perform safely.
Repeated sprints are great for team sport athletes and are, in my opinion, highly underutilized in the training world.
Take football for example. They run really hard for a really short period of time, then they rest for a longer time. So they need the ability to go really hard and to REST really hard.
For our general workout warriors just looking to be in shape, these repeat sprints are great for shortening your heart rate recovery time that you found after the One Minute Go Test. Repeated sprints are a great way to develop cardiovascular fitness.
When you do interval training, it’s divided into a “work” period and a “rest” period. The work period is when you’re actually doing the exercise. The rest period is when you’re catching your breath. Repeated sprints are a little counterintuitive because you’re actually training your aerobic fitness while you’re RESTING. I know, it’s crazy. Actually, it’s just science.
Your heart rate monitor is great for intervals like this.
So we’ve gone over a few things today…
Now go give your new heart rate monitor a test drive! Do you have other cool uses? Throw them down in the comments section below.
If you found this useful, it would be great if you sent it to someone else who might also find it useful.
Other articles you might like:
Warming up is about preparing your body for the things you’re about to put it through. A good warm up makes exercise safer and more effective.
But if you don’t know what you’re doing, your warm up might be a waste of time, or, in the worst case, also detrimental to your goals. I thought it might be helpful if I wrote a basic post about warming up for people just getting into exercise.
This post is for people who:
The other day I got a question from a friend of mine:
“Hey man my hip flexor, mainly my psoas is tight. Need some advice on how to loosen up. Also I think my pubis symphysis is out of line to”
When I asked how he knew his psoas was the problem, he said:
“A. It hurts B. Watching videos of me standing up Oly lifts out of the hole show I don’t hit full hip extension”
I thought I would answer this question publicly because it’s a common misconception in the fitness industry.
This post will show you when stretching is a waste of your time and when stretching is bad for you. And even when you might want to incorporate it. Spoiler alert: it depends.
Hurting in the hip region does not mean there’s a psoas problem. Many people would have what most describe as a “tight hip flexor” but don’t hurt in that region.
Also, this pain does not mean the psoas is causing the problem. The psoas could be (and likely is) an adaptation of a broader problem.
To figure out if the psoas is really stiff, many people will perform a Thomas Test. One leg is fixed up into flexion to secure the sacrum to the table, while the other is brought down into extension while maintaining 90 degrees of knee flexion. Straightening the knee allows me to differentiate between the rectus femoris and the psoas by shortening the rectus femoris, but not the psoas. If full hip extension is then achieved, the problem is a stiff rectus femoris, not a stiff psoas.
However, the commonly accepted results from the Thomas Test assume a neutral position of the pelvis. That is, they assume length-tension relationships that are like what you see in anatomy textbooks. This is hardly ever the case. I also need to know the position of your pelvis. For this, I’ll just use an Ober’s Test. If you can’t adduct in the Ober’s Test, then I know that half of the pelvis is tilted forward and externally rotated. I have a video of me performing these tests on Jess later in this post.
When I asked him for a picture of what he meant by his second rationale, he sent me this:
What he’s showing me can be interpreted as both a hip extension limitation as well as a shoulder flexion limitation, though he’s specifically focusing on the hips. The issue is that people focus on the obvious symptoms, like limited hip extension or limited shoulder flexion. I did this for years and it was very helpful in forming my framework for movement dysfunction. I now, however, prefer to look at what is linking the hip and the shoulder: the core.
The middle of the body requires stability before the hips and shoulders can demonstrate mobility, strength, and power.
My friend does not have core stability because he always uses an extension pattern for stabilization. This is necessary under big weights, but too much steals range of motion elsewhere (in this case, at the hips and shoulders). You cannot get away with this extension stabilization in Olympic lifting to the same degree that you can in, say, powerlifting because more mobility is required. Those who stabilize in excessive extension lock up their mobile joints (hips, shoulders) and start asking for the immobile joints to provide the extra range of motion (back, SI joint).
This ties back into the Thomas Test scenario we were just talking about: I don’t get an accurate representation of your mobility if I don’t know what position you’re in. So the first thing we need to do determine your position.
Can you adduct and internally rotate your hips? These are my first two questions.
For shoulders, I want to know if you can internally rotate, flex, or horizontally abduct. I can also press on your rib cage to see how well it goes down (internal rib rotation). If I fix those ribs down with my hands, I can have you take a breath and see if you can breathe into the opposite side.
The body is naturally asymmetrical. To understand this, you first need to accept that the most important goal of our subconscious mind is to breathe. Without oxygen, the brain quickly dies.
So the position of the diaphragm is important because that muscle is our primary breathing muscle. With opposition from the abdominals, the diaphragm maintains a dome shape. It’s attachment sites become fixed and the muscle is able to pull on the bottom of the lungs, increasing their volume. This increase in lung volume creates a pressure gradient that pulls air into the lungs.
With a malpositioned diaphragm, breathing becomes harder. In an extension pattern, the diaphragm shortens, flattens out, and extends the spine. The extension of the spine drives the rib cage up, and this becomes the means for increasing lung volume.
One of the main components of the body’s asymmetry is in the diaphragm. The right half is larger than the left half. These asymmetries, coupled with the fact that breathing is the most important goal we have, make us prone to being on our right side.
So we like to position our larger right diaphragm because it can handle our breathing. We’ll use the left half for holding ourselves up. Subsequently, the right ribs go down easier, while the left ribs don’t go down very well at all.
If I have this side-to-side asymmetry present, I’ll expect limitations in:
All of these limitations assume there is normal bodily tissue length because the block is secondary to position of the fossa (shoulder or hip socket). These limitations can be on both sides, especially if I have someone who lifts heavy weights consistently.
For more on this, I highly recommend the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), as they offer the most specific interpretation of test results that I’ve mentioned.
Once I find out if my client likes their right side or their back (or is neutral, but that’s unlikely upon a first evaluation), then I have a rationale for cleaning it up.
If I have a client who likes using their back muscles, I hope to see limitations in hip extension on both sides. This is secondary to the position of the pelvis and its acetabulum.
If I have a client who really likes staying on their right side, I hope to see limitation in hip extension on the left side. Again, this is secondary to the position of the pelvis and its acetabulum.
I say “hope” because there is a bony block that works together with the anterior hip ligaments. If I have full hip extension, but poor position (i.e. I can’t adduct my hip), then these anterior hip ligaments have become compromised in order to achieve “fake” hip extension. We call this a “pathology”. Pathology is common, but makes it harder to reposition and make the repositioning stick. Sometimes the back of the hip capsule will tighten up as well to accommodate for the loose front side. My treatment strategy will be different for people with pathology because I need to prioritize getting them into the back of their left hip. Initially, I will focus more on facilitating left hip internal rotators than the right side external rotators.
This problem could be present on both sides, though it is less common.
What position was Jess in? Take a look at the following video:
Jess cannot adduct on either side, but he can extend on both sides. This means his anterior hip ligaments can’t do their job quite as well as they once could.
It is important to note that he may still have stiff hip flexors even though he has full hip extension. For this scenario, I need to facilitate the abdominals to provide a flexion torque that fixes the spine. This will lengthen the hip flexors, because they extend the spine. Only once I do that can I worry about making the hip flexors longer by extending the hip. This progression may not happen in one day.
Step one may take anywhere from five seconds to several weeks. Only after successfully accomplishing step one do I care about moving on to step two. I’ll give you some more exercises to fix this later in the post.
First, we need to define the core. For me, this means anything directly attached to the spine. There are three main “rudders” that steer the body’s metaphorical ship: the sacrum, the sternum, and the sphenoid. This post will not discuss the sphenoid, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn about it.
Even if I have to do this on both sides at first, like I do with Jess, the natural asymmetry of the body still underlies. So eventually, I will have to place more emphasis on that left side.
The first exercise I tried with Jess is a mouthful: the Supine Hemi Extension with Alternating Respiratory Rectus Femoris and Sartorius. I usually just call this “The Hemi.” This exercise alone was enough to restore position of Jess’s pelvis.
Another great one exercise (also stolen from PRI) is the all four belly lift. Here’s a video I made that shows this exercise and its various progressions. Pick the level you can perform successfully to see maximum progress.
Push ups are a great supplement to add into your training program, but you have to make sure you reach your arms long through the ground at the top of the movement.
The purpose of repositioning is to inhibit the muscles that hold me on the right side. Facilitating muscles is secondary to inhibition.
My go-to exercise here is the 90-90 hip lift with balloon.
There are endless repositioning exercises, and I won’t always choose the one above. This post will not go into all possible derivations of repositioning.
Remember the steps we talked about earlier:
The Hemi (video above) uses reciprocal inhibition and the crossed extensor/withdrawal reflexes to shut off the hip flexors. If I give someone a different exercise for repositioning, I may add The Hemi in afterwards to further inhibit their hip flexors while reinforcing the correct position of the pelvis and rib cage.
The kettlebell pullover is another great exercise to learn how to fix the rib cage down and tilt the pelvis back. It is a core exercise, not a lat exercise.
Lastly, you can perform a standard hip flexor stretching in a half kneeling position using a stick or table to help facilitate the abs while actively roll your pelvis back (posterior pelvic tilt). Hip flexors stretches are constantly done incorrectly all around the world. We need to talk about why.
Many, MANY people all over the place will set up for a hip flexor stretch on one knee, then drive their hips way forward. They claim they are stretching their hip flexors.
I have bad news: they are not stretching their hip flexors. 10 degrees of hip extension is normal. Many of these people shove far beyond this range.
Where is this motion coming from?
Recall our talk on position. If you don’t have opposition from the abdominals, there is nothing to fix the spine. The hip flexor pulls the spine into extension. These people are getting “fake” hip extension that is actually back extension.
The pelvis is also out of position. Pop quiz, now’s your time to shine: What happens when the pelvis is out of position?
That’s right, hip extension is blocked by the acetabulum. So you’re forcing yourself into more “fake” hip extension. You’re stretching your anterior hip capsule, not your hip flexors. You are creating pathology. You are making yourself harder to fix.
Instead, use a stick or table like we just talked about to get into the right position and facilitate your abs.
I may want to stretch someone, but I can’t make that decision until I’ve fixed the position of the pelvis.
I need to make sure I’m making Jess better. To do this, I will use my tests and have him test out the movement in question. I did both of these before providing any intervention like The Hemi. Once I give him an exercise (the intervention), I will retest to see if it worked.
With Jess, The Hemi cleared up his Ober’s Test.
Then I will have him try his overhead lockout again and see if it feels better. I did just that, and here’s how it went.
That’s how I know I’m helping him and not just living in delusions.
From here, he’ll need to be consistent with his exercises (do The Hemi 1x/day if possible). If he does these exercises before he does his lifting, now he has access to motion that he previously could not access. Now he’ll need to learn to feel the new pattern during his lifts. As is always important with the Olympic lifts, he will need to refine his technique to get used to his new body.
I hope this helps tell you understand when to stretch your hip flexors and how to do it. Remember:
If you have questions about anything, leave them in the comments below.
Want more? Here’s a video of the whole process. Sometimes it’s easier to understand when you’re there watching everything happen.
Go watch that FREE video and then make the world a better place!
Header photo courtesy of Allen Tucker.