Strength training helps athletes prevent injury, build speed, and increase power output. In this three-part blog series, I offer a few concepts to consider when designing a new weight-training program or enhancing your current program you are already doing.
Your body’s alignment and posture during your lifting session is the focus of the first part of this series. If your body is misaligned, you could simply be increasing your risk of injury and actually reducing your chance to make performance gains by adding increased force to suboptimal movement patterns. No matter what phase of training you are in, postural alignment is a skill that you can learn and should never ignore.
Think of the last “sprint to the finish” long distance race that you watched. Two athletes, side-by-side, are battling in a dead sprint through the final meters of a grueling race. Both are working equally as hard, but one athlete looks more fluid. Even the uneducated observer can guess with near certainty who will win based only on the movement patterns of each athlete. You can see that the winner is covering slightly more ground with slightly less effort. The victor looks more “economical” and has just a fraction more energy in reserve to overtake his competitor in the final push.
The musculoskeletal system is essentially a busy downtown roadway. The bones are the roads, muscles are the cars, and other soft tissue—tendons, fascia, ligaments—are various traffic lights, stop signs, construction roadblocks, clogged intersections, etc. Traffic runs smoothly when there are fewer constrictions around which cars must navigate. When the skeleton is aligned and soft tissue is properly organized, your muscles’ firing patterns are not blocked or slowed. Muscles can “drive” more efficiently and utilize less fuel without constant stopping, starting, and turning. Thus, the body expends less energy to move.
Below are some progressive exercises to increase your skill level in maintaining posture. These exercises target your awareness of the muscles and postural positions that are key to maintaining alignment. Over time, your coordination of the firing patterns of these muscles will transfer into more athletic-specific movements.
90/90 Chair Breathing:
- Lie with your back flat on the ground and heels on a chair. Your hip and knee joint angles should be at 90 degrees.
- Dig your heels into the chair to engage your hamstrings.
- Place your hands on your hip bones.
- Breathe in, imagining the air filling the back lower half of your lungs. Keep your shoulders and trapezius muscles completely relaxed. They should not engage at all while breathing in.
- As you breathe in, you should feel your back muscles push into the ground and your lower abdominal muscles push into your hands.
- Continue digging your heels into the chair as you breathe.
It can be tough to coordinate all of this when you first start. I love doing this exercise first thing in the morning. It is easy to do right out of bed, and it sets up your central nervous system to fire these muscles around the diaphragm and initiate proper breathing techniques.
- “Sit” against the wall with hip and knee joints at 90 degrees.
- Push your shoulder blades into the wall but keep your trapezius muscles relaxed.
- Push your low back into the wall, minimizing the curve in your lower lumbar spine.
- Maintaining contact with the wall and your entire back, breathe into the lower back half of your lungs as you did in the chair drill.
- Feel your lower abdominal muscles pushing out and your low back and ribs pushing harder into the wall.
At first, it will be tough to coordinate the low back, diaphragm, and upper back, all while keeping the trapezius muscles relaxed. But with practice, you will be able to isolate the muscles that are responsible for better posture, while negating the muscles that pull you out of alignment.
Wall Sits With Arm Slides:
Once you have mastered the breathing technique and muscular firing pattern of the wall sits, add some movement to the wall sits.
- Put your palms against the wall. Keep your posterior chain– lumbar spine, shoulder blades, back of the head– flush with the wall.
- Your entire arm – biceps, forearms, wrists, hands– should be maintain contact with the wall. “Pinch” your shoulder blades toward your spine so that they can “pull” your arms into the wall without the help of the trapezius muscles.
- Now slide your arms up and down the wall, focusing on maintaining contact with the wall. This should work the muscles around your shoulder blades, and you actually may get sore in that area from working these oft-neglected muscles.
It is vitally important that you do NOT engage your trapezius muscles to lift your arms. Once they engage, stop raising your arms and slide them back down. Continue sliding up and down, but only as far as you can while maintaining proper technique. Continue to pay attention to your lower back and abdominal muscles. Ensure that they remain engaged as you perform these arm slides.
- These are great for all athletes, but are ideal for swimmers and rock climbers, both of whom engage in a lot of overhead work.
- Hang on a bar with your legs hanging freely.
- Take the curve out of your back by flexing your lower abs and “pulling your belly button into your spine.” You should feel your pelvis rotate back and down. This is the proper alignment that you should work to maintain.
From hangs, progress to adding leg raises, leg raises with rotations, pull ups, scapular pinches, and various other hanging activities. Keep the rep scheme short so that you can constantly reset your alignment. Take very short rests—just enough time to reset and check your alignment. This is how you can build endurance in these postural muscles while still checking that you are maintaining posture.
Posture skills can be incorporated into your everyday life and all of your training bouts. The extra energy that you expend to account for soft tissue and skeletal misalignment can add up over the course of a workout or race. Neuromuscular fatigue sets in early, posture breaks down, and pace slows, even though the body is burning lots of energy to move. Furthermore, an incorrect motion that is executed repetitively over the course of your endurance endeavors will cause undue repetitive strain on soft tissue, which could lead to injury. A strength-training program that incorporates postural positioning skills will help you execute your movements more efficiently and powerfully, conserving valuable energy for your long endurance efforts.