Whereas strength coaches in the ’90s were obsessed with plyometrics, today’s fad is developing core strength, particularly “rotational” core strength. Rocker boards, Pilates Reformers, and rubber sticks that vibrate when you shake them have become – for whatever reason I’ve yet to figure out – essential equipment for many strength coaches who train athletes. You can easily spot an athlete trained by one of these coaches: Just look for the guy who can do squats while standing on a Swiss ball and holding kettlebells but who has difficulty bench pressing bodyweight!
Besides their kooky training methods, these strength coaches keep giving themselves all sorts of titles to supposedly impress upon their clients and potential clients that they know the best way to develop athletic fitness. You have your speed-strength coordinators, performance enhancement trainers and even – my personal favorite – explosive power coaches (as opposed to non-explosive power coaches). Whatever these individuals call themselves, my point is that many strength coaches in this country have lost focus on doing the one thing they are supposed to be able to do: get people strong!
Getting strong is not just being able to produce impressive results in the power lifts or Olympic lifts, unless of course you are only training powerlifters and Olympic lifters. Not that these movements are unimportant, but athletes must have not only a high level of strength in the muscles that will directly help performance but also sufficient strength in supporting muscles to prevent injury. Chris Carlisle, the strength coach who trains the USC football team, is one accomplished individual who understands what I’m talking about. In a recent interview he says that he often worries about new recruits who have monster bench presses because he fears that they were neglecting other aspects of their training to perform at such a level in that exercise.
Take downhill skiing, for example. The quads are a key muscle group for high performance in these events, so exercises such as leg presses could be considered effective “sport-specific” exercises for downhill skiers. However, if a skier’s hamstrings are weak relative to the quads – a common condition with these athletes because downhill skiing places tremendous stress on the quads – the knees are more susceptible to injury. In effect, such an athlete has what I refer to as a structural imbalance.
Improper training methods result in imbalance. How often do you hear of a football player injuring his pectorals? For that matter, have you ever heard of any football player at any level not being able to play because he had a pectoral injury? Not often, because football players love the bench press and are motivated to have strong pectorals by being continually tested on the bench press by their coaches. So it’s not so much a matter of “Use it or lose it” when it comes to designing strength training programs as it is “Don’t use it and injure it!”
In my 27 years as a strength coach, I’ve found that there are four major limiting factors in strength training programs that result in structural imbalances. Here they are:
1. Weak VMOs. The vastus medialis (VMO) is a teardrop-shaped quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee and is essential for helping the kneecap to track properly. Weakness in the VMO is one of the reasons why an estimated 20,000 high school girls in the US every year suffer serious knee injuries, most involving the ACL. Further, weak VMOs adversely affect sprinting and jumping performance.
To show the importance of VMO strength, when I was a coach for the Canadian National Women’s Volleyball Team, all the athletes had patellar tendonitis, which is a chronic swelling of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the lower-leg bone. Within two months of performing a workout that emphasized the VMO, only one athlete (who was not very faithful to the workout) still suffered from this condition.
The primary reason athletes, both male and female, have weak VMOs is that they seldom squat low enough. With the publication of their controversial 1969 book, The Knee in Sports, authors Karl Klein and Dr. Fred Allman, Jr., started a nationwide paranoia about deep squats. Although the controversy over squats has finally subsided, many coaches are still reluctant to have their athletes do anything deeper than a parallel squat.
Just from an empirical standpoint, if deep squats were so bad, then Olympic lifters would have higher rates of knee injury, as they not only squat deep but also often bounce out of the bottom portions. But this is simply not true, and weightlifters have among the lowest injury rates of any athletes. Seriously, if concern about knee injuries were a problem, then athletes should avoid participating in sports that involve any running. (To learn more about injury risks for various sports, I highly recommend Epidemiology of Sports Injures by Dennis and Caroline Caine, and Koenraad Lindner.)
One problem is that lack of early preparation is causing athletes to round their backs as they squat. They need to go through a period of learning the lift and developing flexibility to do it properly. Yes, there are precautions to take when young athletes begin to lift weights, but coaches certainly can have middle school athletes in PE classes learn proper form with empty barbells, including how to spot properly, so that they will be able to safely squat. It’s a much more valuable use of their time than such currently promoted activities such as speed stacking!
2. Weak Hamstrings. The hamstrings have two primary functions, to extend the hip and to flex the knee; and as such, proper development is critical for all jumping and sprinting activities. The short head of the biceps femoris is involved only in flexing the knee. The long head of the biceps femoris, and the semitendinosus and semimembranosus, cross both the hip and the knee joint, and as such are involved in both flexing the knee and extending the hip.
Most physiotherapists will recommend a hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio of 66 percent, meaning that your hamstrings should be able to produce 66 percent of the force of the quadriceps. How do you determine if your hamstrings are weak? Instead of using expensive machines, simply compare your maximal front squat to your back squat. If your front-squat strength is less than 85 percent of your back squat, then you have a structural imbalance.
One of the primary reasons athletes have weak hamstrings is they use the wrong rep schemes and perform an insufficient volume of work. The hamstrings, especially the biceps femoris, are primarily fast-twitch fibers and respond better to high-intensity exercise. Just look at the hamstring development of a sprinter and it’s obvious what high-intensity exercise can do for this muscle group.
Unfortunately, many hamstring workouts use sets of 12-15 reps for 2-3 sets; this is especially true of physical therapy workouts designed to rehabilitate hamstring injuries. The result of such inappropriate loading parameters is that the fibers that were most likely injured will not be sufficiently overloaded and therefore it will take much longer to rehabilitate the injury. Thus, an exercise protocol of 3-8 reps of 4-6 sets would be more appropriate, although I generally prefer slightly higher reps for the hip extension movements.
3. Weak scapulae retractors. Scapulae retraction, which involves pulling the shoulder blades back, is performed by such muscles as the rhomboids and trapezius. These muscles are often poorly developed because they are not the showy muscles that can readily be seen while standing in front of a mirror.
The scapulae retractors are often weak in swimmers, or rather, relatively weak in comparison to their pectoral and anterior deltoid muscles. The result of this structural imbalance is a slumping, forward head posture that causes shoulder impingement, which can impair a swimmer’s performance in their sport, especially at the higher levels of competition. Likewise, although gymnasts often have tremendously developed lats, weakness in the rhomboids and mid-trapezius causes them to often display rounded shoulders that would be more appropriate in a zombie movie than on a balance beam.
One of the most effective exercises for developing the scapulae retractors is the seated cable row. However, rather than using a pulley handle and pulling the weight to the waist, for working the scapulae retractors I like to use a rope and have the athlete pull the bar towards the throat, with elbows high. This exercise is illustrated in my book The German Body Comp Program.
4. Weak external rotators. The two most important muscles that are involved in externally rotating the shoulders are the teres minor and the infraspinatus. These muscles originate on the scapula and insert on the humerus, and are two of the four muscles collectively known as the rotator cuff.
Although these muscles are relatively small, they are important for stabilizing the shoulder and therefore keeping the athlete healthy. Adam Nelson, two-time Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, is an example of an elite athlete who neglected his rotator cuff development. One exercise he could not do because it caused so much pain was the power snatch. After several weeks of performing external rotator cuff work I prescribed, he power snatched 286 pounds for 3 reps. In fact, working these muscles also helped his pressing strength, because after six months of training he increased his incline bench press, using a 3-inch-thick bar, from 385 pounds to 525!
One of the primary reasons that athletes, especially bodybuilders, often avoid exercises for the external rotators is that often they have to start with embarrassingly light weights. Jim McKenzie is a professional hockey player who went from a 280-pound close-grip bench press to 380 pounds in less than four months. For the first three months we did no bench pressing because his external rotators were so weak he had to start with 5-pound dumbbells when performing many of these exercises! He swallowed his pride, and the results speak for themselves.
If you have any of those imbalances, a PICP level 2 coach can properly assess them and give you the right program to correct them. You may win with your strengths, but it’s also true that you must find a way to manage your weaknesses. It’s simply a question of balance.