Fix Your T-Spine to Improve Your Posture & Your Press

When it comes to improving posture and preventing injury, it’s best to start by working from the inside out.  This is why core training has become so popular over the last few years – the idea that your center of mass has to be strong to control what’s going on in your extremities makes a lot of sense.  When it comes to generating power, the same theory holds true.  Ask any well-trained martial artist how much power a punch can generate when combined with adequate breathing, hip rotation and core control.

But what if there was a limitation in your movement that made all of that extremely hard, to the point where other, more vulnerable parts of the body had to start picking up the slack?  This is what can happen if the spine is not properly aligned.  Because as much credit as the core gets for being the center of the body, in reality, without the spine, the core means nothing.

The spine is divided into 3 major sections – cervical (upper, including the neck), thoracic (the mid-back), and lumbar (the lower back).

Much of the motion in the cervical and lumber areas is controlled by how much movement is available in the thoracic, or t-spine.  Try this to see what I mean:

Stand up in your typical “slouched” posture – shoulders forward, back rounded, shoulder blades apart and chest sunken in.  Now, without changing your body position, try to reach overhead.  If you don’t change your body position, two things will happen:

1) You won’t be able to reach up overhead very far at all.

2) To compensate, you’ll start leaning backwards and letting the lumber spine shift into an arched, or flexed, position.

Now, try the same drill standing as tall as possible, with the chest up and shoulders back.  You should get a lot higher without much compensation at the lower back.

But here’s the problem – unless you were able to get your biceps right beside your ears without having to shrug, lift your shoulders, lean back, move your hips, or arch your back, you’re still compensating.  And most likely, the problem is restricted movement in the t-spine.  This restriction can come from bad posture, previous injury, overworking the front of the torso (chest, shoulders, biceps) while ignoring the back of the torso (upper back, lats, triceps), poor flexibility, etc.  With so many possible restrictions, it’s necessary to take a multifaceted approach to fixing it.

Step 1 – Mobility

The first thing you have to do is get movement back.  I like to use more than one mobility drill for any given bodypart just to hit it from a few different angles.

Step 2 – Stability

Stability is simply the ability to control movement in a given range of motion, big or small.  Stability and balance are not synonymous, so being able to stand on a circus ball and squat with dumbbells over your head does not make you stable, just insane.

Step 3 – Strength

The last piece of the puzzle, think of developing strength as the piece that makes the first two steps stick.  You can increase flexibility and mobility, but if you don’t strengthen up the right areas to hold that new position, the body will revert right back to where it was.

The following video shows one of my favorite progressions for improving shoulder mobility through the thoracic spine:

Suggested Pre-Workout Corrective Program
A1. Foam Roller Thoracic Extension – until improvement is seen
A2. Quadruped Thoracic Rotations – until improvement is seen
A3. Wide-Grip Pullup Static Hold – start with a moderate band for assistance, when 30 seconds is achieved, decrease band assistance. Ideally you will be able to do it with bodyweight or with additional resistance from a chinup belt in the long term.
A4. Prone Cobra – 8-15 reps, stopping several reps short of fatigue

One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give when it comes to the flexibility and stability pieces is not to get hung up on sets and reps. Work it until you feel noticeable improvement, then move on to the next movement. Even with the strengthening exercise (the prone cobra), you’re using it as a warmup, so don’t kill yourself on it. Get some work done, make it difficult, but keep it clean and be safe. Good luck!

AST to Raise Money for St. Jude’s

We are so excited to announce our first annual softball tournament for St. Jude!  AST is participating in “Workout for St. Jude,” which is a fundraising event throughout the country where people participate in physical activities to raise money for the research hospital.

We decided that a 16 inch softball tournament would be the perfect opportunity to raise money, enjoy the fall weather, and have a little friendly competition.  The tournament will be held on Sunday, September 25th at Clarendon Park.  The field is very close to the AST facility, there will be tons of food and beverages for anyone who wants to come!

Ideally we would like to have enough people to field a couple of teams, so invite your friends, family, neighbors, and anyone who may be interested.  The more people involved, the faster we will reach our goal of raising $5000 for St. Jude!  Anyone can participate for a minimum donation of $20, although we are definitely encouraging everyone to raise as much as possible.

There is a sign-up sheet on the front desk, and you can also pick up a Sponser Envelope and a set of 16 inch softball rules.  We would like to have everyone’s t-shirt size by Saturday, September 10th so we can have your AST shirt in time.

We have also set up a Donation Site through the St. Jude website.  There is an option to set up your own fundraising website online, and people can donate by credit card, or find out mroe information about our event.  You can go to St. Jude and click on the “Participants” button.  Click “Search for Event” and our event is located in Illinois under All Strength Training.

We are really looking forward to having everybody get together outside of the facility, so block off your calendars now!  Thank you so much in advance for supporting St. Jude!

*Note: this event is open to everybody, including those who are not AST clients!  If you’d like to come out, have fun and support a great cause, please give us a call to get signed up at (773) 868-6656.  We’d love to have you!

Altitude Training at Sea Level

Those of you who have been in the garage at AST in the last few weeks may have seen me pushing the Prowler while wearing a mask that, upon first glance, might look more appropriate on the set of Pulp Fiction than in the gym.  Lifestyle preferences aside, there is actually a significant cardiovascular benefit to using such a mask, called an altitude training mask.  In mixed martial arts and other combat sports, athletes have regularly used high altitude training to take their performance to the next level.

Going into the mountains and training at higher elevations has been a favorite training tool for years, not only for the seclusion and ability to focus on an upcoming event, but from the physical changes made in the body and the blood from training in the thin air of the mountains.  Then, when the athlete returns to their regular elevation they find that they are stronger and faster for longer.  One explanation is that the lack of oxygen forces the body to produce more red blood cells, which are the body’s primary way of delivering oxygen to muscle and other tissues.

So how does this “freak” mask help bring these gains without having to move to the Alps?  The mask helps by creating pulmonary resistance, in other words limiting the flow of oxygen through the mask and forcing the body to increase RBC production to adapt.

In the short time that I have used the mask I have noticed that when in training (sparring, conditioning, weight training, etc.), I’m subconsciously slowing down my breath and I have been able to last a lot longer, with more productive training sessions.  This is important to me because as an MMA fighter, my sport is all about maintaining speed and power longer than the other guy.

High altitude training has also been shown to help those with asthma, since asthma tends to force hyperventilation, and using the training mask requires slowing down breathing and increasing use of the diaphragm muscles.  There is benefit for all types of endurance sports, including running, cycling, triathlon competition and others.  So strap on your “gas mask” and get to work!


Overspecializing Young Athletes is a Mistake

As a kid, I remember playtime well.  We did everything from play sports basketball, football and baseball (although I was never very good at any of them), to riding bikes and skateboards, to climbing trees and hills.  Even during Iowa winters, my brothers and I would amuse ourselves (and likely our parents) by going into the pasture behind our house and sledding/tobogganing/sliding down the giant 300-yard hill on our butts, only to have to begin the slow march all the way back to the top to do it again.  Sure, we had video games, but those were usually reserved for when the weather was bad or when the sun was down.  When we could, we played, and we did a TON of different things.

Now, as a father of two quickly-growing boys, my job is to make sure that they receive that same experience.  The problem is that it’s significantly harder to give kids that time nowadays, for several reasons.  First, I live in the city limits of Chicago, so I am in no way able to just let my kids roam free without worrying about them the way my parents could in a rural Iowa farm town.  Second, the rapid growth of entertainment-oriented technology is way, WAY above what I can ever remember.  My not-even-4-year-old son Ethan can work my smartphone, turn on our computer and find his computer games, and operate our Netflix all by himself.  With all of those temptations, who wants to have to go outside and move?

Combine that with extreme budget cuts for most schools that have required the reduction or complete elimination of most physical education programs, and young athletes (and young adults in general) are not being exposed to as wide of a variety of stimuli as in years past.  That is why I am a firm believer that kids younger than high school have no business in being single-sport athletes.

I’ve seen it a lot lately, talking with parents when they come into our facility looking to have their son or daughter train with us to improve their sports prowess.  “But,” they’ll say, “we don’t have a lot of time, because Johnny plays soccer year-round, and this summer he’s going to a soccer camp where they’ll have him do conditioning drills for 7 hours a day for six weeks, then he’ll start his fall league where he’ll practice 5 days a week and have 2 games a week, usually double-headers, then he’ll play indoor soccer during the winter, then in the spring he’s back in an after-school soccer camp and then he has to practice 500 kicks before he goes to bed.”

“Oh, and his ankles always hurt.  I think it might be genetic.”

Really?  It’s a miracle his feet aren’t detachable at this point.

Even worse, beyond just being single-sports athletes, I’m seeing lots of kids who are now single-sport, single-position athletes, at the ripe old age of 9.  “My son Billy is going to be a pro pitcher some day, give me some drills so he can throw faster.”  What he really means is “give me some drills so I can destroy his rotator cuff so badly that it’ll look like melting swiss cheese left out on a hot summer day.”

There is no way around it – overspecialization at a young age increases the risk for injury.  10-year-olds should not be capable of tearing a hamstring, yet they occur in dramatic numbers now.  There needs to be balance in activity, and it’s not happening anymore.

I have a simple request for parents who might read this: please, PLEASE, make your kids play more than one sport.  I don’t care if it means you go out into your driveway and play H-O-R-S-E with them every night after soccer practice.  I don’t care if you take your kids to the park and let them climb the jungle gym and the monkey bars.  Just don’t pigeonhole them into one activity or sport and set them up for potentially life-altering problems down the road.  Let your kids be kids.

Of course, it never hurts for parents to get involved with their kids’ activities, too.

Supplement Review: BCAA Excellence 2.0

If you pay attention to supplement advertising at all over the last several years, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the phrase “peri-workout nutrition.”  Simply stated, peri-workout means “during your workout.”  There is a lot of new science coming out that has shown that there can be significant benefits in strength and lean mass by choosing the right supplements in the right doses and taking them while training.  One such supplement is branched chain amino acids.

BCAA’s have been available as a supplement for as long as I can remember; in fact, I tried them for the first time when I was 14 years old.  However, a few things have changed since then, both in the timing, and in the dosage.  For a long time, it was recommended simply to take 3 or 4 before a workout.  In fact, the first BCAA’s I used (SportPharma BCAA, which are no longer available) were only available in a 30-capsule bottle, and cost me about 30 bucks.

Now, based both on research and anecdotal evidence coming from one of BCAA’s most staunch advocates, strength coach Charles Poliquin, it is recommended to take a much, much higher dose, and to take it during training.  For a 200lb male, Poliquin recommends taking anywhere between 20 and 50 grams of BCAA’s, either in powder or capsule form.  The downside to using a powder is that, unless additional sweeteners are added, the taste is, frankly, awful.  I used to have several clients use a powder for their BCAA’s and had a lot of issues getting them to finish it all before their workout was over.  However, for about the last 6 months, we’ve been using the capsules available from Poliquin Performance, BCAA Excellence 2.0.

Here are some of the things we’ve been using BCAA’s for with our clients with great success:

  • increased insulin sensitivity
  • increased muscle mass (anywhere between 3 and 6lbs in the first month on average)
  • preserving lean muscle mass during bouts of intense fat loss
  • increased workout volume (# of sets)
  • improved recovery between workouts
  • increased workout frequency (less time between training the same muscles or movements)

In fact, I put on about 6lbs of lean body mass the first month I was using them, during which time I also did our 14-day Low Carb Boot Camp, and still increased muscle mass and strength.  Even female clients who are using them at a lower dose are seeing improved strength and muscle definition in conjunction with their fat loss programs.

The suggested dose for a 200lb male is about 30-40 capsules spread over the course of the workout, adjust accordingly for your own bodyweight.  The only downside to the capsules is that occasionally you’ll burp one up midway through a workout, which has a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.  If it wasn’t for that they’d be a 10 out of 10 for sure.

Rating: 9/10

Retail: $52.00 for 500 capsules from Poliquin Performance