Tag Archives: conditioning

Avoiding Knee Pain During Hill Training

We have an annual hill climb challenge at Active Life Condition called the Grind.  It’s about a 2.2km trail that ascends 237m up Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ontario.  With this challenge seems to come a sudden increase in the amount of hill climb training volume and in the past, this has led to the surfacing of knee aches and pains.  I wanted to highlight an often-overlooked weakness that can contribute to knee pain to help mitigate these issues.

Often the knee itself isn’t the initial problem but becomes the primary concern when other structures in the body aren’t functioning optimally.  Hips and ankles are the two most common areas that directly effect the health of your knee.  When we look at the biomechanics of a hill climb, due to the incline and increased forward angle of the torso, the demand placed through the hips differs from walking or running on a flat surface.  The force that is driven through the ankle and foot also changes dramatically due to these angles and combining this with the uneven ground surface of a trail, the demand for ankle and foot mobility intensifies as well.  Having the stability and awareness to maintain the proper alignment to channel these forces through your body in the safest most efficient manner is crucial, and what we often see is the poor knee having to take up the slack being sandwiched between rigid or unstable hips and ankles.

The glutes get a lot of attention when it comes to hills or stairs, but I find the hip flexors tend to be a little more overlooked.  With an incline they are required to move the thigh higher into a range of motion often not used and generally weaker.  This leaves them prone to quicker fatigue and compensatory patterns occurring to achieve the hip flexion movement.  The videos below lend an explanation as well as an exercise tip to help create strength within this range.  Remember, this is just one of many things that could be occurring, it’s important look at the big picture, and take everything into consideration.  Enjoy!

Movement tip: Isometric Straight Leg Raise Adduction

In the past I’ve mentioned how I’ve felt that the hip adductors seemed to have been a little neglected with the glute focus that’s been so prevalent in the past few years.  I’m happy to see a lot of higher profile “guru’s” starting to bring them back into the fold again due to their importance in core, pelvic and knee stability.

If we look at their functional anatomy we can see that they play a huge role in core and pelvic stability.  In my experience I’ve found that many patients with deep core dysfunction also have dysfunction with their hip adductors or vice versa.  If you follow the deep front net of Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains, this makes sense as you can see how these structures are interwoven with one another.

In my practice I’ve found a lot of people unable to coordinate this sling which leaves them very vulnerable to back strains or more serious injuries.  In working with a soccer team over the winter months (who won a tournament in Italy in the Spring.  So proud of them!), my colleague and I noticed many of them were giving up a lot of power due to this instability.  This movement prep exercise was discovered to try and help them connect and strengthen this line.  I’ve found it to be quite effective with most populations.  It requires the deep core and hip adductors to work together creating that link.  Give it a try!

Isometric Supine Straight Leg Raise Adduction

  • Attach a large O-band to a secure anchor about knee to mid-thigh height.
  • Lie on your back with body parallel to anchor placing feet inline with the anchor point.
  • Position yourself away from the anchor point at a distance that will provide a challenging tension for you.
  • Loop the O-band around the mid-foot portion of your inside leg.
  • With the band under tension, clamp your body into the ground maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Use your hamstrings and glutes of the outside leg to squeeze into the ground and anchor your sacrum and hips keeping them square with shoulders throughout.  Lock down this position.
  • Ensure that rib cage does not rotate or glide laterally out of alignment with hips.  These are common errors.
  • Start movement by raising inside leg up to about 30-45 degree angle and squeeze in toward mid line of body keeping leg straight with knee and toes point up toward ceiling. Hold contraction for specified time.
  • Slowly release but do not let leg drop before repeating next repetition.

Suggested variables: 

2-3 sets, 4-6 reps of 5-10 second holds per side.

Structural Balance: Why it’s important

The majority of the injuries that I see with my patients are usually the result of some form of structural imbalance.  What do I mean by this?  Let me try to explain… 

Our bodies are designed in such a way that everything is interwoven and in a pre-tensioned state.  When everything is balanced as it should be, we are able to adapt to and withstand different ranges of internal or external forces.  This is what makes our bodies so resilient.  To give you an idea of how this works, Fascial Stretch Therapy founders Chris and Anne Frederick often use the example of a geodesic dome (think of a dome tent).  When the poles and tent fabric are placed together and under balanced tension, you have a durable attenuating structure.  By themselves, the fabric or poles wouldn’t be able to stand erect with integrity if at all.  The term tensegrity is used to describe this sort of structural phenomenon. 

So, we have bones which act similar to the poles of the tent, and soft tissues such as fascia, muscles, ligaments, etc. that are like the fabric.  If any of the soft tissues are tensioned more or less than they should be, the entire structure will be unbalanced and compromised. 

Of course we can still function, but not optimally and usually at the expense of an area of our body that is compensating for this imbalance.  You can drive a car that’s slightly off alignment for quite some time, but more wear is put on the tires and they will need to be changed much faster than if the car were aligned properly.  Sometimes that extra wear might result in a premature flat.  Often times our joints are like the tires of a misaligned vehicle.  This is why I am so keen on structural balance as it can provide a solution or prevention to many of the ailments we experience.

I hope this simplified video explanation of tensegrity helps!

Simplified tensegrity/structural balance explanation.

Movement Tip: Half-kneeling palloff press

It’s well known how important core stability is, and while static exercises like planks are a great place to start and learn how to feel and engage your core for stability, you’ll need to advance and be able to maintain stability with weight and or force transfer.  I’ve found that most people are good with sagittal plane stability (resisting a forward or back bend), but poor with coronal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) stability.  The latter two are especially important for all populations as something as simple as getting in and out of your car requires the awareness and stability of all planes.

The Palloff Press is an excellent movement choice that incorporates stability work in all planes, with focus on the transverse and coronal while adding some force transfer through the press.  I like starting with the half-kneeling variation to promote the locking in of good pelvic stability, and for people with tight hip flexors and quads, you get to work in a nice open hip position on the knee down side.  I’ll initially use an isometric hold at the top of the extended range to make sure that people are able to feel and adapt appropriately to the force transfer.

This is a fantastic movement to include in your movement prep. or warm-up exercises.

See the video below for a full demonstration and explanation.

Here’s what it looks like:

Anchor a Large O-Band or resistance band to a stable object at about shoulder height when you are kneeling.

Face 90 degrees away from the anchor so that your torso is perpendicular to it. Holding the band with inside hand first and overlapping with the outside, center hands over solar plexus (mid-torso) and move away from the anchor so that there is resistance on the band. (Distance will depend on your current level of comfort and strength.)

Assume a half-kneeling position with inside knee down on the ground inline with hips, shoulders and head. Outside leg should be forward and flexed 90 degrees at hip and knee with foot maintaining full contact on ground.  Ensure pelvis is level and lock it in by contracting glutes, hamstrings and core.

From this position slowly press hands forward straight away from torso fully straightening arms and maintaining shoulder height.

Keep hips and shoulders square with one another and resist the torsion of the band. Hold arms extended position for specified time and then slowly bring hands back toward torso.

Remember to breathe throughout.

Complete full set with weaker side first before switching.

Recommended variables to start with:

2-3 sets, 4-8 reps per side, 3-5 second holds in extended position.

Movement Tip: Half-Kneeling Short Range Hamstring Curl

This is a movement that I picked up from Dr. Spina’s FRC material.  I love it because it addresses the top range (short range) portion of a hamstring curl or knee flexion which is so often neglected.  Most hamstring movements focus on the mid or low range, and the movements that are supposed to include the top range are often performed poorly, leaving it out anyway.  In many cases people don’t even have to flexibility to perform work for this range and that’s the other reason why I like this movement.  It also works on quad flexibility at the same time, in particular the rectus femoris that crosses both the knee and hip joint which is often a restricting muscle for many people.

I like using this as a movement prep/warm-up movement especially on a lower body focused day.  The set-up is key to making this an effective movement and for those that can’t get into this position, the video below offers an alternative set-up.

Cramping or muscle spasms in the hamstrings are common when first attempting this movement.  This is a normal response and will pass once your body and brain adapt to the pattern.

This exercise should be performed slow and controlled throughout.

Start in a half-kneeling rec fem stretch position keeping head, shoulders, hips and planted knee aligned with one another.  Hold the foot of your back leg up as close to your butt as you can manage.

Slowly release your foot while squeezing hamstrings and glutes controlling the negative all the way down to the ground.  Try not to let your foot just sling shot out of your hand.  Slowly curl your leg back up to the top position as far as possible before assisting with hand as little as possible and returning to start.

Suggested variables:

2-3 sets, 3-6 reps/side, slow and controlled throughout. (4-5 seconds to lower, 3-4 seconds to return to start.)

Why do I Keep Straining My Neck?


By Gavin Buehler, RMT

Disclaimer:  Please consult your healthcare provider before engaging in any of the activities or suggestions that are highlighted in this article/video.

During this time of the season the coaches and therapists at Active Life tend to notice a rise in complaints surrounding the neck and shoulder area.  Generally it’s a little more stiffness than usual or mild “tweaks” frequently around the posterolateral (side/back) area of the neck. 

So why the sudden rise in these occurrences during this time of the year?  Our posture seems to change with the colder weather and maybe even from the stresses that may have been incurred over the holidays.  We channel our inner turtle power (everyone knows Raphael was the coolest Ninja Turtle) and manage to suck our heads into our protective shells between our shoulders, usually with our chins poked forward, and with added stress our breathing becomes shallow adding more to strain to some of the neck musculature that assists in breathing.  Spending more time in this type of posture can make the neck and shoulder area more susceptible to these aches and injuries. 

To understand why this is happening we need to take a closer look at the functional anatomy of these muscles, and since there’s a lot of them, I’m going to focus in on a muscle that I’ve found to garner the most complaints, the levator scapula.  This muscle takes a lot of abuse and is one of the most common reasons why I see people on my table.

As you can see in the diagram, the levator scapula originates from the transverse processes of C1-C4 in your neck and attaches to the superior aspect of the medial border on your scapula (shoulder blade).   Looking at the fiber direction and attachment points, we can see that its functions include scapular elevation (lifts shoulder blade up), scapular downward rotation (rotates shoulder blade down) and ipsilateral cervical flexion and rotation (rotates and flexes neck to the same side).  The most prominent action is the downward rotation of the scapula and it’s important to recognize this along with the cervical attachment points due to the impact this can have on overall shoulder movement.  Explanation is provided in the video along with a demonstration of actions.

When we’re in a forward head carriage postural position, this puts tension on the levator scapula pulling the shoulder blade into downward rotation.  This is generally the opposite movement of where we want our shoulder blade to go for the majority of our daily activities seeing as they are performed with our arms in front of our bodies where upward rotation of the scapula is required.  So we have a muscle that’s connected to our neck that’s pulling in the opposite direction we’re trying to go with our arms, inhibiting optimal movement of our shoulder causing compensatory muscle activation and firing patterns.

The postural placement of our head can interfere with the range of motion in our shoulders.  So if our heads are forward and our shoulders a little shrugged up and we go and try to do anything with our arms, such as reaching for a door handle or shoveling, we’re putting added strain on a muscle that’s already in a stretched position making it easy to “tweak.”

Be conscious of your posture and stand tall and proud with your ear in line with your shoulder to minimize your risk of injury and maximize your shoulder movement.

How Poor Posture Creates Tight Calves

By Gavin Buehler, RMT

Disclaimer:  Please consult your healthcare provider before engaging in any of the activities or suggestions that are highlighted in this article/video.

An issue that’s becoming more prevalent in my practice is lack of ankle mobility, particularly with dorsi flexion (foot flexes up toward shin).  I’ll hear comments about how calves always feel tight even though the individual is always stretching them out.  While the calves feel like they have an issue, the problem might stem from somewhere else.   In a case where I hear comments such as above, looking at the body globally and assessing postural alignment can help find the source.

Two fairly common postural patterns that are just about guaranteed to produce limited ankle mobility as well as many other problems that I won’t dig into in this article are “sway back” and “hyper lordosis.”  In both cases a dysfunction through the core triggers compensatory patterns in order for the body to keep balanced.

Sway Back Posture

Sway Back – In the case of the sway back posture the pelvis shifts forward off the plumb line usually presenting with a posterior pelvic tilt and flattening of the lower back.  There are many possible reasons for this that may include weakness in the transversus abdominis (TVA), imbalanced internal and external obliques, glute weakness, poor sequencing etc.  But it’s the lack of support through the core that displaces the weight creating an “S” like posture when viewed from the side.  With the pelvis shifting forward, the upper torso needs to shift back making the head shift forward.  In the lower body knees will usually lock out in hyper extension and due to the angle that the weight is being driven through the tibia, a constant posterior glide at the talocrural joint (ankle) stresses the Achilles tendon.

Hyper Lordosis Posture

Hyper Lordosis – With hyper lordosis a slightly different “S” like pattern forms as the pelvis dumps forward in an anterior tilt which tends to create a flatter upper back and exaggerates the arch in the low back shifting the torso forward off the plumb line.  The weight displacement of the upper body causes the lower body to compensate by pushing the pelvis backward as well as the knees in a lockout position.  As with the “Sway Back” posture, this places the tibia at an unfavorable angle to bear load through the ankle joint.

There are a number of other issues that are also formed with these postures, but since this article is about tight calves, I’m just going to highlight how they are affected.  In both the sway back and hyper lordosis cases, these postures produce a constant stress on the calves through both the knee joint as well as the ankle joint.  The calves are in a lengthened state crossing the knee and working hard to fight hyper extension and stabilize the joint.  Through the ankle, because of the way the weight is being distributed through the tibia (lower leg) and the angle that it is forced to meet the talus (foot bone), they’re again stretched and working hard to combat the posterior glide and stabilize.  The body’s nervous system will perceive these areas as being unstable causing the calf muscles to brace for stability making them tight.  No amount of stretching will remedy this type of tension.  In order for mobility to take place in any joint, there needs to be stability for your nervous system to allow the movement.  

To address the constant tension through the calves, postural improvement is needed first to place the load of the body in an optimal position where the joints are stable.  Improving the function of your core will generate the greatest success in these situations.

In this video I explain the compensatory patterns and offer a simple tool to help improve your posture.

Own Your Movement With These Simple Techniques!

Mobility is a buzz word that is often used interchangeably with flexibility, however mobility is not just being flexible, but the ability to control your full range of motion and flexibility with proper muscle coordination patterns and awareness.

If you want to maximize performance and movement efficiency, mobility is a must!  So, it’s not just about being flexible, but also being in control throughout your entire motion.  You need to be able to own it.  Here’s where implementing things like slow reps and isometrics come into play.  Before you start to just move weight through a movement, you should be able to go through that movement in slow motion and be able to pause it at any point throughout it without deviation.  If you can do this, you will reduce your risk of injury and overload and create a more fluid and efficient movement pattern.

Here are a few techniques and examples you can try:

Isometrics – I’m a huge fan of these!  In gymnastics just about everything we did included being able to hold the movement position isometrically before being allowed to progress to the sexy stuff.

Example:  The Back Extension – this is a movement I always see performed poorly in the gym.  Most of the time I see a swing up with momentum.  Try just holding your body at the top position for 5-10 seconds and see how it goes.  You can try pausing this movement at any point in the arc and holding to see where you may have weakness.  It’s a humbling experience and will really make you see what muscles you’re working, and what ones you aren’t.

10 Second Negatives – One of the greatest power lifters of all time, Ed Coan talked about these at a SWIS conference one year.  He explained how you should be able to control every aspect of your squat throughout its entire motion.

Example:  The Squat – a lot of people like to rush through this movement letting gravity push them through the negative.  Try counting out a full 10 second negative with your squat keeping the motion constant and smooth.  This will allow you to feel every little deviation and instability you may have.  Guess what?  The more stability you have, the more force you will be able to generate and the bigger your real lift will be.

Think of the Opposite – I encourage this with every movement in order to stimulate the full use of your stabilizers as well as help maximize the agonist contraction.

Example:  The Bench Press – instead of just letting gravity push the bar down to your chest, think of pulling it down instead.  Envision squeezing or rowing it through the negative.  You’ll find a much smoother and solid movement, and actually get a nice explosive pop into your positive out of the bottom!

This video gives a contrast between the typical momentum rep, and isometric rep and a slow controlled rep.

Enjoy!

Movement Tip: The Bird Dog

In my last post I went over the McGill Curl-Up as a movement to assist in core stability to help prevent low back pain.  I mentioned that it is the first movement in Stuart McGill’s Big 3 movements.  The movements should be performed in the order of the Curl-Up, Bird Dog and Side Plank.  I’ve previously posted a demonstration of the side plank, and thought that I should probably finish off the series so that you have a full reference.  So today I will outline the Bird Dog.

The Bird Dog involves the extensor muscles in your posterior chain (back line) and can be performed with legs only or arms only as a regression.  Another option for regression is to begin with lifting your hand and knee only slightly at first and making sure that you are able to maintain your balance and stability.  From there you can slowly begin to extend in small increments over time until you are able to perform the full movement.

Taking your time with these exercises and focusing on the execution makes all the difference.  It’s the small nuances that separate okay results from great results.  These movements in particular are meant to be very controlled and deliberate.  Just flying through them using momentum and zero thought which is unfortunately how I generally see these performed, will not yield any benefit.  Please take your time and have patience.

This movement begins in the quadruped position with hands placed under shoulders, knees under hips and spine in neutral position.  Your hips and shoulders should be square with one another maintaining this throughout the entire movement avoiding torsion.

Engage your core similar to how we did with the McGill Curl-Up by thinking of cinching a corset tight around your waist, holding in your pee and poop, and bracing as if you will be punched in the stomach. There should be a slight draw in of your navel and you should still be able to breathe with this engagement.  Maintaining the slight draw in of the navel will be more challenging in this position as gravity is pulling down on your insides and your torso isn’t resting on the floor.  Your TVA will need to work a little harder.

Slowly raise opposite leg and hand and extend them thinking of placing them into position.  Think of length through your torso and reaching to touch the wall of the room you’re in with your extended hand, and the opposite wall with your extended leg as opposed to raising up toward the ceiling.  In fully extended position, leg and arm should be aligned with your torso, spine still in neutral position from head to tailbone and shoulders and hips still square.

Hold extended position for specified length of time before slowly returning to start position and repeating with opposite arm and leg.

Avoid excessive arching through your lower back and any twisting through your torso or lateral hip sway.

The video below outlines the full Bird Dog movement, but feel free to modify as necessary.  Thanks!

Recommended Variables to Start:
2-3 sets with 60 seconds rest in between, 6-10 alternating reps, 5-10 second isometric holds each rep.

Movement Tip: The McGill Curl-Up

When it comes to the topic of low back disorders, Stuart McGill is considered the top authority. His research and methods have assisted countless people. He’s authored many books such as Low Back Disorders and Back Mechanic that go into detail regarding many low back issues and how to treat or avoid them.

Low back pain is one of the most common conditions that I see, and in many cases the lack of spinal stability is due to weakness through the core region.  An easy fix is to incorporate some basic movements into your daily routine, to keep your core active and strong. Stuart McGill has a series of movements often referred to as The Big 3 that include the Curl-Up, Bird Dog and Side Plank. In today’s post I’m going to outline the Curl-Up. This movement focuses on the anterior (front) abdominals and Transversus Abdominis (TVA).  It is generally the first movement performed (after performing your Cat-Camel to warm-up to reduce spinal viscosity) of the series.

I’ll usually see this movement being performed with too much trunk flexion.  The rectus abdominis (6-pack) is the primary muscle used for trunk flexion and because this movement involves some flexion through this area, it’s easy to dominate with it.  However, the TVA is the deep muscle that provides the most spinal stability and it wraps around the torso creating a cylindrical like compression when engaged.  This is the muscle that we would like to be the most involved with this movement.  To trigger this engagement we need to focus on the compression with only some flexion.  To do this, try imagining a corset cinching tight around your waist.  Your TVA muscle is essentially a built in corset.  There will be a slight draw in of your navel (belly button) toward your spine, and then a small amount of flexion is added in the form of the curl-up to maximize the contraction.  So the curl-up isn’t the primary goal, it’s maximizing the contraction of the TVA which requires more cinching and some flexion.  When you add the curl-up portion of the movement, if you notice your stomach bulge out, so your navel is no longer slightly drawn in, you’ve lost that cinching engagement and are now primarily using your rectus abdominis.  If this happens, regroup and start over.  You may need to start out just working on the cinch without even adding any flexion, or if you can manage some flexion, you may need to start with some assistance from your elbows adding some support on the ground.

Below are the instructions and notes to perform this movement. Please watch the video for the full description. Enjoy!

  • Lie on your back on the floor with one leg bent about 90 degrees so that knee points up to ceiling and place hands under the arch of your low back with palms down so that finger tips touch one another.  If placing your hands in this position is uncomfortable, you may use a rolled towel as a bolster.
  • Engage core by thinking of cinching a corset tight around your waist, holding in your pee and poop, and bracing as if you will be punched in the stomach. There should be a slight draw in of your navel and you should still be able to breathe with this engagement.
  • Slowly raise your torso off the ground just enough that shoulder blades are hovering, maintaining a fairly neutral spine from head to tail bone with only slight flexion.  Think of being long and cinching around waist as opposed to crunching.  Hold position for specified time.
  • Slowly return to start position and repeat.  Switch bent leg each rep or set.

**Note: Only raise torso as far as you can control your core and stability.  If you begin to crunch and your low back arches excessively (loses contact with your hands), or you notice your stomach pushing out instead of slightly drawing in, back off a little until you can control the movement throughout.  You may need to assist with a little pressure into the floor from your elbows until core becomes strong enough to support without.

Recommended Variables to Start:
2-3 sets with 60 seconds rest in between, 3-5 reps, 5-10 second isometric holds at the top of each rep.

This video/article is intended to assist those who have consulted with their health practitioner regarding their specific condition and received this exercise as a prescription. Please consult your health practitioner before performing any exercise on your own.