Challenge the Dogma
By Marc McDougal
First published at www.johnberardi.com
, Jan 31 2003.
Allow me to first ask you to let go of your ankles, stand up straight, and pull your pants up. Don’t worry; it’s not your fault. You may not have even realized that you have been “taking it” from the fitness industry for a long, long time. Why should you even be suspicious, the people that teach college courses about weight training do this for a living! The personal trainers at your gym are “certified” which equates to fitness omniscience, right? So how can anything be amiss in the weightlifting universe?
My friends, amiss it is. And I’m here to expose some truths. But first, I must warn you. Much of the following information is contrary to popular opinion. So if you’re offended by anything that Oprah’s trainer doesn’t endorse - get out while you can, lest the waters of your fragile reality be stirred.
Myth #1: The Knee Shall Never Cross The Line Of The Toe
Every new trainer loves to spout this one off as a display of his or her biomechanical knowledge. They constantly scour the gym-goers movements on a noble quest to ensure patellar safety across the land. Unfortunately this unsubstantiated notion is perpetuated and accepted as fact in gyms everywhere. These are the same trainers that allow a gross deviation of the patella to the medial or lateral aspect during an exercise (the knee pointing a different direction than the foot), which actually is dangerous and degenerative.
If one were to assess knee injuries in athletic (read as: sport) environments, it becomes apparent that a high percentage of patellar trauma cases are sustained while the knee is beyond the all-sacred toe-line. In a misguided attempt to avoid knee injuries, the exercise community has therefore made this knee position taboo. In reality, the opposite reaction would have been preferential. Since this knee position is unavoidable in sports, or even in everyday life (try walking up or down stairs or a hill without your knee crossing your toe line) the proper way to prevent injuries is to strengthen the musculature around the joint by allowing the knee to travel into the “unsafe” zone in a controlled environment.
All joints contain feedback mechanisms inside the connective tissue and joint capsules called proprioceptors. These communicate with your nervous system to tell your brain what position your joint is at. This is how you can close your eyes and be aware of exactly what angle all of your joints are at without actually seeing them. To simplify a complicated issue, the more time you spend with your knee past your toe-line, the more you teach your nervous system to activate the protective soft tissue around the joint therefore PREVENTING injury during athletic situations (Supertraining, Siff & Verkoshansky, 1993). Close your eyes and think of a highly succesful strength coach. Yep, he agrees. Somehow, this news just doesn’t buy column space in Muscle and Fatness.
So remember this - the “golden rule” that the knee should never cross the line of the toe during any type of lunging exercise should be buried in the ocean with the lost city of Atlantis. (Of course, if this position causes consistent pain, then you should avoid this particular variation of the exercise).
Myth #2: Full Squats (below parallel) Are Bad For The Knees
More squat myths?!?
We’ve all heard it, if you dip below parallel during a squat, your kneecap will blow off and land in the front desk girl’s mocha latte. Well it just ain’t true! What’s that, you need a little more evidence? Ok boys and girls, its time for today’s episode of Fun With Musculoskeletal Anatomy.
The knee has four main protective ligaments that keep the femur from displacing on the tibia (ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL). These four ligaments are most effective at their protection during full extension and full flexion. Full extension would be when you are standing; full flexion would be when there is no daylight between your hamstring and your calf. When the knee is at 90 degrees of flexion (the halfway point), these four ligaments are almost completely lax and cannot exert much if any of a protective force at the knee (Zatsiorsky V. Kinematics of human motion. 1998 - published by Human Kinetics - p.301).
Unfortunately, the position where the protective ligaments of the knee are not doing any protecting is the common recommended stopping point of a squat. Therefore, as it as it turns out, this is the exact worst place you could reverse the motion under load.
If flexibility allows (heels staying planted, torso not flexing forward past 45 degrees), then a full squat where you lower yourself all the way to the ground is far safer on the knees than the traditional half squat. Guess what joint angle most leg extension machines start at? If you said 90 degrees, give yourself a pat on your healthy knee. This makes a full squat even safer than a leg extension machine (Wilk K et al. A comparison of tibiofemoral joint forces and electromyographic activity during open and closed kinetic chain exercises. Am J Sports Med; 24(4):518-527).
So am I telling you never to do parallel squats? No! Am I saying that you’ll injure yourself on a parallel squat? No, again! What I’m trying to do is simply make an argument for the safety of full squats, thereby relegating squat myth #2 to the fiery pits of hades.
Myth #3: It Is Unsafe To Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Or Pick Your Nose Without A Lifting Belt
It has been brought to my attention that certain companies require their employees with labor-intensive positions to wear back braces/lifting belts.
When I run a company some day, whether we do labor intensive work or not, I plan to have my employees use standard issue bone files to grind away at each other’s spines.
Am I a monster? Maybe. But I’m being facetious in order to make a point. The point is that two scenarios above are about equally beneficial to overall back health!
You see, every man, woman and child on this planet has been given a lifting belt. That’s right; you arrived on this planet with one that was factory installed! It’s called a transversus abdominus or TVA. Unfortunately, most people haven’t used theirs since they were on the merry-go-round as a child. This muscle, the TVA, wraps all the way around your midsection like a corset, attaching to the thoracolumbar fascia, which then connects to your lumbar vertebrae or “lower back”. When contracted, it pulls at both sides of your spine creating something called hoop tension, which then sets off a waterfall effect of contracting the deep musculature of your torso. Once this has happened, your spine is rigid and fully protected, and your pelvic floor muscles contract, transferring stability to your lower body. Simply by contracting this muscle, you go from a noodle to a tank.
Now, since our TVA likes its very important job, it takes great offense to our silly attempts at replacing it. Therefore when we put on some sort of brace or lifting belt, our TVA decides to relax, robbing us of stability and spinal rigidity. (This has to do with the relaxation of our abdominals). Therefore, not only is wearing a belt unecessary, it can cause your nervous system to chronically inhibit your built in protective musculature. This can lead to spinal degeneration!
There, I said it! Wearing a belt can be worse for your back than not wearing one! So, if you take heed and decide that I may know a thing or two about back health, get rid of your belt. Or better yet, give it to one of your enemies. But do so gradually. If you’ve been wearing a belt for years, gradually taper yourself off of it, and get used to using your own muscles. Have someone knowledgeable teach you how to contract your TVA and you will be significantly better off.
Myth #4: Pressing Movements Should Stop At 90 Degrees To Protect The Shoulders
Ok, let’s talk upper body. This pressing myth is one is propagated by trainers at a certain health club that is gradually taking over the planet (hint, hint…they are open ALL day and ALL night).
It all started when an article was written with good intention by exercise therapist Paul Chek entitled “Big Bench, Bad Shoulders”. Chek referred to stopping the bench press movement at an individual’s passive range of motion (as low as you can bring your arms without holding any weight) while rehabbing a shoulder, instead of lowering the bar all the way to the chest. Unfortunately, Chek’s excellent recommendations for the injured were misapplied to a healthy population.
Somehow, this turned into “everybody should stop their bench press at a 90 degree shoulder angle, or the shoulders will be damaged and the chest muscles will shut off”.
Now, say it with me: “That just ain’t true!”
Once again, this little myth can actually do more harm than good. Here’s how: from personal experience with hundreds of clients and from statistical analysis, most people have some degree of internal rotation of the humerus along with protracted shoulders.
Go ahead, check yourself. Stand sideways to a mirror; relax your arms down to your sides. Now check yourself. Do your palms face directly towards each other, or do they face behind you? This is an indication of the internal rotation of your humerus. Too much internal rotation (hands facing back) indicates that your internal rotators are either much stronger than your external rotators or it indicates that the internal rotators are tight (and potentially shortened in their resting position) and the external rotators are potentially stretched in their resting position.
Also look at the position of your arms relative to your legs. Do your arms fall directly down the midline of your thigh, or in front of your leg? Can you see any of your upper back in the mirror? These tests are an indication of shoulder position (retraction or protraction). When standing relaxed, your arms should fall directly down the midline of the thigh and you should only be able to see your chest and shoulder, no upper back. The more of your back you can see, the worse off you are, you primate you.
Getting back to the point of this passage, these postural conditions can be exacerbated by stopping your pressing movements short of full range. This occurs due to your body’s adaptive mechanism of shortening the fibers in accordance with the range of motion you contract them in.
Take a look at powerlifters; their careers depend on their healthy shoulders. They lower the bar to their chest, sometimes even below the chest line using a cambered bar. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research listed powerlifting below badminton on injuries sustained per hours of participation. To make a long and complex story, if you have healthy shoulders and want to keep them, lower the bar all the way to your chest, slow and controlled. Most people would save their shoulders simply by adding in some external rotation work for the teres minor and infraspinatus instead of revamping their entire pressing program.
Myth #5: You Shouldn't Train Abs Before Legs
Didn’t know this one was a myth? Good! However, let’s discuss it anyway since I think this is an erroneous piece of fiction that my soon gain mythical status within the circle of infallibility known as the accredited personal training associations.
Credit Strength Coach Ian King for being the first one to really shed light on this one being a fallacy. At first glance, the theory holds water; if your abdominals are fatigued then they won't be able to stabilize the body or the spine, therefore leaving yourself open to possible injury, or at the very least weakness, during leg training.
But incorrectly assuming that the abs are one unit is the governing body behind this misnomer. The core of the body can be divided into two distinct groups of musculature; the outer unit, and the inner unit. The outer unit is made up of what you can see in the mirror, i.e. the rectus abdominus, external obliques, and spinal erectors. Traditional abdominal exercises such as curl-ups, knee raises etc. target the outer unit musculature almost exclusively.
The inner unit is made up of the transversus abdominus, the multifidus, the diaphragm, and the pelvic floor muscles. Spinal stabilization is provided almost entirely by the inner unit musculature, therefore any ab exercises done before a leg workout will cause no significant impairment of form or function. One should, however, avoid excessive inner unit work to the point of fatigue before a workout for said reasons. Inner unit work would include any woodchop type exercise, forward or transverse ball-rolls, or most stability drills, etc.
I'm sure some of you out there are saying "...but when I do abs before legs, I feel weaker, so now what do you have to say, you pickle kisser"? This very well could be the case, but that is due to your nervous system’s inability to preferentially activate your inner unit musculature during stabilization needs, and an over-reliance on using the outer unit muscles to perform this function. This is a problem that needs to be addressed!
Referred to as "Sensory-Motor-Amnesia" (Chek, P. 1998, Scientific Core Conditioning. Correspondence Course. Paul Chek Seminars), this dysfunctional inner unit can come from heightened tension due to hypertonic muscles, from an overreliance on external apparatus (see myth #3), or from a series of musclular imbalances that can be determined through postural analysis and other soft tissue testing.
In other words, get your core in order, dude! Learn to activate your inner unit musculature with control drills and exercises designed to hit those deep muscles. Then, when training outer unit musculature, you won’t be fatiguing your inner unit. In addition, you wont impair the function of the inner unit for stabilization purposes. Whether you choose to do abs before squatting or not, it’s important to recognize how the abdominal muscles are arranged and how to use the arrangement to your training advantage.
In conclusion, if one thing can be taken away from this article, let it be to question advice. Blindly accepting the advice of “experts” can lead to mental atrophy and apathy. You become a slave to other people’s advice and never learn to think critically for yourself. Dig deep, do some research, and come to your own conclusions. Or just keep reading articles at johnberardi.com and let us do the work for you.