By Justin Moore, Parabolic Performance and Rehab
For a long time there has been an unwritten rule in strength training that in order to maintain shoulder health, one or two pulls should be performed for every push. What if this is incorrect? What if trying to create balance between pushing and pulling — or even biasing more pulling then pushing — is actually feeding further into a pattern that sets us up for overuse injuries and movement dysfunction?
What if what we really need to do is REACH more?
On the eve of our second NFL combine training season at Parabolic Performance and Rehab, I have been tasked with designing a training template that will be used as a base from which we will build individualized programs for our NFL hopefuls.
For the past three months, I have met with and discussed programming implications with other members of our performance staff in an effort to account for as many variables as possible in preparing our combine training athletes. The goal is to optimize the health and performance of each individual, so he can produce optimally during the most important job interview he will ever have. One question that comes up time and time again is this: How we do maximize our athletes’ 225-pound bench press tests in a very short period of time while making sure they remain healthy throughout the process?
These athletes are going to bench press three times per week — sometimes at extremely high volumes — in order to develop the muscular endurance, work capacity, maximal strength, tissue durability, and technique to perform a “max reps” set that requires them to push into rep ranges they probably have never experienced. We are going to “push the physiology hard” as Pat Davidson of Peak Performance would say, and demand that these athletes adapt to the stress so that, when it’s time to perform at the combine or at an individual pro day, they emerge from beneath the tonnage we’ve piled on them with monstrous results.
This type of frequency and volume can only be achieved with intelligent planning and an understanding of what’s required to keep these athletes healthy as we straddle the limits of their capacity. In the past, I may have programmed numerous pulling exercises to offset the bench press.
However, through my exposure to the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), and numerous conversations with Parabolic performance coach Cody Plofker, I also have come to appreciate the need to promote reach to maximize shoulder health.
These athletes don’t need more pulling; they are already doing a ton of pulling every day. They live in a state of extension. This means they have a pelvis that is anteriorly tilted, a flat or extended thorax that puts their shoulder blades in a poor position to move on the ribcage, overactive lats, spinal erectors, traps, and accessory breathing musculature.
These athletes pull with every breath and every step they take. These athletes need to reach. They need to find thoracic flexion and posterior pelvic tilt. They need to create a zone of apposition so that their diaphragm can be used for ventilation instead of posture, like it should. Maybe most importantly of all, in the short time we have them — these athletes need to be exposed to upper body movements that offset the bench press by promoting protraction and upward rotation of the scapula.
The craziest part is that each and every person reading this article has far more in common with these elite athletes then they think: EVERYONE needs to reach.
What is Reaching and Why Should I Care?
Reaching refers to moving of the appendages into flexion. This can include reaching the arms in front of the body or overhead, flexing the knees, dorsiflexion of the ankles, and reaching the mandible forward. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on reaching the arms while allowing the shoulder blades to move naturally.
Reaching is essential to shoulder health in the gym as well as in everyday life.
Whether we’re moving our arms overhead to lift a barbell or just reaching up to a cabinet to get something off a shelf, our shoulder blades must move in proper rhythm with our arms. This cannot occur if the shoulder blades, which are curved bones, cannot sit on a curved, congruent ribcage. In order to properly position the shoulder blade for optimal shoulder function, we need thoracic flexion as well as depression and internal rotation of the anterior ribcage.
Most people are unable to position their shoulder blades optimally on the ribcage, because their thoracic spines are flattened and their ribs are elevated anteriorly. This occurs because ventilation, or breathing, is our brain’s number one priority. If we cannot ventilate, we die. The brain will sacrifice anything and everything in order to bring air into the lungs, and often it sacrifices position.
Due to the internal asymmetries of the body and the demand to manage gravitational forces, we must compensate in order to bring air into the body. In a perfect world, the diaphragm would be the primary muscle of inhalation. Instead, we pull air into the body by elevating the ribcage anteriorly, extending the thoracic spine, and using lats, pecs, spinal erectors, and traps to inhale.
These are examples of accessory breathing muscles that can become short and overactive because they are serving as muscles of inspiration due to the improper positioning of the thorax.
Compounding the problem, the deep abdominals become too lengthened to depress and internally rotate the ribcage. Essentially, we become hyper-inflated and can’t get air out of our bodies. Since the abdominals can’t function to draw the ribcage down and push air out of the body, we become stuck in this extended pattern, and the vicious cycle continues.
Position of the shoulder blades cannot be optimized until the thorax is repositioned and a zone of apposition (ZOA) is restored. The ZOA, as we learn in PRI, is portion of the diaphragm that apposes the inner part of the lower ribcage. The function of the diaphragm as a muscle of inspiration is dependent on an optimal ZOA. Without a ZOA, which is lost when the thoracic spine extends and the ribcage is elevated anteriorly, the diaphragm cannot return to its lengthened state and domed shape. Like any muscle that is chronically shortened, the diaphragm can no longer contract properly because it can’t return to its resting state. In this case, it is no longer a muscle of inhalation, but rather becomes a postural muscle.
OK…So What The Hell Do I Do?
Here’s where reaching comes into play. Since we are continuously pulling air in using lats, traps, and spinal erectors, we need to inhibit these overactive muscles. However, these muscles will just go back to being chronically overused if we can’t restore the diaphragm’s primary function as a muscle of inspiration, and we can’t do that unless we get a zone of apposition and allow the diaphragm to return to its resting state.
Luckily, there is something that can be done to accomplish all of these goals simultaneously — REACH.
When we reach with our appendages, we create flexion and master the zone of apposition. Reaching with the arms creates thoracic flexion and draws the anterior ribs down. When the ribs come down, we restore the ZOA and allow the diaphragm to return to its resting length. When the diaphragm returns to its resting length, it can serve as a muscle of inspiration, and we can get a full breath that expands the ribcage circumferentially and fills the lungs from top to bottom.
With the thorax repositioned and the diaphragm doing its job, overused accessory musculature like the lats, spinal erectors, and traps — among others — can finally be inhibited (relax), and the deep abdominals can be activated to depress the ribcage and exhale.
A full exhale allows the ribcage to come down and internally rotate, and the diaphragm to return to its resting state, which in turn will promote a more full and optimal inhale.
A full exhale and an inhale that expands the ribcage 360 degrees are critical to creating optimal positioning and scapular stability.
The first step in achieving optimal shoulder movement and health is to flex the thoracic spine and inhale using the diaphragm so that the entire ribcage expands — especially the posterior mediastinum—the posterior aspect of the ribcage.
To achieve all of this, we must reach…
Movement Variability and Why the Bench Press Can Be A Problem
Now that we have established the importance of reaching to offset the constant pulling that most people do every day of their lives, let’s circle back and look at the bench press.
I believe that many coaches have looked at the bench press as a potential cause of shoulder pain and injury from the perspective that we press too much. Overdeveloped pecs and shoulders that are rounded forward have long been cited as the reason why athletes’ shoulders hurt. Pressing and pushing are demonized, and the solution has long been to row and pull more. Some coaches have even suggested a 2:1 pulling-to-pressing ratio to maintain “balance” and keep athletes healthy.
Before demonizing pressing, we have to consider the way the bench press is performed. The shoulder blades are retracted and depressed, and both the lumbar spine and thoracic spine are pulled into extension, (sound familiar?). From a retracted, depressed, and extended state, the load is lowered to the chest, and then pressed back out, without the shoulder blades moving at all.
So what is the real problem with the bench press? It’s not that we’re doing too much pressing, it’s that we’re pressing from a retracted and extended position. As we established above, most people are already stuck in a position of extension, and are unable to establish optimal positioning of the thorax and therefore optimal positioning of the scapula. The bench press continues to feed the extension pattern and asks the arms to move independent of the shoulder blades, which can potentially lead to impingement and overuse injury.
What’s the solution? Introduce more variability to the system through reaching. The systems of the human body like variability.
In order to maintain health, we need the ability to perform an array of movements and move in and out of various positions to utilize musculature properly. Problems arise when we get stuck in patterns and positions that lead to the same muscles performing work over and over again, often taking on jobs that they were never intended to perform.
There is nothing wrong with bench pressing. It’s a great exercise for improving upper body size and strength. It is one of the competitive lifts in the sport of powerlifting, and it is a lift that must be trained to maximize performance at the NFL Combine. The issues associated with the bench press stem from the fact that it feeds further into the pattern that most people are already stuck in, and they are unable to recognize it and get out.
Pulling will not offset the bench press, because bench pressing and pulling both involve scapular retraction. A more effective strategy for introducing movement variability is to program various corrective strategies and accessory movements that focus on thoracic flexion, circumferential ribcage expansion, and reaching.
By introducing variability, we develop position, pattern, and muscular balance to a greater degree. Balance is the key to continuing to remain healthy and train hard.
I can’t emphasize enough that there is nothing wrong with the bench press, and there is nothing wrong with pulling exercises like pull-ups and rows. We utilize them all in various capacities at Parabolic, and have a great deal of success building strength and hypertrophy in athletes of all ages.
However, when it comes to choosing warm-up exercises and assistance work, I think physical preparation coaches need to take a hard look at the patterns and positions they put their athletes in for high volumes of work and under heavy loads.
Corrective and assistant exercises are a tremendous window of opportunity to develop movement variability and expose an athlete to patterns and positions that offset what they usually do. My athletes are consistently deadlifting, bench pressing, rowing, and living in an extended posture where they are pulling air into their bodies and pulling the ground to them as they walk. These athletes don’t need to pull more, they need to reach.
This doesn’t just apply to elite athletes, it applies to everyone — especially individuals who lift or engage in athletic activity on a consistent basis. We are all pullers. To improve shoulder health and overall movement quality, the first step is to reach.
Application of Reaching In Movement Prep/Warm-up
Performing reaching movements and promoting thorax repositioning must begin with properly planned movement prep. I am a firm believer that the pre-training period is a great opportunity to teach kinesthetic awareness, introduce movement variability, and reinforce patterns and positions that inhibit overactive and overused musculature.
Here are some of my favorite movement prep activities to promote thoracic flexion, diaphragmatic breathing, and scapular protraction that we utilize on a daily basis in the pre-training period with our clients.
All Fours Belly Lift
The all fours belly lift is a great activity for creating thoracic flexion, posterior pelvic tilt, and positioning the shoulder blades on a congruent surface. All of these things help to inhibit the extension pattern that is overactive in most people. The key to performing this exercise is to engage the deep abdominal musculature via a full, active exhale as the arms are reaching through the floor to further flex the thorax. Pause for two to three full seconds before inhaling. When inhaling, draw air in through the nose and fill the upper back (posterior mediastinum) with air. Repeat for 2-3 sets of 4-5 breaths.
90/90 With Reach
90/90 is a great position to teach breathing mechanics and ribcage control because in the supine position the floor provides stability and a low-threat environment as well as feedback. Position the feet on a wall with the knees and hips bent to 90 degrees. Exhale fully to draw the ribcage down while simultaneously pulling through the heels to activate the hamstrings and posteriorly tilt the pelvis. Reach the right arm through the ceiling, and then inhale, expanding the ribcage 360 degrees. Exhale fully; until there is no air left in the body, while maintaining posterior pelvic tilt, then pause for two to three seconds before the next inhale. Repeat for 2-3 sets of 4-5 breaths.
All Fours Serratus Med Ball Reach
The all fours serratus med ball reach is a great bang for your buck shoulder health movement that flexes the thorax, posteriorly tilts the pelvis, and activates the serratus anterior through protraction and upward rotation of the scapula. Begin in the quadruped position and exhale fully to draw the ribs down. Inhale and expand the upper back. Push through the floor with one arm while pushing through the medicine ball with the other and once again fully exhale. Round the upper back and posteriorly tilt the pelvis. Continue to push through the med ball and reach overhead, maintaining the flexed position while exhaling fully. If this is executed properly a light stretch should be felt all across the upper back and the serratus anterior should engage. Perform 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps.
Wall Supported Squat With Reach
One of my favorite activities from PRI, the wall supported squat with reach is a great way to learn how to activate the adductors and proximal hamstrings to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. It also puts us into a position where gravity can aid reaching and flexing the thorax. Begin by standing slightly away from the wall and posteriorly tilt the pelvis. Flex the knees and ankles while maintaining posterior pelvic tilt, then lean back into the wall. Reach forward, rounding the upper back while keeping the mid-back in contact with the wall. The hamstrings and glutes should be on fire at this point. Exhale fully to engage the deep abdominal musculature and reach down towards the floor. Do not allow the shoulders to shrug up toward the ears. Perform 2-3 sets of 4-5 breaths.
Taken from Mike Robertson, the bearcat is essentially an all fours belly lift where the knees are lifted from the floor. This exercise will challenge both the anterior core and the ability to maintain thoracic flexion and posterior pelvic tilt. With each exhale attempt to draw the belt buck towards the chin and round the upper back more. On each inhale draw air into the upper back. Repeat for 3-4 sets of 4-5 breaths.
KB Arm Bar
A great exercise for activating the serratus anterior and developing reflexive shoulder stability. There are a number of variations of this exercise to challenge reflexive stability that can be found on Parabolic’s Youtube channel. Perform 2-3 sets of 3-4 reps.
A classic exercise that when performed properly provides a great deal of benefit to anyone. Reflexive shoulder and hip stability, serratus anterior activation, reciprocal patterning, reflexive core stability, etc. the list goes on and on. Reach through the floor and slowly move forward and backward. Perform 3-4 sets of 10 yards forward and 10 yards backward.
Plank to Down Dog
The modified plank to down dog will activate the serratus anterior and teach the individual how to reach through the shoulder blades when going overhead. Be sure to draw the ribs down with a full, forceful exhale and continue to reach through the floor as the hips move up and the torso moves back. Resist the urge to allow the thoracic spine to extend excessively. Perform 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps.
Turkish Get Ups
Earlier this week I came to the realization that if I could only pick one exercise for my movement prep, it would be the Turkish Get Up. Proximal stability, ribcage and pelvic control, reflexive shoulder stability, hip mobility, movement through every developmental position, and a great opportunity to reach…what else could you possibly want? Perform 4-5 sets of 1-2.
Application of Reaching In Strength Training
Now that we have improved thoracic positioning and opened up a proprioceptive window through proper positioning of the scapula on the thorax, its time to train the movements and musculature associated with optimal shoulder movement. Here are some of the best ways we can develop strength and stability under load, and make the motor control and postural changes we made during the warmup stick.
A timeless classic, and the first real exercise that most people perform in their life. Unfortunately it is also performed incorrectly. Keep the belt buckle tucked toward the chin and the ribcage drawn down throughout. Press away from the floor and round the upper back, allowing the shoulder blades to protract fully on each and every repetition. The pushup is a tremendous opportunity to develop strength, muscle mass, and optimize shoulder health when performed properly.
½ Kneeling Landmine Press
The half-kneeling landmine press is a shoulder friendly pressing variation that provides a great opportunity to load a reach without requiring the athlete to possess full overhead capacity. Can be utilized as a great in-between for someone that can’t quite overhead press yet, or can serve as a great way to get a pressing stimulus in its own right. In half-kneeling the landmine press will also challenge reflexive core and hip stability.
KB Rack Carry
One of the most underrated and challenging carry variations we have at our disposal, the kettlebell rack carry will build anterior core strength, ribcage control, and shoulder stability all at the same time. Carries are a great way to develop reflexive stability and posture under load. Reach through the elbows to protract the shoulder blades and keep the ribs drawn down throughout the carry.
½ Kneeling KB Press
My favorite way to integrate reaching into a strength program, the kettlebell press will build unilateral pressing strength while developing reflexive core and hip stability, especially when performed in the half-kneeling position.
½ Kneeling Chops and Lifts
An excellent opportunity to promote full scapular protraction and upward rotation while developing reflexive core and hip stability and integrating PNF patterning.
KB Overhead Carry
Another carry variation we like to utilize with to develop stability and endurance overhead while forcing the individual to own their midline and posture under load.
I want to thank coach Mike Cusmano for staying late and helping to film these videos even though he wanted to jump into oncoming traffic at that point.