Ivan Abadjiev, the great Bulgarian weightlifting coach made the world take notice when his team started dominating Olympic contests and international meets during the prime of his coaching career. What was the secret to his success? Increasing the annual training volume of the contest lifts with his athletes in training. The Bulgarian training regime for weightlifters is legendary. Multiple sessions per day, six days per week with athletes working up to daily maxes in all their big lifts. The relatively small country of Bulgaria was outpacing the Soviet Union, which had a much larger population and the most advanced training based science on the planet at that time. Abadjiev demonstrated with clarity and certainty that attacking specificity with a volume based approach was the most dominant methodology for developing weightlifters.
There are many potential downsides to increasing volume, particularly when specificity is the only training means utilized. Many people will experience overuse injuries, become burned out psychologically, and demonstrate the classical signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome. For the past few summer Olympic years, collegiate athletic training rooms were inundated with swimmers coming in with overuse shoulder injuries. Why? Because Michael Phelps’ training regime would always be publicized, and collegiate swimmers would attempt to replicate the swimming volume that Phelps would accumulate in his training phases. Michael Phelps is able to handle the Michael Phelps training plan because he is Michael Phelps. He is anatomically well suited for swimming, his biomechanics are as on point as possible, and genetically he had a situation where he was able to buffer hydrogen with his energy systems better than almost any other human being on the planet. The greatest in the world are outliers, and the rest of us probably shouldn’t attempt to try to copy everything that they do. The great ones won the genetic lottery. Their bony attachments are ideal for their sporting choice, and generally speaking their technical mastery is sounder than everyone else’s.
So should we all give up hope and jump in the excuse heap? Absolutely not. If your sport biomechanics are really clean, you can handle larger training volumes compared with athletes who demonstrate suboptimal movement strategies. When speaking of overhead lifts, we as coaches and athletes need to analyze the anatomical considerations that are involved with the movement and maximize the strategies that will provide the most optimal biomechanics possible. Saying that any one particular bony region is the most critical segment of the body for an action is impossible.
(Editor’s note – The following section is very heavy in anatomy out of necessity. There is a series of videos demonstrating the techniques discussed below at the end of the post)
The positioning of one bony landmark is highly dependent upon its relative orientation to adjacent and even far off segments. That being said, scapular positioning and stability is of critical importance when discussing overhead lifts. In the competitive lifting and performance coaching communities, it is fairly well accepted that maximizing stability of the scapula is of critical importance. We focus on the local stabilizer muscles of the scapula, such as the lower trapezius and serratus anterior. We study the kinesiology text books that discuss the exact joint motions associated with what happens when either the insertion or the origin of one of these muscles fires. We then perform many repetitions of corrective exercises, such as wall slides and push-up plus to pick up the performance of these muscles. The problem with simply attacking these muscles with many of the exercise choices is that we fail to consider that air pressure driving out into the scapula from the regions of the lung that are adjacent to the posterior ribs that border the scapula is the mechanism of creating reflexive firing of the local stabilizing muscles. To see the way that traditional interventions have failed strength and power athletes, and approaches aimed at treating more proximal matters involving respiration and authentic stabilization mechanisms, here’s a great example.
Let me try to explain the way in which air pressure stabilizes the scapula first, and then I’ll get into the critical zone of the lungs that must experience filling in order to pull off reflexive scapular stabilization. Many of us have seen someone squat who demonstrate knee valgus during the execution of the movement. What do we do to correct this? Put a band around their knees. The band would create a pull force that would be trying to cave the athlete’s knees into the valgus position. When the band tries to force the athlete into valgus, the athlete reflexively pushes the knees out by recruiting the femoral abductor muscles. This strategy was developed by Gray Cook and is part of something that he calls, Reflexive Neuromuscular Training (RNT). If you push someone in a direction, they reflexively push back on you. The phenomenon that I am describing here is an RNT-style concept. The only difference is that in the case of stabilizing the scapula with air pressure, we are doing it from the inside out. The scapula sits on the posterior rib cage. If the posterior rib cage is positioned so that it is caving in, away from the scapula, the ribs aren’t pushing out on the scapula, so the scapula doesn’t push back via reflexive local stabilizer firing. This dysfunctional phenomenon is something that typically is displayed to a greater extent on the right side of the body more than the left, and it is due to the fact that the left diaphragm is not as well suited to the respiratory function as compared to the right diaphragm. The left diaphragm has a greater role in filling the right lung compared to the right diaphragm. If you read an anatomy text, such as Clinically Oriented Anatomy by Moore and Dalley (2006), you will see that the left diaphragm has a smaller central tendon, and anatomically it is a smaller muscle as compared to the right. Compounding this is the fact that the right diaphragm has a liver to sit on top of, which provides an excellent stabilization anchor from which to work on, and it positions the dome of the right diaphragm higher than the left. The left diaphragm is sitting in an empty visceral cavity with no large internal organ to serve as its anatomical anchor. So the right lung tends not to fill as well in the posterior compartments compared to the left, the right posterior ribs tend not to push backwards on the scapula to the same degree as the left, the right scapula tends to possess lower stabilization properties because it doesn’t have anything to push back on, and we end up with more nagging injuries (along with way more right upper trap trigger points) with the right shoulder compared to the left. For more information on these topics, please see the following links:
The region of the lungs that is found in the posterior mediastinum is the critical area that must experience inflation if we are going to be able to stabilize the scapula maximally. Filling the alveoli of the posterior mediastinum with gas and creating air pressure in this region is not a straight-forward thing to accomplish. If your pelvis is positioned in an anteriorly tilted manner, filling the posterior mediastinum is not going to happen. If the scapula are stuck in a position of excessive retraction or downward rotation, you are not going to fill the posterior mediastinum. If you are exhibiting a flattened thoracic spine, particularly one which does not feature flexion at the thoracolumbar junction, you are not going to be able to fill the posterior mediastinum. If you are stuck in forward head posture…you guessed it, no posterior mediastinum filling. If your left abdominal side wall is too long and you have a rib flare on the left side, no filling.
So what are some methods that we can utilize as lifters to try to fill the posterior mediastinum with air to provide stability for the scapula and the ability to perform more overhead lifts in training? Here is a quick list that I’ll do my best to describe without writing an article in length that gives War and Peace a run for its money.
1. Find the lateral part of the back of your heel and stand on that spot.
2. Press your big toe down into the ground to anchor your feet so that you don’t fall backwards.
3. Find the ischial tuberosity of your pelvis (this is about where the back pockets of your jeans would be). Pull the ischial tuberosity in an inferior direction.
4. Maintaining the downward direction of the ischial tuberosity, stand up nice and tall by pushing through the heels with the big toe providing an anchor for the foot.
5. Exhale air out of your mouth as if blowing up a balloon. This should cause your ribs to move inferiorly towards the hips. This should also cause the anterior superior iliac spine of the hip to move superiorly…essentially closing the gap between your hips and ribs in the front. In addition to this sagittal plane movement of the ribs, see if you can make your ribs move towards the anterior midline in the transverse plane with your exhale…swallow your ribs with your sternum and umbilicus.
6. If you are holding the bar in a racked position on the anterior shoulders, think about reaching your elbows forward and “feeding” the bar into your throat with your hands. This movement should create additional thoracic spine flexion.
7. Keep your molars touching each other in your mouth. A mouthpiece is an excellent tool to use if you are unable to create molar to molar contact, or if you are weary of grinding your teeth during a high force production maneuver.
8. Look up with your eyes.
9. In this position, if you inhale following a full or fairly full exhale, you have the potential to, “breathe into your spine”. See if you can get the inhale to go directly into your back without seeing a shoulder shrug movement. If you can create posterior translation of the rib cage with the inhale and you feel your thoracolumbar junction expand (and possibly get hot), and the space between your scapula spread, congratulations, you just filled the lung zones in the posterior mediastinum, and you have truly stabilized the scapula. As an addendum to this list, on the inhale, it is a good idea to put the tongue on the roof of the mouth, seal the lips, and inhale only through the nose.
The coaching cues presented in the list in the preceding paragraph were aimed at providing you with a pelvis that is neutral in the sagittal plane, a femur that is able to extend without compensatory lumbar spine lordosis, a thoracolumbar junction that exists in a position of flexion, an abdominal activation strategy that provides opposition to the diaphragms in order to allow the diaphragms to the be the primary muscles of inspiration, an ability to fill the posterior mediastinum with gas, an ability to create appropriate levels of abduction for the scapula driven by activation of the serratus anterior…which leads to a biomechanical force couple with the upper trapezius for upward rotation of the scapula, the optimal positioning of the glenoid for humeral flexion/abduction, and the downstream positioning requirements to prevent frontal plane and transverse plane compensatory strategies of the wrist and metacarpal bones. Remember that the objective of this article was to provide you with the best strategy to be able to increase training volume, and that the fundamental premise here is that cleaner biomechanics leads to the ability to increase training volume without developing overuse injuries.
In the modern day of competitive lifting and force production based sports, athletes are putting up numbers that would have seemed impossible a few decades ago. If you want to be competitive on the big stage, you have to train heavier and harder and longer than seems possible. If you’re going to be able to train this way you have to be smart. All of the variables that go into the training paradigm matter. In my opinion, the best in the world perform their sporting movements better than anyone else. Many of these people do this naturally, so they can train with more volume and not get hurt. For us mere mortals, we get hurt when we try to copy the best. So if you’ve been continually trying to push the training envelope to be able to compete with the best and you just keep getting hurt, you need to correct for your suboptimal biomechanics. The only way you can do this is to truly appreciate functional anatomy and to apply it to your training methodology.
Check out this video series to see these tips in action:
Pat Davidson is the Director of Training Methodology at Peak Performance in New York City. Pat has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and is a competitive strongman in the 175 pound class who has finished in the top 10 at the North American Strongman (NAS) National Championships and has competed for the Amateur World Championships at the Arnold Classic both of the last two years. Pat has coached many strongman athletes, including multiple NAS National Champions in the 2014 calendar year. Pat bases his training methodology on his interpretation of block program design, and he relies on information from the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) to guide him in his understanding of biomechanics and the strategies he utilizes to keep athletes feeling healthy and happy. You can contact Pat at [email protected], or give him a call/shoot him a text at (508) 685-8455. Pat loves to talk shop, so don’t be afraid to contact him.