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Advanced Core Stability: One Arm RKC Plank

I love the RKC plank ever since learning about it several months ago from my friend Bret Contreras. It's simple to teach, difficult to perform and satisfying in the feel of whole body muscular activation you get with it.  It's one of the only "floor" exercises that gives you the sensation of intense whole body contraction similar to gymnastics open chan movements such as the planche.  As opposed to a regular plank, where whole body tension is often times not very significant and can be held for prolonged periods, an RKC plank relies on developing large amounts of whole body tension and susequent  neuromuscular "irridation", where the whole muscular system becomes a tightly wound spring.

 

 

Credit obvilously goes to Pavel Tatsouline for the genesis of this exercise, which takes a traditional plank and adds "muscle" to it via increased lattissimus, quadriceps, and gluteal contraction.  By doing this, the abdominals are forced to contract more intensly than in a standard plank, with the net effect of increased dynamic stiffness and "pillar stability" around the lumbar spine.  I believe the magic in a properly performed RKC plank is in it's "anti lumbar extension function"- where the force couple of the quadriceps, abdominals and gluteals, along with added isometric tensioning of the latissimus/thoracolumbar fascia really lock down the lumbar spine in an appropriate fashion.  Creating dynamic stiffness and strength in this position transfers nicely to activities on two feet in strength or regular sport.

As I was progressing myself as well as my clients and teams through this exercise, I thought of how I could make a hard exercise even harder.  Not just for the sake of making it harder arbitrarily, but to add another musculoskeletal and performance challenge to the activity; in this case to resist lumbopelvic and trunk rotation.

 

Enter The One Arm RKC Plank

The One Arm RKC plank is a great progression for an already tough exercise.  By removing the support of an arm, you now require your stabilizing musculature of the trunk (internal/external obliques, quadratus lumborum) to work extremely hard to resist falling into rotation.  The natural inclination is to elevate the pelvis to counter the trunk rotation; this is what we are trying to avoid.

Additionally, you will notice a significant overflow of muscular activity of your triceps, as your forearm and fist is the only upper extremity contact with the ground at this point.  In addition, the latissimus fires extremely hard, leading to "tenting" of the thoracolumbar fascia, which further lends to additional lumbar stabilization.

You will find that the quadriceps, gluteals and abdoninals contract even harder than in a traditional RKC plank as a result of the induced instability. This is involuntarily if performed correctly, and another example of "self limiting" exercise. 

 

Setting Up

The one arm RKC plank is performed by first setting up into a traditional two arm plank, then contracting the quadriceps as well as the glutes (into posterior pelvic tilt), which leads to increased abdominal contraction.  When these muscles are set, then "pull" your elbows to your feet isometrically while at the same time isometrically "pull" your toes (your foot contact in the plank position) toward your elbows.  What you will feel is a boatload of whole body tension that we will use to our advantage soon.

Now, while continuing to hold the tension, slowly and deliberately remove one of your forearms from the floor placing your hand palm up in the "small" of your back.This requires an even further intense contraction of the support arm, and can be facilitated by pushing your support elbow and fist into the floor. Intent is everything here-push hard! 

At the same time, you will feel gravity trying to pull your pelvis down on the unsupported side.  This is normal and expected.  To counter this, focus on bracing  your quadriceps and gluteals even tighter on the unsupported side, as well as focusing on keeping a neutral spine position and not allowing your hips to "pike".  At this point, the intensity of whole body muscular contraction increases even further as you fight to keep your trunk and hips parallel to the ground.  This is the crux of the exercise:  Whole body tension from the supporting forearm through the toes, while working hard to keep your pelvis and trunk level.

The video below outlines what you should be striving for in the performance of this exercise:

 

 

 Here is an alternate view of the transverse plane from "top down", again avoiding pelvic and /or trunk hiking:

 

 

Program Placement, Sets and Time

This exercise can be flexible in terms of program placement.  It fits nicely in a warm up/ movement prep, between sets of your main exercises, or at the end of a session.  I have utilized it as a facilatory activity with sprinting and plyometrics, sandwiching a set or two between repetitions as a "potentiation" primer. 

In terms of sets, 4 to 8 sets, lasting from 6-15 seconds/set is a good place to start.  Obviously, you will do an equal number of repetitions on each side, although you will more than likely have a more dominant side with better perfoormance, so adjust set times accordingly.  At least 1-2 minutes rest between repetitions should be taken; more rest may be needed if technical performance suffers.  Of course, technical failure is the end point for this exercise; learning to judge this is important as well. 

 



Sucessful Group Coaching: Squat Edition

Many of you know that  I recently started as the strength coach for a pretty good football team here in Pennsylvania.  The group is fantastic; they show up consistently, do what is asked by me, ask really good  questions, and make great progress every week.   

Last week during training, I had one of those moments, where I noticed over 90% of the athletes doing things correctly, several of whom I've never even spent face to face time with. With a group that fluctuates between 45 and 60 per day (depending on their winter/spring sports schedules) in a smaller than average facility (where we perform power cleans in the hallway), you just cannot train every athlete individually.  The athletes train in groups of four, which rotates every 6-8 weeks.  Upperclassmen are grouped with underclassmen, as well as novices with advanced. This is the major difference between being a strength coach and a personal trainer-a true strength coach has to be extremely resourceful in handling a large group of athletes often in environments that are less than optimal.

One of the bigger challenges with regard to this is achieving technical excellence throughout the group in our most important lifts. Since beginning over six weeks ago, I have been hammering home the message of proper technique first, then loading the barbell appropriately, as long as proper technique is maintained.  The squat is the keystone lift that can show just about any bystander if your kids are indeed doing things correctly.  If you squat well, obviously you have great hip mobility and strength, a stable and powerful torso, and the  ability to make great gains in overall muscle size and strength.  I think watching your athletes squat shows both you and the outside world two things.

1)  You have a reasonable grasp of how to coach movement correctly.

2)  Your athletes actually listen to you and buy into what you are saying.

 

A good squat is like a good golf swing– the movement remains consistent over time, with the "number on the iron" the only variable  for both

 

What I saw during one of our sessions last week really cemented the point that my kids had bought into what I had been preaching.  I saw a 90% compliance rate with proper squatting technique among all the athletes there that Friday.  Proper bar position, elbows "up", a tight arch/lordships and awesome depth across the board.  Many of these athletes I had never coached "one on one"; again with such large numbers, it just isn't always going to happen.  However, what they did do was:

1)  Listen to me with full attention when I did group instruction on the finer points of squatting.

2)  Model technique from other athletes who had squatted correctly within their groups.

3)  Take feedback from others in their group.

4)  Give feedback to others-even if they are a much stronger and larger upperclassman.

3)  Continue to strive for technical excellence throughout.

I was really blown away-my goal for these kids was 90% compliance by the end of April, and we had achieved it at the end of February!  Overall, I give the group a grade of A- at this point on this lift. 

 

Below are two of my athletes who did a really nice job squatting-one a beginner, and one a bit more advanced:

Example 1:  A High School Freshman New to Squatting 

This athlete never squatted before we began training in late January.  He weighs about 140 lb.  Here is is using 225 lb. for a double:

 

Yes, it's not the most weight in the world, but keep in mind he hasn't really done this before January.   Everything is being done correctly-elbows up, tight arch, knees out and great depth.  You can't ask for more-a kid who attends regularly, pays attention to detail and gets it done.  The crazy thing here is that I had never spent direct time with this athlete before I filmed this!  He listened to my instructions to the whole group as well as my cues to other athletes, worked hard with the athletes in his group (spotting, cueing, and lifting while receiving feedback from his group), as well as observing others doing it right.  My job just got  much easier as a result! 

As I said before, most of of our kids are now squatting with good mechanics, so modeling of appropriate technique is easy-just look to the racks on your left and right and you will more than likely see someone else doing things right.

 

Example 2:  A Sophomore With Some Prior  "Under the Bar" Experience

Here is a sophomore athlete who had squatted before, and as you can see has some pretty good potential for moving some serious weight.  I did spend time with him coaching trunk stability, as this was not great a few weeks ago, as well as his ability to "sit back".  Here is the result: 

 

 

Great depth, good arch maintenance and a nice "pop" at the top. Again, this type of form and power comes from listening to instruction, buying into philosophy (good form vs. just more weight), taking feedback from his group, they applying effort.

There are obviously many more success stories in the Wood weight room, but I think you get the idea from what is seen here.   

Wrapping Up

Successful large group coaching comes down to a few key factors including listening, modeling, feedback and (obviously) hard work.  Once these are implemented, programming becomes that much easier to implement, gains are made, and coaches (as well as athletes) are happier.  The squat is an "acid test" lift where things just can't be faked; if your athletes can squat, then I bet everything else is probably just fine in your overall program as well as with your coaching.



Band Assisted One Arm Pushups: A Better Alternative

Filed under: Bodyweight Training,Exercise Instruction,Exercise Technique,Strength Training — Shon @ 5:22 pm February 22, 2012

An often heard knock on the push up is that it is hard to load externally, once proper form and performance have been dialed in.  Weighted vests, plates and (always popular) chains are options to add load and muscular challenge to this awesome staple exercise, but at some point most people won't be comfortable with 150 lb or more. of plates piled on their back.  

This guy is obviously not "most people"!

 

While the traditional one arm push up has been expoused as an option to add challenge and resistance, I usually find that the trainees who best tolerate and succeed with this variation have a pretty straightforward mesomorphic somatotype; more of a "wrestler/gymnast" physique versus a taller, leaner individual who has a generally harder time controlling their longer levers. 

 

One arm push ups are probably out for our friend on the right. 

 

I also don't prefer the one arm variation because it really takes a person out of the position that makes a traditional push up such a great exercise.  To clarify further, let's break it down segment to segment:

Feet to Hips

Two arm push up:  Feet hip width or shades of hip width. 

One arm push up:  Feet wide apart, which also abducts the hips and encourages increased lumbar lordosis (sometimes subtly, and sometimes not so subtle)

 

Trunk to Shoulders

Two arm push up:  Trunk moves in a "straight plane" throughout the repetition; concentration is on maintaining a tight core/ abdominal brace and avoiding the lumbar "sag". 

One arm push up:  Trunk rotation occurs naturally, and must be coordinated with shoulder rotation, you must be able to control both throughout the repetition.  If you have a weak link in the chain, technique can quickly disintegrate.  

 

Shoulders to Floor

Two arm push up:  Upper arm 45 degrees or so from the trunk, a balance of triceps, pectoral and anterior deltoid activity,  and ample scapular mobility.

One Arm push up:  Upper arm essentially parallel to the trunk, with the triceps contributing more so, as elbow extension is primarily driving the torso away from the floor and the glenohumeral joint trends toward a rounded shoulder position within the repetition.  As such, scapular mobility is definitely not optimized, and  may actually may be impaired-something we really want to avoid. 

 

Rocky is grimacing because his rotator cuff is fighting him harder than Apollo Creed!

 

A Better Way

Over the past few weeks, I have been looking for a way to safely load a push up for a group of already strong high school football players. As stated above, too many  45 lb. plates stacked on the trunk of a 16 year old is a recipe for disaster, while the "Rocky" style push up would land 75% of the team in the training room.  From this problem, a solution arose:  The Band Assisted One Arm Push Up. 

 

 

 

This variation of  the one arm push up trumps a traditional one arm push ups on many fronts.  First and most important, the overall body position is the same as in a regular two arm push up, meaning the ability to maintain hip width positioning, an efficient abdominal brace/ core, as well as a safe, appropriate scapulohumeral (shoulder blade to upper arm) position.  Your shoulder will behave here as it does in a regular two hand push up, with the only difference being the increased demand using one arm vs. two.  

Second, because trunk position is so stable in this variation, plate loading across the trunk can be done.  However we needing far less load for an appropriate training stimulus because of  the fact that we are using only one arm.  This adds both safety and resistance to an already challenging exercise. The need for multiple plates is minimized, save for the total freaks. 

Third, progression is as simple as changing band tensions and/or the height you hang the band from as your needs dictate. 

 Here is more of a bird's eye angled view to appreciate how similar to a regular push up this actually is:

 

 

 

Technique

First, loop a mini band from a height between 45-85 inches off the ground;   A power rack works great here (and it's a tough enough exercise that no one will complain that you aren't using the rack for squatting); I am using an old fashioned set of parallel bars, which serves the same purpose.  Place your "free" arm through the loop; the closer the distance the band is to your shoulder, the easier the repetition will be, as leverage is decreased. Optimally, the band should meet  at the wrist.  The shoulder should be in neutral rotation ("palm down") or slight external rotation ("thumb up").  The arm is either perpendicular to the trunk or slightly higher  (My choice in general).

Get used to the feel of the band supporting your arm and make sure that the band tension is such that your arm drops with your trunk naturally through the repetition.  This can be figured out quickly.  Set your support hand in a cambered position, then proceed as a normal two hand push up through your selected repetition range.      

Sets, Reps and Program Design

I prefer to stay in the 5 set/ 4-5 repetition per set range myself for this exercise, but higher reps are certainly an option.  This can be used as the main horizontal push option for a given day in a lower rep/ higher set fashion, or in a moderate to higher rep scheme as a supplementary exercise.  Program placement is where ever you are comfortable; I have found that it pairs nicely with RKC planks and other core work.  A frequency of one to two days weekly is a good place to start.

Progression

Experiment with any mini band tension that allows the free arm to travel with the trunk through the repetition.  This is important, as too heavy a band will "drag" your free arm and cause unwanted trunk rotation and a general loss of flow as mentioned above.  You can progress by either adding load through a weighted vest or plates.  The great thing here is that "a little goes a long way" when using plates in a one arm option.  Below I am using a 10 kg. plate for a set.  With a regular push up, I can easily get 30-35 repetitions; here I am good for about 3 reps (and I am trying to move as fast as possible!):

 

   

 

In Summary 

This one arm push up variation makes great sense on multiple levels, plus it achieves the goal of of intense unilateral loading and the strength gains that come with it.  Unless your last name is Balboa, you should infinitely prefer this exercise over the oft butchered "Rocky" push up.

 

 



Exercise of the Week: Advanced Abdominal Brace

A long time favorite in my clinic, this "anti extension" exercise fits the bill for  aggressive abdominal co-contraction, lumbosacral stabilization, and whole body frontal plane stabilization.  It is also a "self limiting exercise", defined by Alwyn Cosgrove and Gray Cook as one that "requires engangement and mindfulness, and provides an automatic yet natural obstacle that prevents you from doing it wrong, or doing an excessive volume".  In this case, the "obstacle" is the neutral spine position itself- you can either sense and hold the correct position or not.  When you lose the position, it becomes very apparent, as it is easy to sense this quickly.  I refer to this feeling as "fatigue extension" and I have never had a patient or trainee not understand how this is sensed.  

Below, I outline two progressions, using an adjustable 45 degree back raise for both.  Equally as useful for the advanced progression is a GHR machine or Roman chair. 

 

PROGRESSION ONE

The first progression here is at 45 degrees.  This allows a shorter lever arm for the trunk musculature to deal with initially, as this exercise is harder than it looks. 

The key to set up is ensuring that appropriate neutral spine is achieved by guiding the trunk position at first using the arms. This is important at first, as a person with weaker abdominals may end up in too much of a lordosis to start.  Once you have the strength and motor control to understand the position, arm guidance isn't as imperative. 

Another important technique note includes appropriate neck positioning.  You can use the "neck pack" position, or just imagine a tennis ball sitting between your sternum and chin (the way I learned it ~20 or so years ago from Beverly Biondi).  This way, you also get great deep neck flexor activity, which in turn helps reflexively reinforce the abdominal activity (which is why you're here in the first place!). 

 

 

 You can also see that the lower quarter is pretty active as well.  This is important, as your shins, and or feet (as we will see below) are the anchor point for the whole technique, and vital if you want the pelvis to stabilize neutrally from "bottom up" (which, obviously, you do). 

When used in a strength and conditioning program, I start with 10 to 15 seconds per set, with 45 seconds to 1 minute of rest between sets.  5 to 10 sets per session are performed.  We progress up to 30 seconds per set before going "arms overhead", and then start back with decreased rep times (10-15 seconds) until 30 seconds can be maintained  for multiple sets.  Dumbells can be added after this, again decreasing time under tension at first, until good lumbopelvic control can be maintained and progressed. You can also choose to perform this activity between sets of your main strength exercises, as it shouldn't interfere with technical performance of your main lifts.

When we use this clinically for our lumbar spine patients, it is always later in their overall program, usually a minimum of 4-6 weeks after treatment has started.  Symptom control, hip and lower quarter mobility, and good understanding of basic abdominal bracing progressions are needed before moving to such an advanced activity.  Sets and reps can be progressed as outlined above.  The lumbar spine patient population is generally good with the first progression, and does not need to move on to the next progression unless their sport or activity level demands it.  

 

PROGRESSION TWO

Here, we are using a "parallel to the ground" position, increasing the lever arm that the abdominals have to deal with in resisting extension.

 

 

 

 Again, I utilize my arms to set up the "neutral spine" position, both entering and exiting the set.  This is even more important in the second progression, as the abdominals have to work ridiculously hard to maintain a neutral position due to the leverage demands.

Other things to consider with this progression:

1)  Set the glutes by squeezing your butt as well as isometrically externally rotating your hips.  Again, this provides a firmer pelvic foundation for the abdominals to work off of.

2)  Notice that my instep is the base of support for my feet vs. the shins.  This is a subtle way to increase the lever arm, making the exercise more challenging.

3)  Arms overhead should be used ONLY after a good, solid repetition can be held for 10-15 seconds over 5-10 sets.  This goes for dumbells in the hands as well.

4)  The set terminates when the lumbar spine falls into fatigue extension.  Trust me when I say this is easy to figure out when this occurs. 

5)  Remember to use your arms to "rescue" yourself from the, as "sitting up" is nasty for lumbar spine shear forces.

 

 



Farmer’s Walk Forerunners

Filed under: Exercise Instruction,Exercise Technique,Random,Strength Training,Uncategorized — Shon @ 1:08 pm December 12, 2011

First, thanks to everyone on the positive feedback related to my first published T-nation article, "Quantifying the Farmer's Walk".  Again, the purpose of the article was to give some options that challenge core stability in a more biomechanically friendly way during everyday training.  It was obviously not meant to supplant the traditional Farmer's Walk as a test of strength endurance, but to serve as a way to challenge frontal/saggital plane stability while moving through space. 

I don't write about or espouse the virtues of an exercise, drill or physical therapy intervention unless I have used it myself, and the variations I covered have been implemented with patients, training clients and athletes very successfully.  I'm no historian when it comes to the Farmer's Walk, but I am approaching 30 years as a traditional karateka; Farmer's Walk variations (with large ceramic pots known as "Nigiri Game") have been used for a long time in traditional Okinawan karate systems such as Uechi Ryu and Goju Ryu as Gushi sensei demonstrates below: 

 

Shinyu Gushi going old school with Nigiri Game.  I think I'll pass on fighting him…

Actually Nigiri Game is only a small part of Okinawan karate's "Hojo Undo", or supplementary exercises.  Hojo Undo is basically the Okinawan equivalent of GPP and/or SPP, utilizing paddocks, clay jars, and even rudimentary dumbbells and barbells integrated with traditional stance work and whole body isometrics, such as seen in "Sanchin" kata. 

Hojo Undo implements in good working order at the Higaonna Dojo.   

Getting it done with the Chi-Shi

I have read several interviews with Mr. Gushi (pictured above) and he states he never trained with weights.  Now, we know physiologically and biomechanically that there is massive co-contraction, irradiation, overload and strength being built in the carry performed above, but I don't think I would really get into a debate  with sensei whether or not we were "weight training" with such implements.  Here is a more recent picture that I stumbled upon of Gushi sensei in his late 60's:

 

 

 

Contemplating Age 70 While Simultaneously Opening Up a Can of Whoop Ass!

 

I think a steady diet of what he is doing is better than 90% of what is being done most other gyms.  I also think he probably doesn't have any problems with frontal plane stability, hip mobility or poor glute function.  My guess is that his mid and low traps are well developed, and I bet he never did a proper "YTWL" in his life. 

Again, it goes to show that a mix of basic, biomechanically correct, physiologically taxing training  can bring up just about any weak point that a person has, and that what is perceived as new isn't actually so new.