Coach Caleb’s Corner
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What’s Best in Life?
My fellow nerds of a certain generation will likely remember the classic Conan the Barbarian film, starring a very “swole up” young Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the famous scene where Conan is asked what he considers to be the “best in life.” If you don’t know the line, I won’t spoil it here, just google “Conan, what’s best in life.” In a similar vein, if someone were to ask, “Caleb, what is best in life?” depending on my mood I might answer; “To safely get heavy poundage overhead, to hold it there long enough to demonstrate complete control over it and then to return it to the earth in a dignified and gentlemanly fashion.” As promised in our previous Coach’s Corner installment, we’re here to briefly discuss the topic of thoracic mobility and positioning. As this can be a fairly broad and involved topic with the risk of getting all clinical and such, we’ll keep it simple and just focus on the relationship between thoracic mobility and scapular stability; specifically in the context of lifting heavy things overhead… because it’s what’s best in life.
An important prerequisite for getting heavy things overhead is building adequate scapular (shoulder blade) stability. Since there is no bony articulation between the scapula and thorax, the joint has tremendous mobility in many directions. The lack of this type of articulation makes the glenohumeral joint (shoulder socket) quite dependent on this movement for dynamic stability. In fact, the scapula is held in close to the thorax thanks to a crafty suction mechanism facilitated by the supscapularis and serratus anterior muscles, that also allows it to glide during movements of the joint. Ergo, drills that promote scapular stability will increase the confidence and skill in safely executing overhead lifts and hopefully keep the shoulders off the operating table. However, without adequate thoracic mobility or correct positioning of the thoracic spine, scapular stabilization for overhead lifting isn’t even possible! Yup. That’s right, we can do all sorts of hard work on strengthening and improving the dynamic skills of those stabilizer muscles, but if the T-Spine can’t get into the right position to execute the lift, then none of that hard work does us any good. To address both the two-pronged issue of mobility and stability, we present here a two-fer; one drill to address thoracic mobility and one to work on scapular stability.
Just to give a practical example of what we’re getting at with this T-Spine mobility stuff, here’s an example of what we mean. If one’s default posture is overly kyphotic, with an excessive curvature of the spine like this…
…then when the arm is raised overhead, we see this:
This posture does not present the safest angle for myshoulder to hold something heavy overhead, obviously. In such a position, I can’t get much help from my scapular stabilizers or even the structure of my skeleton to hold the weight! It’s just hanging off the already overworked shoulder joint. This posture is fairly common these days and is often referred to as “the computer guy” posture. If we spend the day hunched over a keyboard, our bodies get better at staying hunched over the keyboard and forget what’s best in life! So, to work on undoing this posture, enter the “Side Lying Rib Pull.”
First, off, if you’ve got a back condition that prohibits safe twisting motions (or you even think you do) then this isn’t the exercise for you, unfortunately. The rest of this discussion must remain purely academic. If you’re cleared for twists, though, enjoy! To execute this drill, lay on your side with your top-side knee pinned to the ground at 90 degrees, or resting on a wee pillow or yoga block (if you need an easier version). Now, grab a handful of ribs with your top-side arm and gently pull your upper body in the opposite direction; as if you’re trying to get your shoulders flat on the mat. While it’s fun to twist a lot and let your knee come up off the ground, twisting that far gets into the lumber spine instead of hitting our target; the thoracic spine.
Now for the scapular stability. To execute this little gem, you’ll need a light weight and preferably a training partner. The weight should be a kettlebell. The offset center of mass of the kettlebell makes it the ideal choice for this drill, although you can get the idea a bit even with a dumbbell. Begin lying on your back with the weight pressed straight up (aka a floor press) with one arm. Now extend your other arm overhead and roll onto your side in much the same position as for the Side Lying Rib Pull described above.
Keeping the loaded arm strictly vertical, straighten your top-side leg a bit while you extend your hip toward the ground. Having a partner spot you on this can be really helpful as they can guide the arm back to vertical if you let it drift. The relationship between this drill and the rib pull is quite pleasing. Just as the rib pull locked up the lower body position and mobilized the T-Spine, this drill locks up the upper body with a scapular stability challenge (holding the weight at vertical) while mobilizing the lower body with some hip extension. Proprioception is practiced as well by stabilizing the weight without being able to look at it. All in all, this drill is a bit tricky, but the benefits are as close to magical as you can get!
If you’d like some coaching to help with these drills or to get your thoracic spine mobile for everything from comfortably raising a glass in a toast at your next formal event, to lifting a child or grandchild up high enough to get them giggling, please don’t hesitate to stop by and see us at Breakthrough! As I said, lifting stuff over head can feel like a taste of what’s best in life.