Shoulder Flexibility Testing – Part 1

by Al Myers

Tim Piper performing a Kelly Snatch. This is an All Round Lift that requires great shoulder flexibility.

FLEXIBILITY – now that’s a word not often used in a weightlifters vocabulary.  All of my life I have had this believe when it came to flexibility – “a little is good, but alot is a bad thing in regards to strength”.  Now I know there are personal trainers out there who would wholeheartly disagree with me on this statement, but let me explain myself first.  A big part of being strong (for max efforts lifts that is) is to “be tight” in the bottom position, or starting position,  of a lift.  Take the deadlift for example.  As you descend to the bar, you want to feel like a spring where maximum compression occurs at the bottom starting position, and takes maximum flexibility to reach this point.  Any flexibility beyond this does you no good, and probably is limiting your ability to “explode” from the bottom position.  I have done training programs in the past where I trained standing on platforms to increase the range of motion on my deadlifts.  I got stronger in those motions, and probably increase my deadlift flexibility,  but guess what, my max deadlift off the floor did not increase!  In fact, I felt “too loose” (and uncomfortable) in the bottom of a floor deadlift afterwards.

But I’m getting off topic here. Todays story is about shoulder flexibility. As I’ve got older I have noticed that the normal flexibility that I have taken for granted in the past is leaving me.  My main problem area is with my shoulders.  Too many years of bench pressing and front shoulder work is probably the culprit.  I have the problem which I’m going to call the “tight shoulder syndrome”.   I know many weightlifters have this same problem, especially as they become master lifters. Now the “tide has shifted”, and instead of decreased flexibility being your ally in increased strength, it has become your nemesis by limiting your range of motion in lifts that require more flexibility to complete them pain free.

Last weekend at the meet in Minneapolis I was asking David Dellanave about why his club was named The Movement. David explained to me that the reason for this was that they emphasize movements (or exercises) that increase functionality.  Every exercise should have a beneficial component to increase the bodies ability to MOVE.  He demonstrated this by doing a straight legged toe touch, and then after doing some stiff legged deadlifts, was able to show an increase in stretch in the toe touch AFTER the stiff legged deadlifts. That makes sense to me!  I have been choosing exercises all my life that do the complete opposite!! The time has come that I need to start doing some exercises that will “shift the tide” back in my favor in regards to flexibility.  I have decided to start this “experiment” with my shoulders as that is my biggest problem area.

One of my problems is that when I’m in the gym I have to have a specific goal in mind to motivate my training.  Whether that be a meet coming up or a specific “challenge implement” in mind, I need that for my motivation.  I have always done some stretching in the past, but often don’t focus on it like I should as there is no way of measuring my progress (or so I thought).   I have done some internet research on shoulder flexibility and have come up with three Shoulder Flexibility Tests (2 very standard ones, and one original that I think is an important one for all rounders) that I would like to share with you. I am going to test myself on these, and then after some “training time” on shoulder flexibility retest myself and see what improvements I’ve made. If I don’t make progress, I’ll switch up my program until I find what works in regards to improving on these tests.  That ought to be motivation!  Tomorrow I’m going to reveal these tests so if you want to join me in this program you can.

Two Ounces of Prevention

by Thom Van Vleck

As we are all aware, Big Al has created a contest where we are supposed to write a story on a training “secret” we have that would benefit others.  This was a difficult thing for me to do as I don’t keep secrets.  I share everything I have with anyone willing to listen.  I’ve always been that way.  So I really don’t have any secrets…..but I looked at what I do and came up with something I do almost every workout.  It’s something I think has allowed me to compete at a high level as I head into my 47th year and 34th as a weightlifter.

Al & Chad executing a very complicated two man stretch of the spine. Now really, do you have the time for this or for that matter would you be caught dead in such a compromising position???

A healthy back is essential to weight training.  If you lift weights and have never hurt your back, you are either a very good liar, you’ve never pushed yourself, or you just started yesterday.  Back injuries are a part of the sport.  Especially if you are a master lifter over 40, and most USAWA lifters are over 40…..some WELL over 40!  If you’ve had a back injury, you’ve probably tried to rehab it in different ways.  Some of these with drugs like anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, or pain medication.  You may have seen a doctor, a chiropractor,  a massage therapist, or maybe an Osteopath.  You’ve probably been given stretching exercises, yoga exercises, or whatever the latest fad is.  You may have went so far to invest in some equipment, such as a stability ball, rubber bands, or went really expensive with a reverse hyper, or an inversion table!  You also may have found some really complicated and difficult ways to do what all these things try and do…..decompress your spine.

Now, don't get me wrong, I've had a little fun at Al & Chad's expense. These are great exercises, but their problem is the practicality of doing them every workout.

I’m going to share two very simple and basic stretches that require very little investment of time or money.  They can be very helpful in rehabbing a bad or injured back, but I would encourage you to do these EVERY TIME YOU WORK OUT to help keep your back healthy and prevent injuries!

First, there’s the good ol’ bar hang.  Sure, we’ve all heard of it and probably done it.  You hang from a chin up bar.  I know what your are thinking.  ”Geez, Thom, I thought you were going to give us some great secret!  Well, I am.  Sometimes the best things are the simplest things and they are the things we tend to ignore.  Like squats, which is a really great exercise, and yet there’s been a hundred ways developed to avoid squatting each one more complicated than the last!  Now, here is a real secret.  When you hang from the bar, put your heels on something about a foot or two in front of you.  Why?  Because you want to tilt your hips forward.  This will straighten out the lower spine.  Otherwise, if you just hang there the weight of your legs will pull you hips back and bend your spin inward in your lower back.  As a result, the weight of your legs will bend your spine and true decompression does not occur!  You also need to relax everything except your grip (and another thing, this can be a tremendous grip exercise, an added benefit).  If you can’t hang for at least a minute, then use straps until your grip gets to where you can.  Total investment:  A chin up bar.

Now, the only problem with the bar hang is it only decompresses the lower half of your spine.  While this is where most injuries occur, it is only half the picture.   Plus, most guys don’t think much about this, but your spine is more than your back, it’s you neck as well!  Many weight lifters will injure their neck and it’s also an area that gets a lot more abuse than you realize.  Why, because it holds up your fat head!  Seriously, the head is always FORWARD on the neck so any time you are not lying down with your neck supported it is being leveraged with pressure from that bowling ball that’s sitting on top if it!  Also, many of us will injure our neck at some point lifting, playing sports, or doing something stupid (most guys that train tend to be risk takers….admit it, you’ve done something stupid with your body).   And as for the upper back, it gets injured much more rarely than the lower, as a result, how often do we decompress our upper back and neck?

So, this leads me to the second “secret” exercise.  Like I said before, if you got loads of cash, you can spend it on a personal massuese and an inversion table….but if you don’t this will work just as well.  Maybe better because it is so easy you will do it more often!

Neck and upper back stretch....and yes, I used a photo of a pretty girl to "sell" this and influence the vote! Really, would you want to see me doing this or her! Vote for my article!

The second exercise involves sitting in a chair and letting your head and shoulders fall between you knees.  There’s an added benefit that if you get good at this exercise you can also use it to kiss your rear goodbye when you do some of the aforementioned “stupid” stuff.  But seriously, you sit in a chair and let your arms fall between you legs while sitting right on the edge of the chair.  I was taught to let my arms fall relaxed and then let my head fall forward relaxing it as much as possible.  If you do this enough you can fell you vertebrae relax.  I now fell a “pop-pop-pop” in my upper back when I do this.  Again, you want to stay in this position for about a minute.  I also do the added exercise of  doing some head rolls once I sit back up, this will seem to always pop my neck a couple times.  Total investment:  a chair.

So, there you have it.  Two exercises, two minutes, cheap, easy and I would argue for the amount of time and money invested you will do your spine more good than any of that other stuff.  Call this, 2 ounces of prevention!

Taking Care of Your Back – Part 2

Part 2 – Be Sure To Limber Up

by Al Myers

I initially was going to title this part Stretching.  But that didn’t define it the way I wanted it to.  Stretching to me means doing movements  like touching your toes or light calisthenics.  I next thought I would title this part Flexibility, as that could result from many things, including stretching.  This still didn’t fit the message I wanted to convey. I finally (with much deep thought!) decided  to use the expression  “Be Sure to Limber Up”, because that fits exactly what the first part of my Thursday workouts are all about.

Al Myers suspended by bands to stretch out and limber up the back and hips.

As for my opinion on stretching, I believe a little is necessary but to much is harmful in developing maximum strength.  I know this is a BOLD statement, and there are probably many lifters who would disagree with me on this. Bill Clark once told a training partner of mine Mark Mitchell, when Mark trained at Clark’s Gym several years ago, that stretching the muscles in excess is like repeatedly stretching a rubber band – eventually it will SNAP.  I couldn’t agree more.  I have always been prone to hamstring pulls, and through the early years of my training  I did about everything to safeguard against this injury, including aggressive hamstring stretching.  Sure I got more flexible – but it didn’t solve my  problem of enduring hamstring injuries.  Being able to place your hands flat on the floor with the legs straight is beyond what is needed to be a competitive lifter (unless you are in training for the Mansfield Lift!).  Excessive flexibility, beyond what is required in doing a specific lift,  doesn’t help in being strong in that lift. In fact,  having just enough flexibility to “remain tight” in the bottom portion of a lift will enhance your strength in a lift. Think about the squat – do you WANT to be tight and ready to recoil when you break the legal depth?  I sure do.  This reminds me of a story my brother-in-law Bob Burtzloff once told me that re-enforces my opinion on this.  Many years ago Bob experimented with training the Bench Press using a cambered bench press bar (also known as a McDonald Bar). It allows the lifter to increase the range of motion on the bench press, with the hands going lower than the chest when the cambered portion of the bar touches the chest. Bob first thought training through this INCREASED range of motion would increase his Bench Press.  It did the opposite and made his Bench Press go down.  When he went back to a regular bar he didn’t feel the tightness in his chest and shoulder muscles when at the bottom position.

However, stretching is still part of my Thursday workout. I think you need a balance in flexibility to optimize your lifting abilities.  On the other hand, I have seen lifters who were so in-flexible that they couldn’t even properly perform some of the All-Round Lifts that require flexibility.  In these cases, spending a little time stretching would help their performance.

Chad Ullom performing a stretch with the Jump Stretch Bands that Dick Hartzell called "the rack". Chad is completely suspended off the floor and his back is being "stretched" by band tension.

For me, two days after a heavy back workout is when my legs and back are the most sore.  I start off this workout with some cardio, which usually includes  time on my recumbent exercise bike.  This “loosens up”  those bound-up leg muscles and hips, along with giving me some needed cardiovascular fitness.  After getting a good sweat going, I’ll proceed to wind down with some stretching.  Nothing fancy here – just 20 minutes of whatever stretches I feel like doing at the time. Next I’ll proceed to the “bread and butter” exercise that limbers up my back – Suspended Band Stretching.  I learned this “secret exercise” several years ago at the 2003 USAWA National Championships in Youngstown, Ohio. This meet was hosted at the Jump Stretch training facility, the birthplace of the Jump Stretch Bands.  Known as “the rubberband man”, Dick Hartzell showed several of us after the meet a very unique use of the Jump Stretch bands that I had never seen before.  It involved using the bands to decompress the vertebrae of the back by using band tension. Once I got home I immediately purchased a pair of the Big Black Monster Bands from Jump Stretch so I could replicate this movement  in my gym.  I wouldn’t really call it stretching.  But I’ll tell you, 15 minutes of hanging by the hips with these bands attached your back will be fully “limbered up”.  Any pain from tight muscles in your back will be gone.

More of this workout and the story “Taking Care of Your Back” tomorrow with – Part 3, Have Strong Abs