Tension is an interesting thing. Until recently, I had always relied on feeling it to make sure that my shoulders were in a neutral position. This is because, Just like any mid-western high school football player, the bench press was king growing up. I might have benched every day for 3 years. What I didn’t know was that I was totally neglecting the antagonist groups in the posterior which is equally if not more important.
But what did I know? I was a 16 year old kid with a butt cut and earrings. All I cared about was benching 350lbs. Regardless, as I matured and became educated in physiology and began to understand the importance that posture plays in performance, I realized that it would be a 24/7 battle to achieve a neutral shoulder position given how tight my pecs were, and how internally rotated and protracted I was. So the battle began…
Fast forward to 2013. I was fortunate enough to shadow a man named Antony Lo this July. I first met Ant at a CrossFit Football seminar in Sydney Australia at Reebok CrossFit GCS. Ant is a physio down under and has an office out of the gym. He attended our cert and patiently sat back as he watched Ben and I cover a variety of cues; neutral shoulders, neutral head position, anterior pelvic tilt, depressed shoulder girdle, the list goes on and on. He agreed with the set of cues for the given movements and positions, but not so much with some of our demos.
As any kind professional would do, he remained silent until we broke out and quietly approached Ben and I and said “Mate, It appears that you’ve overcooked the cues.” I paid no mind to the comment. It didn’t make sense to me. We spoke a bit more and I took into consideration the discussion and stored it in the old memory bank and we barreled forward with the seminar.
Fast forward to July 2013 when Antony went on holiday to attend the CrossFit games in Southern California. The Aussies are an extremely considerate bunch and would gladly take in a familiar traveler if given the opportunity. Being the cultured man that I am, I gladly obliged. Ant hit me up on Facebook and was curious if I had a spare room he could stay in while in the states, and I jumped at the opportunity. Those who listen to the podcast know, I live a stones throw from the airport, and in the construction capital of the world. It may not be quiet, but I do have a spare room, so I could easily put Ant up for a few days. So we booked it. As soon as I told Ben, his eyes lit up, just like mine. We were going to milk Ant for everything he had.
Ant wasn’t willing to treat anyone while he was here, but he was certainty willing to help diagnose and give some advice. In fact, he thought was shadowing the coaches at our gym; observing our coaching style and our athletes. I’m not sure how apparent it was to him, but every time he pulled a coach or athlete aside to give advice on some simple corrective exercises, Ben and/or I were peering over the discussion like hawks. We were shadowing him!
Antony has a very impressive understanding of the human body as a system. He doesn’t diagnose “locally,” he’s more of a “the body is an interrelated system” type of guy. Quads hurt? Let’s check out your glutes and erectors. Shoulders bothering you? Let’s check out the neck and pecks. It was amazing to watch him simply instruct an athlete to get into a certain position, verbally inching body parts into the right place, and have them roll or sit on a lacrosse ball. Within minutes, even seconds, range of motion was restored, and the discomfort subsided for the remainder of the workout.
Ant would simply instruct them to continue this “treatment” and they would see improvement in a few months. It was life changing for a half a dozen clients who’s doctors had told them they would never get 90 degree flexion out of their knee, or their shoulders would be forever immobile.
So naturally after seeing this “witch craft” and healing take place before my very eyes, I called Ant over and told him I’ve had a nagging shoulder issue for years. Haven’t we all.
“You’ve over cooked your posture, mate”
Yeah, okay, I remember that he told me this in Sydney. I over cooked it. It seemed over cooked. And I agreed with him, “Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty over cooked.”
I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, so a moment passed when I finally dropped the ego and admitted I had no idea what he meant. So he broke it down for me. He asked me to get into a neutral shoulder position, so I did. He asked me how I knew I was in the right position. I told him I can feel it. He said feel what? I said tension. He asked why I needed tension? And I went on to tell him about the mid west, bench pressing, high school football, and butt cuts. His prognosis; I’ve relied on it too long.
My ability to feel that tension was important in the beginning of my quest. The position that resulted was in fact neutral. But the constant tension eventually lengthened the tissue, and at one point I had actually successfully reset my default position. But I kept relying on that tension as a physical cue to get me in the “correct” position. And in doing so it took my default position towards the other end of the spectrum.
This is so obvious, but extremely eye opening for me. Just because something works now doesn’t mean it will work forever. No duh. We talk about that with programming, rep ranges, etc. At some point, you will reach the “therapeutic dose.” We see this with athletes at our certs. A common cue in squatting is “knees out” to avoid the valgus knee that is so painful to see with your coach’s eye. We regularly run into individuals who can drive their knees so far out that we have to wind them back in to get them into the position we like to see, which is over, if not slightly inside your feet. If you’re too wide with your knees, you may be missing out on some valuable torque.
Think of all the other cues that are necessary to get a novice athlete into position under load. It’s almost universal. It probably even worked for you at one point. But as you build competency in your training, and build a heightened awareness of what is going on in your body, be sure that what you have always felt is still putting you in the right position. As Tex says, a coach needs a coach. Get a pair of eyes on you, make sure that you haven’t overcooked your position.
I want to thank Ant for taking the time to educate everyone at CrossFit Balboa, and encourage you guys to check him out on facebook and look up his blog. And if you’re in the Sydney area and are ailing in pain, or can’t fix yourself, be sure to give him a visit!
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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