An Expert Opinion

Readers, this right hip pain has been a real drag for me. This week, I finally threw in the towel and arranged to see a (very reputable) physiotherapist to get a proper assessment. The results were not what I had anticipated.

Not that I had a very clear picture of what was going on in the first place. After all, if I had I might have been able to solve the problem myself. Instead what I had was a list of potentially involved tissues without a clear idea of what I was doing to make them so angry. A lot of uncertainty and frustration.

With the swiftness and laser precision of years of clinical experience, she examined my spine, and found a segment of my lower back that moves excessively when my core is disengaged. Particularly on my right side, where I get all my pain. She also found that my hips lack a great deal of rotation, and the right hip is a bit stiffer than the left.

This is an example of something called a “stress riser”. In the context of the body, this refers to the vulnerability created when you have a stiff joint or tissue adjacent to one that moves a lot. When movement goes through the system, the stiff joint is not able to contribute properly, and its movable neighbour is forced to compensate. This often ends with the loose joint becoming looser and inflamed over time. So, in my case, certain movements that require a lot of hip range of motion are just translating the stress into my lower back.

The more disturbing finding, however, was her impression that my hips don’t have a whole lot of potential to gain range of motion in certain directions! There are variations in the structure of the socket of the hip and the head of the femur which can limit or bias movement in particular directions, and it looks like I drew the “can’t internally rotate more than five degrees” card.

On one hand, this was a bummer. It implied to me that my hips lack the potential to develop a high level of mobility in certain directions. Certain activities will have to be modified to respect my anatomy. On the other hand, it was kind of liberating. I have struggled for a long time to find a technique that would actually improve my internal rotation. I poured a ton of work into it, and got almost nothing in return. Knowing that my skeletal structure simply doesn’t allow that range gives me closure on the issue. For years I felt like I was failing to take it seriously, or that the stretches I found were just poor techniques, but now I know I was just running up against a brick wall!

I do think, however, that my hips have a particular endowment to balance that restriction. They seem to move very generously into abduction. Side split type movements have always come easy for me since my Tae Kwon Do days, and that flexibility has never diminished much in spite of very little maintenance work. So it doesn’t seem to be a total loss. I’ll just never make a good hockey goalie.

Now, with a clear diagnosis and the support of a skilled clinician I can move forward and hopefully solve this long-lived problem. I feel a peace around the injury that I haven’t felt very often in the past year, and I learned something very valuable about my anatomy that will inform all of my training. And yeah, maybe I have some limitations in certain ways, but there is no changing that, and armed with this knowledge I can take proper advantage of my unique build.

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Vacation Time

Readers, I’m writing this on my way back from a much needed vacation. I spent a week home on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, home of lobsters and dulse and a community of kind, down-to-Earth individuals (half of whom are probably related to me in one way or another). My trips always fall either at Christmas time, or during August (which means lots of birthdays in our family), so it almost always becomes a week of feasting on homemade bread and baked goods.

(I think I left my dietary willpower back in Halifax? Except that I don’t have any…)

BUT I staved off the vacation belly, and hopefully preserved a shred of insulin sensitivity, by constantly staying on the move. It quickly becomes apparent that, in the absence of other tasks begging my attention, that I default to movement exploration. It’s like my ‘idle’ mode.

My Taiji teacher Yau Sun Tong came to visit the island for a few days. He even joined us at my parents’ home for dinner a couple times, and they were absolutely enchanted with his stories and the photos from his travels. The whole thing was perfectly bizarre, as this is a very different scenario from the time I usually spend with him, but was also very enjoyable. He even spent some time teaching my dear Mother key acupressure techniques to help with her back pain, and taught her a little Taiji in the living room!

Many beaches on Grand Manan were blessed with a glimpse of some very good Taiji this past week. Maybe for the first time?

There were many more opportunities for training outside of Taiji as well. My parents’ yard is well-equipped with a few key features to meet my movement needs. There were a few little hills from which I could continue my assault against tight calves and hamstrings (though I had to negotiate territory with the ant colonies that live there). There are a few young maple trees whose low branches will support my weight, but still allow me to keep my feet on the ground for some beginner hanging work.

I had a nice rotation going moving between posterior chain stretching, hanging, and squatting. Rest one, work another. It was an easy way to pack a lot of quality movement into a short window of time.

I even picked up Dad’s garden hoe a few times for some upper body strength work. Maybe it’s all the Taiji I’ve been doing, but I have a growing respect for strength training methods like Indian club swinging. I mean, I’ve been hearing about how great that sort of thing is for years, but never given it any serious practice. I think that between that kind of three-dimensional open chain work and good closed chain practices like gymnastics ring training, hanging, and hand balancing you could develop some very legitimate upper body movement capacity that would apply to a broad range of activities.

Probably the most movement fun I had during the week was the Rotary Mud Run! Apparently even Grand Manan is getting on the obstacle course race scene. I’ve never done one before, so it was a good opportunity to try the event on the island first. It was clear that the organizers put a ton of work into the course (big thanks to the Benson family and all the others who made it happen!), and the race was a blast. That mud was pretty stinky though…

Now it’s time to try and shift my psyche back into work mode, though I hope I can cruise on this relaxation high for a while. It’s been a good reset, but it’s time to return to healing hurts and doing my best to brainwash others into enjoying movement rich lives.

But, like, if I could just stay home and train all day I probably would. But I would let you come over and practice and learn, if you wanted. So it’s not totally selfish, right? RIGHT?

Right.

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Harvesting Wisdom from Pain (pt.2)

Readers, I’m no stranger to injury. Most of what I know about training has been self-taught, especially during my first few years. That means a whole lot of trial and error, and sometimes those errors have been expensive for my body. The silver lining is that I have a wealth of personal experience to inform my training and clinical practice, but it can be hard to appreciate the benefits of our personal struggles when we are in the thick of them.

My current project is some right sided hip and lower back pain that caught fire about a year ago and hasn’t stopped smoldering, in spite of my strongest efforts. I’ll spare you the details and frustrated tears, but I’m almost certain it came about from overuse (my favourite type of injury, if my track record is any indication).

This has been the longest running issue I’ve had so far, second only to a meniscus tear in Fall of 2011, and the psychological struggle is real. It’s the kind of injury where I can pretty much do whatever I want without pain (save for a few key movements that really wind up the affected tissues), but then I pay for it the next morning. The response to certain activities isn’t even always the same, and it makes it difficult to decide what’s good for it and what should be avoided. At this point, I’m finally ready to start coughing up some dough for professional help, but I’m pretty bummed that I couldn’t solve it on my own.

Such is life.

But injuries are a reality that we have to deal with in training. Of course, we want to take all prudent measures to avoid them, but sometimes they crop up nonetheless. For that reason, it’s important to shift our mindsets away from catastrophizing the issue and recognize the unfortunate event for what it really is.

A learning opportunity.

In fact, my strongest revelations about my training and most important paradigm shifts have come from my injuries, time and time again. I sure as hell don’t deliberately invite them, and I struggle each and every time to stay positive about the experience, but without fail I learn something extremely important that better informs my training and my work with others.

For instance, one of the major lessons I have learned through this injury has been how to approach my training intensity and volume more sensibly. This has been a huge hurdle for me ever since I started training, as I came into it with a “DO MORE WORK HARDER!” kind of mindset. (I’m sure many can relate.) Over the last year I’ve learned how to pace my training better throughout the week, how to approach each day’s training with respect towards my recovery level, and how to set more reasonable expectations for myself based on what is actually going on in my life.

Failing to balance training and recovery has been the greatest restraint on my progress, and it has taken me 14 years of training to absorb learn this lesson. (I suspect starting out with formal coaching in strength training would have saved me a ton of time and effort, but sometimes the best paths don’t lead from our starting point and must be discovered later on.)

The real kicker is that I still have pain, so obviously there is at least one more important lesson buried in this injury that I have yet to learn. I suspect it’s one that will be particularly useful in my physiotherapy practice, but I’m still extremely impatient to learn it and be done with the whole thing. (I miss deadlifts!)

I think it’s really important to view rehabilitation and training as parts of the same continuum. When you have an injury, it’s absolutely critical that you don’t let it stop you from training. You just have to adapt and scale your training around the injury so that you can continue to make progress in the things you CAN work on, while harvesting the injury for all the new wisdom it’s trying to offer you!

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Track recovery metrics and behaviours just as seriously as you would your training!

Injuries suck, but seeing them as an opportunity and treating your rehabilitation as TRAINING can really help pull you out of that dark place. It’s just repurposing all the drive and determination you were already directing towards one goal into a new (if unexpected) goal – your recovery.

For further reading, this old post from the writings of the great Jujimufu have really helped me keep my head in the game during the last few months.

(And I know I wrote a post quite a bit like this in May, but I’m not really that worried about it. It’s still on my mind big time.)

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Dynamic Warm Ups and Dynamic Stretching [Ramblings]

There is a difference between a dynamic warm up and dynamic stretching.

A dynamic warm up consists of movements done with the intention of calibrating the body for the activity at hand.

Dynamic stretching consists of movements performed for the purpose of increasing range of motion.

Of course, sometimes dynamic stretches are included in a dynamic warm up, but still the intention is to increase range. If you lack full range of motion in your “unprepared” state, you probably ought to include some well selected mobility work in your warm up.

But having the right intent is key. It is important to realize you’re doing mobility training, else you might not pay attention to the right details. Set your mind on improving range of motion, on exploring your end range mindfully.

If one is a novice to physical training or has particularly limited mobility, slower mobility exercises that emphasize coordination will serve well. Many experienced individuals could draw great benefit from such a practice as well.

Slow, deliberate mobility training can be used to carefully map the excursion of different areas of the body and find out where the problems lie. If you find an area that moves in a choppy fashion, slow down the movement and polish it up. If there is restriction, focus in on it and ease in deeper. (Oh grow up.) In either circumstance, make sure you also pay attention to your alignment.

There are some individuals, such as The Great Jujimufu, who are strong advocates of the use of high-speed mobility exercises or “ballistic stretches”. These are typically undertaken as part of a dynamic warm up for activities which demand the expression of power in deep ranges of motion, such as tricking. Such things can clearly be done safely if approached thoughtfully with a sufficiently pliable body, but I wonder if the practice would benefit from a bit of rebranding?

I suspect that dynamic high kicks, for instance, when properly practiced, aren’t employed to increase range of motion, but rather to practice explosive use of one’s available range of motion before an activity. So, while you really are stretching the muscle ballistically, using the word “stretching” creates some confusion, because many people associate it with the pursuit of flexibility.

The idea, then would be to use dynamic stretching as part of your dynamic warm up in order to achieve peak range of motion for your ballistic stretching.

I don’t have any suggestions for what else to call it, though. What do you think?

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Harvesting Wisdom from Pain

Readers, I have spent the last eight months plagued by a very persistent right hip and lower back issue. As you might imagine, the long process of untangling this particular knot has caused me some degree of psychological strain. I feel like I’m halfway through a box of poorly stored Christmas tree lights. I’ve got some of the work done, but there’s still enough of a problem left that I’m getting discouraged.

In the midst of the frustration, however, I try to remind myself how much I’ve learned from confronting this problem. Over the years, investigating my aches and pains has provided me with more wisdom than any other aspect of my training. Not only that, but the lessons learned while trying to reconstruct my dysfunctional body have heavily informed my clinical practice, granting me insight into the problems others are facing and a head start on solving them.

I’m not going to tell you that you should celebrate you injuries and feel awesome about them, because obviously they still suck. But, it can be helpful and encouraging to look at every injury or setback as an opportunity to harvest new ideas and become even stronger.

This back and hip problem have made me painfully aware of how stiff my entire lumbo-pelvic complex really is, and how much potential I have to improve my movement ability through rectifying that stiffness. Even though the pain is still there, I’ve made huge gains in mobility and coordination through my hips and spine.

So, take heart. You may be caught in a fearsome storm right now, but it is through surviving great storms that great captains are made.

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The Future of the Manual

Readers, I’ve been away for some time. The academic commitments which have accompanied the end of my physiotherapy degree have been… well, demanding. I wanted to write this post both to ensure you that I haven’t disappeared, and to inform you about where I see The Manual of Primal Movement going from here.

My intention as I move forward in my career is for this blog to become a more prominent aspect of my professional voice. By 2017 I will be posting weekly updates on a set day, and soon afterwards I hope to begin putting out video content in addition to written posts.

There is a chance that the blog may undergo some re-branding. I feel that the word “primal” carries some degree of baggage, and I have grown concerned that it gives the impression that I might be an extremist dedicated to a purely natural-world pursuit of human movement, which is certainly not the case. In fact, movement practice in the context of the natural, ancestral environment has not even been the major theme in the content I have written thus far (aside, perhaps, from the past year or two since it first caught my interest). I intend for the blog to maintain a broader perspective on movement, training, and rehabilitation.

You, the interested reader, might be inclined to look into the work of Rafe Kelley (of Evolve Move Play) and Katy Bowman (of Nutritious Movement) for incredibly enlightening perspectives on natural movement. I’ve also been enjoying the YouTube channel Ancestral Movement lately, which offers many videos of a bearded fellow doing interesting movement drills.)

Expect great things. It’s time to get serious.

5 Strategies for Working on Movement Quality

Readers, I’ve had a rough time reconciling corrective exercise with my overall training program. I have a few movement issues that I feel are standing in the way of achieving my peak awesomeness, but I find it difficult to decide how to best incorporate my efforts to patch those holes into my movement practice. I’ve tried a few methods, and heard about others, and they have their good and bad points, of course. Today I want to share some insight into each approach so you can find one that works for you.

 

1) Full Focus

 Committing all your training time to corrective exercise.

Readers, I’ve tried this approach, and it’s not my favourite. When you put your training on hold and put all your eggs in the corrective basket, lots of stones are left unturned. Many movement patterns will go unexplored. The skills and capacity you have worked so hard to earn will rust and crumble. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll go out of your mind with boredom.

Never go full physio.

There will be times when it is necessary to devote all your efforts to rehab, but that’s typically when you’ve sustained serious injuries or have fallen very ill. If you’re someone who is capable of a very singular focus and who has a high tolerance for tedium, you may find that this an effective approach to fixing your movement problems. Power to ya. It is my humble opinion, however, that most of us will be better served by an approach that melds corrective exercise into our existing movement practices.

The next few methods offer just that.

 

2) Warm-Up and Cool-Down

Implementing corrective exercise immediately before or after your workout.

You can slip your corrective work into your warm-up, cool-down, or both. The benefit of putting it in the warm-up is that you will be calibrating your target movements for better performance before they come up in training. The training, then, helps lock-down some of those sweet, sweet gainz. The benefit of putting corrective work in the cool-down is that it helps you reset your target movement to a more refined level after training. This is helpful if the challenge of your workout took you out of ideal alignment a bit too often. The benefit of doing correctives in both the warm-up and cool-down, then, is that you get the perks of each.

The only real downside of this approach is that your workouts will get a little longer. I would advise against trimming other important elements out of your movement prep and recovery to make room for corrective work, unless the correctives are logical replacements for those elements. (For example, you could replace Air Squats with motor patterning drills for squatting.) You could trim some non-critical elements out of your workouts to make the time for correctives instead, but you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of that for yourself.

Implemented properly, this can also be a good way to really refine your approach to movement preparation and recovery, even when corrective exercise isn’t a bit priority. A few drills that help you calibrate your skills for the training of the day can go a long way towards optimizing your workout.

 

3) Supersets

 Pairing a corrective drill with another exercise in your workout.

 Similar to the previous approach, using corrective supersets lets you optimize your patterns in the same session in which you challenge them. The difference is that you’ll be bouncing back and forth between the two. The benefit here is that you can immediately take any gains you make through your corrective and apply it to the challenge movement, bit by bit. If you do things right, each set will get a little cleaner, a bit more refined.

Supersetting your correctives will still tag a few extra minutes onto your training time, but probably not as much as the previous approach. You may also find it easier to tackle a few more patterns at a time, since this strategy piggybacks on the organization already present in your program. The downside is that you might not get the same training frequency for your correctives if you are trying to target too many at once. My advice would be to pick a couple patterns to work on, and pair those correctives up with other similar movements. (For example, you could superset your squat mobility drill with sets of deadlifts or L-sits.)

 

4) Stand Alone

 Planning a separate session for corrective exercise.

 The nice thing about this approach is that you get another little dose of movement through your day, and it’s good to move more often. Although your time commitment to training will go up, you may find it more tolerable since your actual workouts won’t get any longer. It may also be easier to convince yourself to do corrective work more often through the week, since it is a habit that isn’t tied to your training days.

The trick with this approach is that it requires you to find another chunk of time in your day for exercise. If you’re someone who already finds it challenging to schedule a training session, this approach might not be for you.

 

5) Hybrid

A blend of the other approaches. (Except the first one.)

A hybrid approach, I think, has the greatest potential. You can mix a little corrective work into your movement prep, pair it up with relevant parts of the training session, and give it a little extra focus outside of the session when the opportunity arises. One of the biggest factors that will influence the success of your movement correction strategy will be frequency, and here the hybrid approach shines. How often are you exposing your body to the new movement habit you want to build? How often are you taking your tissues into that new range of motion? How often are you practicing to refine that wonky movement pattern?

A word of caution towards the hybrid approach: Don’t let it take the consistency and organization out of your efforts. It doesn’t mean use each method as it strikes you, doing some correctives in your warm-up here and a superset there. That may still work, but you run the risk of giving yourself a pass too often and losing that ever-important element of frequency.

 

Readers, I have to admit that writing this post has really helped me organize my own thinking around implementing correctives and given me some fresh insight into how my current efforts are falling short. (Funny how that happens.) I hope that this has given you some ideas on how you can keep training and work on improving your movement quality at the same time. You don’t have to trade one for the other.

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Lower Body Pulling

CrowReaders, I’ve always been a bit confused as to why hip hinges (such as the deadlift and its variants) are considered lower body pulling movements. As I see it, the legs aren’t really doing any pulling. They’re pushing. Pretty much how they push in a squat.

(Yeah, settle down, I know there are myriad technical nuances that distinguish squatting from hip hinging, but hear me out.)

Think about the barbell deadlift for a second. It looks a whole lot like a barbell back squat. The only glaring difference is where the bar is. In the squat, you’re holding the bar across your chiseled, rippling upper back. In the deadlift, what has changed is that you’re now hanging it off of your meaty gorilla arms. Sure, your arms now have a huge pulling load to deal with, but your lower body is having an experience that is not all that different from the back squat (hip and knee extension). What a deadlift looks like, to me, is a lower body push combined with an upper body pull.

That’s not say I don’t think deadlifting is useful (*cough* Naudi Aguilar *cough*), or that I don’t think it’s useful to train both the squat and deadlift. I just don’t think you can really call it lower body pulling.

So what would I consider to be lower body pulling movements?

Thank you for asking, readers. In my opinion, a true lower body pull would be those movements that draw one into a more compressed position. This could include gymnastics skills like the L-sit, yoga poses like Bakasana, CrossFit’s toes-to-bar, or common exercises like leg raises. These are movements that are heavy on the hip and knee flexion, but I would consider active ankle dorsiflexion to be in this category as well, like the bat hang in bouldering. (Plantar flexion, it seems to me, is an obvious expression of pushing.)

When you think about it, loaded hip and knee flexion are movements often missing in the context of strength and conditioning (which, again, considers hip hinging to be the functional expression of lower body pulling). It makes sense, since athletes need explosive hip extension much more often for field sports (for movements like running and jumping), but I wonder what the potential impact of this strength imbalance might be on an athlete’s movement ability and longevity.

(I can see hip flexion being emphasized in sports like gymnastics, since it is critical for many skill progressions, like the manna. I would be very interested to hear from coaches in these disciplines concerning their definition of lower body pulling.)

Knee flexion comes up more often than hip flexion in typical training, I think. Hamstring curls and glute-ham raises are established mainstays of hammie development; but there always seems to be this debate raging on about whether it’s useful to train knee flexion, or whether efforts should focus on the hip extension and knee stabilization roles of the hamstrings. My own opinion would be that, in the context of complete human movement, you should be able to express competency in loaded knee flexion. I think it makes sense in the context of natural movement. If you think about climbing, the isometric version of a hamstring curl comes in really handy when heel hooking (as in the sport of climbing) or hanging from a tree by your legs (as in being an ape). Not only that, but any BJJ athlete can tell you how important a strong hammie curl is for locking down certain positions when grappling. What it comes down to is that you should probably be competent in pulling at the knee to have a well-rounded movement foundation, and if it’s important to your sport or activity give it more focus. (Typical message, right?)

It’s extraordinarily unlikely that I’m the first person to voice this opinion, but it’s been a satisfying revelation nonetheless. The definition of lower body pushing and pulling as it stands in strength and conditioning is the paradigm I’ve subscribed to for some time, but it now seems obviously inaccurate to me. Prior to now, I’ve always found it difficult to classify those movements like the L-sit which I listed above, but now they have such an obvious designation. For someone like me who thrives off of systems thinking, this is excellent, because now I can more clearly understand how to effectively fit my programming framework.

Please comment below, readers. I’d love to know what you think about this.

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Stair Climbing Mishaps…

marcpro_crutchesHey, readers. I sprained my ankle.

I don’t even have a cool story or anything. Do you want to know what happened? I was texting while going down a flight of stairs and missed the last step. I highly recommend you avoid doing that particularly foolish combination of tasks.

Luckily, it doesn’t seem that bad, and as a physiotherapy student I have the skills (and access to fancy gadgets) to optimize the healing process. Even still, my idiocy is probably going to cost me a week or more of good training.

For the first time, however, I think I’m handling this injury pretty well emotionally. It probably helps that it’s just a minor sprain, but I think what is really helping me deal with it are the consistent ten weeks of training I got in before it happened. In a way, I would assume it would feel like the opposite, that I should be bummed out that I got derailed when I’m finally on a roll. But the consistent practice up to this point has just made me determined to really focus on optimizing my recovery and working around the problem.

It’s so easy to let an injury like this be an excuse to, I don’t know, sit on the couch all day playing Monster Hunter instead of moving. After all, injuries need rest, right?

WRONG!

Well, kind of right. It’s all about relative rest. Protecting the delicate healing tissues. Avoiding stuff that provokes pain or comes with a risk of arriving in joint positions that may compromise this little meat construction project I have on the go. But total rest? That is nothing more than stagnation. That would be just inviting the capacity and skill I’ve earned in the last couple months to slip away, leaving me way worse off than I would be just avoiding the things that might upset my ankle. Also, not moving means not pumping powerful healing juices through my body or pumping waste out of the injury site. Those things both really help push the recovery process along.

So, lessons learned:

Don’t text on the stairs. Or crosswalks. Or other places where doing so might kill you or others.
Work around injuries. Maintain your practice instead of becoming an incredible Monster Hunting slug! (Well, I mean, monsters are going to get hunted, but training still has to happen, too.)

Injuries are just a temporary setback. Learn from them, and get stronger in spite of them!

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Coiling the Spring

Readers, I love a good coaching cue. There is something poetic in being able to condense a mechanical goal into a few tangible words. Last summer, Gray Cook uploaded a video about how to choose between the squat or the deadlift as a training tool (and whether you should choose based on your movement ability). One of the concepts that came up which really intrigued me was “coiling the spring”. (I’m going to talk about this in the context of the squat, but keep the deadlift setup in mind as we go forward.)

The idea with this coaching cue is that as you descend in a squat (or when you’re setting up for your deadlift), you envision your body as a spring being compressed. This creates a lot of focus on how you’re performing that eccentric portion of the movement. It’s not just about lowering down, but chambering energy in the hips, knees, and ankles. For me, this cue has done wonders to tighten up the bottom position of my squat by helping me load the hips and keep my spine braced. The goal of coiling the spring may seem obvious, but don’t underestimate its usefulness until you try it. After all, that’s the whole point of a good coaching cue, right? It is an elegant phrase that converts the desired mechanics into a single thought, a single feeling.

This cue strikes me as useful outside of the squat and deadlift as well. There is obvious transfer to any movement that falls into one of those categories and has similar mechanics, like jumping or kettlebell swings; but it could also prove useful in teaching pressing. For example, you could envision coiling the springs of your shoulders as you descend in a push-up. (Boing!)

Next time you are are working on your squat or deadlift, give this cue a try. Even if you think your squat and deadlift are pretty solid, this cue might be your ticket to tightening it up just a little bit more.

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