Forward Flexion With Phil Learney!

In 2005 I was in Alaska bored to tears in a small town called Ketchikan, now don’t get me wrong, nice place, just not a lot to do. I found myself sat in a suitably sized audience watching a lumberjack competition. Now as an Englishmen we don’t see ‘lumberjack’ as a profession on many resumes however. Four of the best lumberjacks in the world and several gruelling events to watch them compete in. Now these guys where athletes in their own right and reminded me of the physiques we commonly see on the strongman or highland games circuit. One event of note saw them presented with one of the most rigid, tightly knit living structures nature had ever given us, the tree. These guys promptly managed to split a HUGE section of tree in seconds. The interesting point was that in removing a section of the tree the load distribution changed on what was a formative upright structure and lo and behold the one remaining strong point on the tree split and broke allowing the tree to fall away from an apprehensive audience. I will draw several points from this is a) the tree was only as strong as its weakest part b) the strong part broke! c) the lumberjack created a point in which forward flexion and the falling of the tree was only one way.

When we hear people talk about ‘core’ training firstly ask a hundred ‘fitness’ trainers what it is and expect 100 varied answers. All too many times do I see people ‘peel’ a squat out of the hole (bottom point) by loading their lumbar spine and collapsing into forward flexion (the same can be said about deadlifting)

We have several ways to counter this and strangely enough squatting on a fitball isn’t one of them.

  1. Balance your midsection.

The fact of the matter is that a belt creates pressure against your abdominal wall as you descend into a squat. The reason that so many people with back problems wear ‘back supports’ (the same principle as a lifting belt) is that it supports the weak part of the structure, the abs (the section a lumberjack would chop away). Much like a tree in a weakened state the strong point overloads and given sufficient stress breaks causing either a damaged structure or quite simply you nosedive with the bar on your back.

Think logically. Everything on the body needs a supporting structure, lifters regularly fail on bench because the back can’t stabilize the weight. The same occurs with the squat and dead lift. The difference with the dead lift however the body can overcompensate due to the fact the bar is e anterior loaded and you pull rather than push it. Physiologically the lifter ends up in an inverted J, the head drops, the pelvis tucks under, hip flexors shorten and the glutes switch off transferring the load away from the hamstrings and transfers straight into the lower back.

Rectifying this issue again needs a little logical thinking. Training the abs isn’t enough and the majority of ab exercises call for the back to be flat and the body to be forward flexed. This calls for us to do as much work in extension. Much like the tendency for people to do more leg extensions than leg curls or flexions the same thing is true.

Working your midsection with exercises that put you into loaded extension and flexion in the same movement is a good approach but sometimes requires a little ingenuity.

2. Use equipment…….or just eat immense amounts….or both!

I hear so many athletes concerned about weight and how they ‘lose’ strength if their weight comes down……ok, just to clarify….fat will not and cannot make you stronger!! Force is mass x acceleration. If the bar slows down you will NOT lift it. Put a 20kg weighted vest on and squat in it…..does it make you stronger? It will certainly make you slower. Giant redwood is stronger than an elm tree….not because its fatter………..Clear?

The mechanics of the squat however tends to favour anything that would prevent forward flexion. One of the jobs the straps on a powerlifting suit does it to pull your torso upright as you descend. The same can be said of a large stomach as when coming out of the bottom of a squat you simply cannot forward flex! Does this then therefore become ‘equipped’ lifting? Falls very much under the same argument as laser eye surgery no?

3. Think out of the box.

As human beings we do almost everything in forward flexion. basic principle of overload tells us that over time the back will get overused and stronger on a daily basis. The notion that following a back ‘issue’ we should resort to strengthening it further is foolish and re-iterates my point above. This more often than not exacerbates the problem and is the consequence of bad advice. As strength athletes are, much like most other sportsmen and women we like to stay in our own little bubble and never look out of the confines of our own sport for inspiration and knowledge. One discipline that I will never hear uttered from a powerlifters mouth is Pilates. Pilates of all things addresses this issue somewhat by teaching it’s participants to shut off the dominant muscles around the midsection and activating all of the weaker underused and underlying muscles. In order to achieve this muscular adaptation under any sort of load we must first learn to achieve it with our own bodyweight. The ‘core’ stability of a gymnast or dancer is phenomenal but put a loaded bar  on them it’s a different story. The potential however is huge as the neural sequencing and balance of the musculature is already ingrained.

4. Overhead Squat

Quite simply overhead squatting addresses all of the reasons anyone would forward flex in a squat. Look at some of the numbers Olympic lifters post on what is their ‘assistance’ lifts, back squats and dead lifts and they commonly outdo their powerlifting counterparts, the fact is they just don’t compete in powerlifting to post the official numbers.

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