Stand Tall Part 2 – The Application of the very basics in SMR and Mobility

“I have realised that my posture needs to be addressed” – if you have made this realisation, you are in the 1%.

So where to go from here?

We have come to the conclusion we should have a good, upright posture. We also understand that good posture will positively affect the way our mind and body works. But what we need to understand is that if there is a dysfunction (in this case a postural one) and/or pain, it’s more than likely a combination of tightness and weakness.

There are some examples of kyphosis that result from a combination of a slightly differently shaped spine and years of bad posture.  Not to mention bad posture resulting from (often unknowingly) quite serious injuries.

From a coach’s or trainer’s perspective, it’s a case of knowing how to pick your battles.

If you are not sure, either get someone better suited/more experienced to help by providing you with their input, or refer him/her out to a physio for a solid second opinion. From that second opinion, both you and the physio together can formulate a plan of attack.

Working in conjunction with others, and building a team, is one of many qualities that make a good coach. If I’m in doubt I throw it out there to my teammates. There will always be something new to learn. Instead, more will be forgotten than remembered.

With clients, patience is the only way forward. That is their patience will be tested, if they are there to reach their ultimate goal as they realise you are rebuilding them, not breaking them down. We must explain to them the value of building the foundations and staying in the race for the long run.

It doesn’t always work, but don’t fall into the trap of everything bad in the industry. Don’t let people’s lack of knowledge or understanding stop you from using your own!

It will also test yours. You will want to progress and drive forward with every step. But there is some truth (especially in fitness) that nothing good ever happens quickly.

Where to Start?

We are going to look at some very simple mobility drills and SMR methods in this blog. They are entry level; designed for a client with very bad posture, a true stage 1.

We are focusing on the forward shoulders and tightness in the anterior chain, and weakness in the posterior chain.

There are so many factors that influence posture. For example, an important factor in the mobility of the shoulder and thoracic spine is healthy and stable hips. But this is a subject I am going to mention in more detail down the line. They are connected by the anterior oblique chain. Quickly summarized, the lack of internal hip rotation can have a negative effect on the contralateral shoulder’s ability to move in a full range of motion. Just another reason the side plank is such an essential exercise.


What is mobility going to do for my posture?

‘Thoracic mobility and shoulder range of motion’.

They appear to go together like the birds and the bees. We are not going to look at the limited scientific literature. But instead, we will focus on what I have seen in countless examples, as well as in myself. A kyphotic posture usually limits the range of motion in the shoulder. And in an upright posture, for the most part, I see a greater range of motion. And, generally, I have seen less shoulder pain with people with better posture and a Thoracic spine that has good extension and rotational capabilities

So let us skim the surface with some thoracic mobility and retract away from kyphosis.

We will start with the foam roller and SMR (self-myofascial release)

Known to most in the gym as foam rolling. (You can learn more about the science in Coach Sale’s deep dive on the subject – part 1 (scientific jazz) and part 2 (hands-on application) can be found here).

We are not just using tubes of compressed foam.

The PVC pipe was used by powerlifters for many years. Medicine balls, trigger point balls, sticks and accessories. Tempering devices, the bottoms of Kettlebells, collars of barbells, and many gadgets have been used over the years to scratch the mobility itch.

I’ve tried most. My personal thought is that it is overrated and overused in a non-practical sense, but perhaps I think that about most things I see in the gym. As I get older I haven’t got time to waste… You need to convince me it’s worth it, or it’s a no-go.

But do I use it? Yes, absolutely!

Pushed to describe SMR in simple terms, if we are trying to get into better ranges of motion in mobility, stretching and movement, foam rolling or trigger point devices are convincing the body that it can get into more advantageous positions.

The pressure of rolling over ‘tight’ muscles relaxes receptors. Paired with mobility, stretching, and activation (and a correct balance of exercise selection) it’s an effective tonic for the modern postural sickness.

If you are trying to correct your posture, then spending a little time on areas that we want to relax and become less inhibited is a perfect intro. Plus it feels good. And feeling good is one of the biggest drivers of success.

Personally, I like to do extra mobility work away from the gym.

If you can target an area that needs extra attention for 10 minutes during the day or divide drills throughout the day, it all adds up. Remember fascia is a matrix that holds us together, a second skin. It takes months, sometimes longer, of movement practice to change its shape permanently.

“Fascia is the environment for all the other ‘stuff’ that goes on in the body. At first, it was viewed as the packing material and didn’t have much importance. Every once in a while you’d hear something about the plantar fascia or something specific, but now people are seeing it as a system that provides context for all other body activities. It is the biological fabric that holds us together.”

Thomas W Myers (Author of Anatomy Trains)

An Example 

So, let’s go back to our Kyphotic example. We want to introduce some very basic mobility into the mix (remember, the client in question is a beginner).

Let’s start our mobility by foam rolling the Thoracic spine.

The rolling action of the foam roller is termed “passes” – 15-20 passes or 30 seconds to a minute per area will suffice for a beginner.

Place the foam roller, laterally, under the middle back with the aim of working back and forth horizontally. Sending the message to the right receptors to help relax the soft tissue that surrounds the T-spine.

Hands across the chest, or supporting your neck, using the feet, hamstrings and glutes to move the body forwards and backwards over the roller. For the lats, simply choose a side and turn your hips to that side. This changes the angle of the body, targeting the areas of the Latissimus Dorsi not smashed by the first action. Like in the video below, I like to lift my arm to allow me to work up into the armpit a little. This is more than enough attention for someone who possibly has never used the roller before.

Then with the roller in place already, we move into thoracic extension.

Why extension first? Well, something that does not extend properly and is flexed will not rotate properly either. So we start teaching the T-spine to extend and then we can move into a rotation after.

In the video, you will see me slowly move up the spine from the middle back (T-12)  to just before the cervical spine where it starts at the base of your neck. I extend about 10 times and then move up by about an inch or two at a time. All I am doing is training myself to move into extension. Very simplistic. Try and coach your client to brace their core a little and exhale while extending over the roller. This will help stabilize your lower back and stop you from hyperextending that area to achieve the range of motion.

Then, still using the same tool (the foam roller), we move to the side lying thoracic rotation.

With the knee and the foot of the top leg lying along the roller, have the client lay on their side, with the head supported if needed.

The top leg is supported by the foam roller that is placed parallel to their prone position. They have their arms and hands lying on top of one another.

The cue is for them to reach the top hand forward beyond the lower hand. With the shoulder now slightly protracted, we are going to rotate the arm in a huge circle away from the body, as if we were going to try and lay the top side of it on the floor behind us.

The knee and the foot must stay on the roller, and this will be the limiter of the range of motion. This a way to know it’s the T spine thats responsible for the movement.

Cue a deep breath in and out during each movement. Pain must also be a limiter of the range of motion, anything above a 2/10 is unacceptable.

2 sets of 10 reps per side will be a good place to start.

Now it’s time to use SMR, or Self-Myofascial Release, to help release these tight anterior muscles.

Normally we would assume that the Pec Major and Minor are tight and shortened in addition to the muscles in the neck, and often times the Lats can be tight too (but could also be weak and lengthened in untrained individuals).

It will be (classically) the posterior chain muscles of the shoulder and upper back (rotator cuff muscles, middle and lower trapezius, posterior deltoids, rhomboids and lats) that are weaker and pulled into a lengthened state.

We are in a vicious circle. The shorter and tighter pulling the weaker and lengthened into a position that neither can solve.

So, as we are using this simplistic model, we are going to foam roll the pecs and the lats with a medicine ball or similar trigger point ball. In the video, I’m using a slam ball, and this would be used if they were very sensitive. But usually we start with a harder surface – in this instance, it’s all I had at home while writing.

After starting with a little posterior chain mobility and SMR we now move around to the front, the probable cause of the dysfunction.

With SMR for the pectoral muscles we are looking to move up and down (Vertically), across (Horizontally) and in circles in each direction (clockwise and anticlockwise).

Passing over fibres and retracing our movements over the tighter and more uncomfortable areas (I’m not talking about muscle soreness here, instead chronic tightness) is literally allowing the body to relax and become more receptive.

It’s a feeling out process, a feedback loop, that the client and you yourself must become more proficient at listening to.

In the video you will see below, I find the tougher spots, add pressure, and then introduce movement. As I do this I am slowly regaining/increasing movement.

Start your clients with regular SMR with a medicine ball. Add the prone military press style movement and then a semi-circle shoulder sweep as a secondary stage.

Looking to improve the range of motion of the patterns while the pressure is on. This can be done on the floor, as in the video, or against a wall or pillar. It just depends on the preference of the client.

A Quick Summary

Stage 1 – Foam roll the upper back, and then work through extension and rotation with a foam roller.
Stage 2 – Pectoral SMR using the medicine ball or similar. Just allowing the client to get used to navigating the surface of their body using the tool. Horizontal and diagonal passes, and clockwise and anti-clockwise circles. For about 1 minute of each.
Stage 3 – Pinning down an area that is tighter and more inflamed with their body weight on the ball and adding in some simple movements. Partial, toward, full range shoulder presses and shoulder sweeps.

Remember, it’s going to be a slow and deliberate pressure that gets the greatest response from SMR.

Now the body and mind are moving into a more relaxed and parasympathetic state, it’s time to lengthen the fibres with a static hold or stretch. Pairing this with activators to help hold this posture in its newly lengthened state.

Next week, look out for pairing stretches with activations, the underpinning of it all. And exercise selection for the upright man and women.

Stay strong,

Coach Fletch.

Author - Fletcher Dalrymple - Personal Trainer & Mentor

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