Regardless of what your sporting goals are and where you are on the continuum from professional to weekend warrior, you’re going to need to develop your power, speed, strength, and endurance. But just as important is your ability to move well. Movement competence is the foundation on which all those other physical qualities are built, and just like the biblical parable, if you’re building your metaphorical house on sand, it’s going to crumble when a storm strikes. In this piece, let’s look at four movement errors you might be making, and then highlight the best ways to fix those.
1. Breathing Dysfunction
Wait a second, isn’t breathing a function, not a movement? It’s actually both. Yes, the action of taking a breath is an autonomous function that your body performs to survive, but it’s also intrinsically tied to movement because of all the muscles and supporting structures involved in respiration. If you get stuck in a dysfunctional breathing pattern, you start overemphasizing the muscles of the chest, shoulders, and upper back/neck. No wonder so many people hold tension in these areas. If you’re taking thousands of breaths per day from this area, the muscles and supporting tissues are doing double duty.
Mouth breathing, along with upper chest breathing, traps your body in a sympathetic stress state, which reinforces that negative feedback loop. My swim coach recently noted that I don’t breathe well when I’m in the pool and it throws my whole body off. In sports, we see this in the ribs flaring, which limits hip extension and emphasizes lumbar (low back) extension instead.
To break the cycle, lie down and put one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. Breathe normally and notice which hand is rising more. The hand on the chest will move a bit as the lungs inflate, but if you’re breathing correctly from your diaphragm, the belly hand should rise more. If not, then take a few slow inhales through your nose and notice the difference.
Once you’ve got a bit more breath awareness and can identify what a good breathing pattern looks and feels like, it’s time to incorporate some different positioning and movement. While standing, put your fingers on your ribs and take a nice, deep inhale through your nose. You should be able to feel your fingers separating. As you breathe out, imagine doing so forcefully through a straw. This will encourage you to pull your ribcage back down on each exhale. That’s the starting point for any kind of core training, because if you can stabilize your trunk with your breath, you’ll be better able to create the kind of tension you need to hold a plank, stay upright as you run, or maintain a hip hinge on your bike (more on this in #3 below).
2. Rowing/Horizontal Pull
The rowing machine or doing a seated row often exposes poor breathing mechanics too. People think they’re targeting their lats when they perform a horizontal pulling exercise, but because their breath pattern is bad, they can’t keep their ribs down and their shoulders flare up toward their ears. The shoulder joint also translates forward. Afterward, their traps are tight and their ribcage is sore. That all starts with how they’re breathing.
Rather than starting by fixing their rowing action, I begin with the breathing corrections mentioned above. From there, a wall push can be useful. To do it, start by facing a wall and put both palms against it. Now pull your shoulder blades back and then return to the start position. In this way, you’re priming your scapula to retract and protract, which is key to the rowing action.
Now it’s time for scapular wall slides. From a split stance position, lean forward until your face is almost touching the wall, with your palms on the flat surface. Slide your hands up the wall until they’re extended above your head. Now shrug your shoulders. Next, pull your shoulder blades back and down to deactivate your traps, and pull your arms back down. I learned about the importance of scapular retraction, rotation, and control from Eric Cressey, who has done a lot of fine work with pro baseball players and other athletes.
The next progression is to retract your scapula while holding the handle of a TRX Suspension Trainer and then walk underneath it. Next you can move onto a TRX scapular row, full TRX row, and then add resistance on the rowing machine or with a seated row to put all the elements together.
3. Hip Hinging
If you watch Nino Schurter — who won the European Championships last October and is an Olympic and world champion cyclist — he stays in a high hinge on not-so-steep terrain, but once the pitch steepens he drops into a low hinge. Even when he’s moving fast, he’s so solid in that position. Other riders can’t get into a good hinge to begin with, or their positioning falls apart when speed and fatigue start to take a toll. A workaround some people use is to just squat down, but that still takes their hips out of the equation and puts too much emphasis on their legs, especially the quadriceps. What you really need to be able to do is get your butt back and hinge without this big curve in your back that I see a lot of the taller guys doing, even on the pro circuit.
While you can’t perfectly recreate the conditions of downhill MTB off the bike, you can teach your body how to be resilient in a better hinge pattern. If you can achieve this, you won’t be putting all the load on your quads when you are charging hard on a fast course. The first thing you need to address is your range of motion. I use Gray Cook’s toe touch correction first, and then once you can touch your toes and feel comfortable doing so, I’d have you assume a kneeling position so we take your ankles, where some people have limited mobility, out of the equation.
To do that, you kneel while holding a light kettlebell behind your back. This forces you to be upright through the trunk, which is something you’ll need to maintain even as you hinge forward on your bike or in the gym. To get the most benefit, retract your shoulders and push your hips back against the bell.
From there, you can progress into doing a modified bridge from your knees, whereby you tuck your pelvis under to get into a good position. We can tie bridging back into your breathing, because to do a good bridge you need to exhale, tuck your pelvis, drive through your heels, and lift your hips up as you contract your glutes (aka, butt muscles). Once you can do this effectively, then I’d have you stand up and perform an unweighted hip hinge. Imagine bowing to the Queen of England, driving your butt back as you fold forward while keeping your torso organized. You can add a bit of resistance by using a band and utilize a TRX Suspension Trainer for stabilization if you feel wobbly. I sum it all up here.
As soon as you can achieve this consistently, we’ll move on to the banded press down. This requires you to not only stay tall with an organized spine but also to create tension as you do so. Start by generating torque from your feet up by screwing them into the floor. As you hinge at the hips, maintain abdominal tension as you press the band down. Putting an object into your hands helps trick yourself into maintaining alignment all along your spine, and with this particular exercise, the elasticity in the band helps push them back up into the starting position. Once you’ve gotten used to this, it’s time to challenge the integrity of your hinge by doing a light kettlebell deadlift. As you progress, you can start to add more weight and maybe progress to a two-handed kettlebell swing to add more speed and power into the mix, but only when you’re ready.
Another gap I see in many athletes’ movement is the ability to squat well, which is illuminated by the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) we have every new client go through. This can be rooted in poor breathing mechanics, or it might just be that this pattern has become rusty from lack of use. I like to start addressing this issue through unilateral work because this is very practical, transfers well to most sports, and doesn’t necessitate us doing a ton of remedial exercises with someone who has very tight ankles (which is common among cyclists and runners).
A good starting point is an isometric split squat. We start here to emphasize loading mechanics on the lead leg. The emphasis is on keeping an upright torso as you drive your foot into the ground and hold yourself in place for 3- to 5-second intervals. This exercise is similar to a lunge, but you keep your front and back feet in the same position until you finish the reps on each side. Want to change the stimulus? Then place your back foot up on a low bench. Once you’ve got the split squat down, then you can move onto lunges and squats.
For a bilateral squat, it’s definitely beneficial to go heavy with a barbell back or front squat. But for most people, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of their chest and doing a goblet squat will do the trick. This variation requires you to counteract the weight by staying upright, and some people can get more depth, too.
Once you get the forward lunge pattern down, you can begin to load it by holding a weight at your chest, dumbbells down by your sides, or, to really increase the difficulty of the movement by raising your center of gravity, holding a weight plate or medicine ball over your head. Doing some backward or reverse lunges can also provide your brain with a new challenge.
I’m a big fan of being barefoot when performing all these exercises because it exposes potential errors, like an inability to keep your big toes on the ground. If you can achieve this while keeping your heels and pinkie toes down as well, you’ve got a tripod of support that will help you create tension from the floor up, which helps you generate torque through your hips.
You can also practice your squat pattern in everyday life, whether it’s picking up a box from your front porch, retrieving a pan from a low shelf or drawer in your kitchen, or getting down to see what new LEGO creation your kid has built. As with every other movement archetype, the more you use your squat, the better range of motion you’ll have, and the more comfortable you will be in this position. If you address the four elements we discussed in this article, you’ll be well on your way to moving better and more sustainably, inside and outside the gym.