The Barbell Coaching Series: The Deadlift Part 1

In 1987 at the World’s Strongest Man Competition in Scotland, the first ever four-time champion of the event, Jon Pall Sigmarsson, famously shouted, “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift!”  He was able to scream these words while holding 1153 pounds.  You should watch it here.  In that short clip, there is a lot to talk about, but in this post and video we will cover why it is important to deadlift and some tips on how to get started.

DL off floor goodHaving been involved in strength training and fitness for a while now, it seems that the fear of deadlifting is beginning to subside.  In the past, if you were not into powerlifting or strongman, or trying to be strong, performing the deadlift was a scary proposition.  People would only hear the word “dead” and think that performing this exercise was going to kill you and destroy your back.  As people are starting to learn, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The deadlift trains a very important movement pattern, the hinge.  It requires bracing of the midsection and thoroughly activates the posterior chain.  If done heavy enough, almost every muscle in the body becomes a contributor, which is why the deadlift is thought by many to be the truest test of full body strength.   From middle school to the elderly, the deadlift, or some form of it, should be in your training regimen.  

The following training advice will refer to teaching someone how to deadlift with a barbell.  Yes, there are other tools that can be used like a kettlebell or trap bar (or gigantic train wheels with a square axle like Jon Pall) but the barbell is king.  They are easy to find and easy to use, especially in the step-by-step progression we are going to teach you.  
When beginning, there are two lessons that need to be understood.  The first is how to hinge.  We have written many articles about how to load the posterior chain when doing KB swings and drills that can be used to teach the hinge movement pattern.  All of those drills will prove valuable in your trainer tool kit.  See one of our many recommended drills here.

Things start to change though when weight is added, which is why you also have to teach lesson two, how to load tension throughout the body/bar system.  The easiest way we have found to teach both of these things at the same time, is the “rack pull” or deadlift off of blocks.  

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 12.18.19 PM
The bar height, instead of roughly around the mid-shin when lifting off the floor, will be around the knees, just like it is in the Jon Pall video.  One of the characteristics of a deadlift is a more horizontal than vertical spine.  In the video, Jon Pall drives his knees under the bar and with a vertical spine extends the load off the ground using his knees.  When teaching beginners off the blocks we do something slightly different.  We coach people to have a smaller knee bend and a more horizontal spine, which pushes the load to the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and lats.  Just to be clear, we are in no way being critical of Jon Pall’s technique, that would be ridiculous.  He used more of a squatting technique for a specific reason just as we are using more of a hinge.  Watch the video below for specifics of how we use the short range of motion deadlift to teach beginners the basics of pulling well and pulling heavy.  

There is much, much more to come on this topic and other barbell exercises so stay tuned!

The Kettlebell Coaching Series: The Turkish Get-Up Part 3

We’re finally back… fresh off a CKI Level 1 Seminar. It’s about time we wrap up The Turkish Get-Up. We have already discussed how to perform and coach the Get-Up along with a variety of cuing tips and coaching drills (see our last 2 blogs here: Part 1 Part 2). Now we’re going to talk safety.
Logically, The Get-Up requires students to express a full range of shoulder flexion (among other things) on the kettlebell side. Well… this can get hairy for many as a limitation in shoulder flexion is common. We recommend evaluating shoulder flexion when possible before having a student perform overhead work. Many use the Function Movement Screen to determine whether or not overhead work is safe. While we like the idea in concept (of using the FMS), we are big proponents of directly measuring shoulder flexion.

How to measure shoulder flexion:

Shoulder Flexion Test

Have the student stand with their back against a wall and their heels a little less than a foot from the wall. Their head, upperback and tailbone should all be and remain in contact with the wall.

Shoulder Flexion Test 2Shoulder Flexion Test 3

From this position, have the student flex one shoulder to 90 degrees (the arm should be in front of them and at shoulder height) with a straight elbow and their thumb up. Tell them to raise their arm up until their thumb hits the wall while maintaining a straight elbow. They must maintain the aforementioned 3 points of contact on the wall. If successful, their shoulder flexion is not limited.

If they cannot reach the wall they are limited. If they reach the wall, but either bend the elbow OR extend their spine they are limited.

Why having a full range of motion (ROM) is critical:

Let’s start of by defining the term “structural load”. A structural load is a load in which the weight/kettlebell/external force is positioned in a way that allows for the joints to remain in an optimal position and for the load to be transferred further up/down the chain to the “core”. Additionally, the load is close to your center of mass. It simply comes down to how the student positions their body relative to the load. An easy example to help with this concept is to go grab a dumbbell or kettlebell. This weight should be a weight you are very comfortable and confident in holding overhead. Seriously. Go get one. Stand up and safely press the object overhead. Once overhead, position the object so that the fist is directly over the shoulder joint while maintaining a straight elbow. If your joints and spine are all neutral and your core is active, you should feel as if this weight is very manageable. Maybe even a little light. Your Lats, anterior core, and posterior core should all be wide awake and helping your maintain this position. Notice you don’t feel too much in your Delt. This is representative of a structural load. Now follow all the same steps, but then allow the weight to get a bit further in front of you and a little lower to the ground (less shoulder flexion). The farther from your body and your center of mass, the harder it is for your core to assist. In fact, go far enough forward and it begins to feel as if your Delt is on an island.  This is not a structural load. Therefore, in The Get-Up a structural load is what you want to maintain throughout.

What happens when you do overhead with bad positioning:

pav1When performing overhead work, such as Turkish Get-Up, Waiter’s Walks, Presses, or Snatches, it’s important to have a neutral spine for a variety of reasons. Maintaining a neutral spine puts the student in an optimal position to brace and maintain stability throughout the exercise. If the student has limited shoulder flexion, getting the working arm(s) into the optimal position without compromising joint position elsewhere is impossible. Specifically, extension of the spine, lateral shifting and/or rotation of the pelvis, and flexion of the elbow are all common compensations. This will logically put high levels of stress on the elbow or somewhere in the spine increasing the chances of injury.

How to Spot The Turkish Get-Up:

Knowing where you need to be any when are critical to safely spotting the Get-Up. This video will help you understand ideal position for the coach.

Time to wrap it up:
After reading our last three installments on The Turkish Get-Up you should be quite a bit more knowledgeable on the intricacies of performance, evaluating, and cuing, etc. However, in order to be an effective coach (especially in this case) it’s critical for you to master the exercise. We highly recommend performing many, many, many Get-Ups before you start coaching others. If you have any questions or anything of value to add to coaching the Turkish Get-Up please don’t hesitate to reach out to us through our website, social media, or even a call.
Next Seminar:
Saturday, 11/14/15 from 8:00am – 5:00pm at McKenna’s Gym in Fawn Grove, PA. Visit our store to register: $75 off until 10/14 with coupon code MCKENNA75

The Kettlebell Coaching Series: The Turkish Get Up Part 1

The Turkish Get-Up is awesome and is the best exercise your are not doing. Legend claims It’s at least 200 years old and is thought to have been created for soldiers fighting with shields and swords as a means to get from their back to a standing position when an enemy was on top of them. While its history is impressive, its training impact on training and performance is even more significant. One of the most respected professionals in our industry, Gray Cook, said “The Turkish Get-Up is the perfect example of training primitive movement patterns-from rolling over, to kneeling, to standing and reaching. The Get-Up promotes the shoulders’ stability and mobility. It improves one’s strength in many patterns by teaching the importance of linkage while eliminating strength leakage.” We can’t forget, it also provides the opportunity to functionally evaluate the right and left sides.

While it is amazing one exercise can do all the above (and more), performing and coaching this exercise can be extremely challenging. As a result, many fitness professionals either pretend it doesn’t exist or do some bastardized version they think is just as good. This 2-part series will put you in a position to understand how to perform the Get-Up AND the intricacies of coaching it.

DSC_0971An ideal place to start is with your sneaker. Yes, that’s right… your sneaker. In lieu of a kettlebell, we recommend you begin this process by balancing a sneaker on your fist. We also recommend mastering the Half Get-Up before moving the to “full” Get-Up.

The Half Get-Up is separated into 5 steps:

1: Roll

2: Press

3: Drive up to the elbow

4: Post up onto your hand

5: High bridge

Here are step-by-step instruction on teaching the half get-up:

Now it’s inevitable you will come across some issues along the way. Two very common issues to watch for are the knee on the kettlebell side going valgus at the initiation of the high bridge and shoulder packing.

Here’s one strategy to fix a valgus knee on the kettlebell side:

Here’s a great drill to use to help with shoulder packing on the kettlebell side:

Additional key item to address:

I. What to do with your head and eyes:

It’s important to look at the kettlebell through the entire half get up. However, you should begin to teach this when practicing with a sneaker. If you think about it… there is a heavy piece of iron over your head. Given the fact that you are actively moving your body beneath it, it is a really good idea to keep your focus on the kettlebell. Safety is a real concern here, especially when venturing towards “heavy” kettlebells. We’ll go over spotting in our next post.

II. Setting up after the press


Get very, very familiar with this position if you are going to perform and/or coach get ups. Setting up correctly after the press sets the stage for the rest of the get up. If your limbs aren’t correctly aligned you might not have the leverage you’ll need to successfully perform a Get-Up. This could mean a failed attempt OR losing the kettlebell and ending up with a serious injury to your cranium.

Notice these key points:

  1. The arm on the kettlebell side is straight (elbow and wrist), the shoulder is packed, and the fist is directly above the shoulder joint.
  2. The leg on the kettlebell side is bent at the knee and the foot is just outside the width of the hip
  3. The arm on the non-kettlebell side is at a 45 degree angle relative to the torso
  4. The leg on the non-kettlebell side is straight

III. Connection with the ground:

There are two key connections to the ground that you want to move as little as possible through the get-up.

  1. The foot on the kettlebell side
    1. This foot SHOULD NOT move once you have pressed the kettlebell while on your back and set up your limbs for the drive to the elbow. Anchor it down and keep it there. This is where much of your stability will come from.
  2. The hand on the non-kettlebell side
    1. You will often see people moving this hand around before going into the high bridge. While you must externally rotate your shoulder and as a result point your fingers away from your body, DO NOT move the location of this hand in relation to your body. If you set up correctly it’s already in the best place to provide adequate stability and leverage.

IV. Shoulder Packing:

Getting your shoulder packed and staying there throughout the get up is no easy feat, but it’s critically important for your shoulder health. You have to go over the concept of shoulder packing before touching the Get-Up. Cover this concept in other exercises (deadlifts, push ups, any/all upper body pulls, etc.) before performing get ups. This is yet another reason to master the Half Get-Up before moving the to Full Get-Up. Packing your shoulders gets progressively harder the “higher’ (further into shoulder flexion) the arm. In other words, it easiest to pack your shoulders with your arms at your sides (farmer’s carry). It the hardest to pack your shoulders when you are at or near 180 degrees of shoulder flexion (waiter’s walk, pull ups, pressing, etc.).

V. Speed bumps

Treat each step in the get-up individually. In other words, think about your next step, perform the action, and then pause. Many refer to these pauses between each step as speed bumps. We reference these speed bumps in the screwdriver video. While the get-up is intended to be a beautiful and graceful set of movements it is also intended to be approached methodically and with focus. Do not blend any of the individual steps into one. You’ll get sloppy and likely increase the chances of a mistake… and remember you still have the big piece of iron over your head so mistakes can be costly.

Please recognize there are many more items to address in the get up. While many of these will be covered in our next post, we won’t address everything as there are simply too many subtle points to address when coaching this exercise. The best way to learn EVERYTHING is to attend a live seminar. If you’re interested visit our homepage to learn more about our CKI-1 Seminar at West Chester University of Pennsylvania this October.

Hungry for more information right now? Check out the below step-by-step half get up pictures in sequential order.


The Kettlebell Coaching Series Pt 3: Shoulder Packing

Our next installment in the “KCS” is centered around shoulder packing. In many ways, this is a follow up to an old post titled Scapular Stability Matters. However, we will focus more on coaching strategies and techniques used to address shoulder packing rather than getting all “sciencey” on you like last time.
Shoulder packing defined:
blog-examprep-091313-2To put it simply, shoulder packing occurs when you depress and retract your “shoulders”.
Take a minute right now to do the following (from a position of good posture… neutral head, upright torso, etc.): Press your shoulders down (depress) towards the ground and pinch your shoulder blades inward (retract) towards your spine. Now activate your lats… this might take a little work for some people. However, the cue of “you have a $100 bill between your arm and ribs… don’t lose it” usually works.  Congrats… you just packed your shoulders. If you wanted to take this a step further and brace your torso and pelvis refer back to the BOSS Position from one of our previous posts.
The Lats:
latissimus-dorsiSo much of this comes down to getting students to become aware of their Lats (and other “scapular muscles”) and learning how to get and keep them engaged. This is an important skill… not just for swings, but also for deadlifts, push ups, rows, goblet squats, overhead press, etc etc etc. Noticing a trend here?  Shoulder packing is a fundamental skill which needs to be taught (along with bracing) before performing most power, strength, and even core stability exercises. To get specific to the Lat’s role… The Lat attaches to the spine from T7 to L5 and has quite a few responsibilities…
“The latissimus dorsi is responsible for extensionadduction, transverse extension also known as horizontal abduction, flexion from an extended position, and (medial) internal rotation of the shoulder joint. It also has a synergistic role in extension and lateral flexion of the lumbar spine.”
In addition to being a prime mover or assister in a variety of movements the Lat also has the capacity to stop movement… When the Lat is isometrically contracted T7 to L5 is stabilized. When the contraction is strong enough (a sufficient MVC… see our last article if your unsure of this term) it creates stability in that segment of the spine. On the other hand, no engagement of your Lats means little to no rigidity in that portion of the spine. Therefore, you are likely to see flexion and/or rotation in that segment. This is a bad thing in nearly all exercises. As a “fitness coach” you need to recognize the difference between packed and unpacked shoulders then coach students to understand the concept / acquire this skill.
To the bell
Lets take a quick look at what a kettlebell swing looks like when a student fails to pack their shoulders. Here’s Brett, a CKI-1, at the beginning of our last CKI Seminar.
Brett’s rounded shoulders and thoracic flexion are obvious at the top of his swings. Both are clear indicators that his shoulders are NOT packed.  Brett cleaned this up in short order… In this next video we compare Brett’s initial swing to his new swing 30-minutes later after some skill work at a CKI-1 Seminar.
Now that you’ve seen the difference… let’s talk about corrections… Also: Thank you Brett… he has an exceptional swing now!
Here are a few drills we like to use to correct this issue:
As we always say… please keep in mind that there are many, many more options (for example: for some students all you need to do is introduce the high tension plank). However, we have found these drill to be some of the most effective in helping students acquire the skill of maintaining a packed shoulder.
In Brett’s case he only needed 1 drill to clean up his posture and it wasn’t any of the drill from aboveFor Brett, it was all about  the hip hinge drill. While this is not one we always use for this issue, if it works… it works.
Unfortunately, “Lat Amnesia” seems to be as much of an issue as “Glute Amnesia”. So… when you see a student having a hard time packing / keeping their shoulder packed (and you will see this) try some of the drills above.  Try other drills too… find what works. Go with whatever drill or corrective most effectively helps the student engage their lats / maintain a packed shoulder. Its all about quality practice. For those of you who read The Talent Code… as you know… it all about building myelin.
Great news you can learn so much more about kettlebell training on Saturday, 6/13/15 at Mavlern Prep. It’s our next scheduled CKI-1 Seminar.
Before we let you go… one last thing… A big congrats to Erik and the The Miller Family on the birth of Lola (FYI: this is Joe writing this and not Erik congratulating himself)

The Kettlebell Coaching Series Pt 2: Glute Activation

Glutes. There is a lot of talk about butt muscles these days. Two months ago Tiger Woods blamed his poor play on the inability to fire his glutes during his swing.  While we are not sure that was the problem for Tiger, lack of muscular contraction in the glutes is an issue for many people. As a result, a lot of time and effort is spent by trainers, S&C Coaches, and performance coaches simply trying to get the glutes to “fire”.

Here’s a very brief anatomy / physiology review of the glutes

glutes2The glutes along with the “abs” are prime stabilizers of the pelvis and torso. The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The three muscles originate from the illium and sacrum and insert on the femur. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the gluteal muscles and one of the strongest in the body. Its action is to extend and to laterally rotate the hip, and also to extend the trunk.

Everyone wants to “strengthen their core”, but it seems we overlook the glutes. A term was coined (not sure by whom) to describe the inability to contract the gluteal muscles. That term is “Gluteal Amnesia”. Basically it means we forget how to contract our glutes. This is a real issue for some people. Sitting for long periods can lead to the gluteal muscles atrophying through constant pressure and disuse. This is also associated with lower back pain and difficulty with some movements that naturally require the glutes (i.e. rising from the seated position, and climbing stairs).

Glutes and Swings


When it comes to kettlebell swings, a strong gluteal contraction is critical to produce adequate power to correctly perform the movement and to stabilize/protect the lumbar spine. Based upon the information above it is clear steps might need to be taken in order to make sure the glutes do their job in the swing to prevent disaster. There are many simple drills to help students fire those glutes.

Here’s a few we really like…

Please keep in mind that there are many, many more options. However, we have found these drills to be effective in helping students learn to reach a high level of Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC). MVC is the greatest amount of tension you can apply to a muscle. It is important to ensure your students can generate an adequate level of glute MVC before performing swings.

Given the risk… why swing at all?

It is the fitness professional’s job to measure the risk and reward of each exercise. When the reward outweighs the risk it’s reasonable to consider adding the exercise in question. We all know that there is an inherit risk in swinging kettlebell, aka a cannonball with a handle. However, good coaching combined with the right movement prep and drills can significantly reduce the risk of injury in the swing. Additionally, the potential rewards are substantial. Research has proven that kettlebell swings are an incredible exercise for your “core”, posterior chain, and more specifically glutes. Two recent studies published by Stu McGill and Leigh Marshall in January 2012 and another by Kreutzfeldt Zebis and colleagues in July 2012 showed a very high MVC of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).

Muscle % MVC
Glute Maximus 76
Glute Medius 70
Semitendinosus 115
Bicep Femoris 93

McGill also included a case study on Pavel Tsatsouline and when swinging a 32KG bell he was able to achieve 100% peak muscle activation in the glute maximus and over 150% in his erector spinae.

As a frame reference, the glute MVC numbers for some other “hip extension” exercises are 55% MVC in the Deadlift and 52% in the Sumo Deadlift (as per Bret Contreras).

Bringing it together

Teaching your students to brace their core to protect their spine and minimize “energy leakage” is a basic skill that MUST be taught. Practicing this skill until it becomes automatic is critical so that your student can safely progress to higher level activities. While kettlebell swings are a great hip extension exercise that helps develop strong glutes, laying the foundation of gluteal activation and general bracing strategies are essential, otherwise swings simply aren’t safe.  If you follow this model, adding swings to a student’s program will upgrade their movement skills and general fitness.