I hope you enjoy it! – MR
One reason why I like Mike Robertson is because he keeps his work short and to the point, so I’m going to do my best to do the same.
In the gym, it’s important that we remember that we’re only as strong as our weakest link. I’m constantly reminding my clients (and myself) of this saying.
Personally, I like to base my clients’ training, and my own training, around execution of primal movement patterns – the large movements like squat, bend, push, pull, and so on. Corresponding exercises of course would include the barbell squat, lunge, shoulder press, pull ups, rows, and bench.
This isn’t all it takes however.
See, when we realise that we’ve hit a plateau, or that there’s an evident weakness when it comes to any one of the big movements, it takes zeroing into the fine details to take that step towards progression.
The goal I have for my clients in terms of functionality is to be able to perform proper variations of all the primal movement patterns, and perform the necessary accessory work to help them achieve those patterns if there are any difficulties doing so.
Therefore, I try to frame all my workouts around those core movements until we can train with as few deviations as possible from said movements.
That said, this article is going to be all about those deviations. No one is perfect – especially not in today’s car-driving, desk-jockeying, baby-carrying, backpack-wearing, mirror-muscle-training world.
So when we do encounter weak links, we have to be prepared to properly self-diagnose an issue and address it accordingly. Let’s go over some choice areas of weakness for the big stuff.
Performing a solid squat differs in technical description from coach to coach, but to keep things simple I’m going to do what some coaches hate (but most love) and use the good old baby example.
Babies can squat with their feet flat on the floor and the butt all the way down to their heels, while maintaining a neutral spine. It’s understandable that as we develop, our proportions change so that this position may not be as welcome, but it’s still ideal to possess the flexibility and mobility necessary to get a full depth squat with as neutral a spine as possible.
There are certain markers that can bar us from being able to achieve this position, however. Let’s go through them one by one.
Tightness in the hip flexors
Hip flexor tightness can lead to overarch in the lower back. This problem can actually act on the pelvic girdle as a whole. The deeper the squat, the more a pair of tight hips will cause the lower back to contort itself to compensate.
That’s when you start seeing the pelvis make a severe “tuck” underneath once the thigh reaches parallel, or in some cases, before. Improving hip mobility is a major player in achieving greater squat depth, so that the hips don’t act on the pelvis prematurely. One of my favourite movements to address this is the spiderman walk.
Aside from this, standard lunge-position hip flexor stretching can help, along with exercises like glute bridges to activate the opposing muscles to act against the tightness of the agonist.
Weakness in the VMO
The vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is commonly known as the “teardrop” muscle, located on the medial side, or inside of the knee. Often times, the knees will collapse towards each other during loaded squats, especially at the bottom portion of each repetition.
The VMO shows itself to be a weak link in an instance like this as its job is to affect the tracking of the knee straight ahead when it is in proper working order. The truth is, the VMO works hardest when the knee is forced forward over the toe for more quad dominance in a given leg movement. With this in mind, terminal knee extensions are a great way to activate dormant VMO muscles, seen here:
One more exercise to focus on is the Peterson step up. Use a low box, and plant one foot on it. Lower the other foot to the floor while allowing the knee of the working foot to track forward over the toe. Use the ball of the working foot to push into the box and drive back up to your starting position. Progress this exercise by elevating the height of the box – not by adding weight.
Poor Ankle Mobility
Especially if you’re a taller lifter or an athlete with very long legs, you may have a problem due to poor dorsiflexion or overall ankle mobility. The knee will have to migrate forward over the toe measurably in order to reach a sufficient squat depth, and if you can’t achieve this, you’ll be in trouble (and your low back will be too!).
Check out this video to get a great suggestion on improving ankle mobility.
Once you’ve got it all down, start goblet squatting. Goblets really help to engrain the full range movement pattern into your body’s muscle memory and take advantage of a front load and counter-balance in the process.
Whether we’re talking about standing press, seated dumbbell press, bench press, incline press, floor press, board press, push press, or any other type of press you can think of, there are many consistencies that come from a poor performance. The biggest one that readily comes to mind is this:
Poor Scapular Stability
The muscles of the upper back and scapulae (shoulder blades) are the MOST important dictators of your pressing strength. It almost sounds backwards to think that your back strength dictates your “front” strength, but it’s the truth.
When instability rears its ugly head when pushing a bar away from your body (and this usually shows in the form of the bar “wavering” into an inconsistent bar path, or just a weak push), it’s easy to shut down and conclude that you just need more practice pressing, or focusing on accessory movements that are directly involved in the action of pressing, like triceps lockouts, front deltoid work, or pin presses.
Although there’s nothing wrong with these exercises, they likely won’t solve the root of the problem.
The rotator cuff muscles all originate on the scapulae, and making them stronger will have a direct effect on the stability of the bar in your hands when you push it. Knowing this, it’s fitting to blast your upper back and row to oblivion!
One arm dumbbell rows, face pulls, seated rows and bentover rows are all great choices when it comes to fixing this weak link.
The Problem with Pull Ups
You may notice poor stability in your presses, even if you’re a lifter who performs a lot of pull ups. Pull ups generally attack the depressors of the shoulder blades, and not the retractors. Therefore, the lats and lower traps will get a more effective workout.
A trick here is to change to a supinated, close grip chin up. Despite using more biceps to perform this lift, you’ll get much better isolation for the muscles of the upper back, and add the necessary thickness in the process.
And Speaking of Pull Ups…
They’ve got to be the number 1 most difficult exercise to master. Lifters male and female alike have issues developing starting strength, which helps set the shoulders and engage the back muscles before recruiting the arms to do all the work. Among others, I’ll attribute to the most commonly UNADDRESSED problem.
Weak Lower Traps
Trainees have no problem killing their upper traps with shrugs, cleans, snatches, overhead movements, and other exercises that make them sore to the touch the next day. There are very few exercises that train the lower traps in particular, but the trap-3 raise is my favourite.
Remember to set the shoulder between reps to ensure the back muscles are engaged – otherwise the deltoids will take over just like any typical front raise.
Kyphosis of the Thoracic Vertabrae
One more issue that could be considered a “weakness” is a poorly structured skeletal frame. If our bones aren’t facilitating our muscles’ activation due to their makeup, then it makes sense take steps needed to adjust that.
Kyphosis refers to the rounding of the mid back. Some curvature is acceptable, but when you resemble a question mark from the side, then a few tweaks need to be made. When the spine isn’t where it should be, it causes the muscles of the back to be held long and tight (taut) and discourages them from contracting to counter that spinal position.
To avoid this from becoming your problem, try doing foam roller extensions. Lie down face up, and place a foam roller under you, across the back just beneath the shoulder blades (in your thoracic region). Gently extend the shoulders back towards the floor, to “push” your mid back into an extension. This will help the spine get accustomed to extending in a much more suitable direction.
(Note from MR: Make sure what you’re seeing is a true kyphosis, not a flat t-spine with a sunken chest wall on one, or both, sides. More on that in the thoracic spine section of my warm-up blog.)
Weak Links No More
Before you fill my inbox with hate mail, I’ll be the first to admit that there are countless more weak links that can be derived from all the exercises I chose to go over today. I was simply providing a guide to a few common ones (and not – so- common ones) that I’ve seen and had experience fixing.
Put these nuggets of wisdom to good use and send your weak links to the crypt in no time.
Lee Boyce is one of the bright young talents in the fitness industry. By the age of just 22 he had his first fitness article published by a major company. Since then, he’s become a sought after strength coach based in Toronto, Ontario, and is a TV Fitness expert, Public speaker, and regular contributor to many of the most popular fitness magazines in the world, including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, TNATION, and Muscle&Fitness.