Yoga for Lifters (Part II): Loaded Yoga [UPDATED]
[UPDATE 04/2018. Originally published in 10/2016, it’s not as crappy as Yoga for Lifters (Part I) because I get fewer things wrong, but it’s still far from what it should be. Namely, everything in this article can be derived from biomechanics principles in a much more systematic way. Aside from reinventing the wheel, however, there’s nothing really wrong with it.]
This post is not about a yoga variant of Zui Quan. That would be fun, though.
Still, this is merely a follow-up on my previous post on the topic.
I concluded with an observation that the Turkish Get Up (TGU) and the Windmill are loaded variations of the yoga Side Plank pose (Vasisthasana) and Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana). And I suggested that the loaded variations are more appropriate for lifters.
Now, there’s a whole range of yoga poses that do not have loaded variants, and I don’t want to dismiss them. In fact, I believe that the most important yoga pose for lifters, or anyone else for that matter, is the Cat-Cow. As I found out, I’m in good company, with no less than Chad Waterbury and Stuart McGill.
(They call it the “Cat/Camel” for some reason, which is why I did not find out earlier. It seems incorrect, but who cares.)
I’ll get back to unloaded yoga in the future, but this post is about building the case for kettlebells-as-yoga-for-lifters. I start with some theory, and then give some practical advice. But here’s a short reading guide:
- If you are already convinced that you should do Windmills and TGUs but are not doing them, you can skip the theory and jump to the practicalities.
- If you think you can get away with not doing them, check some common excuses first, then decide whether you want to learn more. If not, you can forget about them. Until your shoulders hurt.
- When you’re done reading the post, don’t forget to tell all your friends about it. At least, hit the “Like” button. Please?
Theory: The Shoulder-Hip Complex
Shoulders and hips have many common features, but I’ll stick to 2: (1) shoulder and hip joints are ball-and-socket joints, allowing in principle for a greater range of motion than other types of joints; and: (2) they are surrounded by muscles that everybody loves to stretch.
The link between (1) and (2) is that everybody is aware of how their shoulders and hips should be able to move, but few people actually access their full range of motion. In order to address movement restrictions, most people will address by stretching the surrounding musculature.
That’s where they hit a snag.
In fact, stretching can actually make tightness worse. Tony Gentilcore briefly makes the point in a recent video:
Gentilcore’s point is specific to instability caused by anterior pelvic tilt, but the point generalizes: instability causes protective tension, which results in perceived tightness, and poorly-executed stretches can increase instability.
This instability is (mostly) a postural issue. Our skeleton and muscles have evolved to be stable while walking, standing, etc. But cultural evolution, which out-paces biological evolution by an order of magnitude, has brought us desk jobs, frequent driving, Netflix binge-watching, and more generally, sitting.
And with them, anterior pelvic tilt.
In fact, Dr. Suart McGill, a leading expert on the spine, considers that postural issues are the first cause of lower back pain. [UPDATE 04/2018. Poorly chosen pop-sci article. Still great, but the ‘real’ science is much better. The practical advice is still ok tho.] McGill’s article features this figure, which gets us from hips to shoulders:
Figure 1: Poor standing posture (A) leads to constant spine load and chronic contracture of the erector spinae muscles, causing muscular pain. With improved posture (B), pain can be relieved.
Character A exhibits both anterior pelvic tilt, and its common companion aptly called forward head posture. Character B exhibits neither. Try now to picture A and B reaching overhead. The result would be something like the picture below.
From there, assume that A and B want to press a load overhead. Somewhat simplifying movement mechanics, their options are:
- pull the scapulae down, using (mostly) mid-back;
- pull the scapulae up, using (mostly) upper back;
- arch at lower back;
- some combination of 1&3 or 2&3
A’s spine, with its anterior pelvic tilt, is a set up for scenarios 3 or 4. B’s spine is not. His lower back is at much lower risk than A’s.
The take-home point of this example is that there is no sense in addressing shoulder and hip mobility/stability in isolation.
And that’s precisely what loaded yoga will not let you do.
Question 1: Posture, uh? What about lower/mid/upper back? Abs? Glutes? Hell, quads?
Answers: Don’t worry, they’ll get plenty of work with TGUs and Windmills. They’ll stabilize the pelvis (glutes, abs & quads) and shoulder girdle (abs, lower/mid/upper back). If you want to add some more work later, consider unilateral bench pressing or landmine presses. Because science, and Pavel.
Question 2: I have no anterior pelvic tilt, what about that?
Answer: Let’s hope you do not have it when you lift.
Postural issues go hand-in-hand with muscular imbalance, a notion coined by Dr. Vladimir Janda and often used without due credit. Some imbalances that don’t affect daily life much, show up when you add load.
Case in point, one of my clients, who looks a lot like B. when standing, used to arch at the lower back when holding a heavy load overhead. He’s a competitive weightlifter, and he trains every day, so I convinced him to fix that before any pain occurred. A daily dose of Windmills has taken him a long way.
Question 3: I’m a powerlifter, what about that?
Answer: Specificity. I get it. You don’t need to press overhead. You don’t need to be able to tie shoelaces, either.
Yet, most powerlifters do press overhead, if only to prevent the kind of shoulders injuries that often comes with benching frequently. That’s a smart decision, but poorly executed overhead presses will make things worse, hurt the lower back, and affect negatively squat and deadlift. If prehab leads you to rehab, what’s the point of it?
Question 4: I’m a weightlifter, what about that?
Answer: I will go out on a limb here. I believe that the shoulder mobility of weightlifters is rarely as good as they think it is.
I am lacking hard (=statistical) evidence for this, but I have anecdotal one — the client from the answer to Question 2, and a bunch of others I’ve observed — and common sense.
Indeed, when you stabilize a barbell overhead, you get some additional stability by “pulling the bar apart”: the force pushes the arms down (see my poor attempt at graphic representation on the right-hand side). This action fights mobility restrictions with effort.
Try pulling that off with a kettlebell.
Less effort means greater efficiency. Who wouldn’t want that?
Conditioning the Shoulder-Hip Complex
Overhead kettlebell lifts such as TGUs and Windmills can be performed in two ways:
- muscling the kettlebell in place by squeezing the shoulder, tricep, and forearm as hard as you can throughout the lift;
- balancing the kettlebell with the least amount of tension sufficient to keep the bell from falling on you while you move.
Everybody begins with 1. Provided that they do not get fooled by their overhead strength, they can graduate to 2. pretty soon, because the lifts are self-correcting: the weight provides with feedback that helps with finding the right position and getting rid with mobility restrictions due to protective tension.
Unloaded yoga cannot help you with that, and overhead barbell work only gets you so far.
As for practical recommendations, here’s a 3–step guide to getting you started. As Steve Cotter puts it, “the TGU is the foundation of all overhead lifts”, so that is where you should start. With a twist:
Step 1: Practice the TGU from the standing position.
I owe this one to the Bulgarian Viking, who got it from Steve Maxwell. First, get the bell in the rack position safely with two hands (like so), and press it overhead. Say it’s in your left hand: lunge back and find the ground with your right knee. Then, shifting your left hip further to the left, find the ground with your right hand. Don’t bend the spine (think: “Pavel!“). Then thread your right leg, etc.
You’ll get it right the first time you try, guaranteed. Not pretty, but right. To make it pretty,
Step 2: Make it a rep drill.
This time, start from the floor. Hone your technique by repping the steps of the TGU that give you trouble. You can check Steve Cotter’s instructional video for a breakdown. Or that one from Kettlebell Movement, which gives examples of partial drills. When your movement is smooth,
Step 3: Graduate to the Windmill
Windmills are safe provided that you avoid spinal flexion and torsion, as stressed in the StrongFirst standards. [UPDATE 04/2018. Someone at StrongFirst knows their biomechanics.]
Train with a pink bell, if you must. Pink dumbbells are just dumb, but pink kettlebells are badass.
Don’t worry too much about it, though. If you come to the Windmill from the TGU, you already know how to hinge and rotate without flexing or bending.
The Windmill brings the action to the next level, but the time under load is shorter. Stick with a weight light enough to muscle it if necessary, and heavy enough to get fatigued if you do it too much, and you’ll do just fine.
And that’s it. There’s little more to loaded yoga than that.