Are You Training With The Brakes On
I used to be a car guy. Growing up I loved reading Car and Driver and spent a hefty amount of my pizza-tossing “salary” pimping out my car with a very unnecessary stereo system. I was 16, what else does a kid spend his money on?!
Now I’m much older, wiser, and don’t own a car at all – something I’m very happy about! At the end of the day I’ve realized that while there are nice cars, practical cars, and dream cars, they get you from point “A” to point “B” all the same. The one day that doesn’t happen, sh** hits the fan!
But most times that “one day” likely could have been prevented. Perhaps you ignored the check engine light for months, failed to listen to the tire air pressure monitor for a few weeks, or maybe you flat out missed a whole year’s worth of oil changes because you “didn’t have the time” to take it to the shop.
Point being, cars nowadays are smart enough to tell you when something is going wrong – you simply choose to ignore it.
Like the car, your body has similar systems in place. Unlike the car its signs and symptoms may not be quite so obvious and thus allow you to train with your brakes on. This can lead to injury, poor performance, and/or failure to reach your goals. So what exactly do the brakes of the human body look like and how can you tell if you’re training with them on?
The Brakes of The Human Body
A car’s breaks are obvious:
- You know where to look for them (I hope)
- You know how to use them (I’d assume but based off my experience in LA that may not be the case)
- And you know what they feel like
Unfortunately, human brakes aren’t so obvious. Rather than a big object mounted inside your wheel or a pad you press on with your foot, human brakes are instead things like:
- Emotions – frustration, irritability, anger, etc.
- Sensory input such as pain or discomfort
- Tension and “tightness” surrounding a specific joint or joints
- Knee pain, etc.
Your body has no light to flash when something’s not right, so instead it gives you small signals to let you know something is wrong. Such as:
- Altering your breathing mechanics – using your chest, neck, and shoulders to help take a breath because your diaphragm is busy doing other jobs
- Headaches to let you know you’re scapular stability is non-existent and your upper traps are tired of being overused
- And back pain to let you know your core isn’t doing it’s job and your spine is tired of being the main system for support
“The most amazing thing about the human body is its ability to adapt. The worst thing about the human body is its ability to adapt” – Derek Johnson
The untrained eye is never going to see these compensations develop because you simply don’t know what to look for. Additionally, your body adapts slowly, over time; you’ve likely had no clue that you’ve done something wrong until one day “bam” you get out of bed and your back is wrecked – or perhaps you just missed the signals and let it go on too far.
How It Affects Your Training
When you try to pull out of a parking space with the parking brake on you often don’t get very far. Sometimes though, you’re able to slip out because it’s on ever so slightly – in which case damage to the various systems of your car is possible. Your body is no different.
If you’re tracking your program, here’s what you want/hope your progress to look like
If you’re training with your brakes on it might look like this instead.
It’s like a never-ending riddle that has, and will continue to, throw you for loop, after loop, after loop.
Common Brakes I See
My good friend and colleague Matt Uohara explained to me his definition of athletic ability a while back when we were working with some of his NFL athletes – simply “the ability to adapt.”
A very athletic individual will take minutes – sometimes seconds – to adapt to a foreign stimulus. That same stimulus might take your general population client weeks or months to adapt to. A general population client might have obvious signs of brakes, such as a significant rib flare during overhead pressing or lack of dorsiflexion during a squat.
The highly adaptable athlete likely needs a deeper look to figure out what his brakes are and how to remove them due to his superior adaptability. Here are some common “brakes” I tend to find with my mix of general population clients and professional athletes:
Can’t take a breath
This is 100% across the board. Again, my clients’ adaptability will determine how long it takes them to retrain their breathing mechanics. For some clients one set of 3-4 breaths is all they need. Others require daily intervention (often times there’s a deeper source to their problems such as their personal lives and/or job-related stress.) If you can’t breathe properly you’re going to have a hard time doing just about anything at a high level.
Lack of core stability
This is also fairly typical of most clients I see. There are a handful who have come in with prior training experience that have stronger mid-sections than others, but even then there’s still more work to be done. You core is your powerhouse; it’s your key to performance. True strength starts from the midline and works outward toward your limbs.
Control, control, control
And the majority of people don’t have much of it. Correcting the previous two problems is a great start in preventing future “check engine lights” from turning on. If you want to seriously own your movements you need to first own your shoulders, hips, and t-spine – your attachment sites.
How you can tell you’re training with the brakes on
I don’t have much a scientific answer here other than get assessed by a quality healthy and fitness professional. There are a number of organizations you can go through:
No matter how experienced you might be, it’s hard to be completely objective with yourself. Find someone who’s experienced and get assessed.
Are you insane!? Common sense that’s not so common
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again while expecting different results. It’s scary how insane most people’s workout routines are. Literally doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting different results.
If you’ve been working out 5 days a week, for 3 months and still aren’t seeing results my guess is you either have a crap program and/or you’re likely training with your brakes on.
Be objective when it comes to your progress, if you’re not making progress then something needs to change.
Regress to Progress
Attack the common denominators. For most this is going to seem FAR too elementary, but that’s likely the problem you face in the first place. You’ve skipped out on the elementary stuff and jumped straight to high school. Owning things like your ability to take a breath properly, how to maintain proper core stability while moving, and owning your bodyweight; these are prerequisites for all my clients before we move to any loaded variation of squat, deadlift, or press.
Diaphragmatic breathing is pivotal to your success. Buy a pack of balloons and retrain your breathing mechanics – it’s really not that hard. There’s a ton of drills you can do but if you want an easy one to start off with my go-to is the 90/90 hip lift.
Core Strength – close the canister
The canister that is your core has a top and bottom (your rib cage and your pelvic floor.) Keeping it closed is crucial to optimal movement and performance at a high level. Some of my favorite core drills are:
- Kettlebell Pullover
- Suitcase Carry
The key with each of these is maintaining a “closed canister.” You can easily achieve this by simply exhaling fully. You’ll note tension in your stomach as your rib cage drops closer to your pelvis –maintain that tension throughout the exercise.
Deadbugs and pullovers are a great place to start because the floor provides feedback for a closed canister – if there’s a gap between your low back and the floor your canister is open.
Controlling your attachment sites
I like to start every session with some work in these areas. No matter what you’re training that day it’s going to involve your shoulders, hips, and t-spine to some degree.
T-spine/Shoulder Control – Arm Bar
Both mobility and stability are interchangeable in the arm bar and that is a big reason why I use it extensively with all my clients.
- Shoulder mobility/stability
- T-spine mobility/stability
- Ground work/rolling patterns
If you listen to Gray Cook, you know that creating stability at a newly acquired range of motion is essentially what hits “save” in a movement pattern. Performing the arm bar properly will continually hit save as you progress through new ranges of motion.
Hip Control – Prying Goblets
Proper hip control requires tri-planar stability of the pelvis itself – a topic that goes beyond this post. However gaining control of your hips can be made a lot easier via the prying goblet. The prying goblet squat applies isometrics to a traditional deep squat, which is another great way to hit save on a movement pattern.
To recap, when you drive with the brakes on you can cause damage to your car. When you train with the brakes on you’re limiting your performance. Get assessed, find your bakes, and intervene with the proper means. In my experience this almost always involves correcting your breathing mechanics, increasing core strength and awareness, and gaining control of your attachment sites.