What if there was a way you could instantaneously improve your strength?
No need to wait for fatigue to set in and adaptation to follow, I’m referring to concepts which will immediately alter your ability to generate force.
In other words, you may actually be able to impress your gym crush without having to resort to your usual antics…for real though bro, it’s time to throw away the stringer, joggers, and elevation training mask.
In the words of Louie Simmons, “Don’t have $100 shoes and a 10-cent squat.”
I’m not talking about simple, passive modalities. Hamstring stretching is dead, leave it in the 80s where it belongs. It’s time to discuss smart, applied biomechanics.
Efficient Movement is Strong Movement
Have you ever noticed that the best athletes seem to be the most efficient movers? Movement appears effortless and as such, it seems easy to the observer. However, despite what most arm chair quarterbacks might claim, untrained individuals will likely struggle to generate high rates of force during unfamiliar movements.
Despite what your preworkout may be telling you, you’re not going to squat double bodyweight on day 1. Unfortunately, that’s just how human physiology works and your body is no exception – you train, get fatigued, recover, and then adapt.
You can primarily increase force production through 2 main avenues:
- Increased cross sectional area (CSA) of the muscle fiber (i.e. hypertrophy) – aka get “jacked”.
- Improved motor unit recruitment and rate coding (i.e. the number of signals sent to your muscles from your nervous system) – aka brain gainz.
The first is primarily physiological in nature and the second is more neural in nature. Now, without turning this into an extremely complex discussion of neuromuscular physiology, suffice it to say, there is an overlap between these mechanisms. But, for the context of this article we are going to primarily focus on the second point of discussion.
As I noted in a previous article (Deadlift Domination: 5 Tips for 5 Plates),
"Movement competency occurs when someone can complete a motor pattern without having to actively think about it or cue themselves within the movement.
Weight lifting is a learned skill which takes time to acquire. In the end your main goal should be to progress from a state where movement only occurs with conscious thought to a point where the skill can be executed without any internal or external cueing.”
However, if one cannot achieve a certain position due to muscular, bony, or neural limitations (more on this later), then their ability to conceptualize and execute the movement will be drastically reduced. Therefore, these strategies are primarily designed to reduce neural tension and examine end ranges to enhance movement competency.
Get Tight! Stay Safe?
Muscles are intrinsically dumb. They don’t understand what you’re trying to pick up or why you want to resemble Arnold in his prime. They don’t even recognize that they’re essentially slaves to your central nervous system.
Think about the last concert you went to…you remember it, right? Let’s hope so. Maybe it was Bonnaroo, Coachella, or Ultra. Or maybe your buddy Ralph threw an absolute rager in his backyard and live streamed the whole thing to YouTube. Who knows, anything is possible with the internet these days.
Either way, think about the atmosphere. Think about your emotions. Think about the movement of the crowd. Think about the bass pumping from the speakers as your skin tingled and your ears rang.
Can you picture it yet?
Notice the crowd swaying back and forth synergistically with the music? Their actions aren’t always intentional but the melody seems to drive their movement.
Simplistically speaking, the DJ is your central nervous system. He controls the music which is essentially the signals (action potentials) sent to your muscles. The crowd represents your muscular system – they are along for the ride, merely responding to their environment and the internal stimuli.
The DJ determines when, how often, and how loud to play music (aka descending input from your nervous system to your muscles). The crowd simply responds whenever the beat drops.
Now, in the case of movement competency and neural tension, we can run into some potential issues. Think back to our concert example, what might happen if the DJ endlessly plays the same song on repeat or maybe his playlist selection just sucks (aka the nervous system doesn’t know what signals to send when)?
Either way, the crowd is likely going to get pissed because they’re ready for a good show and don’t want to leave disappointed.
Neural tension can be the result of motor pattern inefficiency (i.e. muscles firing too hard or too many muscles firing at once) or overuse (i.e. muscles fail to relax because of constant stimuli). We can work to “reset” this neural tension using a variety of different modalities which we’ll discuss below.
Think of this as essentially “pulling the plug” on the DJ’s power source. All the noise shuts off and the crowd goes silent. Then we reboot and start with a fresh playlist.
Cut the power and keep the crowd happy, start here…
1. Lax Ball – Pantar Fascia
What’s the point? Your feet are your first connection to the ground. If you wear shoes like most of the modern world, you might not even realize how much your proprioceptive abilities have changed. In other words, your ability to detect changes in your center of gravity and “find and feel” the floor may be diminished.
Rolling out the fascia on the bottom of your foot is an easy way to alter neural tension within the foot which may be generated by one’s shoe choice (e.g. high heels).
One key point to note – roll slowly. The bottom of your foot is not a conveyor belt and there’s no need to rush. Pay attention to your body and see what spots are more sensitive than others. If something really lights you up, hang out on it for 10-15 seconds, take a few deep breaths, and try to relax.
PRO TIP: Reach down and try to touch your toes. Now, roll out the bottom of each foot for 45-60 seconds and really pay attention to what you’re doing. Retest and try to touch your toes again. Don’t be surprised if you notice a transient increase in hamstring mobility.
Congratulations, you just learned a fun, new party trick you can use on your friends. Tweaking the nervous system is pretty cool, huh?
2. 90/90 Hip Opener
What’s the point? I must give credit where credit is due, I was originally introduced to this idea from the work of Andreo Spina via his FRC course (functional range conditioning). The idea is to promote external rotation within one hip and internal rotation within the other while keeping the pelvis and spine stable.
PRO TIP: Once you become proficient within a passive range of motion, add an active component by completing the movement with your hands off the floor. Start by sitting up tall but reach your hands straight in front of you as your knees drop side to side. Try it, it’s tougher than it sounds.
3. Rocking Frog With Rotation
What’s the point? Think about the bottom position of this stretch, does it look familiar? Correct, it’s somewhat akin to the bottom of a squat.
Now obviously, one’s knees will not be this wide (typically) but the idea is to generate length within the muscles of the groin (adductors) at end range hip flexion. When you add the reach you simultaneously challenge hip internal and external rotation.
PRO TIP: Take note of the head position during the movement. Rotation of the head and neck leads the torso rotation, not the other way around. Exhale as you reach and try to get comfortable in the bottom position.
4. Tall Kneeling Sissy Squat (Toes Flexed/Extended)
What’s the point? If you’ve been following the work of Max Shank for any length of time then you’re probably quite familiar with these. The gymnastic community has been using them for quite some time as they’re great for opening up the quads and hip flexors.
By combining extension of the hip with flexion of the knee, you’re biasing the quads across 2 joints. Now, add some load via your bodyweight and you’ve got a solid stretch which also incorporates some ankle mobility given the influence on the toes in the dorsiflexed position.
PRO TIP: Be careful with these. If you haven’t taken the time to increase your core temperature via a general warmup, these can be rough on your knees. Get some blood flow and a light sweat going before you throw these in.
5. 90/90 Banded Hip Extension
What’s the point? Split the movement in half and think critically, what are you accomplishing? End range hip extension on one side with end range hip flexion on the other – this is commonly referred to as “hip disassociation” among coaches.
However, in this case we have the ground to provide proprioceptive feedback on other joints of our body (spine, head, hips, etc.). This allows us to effectively monitor joint position and avoid compensations while still engraining the desired positions. That’s a win-win.
PRO TIP: Monitor head position and adjust accordingly. You may find that you need to lift your head off the ground slightly (as I did in the video) to keep a more neutral spine and feel your abs engage.
Squat Science Simplified
Keep in mind, these drills are designed to enhance your tolerance to certain positions by altering neural input via compression and dynamic movement.
We’re not changing actual sarcomere length or “breaking up scar tissue” as some would like to think.
Get the DJ back on track (i.e. “reset” yourself) and then crank up the concert (e.g. squat).