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Exercises that Runners Should Reconsider (Part II)

Previously we looked at three exercises common in the running world that runners should revisit: lunges, heel raises, and crunches (See, Exercises that Runners Should Reconsider).  Running is a sport built on tradition, and rather than adopt best practices in the fields of injury prevention and strength training, running coaches tend to recycle the same exercises from yesteryear.  When they do look for something “new” in these fields, they often turn to trendy activities such as hot yoga or high intensity metabolic conditioning rather than learning the nuances of basic exercises that will help keep them uninjured.  One of my favorite sayings: “Excellence is mastery of the basics!”

This week we’ll look at four other exercises that also deserve revisiting:   

Scorpions…or pretty much any low back rotational stretching.  If I just wrote this blog about exercises to be “eliminated” I would have stopped with these.  For performance, they have zero justification.  Zero.  Whether you follow a Boyle/Cook Joint-by-Joint model, a Sahrmann Path of Least Resistance model, or simply look at the underlying anatomy, scorpions are nearly indefensible to include in a mobility program.  

Let’s look at the anatomy first…each facet joint in the lumbar spine provides approximately two degrees of rotation.  That means the ENTIRE lumbar spine can provide at most 10-12 degrees of safe rotation, which is negligible.  The most mobile vertebra in the thoracic spine can provide 10-12 degrees itself.  Sure it feels good to limber up those tight back muscles, but attacking the location of tightness is a shortsighted approach.

The problems are twofold.  First is that the back is usually tight for a reason, from hip imbalances, to poor upper body posture, to weak core muscles.  If anything, the back needs LESS movement, not more.  Second problem is that adding mobility comes at a cost: if the low back gets too mobile, the hips stiffen (See, Joint-by-Joint approach).  Most runners are horribly immobile in the hips.  We don’t want to add lower back movement at a cost to hip function.  Instead of letting the lumbar spine flop around uncontrollably, anchor the lumbar spine by flexing the hips and stabilizing the upper torso to ensure the movement comes from the hips and thoracic spine. 

 

Step ups  Most people can’t do this movement correctly on flat land, let alone with weight…heck, many runners are dysfunctional at walking!  Loading up this difficult movement can be a recipe for disaster, when some of them can barely run without getting hurt.  This exercise is fine if you can demonstrate the requisite mechanics to high step properly.  However, given that most runners enter the gym in a state of fatigue and can barely keep their form together out on the road, it is not surprising that form breaks down even more in the gym. 

The Functional Movement Screen hurdle step is a quick way to check one’s readiness for step ups (note to FMS aficionados…I am just using the Hurdle Step (HS) as a basic representation for visual effect…I certainly understand the interaction of the HS with other screens and am not suggesting that it be corrected in isolation...Its just a good visual here) 

Doesn’t need to be perfect, but I see plenty of people knocking over the hurdles who have no business attempting the more advanced movement of step ups with a couple of dumbbells in hand.  The step up is an exercise that must be earned; not something that merely comes out of a lifting textbook and seems like a good idea because it “makes my leg muscles sore.” 

Another problem is that because most runners have weak/underactive glute muscles, even if they can make the exercise look good, they often rely upon the quads to drive the movement upward, which creates another set of problems adding unnecessary stress to the knees.  If you have optimally functioning glutes, you are a candidate for the step up, but you must still consider the risk/reward based on fatigue state and other training priorities. 

Push ups  Did I really include the push up here?  Yes I did.  Nothing wrong with push ups inherently.  Problems come in the application.  First is that most runners are horrible at pushups.  Not just bad, but horrible.  Doing more pushups is not always the answer.   Doing BETTER pushups is.  Have a system of regressions for those who struggle with proper form, whether going to “girl” pushups, going to elevated pushups against a wall, RNT drills (reactive neuromuscular training) or simply instructing on proper form since most runners have never been coached properly.   

Second problem is that most runners neglect pulling movements needed balance the pushing.  If anything, most runners require more posterior chain work (such as pulling) than pushing. With runners who are already highly anterior dominant (think of those who hunch forward), I would almost prefer they do zero upper body work rather than pushups without any pulling.     

Hurdle drills – By now you may be thinking, “Does this guy think ANY exercises are safe?”  I love hurdle drills.  I really do.  Hurdle drills look cool.  And yes, they are widely used by high school and college teams.  Unfortunately, they are often poorly executed and inappropriately assigned. 

Remember, the title of this blog is not “exercises that should be eliminated” (other than scorpions) but rather a list of exercises to be reconsidered.  In fact, with scorpions, we’re only suggesting that mobility training happen in the adjacent joints (hips and T-spine) rather than in the lumbar spine.  Coaches often prescribe hurdle drills because they heard about the benefits at some conference, “we’ve always done it this way,” or worse, to fill a two hour practice block when there is only 5-6 miles of running planned…what else are they supposed to do during that time? (especially since everyone has been taught to fear static stretching these days).

Hurdle drills are not easy.  Maybe running needs something analogous to the level system in gymnastics or the belt system in martial arts, so coaches can’t assign these drills randomly.  The same can be said for any of the above listed drills.  To go under the hurdle, you should at least be competent at a bodyweight squat.  To go over the hurdle requires a high level of hip mobility and single leg balance.  Most runners can barely demonstrate these traits without a hurdle…and then we expect these qualities to emerge in an advanced exercise? 

SUMMARY

Most of these problems can be solved with a basic understanding of progressions and regressions.  You don’t need an advanced degree to write great programs…it’s more important to have a rudimentary grasp of fundamentals to avoid writing bad ones.  You don’t have to follow the same progressions that I use…and nor should you, if you have a better system).   Whatever system you use should not copy-paste out of the most recent coaching conference manual but should instead revolve around the principle of technical excellence to enhance maximum skill development for the individual.  Think critically before including the above exercises into a strength program for runners, but in the case of scorpions…just avoid ‘em altogether!   

Comments

nice write up. I just got the

nice write up.

I just got the latest edition of "Spash Magazine" In it is an endorsement of the Scorpion Stetch. CRINGE ! ! ! For swimmers - In addition to the spine issues, I'm not comfortable with the stress that is placed on the anterior shoulder capsule. With the Scorpion stretch, you run the risk of over stretching the shoulder into horizontal abduction.

Reply

Thanks, Tad.  Great point on the shoulder issues, especially when the exercise is done in a ballistic fashion.

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