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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Exercises that Runners Should Reconsider (Part III)

Back for a third installment of Exercises That Runners Should Reconsider.  Please read Part I and Part II if you missed them.

A common theme throughout this series is that coaches and athletes hand down drills with little thought.  “That’s what my high school coach had us do” is not a sufficient justification unless your high school coach performed a physical assessment on your entire team and determined each runner had an identical deficit.  If you think the habits of high school running are something to be emulated, then perhaps you also think Yugoslavia was a good role model for making quality automobiles. 

Although I am critical of each exercise that we cover, if you can come up with a defensible justification for using a particular exercise to address a specific need, then by all means feel free to use it.  However, I think most will have a difficult time justifying any of these exercises as superior to other options, on both an individual and group level.   Due to high injury rates in running, I’d say pretty much EVERY exercise in the traditional runner’s supplementary regime is fair game for critique, but we’ll just cover three here.     

Supermans

The general thinking behind supermans is, “We did our crunches to work our abs, now let’s go work our back.”  This exercise is favored by coaches because the athletes can “feel the burn” in those low back muscles, imparting some charade of accomplishment.  First, I applaud those who recognize the importance of anterior vs. posterior balance, since many teams and runners just work the front side (hundreds of crunches) without addressing the back.  Unfortunately, the superman is a woefully misguided attempt at core stability for the demands of running, which requires maintenance of upright posture to resist perturbations from the ground and the effects of biochemical and respiratory fatigue during hard efforts. 

Let’s be extra generous for a moment: I’ll assume the runner has been assessed with an extension deficit.  In other words, this runner can touch his/her toes but can’t bend backward within clinical standards.   Most people don’t bother to check this balance, but I’m going to give superman users the benefit of the doubt first and pretend there’s an actual need to work hyperextension.  I’ll also acknowledge that numerous studies have revealed a high level of muscle activity during the superman exercise, indicating the “I feel my back muscles working” observation has a basis in fact.    

First things first….if you NEED to add mobility or stability in lumbar extension, ask yourself whether a loading the spine in this fashion is the safest way to accomplish that objective.  As a general rule: Use the least amount of stress necessary to accomplish the task.  Training the back to maintain neutrality is the priority.  There’s very little, if any, justification for runners to train loaded hyperextension.  I’m not against extension in itself, but additional problems can occur if joint mobility is not uniform throughout the lumbar spine.  If an athlete has a restriction in one or more segments, the “healthy” segments will have to absorb greater load, putting them on the path to become UN-healthy segments.            

The superman also throws the neck and ribcage out of position, which fosters improper breathing habits.  We mention breathing frequently here, but breathing is a non-negotiable fundamental of movement that cannot be overlooked.  Proper respiration will provide the dynamic stability needed to stabilize the back without conscious thought.  Why practice habits in training that can only hurt us in racing?  Further, if you are going to train in a way that perpetuates the common imbalances found in Professor Janda’s Crossed Postures (hyperactive low back muscles are commonly associated with underactive gluteal muscles), you should have a very good reason for doing so, and most runners and coaches can’t provide one, other than “I can feel it in my back.” 

Finally, let’s use a little common sense…Do you want to practice the superman posture when maintaining neutral posture is enough of a challenge while fresh, let alone while fatigued?

Before moving onto the next exercise in the crosshairs…we should also address the issue of programming.  Runners and coaches will often create elaborate core routines with a series of random exercises that often contradict each other.  They’ll program planks for core stability, but then will confuse the body with supermans and other lumbar mobility exercises thrown in. If you can identify a need for adding lumbar mobility in an entire team (Good luck with that!), then feel free to use supermans, but know that most runners need to train neutrality in the lumbar spine and should have programming to reflect that need.

Butt Kicks

Like an old piece of junk that never gets thrown away, but you can’t remember why you still have it, the butt kick drill gets handed down by generations of runners to be recycled in warm ups around the country.   There are two versions of the butt kick drill; one of which can be a great drill when performed correctly, the other of which should be questioned.  Our focus will be on the version to the right below.

There are several problems with this version of the butt kick.  Number one is that opportunities abound for the exercise to be done sloppily.  Number two, is that most people have underactive glutes (butt) muscles relative to their hamstrings.  We’ve often found that people who “feel” their hamstrings are unresponsive are actually overusing the hamstrings in conjunction with a glute weakness.  The hamstrings often feel weak and/or tight because they are overused to begin with…adding butt kicks just fuels this fire.    

I’ve heard some runners mention they want to dynamically increase knee flexion, to which I say, “Why?”  These may be valid goals in developing the stride, but most people are in varying stages of injury recovery and have far greater priorities to enhance durability than adding ballistic knee flexion.   In the butt kick drill, some people can get the full range only via uncontrolled momentum, which places unneeded stress on the knee and hamstring along with the back if the athlete cheats with low back movement to get extra range of motion in the hips.  Can you get full knee flexion passively?  Actively while supine?  There are various screens and assessments one can do to answer these questions.  It’s also important to check for tibial rotation, as many will turn the foot out (pronate) to achieve maximum range in this drill.  Pronation isn’t inherently bad, but sometimes the runner will add more pronation to achieve the full butt kick part of the drill.   

You mostly see this drill at the high school and college levels where coaches have two hour practices every day to fit in a mere 50-60 minutes of running.  Gotta do something with all that time, so might as well recycle some old drills from last winter’s coaching conference!  However, as triathlon coaches try to masquerade as running experts and peddle “cool” stuff to the world of triathlon, we’ve seen these drills appearing in the multisport world as well with little justification for their inclusion. 

As with anything, if you can find an individualized deficit that this particular drill can address more efficiently than any other intervention, then feel free to use the drill.  However, in most cases, if you think this drill is the solution, you probably haven’t done an effective job of identifying the problem, because there is likely a deficit that is preventing the runner from expressing full knee range of motion.   Get better at other more basic drills, rather than throwing this one into the rotation.  

Bicycles

I’ll again give bicycle users the benefit of the doubt here.  It is well established that the opposite arm and opposite leg work together to produce running and many other forms of locomotion.  It also follows that the muscles connecting these limbs must coordinate.  Superficial logic might lead one to program bicycles into a runner’s core routine, as will the convenience of the exercise since it does not require any equipment.  But again, I’ll be optimistic for a moment and assume that runners and coaches using bicycles as part of their core programming are trying to exploit the benefits of efficiently coordinating these muscles and not 1) just recycling the exercise mindlessly or 2) doing it to feel a good burn in the abs.    

There is also no uniform way in which to perform the exercise.  Some will use more neck flexion; others will use more hip flexion; others low back flexion; others have longer arms that make it easier to touch elbows-to-knees; others will stabilize their core via restricted respiration.  As you can see, quality control is nearly impossible.  I’m not going to resort to scare tactics and pretend the lumbar spine and cervical spine are doomed for injury if you perform this exercise, as many have done so for years without pain.  The best case against the bicycle is that it fosters poor movement habits that inevitably show up elsewhere and may contribute to other setbacks.   

Same analysis applies as with high volume crunches: why go into loaded flexion when it takes us into a posture that we all know should be avoided during running?  Further, most runners already have flexion bias (hunching forward) and have difficulty controlling rotation.  This exercise may work the external obliques to complement everyone’s pursuit of that dreamy six pack, but there are other priorities to address foremost.

Rolling, chopping, lifting, and medicine ball work are generally superior forms of rotational training to bicycles.  I’ll agree that multiplanar rotation can be useful for runners to integrate sensory awareness beyond the straight ahead world in which we live.  Bicycles are simply a poor choice to address this element given the sloppy habits they inevitably encourage.   

Summary

I’ll again return to a familiar refrain: just because “we have always done it this way” or “I feel my core working” are two poor justifications for including an exercise, especially for runners who live on a razor’s edge of fitness and injury every day.  Additionally, when programming movements into a supplementary routine, understand what the objective is so that each exercise can complement the others into a cohesive whole.  There are many worthy objectives, but make sure you (or your coach) can elucidate a purpose that is in complete harmony with your individual movement deficits.

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