Hip Mobility and Strength for Ultimate

Outdoor ultimate season is upon us.  Hip mobility as well as hip strength are important parts of both performance and injury prevention. I had the pleasure of running this part of the injury prevention clinic for new and intermediate players with Ultimate NL this week.

Great hip function is a necessity during sprinting, direction changes, jumping and lunging. This comes from a combination of the passive flexibility to achieve the positions needed but more important the strength and coordination to control those positions. Trying to achieve or control positions you don’t already own is a recipe for poor performance and eventually injury.

The mobility and strength drills in the video above are not for everyone and you may not feel comfortable performing each and every one. There should be no pain during or after the movements. You should feel better when they are done compared to when you started them. Loose, relaxed and comfortable. Take the simplest variation or make modifications so they can be completed comfortably and successfully.

Basics of gym strength training

This is a conversation I have regularly with people who are experienced with strength training at a typical gym (Goodlife, the Works, MAX, reps etc). They’re picking exercises they feel they can execute safely and correctly but aren’t sure how to organize their workout, sets, reps, etc. Here are some key points that I try to convey in that conversation.

1. Intensity

This refers to how many repetitions you can perform of an exercise based on the movement, resistance, speed/tempo and rest time. To keep things simple I consistently give this rule of thumb for appropriate intensity:

With appropriate intensity it should be challenging to complete an exercise 10 times

This means you’ve picked a movement, weight and rest time that allows you to complete it 10 times in a row where the last few repetitions were far more challenging than the first few. More intensity will allow fewer repetitions, once you pass 10 repetitions the intensity may be too low to stimulate muscle growth. High intensity requires more rest time and has a higher risk of muscle strain. Lower intensity allows less rest time and lower risk of muscle strain.

2. How many sets and exercises

Your muscles respond well to the stress that comes from at least 15 sets of exercises for a body region. This doesn’t mean 15 sets of one exercise. I’d suggest spreading that out over 2-3 sets of 4-6 exercises per body region.

3. Recovery time between exercises

This is an important part of training with a lot of numbers thrown around by trainers, bloggers etc. It relates back to intensity and your own aerobic fitness. As a simple rule of thumb I’d expect at least 30 seconds between the sets of any exercise. If you are still catching your breath from an exercise give yourself longer. If the next 10 repetitions at the same intensity become very difficult that may dictate your recovery time as well. Don’t assume every exercise needs 2-3 minutes rest between every set. You may be cheating yourself out of a great cardiovascular challenge with too much recovery time between sets.

4. Recovery time between workouts

An incredibly important factor that is often missed. This refers to the between workouts for a particular body part. Your muscles need 48-72 hours to appropriate repair and improve before they’re stressed again.

5. How do I gauge progress?

Gauge success by knowing you completed the desired volume of training 2-3 set of 4-6 exercises and with an intensity that challenged you to complete 10 repetitions. Over the coming weeks maintain the volume and see the intensity start to creep up and hopefully your required recovery time between exercises lower down closer to 30 seconds. Don’t base your success on how sore you’ve made yourself.


In summary a good organization for weight training would involve 2-3 sets of 4-6 different exercises for a body region. For each exercise aim for an intensity that makes 10 repetitions challenging. Give yourself 30 seconds or more to recover between sets and 48-72 between complete workouts for a body region.

Shovel Right, Shovel Light

Most people warn that shoveling to hard will give you a heart attack. While that risk is present the most common result of snow shoveling is a sprain or strain injury and it affects more people than you’d expect. Here are some tips to better prepare you for that next day in the driveway.

Shoveling is exercise

Accept this fact and you’ll fair much better. Getting out for a good shoveling session starts with the right gear. Warm, comfortable clothes and shoes with good traction is an important start. Like any other exercise it’s best to begin with a warm up. Take a brisk walk up and down your street and follow that with some light stretching. This could be as simple as giving yourself a nice big hug to jump start those shoulders, some light bending from side to side to loosen up that torso and take a few long strides steps to get those legs prepared.

Know your limits and rest when you need it. Each lift of the shovel should not feel like you’ve just set a personal best in weight lifting. Stay within your limits. Once you’ve done a dozen or so snow pushes or shovel lifts take a short break and strike that classic ‘elbow on shovel’ pose. This will let you recharge for the next round.

Finally, end that workout with an appropriate cool down. Take another stroll down the street and let those muscles relax with a light stretching session.


Out-smart snow

Your trusty shovel may be your greatest ally or leave you feeling better off with a spoon. Selecting a good shovel is key. Consider these points when selecting your shovel.

  • push style shovels are your best bet
  • a modest size blade helps you lift light
  • an ergonomic handle does make a difference
  • pick a handle length that lets you stay upright as your work
  • a slippery blade coating will keep snow from weighing you down

Plan ahead for the next snowfall and be proactive by heading out for a light shoveling session every 5cm or less. This will let you shovel lightly more often and take good size breaks in between. This will help you avoid trying to take 20cm or more of snow at once. Most often it’s large snowfalls that lead to shoveling related injuries.

Finally, there is always bad techniques in shoveling that can lead to injury even with the best of shovels. These technique tips can help you become more efficient and reduce your risk of injury.

  • Keep your nose between your toes to avoid twisting your back
  • Push the snow instead of throwing when possible
  • Bend your knees to let your legs do the work
  • Keep your head up to help you maintain good back posture

If done right shoveling can be a rewarding and healthy activity. Remember to treat shoveling like exercise by using the right gear, warming up and cooling down. Outsmart the snow by planning ahead, shoveling small amounts often and using the right shovel to it’s full potential. Like all activities you can expect some mild soreness that day and the next, if it goes beyond a couple days, seek professional care.

Strength is essential: part 1

Strength is an essential part of staying healthy. Having a better understand of how your body becomes and stays strong can help you stay healthy. In the first part on our series on strength we’ll look at how your body adapts to become stronger.

Strong Enough

Our physiology demands that we conserve energy and resources. It takes significant resources creating and maintaining excessive amounts of muscle tissue so we will only become strong enough to handle our regular exertions. If we don’t regularly lift 50 lbs then there is no reason to keep the extra muscle tissue for heavier lifting around. Eventually it shrinks away. If once or twice a month you lift heavy things your body will react and lay down new muscle but within a week if that stress isn’t applied again that new muscle will shrink away to conserve energy and resources. Over the many years of your life your body has fine tuned itself to only ever be strong enough for what you do week to week. There’s no prediction or anticipation that you’re planning on moving next month and will be lifting many 50lb boxes.


Intensity Matters

Yes, walking is exercise. Walking will not make you stronger. Being able to take 1000 steps without needing to stop is low intensity. Low intensity will not spark new muscle growth. If doing 10 lunges is difficult and makes your legs burn with fatigue it will spark new muscle growth. To your muscles those lunges are 100 times harder than walking so it should make sense for them to adapt.

Imagine walking was the extent of your regular exercise for your legs. It doesn’t really prepare you well for climbing stairs, bending towards the floor or lifting from the car trunk. Then for several weeks you did lunges on a regular schedule. Now they have become the new strength expectation for your legs. You have become far stronger and better prepared for more challenging tasks since lunges are already fairly intense.


What’s the frequency?Pretty young girl fitness workout

Remember that those adaptations are not permanent. Your body is always ready to reclaim resources (like new muscle fibers). So if you do one round of lunges and take a week off chances are you’ve lost some of those new fibers. The general rule is 48 hours between stresses. Less than that and you run the risk of over training. 72 hours (or every third day) is very acceptable and you’ll clearly see improvement. It just won’t happen as quickly. 4 or 5 days between exercise sessions and you’ll certainly maintain any new strength you’ve gained but improvement will be very slow. Stretch it out to a week or more and you’ll potentially lose any gains you’ve already made.

Keep in mind this applies to a specific muscle not exercise in general. If you’re lunging to strengthen legs one day but then working planks for your abs the next day that isn’t going to negatively affect your leg recovery and strengthening.


Change your story

You can’t get through your week without being faced with a strength challenge. It often leaves you wondering why you’re not as strong as you used to be. Change your story. Stop assuming that low intensity exercise like walking your dog or cleaning up around the house will keep your strong. Appreciate that your body will only ever become as strong as the challenge it faces. This doesn’t have to mean 2 hours a day in a gym lifting heavy. But it does mean regular efforts above your typical day.

Why tight hamstrings matter part 2

In Part 1 we looked at the function and physiology of tight muscles and how progressive lengthening and strengthening can improve your rehabilitation and performance. Part two of this series looks at the bio-mechanical implications of tight hamstrings.

The mighty Hip Hinge

This action is arguably the most important movement for a healthy low back but also for force production through your hips. To simplify: hinging at the hip is what should happen when you bend forward at the waist. In an ideal movement your torso maintains a neutral (picture 2) posture while almost all of the forward bend occurs around your hip axes. A poorly performed forward bent shows limited change in the hip angle with excessive bending through the low back. hip-hinge


Poor movement or posture in this forward bend excessively loads your spine and intervertebral discs. It also destroys any mechanical advantage meaning our muscles have to fire harder when we bend forward and return to standing. Think through how many times in the run of a day would you bend forward and return to standing. Imagine you work in a plant or factory where you spend the majority of your day leaning forward over an assembly line or work table. How long before this excessive loading starts to wear on the joints and tissues of your back.

Back to hamstrings. They are one of the strongest limiters for this hip hinge. In a proper hip hinge you take your hamstrings through considerable lengthening. If you lack flexbility in your hamstrings you will quick stop pivoting about your hips because your hamstrings have pulled tight. If your haven’t reached the end of your required movement then you will likely bend through your spine to make up the difference.

Spine stability while running

Imagine yourself on a bosu ball, a balance board, a floating wharf on a pond. Every time the platform tilts forward you adjust your posture. Wobbling side to side makes you constantly lean side to side to stay upright. Your spine is undergoing the exact same balancing act as you run. Every foot strike tilts your pelvis side to side and the muscles around your spine work hard to keep your spine and torso balanced above.
So here is the important question, does your back hurt after you run. If yes is your answer maybe it’s time to think about spine stability while you run.

The sideways hip drop

Since your spine and pelvis operate in 3 dimensions let’s simplify things and just worry about side to side movements. What is unique about running versus walking or even standing is that you’re jumping from one leg to the other. When you walk you have near constant support on both feet, especially during that all important foot strike where forces going through your body are the greatest (*somewhere around 1.5 – 2x your body weight). During running one foot hits the ground while the opposite leg is no longer supporting that side of your pelvis. So what happens? You have one force driving upwards through the support leg and 1/2 of your body weight driving downwards on the unsupported side. That’s somewhere in the realm of 2-2.5x your body weight forcing your pelvis to tilt in the time it takes your foot to fully hit on the ground, milliseconds. In that same time your spine has to quickly react, help absorb that force and keep your torso upright. You’ll repeat this process about 4000 times in a 5K run.


Making the correction

Having the strength to absorb that force is paramount. That strength comes from a group of muscles called your hip abduction complex which includes well known muscles like your glutes (maximus, medius and their youngest sibling minimus) and other less common muscles like piriformis, superior and inferior gemellus. These muscles help lift your leg to the side if your not standing on that leg otherwise it helps keep your pelvis level. What are some effective exercises? I have three favorites for lateral hip strength and all you need is a resistance band.

1. Side lying leg lifts: Lying flat on your side with your legs stretched straight lift your leg 12-18 inches in the air and slowly bring your feet back together. Really focus on keeping your pelvis anchored by not allowing it to roll backwards or to hike towards your ribs. Wrap a light resistance band around your thighs to add resistance. You should be able to comfortably perform 5-10 repetitions. As you improve you can add 2-3 more sets of 5-10 repetitions with a 30 second break.

2. Side lying clams: It’s the exact same set up as exercise #1 but now you bend your legs about half way. Instead of lifting your whole leg pinch your heels together and just lift your knee. This exercise will really make your pelvis roll backwards so work hard to anchor your pelvis so all of the movement happens down in your hip joint not up in your back. Use the same sets and reps as #1.

3. Sideways band walks: Take a resistance band and tie it in a loop around your feet so there’s a little tension if your feet are shoulder width apart. Making sure to lift your feet with every step. Lift your left foot and step sideways to a wide stance. Then lift your right foot and slowly return to shoulder width stance. You should feel the resistance from the band with each step. If you have space repeat those wide steps 3-5 times to the left and then back 3-5 times to the right. Keep a light bend in your knees and proper back posture.


The forward tilt

The next dimension we want to check in on is front to back motion for your spine. The most common in this case in what is called the anterior tilt of your pelvis. It is normal to have a slight (about 10 degrees) anterior pelvic tilt. That angle allows for a normal inward curve in your lumbar spine and sets up the muscles of your pelvis and low back for the best possible strength. It’s a very common issue for runners, especially as they fatigue, to start exaggerating that anterior tilt. Now instead of having a slight inward curve of your spine it’s significant. That wharf on the pond is slanted well forward and you’re leaning back hard to keep from falling in. That alone can be exhausting and painful for your low back.

Sadly, that’s just the start. That change in pelvic and spine angle takes away from the stability provided by your abs (aka core) so you’re forced to rely on your hip flexors and long low back muscles to stabilize that poorly positioned spine. To make matters worse that altered pelvic angle makes it more to effectively use your glutes to properly absorb the force of every foot strike. Instead those forces are transmitted straight to your low back where joints and muscles a fraction the size of your hip joints and muscles are expected to absorb the same forces.side-on-runner


Making the correction

This can be as much about comfort and habit as it is about strength. Maybe it feels normal to increase the tilt of your pelvis so it may not be a strength issue as much as a matter of practicing good posture. Watch a couple episodes of Family Matters and carefully watch Steve Urkel, he takes posterior pelvic tilt to a very high level. If watching him helps you can work on sitting, standing and eventually walking with slightly “Urkelled” hips. You never need to take this to the extreme but just a light push in that direction. If watching some classic 90s television doesn’t solve it here is a simple drill to help you feel the pelvic position.

Sit on a fairly hard chair or bench where you can plant your feet firmly on the ground. Focus and feel exactly what part of your bum is hitting the seat. On a hard seat your should feel that pressure land right on your sit bones (ischial tuberosities to be exact). Practice tilting your pelvis forward and backwards trying to feel the pressure on your sit bones move forward and backward. Now try to isolate just moving the pressure backwards without slouching your torso. Feel exactly what you’re contract/pushing to make that movement happen. Once you’re successful there move on to standing with bent knees and try to recreate the same pelvic tilt. Progress this to walking while tilting and finally practice this technique while running.

Do you plank? This is another great way to test your pelvic control. A lot of people with low back pain feel planks working their low back rather than their stomach. This is typically because their ‘strong’ position comes from hyper-extending their low back while stabilizing with their hip flexors and low back muscles (as we talked through above) rather than their abs (aka core). To correct this position drop to your knees while staying in the plank position on your forearms. This should make it simpler to start moving your pelvis towards that Urkel position and removing the pressure from your low back. With practice you’ll be able to hold a kneeling plank with tension in your stomach and minimal pressure through your low back. The next step is key. To make this exercise more challenging dig your toes into the ground while in your kneeling plank and slowly lift your knees 1 inch off the ground. This should really ramp up the tension in your stomach while allowing you to maintain good pelvic position. Work to build your endurance in this position by holding as long as you can (up to 60 seconds) without losing posture or feeling that strain return to your low back. It’s more effective to perform the exercise for a shorter period and rest than to push through back technique or pain.

Why tight hamstrings matter Part 1

Understanding muscle physiology and biomechanics can make a world of difference to a person training but also to their recovery when injured. These concepts apply to any muscles but with the prevalence of hamstring strains being one of the highest this might hit home with more people. Since they’re fairly large ideas we’ll start with my favorite concept the length tension relationship.

Length Tension curve

This should ring a bell with anyone who has studied exercise physiology. The concept explain how and why a muscle can produce different amounts of force as it progresses from long to short and short to long. Your fingers can be a great example of how the many small fibers of any muscle interact; a key foundation of the concept. Interlock your fingers (like the photos below) and imaging thousands of tiny hooks on the fingers of one hand that will connect with thousands of hooks on the other hand. The greater the area of contact between fingers then greater the number of hooks that connect and give you the greatest strength. This follows a simple pattern: as you slide your fingers together the area of contact increases to a peak (middle image) then slowly decreases as your fingers overlap too far and slide behind your hand (third image). The curve below shows how that area of contact directly affects that muscle’s strength. I’ve added dotted lines to show the area of overlap, notice how that area of overlap directly relates to the strength curve below.


So now apply that concept to your hamstrings but this time we’ll run the concept in reverse order, short to long. Imagine lying flat on your back and think about the length of your hamstrings. In that position they are pretty short. Probably close to that fully shortened position from the pictures above (on the right). Now imagine one leg being lifted straight in the air until your foot is directly above your hips. As your leg moved from the floor to straight up in the air it passed from near fully shortened (too much muscle fiber overlap), through mid length (optimal overlap and max strength) to near full length (minimal fiber overlap and weakness). The key is that you are not equally strong at all lengths. You have the best strength and lowest likelihood of injury in that middle 50% of the movement.


So here is the real magic. Hopefully this turns a light bulb on. Let’s get back to tight hamstrings. If yours are tight you have probably realized that you can’t actually lift your foot all the way above your hips. If you could you’d have a fairly large range of that motion where you are acceptably strong (highlighted in green). Instead, inflexible one, you have a very narrow window (shown on the right image in green) where you are usefully strong surrounded by two equally large ranges where you are weak and susceptible to injury.

Improving your length and strength

When you get right down to performance or recovery you want a larger range of motion through which you have useful strength. Adding length to a muscle through rigorous stretching will give you greater range but all you’ve really done is spaced out those hooks. You’ll also introduced new ranges of motion that your nervous system hasn’t experienced so you can expect to be fairly uncoordinated. Proper improvements come from slowly increasing the length of a muscle while performing strengthening exercises that progressively challenge that new range of motion. This will encourage your muscle to build more hooks and train your nervous system to control this new found range.