05th Jan2015

Inverted Rows for Thoracic Mobility

by Tom

Anyone who spends years sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car will likely have some issues related to thoracic spine mobility, forward shoulders, and forward head posture (raises hand). Combating the daily habits that produce these issues will require constant attention with soft tissue work, mobility work, and corrective/activation exercises, especially if someone has spent years in poor posture.

This type of upper crossed syndrome is characterized by tight pecs, tight anterior/lateral neck muscles, and tight upper traps, as well as weak lower traps and rhomboids. When this type of posture is the default, a whole host of issues can crop up during basic movements.

Upper Crossed Syndrome

The Problem With Pullups

Pullups are an outstanding strength, mobility, and conditioning exercise for the back, shoulders, arms, and core. You can progressively load them and vary the stimulus by doing high or low reps and easily insert them into a circuit with other exercises. It’s no big surprise that they’re a bedrock movement of CrossFit and most good strength programs.

With someone who has upper cross syndrome, however, they can be not only frustrating, but downright detrimental. The fact is that the human body is very good at accomplishing tasks. If you’re trying to get your chin over a bar during a pullup, the body will figure out a way to do it, whether in a good postural position or a terrible one.

With someone prone to a head forward, shoulder forward, and flexed T spine position, an extremely common fault is a flying ribcage. Because thoracic extension is needed to set the shoulders and scapulae in a good position for vertical pulling, people will fight hard to get thoracic extension. Individuals who have poor extension through their upper back will let the ribcage fly up in order to extend. This is very tricky because it mimics the look of upper back extension, but in reality they’re just getting extension in the thoracolumbar (TL) joint rather than evenly through the entire thoracic spine.

What’s so insidious about this pattern is that it develops into a habit because many trainers don’t catch it early or ever. A flying ribcage and subsequent break in the TL joint will cause a huge amount of anterior core tightness to be lost. What’s more, pec and anterior shoulder tightness is not solved with this type of pullup because a flying ribcage compensates and still lets the individual pull vertically even with tight pecs and shoulders. The only way to correct this is to really slow down and focus on contracting the serratus anterior in order to tighten the rib cage down to the core and lock things in.

This correction is extremely challenging in a pullup position. It will involve some well placed activation and soft tissue work before the pullup session and a ton of focus during the exercise. While focusing on locking down the serratus anterior, it will be a big fight to keep the neck neutral, the shoulders back, and the thoracic spine in an extended position. Any time fatigue sets in or concentration is lost, the individual will revert to either an old pattern of flying the rib cage or they’ll keep the rib cage down, but lose everything else forward.

Enter the Inverted Row

While I’m 100% in favor of working your ass off towards a correct pullup, it’s important to always have a nice default strength building exercise that can be done safely and without a ton of thinking from day 1.

Scaled inverted row from a vertical position

An inverted row can be done with TRX straps, rings, or a stationary bar. It’s easy to scale in that you can approach it from any angle from vertical to horizontal and even add load using chains or plates if things get too easy.

To perform, set up at the desired angle and hold the straps or bar with the arms fully extended. The whole body should be rigid similar to a pushup position except flipped upside down. Head neutral, ribcage down, abs on and glutes on keeping the lumbar neutral.

Elevated Foot Inverted Row (image credit WeBeFit)

To initiate, think about externally rotating the shoulders and driving them back into the socket similar to the set up for the bench press. As the shoulders retract first, let the elbows then bend naturally and pull all the way through until the chest is even with or past the hands. Hold briefly to show control and then reverse the movement for a full rep.

For individuals who are strong at pulling but have weak or sleepy glutes, it can be effective to do the inverted row fully horizontal but allow the knees to bend to 90 degrees similar to the stance in a hip thrust. This will allow more constant glute contraction and better core stability. Otherwise, someone who keeps their legs straight but has poor glute strength will default heavily to their hamstrings, which is an inefficient way to brace the core and will also drive the femur into the anterior part of the hip socket (which is a huge problem anyway for most folks).

Bent Leg Foot Position

The inverted row solves a few issues that are present during the pullup.

  • Less challenging shoulder position: Getting organized correctly in the bottom of a pullup is extremely challenging. In a pullup, the starting position puts the shoulder in 180 degrees of flexion with the arm straight overhead. Generating force from this position to start a pullup the right way involves a ton of mobility through the shoulders and thoracic spine. With an inverted row, the start position only involves about 90 degrees of flexion (arm extended straight in front of the body). It’s much easier to retract the scapulae and generate force from this position (which is why almost everyone can bench press more than they overhead press).
  • It lets gravity do the work: All of the positions we’re trying to fix are unaided by gravity in the pullup but are now aided by gravity in the inverted row. First and foremost, anyone with a forward head posture will find it much easier to pull the head back into neutral during an inverted row. And never forget that head position can set the tone for the entire body. Resisting a flying ribcage is also much easier with this exercise than a pullup. Just think about letting gravity do it’s work and pretend there’s a 45 plate on top of your chest, packing it down tight into your abs.

Pro Tips

While it’s a no brainer for well postured folks to perform this correctly, it’s always nice to have some tips and tricks for folks like myself who have a wicked upper crossed syndrome.

  • Pull the ribs to the shoulder blades and vice versa: For people with upper cross and poor T spine mobility, the fight will always be between a flying ribcage and a rounded upper back no matter what exercise you’re doing. The way to win this fight is by thinking about the biomechanics of how this interaction can work correctly. As the thoracic spine extends, the serratus anterior (on the ribs) should lock on to the scapulae and set them. This is how you extend the upper back and resist rib flaring. It takes some very focused work to get the feel of it if you’ve never done it, but I’ll tell you this serratus anterior/scapulae connection is a very crucial motor skill for lifting weights and movement in general.
  • Pack the neck: Packing the neck is a really cool concept that I only first learned in the past few years. When most people are told to pull their head back out of forward head posture, they simply look up. Not only does the head still stay forward, but it puts the cervical spine into wicked extension. The best way I can describe packing the neck is to look forward neutrally and then try to pull your chin back and down into your collarbone. If you have tight lateral neck muscles, you’ll feel them go on tension immediately when you do this. This tiny move is HUGELY important to that ribcage/scapula/t spine complex we were talking about. There’s something about packing the neck back into neutral that allows the ribs/scapula/t spine to talk to each other more easily.
  • Let the biceps roam free: Anyone with upper cross usually has pec minors and anterior delts that are so matted down that the biceps tendon is fighting for it’s life on a daily basis amid all the tension. One of the big keys to this exercise is the initiation from the starting position. Really think about retracting the shoulder back in the socket and externally rotating the humerus. Try to feel the space between the shoulder and pec open up in order to let the biceps and the biceps tendon breathe. If form starts to go, and the shoulder stays more and more bunched up with the pec, you’ll get very hot in biceps area near the elbow. Try to feel a full retraction and use the biceps evenly from top to bottom.


  • For individuals who struggle with the motor control to do pullups, inverted rows are a great option as a strength exercise while simultaneously working on the mobility and technique needed for pullups.
  • The inverted row can be scaled from vertical to horizontal with additional difficulty added by elevating the feet or adding weight to the torso with chains, plates, or a weight vest.
  • For proper inverted rows, think about packing the neck, keeping the ribcage down and tight to the abs, and fully retracting the shoulders to let the biceps and upper/mid back work through a full range of motion


28th Jul2014

The Joint by Joint Approach To Banish Knee, Back, and Shoulder Pain

by Tom

Knee, back, and shoulder pain has been an ever increasing problem in this country over the past few decades. From 1996 to 2006, there has been a 49% increase in the number of arthroscopic knee procedures performed in the United States, with the 2006 total at nearly 1 million surgeries. An outpatient ACL procedure including MRI’s, readings, and physical therapy will cost the system (patient + health care) about $30,000-$40,000 a pop. That’s a $40 million cost per year in outpatient knee surgeries alone assuming the numbers haven’t increased since 2006. And if you think that number is big, hold on tight for the cost of back care. Duke researchers estimated in 2006 that medical treatment of back pain costs our country $25 billion annually with another $25 billion lost to workers compensation costs and time away from work. Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that as of now 80% of all Americans will experience some type of back pain in their lives.

Orthopedic problems, coupled with the costs associated with the rise in obesity, represent a huge weight that is crushing our health care system. And I’m certainly a part of it since I accounted for three of those outpatient knee operations from 1996-2006. Not only are orthopedic procedures costly to the country, but they also press the pause button on your life. After you get past the period of missing work and being laid up in a drugged state on the couch for a few weeks, you must start the months (or years) long road back to recovery. It can be a depressing and frustrating experience, especially when you go through it multiple times. And as much as I might complain about the woes of knee problems, back pain is much more common and can be much more fickle. Fusion surgery is often unsuccessful and symptoms can persist for decades, limiting activity and causing daily pain that can materially change the way you experience life.

The best thing you can possibly do in the case of orthopedic issues is use preventative care. Just as eating healthy today will help prevent diabetes and metabolic syndrome down the road, taking a proactive approach to fixing your body now will save you many years of orthopedic pain down the road. Trying to gain a full understanding of how to maintain healthy joints can be daunting, but luckily there’s a simple approach outlined by strength coach Mike Boyle to make things a bit clearer.

The Joint by Joint Approach

Coach Boyle recently developed an excellent system of analyzing the movement of the body called the joint by joint approach. In this, Boyle discusses the different training needs and demands on the various joints in our body. As it turns out, our body has an elegant way of arranging itself in order to maximize performance and minimize risk of injury. The arrangement involves joints that alternately are built for mobility and stability as you move up the body, as shown below

  • Ankle – Mobility
  • Knee – Stability
  • Hip – Mobility
  • Lumbar (lower) Spine – Stability
  • Thoracic (upper) Spine – Mobility
  • Scapula (shoulder blade) – Stability
  • Glenohumeral (shoulder) – Mobility

Essentially, any joint that is built for a high level of injury free articulations and a large range of motion is a joint where you want mobility. With the hip, we have the capacity for abduction/adduction (taking the leg away from the body and bringing it back), internal/external rotation (the way you turn the leg out and point the toe in a triangle pose in yoga), and flexion/extension (bringing the knee up to the chest and lowering it back down). All of this motion is possible because the joint is a ball and socket design, very similar to the shoulder.

All three of these hip articulations can be combined into thousands of different movements, which become the cornerstone of any athletic pursuit. This is all normal and necessary motion for the hip in order to keep it healthy. The knee, on the other hand, is basically a hinge joint that is built only to flex and extend. Adduction/abduction or rotation of any kind places dangerous force on the joint that will land you in an orthopedist’s office and typically result in one of those 1 million knee procedures each year. Just as the knee is built for stability below the hip, the lumbar spine is built for stability above the hip. The lower back is safest and strongest in a small amount of extension, as shown below.

In this position, the bones and vertebral discs sit correctly on top of each other and do not experience any shear or torsion force that could damage them. However, any flexion of the lower back (rounding over) or excessive twisting can put the lumbar spine in a very compromised position that can result in acute or chronic injury. The big concept to understand here is that mobility in the hip allows for stability in the knee and lumbar spine. If your hips are tight and immobile, any type of movement you do in sport, lifting, or daily life will force you to compensate for that immobility by contorting your knees and lower back in an unsafe way. For this reason, anyone who says squatting or deadlifting hurts their knees and back is almost guaranteed to be an individual with tight hips. Being able to squat and deadlift while keeping the knees and low back in a strong, stable position is as much an expression as it is a developer of hip strength and mobility.

This concept of using mobility joints (hip/ankle) to protect stability joints (knee/lower back) continues to be applied in the upper body. Going from the lumbar spine to the thoracic spine, we see much more of a safe range of flexion, extension, and rotation in the upper back compared to the lower back. You can see a great example in this short video from Chris Mills, who runs Surf Strength Coach:

You can see how much rotational range of motion is possible with a healthy upper back. This exercise is a great way to warm up for rotational sports and an upper body lifting day. It will also give you a good kinesthetic sense of how to develop rotation in your upper back while leaving the lower back stable. Sitting atop and to the outside of the thoracic spine are the scapulae, the shoulder blades which need to be very stable in order to provide our shoulders (the glenohumeral joint) with a large amount of mobility.

The trade off for providing all of this mobility to the shoulder is that the scapulae rely mostly on muscle attachments and only have a single bony attachment to the rest of the body, which is through a ligament at the clavicle. The problem that develops is that these stabilizing muscles like the rotator cuff and trapezius often become some combination of weak and loose or tight and strong, throwing the normal function of the scapulae way out of whack. If the shoulder blades aren’t stabilized the right way, it can spell bad news for the shoulder considering all of the high force applications of the arm and shoulder, such as throwing a fastball, bench pressing, carrying a couch, or knocking somebody out in a fight. The importance of scapular stability is made pretty clear in the quote, “It doesn’t matter how big of a cannon you have if you’re shooting it out of a canoe.”

Long story short, the proper functioning of the upper body relies heavily on rotational mobility in the upper back and strong stabilization in the scapulae, which both allow for a healthy range of motion in the shoulder as well as a stable lower back.

Novak Djokovic: The Joint by Joint Approach in Motion

Coach Boyle makes a very strong case in his joint by joint approach that having the right mix of mobility and stability is crucial for athletic performance and joint health. His conclusions are borne out repeatedly when you look at the positioning of athletes and lifters who are able to consistently avoid injury despite the huge physical demands of their sport. Since I’m a big tennis fan, I’ve noticed lately how well Novak Djokovic exemplifies the concept of having both mobility and stability in the right places. Take a close look at the following pictures with the joint by joint approach in mind and see if you notice any patterns.

Let’s get one thing straight right off that bat: Novak is a freak. His flexibility and body control at high speed is as elite as you can get. Most of us would break a sweat and probably pop some soft tissue trying to get into those positions statically, much less on a full sprint during a tennis match. Despite the fact that we’ll probably never come close to Novak’s level of movement, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot from his positioning.

If you look at all of the pictures and compare them with the joint by joint approach, you’ll notice that everything is spot on. Starting with the lower body, notice how similarly oriented his knees and lower back are in every picture despite very different body positions. These are the stability joints that best transfer force and protect against injury when they’re able to remain stable and resist excess motion. Contrast that with the positioning of his ankles and hips, which show a huge range of quality motion. The upper body is no different. The third picture shows some excellent detail of the rotation that’s possible in the upper back while maintaining a stable lower back. Additionally in that photo, you can see how Novak’s scapulae are locked down tight against his upper back, allowing his shoulders to move through a safe range of motion.

How Does This Apply to You?

Djokovic is an extreme example because most of us will never be in those positions, but the lesson is still the same. If Novak has better knee and lower back stability on a full sprint slide than you do simply getting off the couch, then we have a big problem. If you can’t go through your daily life while remaining stable in the knees, lower back, and scapulae, then you’ll have problems someday if you don’t already. The good news is that if you’re having issues with one of these joints, you probably have to look no further than the joint above or below it and realize you have some big mobility gaps to fill there.

How do you go about it? Well, a number of strategies are available and it’s a lot more complicated that just saying ‘lift weights and stretch’. I actually think this subject is so crucial to lifting, athletic performance, and overall joint health that I’ll be spending the next few months breaking down different pieces of it. In the next blog post, I’ll talk about the typical posture that most desk bound and sedentary people find themselves in, including some initial methods for gaining more mobility and stability in the right places. Stay tuned.

22nd Jul2014

Can You Do a Perfect Pushup?

by Tom

The pushup is one of those exercises that is often taken for granted in the fitness world. Like a bodyweight lunge, squat, or pullup, the pushup is a basic exercise that has been around forever and has been implemented in grade school physical education, bootcamp fitness, martial arts training, circuit training, and the military. In some or all of these implementations, the pushup is often done at high speed and high reps in a fatigued state while being mixed in among a circuit of other exercises. It also seems like such a simple movement that trainers fail to give any cues on how to do it properly. The truth is that the vast majority of pushups I see are done incorrectly and will lead to stagnation in the exercise as well as a number of problems down the road with the shoulder and elbow joints.

How to Perform a Proper Pushup

To get started, take a look at this video from Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli from CrossFit San Francisco. Carl is a former gymnast and Kelly is a DPT (physical therapist) who has excellent training and intuition when it comes to how the human body should move correctly. They developed a series in the CrossFit Journal called ‘The Position’, which describes how the torso should be organized during the vast majority of athletic movements and fitness exercises. If some of their descriptions go over your head a bit, just keep watching and really look closely at Carl’s positioning during the pushup.

Some keys to focus on:

  • Rib Cage and Ab Tightness
    • The rib cage (chest) and abs need to be up and tightly locked in. When you’re in the starting plank position, picture pulling your navel and chest up tightly in unison towards the ceiling.
  • Elbows Close
    • The elbows should remain close to the torso throughout the movement. They should not fly out to the sides. One way to make this easier is to picture a clock face as you’re looking down at the ground below you. As you get in a pushup position, your left and right index fingers should be pointing at 11 and 1 on the clock, respectively. Most people will internally rotate their hands to the point where the index fingers are both pointing to 12 on the clock, which will exaggerate any elbow flaring.
  • Shoulder External Rotation
    • As they highlight again and again in the video, one of the big keys to stability is to externally rotate the shoulders during the entire motion. This will make the shoulder joint much more solid and keep it anchored as far back in the socket as possible. One way to cue this is to turn the elbow pits so they’re facing directly forwards at the top of each pushup. You can try this right now as you sit in your chair. First press your hands flat on your desk with your arms straight in a relaxed position. Your elbow pits will probably be facing each other. Now rotate them so they face the ceiling while keeping your palms flat. You should instantly feel your shoulders externally rotate and tighten up. This torque is what you need to remain stable during the pushup.
  • Vertical Forearm
    • As you descend into the pushup, keep the forearm as vertical as possible. This may feel strange at first since you’re probably used to the forearm being angled backwards. When you do it correctly, your torso will actually travel slightly forward as you descend and backward as you push yourself back up while posting on a vertical forearm. If you look at 3:23 – 3:27 in the video, you’ll see how Carl does this perfectly.
  • No Sagging the Low Back
    • At all times and especially on the push back up, keep the abs up and tight without letting the lower back sag. As you fatigue, the tendency to do this is nearly impossible to resist. For many people, you’ll see them do this on every rep. The reason this happens is that it’s simply easier to do a pushup when you let the stomach and low back sag. It lowers much of the body mass that’s being lifted, making it much easier to press out of the bottom. But it also puts your shoulder in a crappy position and lets your torso lose all tension, which will not do you any favors in the long run. The best cue to fix this problem is by squeezing the butt very hard throughout the entire set of pushups. Once you lose tension in the butt and the front abdominals, you’re guaranteed to sag.

Spotting Faults

I mentioned a few of the common faults when describing the key cues above, but the picture below is a good illustration of what good vs bad looks like.


The top picture comes from a Men’s Health article using a fitness model that is obviously lean and fit. The bottom picture is a still shot of Carl in about the same position in the video. After watching the video and reviewing the cues above, how many problems can you identify in the first picture compared to the second?

  • First off, her midline is sagging because the rib cage and abs are not tightly integrated and pulled toward the ceiling. It may look like she’s tight because she has a lean, flat stomach, but there is a significant arch in her lower back. Another good cue is imagining a straight line drawn from head to toe as indicated by the blue line in each picture. Except for the very bottom of the pushup, this line should be dead straight and run from the head through the shoulders, abs, and legs. In the first picture, her shoulders are too high and both her head and abs are lower than where they should be. Carl, on the other hand, has a nice neutral neck position, perfect shoulder position, and a tightly integrated torso that keeps the blue line running right along the exterior of his abs.
  • Her elbows are also flared, causing the elbow pits to face each other. By contrast, Carl’s elbow pits are facing forward, meaning he’s maintaining a very solid level of external rotation in his shoulders. This is a big reason why his shoulder position is right on the blue line, whereas the fitness model’s shoulders are loose and elevated.
  • One last fault is her tilted forearm. Unlike Carl’s perfectly vertical forearm, hers is angled backwards. This will reduce stability and put more stress on the joint, not to mention involving the triceps much less effectively in the movement. Notice that forward body lean that Carl has that we talked about before. Feeling your torso move forward slightly on the way down will help you post up on that vertical forearm, whereas the fitness model is kind of slouching into her pushup without inclining forward.


The fact is that a lot of people will need to swallow their egos when learning how to do these correctly. The range of motion is greater to get to the floor with the tightly tucked chest not to mention the difficulty of doing high reps without sagging the abs and lower back. If your best effort produces pushups like the fitness model in the above picture, you’re better off going to a progression and working your way up the right way.

  • Elevated Hand Position
    • By placing your hands on a box, a bench, or a desk, the effective load of the pushup will be greatly reduced. All of the exact same cues apply except the movement is a little bit easier. Work up to 3-5 sets of 10 every time you train and really work on doing the movement correctly. If your abs are too weak to stay tight and integrated with the chest on regular pushups, you’ll get a nice ab workout by really fighting to maintain position during these sets. Slowly work your way down to the floor over the course of a few weeks or months depending on your fitness level.
  • Ring Pushups
    • Once you can do very solid sets of 15-20 on the floor, set up a pair of rings or TRX straps and work up to sets of 15-20. These will be much more difficult due to the stabilization required throughout the movement. Again, the same cues apply. Solid body tension will be even more important using an unstable piece of equipment like this. You can use these as an easier progression as well by setting the rings very high and keeping the feet on the floor.
  • Weighted Pushups
    • In addition to increasing the difficulty with ring pushups, you can also have a partner stack weight plates on your back during regular floor pushups.
  • Handstand Pushup Progression
    • Once controlled pushups on the floor and rings are mastered, you can continue to elevate the difficulty by working towards a handstand pushup. This is where a proper pushup progression is crucial. You can start with knees elevated on a box and then progress to feet on a box. Like the picture below, remember all your cues of a tightly integrated midline, external rotation in the shoulders, and a vertical forearm.

The basic pushup is an excellent upper body conditioning exercise that can be turned into a solid strength builder depending on how far you go with your progression. They key is to simply start the right way as Kelly and Carl describe in the video. Not only will this improve your pushups over time, but it will do a ton for your shoulder health over the course of your life.

21st Jul2013

Experimenting With WellnessFx

by Tom

I’ve been meaning to get blood tests done for a while now (last time was a few years back), but often life can get in the way of things that are comfortably placed on the back burner. What finally spurred me into action was a cool new startup called WellnessFX. It was founded here in San Francisco in 2010 by Jim Kean and Brett Vaughan. To date, they’ve received nearly $6M in funding and have an offering that piqued my interest immediately.

The WellnessFX Value Proposition

In a nutshell, WellnessFX is ‘like Google Analytics for your body.’ You take a quick and easy blood sample at a nearby lab and 3 days later are presented (via browser and mobile) with your results across a wide array of health markers. The extent that you want to dive into more complex levels of testing depends on which product offering you choose: Baseline, Performance, and Advanced Thyroid. For $149, the baseline covers just about everything an average person would need to see, including the following:

  • Cholesterol – Total, LDL, HDL, Trigs, Lp(a), ApoB
  • Blood Sugar – A1c, Glucose
  • Thyroid Stimulating Hormone
  • Liver Enzymes
  • Kidney Health
  • Electrolytes
  • Bone Health
  • Inflammation – Crp
  • Vitamin D

If you’re a high performance athlete or have potential thyroid issues, it would be useful to spring for the pricier options, but most folks would never need to go above the $149 option.

There is also an optional phone consultation with a health practitioner of your choice to accompany your results. These practitioners range from MD’s to Phd’s to dieticians and nutritionists. The majority of these consultants have focused their careers on nutrition and tend to be holistic and functional, meaning they focus on food and lifestyle rather than pills.

You’re probably asking…can’t I get all of these things tested at my doctor’s office for a small copay? While the answer is yes, you are able to pay for WellnessFX with a Health Savings Account (HSA), so it could be free to some people that have those. It’s also much faster (my blood draw at a local LabCorp took 10 minutes in and out). But what I love most about the concept of WellnessFX is it’s aim to educate. Not only does it focus on the right tests (like a deep dive into cholesterol, inflammation, and blood sugar), but it presents your results with helpful tips and videos on how to naturally improve your numbers, in addition to the consultation with a functional medicine professional. There are no doctors with agendas to push statins, liver medication, diabetes meds, or the government-mandated diet.

It’s simply another example of how technology can be used to disrupt and improve an antiquated service. The WellnessFX results are visually simple and stunning in a way that lets the numbers sink into your mind while allowing you to learn about each health marker at the same time. The program also opens you up to a world of nutrition professionals who can offer their expertise through consultations, blogs, and other resources that you would never be exposed to if you went the conventional route. The results are also portable in the mobile app and can be easily shared with personal trainers, doctors, nutritionists, corporate wellness pros, and friends.

The Results

I received my results within 3 business days of getting my blood drawn. I won’t lie, it was pretty unnerving when I saw the email come through that my results were ready. Kind of like that feeling when you get your finals back in high school…except you REALLY don’t want to fail this one.

Since I got the email while I was on the road and away from my computer, I logged into the handy WellnessFX app to check out my results. The display is very clean and straightforward. Here are my lipids, blood glucose, inflammation, and thyroid numbers.


Lipid Profile Presentation on the Mobile App



Inflammation, Glucose, and Thyroid Results

Each measure presents your number and a range for reference. The green zone is healthy, orange is a slight risk factor, and red is a serious risk factor. For each of these health markers, you can drill deeper to get an explanation of the marker and some basic information on how to improve it. In the browser based layout, it even gives you the option to watch videos explaining each health marker.

In terms of my numbers, everything looks very good with the exception of a few kidney markers that I’m going to look into. These results give me some confidence that my diet, sleep, stress, and exercise levels are all very solid.

My Impressions

In terms of layout, presentation, and ease of use, WellnessFX is fantastic. Having working knowledge on what these health markers are and where you stack up is half the battle here. I think a lot of people operate on an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ basis with this stuff and probably don’t even look at or try to understand all of these results when they have them done at the doctor’s office. With WellnessFX, all of your info is front and center, splashed up in colors that tell you if you’re healthy (green) or at risk (red). High salience here.

Overall, I would say that this service isn’t totally necessary unless you want to find a holistic nutrition pro and do a consult with them. The implications for the future are really interesting though. I would love to see a day where corporate wellness companies, insurance companies, and all corporate environments adopt a WellnessFX program so that workers can experience its benefits as part of their employment.

Our Future Hinges on Measuring and Improving Health

The CEO of WellnessFX, Jim Kean, likes to quote Lord Kelvin: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” And all of these simple, beautifully presented health markers are the KEYS to your health. They must be measured early and often. It’s time to take your temperature before you get sick.

Like a lot of people in this country, I’m afraid for our health care system and the costs we’re sure to incur in the future if we stay on this path. Treatment is not the answer. Once we get to the point where a person requires treatment for diabetes and heart disease, it’s simply too late. We are in desperate need of preventative care. We need to shift the paradigm and realize that diet and lifestyle is so powerful that it can move the needle of ALL of these health markers in a meaningful way. WellnessFX is at part of the first wave of this shift and it’ll be exciting to see where things go from here.




29th Jan2013

Bridge Rotations for Full Body Mobility

by Tom

It’s no secret that stretching and mobility work is not all that thrilling. Kelly over at MobilityWOD makes it about as interesting as it can possibly get and I still catch myself wanting to skip it in favor of the fun stuff on occasion. That’s why I love mobility work that is more performance and skill oriented. If it’s something that’s progressive and skillful, there’s more chance I’ll enjoy doing it and keep it up over time. A good example of this is the Cuban Rotation, a shoulder mobility exercise you can conceivably work up to 50% of your bodyweight over time. Along similar lines, another excellent full body mobility tool that involves some skill and coordination are bridge rotations.

Why YOU Need to do Bridging Work

Before I talk about some of the variations, I want to hammer home why bridging can be so beneficial. Bridging…

  • Brings You Into Balance – Most of us sit hunched over all day. The upper back, glutes, and hamstrings are long and loose while the shoulders, chest, stomach, hip flexors, and quads are short and tight. When you’re in a nice back bridge,  all of this is reversed.
  • Is Comprehensive – While you may think certain parts of your body are holding you back from mobility, you won’t really know until you try something that challenges everything at once. A full bridge and bridge rotations put demands on the ankles, calves, quads, hip flexors, glutes, abs, back, shoulders, and arms for mobility and flexibility. Yeah..pretty much the whole body. If one area is lacking, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.
  • Is Progressive – Like I mentioned, mobility work is more fun when it involves skill and progression over time. That said, let’s get to some variations…

Basic Bridging


Before we try to do anything crazy, let’s talk about basic bridging. Single and double leg glute bridges have been used by physical therapists and trainers for a while now. They’re a solid tool for activating weak glutes and extending the hip, but they don’t offer a ton in terms of mobility. Check out some basic single leg bridging in this video. If you’re inflexible or have never tried these before, give them a go. Otherwise…next section.

Back Bridge


Moving from the basic glute bridge to the back bridge brings in a whole new world of mobility challenges. While a lot of folks might think it’s just their upper back and shoulders that are holding them back, many times it can be incredibly tight pecs, abs, ribs, calves, quads, and hip flexors that leave you unable to push up into a perfect bridge like the picture above. Here is short and simple tutorial from Al Kavadlo on how to work up to the back bridge:


Bridge Rotations

Once you’ve mastered the ability to move easily in and out of a back bridge on the floor, you can take your dynamic mobility to the next level by working on bridge rotations. These can be very challenging on the ankles, knees, hips, and the upper back, but they’re pretty cool and open up some new doors as far as sequences of movement. Check out this short video from Ido Portal demonstrating some beginner rotations into bridge:

In the following video, one of Ido’s students Steve Atlas demonstrates some more higher level bridge rotations.

As you can see, there are some very impressive demands on the toes, ankles, shoulders, and upper back. Making it look that graceful and easy says a lot about the quality of Steve and Ido’s movement. Always remember that this quality is what we’re after. Anyone can plop down and do 1000 glute bridges in an hour, but moving with grace into a low bridge rotation is a rare thing to see outside of acrobatics, gymnastics, and capoeira. And as you work towards it, you’ll be more pain free and muscularly balanced. It also looks freaking cool. Good luck with it my friends!

19th Jan2013

The Cuban Rotation for Shoulder Health

by Tom


In my post about Getting Started With Mobility, I touched on the concepts of shoulder internal and external rotation. In our quest to gain a solid level of badassery at full body, high intensity exercise (aka CrossFit, bootcamp, TRX classes, etc), shoulder rotation is something with which you should get very well acquainted. Unless you’ve addressed it specifically, the odds are you have internally rotated shoulders and less than stellar range of motion. This happens due to…

  • Sitting all day in a car or at a desk
  • Bench pressing too often
  • Playing throwing and/or overhead sports
  • Not balancing chest and back workouts
  • Compensating for a lack of mobility in other areas like the upper back and hips
  • Too many pullups with an already internally rotated shoulder (the lats internally rotate the upper arm)

Say you go into a CrossFit program while prone to many of the bullet points above. What you’ll end up doing is a TON of volume that will hammer your already tight internal rotators during pushups, dips, muscle ups, pullups, kettlebell swings, and the rowing machine. Because of a concept called reciprocal inhibition, your strong, tight internal rotators are also inhibiting the external rotators from doing their job in addition to getting so bunched up that you lose range of motion internally as well as externally. Put all this together and you’ll have some insanely inflamed shoulders, not to mention the hurt you’ll put on the elbows and wrists from having to pick up the slack for a poorly functioning shoulder.

Enter The Cuban Rotation

It might sound like a Communist military maneuver, but it’s actually one of the best exercises you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, I have no clue where the name came from, but word is that Charles Poliquin was one of the first to do it. It’s a simple movement where the humerus (upper arm) stays abducted horizontally from the body throughout the entire exercise, with the shoulder going from fully internally rotated to fully externally rotated and back again (watch video below). This is an excellent diagnostic tool and strength builder for shoulder internal and external rotation. One of few true external rotation exercises in CrossFit is the snatch and I’d take a guess that about 90% of people aren’t doing it with their shoulder in the correct position. Most folks are so tight in the internal rotators that they can’t fully externally rotate during the turnover of the snatch which makes the movement a poor trainer of the external rotators, not to mention a risk of injury.

So to counteract all of the internal rotation work and undo some of the prior imbalances to the shoulder, the cuban rotation is one of THE BEST exercises you can put in your program. It’s hasn’t gotten much love in mainstream fitness since it’s always been treated more like a corrective exercise, but some folks like Poliquin and Ido Portal see it as a legitimate strength exercise. Their elite standard is to build up to 50% of bodyweight for a single controlled rep. For me, that would equate to a 110lb barbell or two 55lb dumbbells.

Here is a great video from Dr. Clay Hyght describing the merits and performance of the cuban rotation.


One of the great things about this exercise is the ability to control the shoulder position from full internal rotation all the way to full external rotation. I’d encourage you to also try this up against a wall and to try and keep your shoulders back in the socket against the wall throughout the entire movement. Watch any of Kelly Starrett’s videos on internal rotation and you’ll notice how one of the big goals is to have full range while the shoulder is back ‘on the shelf’.

‘Grease’ The Rotators and Boost Performance

When you think about even the simplest movements like an overhead press or pullup, there is some very dynamic shoulder movement going on under load. At the bottom of the press, you need very good internal rotation to keep the shoulders back in the socket in a strong position. As you press up, this transitions to a strong externally rotated, ‘active’ shoulder as you keep the bar as close to the center of mass as possible. After doing cubans for a while in my warm ups, I noticed an IMMEDIATE boost to my pressing. I could keep my body line straighter and make fewer sacrifices in my torso position while also keeping the bar closer to my center of mass. By ‘greasing’ this rotator range of motion with cuban rotations, it’s like giving your shoulders an oil change. The press is smoother, stronger, and more efficient. With each quarter inch back in the socket and 10 pounds that you add to your cuban rotation as you continue to train it, you’ll see and feel a bump in your performance on pullups, presses, rowing, and olympic lifts.

Altering Yourself to Downstream Mobility Problems

Another great aspect of the cuban rotation is that it alerts you to other tightness  and clues you into some sacrifices in positioning that you may not have noticed. When I work hard to keep the shoulders back during a full range cuban, I get pretty hot in the tricep right near the inside of the elbow. This is a surefire sign of general problems like a valgus elbow, a rounded upper back, and poor external rotation in the shoulder. The tricep essentially is forced to carry the load in place of poorly performing shoulders and upper back on exercises like pullups and pushups (which means hundreds of poor reps since we do so many of these). Once alerted to a downstream effect like this, you can start working the problem there as well. Simply lie on the floor facedown with the shoulder up in flexion and flex your bicep. Then press your tricep down on a lacrosse ball on the floor right where it meets the elbow and go to town pancaking the tissue to try and loosen  things up.

Training the Cuban Rotation

You can honestly do this every single day as a bodyweight exercise. And should. Even if you’re in your office, go walk up to the wall and do a few sets with no weight 3-4 times a day. Do it in warmups, between sets, or even while lying on a foam roller or lacrosse ball peanut. When doing it weighted while standing, start light and go slow. Let your rotators acclimate slowly to the increased load. Greasing the rotators = better performance, more fun, and fewer injuries. And that’s what it’s all about.

18th Jan2013

Getting Started With Mobility: The Low Hanging Fruit

by Tom

If we take one big step back and look at working out, exercise can be a funny thing. It’s about getting work done and completing tasks. Reps, sets, supersets, circuits, etc. We have clear definitions for these tasks: chin over bar, chest to the ground, hip crease below the knee, arms locked out, etc. These definitions don’t really offer any useful cues on form, however. That’s why we have trainers who yell things like: arch the low back, bring the shoulder blades together, press with active shoulders, weight on the heels, and others. These cues dive a little deeper, but they don’t tell us what we really need to know, especially if your body needs a little fixing. To really take an active approach to correcting imbalances and boosting your fitness along the way, you need to invest some time in a little education.

I’ll say it right off the bat…if you want to learn everything you’ll ever need to know about the way the body should move while you’re working out, go watch every video Kelly Starrett has ever made at MobilityWOD. Whether it takes you a month or a year to watch them all and let the info sink in, it’s something that’s more important to your long term health than just about anything besides diet and sleep. And the videos are all FREE. A complete no brainer. Go do it.

At first, you’ll be overwhelmed by the terminology and get a little lost. Luckily Kelly is one of the most entertaining people on the internet and has managed to make anatomy and kinesiology  as interesting and relevant as Monday Night Football. You gotta stick with it. After a few dozen videos, patterns will start to materialize and you’ll begin to remember things that you can apply in the gym. For now, I’m going to give you some of the quick hits that I think are THE most crucial starting points for most people looking to get serious about high intensity, full body training…

Shoulder Internal Rotation & Shoulder Extension


Put your arm out in front of you like you’re going to arm wrestle someone. Now pretend you’re winning and pin the imaginary arm. What your shoulder is doing is internally rotating. Do the opposite and you’re externally rotating. Now pretend you’re on the outside rail of a cruise ship and you’re leaning towards the water with your arms straight back behind you holding the rail. Here your shoulder is in full extension. The shoulder in full flexion is when your arms are straight up in the air and your biceps are by your ears.

Over the past year, I’ve come to the realization that my very poor internal rotation and extension in the shoulder are two of the biggest limitations on my upper body performance. Think about these positions: bottom of the overhead press, top of the pullup, 2nd and 3rd pull of the clean, bottom of the dip, and even arm position during the back squat. If you don’t have squeaky clean internal rotation and extension in the shoulder, you’re leaving something on the table during all of these exercises.

If you watch enough of the MobilityWod videos, you’ll start to catch that Kelly hammers on shoulder IR and extension and highlights it as a huge barrier to performance. He also mentions that overhead athletes like volleyball players and kayak paddlers like him are prone to it. I know from experience playing tennis, golf, baseball, and swimming that overhead work can trash shoulder function if you’re not careful.

To get you started here’s a great MWod titled The Biggest Shoulder Problem of Them All (gee, you think missing IR is a big deal?).

Thoracic Spine Extension


This is another biggie that Kelly makes a point of emphasis. Losing mobility in the upper back (thoracic spine) is something we are all prone to given modern living. T spine extension happens when you pull your shoulder blades together and flatten the upper back. T spine flexion is when you pull the shoulders forward and let the upper back round. One thing that’s key to realize is that there is a ton going on in the upper back. Fixing yourself is not a matter of simply pulling your shoulder blades together and going on your merry way. Everything feeds in back there. Traps, rib muscles, rhomboids, rotator cuff, the deltoids, and the neck. Even tight pecs on the front side can have a significant impact on the tightness of the upper back (and often do).

This MWOD with the plate pinned on the chest is amazing for both the upper back and shoulders. Try it out. But realize this is not an easy fix. Mobilizing the upper back is a big and worthwhile project.

Scapular Mobility & Control


Your scapulae (shoulder blades) are arguably the the most important bones in your body for movement. They have 17 different muscle attachments and sit delicately across the top of the upper back (another reason thoracic mobility is so crucial). When it comes to the upper body, the scapulae run the show. These small, arrow shaped bones are the reason we have a wide range of movement, strength, and coordination in our shoulders and arms. The scaps can slide and glide to allow us to reach for something, but also lock down tight so we can kick up into a strong handstand. They are a pretty phenomenal piece of standard equipment in the human body. Due to their large number of muscle attachments, it’s very common for imbalances to occur in the scapulae. They are commonly rendered less functional by tightness in the pecs, shoulders, lats, and upper traps, and weakness in the external rotators and lower traps.

Kelly spends a lot of time in his videos focusing on both the scaps and t spine in conjunction. Here’s another good MWod to get you started on mobilizing the scaps.

How To Apply These Mobilizations

I do a version of shoulder IR/Extension, T spine Extension, and Scap mobility during EVERY warm up and also between a lot of my work sets. They are limiting factors for me and I can see visible improvement in both my body alignment and my performance if I do them consistently during a workout session. If you have really tight pecs and anterior deltoids, I’d also recommend a simple doorway pec stretch or pec stretch with a band. Really get in there and hunt around for tightness. The more you open up the pecs and delts, the easier it will be to keep the t spine extended and to keep the shoulders back during IR/Extension work.

There is certainly a ton more to learn and we haven’t even gotten to the hips, but gaining a good understanding of the three sections I listed above will get you well on your way.

07th Nov2012

Reverse Pyramid Training

by Tom

When it comes down to it, a ton of different programs can be effective, so it’s important to find one that works for you. In the end, never lose sight of the goal…which is to add reps and add weight. One of the simplest, most effective, and most versatile ways to do this is Reverse Pyramid Training. I first read about it on Martin Berkhan’s Leangains site.

In the first workout I posted, I told you to establish good sets of 8 in the deadlift, bench, and barbell row. These are henceforth known as ‘top sets’ for each exercise. The top set is the hardest set of an exercise during that particular workout. In the Reverse Pyramid style, you’ll notice the top set is done immediately (after warming up thoroughly). This can be counterintuitive to most people…and it certainly was to me wen I first read about it. From lifting in high school and reading health magazines, we’re used to the conventional style of starting with light weight and high reps and ‘pyramiding’ up to heavier weight and low reps. Conversely, reverse pyramiding is where you warm up just enough to be ready to handle the biggest weights, but not so much that you tax yourself unnecessarily. That allows for all of your focus and energy to go into one big top set to try and bump up your personal record. The following sets reverse pyramid down to lighter weight and higher reps, which are still very taxing and useful but psychologically feel easier since the weight is lighter than the first set.

It was a little mind blowing when I first read this on Martin’s site because it actually makes a ton of sense. Then I tried it for a while and it really does work well. There is something really powerful about doing a very hard set of 8 squats at a heavy weight and then dropping the weight 10% and then doing a set of 10 for your second set. While still difficult, that second set is MUCH easier than if you had pyramided upwards from a lighter weight. This makes for an incredibly useful second work set. Then for the third set, drop 10% again for a set of 12-14 you’ll have gotten in some very impressive work.

Reverse pyramid training is also a whole lot of fun when it comes to progression. Week after week, you can channel your energy into that single top set for each exercise and try to increase the weight. You also have a ton of flexibility with how you handle your volume. Say last week, you hit 275×8 in the squat fairly easily and then did your backoff sets of 10 and 14 and really went hard on those. Then you come in this week and make 280×8 but only barely. At this point, you could do your second set of 10 and then decide to ditch the third set in order to recover better for the following week.

Another method to keep progression going when you stagnate is to switch up rep ranges for a given weight. If you’re really grinding to a halt on sets of 8 at a particular weight, use that weight plus about 5 pounds and do sets of 6 for your top set from now on. This will give you some runway to build a little reserve and make progress on sets of 6 for a few months before switching it up.

15th Aug2012

The Underappreciated Weighted Pushup

by Tom

As far as exercises go, the pushup is one of the most commonly performed movements in fitness. I’m guessing that the entirety of the readership of this blog has done at least 1 good set in their lives, even if it may have been during a drunken max out contest (raises hand). There is ample reason for the use and popularity of the pushup as a training tool and assessment of physical fitness. The exercise is a very effective conditioning tool for advanced trainees and an ideal upper body strength builder for beginners when done correctly.

CrossFit Resurrects the Pushup

In the lifting and athletic community, the bench press is still the king of all gym exercises. It gets talked about, worked first, and prioritized over nearly all else in the average training program. While the bench press is still the ultimate builder of upper body strength, excessive benching will often cause people to reduce or even eliminate pushup variations from their training programs. Many typical gym routines will include a few bench variations, dumbbell pressing, and a little bit of cable work to round out the chest and shoulder workout.

CrossFit has done well to bring pushups back into the mainstream by including a heavy dose of them in their programming. As long as they’re done correctly (see my post about how to perfect the pushup), they’re an excellent training tool. Traditional CrossFit programming uses regular pushups in their conditioning workouts while also utilizing more challenging movements like ring pushups and handstand pushups as standalone strength builders. One of the earliest (and most potent) CrossFit workouts is Cindy, which requires you to perform as many rounds of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 bodyweight squats as possible in 20 minutes.

Other training programs have also contributed to the resurrection of the pushup, with P90X and TRX bringing it back into vogue as well. P90X uses high volume pushups targeted to inactive folks looking to get in shape, while TRX provides some variety in the form of suspension training similar to gymnastics rings. The fact is that there are literally dozens of ways to effectively train the pushup both for conditioning and strength. Despite all of the variations, one method that is rarely used is a good old fashioned weighted pushup. CrossFit does very well to outline progressions toward a handstand pushup, but they pay little heed to standard weighted pushup progressions.

The Weighted Pushup

Adding weight to a regular pushup is very simple and can be done in a few ways.

Stack plates on the upper back

    • This is the preferred method at my gym. As long as you have another training partner, it’s the easiest and quickest method for loading and unloading. Here is Alex busting out a set of 10 with 65 pounds on his back.
    • Not only are they easy to load and unload, but you can stack multiple plates on the back and take them off one by one throughout a set, effectively doing drop sets with weighted pushups.

Wrap heavy chains around the torso

    • Another great way to load the pushup is with length of heavy chain. This will keep the load a bit more stable than stacking a weight plate, though it takes longer to get on and off and it’s harder to vary the weight since you need different lengths and thicknesses of chains.
    • As you can see in the video below, the chain ends are left loose and hanging below the body. The benefit of this is that it varies the load throughout the range of motion. During the most difficult portion of the pushup near the bottom, the load is lessened due to much of the chain resting on the ground. At the top of the movement, the entirety of the chain is off the ground

Using a Weighted Vest

    • Another method for doing weighted pushups is by using a weighted vest. Like the other methods, there are both benefits and drawbacks to using a vest.
    • One thing I dislike about using a vest  is that much of the weight hangs off the front if you weight the vest evenly. This causes the front to be bulky and limit the range of motion at the bottom of the pushup. One way to fix this issue is the to raise the hands on pushup handles or bumper plates.
    • One great benefit of using the vest over the other two methods is the ability to combine exercises seamlessly into a circuit without stopping. The simple ‘Cindy’ circuit that I mentioned earlier is made significantly harder by wearing a 20lb weighted vest while doing it.
    • A weighted vest is also a great way to load exercises like the pushup when you’re working out alone. This is the preferred way to vary the loading when you don’t have a training partner to load and unload plates on your back.


Rep Ranges for the Weighted Pushup

With the weighted pushup, reps and sets can be varied in a number of different ways. In general, I’d have people wait to perform the weighted pushup until they can perform 15 solid pushups without any weight. At that point, you can start adding 5 or 10 pound plates on the back for sets of 5 to 10 reps.

In terms of rep ranges, I really like anything from 8 – 12. Using a challenging weight for a set of 10 will not only provide a tremendous upper body stimulus, but will also be an excellent test for the abdominals. Maintaining quality form on the weighted pushup requires a high degree of tension in the abs since the lower back wants to sag due to the load being placed on the upper back. A 10 rep set will last 20-25 seconds and challenge the abs significantly.

Supersetting the Weighted Pushup with a Pull

One of my favorite supersets in the gym is alternating the barbell row with the weighted pushup. This opposes a horizontal push (pushup) with a horizontal pull (barbell row), and both exercises put demands on both the upper body and the abdominals. To do this, find a good weight for the barbell row for a set of 10 and a good weight to load on the back for a set of 10 pushups. Perform a set of pushups then rest 60 seconds and then do a set of rows and rest 60 seconds. Repeat this for a total of 5 sets of each exercise.

This is a great superset to do in a gym like Crunch or 24 Hr since all you need is a barbell and some plates. You could even do the rows with heavy dumbbells if a barbell isn’t available. You can also superset the weighted pushup with other pulls such as the good old fashioned pullup or a ring/TRX row.

Make Up Your Own Variations

In the end, I’d urge anyone to try any combinations you can think of with the weighted pushup. It’s a simple and effective training tool that most people don’t take advantage of in their training.

20th Jan2012

The Case For Minimalist Shoes in Fitness Training

by Tom

“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” – Leonardo DaVinci

As is evident from his sketches of vitruvian man, Leonardo DaVinci had a strong affinity for the measurements and function of the human body. He was also a very accomplished mechanical engineer and architect, among other things. Given his genius and his legacy of great works, his quotation about the human foot should be taken into deep consideration.

The Power of the Arch

The key to quality architecture and engineering is a design that will bear load and distribute force in the best way possible. One of the simplest and widely used structures is the arch. The arch, notably used in bridge design, is able to reduce shear, tension, and torsional stress by taking advantage of the compressive force on the arch and making the whole structure more stable horizontally. Though the first arch bridge dates back to 1300 B.C., they weren’t used extensively until the Romans utilized them in structures such as the Segovia Aqueduct (A.D. 100). Below is a basic illustration of an arch bridge:


In an arch bridge, the keystone bears the brunt of the force from the mass above it. Force is transferred horizontally along the components of the arch all the way to the supporting abutments, which are positioned securely on the ground. As long as the abutments are securely positioned, the whole structure will be rock solid. The more compressive force that’s placed on the keystone, the stronger the arch becomes. Many arch bridges are constructed using a heavy fill material to increase the weight on top of the keystone in order to make the arch more stable and resistant to shear and torsion.

The Rainbow Bridge near Niagara Falls is a more modern steel version of the arch bridges originally popularized by the Romans. Unlike Roman concrete architecture that utilized many rows and sometimes multiple columns of arches for a single bridge, steel architecture allows for a long single span to be covered with one arch.

Arches of the Foot

By now, almost everyone has heard about arches in relation to the foot. Whether you’re talking about arch support or flat feet, the concept of the arch is widely known. What you may not know is that the foot has three distinct arches, which are shown below.

One of the reasons Da Vinci was so mesmerized by the human foot is because our foot arches work much the same magic as arches do in bridge construction. While it’s phenomenal that we can exert hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds of compressive force on a foot that has a relatively small surface area, it becomes more understandable after learning about arches. Similar to a Roman concrete bridge, our arches also have keystones, only instead they are made up of bone.


Refer to the picture above to locate the keystones for each arch. In the anterior transverse arch, the keystone is the intermediate cuneiform. In the lateral longitudinal and medial longitudinal arches, the keystones are the cuboid and talus, respectively. As these keystone bones are compressed during everyday activity and exercise, the vertical compressive force is transferred horizontally along the arches and is distributed to the ground. Just like a bridge arch, compressive force on the keystone bones will help to reduce shear and torsion forces on the whole structure (the foot and ankle).

Cushioned Soles

Knowing what you now know about arches, go back up to the diagram of the arch at the top of the post and imagine each abutment is resting on top of a Godzilla sized air mattress. That is a surefire way to take an ingeniously designed support structure and render it immediately unstable. The second you place an arch on a giant marshmallow (running shoes), the stability and strength is severely compromised.

Your response might be that cushioned heels allow us to run on pavement without as much jarring force as we would experience barefoot or in flats. Actually, the opposite is true. When you run in cushioned running shoes, heel striking becomes the norm since there is no pain associated with it due to the shoes. However, this is not the natural way we were designed to run and use our foot arches. The results of this Harvard study show a significantly steeper acceleration of impact force from heel striking than from striking with the mid or forefoot. There’s no question that heel striking is the wrong way to run and puts a great deal of stress on ankles, shins, and knees. If you have any doubts, do a little experiment. Take your shoes off and gently run in place on a hardwood floor. Without thinking, you’ll immediately start landing softly on the mid and forefoot, taking advantage of your arches. You’ll have to force yourself to land on your heels, which will be a much more uncomfortable experience.

Arch Support

Now let’s consider arch supports. First off, realize that there isn’t a single arch structure in the world that requires support. The arch derives its strength from the fact that it is unsupported by scaffolding and can compress and become more stable. Now also consider that we are not made of lifeless stone, but of living tissue that must grow and be used constantly in order to remain strong. If you or anyone you know has ever broken a bone, you probably have some experience with joint or limb support, also known as a cast or a brace. What happens after wearing one of these for a while? Muscle, soft tissue, and bone atrophies to the point that it is noticeably weaker and smaller than the unbraced limb. If you have fancy shoes with arch support or custom orthotics, you’re effectively casting your feet every single day. It’s no surprise that there is such an abundance of foot problems in our society today. Our species has thrived for millions of years without the need for constant artificial support in any part of our body.

Performance and Health = Uninhibited Ground Contact

You might be wearing cushioned shoes because ‘that’s what everyone does’ and ‘you’ve done it forever’. You may also think (thanks in no small part to the brilliance of marketing) that all of the professional and elite runners wear cushioned shoes. Would it surprise to you to find out that hardly a single thing has changed in performance shoe design over the past 75 years? Below is the Adidas shoe that Emil Zatopek used to win the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races in the 1952 Olympics. The second picture is the most recent performance track flat designed by Nike for professional track athletes.

Other than the price, the marketing, and the color scheme, nothing has changed. The reason for this is the simple fact that effective and high performance running is done best when there is as little material between foot and ground as possible. Going back to the arch, this makes complete sense. If you consider that the bones and muscle fascia at the ends of the foot act similar to abutments in an arch, the most strength, power, and stability will be derived from having those abutments connected to the ground with as little interference as possible. This is why powerlifters typically deadlift in ballet slippers and gymnasts perform barefoot.

While cushioned shoes will certainly inhibit running performance and expression of strength in the gym, the main problems with them is that they promote poor running mechanics and don’t allow the feet to strengthen in a natural way. First off, the vast majority of people run incorrectly already due to these shoes. And even for those that do run with a correct midfoot strike, it’s very easy to get lazy with cushioned soles and fall into heel striking. It’s like using the bumper lanes at the bowling alley. You may be knocking pins down and having fun, but you’re still doing things the wrong way and using an artificial crutch.

Transitioning to Minimalist Shoes

In order to learn how to run correctly and get the most out of lifting in the gym, you’ll be best served by finding a pair of minimalist shoes and getting used to them. While Vibram Five Fingers are all the rage right now, I found them difficult to get in and out of as well as impractical and smelly since you can’t wear regular socks with them. My number 1 recommendation would be the New Balance Minimus trail shoe. They have a nice wide forefoot to allow you to spread the toes, can be worn with our without socks, are incredibly sturdy, and have just enough cushion in the small heel nubs to make the transition from cushioned shoes fairly painless. I’m going to do a full review of them soon on the blog.

Beyond the Minimus, the Merrell Trail Glove, Vivobarefoot Evo, and Innov8 Bare-XF are really good options. When switching, take it slow and let your ankles, feet, and Achilles and other soft tissue adapt. Try running on grass or a track for a while and really be conscious of midfoot striking. You’ll probably notice that your strides will get shorter and you’ll feel like you’re gliding in a straight line like on a conveyor belt rather than in a jerky up and down sort of way. Eventually, it’s even fun to experiment running on grass barefoot. Not only will this improve your stride, but tactile contact between your feet and the ground will enhance your stability and coordination.