Shoulder range of motion and scapulo-thoracic control are fundamental to maintaining a straight directional vector irrespective of the sport: to directing every unit of force generated into the desired direction of travel.
What is often neglected is the role of the rib cage, the relevance of movement timed to breathing, and proper breathing (i.e. size, rate, rhythm, amplitude, pattern). Without training these skills the athlete will be unable to generate peak power in their upper and lower extremities, and will be asymmetrical in movement compromising the execution of technique, and risking injury.
One of the side-effects of neglecting the role of the rib cage and breathing is that athletes will compensate for their poor biomechanics by turning to strength training and adding muscle to correct imbalances. Adding muscle provides a short term solution, but long term, the additional weight of muscle loads the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, pushes the athlete into anaerobic energy prematurely, reducing endurance, speed, power and strength. The addition of muscle volume leads to restrictions in flexibility as full range of motion becomes limited, especially at end range where it is crucial. Reliance on muscle shifts the focus from coupling the contractile properties of muscle with the elastic properties of connective tissue, to a dependence on the contractile aspect alone. This training methodology presents significant risks as the odds of spasms, cramps, muscle strains, and joint sprains rises exponentially. In time, this training methodology leads to inverse results, where the more muscle the athlete gains the more imbalanced their power to weight ratio becomes rendering the athlete uncompetitive. Since weight training yielded short term results, the athlete falls to the belief that weight training is part of the solution, not the problem. As performance flat-lines, then falls off, the negative training spiral plays psychological havoc on the athlete as they begin to doubt their potential. Gained weight, injuries, fatigue, sluggishness all contribute to the negative spiral, which morphs into negative self talk. As long as strength training is held as a solution, the athlete will try to regain trajectory by micromanaging their diet, training intensity and volumes, all to no avail.
Where is the pay-off with strength training beyond body weight training (especially when the athlete hasn’t mastered body weight exercises)? There is none for age group or masters athletes. Only those athletes who have developed a dynamic core and are capable of controlling their bodies weight through a full range of motion coordinated with breathing need progress to additional load (i.e. strength training with weights).
If Michael Phelps trained and qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens without touching weights, then what is the argument for any amateur athlete – age group or masters – to do weights? Doing so indicates a flaw in training methodology: it is an attempt to pull forward performance results, to short cut training, to peak an athlete prematurely, well before their physiology and psychology are primed, well before their skill level is prepared.
The Rib Cage
The role of the rib cage is obviously to protect the lungs and the heart, but that is not where its function ends. Without the rib cage the lungs would deflate, the rib cage serves as the frame which stretches out the lungs using negative pressure between the ribs and the lungs to suction the lungs to the inner side of the ribs. This is the mechanism for the lungs to expand making breathing possible.
The elastic properties of the ribs are subconsciously known by most: if you have taken a CPR course then you know the feeling of springiness that the rib cage provides when performing chest compressions. This elasticity exists due to the properties of connective tissue which assist in returning the rib cage, hence the lungs after inhalation back to a resting position at the end of exhalation.
There is tremendous power in the elastic properties of the rib cage and when leveraged effectively leads to maximum speed and strength, as in: a swimmers stroke, an Olympic weight lift, a runners stride which can be lengthened with proper breathing thus proper use of the rib cage, and the most obvious example… the power in the ribs of an archer’s compound recurve bow which send arrows flying at speeds of hundreds of feet per second.
To maximize the power available in the thorax, required is:
- A flexible rib cage and a dynamically stable thoracic & lumbar spine (i.e. a dynamic core) and scapulo-thoracic rhythm,
- Coordination amongst face, neck (cervical), thorax, and lumbar and all extremity muscles,
- Uninhibited inhalation and exhalation of the breathing cycle (which requires full emotional freedom),
- Refined control over the breathing cycle, all breathing patterns, and the ability to adjust the cycle and patterns to fit movement as needed,
- Coordination between breathing and both isometric holds and three dimensional movement performed with varying speeds of the extremities,
- Disassociation between breathing, functional movement and sport specific technique,
- Physiological tolerance for retained carbon dioxide (i.e. ETCO2, plasma acidification).
Exactly how much power is available in the thorax:
A compound recurve bow which has just one set of opposing ribs requires as much as 60-70 lbs of draw strength to achieve full load. An arrow flying from such a bow can be used to hunt deer, boar, even bear. If this is the power available in just one pair of ribs, imagine the power your rib cage is capable of storing and releasing. With 5-6 pairs of ribs in opposition, and another 4-5 ribs opposed at an angle, plus the elasticity of the rib cage joints and bones… there is a massive reservoir of power in what may appear as a useless cage of bones.
Compare the draw of the archer to the entry of the butterfly stroke, there isn’t much difference. Tyler Clary loads his rib cage using the exact same principle as an archers bow, except that his arms and legs act as the drawstring, as the levers compressing the rib cage, storing incredible amounts of potential energy. Follow through of the arms through the pull phase of the stroke is not simply muscular power, it is the elastic recoiling of the rib cage back into normal position releasing kinetic energy by snapping the arms through the pull and finish phases of the stroke. If you are trying to swim by muscling it, then you will max out prior to your potential. Those who swim at the highest level possess muscular strength, but they leverage the elastic properties of their body to multiply muscular strength to a level impossible by muscling it alone.
The elastic principles of the body to leverage muscular power applies to all swim strokes and to all sports… running requires the pumping action of the arms, the arms transfer their swing into the legs through the elastic recoil of the lumbo-pelvic junction. Poor breathing, poor thoracic range of motion, poor flexibility in the rib cage and the lumbo-pelvic region and you end up a weak, ineffective runner with a short stride, a rigid torso easily exhausted on the flats with any change in terrain exacerbating tension and fatigue.
A sprinter at top end speed achieves the fully drawn position of the archer’s bow at toe off: their spine is arched, their arms and legs like the bowstrings add to the tension through the hip and shoulder joints, then the snap… as toe-off ends and tension is released the spine and pelvis reverse rotation across both transverse and longitudinal axes accelerating the opposite leg into the drive phase while the opposite arm swings additional propulsion.
Name the sport and if breathing and range of motion are not aspects of training, then its guaranteed that both athlete and coach are banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out how to obtain greater strength, speed, endurance, power, but making only minor inroads into the athletes potential.
Peak performers are flexible, in their rib cage, and in their capacity to breathe, and to use their breathing to lift their performance. Your competition is training at this level, are you? Your competition is lean, are peaking their power to body weight ratio, have eliminated useless bulk becoming exceedingly efficient, and maximize their elastic properties to bounce, to glide, to explode with power. Are you?
Are you depending solely on muscle to forcing movement, grinding out each stroke, each stride? You may want to stop and consider perhaps if your approach to training is not only taking a physical toll, but a mental and emotional toll. If your training ain’t fun, then there is something wrong with it: muscling it, forcing it, grinding has that side-effect.
Champions execute their technique, their performances effortlessly: they glide over the track, the road, through the water, not plodding, hacking, or chopping their way to the finish line.
Champions focus on training how to move; speed, endurance, power are the outcome of such training. Training to develop speed, endurance, and power and then hoping it will all become effortless is a dead end: you will not achieve your potential, your performance will not become effortless, fluid, and graceful. It will hurt, ever time, and only worse with time.