How is a Pulldown like a Dead Bug, and how can they both improve your Deadlift? These seemingly disparate exercises have more in common than they may appear to. Not only are they surprisingly similar, but their similarities can speed up the learning process, improve movement quality, and provide a structure for both programming and progression/regression... it's a simple hack that will make your life as a coach easier.
"F*cking Irregular Verbs"
I had a terrible time learning French. Some of it probably had something to do with having a 15 year-old's attention span, or with the fact that class was usually late in the day, but some of it came down to irregular verbs. It seems like every time I tried to find a pattern—some rhyme or reason to guide me—I was informed that "avoir" or "être" was an irregular verb and didn't follow any sort of pattern. (To be fair, English has its fair share of irregular verbs. "I walked to the diner this morning and eated an omelette" just doesn't work, does it? F*cking irregular verbs...)
Regular verbs make our lives easy; I can learn a new word and immediately know how to change it to reflect a change in person, tense, etc. They follow a pattern, and while the root word may change, things like adding "ing" or "ed" to the end of the word don't.
Two bits of good news: we're done with the grammar lesson, and movement competencies are like regular verbs—the exercise may change, but very often the positions we want to own don't.
I was explaining this concept to a client earlier this morning, and—because he plays—I used tennis as an example.
There is no earthly way that I can learn and practice every possible shot I might need to hit; the possible variations of speed, height, angle and more provide close to an infinite number of possibilities. Instead, I can learn the fundamentals—a forehand, backhand, and overhand. I can practice these in varying situations—both simulated and real—and eventually be able to improvise the best possible shot in a new scenario.
By learning and mastering the fundamentals, enough patterns and similarities emerge for me to spontaneously built a new pattern, not from scratch, but from the underlying competencies I've already practiced.
For what it's worth, anyone who's argued against the overspecialization of youth athletes understands this on some level: better soccer players become better basketball players become better football players because the sheer variety of movement problems their bodies have had to solve increases. Each time they learn to move effectively, their options open up. The result is an athlete who can more creatively and effectively respond to the unpredictability of field and court sports. As you may have heard, Patrick Mahomes apparently played a little baseball when he was younger. (For more on this idea, check out Range by David Epstein. It quickly became one of my favorite reads of last year.)
In order to bring this analogy back into the weight room, I'll rely on one of my favorite concepts: the abs and the hamstrings working together to orient the ribcage and the pelvis in the sagittal plane. #Abstrings fam.
The 90/90 Hip Lift is one of my favorite drills for teaching integration of these two sets of muscles. The aim is to flatten the lower back against the ground while lifting the tailbone up slightly (creating a posterior pelvic tilt). Digging the heels into the box helps find hamstrings.
There are two reasons I like this as a starting point: feedback (proprioception) and mechanical advantage. It's both easy to feel and easy to do. Having said that, you're not going to get much of a training effect from this one. The key then is to transfer this position and the muscle actions that help achieve it into other, more challenging movements. Take a look at the graphic below:
Deadlifts, Squats, Pushups, Pulldowns... that's more like it! I took maybe a dozen videos—ranging from ab wheel rollouts to chin-ups to overhead presses—and chose just a few for illustration. Each one "conjugates" the action of the abs and hamstrings into a new set of circumstances. And once you—or better yet your clients—see the similarity, movement improves across the board. Once the pattern emerges it's hard to unsee it.
Programs & Progress
The ability to see the pattern—I sound a little bit like Neo in the Matrix—has two unintended consequences, both of which have made my life as a coach easier.
At its heart, the idea of positional conjugation is a great way to conceptualize progression: maintaining fundamental movement competencies as positional demands increase. In moving from positions of advantage (either mechanically or proprioceptively) towards positions of disadvantage, we gradually overload the system. That’s progression in a nutshell, and while there are plenty of other ways we can and should apply stress (volume and intensity being two of the primary variables), this is a valuable way to view stability and complexity progressions, and can help you put someone in a movement variation they're ready to crush instead of one they're going to struggle with.
Understanding that different patterns—a hinge, a press, and a row—can all involve similar elements has given me the programming equivalent of a cheat code. One of my favorite things to do when writing a program is to layer multiple movements with similar competencies. Combining a Deadlift, a Pushup, and a Tall Kneeling Pulldown allows me to point out the similarities to a client, stand back, and let them get to work. They move better, understand things more quickly, and need less from me.
The concept of positional conjugation doesn't need to be limited to abs and hamstrings. It can be as simple as pointing out the similarities in scapular humeral rhythm in different row variations, or as complex as translating PRI techniques and methodologies from a therapeutic setting into a more performance-driven one. The underlying principle, however, remains the same: look for similarities and harp on them.