Zac Cupples is a physical therapist and performance coach. He graduated from St. Ambrose University’s Doctor of Physical therapy program in 2011 and completed an orthopedic residency in 2013 to attain his OCS. He became a certified strength and conditioning coach (CSCS) that same year, and has spent his career working in a variety of settings, from pain management to the NBA. Zac’s mission is to condense and combine the 80+ continuing education courses he has taken throughout his career into applicable and effective information for his clients to learn from.
Freelap USA: What is the difference between the breathing patterns seen in strength training and in dynamic athletic performance (sprinting, jumping, cutting, etc.), or is there really not much of a difference? How does breathing on the ground transfer to what happens when standing and moving around?
Zac Cupples: The breathing pattern an athlete utilizes in all of these scenarios depends primarily on how stressful the task is. Under “normal” circumstances (normal assumes that all joints can go through the full excursion required during breathing), the ventral cavity should expand in all directions upon inhalation, and compress with exhalation. Because the entire body is involved with respiration, we can think of joint positions going into relative expansion/inhalation or compression/exhalation in most tasks.
Take a squat, for example. During descension, the bottom of the pelvis must expand, along with the spine achieving a degree of flexion. Both actions are associated with body expansion. During single leg activities, such as sprinting, there are alternating degrees of expansion and compression on either side of the body depending on which point of the movement we are in. Thus, with all activities, a degree of expansion or compression is required.
But what happens if the task is too stressful for a person to complete, or the person can’t manage the desired body position against gravity?
I’m glad you asked!
In this case, a compensatory strategy occurs to complete the task. In order to increase gas exchange for CO2 clearance, accessory breathing muscles will kick into high gear to facilitate this change. This strategy alters the normal multidirectional expansion/compression cycle. Instead, we see the ventral cavity lifted upward in the air—an apical breathing strategy.
This accessory breathing strategy is associated with a subsequent reduction in movement options. If I lack the ability to alternate full excursion of expansion and compression, movement limitations will be present. These deficits likely impact motor tasks negatively. From a gravitational standpoint, standing is WAY more challenging than ground-based work, and now you may see why athletes have altered breathing and movement strategies during challenging tasks.Our goal is to get breathing & movement strategies to look as alike as possible across environments. Click To Tweet
Our goal, by improving the qualities an athlete needs to succeed in a given task, would be to get breathing and movement strategies to look as similar as possible across multiple environments. The reason why the best athletes make their craft look effortless is because it probably does take their body less effort, from a motor, respiratory, and physiological standpoint.
Freelap USA: What are your top priorities in training an athlete’s trunk and midsection?
Zac Cupples: The top priority is to not separate the trunk and midsection from the rest of the body unless local adaptation (i.e., hypertrophy) is the rate-limiting step for athlete success. What the trunk and midsection do for us is move throughout space and allow for force production transference among the appendages. In order for this to occur effectively, I prioritize training in the following order:
- Restore movement options
- Display movement competency in a variety of movement contexts
- Chase physiological adaptations within given movement contexts.
Let’s take sprinting as an example. In order to sprint, an athlete must be able to rotate the trunk in one direction, while the midsection/pelvis rotates in the opposite direction. Obviously, this a gross oversimplification, but work with me!
If your sprinting skills are utter weak sauce, we could potentially improve them by working along the aforementioned continuum. We might start restoring the needed movement options by doing a lower-level activity that mimics sprinting, like the wall stride. Let’s say that we do this activity, and the athlete now demonstrates possession of the passive movement options needed to successfully sprint. We may then see if they can maintain those qualities at more challenging positions; that is, displaying competency in a variety of movement contexts.
Now you may get lucky and their sprint looks magical after the above move, but chances are you’ll have to bridge the gap between the ground and sprinting. We may move onto a half kneeling activity where we attempt to maintain the trunk position desired for sprinting. In the half-kneeling lift, the athlete is in terminal hip extension on the left leg, while rotating their trunk to the right—a position we may achieve when we sprint. Now let’s kick it up a notch again with something like a reverse lunge. Although this activity is loaded on two legs, we spend some time in single leg stance, achieving similar hip positions in sprinting, and rotating the midsection/pelvis in a desired direction similar to sprinting.
Our next move, which will be much closer to mimicking the sprint position, might be a sprinter step-up. From here, we could move towards plyometric activity keeping the same positions, perhaps with a march to skip progression, then moving toward bounding, and hitting sprinting with our terminal progression.
Where would physiological adaptation chasing occur? Once you exhibit competency in one of the earlier movements, you could alter training variables to chase a desired adaptation. Perhaps if you master step-ups, you could use high-intensity continuous training as a means of increasing the ability to sustain good sprint mechanics over a longer duration.
Freelap USA: What is your priority list in dealing with the common “thoracic spine mobility” deficit in athletes?
Zac Cupples: Secondary to structural constraints within the thoracic spine facet joints, the predominant movements allowed at the t-spine are rotation from T2-8 and side bending from T10-12. Since the thoracic spine is intimately linked with the rib cage, demonstrating t-spine mobility must be accompanied by demonstrating full respiratory excursion within the rib cage.
In order to have full respiratory excursion, the rib cage should be able to perform the following tasks:
- Bucket handle: Ribs move superiorly and laterally (predominantly in the lower ribs).
- Pump handle: Ribs move anteriorly and superiorly (predominantly in the upper ribs).
- Posterior expansion: Ribs move posteriorly and superiorly.
The order in which I list the above tasks is also the order I follow when driving mobility gains.
To improve bucket-handle action, the lower rib cage must stay dropped down during inhalation; not lift superiorly. This action can occur by cueing an individual to maintain abdominal tension upon inhalation. First, you’ll have to check what your rib cage dimensions are. For this, I utilize the infrasternal angle. If someone has a narrower rib cage, I may choose an activity like this to facilitate the movement, and for a wider rib cage, I’ll pick something like this.
Once lower rib cage position is established, we can then drive air into the upper thorax. Improvement to pump handle mechanics best occurs by placing the arms overhead and keeping the lower thorax position during exercises like the wall tilt with overhead reach. Posterior expansion occurs by reaching forward, closing down the front, and opening up the back, as in this “diamond lazy bear” activity.
Once someone demonstrates the ability to place air into all these areas, you now have a solid foundation to drive movements such as rotation. I like improving rotational capabilities with something like this half kneeling rotation.
Freelap USA: How do you approach the “big lifts” for athletes, squatting and deadlifting, in light of muscle activation and posture?
Zac Cupples: When I think of squats and deadlifts, the objective is to move the bar as efficiently as possible. To make this happen, the body must morph and adapt around the bar to keep it traveling in a straight line. Though I am not cueing “keep the bar in a straight line,” I am thinking of what movements must occur in the body to allow this to happen.
The most important piece for both the squat and deadlift is the relationship between the rib cage and the pelvis. Ideally, these areas should remain stacked atop one another throughout both movements. To attain this position, I cue an exhale to set the rib cage position, and a slight tuck of the hips. Ideally, some abdominal tension ought to be maintained throughout the movement.
That’s where the similarities end. When coaching a squat or a deadlift, we must think about where we want the center of mass within the body to travel.The relationship between the rib cage and the pelvis is the central piece of the squat and #deadlift, says @ZCupples. Click To Tweet
For the squat, the center of mass travels downward. To make this happen, I cue the athlete to push the knees forward while keeping heel contact. This action transcends wherever the bar sits on the athlete.
For the deadlift, the center of mass ought to travel posteriorly. To drive the body in this direction, I cue to fold in half at the waist, push the hips back, or imagine hitting your face on the table. I find that one of these three cues often make the deadlift look as pretty as possible.
Once you have these components, simply add weight, speed, or whatever your peeps need to take their performance to the next level. Do these things and you ought to be in “bidness.” No, that’s not a typo.
Freelap USA: What are some pointers on single leg exercise progression? What do you emphasize and instruct for single leg training and why?
Zac Cupples: When I think of programming single leg exercises, I think of challenging pelvic dynamics under load.
Without getting into too much detail, the stance and swing leg in each single leg activity are typically going in opposite directions. In a step-up, for example, one hip is extended while the other hip is flexed. This action requires a great deal of coordination to perform successfully, as well as the requisite pelvic motion needed to complete the task. If someone lacks hip extension, for example, a sprinter step-up may be challenging to perform.Progressing single leg activities involves continuing to minimize the base of support, says @ZCupples. Click To Tweet
Much like some of the previous answers, many of the tenets remain the same: we want the rib cage and pelvis stacked atop each other, cued by exhaling and tucking. From there, progressing single leg activities involves continuing to minimize the base of support.
I may start someone with something in two-foot contact, but with a staggered stance, such as a split squat. The keys to a split squat are keeping the hips tucked, maintaining the back hip as close to 0 degrees’ hip extension as possible, emphasized by a hip tuck. Once someone achieves this position, I’ll progress to step-up variations.
I like the sprinter step-up, which aggressively challenges stance-leg hip extension. A terminal move, as the dynamic pelvic demands are greatly increased, would be a single leg squat off a box. You can also progress a deadlift/hinge in a similar manner. I may start with a split RDL, cueing folding in half at the waist and a subtle shift of the hips, and then progress to a single leg RDL to create that contrasting hip flexion and extension.
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