Friday, July 20, 2007

DF Tip #28: External Rotation For Fun and Profit

crab poseCheck out your average male gym rat, and chances are you'll notice something vaguely simian about his posture. When standing relaxed, their arms curve in so that their hands hang right around the tops of their front thighs. When standing relaxed, their arms curve in so that their hands hang right around the tops of their front thighs. They look like they're perpetually performing a mini-version of "the crab" pose. I used to think this was so that if they were called upon to flex -- by a passing female, say, or an oncoming car -- they were already halfway there. Now that I'm older, wiser, and slightly more knowledgeable about the world of exercise, I know these guys are "internally rotated," that most of us have this problem to some degree, and that there's a pretty easy remedy.

Oversimplifying a bit here (as I must do when discussing all matters physiological), internal rotation happens when the chest, lats, and front shoulder muscles are tight and short as compared with the rear shoulders and scapular retractors (the muscles that pull your shoulder blades towards your spine). Not surprisingly, it happens when you spend a lot of time, well, internally rotated: with your arms extended in front of you, and your shoulders drawn forward. If you do a lot of weight training, you'll become chronically internally rotated if you spend more energy building your "pushing" muscles than you "pulling" muscles -- your chest and not your back.

How does this happen?

CalvinRemember when you used to go up to your mother and cross your eyes, or lift the tip of your nose up with your thumb and make oinking noises, or make some other horrible face that Daryl from history class did when the teacher wasn't looking? (Yes, I realize some of you still do these things.)

What did your mother always say? "You better not do that or your face will get stuck like that."

I bought that load of clams throughout my entire childhood, and therefore missed out on a lot of opportunities to make some really hideous faces at my mother. I resented her mendacity for many years but now realize that she was actually right: do something, anything, long and hard and frequently enough, and your body will start to look like that thing -- all the time. So, whether you spend all day crawling through a mine shaft or sitting at a desk, you too, have repetitive movements that are gradually imprinting themselves on your physiology. Oh yes -- you do.

EvolutionAnd I'd lay dollars to doughnuts that your repetitive motion involves internal rotation.

Think about it: between driving, typing, watching TV, and even sleeping -- if it's on your side in a fetal-type position -- you spend a pretty good portion of your life internally rotated. I know I do.

crunchI'm rehashing a bit here, but the fact is that if we're not careful, our exercise habits may actually reinforce, rowrather than counteract, bad habits that we acquire outside the gym. The bench press and the crunch, for instance, help you PRACTICE internal rotation, as if you need to get BETTER at it. Spinning does the same thing. And we lap those exercises up, don't we, because the round-shoulders position feels like home: pour me a Scotch, I'm internally rotated. And if you're short on time, guess which exercises you skip? That's right, the ones that help you rotate externally, like rows and back hyperextensions. They feel weird and unfamiliar. Eww, external rotation. Let's go home and watch "Frasier."

Hip HopInternally rotated shoulders don't work quite right. They're prone to injury, and they lead to bad postural habits in the head and neck, and eventually to a hunched back. Not to mention that they look bad. You might feel safer or more protected when you're internally rotated (think of the "crossed arms" position), but you'll probably also feel withdrawn and disengaged in that position. Open the chest, pull the shoulders back and lift your head up from the pavement (I'm quoting my mother more and more every day), and you may feel more exposed, but you'll also probably feel more active and present. There may even be a masculine-feminine identification thing going on with the two postures: internally rotated, I feel like a hip-hop gangster; when I'm excessively externally rotated, I feel like a cross between a runway model and Deiter from "Sprockets," neither one a paragon of masculinity.

Gisele Bundchen, SupermodelMike Myers as Dieter from SPROCKETSBut, as yin needs the counterbalance of yang, so it is with your joints: the musculature all around the shoulder, ideally, should be more or less equally developed and flexible. Standing relaxed, your shoulders should be in a neutral position: neither internally nor externally rotated. Here's a quick check: grab a pencil loosely in your right hand and relax your arm at your side. If the pencil points more or less forward, you're okay. If it points to the right, you're a little weird, but your problem isn't internal rotation. If it points more than 45 degrees to the left, congratulations, you, my friend, like most of your peers, coworkers, and fellow humans, are internally rotated.

If that's the case with you, shoot for more rows and hyperextensions in the gym, certainly, but also try to do some external rotating outside the gym as well. Spend some time lying on your back with your arms stretched out to your side. If your partner objects, just say "I'm externally rotating!" indignantly. Try the Diagonal Twist/Arm Circle demonstrated here. Use a foam roller to extend your spine and retract your shoulders. Every ten minutes or so while you're working, open your chest and stretch your arms out to your side with your palms up.

You'll feel better, look better, have more fun and make a lot more money.

Those first two things are true; the last two aren't, necessarily, but I had to justify my title. Enjoy.


PS: EVERYONE reading this who gets these tips via email or visits my blog, for heaven's sake, put your name in the FeedBlitz box to the right in my blog (under "subscribe") and get notified when new posts come up so you never miss a word! Thanks to the constant haranguing of Lou Schuler, there's lots of useful stuff getting posted here almost daily now!

Finally, check out Alwyn Cosgrove's blog for some bon mots and a familiar face.

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