The Athlete's Cure For Short Pecs By Charles Staley
A common postural deficit among males who weight-train on a consistent basis, and especially among those who aggressively train the bench press, is habitually protracted shoulders coupled with internally rotated arms. This so-called "gorilla posture" doesn't just look bad- it also increases the risk of training-related injury.
A great way to visualize and understand the posture I'm describing is to look at someone wearing a "bench shirt" during a powerlifting meet. These shirts- made of super-tough materials and worn so tight they often require 1-2 helpers to put it on, "oppose" the action of the pectoralis major as you lower the bar to your chest. This is why, when standing relaxed, the wearer is pulled into an exaggerated version of the posture I've described to the right:
Notice the extremely protracted shoulders and (harder to see in this photo) internally-rotated arms. This is the opposite of healthy, functional posture. In fact, if you wore this shirt 24-hours a day for about 3 months, you'd end up with shortened pecs, internally-rotated arms, and stretched out rhomboids & trap fibers.
Now as you might imagine, when you're wearing one of these shirts, it's absolutely impossible to raise your arms over your head. Which gives you a clue to the functional deficits you'll experience when you've got gorilla posture.
The commonly prescribed solution to this problem comes straight from the exercise community- the doorway stretch, shown below:
Why do I say the doorway stretch comes from the exerciser community? Because it's painful and boring all at the same time. For all intents and purposes, it's a form of punishment- you've been a bad boy spending all that time bench pressing, and now you've gotta pay the price. While your buddies are having fun lifting heavy weights, you're in the naughty chair doing a boring-ass pec stretch.
Well, aside from the philosophical issues I have with the doorway stretch (and all stretches in fact), I also have physiological issues with the way most people try to lengthen their muscles. The problem with static stretches is that they're passive, and passivity has poor transfer to activity. In other words, if you want to improve your range of motion during active movements (and all movement is "active"), you can't use passive stretching methods to get there.
Think about that doorway stretch again. Yes, it's "active" in the sense that you're actively leaning into the doorway (or against a wall) to create the stretch tension, but as far as the pec is concerned, it's passive- a stretch is being imposed upon it by an outside force. It's really the same as if a partner was administering the stretch to you.
Now let's look at what I consider to be a better way- the overhead squat. This is an active stretch of the pectoralis major. It requires dynamic external rotation of the humerus along with active retraction and depression of the scapulae as you squat. It also strengthens the deltoids and triceps, not to mention the entire lower body and core.
As you descend into the overhead squat, the motor cortex must actively adjust the pecs' length to accommodate the movement. This is done via a variety of neurological functions, including inter-muscular coordination between the pec, its synergists, and stabilizers. In other words, your muscles have to do something, as opposed to having something done to them.
To perform the overhead squat, simply take a wide grip on the bar (start with a wood dowel initially) extend it overhead, and squat. If you've got flexibility issues, you'll notice a tendency for the bar to drift forward as you squat. If this happens, limit the depth of the squat until your range of motion improves. Over time, you'll develop the ability to overhead-squat impressive weights to a below-parallel squat position. Use caution and progress gradually- short muscles don't lengthen overnight. Athletic maturity is expressed as the ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of long-term gain.
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