Why You Must Reach During Exercise
Reaching is one of the most important activities to have in any exercise program.
There, I said it. Let me tell you why.
Plenty of programs have bench press, often times at high volumes. They’re constantly doing upper body pressing and pulling exercises to stimulate hypertrophy and/or strength adaptations.
A common idea is that if you balance out the amount of pressing and pulling exercises you do, your shoulders will be healthy.
But does that actually work? How many people still get nagging shoulders despite thinking they exercise properly?
The answer is not more pulling. The answer is not “shoulder stabilization” exercises.
The answer is maintaining a scapula that moves freely on a ribcage in a healthy and productive manner.
Notice that there is a normal degree of thoracic flexion in a normal human spinal curve.
A scapula is a concave (rounded) bone that needs to sit on a convex (pushing out) thoracic ribcage. Pulling the shoulder blades back & down, extending the lumbar spine, and elevating the anterior ribcage does not allow for optimal shoulder-scapula mechanics.
But this is often how individuals perform upper body pulling exercises.
THE BENEFITS OF REACHING
Reaching is immensely important for shoulder health. Proper reaching involves the following:
- Retraction of the posterior ribcage + Forwardly reaching arms – Activation of the serratus anterior
- Depressed and internally rotated anterior ribcage – Activation of the obliques
- Dorsiflexion of the ankles – Facilitation of flexion and ribcage retraction
- Proper respiration to maintain all of the above
The serratus and oblique muscles are often weak and under-utilized in nearly all trainees that don’t actively train them properly. The result is a scapula that cannot move properly on a ribcage. It’s a ticking time bomb.
You can do all the “rotator cuff” stabilization exercises you want. They won’t do anything significant if your ribcage isn’t working well with your scapula in the first place.
If we can achieve a good reaching position, we can restore a healthy and necessary Zone of Apposition:
SO HOW CAN I ADD REACHING IN MY TRAINING?
There are many ways to add reaching. You can have individual exercises that target reaching specifically (a good place to start), and once you understand the above principles of good reaching, you can add it to many exercises.
It’s essential that breathing is the top priority of these exercises. Ensure that you are inhaling through your nose (feeling the ribcage expand 360 degrees) and exhaling through your mouth fully to ensure activation of the obliques.
Once you feel your obliques turn on, keep that abdominal compression and keep breathing slowly. Air will follow the path of least resistance. Obliques that are “on” causes air to go backwards into the posterior ribcage, facilitating good thoracic flexion and a Zone of Apposition.
Here is one exercise I like to start people with to teach them how to reach:
1. Stand facing away from a door, and place your heels 7-10 inches from the wall.
2. Stand up straight with a ball between your knees and feet shoulder width apart.
3. Bring your arms out in front of you as you round out your back, performing a pelvic tilt so your lower back (mid-back and down) is flat on the wall.
4. Squat down slightly as you squeeze the ball.
5. Keeping your lower back flat on the wall, inhale through your nose.
6. As you exhale through your mouth, reach your arms forward and down so your upper back comes off the wall (your lower back should stay flat on the wall).
7. Hold your arms steadily in this position (reach), as you inhale through your nose again and expand your upper back. You should feel a stretch in your upper back.
8. Exhale and reach further forward. You should feel the muscles on the front of your thighs and outer abdominals engage.
9. Repeat this breathing sequence for a total of 4-5 deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.
10. Slowly stand up by pushing through your heels, keeping your lower back flat on the wall.
11. Relax and repeat 4 more times.
And here is an example of how you can add a reach to just a basic side plank. It’s so easy and beneficial that it doesn’t make sense NOT to add it!