“Wow–this is tough!”
Those aren’t the words you’d expect out of one of the fittest people around. We were only twenty minutes into our session when Ben Greenfield–ranked as one of the top 100 most influential people in health, one of America’s top personal trainers, a health and wellness writer, and renowned podcaster–looked up at me over his shaking legs and expressed his surprise.
Ben Greenfield is one of the fittest individuals on the planet and unlike most Americans does not spend his day sitting at a desk deflating his glutes and posterior chain. He’s extremely active and knows muscle balance well. But even the fittest individuals can end up with an over-developed front side and weak, dysfunctional backside. And Ben, although known for his “superhuman” abilities, is no exception to what our modern day lives do to our posture.
Ben learned about Foundation Training (FT), a series of corrective exercises designed to strengthen our “core,” through Dr. Eric Goodman’s book, Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain, and Move with Confidence (2011), and Ben began to incorporate the ten basic exercises outlined by the book into his daily routine. He had suggested Foundation Training to me years ago when I was struggling with chronic foot and back pain. Little did he know, but his invaluable advice started me on an incredible path with Foundation Training and freedom from years of chronic pain.
I pursued Foundation Training, attending two certification courses. I became a certified FT instructor, learning everything I could from Dr. Goodman and his talented team of master instructors. Shortly after returning from my second certification, I had the opportunity to work with Ben (read more here) and show him how far the exercises have come. Dr. Goodman continually tweaks the exercises, making them better all the time–these minute advances have been nothing short of brilliant.
Small Tweaks, Huge Changes
Foundation Training had been a part of Ben’s daily routine for several years. During an interview with Mind Body Green, he mentioned the Founder (FT’s go-to exercise), referring to it has “the single most potent exercise move you can do.” Here is a picture of Ben’s original Founder:
Although they’re outside of view in this photo frame, Ben’s knees are over his heels rather than behind, making this a quad-dominant exercise rather than a posterior chain exercise (a critical FT distinction). Also, his head position should be noted. The chin should be drawn in to lengthen the back of the neck and to avoid shortening the muscles of the posterior chain.
After Ben’s video was released, the FT community was quick to offer their suggestions to improve his form. Fortunately, I was able work with Ben, we focused on details such as the two issues noted in the photo. Ben was able to feel how even the slightest adjustment can make all the difference.
It was the Woodpecker (a glute-focused exercise), which prompted Ben’s surprised protest during our session. I reminded him the shake he was feeling is a good sign. Dr. Goodman says when we identify weakness within our posterior chain we begin to experience this shake (often more like a tremble). This is when all the “reprograming” is taking place in the neuromuscular system and our body is making the appropriate adaptations. Here are the top four tweaks we made to Ben’s FT Woodpecker form.
Squaring the hips: Ben’s “old” woodpecker form meant his hips were too open. One of the most common tendencies with this exercise, it is usually an indication of tight hips (glutes), which force the hips into external rotation, pulling them open. By squaring up his hips, Ben was able to effectively pull his glutes much longer. Once the glutes were lengthened, we added tension, addressing dysfunction and tightness rather than adding to it.
Weight shift: the position of the front knee is key in this exercise. Ben’s front knee was bent just a little too much, so we shifted his weight back slightly by straightening the knee. When the knee travels forward, it takes the hips with it, causing shortening of the glutes and hamstrings. This tiny adjustment also changed the target of the exercise from the front (quads) to the backside of the body (glutes).
Breathing: Ben and I focused on not just increasing the distance from the pelvis to the front, sides, and back of the ribcage but expansion of the ribcage. This meant filling the chest wall with air to activate the muscles that help create more space in the torso and also help to pull up on (decompress) the spine. When breathing, the intercostal muscles contract and drag the rib cage up as the diaphragm moves down. This elevation creates an upward (decompression) force.
Head position: by improving Ben’s breathing and lifting his chest using FT-specific decompression breathing, we were also able to adjust his head position, one of the most common mistakes with any FT exercise. The cervical portion of the spine must remain long to avoid “slack” or shortening of the posterior chain. This helps address forward head posture and takes decompression to another level. Oftentimes it is hard to feel whether or not the back of the neck is long, which is why an outside, trained perspective is so invaluable.
Perhaps the most significant and impactful compression along the spine can come from head position. When the chin juts out and the head falls forward from the shoulder, the cervical spine is compressed. Foundation Training addresses forward head posture at the source. The goal is to re-position the head to allow space at the base of the skull by drawing the chin in, creating more distance between the base of the skull and the pubic symphysis.
These adjustments made a huge difference in Ben’s body. I received a text the following day saying his butt was sore! FT effectively lengthens each muscle before it’s tensioned. If you take a weak, tight muscle and “strengthen” it without pulling it long, you’re contributing to muscle tightness/dysfunction. But, if you take a tight, weak muscle and pull it long then strengthen it, you’re addressing the root cause of both tight and weak muscles. Lengthening the muscle then adding tension is a great way to create not only stronger muscles but also longer ones–muscles that glide and have the functional ability to contract and move within a healthy range. It’s like killing two birds with one stone. And yes, this can make you very sore. Even Ben Greenfield.
Diving into the Nitty Gritty
These are limited examples of small tweaks we made in a single session, but there is so much more to Foundation Training. As Ben Greenfield would say, let’s put on our propeller hats, dive in, and take a closer look at the biomechanics that make FT so effective.
To begin with, our modern lifestyle directly contradicts and weakens important core stability, essentially taking us out of correct alignment. Some refer to the human body as lazy, while others claim it’s brilliantly adaptive. Both are true. Our body is constantly trying to make whatever we’re doing easier for us. But, it’s this compensatory pattern that often leads to chronic pain and breakdown of joints. When sitting for prolonged periods of time, the body begins to shut down, muscles become weaker and dormant, and they no longer help to support the spine. Desk jobs, too much time on computers, texting, and sitting or standing in undesirable positions all lead to an accelerated breakdown of the spine as muscles atrophy and bones begin to rest on bones.
When it comes to Foundation Training (FT), our bodies still seek the path of ease and familiarity. To combat a tendency toward routine movement, each exercise is accompanied by twenty to thirty different queues to remind the body of where it needs to be to maximize the effectiveness of each exercise. In order to restore proper muscle function, they must first become flexible enough to move, glide, and contract. The goal with any FT exercise is to take each muscle or muscle group, pull it/them long (restoring its functional length), and then “turn it on” by adding appropriate tension.
Adding tension to the right place at the right time helps avoid “slack” in a muscle or muscle group. Each muscle should act as a pulley to take tension and compression off the surrounding joints. But, before creating this pulley system, it is crucial to first learn how to properly use the muscles of the pelvis to create an anchor so there is something to pull against.
This is where the precise eye of an instructor trained in FT comes in. An instructor knows where muscles attach (anatomy) and how rotational movement (biomechanics) helps to restore length to each muscle or muscle group. An instructor can quickly identify any undesirable adaptations the body may make. Most people have been taught to segregate and compartmentalize when strengthening a muscle. Rather than an isolating exercise like crunches, FT uses combined chains of movement to encourage core muscles to work together.
Key principles of Foundation Training
Decompression: Decompression breathing, if done well, acts as a pulley system to increase tension on the posterior chain and glutes. Decompression breathing is used during each FT exercise to reeducate the axial skeleton to use the pulley systems around the ribcage to lengthen and decompress the torso and awaken the deep muscles of the core needed to pull upwards against gravity.
Proper breathing produces a visible effect on the body, opening and rotating limbs. Dr. Goodman, in his book True to Form, describes the specific structural effects of deep and expansive breathing:
When the sternum lifts and expands outwardly it lifts the ribcage and, pushing the shoulders into external rotation, opening up the chest and allowing more room for oxygen. Put simply, as air fills the rib case, the axial skeleton expands, lifting the sternum, and rotating the upper extremities externally, which allows space for the lungs to breathe and also helps to lift and support the weight of the head against the downward pull of gravity.
During decompression breathing the front, sides, and back of the ribcage are pulled up and away from the pelvis. On the exhale, the bellybutton is drawn in to brace the length gained on the inhale. The ribcage should lift and expand on the inhale and stay in that position on the exhale, while all of the deep core muscles work to hold it there. When done well, decompression breathing allows much more space between each vertebra. This reeducates the deep trunk (core) muscles to become longer (more decompressed) and stronger, and eventually our muscles begin to remember that part of their job is to hold us up. The new norm allows our spine to be much more decompressed and stable.
Anchoring: The muscles of the pelvis, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and iliacus help to create an equal downward pull on the pelvis, or an anchor. In order to create space and tension that supports the entire body, we must have something to pull upward from or against. We need an anchor in order to keep our posture expansive.
Anchoring is executed by first initiating a slight internal rotation at the hip and then adding tension by drawing the feet toward the midline of the body, creating an inward and upward pull from the pelvis down to the arches of the feet. This maneuver allows proper circumduction of the leg and helps to correct legs and feet that may be stuck in external rotation (i.e. duck feet). This slight internal rotation also allows the glutes to be pulled longer and return to a more functional length.
Anchoring also involves the muscles of the feet, another weak and dormant structure in many bodies. During anchoring, the outsides of the feet push firmly into the ground, pushing back against gravity, while the big toes are pulled toward the opposite heels. This creates an upward lifting of the arches. This pull originates from the anchoring muscles of the pelvis. The iliacus (a deep hip flexor and lateral rotator) muscle also plays a huge role. This anchor creates a strong, stable center of gravity.
Anchoring creates a downward, traction force on the spine. Then, with breath FT teaches us to pull away from the anchor (which is pulling downward), creating our own traction force. The result? Decompression!
Integration and Hip Hinging: When practicing FT it is never the intent to isolate a muscle. Each exercise reeducates the body on proper integration or sharing of muscular work, and each muscle plays an important role. While some play a bigger role than others, they never act alone. When the workload is shared this eliminates the potential for one muscle to become overactive, tight, or dysfunctional.
Hip hinging is an effective way to teach all the muscles of the posterior chain to work in conjunction with one another to perform the same task. It is the basic foundation of proper movement. Unfortunately, few know how to do it and almost no one can do it well. When this basic movement pattern begins to atrophy, we end up compensating in a variety of ways and the result leads to chronic breakdown of our joints and, eventually, pain.
The hip hinge should be used for basic life movement like bending over to get something off the ground, loading the dishwasher, or brushing your teeth, but again our modern day lives have forced us out this way of moving. Sitting for most of the day results in weak glutes or glute amnesia, weak trunk muscles, tight hips, and tight lower back muscles, which makes it hard to do this basic movement.
When the hips are loaded correctly they become the axis between the upper and lower extremity. Bending in this way takes pressure off the discs and places it back in the muscles that surround and brace the spine. The spine remains protected and the posterior chain supports the basic movement. Hinging at the hips maximizes the strength in the posterior chain, decreases anterior chain dominance, spares the knees and spine, and allows for proper kinetic transfer of energy and force.
During a proper hip hinge, the hamstring muscles of the posterior chain are restored to their functional length. Tight hips and hamstrings are an absolute epidemic. But why? Again, it’s the way we move (or don’t move). We have forgotten how to move in ways that repeatedly lengthen and strengthen our muscles. Eventually they become dysfunctional, tight, and lose their ability to glide and contract. The muscles respond to this by tightening to add stability and the dysfunction snowballs.
Several of the Foundation exercises have a hinging component. During this portion of the exercise the glutes and hamstrings are pulled long, restoring their functional length. The deep muscles of the trunk support and stabilize the spine, and the anchoring muscles (adductors and iliacus) support the pelvis inferiorly.
The posterior chain is where most of our power comes from if we harness its potential correctly. Back pain, an epidemic, is a direct result of losing this ability to move well–to hinge at the hips with a stable spine and properly use the muscles on the back side of our bodies to transfer forces as they are intended to do.
Foundation Training is unique and if done well, highly effective at treating all kinds of common aches and pains (plantar fasciitis, piriformis syndrome, back pain of any kind, shin splints, and tension headaches). Ben recognizes the value of having a body that is moving well. He researches, seeks the very best, looks far and wide for the latest and greatest advances/therapies in the health and wellness industry and recently wrote an article about, “How To Turn On Your Butt, Activate Deep Breathing & Decompress Your Spine (And Why I Completely Changed My Morning Routine)“. If Ben Greenfield does Foundation Training every morning and says it’s one of the most effective programs for low back pain, well, then chances are it could work for you–and in my experience it truly will!