Targeting Common Training Dysfunctions, Part 1

by Will Safford, CSCS

The majority of results in the gym arrive via training the big muscle groups in compound movements like squats, presses, and pulls. The deadlift, squat, and press build serious strength, pack on muscle, burn loads of calories, and incorporate a wide variety of muscles and joints. These lifts should be the focus of your workouts, and will keep you on the road to progress for the long haul.

One additional step that we can take in our training is to be mindful of days when we see movements that train the smaller, less glamorous muscles. The days when we have athletic circuits, or second tiers with specific movements that focus on getting us to move better.

When we neglect these muscle groups it can lead to imbalances, movement dysfunctions, and eventually, injury and pain.

These smaller muscles will not be the emphasis of your workout, but should be included regularly in your routine as sort of pre-hab work, and certainly if you suffer from any muscle imbalances or movement dysfunctions.

Strengthening up these areas will also add to your performance on the main lifts, and make you a more well-rounded and capable athlete overall.

Add the following exercises before your workouts as activation drills or as their own session in open gym or at home.

Muscle Group: Lower Traps / Rhomboids / Rotator Cuff

Common Dysfunctions: Rounded Shoulder Position, Shoulder Impingement, Poor Posture
Common Sources of Pain: Shoulder, Upper Back, Neck
The Fix: Scapular Retractions, Face Pulls, High Row to External Rotation

Many times the muscles of the chest, including the pec major and minor, are overly tight from frequent pressing movements like push-ups and bench press. Combine this with a lack of stretching, desk work, and poor posture and you’ve got a recipe for dysfunction and pain.

Typically, when the muscles of the chest and front upper body are too tight, the opposing muscles of the upper back are weak and underdeveloped, mainly the lower taps and rhomboids.  This usually causes a lack of range of motion overhead and frequently, pain in the shoulders. Residual tension in the upper traps and neck can also cause headaches, as well as poor, shallow breathing.

Combat this common dysfunction with a healthy dose of Scapular Retractions and Face Pulls. Coaches are always yelling “keep your shoulder blades back and down!”  This cue is important on most lifts, as it reinforces proper positioning of the shoulders and arms when pressing, pulling, squatting, etc.

Scapular Retractions

Scapular Retractions are essentially, pulling your shoulder blades together. This develops the muscles of the lower traps and rhomboids. Although this is a very small movement, having strong control of your scapulae will set you up for a lifetime of healthy pulling and pushing.

Loop a band around a vertical anchor at chest height and stand with your arms straight in front of you. Without bending your elbows, shrug your shoulder blades together straight backward, not upward. Feel the muscles between your shoulder blades doing the work, and do sets of high reps, 15-20.  These are small muscles that need endurance, not absolute strength.

Face Pulls

Follow up your scapular retractions with the Face Pull, a movement similar to what you may have seen before in classes on the rings. This exercise will develop the muscles of your upper back, which are responsible for good posture, and bring balance to an overworked front upper body. Using the bands at eye level, stand with both arms straight in front of you. Pull your elbows and hands toward the sides of your head using the muscles of your upper back. Finish the pull with your forearms vertical and your hands next your head, as if in a double biceps pose. Bring you hands back the starting position and repeat for 15 to 20 reps.

High Row to External Rotation

Strong rotator cuff muscles are important for shoulder health and maintaining shoulder stability when exercising. Many times these muscles are weak, which leads to the upper arm bone (humerus) loose and wobbly in the joint socket. This can lead to shoulder impingement and pain.  Keep your rotator cuff strong with the High Row to External Rotation.

Using the same band and position as the Face Pull, row the band straight back with high elbows. Remember to squeeze your scapulae together first before starting the pull (think Scapular Retraction). Once your elbows are next to your eyes, rotate your hands upward, ending with your hands vertical over your elbows. Finish by rotating your hands down, then moving your hands back to the starting position. Perform 15 to 20 reps with a light band.

You’ll notice that at both gyms we now have the Crossover Symmetry system. These are great tools to develop a lot of these movements and target the posterior musculature of the shoulder.

Muscle Group: Gluteus Medius / Hip External Rotators

Common Dysfunctions: Knees Caving Inward
Common Sources of Pain: Knees, IT Band
The Fix: Monster Walks, Side Plank Leg Lifts

As we move down the chain to the hips and knees we come across a very common issue in the world of lifting; the dreaded knee cave. This dysfunction, although more popular among women (due to anatomy), can effect beginner lifters to even the super strong, and is never pretty. Most often seen when squatting, jumping, landing, and lunging, there are a few reasons why the knees may collapse inward. Primarily, however, this is due to a lack of strength in the hip external rotators, mainly the gluteus medius.

The glute med, as it’s called, is located on the upper outside of your rump, and is responsible for pulling your leg away from the midline, and externally rotating and stabilizing your hips. When it’s weak, the hips and femur (or bone in your upper leg) are poorly stabilized, and the result is knees that cave inward during some movements. Over time, this can lead to knee pain, pain in the IT band, and even ACL tears.  Strengthen your glute medius with Monster and Sumo Walks and the Side Plank Leg Lift.

Monster Walks / Sumo Walks

A great exercise to get the glute medius firing is Monster Walks. For this exercise you loop a small band around your ankles, bend your knees, maintain a low athletic position, and take wide steps forward, then wide steps backward, stretching the band outward with each step. You should feel this on the upper outside of your glutes. Do 10 steps forward and 10 steps backward for 3 sets.


With the same band you can also perform Sumo Walks.  Again with a low stance, take steps laterally, stretching the band as you move. Keep your lead foot turned slightly in, and think of leading with your heel as you walk side to side. Do 10 steps to each side for 3 sets.

Side Plank Leg Lifts

A great way to get some core work in while strengthening your glute medius and hip external rotator muscles is the Side Plank Leg Lift. You can perform this exercise from either your hand or elbow. Assume a side plank position with your elbow directly under your shoulder, hips up off the ground, body in a straight line from neck to foot, and feet stacked on one another. Slowly raise your top foot up using the muscles of your outer glutes and hip. Hold the foot up in the top position for a moment, then slowly lower it back down. Perform 12-15 reps per side.

Try to turn your toe down and in, and lead with your heel as you lift your leg up. This will target the glute medius. Don’t allow your hip to open up while performing the movement and don’t let the foot crash back to the other on the way down. The glute medius needs endurance, so train for higher reps and get a good burn going. Repeat on both sides.

Wrap Up

If you’re struggling with a certain issue, like knees caving in while squatting, get to class a few minutes early to activate your glute medius with a few sets of Monster Walks or Side Plank Leg Lifts.  If posture is your issue, hit the Face Pull and Scapular Retractions a few times a week. These exercises should be performed for two to three sets at high repetitions between 12 and 20. If you want to see real changes you must commit to these on a regular basis.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Will Safford Performance360 CoachWill Safford is a coach at Performance360, San Diego’s Best Rated Gym. He is a former NCAA athlete and is certified through the C.S.C.S, USA Weightlifting, StrongFirst Kettlebell and is a Purple Belt in Jiu Jitsu.

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