Wednesday, October 1, 2014

You Don’t Know (how to) Squat

Squatting is a natural human motion. Quite soon after a toddler is able to walk unaided, the young child will begin executing perfect squat form every time the child gets down to pick something up off the floor. However, as humans age, and frankly as we spend more and more of our days sitting on our backsides, muscles begin to lose strength and flexibility that enables us to perform this natural movement pattern. If a person is unable to squat properly then that person will be unable to follow OSHA guidelines of “lift with your legs, not your back.” Elderly people who lack the physical strength to properly squat will have difficulty getting up and down out of a chair or off the couch. People do not stop moving because they grow old. People grow old because they stop moving. A properly executed squat will not cause bad knees. Not squatting, or, squatting with poor technique will cause a person to have knee problems. Squatting and deadlifting are two vital components of being able to safely and effectively move heavy loads as well as maintaining the strength to perform simple daily tasks.

There is far more to properly executing a squat than simply bending the knees and lowering the body. Before properly executing a squat under the load of weights, proper form must be mastered. Proper form begins with the width of foot positioning and the angle of the toes. Once this is established the hips must be place into a position known as the “hip-hinge.”  This allows for maximizing the depth of the squat, but more importantly, it keeps the spine in proper alignment to ensure that the squat is performed safely. Once this has been done the position of the knee in relation to the foot must be monitored all the way through the squat.

Squat Intro

There are three basic problems that arise from poor squat form. The first is the loss of the hip hinge position. At whatever point in the depth of the squat that this position is lost, the squat should be stopped. This is incredibly important when executing the squat with any kind of resistance. The loss of the hip hinge allows the backside to tuck underneath the hips. This position is referred to as “butt-wink” and the result is a rounding of the lower back. Under a heavy load, this rounding of the lower back places an incredibly dangerous stress on the spine which may lead to an injury such as a bulging disc or crushed vertebrae. The cause of this is usually weak muscles in the lower back and glutes combined with tight hamstrings. The best strengthening exercise for this is a Reverse Hyper Extension used in conjunction with the Standing Hamstring Stretch.

The "Butt-Wink" results in a rounded back. Very unsafe when squatting under load.
The second problem with squat form is a lifting of the heels off of the floor. This is a direct result of tight hamstrings and calves. Under no circumstances should the heels ever come off the floor. The heels should remain flat with the body weight over them; when standing out of the squat, visualized driving the heels through the floor to help maintain proper contact with the ground.

The final technique problem with squatting related to the position of the knees over the feet. The knees should remain directly over the feet throughout the squat. If the knees start to cave inward at any point it indicates weakness in the glute medius and minimis, which are the primary muscles responsible for holding the hips out from the body, allowing the hips and legs to stay in proper alignment during the squat.  If this is a problem two exercises must be done to correct it.

A properly executed squat is a fantastic method of developing total body strength and mobility. However, failing to properly master the technique, or using weight that is too heavy to allow proper technique is a set up for pain and, potentially, a debilitating injury. Master a proper squat and get some life back in those legs!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Handling the Negativity and the Naysayers

The fitness industry is saturated with negativity: don’t this or that, that exercise hurts your knees, this one is bad for you back, your form is bad, you will hurt yourself. YOU CAN”T DO IT. For an industry that is supposed to be about helping people become healthier and be better it sometimes feels like the fitness media, some professionals, or sometimes friends and family seem more bent on telling what we cannot do rather than focusing on helping us discover what we can do. Idiots, I say that in the most loving way possible, but still, idiots.

There is a simple solution for these kinds of people or forms of influence in your life. Ignore them and minimize contact with them. If that is not possible then surround yourself with enough positive voices to drown out the few negative ones and remember these words:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how THE STRONG MAN stumbles or where the DOER OF DEEDS could have done better. The CREDIT belongs to THE ONE who is actually IN THE ARENA, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, WHO STRIVES VALIANTLY, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is NO EFFORT WITHOUT ERROR or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a WORTHY CAUSE; who at best, knows in the end, the TRIUMPH of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while DARING GREATLY, so that his place shall NEVER be with those COLD and TIMID SOULS, who knew neither victory nor defeat.- Theodore Roosevelt

When my weight loss journey began as a teenager, I put that quote up in my bedroom to remind me that the critics do not count. Too many times people misunderstand success, and in doing so, allow the failures of others to predestine their own failure. This is a major mistake. People criticize what they unable to do for themselves. Critics are absolutely useless; forget about them. Along the way, these experts at failing will explain and reason away why they failed. When someone starts into a litany of why you cannot succeed, remember, that person is telling their story of failure, not yours. You will not have story of failure because you will succeed. Success comes because you understand something that the bitter failures do not.

Success comes to those who do not compete with others but instead compete only with themselves. This is the only way to avoid jealousy. It is the only way to become better instead of bitter. The competition is the person in the mirror starring back at you. Become better today than you were yesterday and every day you will be winning. “The greatest fear in the world is the opinions of others, and the moment you are unafraid of the crowd you are no longer a sheep, you become a lion. A great roar arises in your heart, the roar of freedom.”-OSHO

Life is performance based. Results come to those who make an effort, not excuses. Successful people are not gifted with some secret talent or ability. They work hard and succeed on purpose. The success comes because they have learned to ignore the critics and get back up after getting knocked down. People who criticize fail because they thought success is about how high a person can climb. It is not, success is persisting despite the odds going against you. Sound uncomfortable? It is, and successful people learn to fall in love with discomfort because discomfort is the catalyst of growth and change. Negative people do not win at weight loss because they are unwilling to become uncomfortable. So they never experience growth.

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. - Brian Tracy

Negative people refuse to take action, so they never go anywhere, try anything or ever experience progress. Success is directly tied to action. There may be mistakes along the way but successful people do not quit.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Beyond the Six-Pack: Functionality of the Core

If I mention core training and you think “six-pack” you will never have a set of well-defined abs. The area of the body referred to as the “core” is far more than the Rectus Abdominus or “six-pack” muscle. Most people have the idea that if the Rectus Abdominus is being worked then core training is complete. The majority of people confuse training the functionality of the core with having visible abs. Training the functionality of the core muscles is about improving total body stability, strength, and power. Ultimately true core training leads to improved coordination, balance, and athleticism. Training for visibly defined abs leads to errors, confusion, and frustration. There are 168 hours in a week. If a person spends five of those hours exercising, that leaves 163 hours to completely undo what happens in the gym. The visibility of the abs is the result of a highly-controlled diet. Every body has a muscle structure of the “six-pack.” However, most people never see their abs because they cannot but down the fork and back away from the table. Abs happen in the kitchen, developing the core happens in the gym.

The primary function of the core muscles is to keep the spine in the proper, upright position. Proper spinal alignment is the key to healthy, pain free movement of the human body. Traditionally, when people think “core” they think of muscles collectively on the front of the body in between the bottom of the chest and the waist. These muscles include the Rectus Abdominus, transverse abdominals, Internal and external obliques, serratus anterior, rectus sheath, and linea alba. 

But the muscles of the core are dedicated to the task of keeping the spine properly aligned and the spine runs from the base of the skull down into the pelvis. Along the backside of the body, starting with the base of the skull and down to the pelvis, there are several muscles: sternocleidomastoid, splenius capitis, levator scapulae, trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae, spinalis thoracis, longissimus thoracis, serratus posterior, and quadratus laborum. That is just the muscles of the back.  As I said earlier, the spine goes all the way into the pelvis. The pelvis is stabilized by the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, the adductor and abductor muscles, tensor fasciae latae, satorius, pectineus, and illiopsoas. All of those muscles, more than thirty in total, work to stabilize the spine to keep the body in proper alignment. Sound confusing and complicated? It is not; understand that crunches alone are not going to cut it here. 

An injury or strength imbalance in one or more of these muscles will prevent the spine from staying in proper alignment. A minor problem will result skewed movement and a loss of strength and balance. A severe problem may leave a person in debilitating pain that makes life very difficult. Stability throughout the muscles of the abdomen, neck, back, and hips leads to ease of movement, better balance, and fluid movement. The stability of these muscles can easily be trained by any activity that challenges balance. Exercises such as lunges, split squats, forearm planks, side planks, bridges, bird dogs, and a few yoga poses are all excellent ways to train the stability of these muscles.

Stability and support of the spine is the most important function of the core muscles, however, these muscles also form the foundation of total body strength and power.  In everyday life and in athletics, a weak core will limit the body’s ability to utilize its strength. The core controls movement of the body through three primary movements; spinal flexion, spinal extension, and rotation. For optimal mobility and athleticism all three of these movement patterns must be trained.  Training these movement patterns with a properly balanced program is vital for maintaining proper posture and mobility.

For any person that has tried exercise the crunch probably was a part of the program. Spinal flexion is controlled by the rectus abdominus muscle. Anyone who has performed a crunch or leg raise has done an exercise that moves through spinal flexion. The problem with this is that most people spend all day seated behind a desk. Being in the seated with poor posture puts the body in a position of constant spinal flexion. For most people, training the body through more exercises that encourage spinal flexion is a set up for serious posture problems and pain.  Unless a person has body fat levels low enough to have visible abs, 12% or less for men and 18% or less for women, than  exercises such as crunches are usually not worth the time and effort.

It would be in the best interest of most people to train exercises that work through spinal extension to counteract the effects of prolonged periods of sitting. A prioritization of the muscles of the hamstrings, glutes, and back is necessary to improve core stability, strength, and mobility. Collectively these muscles are known as the Posterior Chain. It is these muscles that often grow weak as a result of long periods of sitting. As these muscles weaken over time strength imbalances begin that lead to deviations in proper spinal alignment and posture. To counteract this, an emphasis should be placed on training spinal extension. Think of it this way, if you cannot see the muscles when you look in a mirror, training it should be a priority. Most people only train what they can see. That is a mistake. Exercises such as rows, band pulls, back extensions, deadlifts, glute-ham raises should be trained more often than anything the works the muscles on the front of the body. A ratio of at least 2:1, for some people maybe 3:1, of posterior chain and spinal extension to spinal flexion exercises would be appropriate. Personally, I never do crunches, I spend enough time sitting that I do not want spend any time training through the spinal flexion motion.

The final primary movement of the core muscles is rotation. This is primarily controlled by the internal and external obliques, which also make some contribution to spinal stability. While rotational training may have little carryover to everyday life, it is vital to almost any athletic pursuit. Try hitting a golf ball or throw a baseball without rotational strength; the results will be less than impressive. For the average fitness enthusiast, the rotary torso machine, cable rotations and medicine ball twists are adequate exercises. But for someone wishing to improve athletic performance it will be necessary to get off the floor and really train to rotate explosively; Heiden jumps, rotational medicine ball tosses, and suspended rotations with a TRX band will all develop rotational strength while improving stability.

A properly functioning core in more than just the abs and requires more than crunches to properly train it. Stability, mobility, strength, power, and athleticism are all influenced by and limited to the functionality of the core muscles. Structuring a training program to eliminate strength imbalances and improve posture is a necessity for anyone who wishes to maximize their body’s potential. Alone, crunches will not cut it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

By the Numbers: Health Measurements that Matter (and a few that do not

Having recently undergone the annual health screening, I felt that a conversation about the validity of those numbers and the importance placed on certain numbers by some health practitioners would be appropriate. Full disclosure: this is part rant but it is meant to be informative and thought-provoking if not educational. This is a rant of purpose, not the random and angry thoughts of uneducated person. As a personal trainer, body and blood measurements are topics that I often discuss with clients. So to keep this real, I am going to share my actual numbers with you as a form of case study because numbers never tell the full story. Fair warning; if your numbers not within healthy ranges you should seek help from a qualified medical professional.
For the purpose of this conversation we will discuss height, weight, Body Mass Index (BMI), and waist circumference as measurements of body composition as well as looking at blood pressure and resting heart rate. We will also look at the Total Cholesterol, HDL (Good Cholesterol), LDL (Bad Cholesterol), Triglycerides, and blood sugar levels as tested by a blood sample.
So let us begin with an understanding of my body composition according to this health screening I stand at 5’7”, weigh 194lbs, BMI is 30.4, and my waist circumference is 34.5”. I find it interesting that I lost an inch of height in the past year. It is strange to be shrinking at the age of thirty-one. Here I am thinking that I am still the 5’8” I have been since I was thirteen. I weigh 194lbs which makes me heavy for my height according to the BMI scale.  If you are not familiar with BMI is a measurement of your height to weight ratio.  According to the BMI chart, at my height a healthy weight would between 125 to 158lbs. So I am 36lbs over weight.  Apparently I need to rediscover my twelve-year-old body because that was the last time I weighed in at 158lbs. Maybe the muscle that I have developed from lifting all of the heavy weight makes me unhealthy? By the way, the BMI measurement is endorsed by the CDC as a part of a health assessment, which may be why your personal doctor uses this flawed method.

Dear BMI,
You say that I am obese but I can see my abs. Your validity as a health assessment is nullified.
I lift

I am being slightly facetious but I am making a point here. Judging a person’s health based upon the BMI is a flawed method because it does not account for body composition. There is no consideration for how much or how little body fat may be present. My BMI classifies me as being obese, but at 10% body fat I am not. On my 194lb body, only 19.4lbs of that is fat. Really nurse? You are going to straight-faced suggest I lose some weight? In my opinion, the BMI scale should be thrown away a measurement of health and replaced with body fat testing.  Perhaps actually telling people the exact number of pounds on their body that comes from fat may help motivate them to be a little healthier. At best the BMI measurement offers an incomplete picture of a person’s health. At worst, it discriminates against people like me that have a passion for repeatedly picking up heavy things.
Another incomplete tool in assessing body composition is the waist circumference measurement. Yes there are some negative health implications for men with waists measuring larger than 40 inches and women measuring more than 35 inches (as a man at 34.5 inches I am safe). But, the hip to waist ratio is a better predictor. The waist to hip ratio measures how big the waist is in relation to the hips. Ideally the waist should only measure 0.90 for men and 0.7 for women, or, 90 and 70% the measurement of the hips. When the percentage of the waist measurement is greater than the hips, the risk for obesity related health problems skyrockets.
Assessing blood pressure and pulse rate is the beginning of looking at the aspects of health which cannot be seen with the eye. Blood pressure is a tricky thing because it can and will fluctuate based upon many factors, like a night of poor sleep (my body decided I needed to be awake between 1:45am and 2:30am that night of my health screening), or, your emotional state, such as biting my tongue after being rudely told to lose weight. So my personal reading this time of 138/77, which is high for me. But it is not troubling because it has never been that high. Sleep deprivation and aggravation easily account for this reading. From what I learned assisting with research in college, blood pressure can vary so easily that using a single blood pressure reading is an incomplete picture of the true state of blood pressure. Blood pressure readings should be conducted at least three times to establish a baseline. If a single reading is not considered adequate for health research than how is a once a year reading considered good medical practice? In case you are wondering, yes, I know how to use a sphygmomanometer. Apparently, what passes from solid medical practice differs from what happens in a research lab. But that is none of my business. A healthy resting pulse (heart) rate is between 60-100 beats per minute, athletes tend to be on the lower end of this spectrum. Mine is 55 bpm. Healthy hearts do not have to beat as often to circulate blood through the body.
Blood work numbers are a different animal. Unlike body composition measurements blood work numbers are indicator of the internal health of the body. Bad numbers point to serious health problems coming down the road. Blood tests commonly measure total cholesterol, HDL (good-it makes testosterone) cholesterol, LDL (bad-artery-clogging cholesterol), triglycerides, and blood glucose levels. The chart below shows you my results compared with the healthy standard. Blood work numbers can have many implications, for the sake of brevity; the discussion of those implications is very simple. As you can see, my blood work numbers are healthy despite the BMI scale saying I am obese.
My Results
Health Standard
Health Implications
Total Cholesterol
< 200mg/dl
Healthy Hormonal balance, low risk of heart disease
HDL (Good) Cholesterol
>40mg/dl (for men)
Viagra free since 1983
LDL (Bad) Cholesterol
< 130 mg/dl
No heart attacks headed my way
< 150 mg/dl
My body regulates fat for destruction not construction
Blood Sugar
< 100mg/dl
No diabetes in my future

Feel like the numbers are a little overwhelming? Be more concerned with numbers from a blood test than body composition. Unhealthy body composition is an outward reflection of an inward diseased condition. What you see in the mirror is less important that what can be seen in your blood. So what are the numbers that really matter; all of them, because they can all be controlled and improved with healthy diet and regular exercise. Except for BMI, it is flawed and discriminatory to the point of stupidity. The key to understanding health by numbers is to evaluate yourself by them without allowing the numbers to define your sense of self-worth. You are always more than a number.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Strength Training to Lose Body Fat

I lost over 100 pounds and have kept it off for 15 years. At the age of sixteen I weighed 260 lbs. By the time I graduated high school I weighed 180 lbs, having added 20 lbs of muscle to my body while losing the fat. Not once during that two year journey did I run a marathon, half marathon, or 5K. I did not complete any triathlons or long distance bike races. I did not do that on a treadmill. How did I do it? I did it lifting weights. In all fairness to the fans of cardio, I did attempt a marathon a few years ago. It was the stupidest thing I have done to my body. I ended up feeling skinny, weak, and with a stress fracture that left me unable to actually complete the marathon. This was after I put in the time and effort to build up to a 20 mile training run. Not to mention the amount of time I took away from my wife by having to run 1-3 hours a day. What a waste. Never again.
For too long cardio had been viewed as the best method for causing and maintaining fat loss. But it is misunderstood. The difference between cardio and strength training covers a lot of ground. The body has different responses based upon psychological factors, anatomical and physiological changes in muscle tissue and metabolism. All of these responses, when properly understood, tips the scales in favor of strength training as the best way to lose and maintain weight loss.
I will admit that the psychological factors are much harder to quantify with scientific research than anatomical and physiological changes so let’s start here as this topic is probably more intuitive than scientific. For most people, cardio is at least a little boring. If not, why do most commercial gyms have TVs set up to keep people in the cardio area entertained? It is also harder to judge improvements in performance with cardio, sure you can run further distances or faster paces, but does that make you better at anything other than running further distances or the same distance faster? With strength training, as the weights get heavier the body grows stronger, every physical activity the body can engage in becomes easier as the body becomes stronger. As an added bonus for the obese person, like I once was, it is often much easier to see quick improvements with weights than with cardio. Strength is often easier to improve than endurance. For the obese person, fast improvements lead to quicker gains in self- confidence, making the entire process of becoming fit more enjoyable. Results create confidence which breeds success. Along those same lines about building faster improvements; everyone has a limited amount of time to exercise. It makes sense to spend that time engaged in activities that will quickly show improvements. Finally, if a person knows what they are doing a strength training workout can be designed to keep a variety of exercises in play so that plodding along doing the same thing over and over does not happen. Variety prevents boredom. Boredom in an exercise program is the beginning of its end.

When it comes to losing body fat the intensity of exercise is far more important than duration. The reasoning behind this is the concept of EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption). If you want a detailed breakdown of this, click here. The important thing to know is that EPOC levels remain elevated longer following a tough strength training session than after a cardio session.  With traditional steady-state (same pace, same duration) cardio EPOC tends to last less than two hours. But with intense strength training it can last up to 48 hours. Think of it like this, the calorie burn with cardio is like a grenade; a quick boom… it is over. Strength training is like a wildfire; it may start with a small spark, but it will quickly grow out of control. This is the effect that exercise has on metabolism. The harder that metabolism is working the more calories that will be used, resulting in a loss of body fat. This is partly due to how exercise stimulates the different muscle fiber types. Cardio primarily only trains the Type I fibers, which make up about 45% of the muscle fibers in the body while strength training mainly trains the Type II fibers (the other 55% of the muscle fibers in the body). Utilizing cardio trains less than half of the body’s potential.  With proper program design strength-training can be done to improve physical strength while training cardiovascular endurance. The key here is to avoid boredom by continually doing something. The bodybuilder mindset of resting two or three minutes between sets is fine if you want to build muscle. However, if the goal is to get stronger while losing body fat the rest periods must be shortened or eliminated. The result is the benefits of strength and cardiovascular training in one workout.

There are three primary ways to design workouts that will focus on strength development while including cardiovascular training: circuits, complexes, and conditioning. They vary to some degree but all include a few basic principles: exercises that train more than one muscle group at a time, little to no rest between exercises and repetition ranges that focus on developing strength.

·    A Circuit is a series of exercises done to train every muscle group in the body. One set of each exercise is performed for each muscle group. Every muscle group is trained before an exercise is repeated. Each exercise is performed for the same number of repetitions. For example, a workout could be done with one exercise each for legs, chest, back, shoulders, abs, and arms. One set of all seven exercises would be performed in that order before repeating an exercise.
·         A Complex is a more intense version of a circuit. When utilizing a complex the workout typically begins with one or two heavy compound exercises like the squat. After all sets of the squat had been completed the complex would begin. Complexes are circuits of three to five exercises that train the same muscle group as the primary exercise. This is taking the concept of the circuit and making it more intense by focusing on that specific muscle group. Utilizing squats as the primary exercise, a complex for legs could include leg press, lunges, box jumps, and step-ups. Each exercise may be performed for a specified number of repetitions or time. This method is my personal preference.
·         Conditioning would be utilizing one or two heavy lifts and following each set of the heavy lift with a high intensity activity like sprinting, jump rope or another body weight exercise for a defined period of time. A person could perform a set of bench press and then sprint for 30 seconds before performing the next set of bench press. The purpose of this is developing the strength while keeping the heart rate elevated to burn extra calories. Terms like High Intensity Interval Training, Tabata, or Metabolic Training are methods of training based on the concept of conditioning; strength with endurance.

All three of these concepts are excellent ways to combine strength training with an increased intensity to burn more calories during the workout as well as taking advantage of the EPOC concept for increased calorie burn following the end of the workout. As a result, the body will expend more energy recovering from the strength-training than it would expend during the cardio training. The greater the amount of calories burned, the faster the fat loss. The other benefit is the increase in lean muscle tissue and, at the end of the day, more muscle on the body results in a greater calorie burn, making easier to lose and maintain weight loss. The higher the intensity, the faster the results. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

To Bench Press or Not to Bench Press

“Whaddya bench?” Honestly, I get tired of this question. Among men, this seems to be the most commonly asked in the gym. For a guy that strength trains a big, strong chest is a part of the program and the bench press seems to monopolize the majority of time spent developing the chest. While the bench press is not a terrible exercise, the importance of its role is in training the upper body is often overstated. There are several variations of the bench press, so to clarify, I am talking about the standard barbell bench press, whether it is performed on a flat, declined, or inclined bench is not important, we are talking about the barbell bench press. Again, it is not a terrible exercise, but it is one that I feel receives for more attention than it deserves.
There are three primary considerations that need to be made before determining whether or not performing the bench press is appropriate for you. The process I am about to walk you through can and should be applied to any exercise that is a part of your program. I am picking the bench press because it is typically a well-known exercise, even if you do not perform it, you have probably heard of it.  The three things to consider with this, or any exercise, are time, performance, and functioning of the anatomy.
Time is pretty simple to address but it is often overlooked. Do you have time for this today? The bench press can be an excellent exercise, especially when performed with heavy weights for low repetitions. However, that will eat up a lot of workout time. If the training session has eight exercises in a given workout but only 45 minutes to train then odds are something will be left undone if one of those exercises is the bench press. Also, there is a lot more to the bench press than simply lying down, lowering the bar to the chest and pressing it back up (more on that in a bit). Do you have the time to learn to do it properly? If not, then performance will suffer.
Performance is another key issue to consider. This is not a question of properly executing a bench press but a question of translation into improved performance outside of the gym. The problem here is that unless a person is a competitive power lifter the bench press does not translate well from training to competition. Think about it, how many sports can be played in which lying on your back pushing a heavy weight off of you is considered a winning position? In most sports the person lying flat on their back just lost. Why train to be good at a position of losing? I thought purpose of training was to win. Of course, if you want to win, you have to understand the proper functioning of the anatomy.
So if you are someone who incorporates the bench press into a program, consider the following questions: does it translate into positively improving performance outside of the gym? Is there a clicking or popping noise in the shoulder while bench pressing? Is there pain in the front of the shoulder, back of the shoulder, or base of the neck? Does the back of the neck tense up during training or become incredibly stiff the next day? If the answer to any of these questions is yes then poor bench pressing technique and/or over prioritization of the bench press is the likely culprit.

One of the major problems with the bench press is that it places the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint in a position of internal rotation; being in position of internal rotation causes the shoulders to round forward. In and of itself this is not a bad thing except that this does not only occur during the bench press. If a person works at computer behind a desk or spends a lot time driving a car that shoulders spend a lot of time in this internally rotated position. Unless you sit with perfect posture in a perfectly adjusted chair odds are that you spend most of the day in this position of internal rotation. The result being that the shoulders are constantly rounded forward. Tightness in the chest or this shoulders-rounded-forward position pulls the entire shoulder out of proper alignment causing most of the pain from the questions I asked earlier.

This picture shows what a normal, healthy shoulder looks like. This shoulder would be free of any pain associated with the bench press. Unfortunately, most bench press enthusiasts shoulders do not look like this. Shoulder impingement is the most common type of pain associated with bench pressing.  In the picture above, look at the back view of the scapula and note that  the Supraspinatus muscle passes underneath the clavicle (collar bone) and comes around the to the front. In a well-balance shoulder there is plenty of room for this to occur uninhibited. But in a shoulder that is impinged from constant internal rotation or a chronically tight chest from overprioritizing bench press the Supraspinatus becomes inflamed and swells. The result is pain that is often experienced during the bench press and other overhead pressing exercises. Inflammation increases it can spread into the back of the shoulder and up into the neck.

This is not a pain that should be ignored, hoping it will go away. If left untreated this will eventually this will lead to a torn rotator cuff and surgery. If this sounds at all like something you may be experiencing get it evaluated by a doctor immediately. Only a doctor can properly diagnose this condition. I can tell you from the experience I have had with clients, and with myself, that it is not something to ignore. 

Now, let’s focus on reducing the risk of shoulder impingement by focusing on improving proper technique. Poor technique while bench pressing is pretty easy to fix:

·     Grip the bar with hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
·     Point the elbows in back towards the ribcage. This places the shoulder in a much safer position. Keeping the elbows up and in line with the shoulders reduces the space around the Supraspinatus muscle. This incorrect elbow positioning is what leads to Shoulder Impingement.
·     Feet flat on the ground, pressing down into the floor
·     Lower the bar in a controlled manner keeping the head in contact with the bench all of the way through the movement. DO NOT LIFT THE HEAD OFF THE BENCH. Lifting the head of the bench is what causes a stiff neck the day after training bench press. Pinch the shoulder blades together as the bar comes down.
·     Exhale and drive the bar up.

The bench press is a fantastic exercise when properly selected and applied in a way that will result in a safe and productive training program. So unless a medical reason or lack of experience exists, and, if it is compatible with long term health and fitness goals, it should have a place in most programs. The only other reason to not include it would be if you do not enjoy performing it.  In answer to the question of “Whaddya bench?” On March 17th of this year I benched 275lb at a body weight of 185lbs (1.5x my body weight) for a set of five reps. I have not done bench press since then. Why? It is not compatible with my competitive goals outside of the gym (if you are lying down you lost), it also takes more time in my training than I care to spend on one exercise. Finally, I just do not enjoy the exercise so it is not a priority for my personal programming. If your goals are different and your shoulders are healthy, have at it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Terms of Pseudo-Fitness

Intelligenti pauca. Few words suffice for he who understands. If there is one thing about the fitness industry that I cannot stand it is the overwhelming presence of those whom espouse pseudo-fitness. What is pseudo-fitness? It is the usage and proliferation of terms and concepts that sound true but are not. Some terminology at some point may have had a foundation in sound exercise science, but research has since proven it to be incorrect or an incomplete picture of what is truly taking place within the body or during a training session.  The problem with this it that such concepts and terminology have become so commonplace among fitness enthusiasts and “professionals” that it is commonly accepted as true. This is despite the fact those in the know (college-educated professionals that are continually pursuing a continuation of said education) have either stopped using these terms or are allowing the most recent and validated research to influence personal views instead of personal views dictating their view of scientific research. Beware the fitness enthusiast or “professional” whom uses these terms. At best they are out of touch with recent research leaving them with an incomplete understanding of the topic they are attempting to explain.  At worst they have no clue what they are talking about and throw around words and concepts in a poor attempt to sound educated and professional.  Here are eight concepts about fitness that most people misunderstand, misuse, and misapply.

1.       Diet: In its simplest form to diet simply means to eat. Obviously it has taken on the predominant meaning of eating less to lose weight (rarely the best way to do it, another topic for another day). The concept of the diet has two major flaws; the first being that by having a predetermined end date it is viewed as temporary. Success is not a temporary pursuit. The second flaw is that it is often considered restrictive to the point of elimination of all but a few types of food. While this approach may yield some quick results in the short term, more often than not it leads to long-term failure. A better approach would be to develop a nutritional program that allows for greater flexibility in food choices while eliminating the predetermined deadline.  When does a nutritional program end? Whenever the goal is accomplished and one can enter into a permanent state of maintenance. It does not matter whether the goal is to improve body composition, weight loss, weight gain, or a performance-based objective. The program ends when you win and create a lifestyle that keeps you winning.

2.       Bulking: Going hand-in-hand with dieting is the idea that to gain muscle one must “bulk up.” If you ever tried this it was probably because you heard some muscle-bound-steroid infused Neanderthal tell you to eat a lot to get bigger, stronger, and faster. You took this as permission to eat whatever, whenever, and without thought to calorie consumption or nutritional quality. Mr. Neanderthal got away with committing genocide at the pizza buffet because of steroids.  You got fat. Admit it, you got fat. I did before I knew better. Building muscle requires consuming more calories than are necessary for maintaining the status quo.  However, this requires far fewer extra calories than most people realize. For most people that is only an extra 200-300 calories per day. Consuming more than that will typically produce as much, or more, body fat gain as muscle. Eating an extra 1000 calories a day may sound enjoyable but is worth it to put 30 lbs. and then have to diet off the 20 that came on as fat? Get your calorie intake right and build muscle not bulk. It is entirely possible to add muscle to the human body without adding any extra fat. Successfully doing so has the following symptoms: heavier weight on the scale; heavier weights lifted in the gym; shirts that fit tighter through the chest, shoulders, and arms while staying loose around the stomach; the same or sometimes, a smaller waist. That last one is a key point; if the waist on your favorite jeans is getting tighter than you are building bulk not muscle.

3.       Cutting: The unnecessary and inevitable attempt at losing the needlessly gained body fat resulting from Bulking.  What exactly are you cutting? Not body fat, unless you are undergoing liposuction. Perhaps you are cutting calorie intake? Reducing caloric intake will help. Increasing the amount and intensity of exercise performed will help.  But who likes feeling over-worked and deprived of enjoyable foods?  This is the cycle of dieting. Get out of it. Build a nutrition program that incorporates small steady changes over time. A quality nutrition program will account for a small amount of “cheating.” The bulking and cutting mindset takes nutrition to unhealthy extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Instead, move into the middle ground. Change may come a little slower but it will be a manageable and permanent transition.

4.       Fat-Burning Zone: Sound familiar? Nearly every piece of cardio equipment has this button on it. Technically this exists but it is poorly named. About thirty years ago research indicated that when exercising between 60-80% of your Heart Rate Max (220-your age) the body will utilize body fat for energy to perform exercise at a higher rate than at any other intensity. Exercising at lower than 60% is too light of intensity to be of any use and exercising above 80% relied more on muscle glycogen than stored body fat.  Long story short, with better science we have realized that this information is not that great.  The Fat-Burning Zone does not elicit faster fat loss. In fact, the fastest way to lose body fat is to get above the 80% mark and stay there as much as possible.  In the end intensity destroys calories faster. More calories burned equals faster fat loss. Get out of the Fat-Burning Zone and get intense to get results.

5.       Tone or Toned: I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I want to look toned” or “I want to tone up.” The word has nothing to do with human anatomy or physiology. It is a musical word referring to the quality of sound of a musical note[i]. If you want to improve your “tone” find a singing coach not a personal trainer. I get the concept; you want better muscle definition and a leaner look to your body. Those are admirable desires. On some level, everyone who exercises has those same desires. Two things have to happen to improve muscle definition: body fat levels have to be low enough that only skin covers the muscles and the muscles have to be large enough to make the skin be taut. Every body has a set of six pack abs. It is a muscle called the Rectus Abdominus. Most people have sent their abs into a state of hibernation by covering them with excess body fat. Lose the fat, build the muscle and the muscular definition will come. Strength-training will have to be a part of the program if a truly lean, muscular body is desired.

6.       Working Out: There is nothing wrong with this term per say.  Going to the gym to do your thing, I get it.  However, after seven years of being in gyms and working as a trainer, I have an observation about ‘working out.’ The people that ‘workout’ tend to not have a clear cut, specific result-orientated goal with a deadline. Goals are powerful because they provide a well-defined purpose. People who just work out tend to have a great supply of unfocused energy. Channel that energy with purpose into accomplishing a specific outcome. A person who does this is suddenly training not working out. Purposeful training increases the focus and productivity of the effort, yielding faster and better results. Remember, people workout but athletes train. Train for results.

7.       Functional: this used to be a great word in the fitness realm because is specified a particular training style. The word has become so misapplied that is has lost its meaning and significance. Not everything done during a training session is truly functional. In its origins within fitness Functional referred to a training program aimed at accomplishing one of two things. The first purpose is to correct an existing strength imbalance that results in poor quality of movement in a specific movement pattern. Essentially, the body cannot move correctly because of weakness and/or tightness in one or more muscles. This results a compensating movement pattern that is less efficient. The second premise of functional training is train the nervous system to improve coordination and efficient movement through a specific movement pattern encountered during a specific sports performance. Enhancement of specific athletic ability is the goal. In either case the objective is increase the body’s ability to move in a specific way. Just because a person can hop up and down on one leg while standing on a physioball and throwing a medicine ball into the air to the beat of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck does not mean that person is utilizing Functional Training.

8.       Muscle Confusion: There is no such thing as muscle confusion. The only confusion going here is between the ears. Muscle confusion is a roundabout and misinformed attempt to explain the SAIDs principle; a well-established principle of exercise science. Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAIDs) simply means that, given time, the body will adapt to handle the demands placed upon it by a specific form of stimulation or training. Once the body has adapted that particular training stimulus it is no longer adequate to induce further improvement. At this point, a change is needed in order to create further improvement in performance or fitness. This change can be manipulated in a variety of ways: change the weight, number of repetitions, rest periods, exercises, shorten or lengthen the workout time. One could also run further, or, run the same distance faster. The key to successfully implementing the SAIDs principle and avoiding the dreaded plateau is to be methodical and purposeful in changing the stimulus. Typically, it is only necessary to change one or two forms of stimulation to correctly use the SAIDS principle. Be deliberate and focused when implementing changes. Stick with the change; it normally takes 12-16 weeks before it is time to make a change. Randomly bouncing around and throwing together a hodgepodge of exercises each time you train is not training with a purpose. Do this and you will be confused by your lack of results, not in your muscles. If a training program begins to feel like it is losing its effectiveness make a purposeful and planned change. Randomly scrapping part or an entire program is not the solution.

The take away from all of this is simple: check your sources of information. You wouldn’t check go to a fabric store to learn how to change the oil on your car. If someone says something and it leaves you with more confusion and questions than answers take the time to ask for clarity or do some independent fact-checking. Nobody, myself included, has all the answers but you will not find answers if you do not look.