Lower Body Training

We now have new goals including increasing physical performance, lean muscle mass, and strength while decreasing body fat. By pursuing these goals, we will be left with the most fit, healthy, and happy version of ourselves. In addition to nutritional intervention, the most efficient way to do this is to engage in exercises that recruit the most muscle tissue. That is why we prioritize lower body resistance training. With that said, lower body exercises carry at least two caveats worth mentioning. The first is that to execute lower body exercises effectively and safely, proper form is of the highest importance. Also, as with any training program, you will experience a phenomenon known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short.  DOMS is most notoriously made evident by lower body exercises. Let it be known that, although uncomfortable, this is a completely normal process and a “necessary evil” that must be accepted and managed on your journey to becoming a stronger person.

The Squat

As bipedal organisms (walking on only two limbs), the squat movement is one of the most fundamental movements we are capable of doing. Our ancestors utilized this movement regularly for activities of daily living such as hunting, gathering, and building shelter. Because we are not very genetically different from our ancestors, we also possess the capacity to utilize this movement to become more functional individuals. From a biomechanical standpoint, there are three main components to functional movement. The first component is range of motion. Generally speaking, the more range of motion involved, the better the movement is in terms of function. The second component is muscle activation. Like the first component, the more muscle activation involved, the better the function. The third component is load capacity.

Load capacity reflects the ability to increase resistance as an individual adapts to a given movement. With these components of functional movement in mind, let’s examine a popular exercise: the bicep curl. The range of motion is relatively limited as the majority of the movement occurs at the elbow. Similarly, there is not a significant amount of muscle activation due to the isolation of the bicep muscle. As far as load capacity goes, the upper limit is rather curbed in the sense that even the strongest of individuals are limited to exceeding 200 pounds of resistance. Therefore, the bicep curl may be a great way to develop musculature of the bicep but functionally speaking, the exercise is far from optimal.

Conversely, the squat movement embodies all three movement components magnificently. There is a large range of motion involved at the hip, knee, and ankle. There is a large amount of muscle activity as it involves muscle groups of the spine, hips, and legs. When it comes to load capacity, the squat offers tremendous potential in the sense that a novice athlete could reasonably double their resistance capability in the first few months of training and continue to build that capacity to exceed hundreds and hundreds of pounds. The deadlift, although a considerably different movement from the squat, also holds these functional qualities.  

There are many different squat techniques all of which emphasize different muscle groups within the lower body.  Regardless of which technique you are engaged in, it’s going to be important to have your feet planted to the floor at three points. The contact points should form a triangle on the bottom of the foot with the apex being at the heel. It’s common to see a trainee lose contact between their heels and the floor during the squat which can indicate a lack of dorsiflexion at the ankle joint. In the meantime of working on improving dorsiflexion, it can be helpful to elevate the trainee’s ankle by placing small weight plates underneath the heel while squatting.  As far as how far the feet should be apart, any comfortable distance slightly wider than shoulder-width is acceptable. Feet should be pointed straight ahead or ever so slightly turned outward. Excessive outward turning of feet should be avoided because further out turning of the feet rob the gluteal muscles from generating external rotation leverage at the hips. Lastly, it is very important to keep the knees from caving in beyond the inside of the feet. Ideally, the knees should track in line with the foot.

Neutral spine

One of the most important aspects of maintaining good form while performing exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and core strengthening exercises safely and effectively is this idea of a neutral spinal position and spinal rigidity. This is why Physio F(x)® is key tool. Think of your muscles as the motor of a car and your spine is the transmission. Spinal neutrality and rigidity promote structural integrity of your musculoskeletal system and ensures proper transmission of forces generated by your musculature through your spine. Femoral movement needs to be independent from lumbopelvic movement at the acetabulum. In other words, movement should happen at your hip sockets, not your back. When this is accomplished, it known as hip hinging. When this does not happen, or when these movements are coupled, spinal neutrality and rigidity are compromised which exposes large amounts of torque and shear force on unsuited anatomical structures which can lead to injury.

Another common violation of spinal neutrality and rigidity occurs at the cervical spine. Far too often, a trainee will overextend their neck while performing these lifts which may be perpetuated by the erroneous cue of “look up/ keep your head up.” Cervical extension is coupled with thoracic flexion which is the embodiment of poor posture. An example of this posture is someone who works at a computer with their head jutted forward (extended neck) and rounded shoulders (thoracic flexion or kyphosis). We want to reverse this by promoting a retracted head position which will encourage cervical and thoracic spine neutrality.

An additional key to proper lifting that is easy to overlook is proper breathing technique. Breathing correctly greatly improves the rigidity of the lumbar spine which improves performance and decreases the likelihood of injury.  To maintain proper spinal rigidity, an individual must learn the skill of diaphragmatic respiration. By doing so, the individual increases intra-abdominal pressure thereby increasing spinal rigidity. In order to breathe diaphragmatically, one must learn to engage respiratory musculature such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor musculature, and abdominal wall musculature while minimizing the use of respiratory musculature that influences movement of the ribcage. This is known as abdominal bracing and is an essential feature to achieving spinal rigidity and stability. A good cue for engaging the appropriate musculature for abdominal bracing is to take a large breath into your abdomen, then flex your core muscles as if your about to be punched in the stomach. This is what you want to do for exercises like the squat and deadlift.

Check Your Neck

By now you’ve probably heard about the importance of maintaining a neutral spine when squatting or deadlifting. If not, this article is for you. When it comes to neutral spine positioning, most of the emphasis is focused on the thoracic spine (mid-back) and the lumbo-pelvic region (low-back and hips.) This is for a good reason, too, because lumbo-pelvic positioning during the squat or deadlift movement is simply more important than what your cervical spine (neck) is doing. But hold your horses: just because cervical spine positioning is less important doesn’t mean it is NOT important. It’s like your car: at any given moment it’s probably more important that you have enough fuel in the tank and air in the tires than it is whether you’ve had an oil change in the last 3000-5000 miles. But if you don’t change your oil in 80,000 miles, you could have a major problem.

Let’s consider how neck positioning affects other parts of the body.

Imagine someone with “poor posture.” Their head is jutted forward, their mid-spine is rounded, and their shoulders are turned inward. As it turns out, positioning of the neck, shoulders, and back are linked, or coupled. To reverse this crappy positioning, we want to encourage muscles that drive external rotation at the shoulders, extension of the mid back, and retraction of the neck and shoulder blades. Clinicians spend a lot of time with patients teaching this in effort to resolve the issues the patient came in with.

Now let’s apply this positioning fix to a movement like the deadlift. Contrary to what you instinctively want to do, or have been taught to do (i.e. look up), try to maintain a “double-chin” position throughout the duration of the movement. This sets your cervical spine in a neutral position, and because positioning is often coupled, other parts of your body will be better positioned.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you’re definitely going to get hurt if your neck positioning isn’t perfectly neutral while squatting or deadlifting. Remember, a neutral spine is a “zone” of acceptable positioning, or as Mark Bell  (howmuchyabench.net) puts it, “You want to make an effort to be as neutral as possible.” What I am saying is that making an effort to optimize your neck positioning is worth the hassle, especially for a novice or intermediate athlete because it can improve your positioning at other regions of your spine/body which, in turn, carries over to improved long-term performance and decreased likelihood of injury.

Get the Most out of Your Deadlifts

When it comes to deadlifts, most people select either sumo or conventional (whichever you feel better at) and stick with that lift. Depending on your anatomy, one will typically feel better than the other. While mastering just one of the techniques over the other has its advantages, leaving the other technique undeveloped is to leave adaptation on the table. My suggestion is to incorporate both techniques into your program – especially if you are in your first year or two of training deadlifts.

This can be done by alternating which one you emphasize each week. For example, if this week you plan to pull conventional as your working sets, finish the training session with sumo while focusing more on technique rather than weight. This is also an opportunity to incorporate assistance/accommodation. By that I mean when you’re pulling sumo, use bands, chains, slo-mo deadlifts, pause deadlifts, deficit pulls, snatch-grip pulls, rack/block pulls, etc.

Now that your last week was conventional deadlift-focused, the next week should be a role reversal. Start your training session with working sets of sumo, then switch to conventional while focusing on technique, assistance, and accommodation.

BONUS TIP: Keep your deficit pulls no higher than 1 inch. Going higher (deeper) than that, the mechanics of the lift changes dramatically which limits the carry-over to the movement you’re actually trying to train. But more importantly, the risk:reward ratio becomes much more skewed toward the risk side of the equation. To do deficit pulls safely, it really challenges your mobility/stability to maintain safe positioning throughout the movement. Above an inch or two, it’s just not worth the added risk of injury.

SUPER BONUS TIP: Unless you’re an advanced competitor, give up rack/block pulls that set the bar above your knees. Oftentimes, an athlete can pull an awful-lot more weight by pulling from such a high position and disguise the ego-enhancing lift by writing it off as supra-maximal/ partial rep training. There just isn’t a lot of carryover to the deadlift movement by pulling from a position this high. It’s just not a good investment of your time at the gym. When you do a lot of partial reps, you get good at just that; partial reps. Don’t get me wrong, partial reps and supramaximal training certainly have their place. But let’s keep it within a useful range. If you’re going to do rack pulls, limit the height at your knees. Also, you can still get the benefits of supramaximal training but keep the range of motion carryover by utilizing reversal bands (instead of anchoring the bands to the floor, anchor them to the top of the power rack.)

My Back Injection Journey

When I started training like a powerlifter, I felt great. I was squatting and deadlifting multiple times per week and the resistance was going up by at least 5 pounds per week. This is known as “Newbie Gains” which is a magical time that lasts for the first 9-18 months of a beginner’s strength training program. The program I was following was ridiculously simple yet incredibly effective. I felt like I was beginning to hone in on what “good form” was.

However, my progress eventually began to stall. I was struggling to keep up with the blazing progress I had been making for months prior to. The smart thing to do at this point would have been to adjust the intensity of my planned training sessions. I did not do the smart thing. I decided to grind through this slump in progress. I kept adding weight, reps, and sets. My form and technique began to lose priority. The show must go on, I thought.

Well, the show came to a screeching halt.

It began with deadlifts. What should have been 85% of my 1 rep max was actually closer to 90% and what should have been 3-4 reps turned into 7 reps. That’s right, 90% of 1RM for 7 reps. That’s not being tough, that’s being dumb. After that set, I felt “something” off with my right low back in the vicinity of my SI joint. I wrote it off as a minor tweak and finished my deadlift sets. Little did I know this minor tweak would take me out of the game for almost a year. It was getting worse as the training session progressed. By the time I started squatting, it was like a hot knife in my back.

We can already gather a valuable lesson from this recollection of stupidity: if something feels tweaked or painful, STOP. Also, do not panic. The more you distress emotionally about back pain, the worse it will get.

Over the next few weeks, I wisely abstained from any movement that aggravated my back, which was virtually every lower body exercise I was doing. Actually, this abstinence wasn’t a product of wisdom as much as it was necessity. For better or worse, I am not one to let pain dictate my activity, but this injury literally stopped me in my tracks. It hurt to get out of bed, walk, sit, cough, or sneeze.

As someone who treats back pain, I was pretty convinced that within a month or two I would overcome this and be back on track. But after 4 months of core strengthening, glute activation, active range of motion and mobility work, I was struggling to shed this plaguing pain. I decided it was appropriate to pursue more invasive options. Upon initial consultation, the orthopedic surgeon, the radiologist, and myself were fairly confident in labeling my right SI joint as the pain generator. With that said, we scheduled a CT guided injection (corticosteroids and anesthetics) straight into my right SI joint.

The relief was immediate.

I was able to squat, deadlift, and sneeze pain free. But it was short lived. After the lidocaine wore off in the next 2-3 days, I was back to square one. The silver lining was that although the shot wasn’t therapeutic, it was diagnostic in the sense that we could rule out the SI joint as a pain generator. Fast forward 3 more months, a crazy amount of core stability and glute activation, chiropractic, and physical therapy, I still hadn’t recovered. Another injection was done; this time into the surrounding ligaments/muscle as opposed into the SI joint. I had the same results. As soon as the anesthetic wore off, I was back to square one. However, something profound had occurred to me after my second injection. Something that would lead to my eventual recovery.

Having two failed corticosteroid injections without an ounce of perpetrating evidence given from X-ray, CT, or MRI, I was at a total loss and very frustrated.

But then something dawned on me. It’s now been almost a year since the onset of injury. Nothing structurally can account for the pain (ruled out by imaging and examination). Nothing biochemically can account for the pain (ruled out by the bombardment of anti-inflammatory steroid injections). What’s left?

What’s left is the most important component to chronic pain. Confoundedly, I have always addressed this component with patients who have sought my care, yet somehow failed to adopt it under my own back pain experience.

The component is this: Pain is an experience in response to some kind of tissue damage. This experience is registered by your brain as a threat. This is an effective system the brain uses to deter a person from further aggravation and damage of the affected tissue. In most cases, the tissue heals and the threatening experience subsides. Sometimes, the tissue may heal, but the threatening experience remains where it becomes a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop. Before you know it, the damaged tissues will completely heal, but the experience of threat is just as strong, if not stronger, than when the tissue was originally damaged. This process is known as central sensitization. It literally builds neurological pain circuits that become ever-increasingly easier to trip.

The bad news is that this is a difficult cycle to stop. The good news is that this cycle can be stopped. In fact, the mere thought of overcoming pain is the first step toward its resolution. I will now share with you the techniques that I found helpful in overcoming my experience with central sensitization.

As mentioned above, breaking the chronic pain cycle begins by stepping outside of yourself, observing the cyclic pattern of threat that your body created, and realizing that how you’re thinking about pain could be amplifying the cycle. In other words, continued notions of perceived threat is making it worse. You can consciously choose to stop assigning the feeling of threat to that particular painful stimulus. This is as opposed to “ignoring” the pain; by ignoring the feeling of threat, the painful stimulus still occurs (in fact, you are letting the painful stimulus happen). That’s right, you are letting it happen, not the other way around. You are in control, not the pain. By doing this repetitively, you can learn to change the way you think about pain. The painful stimulus begins to dampen and inevitably goes away, not because you’re ignoring it, but because you are no longer assigning importance to it.  Here are some specific examples I used:

Sitting in an office chair, I found that when I lean to the left, I would subconsciously hike my right hip as a protective measure to avoid a painful stimulus.  I realized I was assigning threat to that particular movement. So I chose to repeat the movement while consciously relaxing my right hip as I leaned to the left. Sure enough, I received a painful stimulus, but instead of recoiling in a protective manner, I just let the pain happen and hang out in that position for about 15-20 seconds. I would then return to an upright position, and then repeat the left lean. As soon as the second repetition of this, the painful stimulus was decreased. Another 15-20 second hold, then back to an upright position. The more I repeated this, less pain occurred each time until it was virtually gone. I would wait 5-10 minutes before I leaned to the left again. When I repeated it after the 5-10 minute wait, pain did occur BUT to a much lesser degree than originally. I continued this for about a week, after which the painful stimulus was completely gone.

Another example was low back pain while driving. I noticed that I was slumping my low back into a flexed position to avoid pain. Now, we all know this is a bad position to begin with, but when you’re in pain, you don’t care. If I tried to sit up, it felt like a knife jab into my low back. However, with my newfound strategy to show pain who’s boss, I dumped my pelvis into an anterior tilt (i.e. extend my low back). It hurt as usual, but now I was letting the pain happen. After holding the position for 15-20 seconds, I let my pelvis slump back into a posterior tilt, and then again into an anterior tilt. As with the chair lean, the pain was less than the first repetition. I repeated the cycle several more times, waited 5-10 minutes, and retested. Sure enough, the pain was almost undetectable.

Here’s the template: find a movement that you find yourself guarding due to pain. Conduct that movement in a fluid, controlled manner despite the pain it causes. When you find a position within that movement that causes the most pain, hang out in that position for 15-20 seconds. Relax, and repeat. By doing so, you are rewiring your brain to no longer associate fear/threat to that movement even if the pain still occurs initially. It lets your brain know that the pain is not of concern. The registration of pain by your brain diminishes. With time and repetition, the movement that was once painful will become a fluid and controlled movement unaffected by threat or fear.

As you get better, don’t think of it as “The pain is decreasing, therefore I’m getting better.” Don’t give the pain that much respect. Instead, think of “getting better” as your ability to no longer tolerate the pain’s control over your thoughts and movement.

As always, if you have back pain, get evaluated by a licensed physician/therapist. Not every back condition should be addressed the same way. However, if you have back pain and it hasn’t resolved for months, and you have a diagnosis from your physician that wouldn’t contraindicate the above method, ask your physician if it’s right for you.

Don’t sacrifice your form in the gym for making progress in lifting more weight -use Physio F(x)® to ensure proper technique. But if you find yourself injured, and it becomes chronic pain, you need to evaluate how you’re thinking about your pain.

Your Lifting Belt Is NOT A Back Brace

Lifting belts are awesome. When used properly, it feels like they turn your spine into a steel beam. With that steel spine, you can train at heavier loads much more safely which leads to more load capacity, which leads to more progressive overload, which leads to more adaptation, which leads to more progress.

However.

In order to utilize a lifting belt, or any tool for that matter, we have to understand how it works.

Have you ever seen the “magic trick” where someone tries to squeeze an egg as hard as they can but it doesn’t break? The magic is in the curvature of the eggshell. The shape of the egg evenly distributes the pressure throughout the shell and the harder you squeeze, the more stable it becomes. It’s the same principle used in stone arch bridges.

We can take that same principle of pressure and stability and apply it to our body in preparation for lifting heavy weights. Think of your abdominal cavity as a pressurized cylinder. The top of the cylinder is your diaphragm. The bottom of the cylinder is you pelvic floor. The diaphragm is dome-shaped so when you take a breath in, the dome flattens out. When this happens, the volume of your abdominal cavity decreases and the pressure inside increases (this is Boyle’s Law). We can further increase the pressure (or decrease the volume) by contracting the muscles associated with the wall of the cylinder. With the abdominal cavity pressurized, it becomes much more stable. And this is great because along with your low back muscles, oblique muscles, and your ab muscles, your lumbar spine is also embedded in the cylinder wall.

That’s an ideal situation. But now imagine part of the cylinder wall is weakened, or has a crack in it. If we drive a lot of pressure into the cylinder and then put a heavy load on it, we risk having a blowout. In terms of lifting injuries, the blowout can manifest as a low back injury, hernia, or prolapse. To avoid this, we need to make sure the wall of our abdominal cylinder is engaged uniformly so that, just like the eggshell, the forces are distributed evenly. This definitely illustrates the importance of having a strong core because core strength fortifies the integrity of your cylinder wall.

So how does a belt relate to all of this? Well, it simply acts as something for your cylinder wall to brace against, not with. This is why we say “don’t use your lifting belt like a back brace.” It’s a core-enhancer. The benefits from your belt doesn’t come from extra padding or width in the back, it comes by uniformly distributing pressure around your core 360o around.

If you’re thinking about using or buying a belt, consider ignoring the ones with all the extra padding and thickness in the back. We just learned that the belt isn’t for supporting the low back directly, all it does is give your core something to brace against. All that extra padding just perpetuates the misconception of the belt directly supporting the low back which can lead to misuse.

If you feel like you’re having trouble breathing into and bracing against your belt, experiment by moving your belt higher. This might help for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the upper half of your abdominal cavity might not have any belt to brace against when it is worn too low. Secondly, if your belt is catching the top of your pelvis, and your pelvis (hips) is wider than your waist (belly button), your pelvis may be limiting compression for your abdominal cavity.

Speaking of compression, let’s wrap this up by talking about belt tightness. It’s not uncommon for lifters to believe that the tighter the belt is, the better. Yes, a lifting belt should be tight, but not so tight that you can’t engage and brace your core muscles against it. Wearing your belt as tight as physically possible is using the belt for support directly which completely takes out the role of the core muscles. Remember, you need to be able to breath into your belt. Keep these points in mind the next time you belt up.

 

The Missing Piece to an Effective Workout

The missing piece to your workout could be your rest interval. Far too often, rest intervals go unmonitored leading to inconsistent time between sets (47 seconds here, 6 minutes there) yet it is very crucial to 1.) matching the appropriate energy system your body uses to the type of exercise you’re doing 2.) influencing your body’s adaptation toward your training goal whether it’s strength, power, hypertrophy, or endurance and 3.) keeping you on track to utilize the precious time you have in the gym efficiently and effectively.

Here’s a crash course in the bioenergetics of exercise:

Your body needs ATP as a source of energy to do anything, whether it’s running a marathon or using your thumb to send a text message. Your body can make ATP using different energy systems. Of these energy systems, some require oxygen, and some don’t (aerobic vs. anaerobic). Your body uses aerobic energy systems for activities that are low in intensity but long in duration whereas anaerobic energy systems are used for activities that are high in intensity but short in duration.

event duration

 

 

Rest intervals are assigned to particular training goals. The training goals are determined by the intended intensity and duration of the activity which relates back to the nature of the energy system used during that type of training.

rest period

For example, if your training goal and activity is strength training, the energy system your body uses to make ATP needs about 2-5 minutes between sets to “recharge” its ATP-making capacity. A rest period shorter than that can lead to a hindrance in your performance, which leads to you not making the progress you could be making.

When rest intervals aren’t managed, there can be disconnect between the intended training goal and the actual training that’s taking place. When you do strength activities which are high in intensity and short in duration but only give yourself a short rest interval, your body begins to interpret your activity as something else which will interfere with the adaptation and progress your body makes.

Even with all that aside, many people find themselves at the gym looking at the clock, and realize they have about 30 minutes of training left but only 15 minutes left before they have to leave. To compensate, the gym goer omits half of what they planned to do and rushes through the rest of the workout. It’s easy to see how that can also lead to suboptimal performance and progress.

There is a simple solution: keep track of your rest intervals. Most phones have a stopwatch function, but I find it more deliberate to use a wrist watch or even a pocket stopwatch to manage this. Have a firm understanding of what your training activities and goals are, and apply the appropriate rest intervals. When you manage your rest intervals, your training will undoubtedly become more effective and efficient.

Overtraining vs. Overreaching

I’m not a fan of the term overtraining. Now hold on, it’s not because I think it’s only for the lazy and weak, or don’t believe in it (although relatively rare, it’s real 1,2) or think if you eat and sleep enough it won’t happen (it will). I don’t like it for two reasons. The first reason is because, clinically, it’s a pretty arbitrary term. 1,2 And we’ll get to the second reason later on.

There are articles all over social media warning the fitness community of the dire consequences associated with overtraining. See, I even wrote it in red to emphasis its dreadfulness. Overtraining generally refers to training at such a high volume and frequency that your body’s recovery systems can’t keep up and your mental and physical health begins to decline. General indications include continued decreases in performance along with fatigue, insomnia, depression, headache, tremors, etc. where a blood sample might reveal elevated inflammatory markers.  So for example, let’s say your training program looks like 10 sets of 10 reps ass-to-grass squats at 85% of your one-rep max twice a day for 6 weeks along with deadlifts, lunges, and 40 minutes of HIIT, you’re probably looking at coming down with a case of the overtrainin’s. And that is a ridiculous example. Overtraining could easily occur at a much lesser extent. Which brings me to the second reason why I don’t like the term.

Overtraining only occurs in the presence of poor programming.

That’s right, overtraining and good programming are mutually exclusive. They can’t happen at the same time.

But you shouldn’t be worried. Ironically, it takes a lot of stubborn hard work and dedication over a long period of time to achieve overtraining.  Thankfully, most of us have a built-in “fuck this” mechanism that is triggered long before overtraining sets in.

So what should we be concerned with? Programming (more fancily known in the resistance training realm as periodization). The program you’re following should be appropriate for your personal situation including your current fitness status (which involves assessment) and your goals (which involves effective goal setting). It should be designed systematically and deliberately based off of your personal situation and your progress. There should be room for adjustments and modifications at any point in your program to match your progression. Which brings me to an important note: careful surveillance of you progression, or the rate at which you are or aren’t improving, is KEY. This surveillance should take place on both a microscale (session to session, or even set to set) and macroscale (program cycle to program cycle) level.  

Let’s consider the microscale surveillance. During any training session, you should be able to tell me, off the top of your head, how the previous training session unfolded for that exercise. Did you hit 135×8 or 135×4 on your third set? How did it compare to your goals for that training session? Are changes needed? These are important week-to-week variables to consider because they should be influencing today’s training session. Either find an app to help you keep record of this stuff, or simply write it down on a notepad or the notes function in your phone.

But there is yet another huge benefit to keeping careful track of your progress. Let’s get back to the topic of this article: overtraining. Like I said, overtraining won’t happen with good programming. But there is something known as overreaching that can be a very integral component of a good program. Overreaching is sort of a precursor to overtraining. You begin to notice slight decrements in your progress, you’re beginning to feel burnt out, and deep down you know you’re beginning to over-do it.  And you’ll know exactly when it’s happening because you’ve been keeping close track of your progress! In my experience, these feelings will typically occur at the start of a week just after a short rest period of a day or two. Despite the rest period, I still feel run down in the gym. At this point, I’ve been training consistently hard for 4-8 weeks, and I can begin to feel an accumulation of stress. Instinctively, I want to take advantage of a “de-load” week (a week dedicated to taking it relatively easy. I’ll trade the barbell for kettlebells and bike rides, focus on mobility work, etc.). What’s great about the de-load week following the onset of overreaching is that there is typically a rebound-like effect where your body over-compensates for the stress it experienced in the preceding weeks1,2. When overreaching presents itself, my suggestion is to finish out the week at a reasonable intensity, then enjoy a nice, laid back de-load week. You will come back refreshed and stronger.

  1. Kreher, Jeffrey B., and Jennifer B. Schwartz. “Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide.” Sports Health 4.2 (2012): 128–138. PMC. Web. 8 July 2016.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24531430

  1. Halson SL, Jeukendrup AE. Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research. Sports Med. 2004;34(14):967-981

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15571428

Pain and Treatment: What You Need To Know

Statistically, it’s likely that at some point in your life you will experience low back pain. Billions of dollars are spent each year treating back pain, and hundreds of thousands of careers are devoted to treating it. Cause and severity of back pain vary widely from a simple sprain or strain to catastrophic trauma or even cancer. Thankfully, the vast majority of causes and severity tend to be on the benign end of the spectrum and for the purposes of this article, it is this end of the spectrum we will refer to. Although not life-threatening, a nagging sprain, strain, or herniated disc can have a significant negative impact on your activities of daily life and well-being. As such, there is certainly merit for figuring out why this pain happens and how to treat it.

But what is “treatment”? Is it applying a strategy to address the root cause, or is it simply alleviating the symptoms associated with the root cause? Treatment should consist of the former, but more often than not, it falls into the latter category. Consequently, this is why pain tends to be cyclic. It seems as though patients alternate sides of a threshold line where on one side they are in pain, but just below the line, they are not symptomatic and written off as healed. But we can do better than just shuttling you from one side of the threshold to the other. It begins by understanding the difference between removing the symptoms of pain and addressing the root cause of pain.

Pain is a funny thing. Because it’s highly subjective, the exact same stimulus can be registered by the brain in a completely different fashion from one person to the next. A large portion of this inter-individual variability can be attributed to the degree of personal identification the individual assigns to the pain they are experiencing. In other words, for some individuals, the pain they experience is as much a part of their identity as their face is. They strongly identify the pain as a part who they are. The longer pain lasts, the stronger the identity becomes. In the same way, another individual may interpret the pain they experience as a mere annoyance to which they assign very little identity to.

This is confounding for clinicians because a 70 year old farmer can walk into their office with a fractured hip but only complain of a minor limp whereas another patient will show up in a wheelchair with a stubbed toe and rate the pain as 12 out of 10. With this in mind, one of the first steps toward addressing the root cause of pain is for the clinician to explain this nature of pain to the patient. This has to be done carefully, though. There is a fine line between patient education and being dismissive of the pain the patient is experiencing. The pain of the person with the stubbed toe isn’t any less “real” than the person with a fractured bone. But revealing the strong psychological component of pain with a non-contemptuous approach can definitely help the patient manage the pain they are experiencing at the battleground where it is taking place: the brain.

Again, we’re talking about low back pain where the major orthopedic and pathophysiological red flags have been ruled out. As far as pain generators go, we are primarily left with soft tissue damage and/or inflammation that is exacerbated by a particular load, position, or movement. Here’s a good bit of news: if you simply did nothing but avoid movement that aggravates the damaged tissue or inflammation, it’s not unlikely the pain will resolve within 6 weeks. So in a sense, time itself is a “treatment”. Not surprisingly, this is the route that many people take. But we have to ask, are we addressing the root cause or are we just “treating” until the symptoms to go away? By now you might be wondering what the root cause is. Well here it is: these low back injuries happen because movement occurs at the spine when it shouldn’t, especially while the spine is under a load or in a position that it isn’t conditioned to handle. The key word here is condition. This is why the same low back injury can occur in one person while they deadlift 500 lbs as someone else who is getting off of a toilet. While under a load that borders the condition/robustness of the spine, it needs to be in a good position, which we call a neutral position, and it needs to maintain adequate rigidity, or resist losing its position.

So if movement isn’t happening at the spine, where should it happen? At the hip socket, plain and simple. If movement is resisted at the spine, movement is shuttled to the hips. There may already be a roadblock here because if movement is shuttled away from the spine and toward a hip joint that lacks proper mobility, the movement can become very awkward, like trying to write with your non-dominant hand. Thankfully, hip mobility is readily improved and new movement patterns can be readily learned, if one is so inclined. To avoid oversimplification, it’s worth recognizing that the spine is indeed built to move. That’s why it is composed of intersegmental parts called vertebrae, as opposed to being composed of a singular rod, like the femur. What I’m saying is that appropriate movement of the vertebrae needs to be accompanied by adequate stability/rigidity when needed. The majority of your stability and rigidity comes from correct positioning of the spine and recruitment of its supporting musculature. Musculature that is very responsive to conditioning. Can you see where we’re going with this?

The key to back pain prevention lies in the beauty of your body’s ability to adapt to stress. This is conditioning. Just as your resting heart rate and blood pressure decreases in response to repeated bouts of endurance training, your spine can be conditioned to remain injury-free at heavier loads by improving your ability to maintain a particular spinal position through a particular movement pattern. There are many movement patterns that the human body is capable of and are extremely valuable to learn. Of these movements, it is argued (and argued successfully) that the deadlift movement pattern is a great place to start and even better to master. As the strength expert Chris Duffin says, “You need to know how to handle and pick up loads off the floor. This is a human proposition that you MUST know how to do.” The deadlift movement pattern encompasses the principles of back pain prevention: maintaining optimal spinal position while going through a movement while imposing a load. In addition to improved positioning maintenance, your soft tissues become stronger, more resilient to stress, and your bones become denser and stronger in response to the imposed demands.

The deadlift also promises a large degree of load capacity which in turn promises a large potential for adaptation and conditioning. Click here for Load Capacity article.

At the end of the day, be mindful of the difference between addressing back pain symptoms and the root causes of back pain. In a perfect world we would never need “treatment” because injury would be nipped in the bud via prevention. But that’s far from reality. In fact, I recently experienced my own stint of low back pain because I lost spinal positioning while going through a movement under a load that challenged the condition of my spine (and the load won). Through my rehabilitation I had to put more emphasis on my kinesthetic awareness and employ improved movement and stabilization strategies of which breathing and core bracing where the most important.

The thing you have to remember with injury is that although it seems like they hit you out of nowhere, there’s always a series of events that lead up to the injury. We all have a tendency to dwell on the moment the injury became painful but the answer to resolving your injury is hidden in the events that led up to it. Injuries are incredibly frustrating because, on a fixed timeline, it seems as though you are losing progress in performance. However, the downtime is truly an opportunity to figure out why it happened and how to fix it. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for clinicians to write off the activity the patient was doing at the time as “not good for them.” But more times than not, it’s not the exercise that’s bad for you, it’s how you do it. With that in mind, utilize injury downtime as an opportunity to reevaluate your movement strategy and condition your weaknesses.

This is not an attack on treatment or implying that treatment isn’t necessary. The point is that your body doesn’t “lack” treatment. Your body isn’t deficient in Biofreeze, tape, laser therapy, an adjustment, manual therapy, ultrasound, or cupping. You may look to these modalities for symptom relief, but don’t look to them for addressing the root cause. Look to your chosen movement/positioning strategies and investigate how they might be improved.

The Holy Grail of Getting Stronger (Load Capacity)

“This is the thing that people miss. The best way to bring about change to the body… the only way to bring about actual modification to the body is to add load.” –Chris Duffin, www.kabukistrength.com

Three of most important variables that determine the overall quality of an exercise are as follows:
1.) The amount of range of motion involved (ROM)
2.) The amount of muscle activation required for the movement
3.) LOAD CAPACITY

Of these three variables, it seems as though load capacity gets talked about the least even though it is arguably the most important variable. In light of this, we will reveal what load capacity is, how to recognize it, and how to make it a priority for your training.

What is Load Capacity?

The load capacity for a particular exercise is a spectrum of resistance through which the exercise can be properly performed. It might even be better thought of as “load potential” meaning the range of weight through which an exercise can be loaded with and performed. The greater the potential, the greater the quality of the exercise. Load capacity also accounts for the “adaptation potential” a person has (i.e. the ability to get stronger as a result of doing that exercise over a period of time).

Let’s take, for example, the biceps curl. It has a relatively small ROM as it only involves the elbow joint. The biceps alone are a relatively small muscle group which limits total muscle activation. Load capacity is also limited because your potential for loading this exercise is capped at a relatively low amount of weight. Even the strongest people would be lucky to curl their own body weight.

The biceps curl is looking pretty dismal for overall priority, as it should. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have their place, I like doing curls just as much as the next person. Although it does give us an idea on as to where it should rank in precedence.

Gym equipment involving cables or other mechanical-advantage-enhancing mechanisms can also be self-limiting in load capacity, but in a different way. Let’s take the leg extension for example. Just about any given adult could make it their goal to max out the machine and within a year or less, they could easily achieve that goal. But once the machine is maxed, there is nowhere to go in terms of strength. This is why free-weights in general hold much more “load/adaptation potential” than machines.

Now let’s consider a kettlebell exercise like the Turkish get-up.

This great exercise involves a large amount of ROM as it involves many joints of the body including the hips and the shoulders. There is also a large degree of muscle activation as it involves a lot of movement but also stability, or preventing movement where it shouldn’t be happening. But what about load capacity? This exercise, like many kettlebell exercises, lack load capacity. You’d be challenged to find a kettlebell over 70 lbs and like the biceps curl, even the strongest people among us would be hard-pressed to perform the exercise with just their body weight.

Be that as it may, this doesn’t mean that kettlebell exercises are low-quality exercises because they are anything but that. But it begs the question: which exercises encompass ROM, muscles activation, and load capacity?

Now let’s consider the squat. This exercise calls for a great deal of ROM at the ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder. There is a tremendous amount of muscle activation as it calls on the largest muscle groups of the body. Like the Turkish get-up, it also demands a massive amount of stabilization. That’s all fine and dandy, but the best part about the squat is load capacity. Again, let’s take any given person and include a legitimate squat routine in their training program. If not initially, within a year that person will be squatting more weight than anybody on the planet can do with the biceps curl. But it doesn’t stop there, within a few more years this once “average” person can be squatting 2-3 times their body weight. The deadlift exercise, albeit a very different monster than the squat, shares the same qualitative attributes.

The exercise quality of the squat and deadlift are unquestionable. Load capacity drives progressive overload and  progressive overload drives adaptation. Without load capacity, we don’t have progressive overload. Without progressive overload, we don’t have adaptation. Without adaptation, we have nothing.

Editor’s note:
As great as squats and deadlifts are, they are not the end-all-be-all to exercise. Although ROM is significant, it by-in-large occurs in the sagittal (side view) plane. By itself, sagittal-only movement can lead to muscular imbalances and instability. This is why exercises that include ROM/stability in the frontal plane and transverse plane (like the Turkish get-up) are an important adjunct to any strength and conditioning program.

The Underrated Importance of the Lats

The Unsung Importance of the Latissimus Dorsi

When thinking of exercises that involve the lats, the first few that come to mind are exercises like the lat pull-down, the pull-up, and seated rows. It’s no dispute that these are great exercises for developing the lats in the sense of their prime movement. But besides their prime movement, the lats hold another, seemingly under-utilized function: spinal stabilization. The lats can and should play a big roll in the squat, bench, and deadlift. Let’s start with the deadlift.

Firstly, the lats help make the spine more rigid during the deadlift thereby improving structural integrity and stability of the spine. Secondly, when deadlifting without actively engaging your lats, a couple of unwanted things can happen. One would be that as you pull the bar, your torso lurches forward which can disrupt your positioning throughout the lift.

Secondly, as you pull the bar, your hips rise faster than the weight does. This leads to your knees locking out way before your hips do which turns the deadlift into a 2-part lift. With your knees fully extended partway through the lift, your hips have to play catch-up which is oftentimes accompanied by over-assistance by your low back muscles.

A simple fix for this is to think about lat recruitment as you’re setting up for the lift. As you get into position for the pull, imagine wrapping the bar around your legs like a horseshoe, or bending the bar around your legs. With the lats engaged, your hips and the bar will move upward at the same rate which will synchronize your knee extension with your hip extension at the top of the lift. As a side note, also think of the deadlift as a pushing movement as much as a pulling movement. The pull is pretty obvious, but the push can be thought of as the same push your legs do while using a leg press machine. By pushing your feet into the ground while pulling with the rest of the body, your positioning throughout the lift will be maintained (not lurching forward) and your knee and hip extension will be synchronized making it one, smooth movement.  

Now let’s talk about lat involvement with the squat. Does the bar feel like it’s rolling up and down your upper back during the squat?

Without proper lat recruitment, the bar has a tendency to roll up and down your back.

Like the deadlift, your spine needs to maintain a neutral position and rigidity during the squat. The lats can contribute to positioning and rigidity by using the bar as leverage. In other words, with the bar on your back, pull downward on the bar just as you would during a lat pull-down or pull up. Imagine bending the bar over your back like (you guessed it) a horseshoe. This will effectively pin the bar to your back, increase rigidity, and improve positioning. All in all, your mechanics will be better.

The lats can play an important role in the bench press as well. Engaging your lats will set your back, shoulders, and elbows in a more stable and strong position.

Once again, we are using the bar as leverage by imagining the bar bending into a shape that resembles equine footwear. Before pressing, it can be helpful to pull your body toward the bar to get your lats recruited. As the weight descends, maintain the “bend the bar” imagery. When you press the weight back up, reverse the movement by letting your elbows flare out slightly and move the bar toward your face. Throughout the entire movement, your lats should feel tensed. This gives your body a foundation to press against, aka leverage. Initially, this is a strange sensation because the bench press is a pushing movement yet the primary function of the lats is to pull. But given enough practice, you will learn to press in combination with lat activation producing much more stability and strength.

There is a theme here: use the bar to create leverage, stability, and positioning. When you can apply “themes” to your movement as opposed to isolated checklist items, quality movement becomes much more clear and simple. The challenge comes when you begin implementing new themes to your established movement patterns. For example, if you’ve been bench pressing, squatting, and deadlifting a particular way for years and then introduce lat recruitment, it will initially feel clumsy and uncoordinated. What’s worse is that although the new theme may feel somewhat comfortable during your warm up and mid-range weight, your perceived level of maximum strength will not stand up to your new movement theme. As you approach your 1 rep max, your new theme will invariably revert back to how you’ve done the movement for years. But that’s okay, new themes take practice and time where sacrificing short-term progress pays off in improved long-term progress. Over time and continued effort developing the new theme in your nervous system, the new theme will be adopted as the primary one which will not only prevent injury, but also allow you break through the strength plateaus that your old theme limited you to.