Saturday, March 25, 2006

DF Tip #12: How to Touch Your Toes

to2Wha—? How to touch my toes? Please! What kind of topic is THAT? I've been touching my toes since first grade gym class already! Let's hear about carbo-loading, descending sprint-intervals, heart-rate monitoring! Look, I know how to touch my toes... I'll even show you, just bend down and -- (sound of spine snapping) -- AK! OW! GOFF!

Well, maybe your spine won't snap, exactly. But, believe it or not, most of us need a little primer on how to touch our toes. Because almost everybody does this simple move ineffectively. What we're trying to do, ostensibly, is stretch out an area that is generally tight (the hamstrings) -- but instead wind up stretching another area in a direction that it's already overstretched anyway (the lower back).

Confusing? A few words on flexibility.

ts2Several months back, the famous Tall Ships came through the LA area and I took my daughter, Kate, to go see them. As usual with such outings, Kate only glanced at the ships and fixated on a far more interesting plastic bottle top for the entire afternoon. Kate's indifference notwithstanding, the ships are remarkable vessels, their sails held firmly together in place by what looks like miles of rigging.

Now I'm not the nautical type, but in some ways you can think of your muscular system like one of those old-fashioned sailing ships: each muscle, like each sail on a ship, is held in place by connective tissue that, ideally, is equally taut in all directions. If one side of the rigging is too tight while the other is too loose, you get a sail that's pulled off kilter and doesn't function quite right. Or if both sides are pulled too tight, there's a chance a strong wind or a clumsy deckhand might just rip that sucker right in half.

Same with your muscular system: if you're inflexible, your muscles, joints and bones get pulled off track, making you more susceptible to muscle pulls and injuries. Keep the connective tissue optimally flexible and you'll be able to move freely and easily without pain or strain.

Hey, this analogy's working out better than I thought!

yogHere's where it gets tricky: note I don't say "maximally" flexible. Flexibility for its own sake is dicey and potentially dangerous. Muscles, tendons and ligaments have a fair amount of stretchiness built in, but once you overstretch them, it's hard to get them to snap back -- they can remain permanently lengthened: belaboring the analogy just a bit, your muscles can become like sails flapping ineffectively in the wind. Highly skilled yogis spend decades building up their flexibility so they can perform their feats of contortionism without injury -- but you and I need to proceed with caution. And we need to attempt to keep our bodies equally flexible in all directions: front, back, side, side. We want all our sails well-rigged.

Like that team of well-meaning but slightly bumbling college-intern deckhands hired by a ship captain for the summer, your body adjusts your rigging to accommodate whatever stimulus you throw at it (SAID again!). So, what do most of us, even the most ACTIVE among us, spend most of our time doing? Sitting. And usually, we're sitting with our arms forward, typing or driving.

Picture it -- or more likely, just feel it, where you are right now. Sitting TIGHTENS the hip flexors (where your thighs connect to your torso), the hamstrings (backs of your legs), the chest, shoulder muscles and abdominal muscles; conversely, sitting also LOOSENS the spinal erectors (supporting the lower back), scapular retractors (between your shoulder blades), and gluteals (butt muscles). A physiologist would add a few other hard-to-pronounce muscles, but that's the gist of it.

So by and large, with the exception of the hamstrings, the muscles on the front of your body are tight while those in the back are loose. That's why it always feels so great to open your chest, arch the back, and stretch the arms back and behind you after you've been sitting for awhile. Go ahead and do it now; I'll be here when you get back.

Feel better? Okay. One of my goals when I work with clients is to correct some of the bad habitual rigging that nearly all of us acquire after decades on our tucki. I'm as guilty as anyone: even if I work out ten hours a week -- which I almost never do -- it can only go so far to negate the effects of the other 40-50 hours I spend driving, sitting at my desk and watching TV.

Five to ten minutes of flexibility exercises, however, can work wonders -- at the very least to get you to feel your body properly aligned before you go back to the (sedentary) corporate grind.

So, on to toe-touching. When you reach forward to touch your toes in the usual way -- by rounding your back -- you're stretching two major areas: the hamstrings and the lower back. And for most of us, it's MOSTLY the lower back because we have more mobility there than in the hamstrings. Remember, when we sit (I'm talking slumping here, which, yes, I'm doing at this moment myself), our low-backs are already in forward flexion while our hamstrings are contracted. So stretching the lower back forward even more does most of us very little good. And the poor neglected hamstrings are largely ignored in the process. That's why most of us feel very little in the hamstrings when we do the traditional toe-touch and more often feel a scary pull in the low-back.

What's the remedy? After all that preamble, what's my Holy Grail of a fitness tip this week?

Keep your back straight when you perform the stretch!

Bend from the waist, pushing the butt back behind you, as if you were a mannequin and had no low-back mobility at all. Better yet, keep a natural arch in the low back -- the more arch, the greater (and safer!) the stretch. I teach my clients to brace their hands in the fold of the hips to help them keep the back straight and simultaneously push the upper legs back. Or, if the low-back is feeling tired, I have them support their upper body by placing their hands on a low bench, bending forward and then arching the back. Both methods accomplish the same key goals: they stretch the hamstrings deeply while keeping the low-back out of the equation.

bkHere's the rub: I've pulled a bait-and-switch on you -- you don't get to touch your toes at all. Using my methods, only the freakishly limber will actually reach their toes. Everyone else will just reach TOWARDS them. If you want to touch your toes -- say, to clip your toenails -- bend your knees. As they say in yoga class, release into the universe all attachment to the toe-touching goal. Perform the stretch as suggested and pretty soon you'll be feeling less low-back pain, moving more smoothly, running faster, and standing taller... indeed, like a Tall Ship.

Have a great week--

Saturday, March 18, 2006

DF Tip #11: Born to Run...?

la.maraThe Los Angeles Marathon is coming up this Sunday, and in honor of that, and to counterbalance the bizarre fantasia that I sent out as a fitness tip last week, I thought I'd write about running this week, or what I like to call The Workout of the Compulsive Gambler.

bjackI call it that because if running is your primary mode of exercise, the road leads rapidly towards one of two possible paths: glory or oblivion. Running long and hard and frequently will do one of two things to you: get you leaner and more muscular and fit than you ever dreamed possible, OR, alternatively, leave you hobbling around on gimpy knees, wincing at every stab of back pain while you tell your friends AGAIN that it's all worth it because you finally broke 3:45 in the Annual Freckles Valley Marathon back in ought-seven. Guess which outcome is more likely?

Now, I'm not here to slag off on running. I just put in six miles or so yesterday and it felt great. But as with any other form of exercise, there are measures you can take which will increase your likelihood of injury and pain, and others that will increase your likelihood of greater fitness, health and satisfaction. Below are a handful of running tips to maximize you chances before you hit those blackjack tables.

Let's start with the pros of running. Arguably, the fitness industry really started with the running craze that started to heat up as long ago as the 50's and really hasn't stopped since. Running, in all its forms, remains the most popular form of exercise in the world, far surpassing cycling, swimming, weight training or any Bikram-Style-Tae-Yogic-Pilato-Jazzer-Bob-Greene-Jane-Fondercise class you can conceive of as the #1 fitness activity in the world.

runshoesThose millions of people are on to something: running has many unparalleled benefits. For all the fancy elliptical trainers and Hang-From-the-Ceiling-inators out there, there's not much that beats good old-fashioned running for caloric burn, fitness, and, not insignificantly, convenience. All the equipment you'll ever need for this wondrous exercise program is a decent pair of running shoes and some sweats. No memberships, no hidden fees, no trainer balancing you on a rubber ball and throwing weighted plates at you in the name of "functional" training. No matter where you are — home, New Delhi, Alaska — walk out your front door and there's your gym. So running has a lot to recommend it.

But hold on there, cowpoke — there's a dark side to running, and we'd best shed a little light on it before you hit the trail. Told to "get in shape" by a doctor, by your own sense of mortality, by an online fitness nag, usually the first tentative step we take is to start running. We figure we know how to run. I mean, babies run. It's not hard, isn't that sort of the point of it? There's no SKILL to LEARN. So we never consult a pro the way we might if we decided to take up swimming or golf. As a result, the running form we start with on day one of our fitness program is the same form we keep three years later when we've lost 25 pounds and look fabulous.

So what's wrong with that?

Well — a lot, frankly. I see and hear about a lot of running injuries as a trainer: veteran long-distance folks complain of chronic pain in knees, back, necks, even shoulders from the years of pounding. Now, some bodies just can't take running, that's a fact, but I'd wager (we're talking gambling this week, remember) that a lot of these overuse injuries could have been avoided with a little coaching from the start.

Watch a baby run sometime. For sheer form, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Kate would give an Olympic track star a run for her money. When she runs, she's relaxed, aligned, joyous. But between the time we start running as babies and the time we initiate our get-in-shape-for-the-beach programs lie several decades of physical misuse. Forget diet — which is certainly a factor — I'm talking about poor postural habits, tension, injuries, plummeting stock market indices, kids and a mortgage — the kind of stuff that makes our shoulders hunch and our hamstrings shorten. Stuff that subtly throws off our gait in ways we might not notice till Month Six and Mile 315 of our running program when suddenly it feels like someone just Nancy Kerrigan-ed our right ACL.

So, yes, shockingly, we really DO have to relearn to run. Most recreational runners have never been coached on form before — and many of them will pay the price years down the line in overuse injuries. These injuries ARE avoidable — if we just pay a little attention to form.

And what's good running form? Essentially, there are four points of focus (cribbed, in large part, I have to admit, from Joe Friel, author of The Triathlete's Training Bible — and countless articles in Runner's World and elsewhere. Thanks, Joe!):

1) Relax the upper body… You don't need 90% of the tension that tends to accumulate above the waist when you run. So relax the face and jaw, relax the hands, let the shoulders swing easily and loosely. Ever seen the faces of elite runners in slo-mo? They look like melting wax. It's not pretty, but that's the look you want to cultivate.

2) …but don't collapse: It's easy to take the above pointer as an excuse to collapse, let gaze fall to your feet and sleepwalk through your running session. Don't go that far. Pretend you've got a cape billowing off your shoulders. Stand up and level your gaze at the horizon. This is called running "proud." Most people run with their butts sticking out behind them, and it's very inefficient: keep your hips right underneath your shoulders, like you're riding a unicycle, and you'll save yourself a lot of energy. In a word, strive for good posture. Hard to do while "relaxing," you say? Try it for awhile and pretty soon running proud will feel easy and natural.

3) Take shorter, quicker steps. The fastest, most efficient runners take about 90 step-cycles (i.e., right-foot strikes) per minute. This is whether they are running quickly or slowly—among elite runners, speed is determined primarily by stride length, not cadence. So take shorter, faster steps, aiming for 90 cycles/minute, and save yourself some pounding. At first you will feel like you're speed walking and it may even feel more tiring. But stick with it — as with running proud, it gets easier and the rewards are great.

4) Think "Kick Back" NOT "Stride Forward." Most runners over-stride — they kick their feet way out in front of them with each step, especially when accelerating. Reaching out with your feet in this way, beyond the plane of your body, is very tough on the knees AND it slows you down: the heel striking the ground decelerates the body and with each step you have to work harder to speed yourself up again. Strive instead for each step to land on a plumb-line directly below your hip and shoulder, then "paw" the ground below you, focusing on kicking each foot back and up, pushing back with the hamstrings and glutes to gain speed.

When you first start trying to run this way, you will undoubtedly feel awkward, more tired, perhaps sore afterwards. You'll wonder why you ever started analyzing your running in this way, and you may have the impulse to send me hate mail.

kenyaBut hang in there: work on the first couple of pointers one day, the second two another day, and pretty soon it will come together for you. You'll be running further, faster, and more efficiently, and before you know it you'll look and feel like the gazelles that front-run at the L.A. Marathon every year.

The race route goes right by my house, and it's become an annual tradition in our house to get up early enough on the Sunday to watch the leaders — Kenyans, inevitably — come loping by a good hour or so ahead of everyone else. If you get the chance, I'd highly recommend taking it in: their form is impeccable. They look like they're flying, you can barely hear their feet touching the ground, even though they're logging sub-five minute miles for over two hours straight. They're running proud, and well they should.

Good luck!


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

DF Tip #9: The Wisdom of Günter

Last week I was off on a tirade about some fitness topic or other -- I can't remember what, since once they're written I feel instantly better and go to my quiet place -- and I mentioned in passing that there is one thing I can be sure to hear at some point from everyone kind enough to hit me up for personal training. Male or female, young or old, they all say:

builder"I don't want to get too big!"

They gesture distastefully towards one of the mammoths that work out at my gym and grimace in fear, as if tentatively hoisting a single dumbbell will endow them with Jurassic proportions.

Here's the final word on that: It's not going to happen.

All respect to the big guys. I know I give them a hard time, probably because no self-respecting, 20-inch-neck bodybuilder would be caught dead reading the fitness wisdom of a 179-pound wastrel like me, so they'll never read my derisive words. But the fact is that most of them are good guys -- albeit with a curious obsession--and the vast majority are drug-free. But ALL of them, yes, even the 'roid-heads, have paid for every muscle cut and striation in blood, sweat, toil and tears. The big guys work hard.

I know because back in my fledgling days, I wanted to be one of them: I wanted to get big and bulky and never have to take no guff from NO ONE, man! (I was young.) But, as I found out, getting big is tough going.

Personally, the biggest I ever got, at 6 feet with relatively low bodyfat, was 192 pounds -- a Lilliputian compared to the 5'9" guys you see at any Gold's who tip the scales at 230 or so. And that was lifting as heavy as I could handle, 5 days a week, eating gluttonously 6 times a day. Mind you, I was only able to sustain that weight for about a week and a half before I had to ease off on the gluttony and the continuous onslaught of heavy iron. In short order, I dropped 10 pounds of beef and I've stayed right around there ever since. Upkeep on that relatively paltry amount of extra bulk was just too much for me, and nowadays I file "muscle-bulk-building" right alongside "memorizing the phone book" in Heffernan's Guide to Worthwhile Ways to Spend Time.

Now there are certainly people -- men, almost exclusively -- whose bodies are, genetically, muscle-building machines. They stay on a fairly sane exercise program and develop huge arms, chests and legs the likes of which I could never compete with on my best day. But these people are in the minority.

Point is that declaring on your first day in the gym that "No matter what, I don't want to look like a bodybuilder!" is a little like telling the coach, on your first day of ski camp, that you don't want to make the Olympic team. Or telling Mr. Jenkins the band teacher that you want to be a pretty good violin player but you don't under any circumstances want to get good enough to play with the London Symphony Orchestra. People with insatiable drive, ambition, and focus spend decades trying to accomplish these things, and even they sometimes fall heartbreakingly short, so it's unlikely -- I won’t say impossible -- that you'll turn your body into a Michelangelo by anything like an accident.

leeI wouldn't get so worked up over this seemingly-minor misconception except that it has unfortunate consequences in the way people approach weight training. Gym newbies and veterans alike assume that because Günter the Megalithic lifts big weights, they shouldn't go near anything over about 12 pounds lest they find themselves, suddenly, looking like Günter. Which, again, is like refusing to practice your karate kicks lest you transmogrify into Bruce Lee by accident.

The weights that the people with this syndrome lift are light. Helium balloon light. It's almost harder to put the weights down than to pick them up, they're so light. And guess what happens to their bodies when they lift those little weights?

Nothing. The fear of "bulking up" has resulted in more ineffective workouts than Richard Simmons has done in his entire life of Sweatin’ to the Oldies. That muscles get stronger and fitter when you overload them with heavier weights that you are used to is one of the surest things in exercise physiology. No overload? No growth.

Here's the deal: whether you're using "light" or "heavy" weight does not change the fact that you should always be working to overload the body. Meaning that if you're shooting for 15 reps, the weight you choose should be all you can handle for those 15 reps. It should not feel like raising a martini glass. You should not be able to tell your trainer an amusing anecdote about your night clubbing with Gore Vidal on Key West while you're lifting it. A good half of my clients balk when I hand them a heavier weight than they're used to, then surprise themselves by pounding out the required 15 reps anyway. Yes, they're grunting and straining around rep 10, but I'll be jiggered if they don't get all 15, and a little healthy glow of accomplishment in the process.

lungeIt's tough, working with high reps in the right way. Back in my bulkier days I always looked forward to heavy days of 8-rep sets because they weren't as painful as long, hard sets with lighter weights that required more endurance and tolerance for pain. But whether you're working "light" or "heavy" (I put that in quotes because my heavy might be your light or vice versa), all sets after your warm-up should be tough. You should work for an overload.

Working like this, you'll certainly get leaner, stronger, more cut and muscular, but unless you lift as heavy as you can 4-6 times a week and scarf down more chicken than John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, you're not going to get too big.

The difference in the way you train and the way Günter trains should really be a difference in degree rather than kind. After all, Günter has good definition, muscle strength and size, all of which you want -- just not to the same extent as Günter. And you never see Günter put down his weights till he's spent, whether he's lifting 50 pounds 20 times or 500 pounds 2 times.

Guess what? Günter's on to something.

Good luck, everyone!


PS: Please pass these tips along to interested friends, and/or forward me their email so I can send them directly along! And feel free to shoot me your fitness questions any time.

Thanks -- A