Saturday, September 29, 2007

Best Glute Workout Ever!

There are reasons both sublime and ridiculous to build one’s glutes.

On one hand, they’re your largest muscles and therefore deserve some pretty close attention. As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, many, many people suffer from glute inaction, or an inability to literally get their butts moving: their hip flexors are short, tight and overactive from sitting all the time, and as a result, the muscles on the opposite side of the hip joint – the glutes -- become inhibited and weak. The hamstrings step up to fill in, you get a condition called “synergistic dominance,” where the second-stringers are trying to do the work of the starters, and you eventually get injured. Keep the glutes in shape, and you’ll help stave off knee joint problems, back pain, and postural imbalances. So having a nicely-toned set of glutes is good for you, like your proverbial apple a day.

On the other hand, there’s something about a well-shaped set of hip extensors that just screams youth, health, fitness, and, shall we say, fertility. I read a story recently that said that Tour-de-France cyclists are able to evaluate the fitness of their opponents simply by the shape and tone of their rumps. No surprise there: cycling is essentially a series of thousands of single-leg hip-and-knee extensions, so it’s pretty much impossible to be a decent cyclist without walnut-cracking glutes.

My theory about why we’re attracted to the rumps of the opposite sex is that good glutes tend to be the mark of genuine athleticism, not just health-club muscularity. Back when we were spearing mammoths for food, being able to run fast and jump high meant you were a good provider, not just that guy on the office basketball team with the decent jump shot. So Elga the cavewoman was attracted to Oog the caveman because his firm butt made her think he’d be able to climb mountain passes with buckets of water on his back or carry their five children across the rushing river in springtime. Show me someone with a muscular bum and I’ll show you someone who most likely can actually DO athletic things, not just someone whose mirror muscles make them look like they might be able to. There’s a big difference.

So, below is a quick but effective trio of exercises that, taken together, are unbeatable as glute-builders. If you’re putting together a lower-body routine with an emphasis on the rear kinetic chain—that is to say, your glutes and hamstrings, as well as your lower and mid-back musculature—I contend that your time is best spent on the following three movements:

1) The Deadlift
2) The Bulgarian Split Squat
3) The single-leg Romanian Deadlift.

Your quads, hip flexors, adductors and abductors will also get pretty fried by these three moves, so if you have a lower-body “day” in your workout schedule, you won’t need to do much more to make it a complete waist-down torture-fest. I am, however, also a big fan of traditional barbell squats, and so I’d make sure to cycle those in at least once a week in lieu of the deadlifts.

Right away I hear keyboards firing up. People will say, “what, no hyperextensions or reverse hyperextensions? No “butt-blaster-machine extensions”? No donkey cable-kicks? Didn’t you just write about the value of isolation exercises? We thought you were on OUR side!”

Well, yes, I do think isolation moves have their place. But when it comes to butt-building I don’t think they’re much good. If you have REALLY tight hip flexors and just don’t know how to get your glutes to contract at all (and some professional athletes have this condition!), you MIGHT consider using some isolation moves until you feel like those muscles are “wired in” and your brain knows how to make them fire without having to think about it too hard (I sometimes forget how easy it is to get so caught up in the heady world of sedentary brainwork that you actually forget how your body works!)

But as soon as you can, you need to step up and attack these compound moves.
The glutes seem happiest when they are working in conjunction with other muscles, not just contracting on their own. Sprinters, gymnasts, Olympic weightlifters, and the aforementioned pro cyclists all spend the bulk of their training time on movements that require them to extend the knee and the hip simultaneously, and all of them have glutes of steel. So even if you’re far more concerned with filling out a pair of jeans than you are with running 48-second 400 meters, it’s real athletic movement that makes the body look and feel athletic—especially when it comes to lower-body training, and glute-training in particular. You’re got to train like an athlete in order to look like one.

A couple of finer point before you rush off to the gym to attack the those deads, Bulgarians and Romanians (with exercise names like these, I should rename it the “Dracula” workout):

1) DEADLIFTING. The best two pieces of advice I’ve ever received about deadlifting are a) that you should feel like as if you were “falling back onto your heels” when you lift and b) that you should visualize the bar as freshly glued to the floor with so that you have to “peel it” off the floor, gradually ramping your efforts up to the full force required to hoist the weight rather than jerking abruptly it off the floor (I’m pretty sure that’s a Chad Waterbury tip, just giving credit where it’s due). The chest should be high and the gaze should be straight ahead or a tad above for good focus and alignment. To ensure that the bar is really “dead” at the beginning of the movement—and to give my gripping muscles a break—I ‘reset’ between each rep, setting the bar fully down and relaxing my hold each time the bar hits the floor.

2) BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS. Bulgarians are typically seen as a quad-builder, and they work beautifully as such, but I’ve found that in conjunction with the other two movements they also work well as a glute exercise provided—and this is a crucial point—you go low enough. If you’re weak in this movement, and can’t descend till the back knee grazes the floor, you won’t really nail the glutes. If that’s the case with you, work up to it carefully. It’s okay if your knee goes past the much-feared 90-degree point as long as your front knee doesn’t wobble to either side as you ascend. If you do have a case of wobbly-knee syndrome, lighten your load, shorten your range of motion, or both until you can manage the full motion without the extraneous movement. Otherwise, go deep in your Bulgarians, find a real tightness in the glute of the front leg at the bottom of the movement, and push off quickly from the “down” position.

3) SINGLE-LEG ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS. Every list of “favorites” has to include at least one unexpected element—sort of like including an album by “Weird Al” Yankovic on your list of desert island CD’s just so you can feel fresh and unpredictable--and this is it in my list of top three moves for the glutes (for the record, ALL of my desert island CD’s would be by “Weird Al” Yankovic, perhaps with an extra copy of WEIRD AL IN 3-D just in case one gets scratched). Most trainers would put the two-leg version above this one, but for many reasons, I disagree. Single-Leg Romanians are more functional (in that we are almost always on one foot when we are in motion); they’re safer (because you can use half the weight and still get the benefit of the two-leg version); and they’re a more complete hip-extensor workout (because you have to both stabilize AND contract during the movement). Finally, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is the closest thing to a direct glute move among these exercises, and even still, the hamstrings, quads, calves, core, and gripping muscles all contribute significantly to its successful execution. I like holding a dumbbell in each hand, though some trainers prefer their clients use just one in the hand opposite the foot they’re standing on. Stand, hold the weights, bend forward one one foot, allowing your other leg to extend back behind you, as if picking up a piece of loose change off the floor. Touch the dumbbells lightly to the floor—they should touch the floor at the same instant--and return to the starting position. Alternate legs for sets of 8-12 reps.

The angle of the knee of the supporting leg is key! Keep a 10-20 degree knee bend in order to optimize glute activation. Any straighter and the move will be almost pure hamstring and lower back. The move requires a fair amount of concentration to get right and to maximize the hip extension movement, but once you find the right groove of stability, bend in the supporting leg, and core activation, it becomes one of the most effective glute-builders out there.

Perform the workout twice a week, and vary your rep and set configurations from more standard parameters of 3x 8-12 and 5 x 5 to 2 x 25 or 6 x 4, always working with impeccable form.

Good luck, and, as ever, feel free to write me with questions or comments.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Time Pressure?

Back when I was in college in the fast-receding days of the early 90’s, I used to shake off the crackling of my overtaxed brain synapses by hitting UVa’s Memorial Gym around 10 PM for an hour every night. I was pretty fanatical about it and rarely missed workouts, even during exam week. I always figured the time away from the books kept me just a little saner and more balanced than my fried-on-Mountain-Dew schoolmates (isn’t “Mountain Dew” the most ludicrous name for that swill? Just take a moment to reflect…).

Occasionally I couldn’t get to Mem by 10. Sometimes it was 10:15, or even 10:40 when I ran past the front desk attendant, scampered down the set of stairs to the left, ran past the equipment check-out desk, down the hall, and into the weight room. And the gym closed at 11!

But a weird thing almost always happened on those nights: I’d have a great workout. Of necessity, I’d cram in an hour’s worth of work into one-third the time. I’d break whatever time I had into bite-sized morsels and make sure I squeezed 20 sets into the 20 minutes I had before sprinting out the door like Indiana Jones racing from the Incan tomb, escaping just before the stone gate slammed shut behind him forever. Breathless, I’d stand at the edge of Memorial field, my muscles still quivering, take in the lovely sound of passing college women laughing loud and full over some shared secret, and gaze up at the Charlottesville stars winking at me from their place in the sky millions of miles above. I always felt great.

The point here: sometimes time pressure can be your best friend. Maybe you only have a half-hour to train, or maybe you just want to shake things up in your workout, so you set a time-pressure goal for yourself just for the challenge. Either way, it’s almost always useful and effective.

Doing an exercise for time instead of reps can be a real eye-opener. One minute of body-weight squats, doing as many reps as possible, can be just as agonizing—if not more so—than a set of 12 reps of loaded squats with no time limit. A minute of Bulgarian split squats and single-leg bridges on each leg, done the same way, can be sheer torture. Add plan old pushups, pull-ups, and situps done for a minute each and you’ve got yourself a pretty darn good workout right there. Take 30 seconds between sets, and you’ve fried every major muscle group in less than 12 minutes.

Half the reason I think boxing workouts are so tough and effective is that darn bell. You’re not thinking, I need to punch this bag 200 times. You’re thinking, I just need to keep going till the bell rings. Long after you probably would have thrown in the towel if the instructions had been “go as long as you can,” you’re still punching, giving it your all, waiting for that bell to ring so you can towel off and get yourself a drink.

Swimming workouts are all based around the clock in a similar way: you’re always working on that interval, knowing you have, say, two minutes to do 100 meters and rest before you have to start your next 100. Knowing that the faster you complete your swim, the longer rest you’ll have is a pretty great incentive to get the work done fast so that you have a good 40 seconds to pant at the edge of the pool instead of a paltry 20.

Sprint intervals of any kind are a great variation on this same principle: time at work and time at rest are tightly controlled. Tabata intervals, one of my favorite protocols, where you intersperse 20 seconds of max-effort work with 10 seconds of rest and transition, are also a terrific tool that works in much the same way.

These training methods, a mainstay in athletic training, are seeping into the mainstream. You still don’t see too many people working in this way at commercial gyms, but I certainly read a lot of articles about this or that trainer who holds a stopwatch and has his clients do a circuit of 45 seconds each of burpees, pushups, stepups, pull-ups, bodyweight squats, lunge jumps, and kettleball swings with 15 seconds rest between each movement. Do that sequence twice at max intensity and you’ll be a puddle—and you’ve only used up about 15 minutes of your day.

This kind of work has deservedly become the new go-to protocol for fat-loss and cardiovascular conditioning. I personally find this kind of workout brutal but very effective and remarkably energizing. Do it a few times a week and coffee becomes a redundancy.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Are Single-Joint Moves a Waste of Time?

Are leg extensions, leg curls, all manner of direct bicep-and-tricep movements, any form of shoulder raises, and calf raises pretty much useless?

There's a fairly assertive and well-credentialed group out there that argues that yes, in fact, that's true: all your weight training needs should be covered by deadlifts, squats, rows, overhead presses, supine presses, and chin-ups, and that further complicating the issue by throwing in dozens of isolation moves is pointless.

The argument--and it's a convincing one--goes something like this: a 200-pound man performing three sets of 10 underhand-grip chin-ups will tax his biceps significantly more than he would doing three sets of 10 curls with 70-pound dumbbells. The chin-up--a compound movement that works the back as well as the biceps-- requires him to move 6000 pounds (3 x 10 x 200), whereas the curl workout would add up to just 4200 pounds (3 x 10 x [2 x 70]). More effort means a more intense workout, which translates into bigger gains in strength and muscle size.

Moreover, the compound-only school argues that the body is "designed" (a term that always chafes me) to move and work as a single unit, so multi-joint moves, which roughly mimic sports-and-real-life athletic movements, are going to make the practitioner a more efficient athlete whose body functions as a whole rather than as a series of disparate pieces.

Like I said, convincing arguments all around, and they've very much shaped my training philosophy over the last few years.

I've had occasion, however, to give this some serious reconsideration of late. After many years away from training for size, I've come back to it in the last few months, partly so I can look and feel the part of a broadsword-wielding Scottish warrior, and partly because I wondered whether, after all these years of performance-based, athletic-enhancing training, I could apply some of the principles I'd learned and return to a hypertrophy-based program both more prudently and effectively than I had in my salad days of max-effort squats in a 20 degree basement at 5:30 AM with no warm-up.

The other reason I was interested in testing the size-building capacity of my now 36-year-old body is that I occasionally--very occasionally--get male clients who say "money and training frequency is no object. I just want to get as big as I can as fast as I can and I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

I do train in Los Angeles, after all, the land of fairies, leprechauns, and the occasional guy with a major studio behind him willing to foot the bill for whatever it takes to get him to look good shirtless. These people do exist. Curse them.

So it's in my interest to have at my disposal training techniques that will do the job.

And here's what I've come up with, circling back around to the question of single-joint exercises. In my opinion, if you want a Men's Health/Women's Health model LOOK, that is, if you want to look both maximally defined AND muscular, you've got to include some single-joint moves.

I am NOT talking about maximal performance here. I'm not talking about getting faster or more resiliant on the playing field. I'm not even talking about health per se, certain aspects of which may actually be compromised by single-joint work. I'm talking about straight-up, good-old fashioned, flex-in-the-mirror, get-stares-of-approbation-at-the-beach VANITY. In my opinion, to achieve that LOOK, you've gotta throw in some moves exclusively for vanity's sake, to wit, some single-joint moves.

Some words of qualification: I don't think single-joint moves are of much use to someone who only has three hours a week to train. It's certainly possible to make some excellent gains on such a program, and for the vast majority of the population, with stressful jobs, families, limited sleep, and sometimes erratic eating habits, such a program may very well be near-optimal. There's enough recovery time built in to ensure good gains, and on a well-designed, three-day-a-week, full-body program, the sky can pretty much be the limit. So I still put most clients who have three, or even just two days a week to train, on a program consisting almost entirely of the tried-and-true compound movements.

But again, if I were talking about a program for maximal size, I'd put the client on a split system, up the training frequency, up the volume, and increase the protein and caloric intake significantly. Compound moves would still form the backbone of the program, but I'd definitely include up to 40% isolation moves as well, including moves for the biceps, triceps, and calves.

This sounds very much like a Weider-style bodybuilding program, and indeed that's pretty much what it is: if you're talking sheer size--or, in the case of women, sheer lean, defined muscularity, there's got to be some isolation thrown in to support and enhance the effectiveness of the compound moves. Aesthetically, and I repeat that I am talking ONLY aesthetically, isolation moves create a more complete physique.

I feel funny saying all this, in a way, because most casual exercisers go into the gym and do ONLY single-joint moves, and that's the huge mistake that most of the multi-joint advocates are trying to warn against. Such exercisers don't squat or dead-lift at all, they use only machines, they use tiny weights on isolation moves that they shouldn't TOUCH unless they're in the gym five days a week and have already done all the pressing, rowing, lunging and/or squatting they can manage for the day. Such people are lost souls with little hope of improving in the near future, and they need to be schooled on the undeniable benefits of the basics and banned from using anything with a cam or a pulley or a Velcro strap until they’ve built themselves a good foundation.

As a final note, I would also say that I would NEVER put a client on an intense bodybuilding-based program for more than a few weeks at a stretch without cycling in periods of less intense, less concentrated workouts. As I suggest above, training only for looks, and doing lots of single-joint work on top of your basics, can actually be a recipe for injury. Bicep curling, for instance, can be very tough on your front shoulders; leg curling can make your hamstrings more injury-prone. Do such a program long enough, and things will start to pop and crack in unpleasant ways.

So, to sum up: for the casual trainee looking to look and feel good, or for people looking to improve sports performance or just to feel strong and healthy doing everyday activities, a three-day-a-week weight training program consisting pretty much exclusively of compound moves is most assuredly the way to go. Don't even think about spending a lot of time curling, tricep-extending, or calf-raising, much less pec-decking or cable-crossovering. But if you're looking for the extra 20% edge in your appearance, you're putting in the time on the compound moves already, and you've got the time, dedication, and energy outside the gym to support your efforts with optimal diet and rest, in this trainer’s opinion, single-joint moves are indispensable.

Incredulous protests, rude comments, and anecdotes from personal experience are very much welcome.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shiver Me Timbers: The Peg-Leg Step-Up

Last week I went to lift some weights at the local gym—I figure Macbeth should be sort of a buff type, being that he swings a broadsword for eight hours a day—and found that many of my mainstay movements were uncomfortable on account of the low-back strain I incurred a few weeks ago. Deadlifting, for instance, one of my favorites because my knuckle-dragging arm length makes it one of my better lifts, was out because my back felt a twinge every time I leaned over to grab the bar.

As a trainer, I frequently say, with barely-disguised bravado, that I can work with anyone in any kind of shape with any sort of injury. I have to admit that’s probably—well, okay, definitely—an exaggeration. I’ve met real people who can really work around injuries and they are a sight to see. Wizards of the field. I’m getting there, but heaven knows I’m not there yet.

Still, I SHOULD be able to work around a strained lower back. Any Bally’s clipboard-jockey in my situation can be ultra-conservative and just avoid any movement that activates the low-back. But it’s the mark of a real pro to be able to work the whole body safely even when there’s an injury dogging one particular link in the kinetic chain.

So I poked around in the recesses of my mind for a movement that mimics the action of the deadlift but doesn’t strain the lower back. The first thing that came to mind was the step-up.

Step-ups are mostly a hip-extensor exercise, meaning that the prime movers are the glutes and hamstrings, with the major synergist being the quadriceps. There's some inane debate about this, among people who are even geekier than I am, but that's the conventional wisdom It’s a simple exercise: just stand with your right foot up on a bench and…wait for it…STEP UP on the bench. Then step down with your left foot again and repeat the move for the required reps. Then switch sides and repeat.

Easy, right? Well, yes, in fact, and therein lies the problem. Step-ups are a great rehab move, and they’re great for people just starting out, but they sort of wear out their welcome after awhile because if you’re in shape it can take about fifty reps before you can even notice that you're working out. Sure, you can grab weights in your hands or across your shoulders, or you can do power step-ups, where you're jumping on every step, but then we run into potential low-back straining territory again, the very thing I was trying to avoid.

So, how to make a body-weight step-up an advanced training exercise?

Thus was born the Peg-Leg Step Up.

While performing regular step-ups, I noticed I was generating a lot of momentum by pushing off my bottom foot. What if I could eliminate that “help”? How much harder would it be?

So I flexed my left foot, hard, as if trying to touch my left kneecap with my left toes. With my toes pointed up, only the heel of my left foot was in contact with the floor, my other foot on the bench. My left foot was now a peg-leg, with all my weight driving straight down from my hip to my heel and into the floor. I attempted the exercise again without the aid of any push-off from my left foot.

Night and day. Suddenly, I had to generate all the power from my right leg, and it was tough. I didn’t allow the ball of my left foot to touch the floor at all, because as soon as it did, it wanted to help. It was almost funny watching my body trying to figure out this new self-imposed handicap. I could only do about 12 reps! Suddenly, step-ups were hard again, and I was happy.

The second set was strangely easier, and I quickly realized why: Even though I kept my “down” leg in the peg position, I realized I was using my upper body to generate some extra momentum, as if prepping for a standing long-jump, so I remedied the situation by performing the rest of the sets with my hands behind my back. That drew some stares, and seeing myself in the mirror I came up with my first hypothetical name for this move, the “straightjacket step up,” because I looked like an asylum inmate trying to get some exercise…not that much different from how I usually look in the gym, come to think of it.

Set three gave me another idea: it takes some coordination, but it’s easier on the knee of the free-leg if you soften your ankle and knee a little on the way down, meaning that the free foot is flexed (“pegged”) on the way up , but not on the way down. You just have to make sure that your free leg is locked before you start the step-up move with your working leg so the working leg gets ALL the benefit from the move. Otherwise, you'll unlock your supporting leg and push off, robbing your stepping leg of a few joules of effort.

The lesson here, besides having a great new move to add to your repertoire, is that the body will try to do whatever you tell it in the most efficient way possible. The second an exercise gets too hard, you’ll enlist help from your low-back, traps, momentum generated by the upper body, wherever, in order to move the weight. Strength training is often counterintuitive in this way: you are often performing movements that are rather inefficient in an effort to build up specific areas that are hard to target with more natural movement. Nearly every arm exercise, for instance, falls into that category. If asked to lift a heavy object from waist level to shoulder height, who in their right mind would stiffen the back, straighten the legs, pin their elbows to their sides and move only the forearms, approximating a barbell curl? No one, that’s who. We’d probably more likely do something closer to a power clean, getting some help from the hips, legs and back to heft that load up as quickly and easily as possible.

But I digress. All hail the Peg Leg Step Up, or, if you prefer, The Straightjacket Step Up. if you're without a gym, or your back is bugging you, or you just don't feel like hauling the 60-pounders over to the bench for standard step-ups, they're a great, if weird-looking, alternative. You heard it here first.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Easy On Your Knees

Since I'm hanging my hat in the Pacific Northwest at the moment, I thought I'd spend some time talking about knees.


I went for a long walk yesterday, trying to jam some of Shakespeare's words into my cranium in such a way that they'd stick. At the end of my walk I realized that I was experiencing some knee pain, which is one kind of pain I haven't experienced much of over the years. Oh sure, I've got a football injury from my freshman year in high school, when the wiry and sickeningly strong Mike Rich tackled me in such a way that my right foot was pinned to the ground whilst I tried desperately to escape by twisting my upper body like some upright, mangled worm, causing unfamiliar alarm bells to go off in my knee. Nothing popped--thank God for supple teenage connective tissue--but every now and I'll be hiking or walking down a steep hill and my knee will give me occasion to think of my good friend Mike Rich.

But, generally, my knees have been pretty healthy, thank goodness, so when I mentioned my knee pain to a local friend, she said, "Oh yeah--that just happens up here. It's the moisture."

I'm glad it's not my cartilage.

So, what's the deal with knee pain?

Shamelessly stealing Mike Boyle's formula,(which he admits to shamelessly stealing from Gray Cook), I've had some good luck recently with addressing clients' knee problems by working on the ankle and the hip joints. That's sort of counterintuitive, but it makes sense: the knee is a pretty simple joint, after all. It just bends in one direction. The ankle and the hip joints are, by comparison, much more complex. There's more room for error and a far greater likelihood of faulty movement patterns that will gradually wear on the knees. Far more effective to address those problems than simply to do endless sets of leg extensions and curls, which may help stabilize the knee but don't address the actual cause of the problem, which is, generally speaking, is those poor movement habits.

In the Boyle formulation, the knee is a joint that needs stability. The last thing you want is a "flexible" knee joint--which is why you don't see anyone in their right mind doing "knee hyperextensions" in the gym (unless they're in the MMA studio, in which case the hyperextendee probably isn't too happy about it). The joints above and below the knee need optimal mobility, so you DO see people stretching their hips and ankles. The butterfly stretch, the runner's stretch, and the calf stretch are all familiar to people with even the most rudimentary gym experience.

If your hip and ankles are supple and responsive, your knees will be much more likely to stay healthy. If they're not, you're pretty much guaranteed to hurt yourself at some point.

For the ankles, make sure you're keeping your calves not just strong, but also loose and flexible as well. Stretch both the upper and lower calves by performing ankle stretches both with the knee joints locked and slightly bent. Circling the ankles and performing standing hip circles to ensure optimal mobility in all directions is also helpful.

For the hips, one of the best moves is the kneeling hip flexor stretch, which I've mentioned in previous posts. Not only will that move help inhibit the frequently-overactive hip flexors, it will also help facilitate glute activation, and inactive glutes are also an indirect cause of knee pain. If your butt muscles aren't a-firing, your knees will suffer for it. Any lying bridge exercise will help activate those muscles too, as will as side leg raises, and, one of my new personal favorites, elastic band side shuffle.

1) Grab the handles of a resistance band. Stand on the center of the band with both feet, keeping about eight inches between your feet. Hold the handles at the sides of your waist at belt level.
2) Walk laterally to your right, stretching the band as far as possible with each step. Continue for 10-15 steps. Repeat movement moving to your left.

Squatting form is also key to knee health. Many people squat by trying to keep the torso upright and driving the knees forward. Instead, always think of sitting into a chair: the movement starts at the hips.

Finally lengthening the adductors--or inner thigh muscles--can also be helpful. The traditional butterfly stretch is a great one for this, but you can get creative with all kinds of weird yoga stretches as well.

Summing up, ankle mobility, flexibility and mobility in the hip flexors and adductors, good squatting form, and glute activation can go a long way towards keeping your knees healthy.

Failing that, stay out of the Northwest during the rainy season.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Cautionary Tale

Happy Labor Day, everyone; I hope the Labor Day elf is generous to all of you.

I've been off the map for a couple of weeks there because of a certain dirty secret: in addition to being a fitness coach, I'm also an actor. So the reason I've been incommunicado for a couple of weeks is that I was prepping for a gig up here in the Pacific Northwest (Olympia, WA, to be precise), where I'm doing a month-long run of Shakespeare's MACBETH, playing the title character.

So my negligence has been in the service of ART. Anyone who happens to live nearby is welcome to come and see me strut and fret starting October 4th, and closing on the 27th. If you don't know the show, suffice it to say it's a good one to see as a run-up to Halloween.

Anyway, it's lovely up here and nice to exercising my brain trying to figure out what words like "thould'st" mean.

Maybe it's because I'm in the process of playing a character who listens to prophecies about the future and as a result finds himself hurtling headlong towards a gruesome death, but mortality's been on my mind lately. That and the fact that I officially must admit, once again, that my body isn't as resiliant or invulnerable as it once was.

I've already written at length about my neck-shoulder issue, and which I'm still treating, but recently, as luck would have it, something else came up that was another friendly reminder that I'm not 18 anymore. Last Monday I was happily doing some barbell squats, having warmed up thoroughly, done some dynamic flexibility exercises, and pyramided my weights for three or four increasingly challenging sets, just like all the coaches and books and physical therapists say your should.

On rep two of set five, I was in the low position of the exercise and felt a sudden, hot pain in my sacrum. In bizarre slo-mo, I realized that no one was going to help me up, so I gritted my teeth, drove my heels into the ground, and forced myself out of the hole, my low back protesting like a shot transmission the whole way. I'd pulled the bejesus out of my lower back, so much so that I had to lie down on the gym floor for a good 10 minutes, trying to calculate the cost of retro-fitting my house for wheelchair use, before I managed to hobble back to my car, drive home, and proceed to do the alternate ice-heat thing on my back for two solid hours.

I continued the cold/hot treatments for a couple of days, took ibuprofen, slept on my back, modified my workouts, and tried not to do anything, inside or outside the gym, that aggrevated it. Now, a week later, thank heaven, it's doing much better. It's still not 100%, but I'm confident that it WILL be soon.

I used to have a martial arts instructor who talked about injuries as gifts: they make you slow down, analyze your technique, soften up a little and become more conscious of habitual movement patterns. I may be a little too Western to accept the 'gift' idea, but there certainly are things to be gained from injury, if you don't allow the frustration and annoyance to get to you.

For me, although I'm always a stickler for flexibiility, and was careful last Monday about warming up, I realize in retrospect that there were several things I should have done differently in my workout that day.

The very first thing I do as part of my warmup is an external rotation of my right thigh to stretch the hip and glute on that side. That's been part of my warmup for a several years now. Standing, I take a step on my left foot, grab my right ankle, letting the right knee fall to the outside, sort of like a walking half-butterfly stretch. Because I run and lift and generally stay active, that area can get very tight on me, and since it's often the very first thing I do in my workout, I usually give it a pretty good pull to wake it up.

I can't imagine it was a total coincidence that that's the exact area that I injured. In fact, of all the movement patterns I've experimented with in the last week, that's the one that causes me the most pain. Chances are that I'd been pulling the heck out of my leg for months, and this little injury was a wakeup call that hey, maybe I should go a little easier there, Jasper Johns.

So I was dumb in my warmup.

What else? Hindsight, 20/20 and all that, but I HAD noticed that my low-back had been a little twingy that day; I wasn't able to brace my back as completely or firmly as I like to do when I squat. I don't wear a weight belt--something I'll take the time to explain someday for any die-hard weight-belt guys out there--and felt just a tad wobbly under the weight in my warmups, but I figured it would wake up eventually. Poor choice.

The dumbest thing I did to help ensure my own demise was this: though I'm constantly stretching them out, my calves are pretty darn tight. As a result, I'll often put a three-quarter inch board beneath my heels when I squat, or, if such a board isn't available (you'll usually see them lurking around a squat rack for this very purpose), I'll grab two ten-pound Olympic plates and elevate my heels with those. The elevated-heels position is safe, and allows me to squat much lower and with better form than I could if I squatted flat-footed. Purists strenuously object, but it works for me, and many of my clients as well.

But that day I couldn't find the three-quarter inch board. Some karate student had swiped it for practice, or some YMCA termites went to town on it, who knows. It just wasn't there. And, stupidly, I decided that the two-by-four that was sitting there would work just as well.

The thicker board pitched my weight forward when I was squatting. And because it's not an angle I'm used to, it strained my body in a way it's not used to. Sure, variety is important, but when it comes to your form on a basic exercise like a squat, done with a weight that's close to your maximum, you don't want variety, you want stable, predictable, repeatable form. And I didn't have that. The two-by-four was my nemesis as surely as it was Nancy Kerrigan's. Nancy Kerrigan's.

Another possible factor is that I was at the time rehabilitating my forward head syndrome with a series of exercises involving stretching and tensing my neck muscles. This might very well have affected my posture all the way down my spine, and possibly left the sacrum more vulnerable to injury.

So those were the contributing factors: a warmup that wasn't gradual enough, a failure to heed warning signs, a subtle variation in form, and a spine that was in the process of being reconfigured. A veritable perfect storm adding up to one hurtin' gym rat.

Still, I have to give myself some credit for being smart after the injury happened. As I said, after I hurt myself I was very worried that I'd done something major, so I did the ice and heat, took the anti-inflammatory drugs, ate fish-oil pills till I started to molt gills, and was careful about how I moved. As a result, I'm pretty much back in the saddle.

And tomorrow is lower-body day, starting with some squats. Wish me luck.