Musings

"That's A Load of...." Debunking Media "Fitness" Terms

Glance at the front of the magazines at grocery stores and you'll see a variety of "fitness" or "health" claims such as "tone," "fat-blasting," and other such nonsense as that. I find myself rolling my eyes so much that my occipital (eye) muscles are as big as a body builder's biceps. Sorry, strength coach joke.

Moving on, today I'm going to rip through debunk a few of those outrageous claims so that you too can strengthen your occipital muscles as you wait in the grocery check-out line. I can not possibly cover all the silliness out there, but I've narrowed it down to a few of the common ones (that seem to appear month after month on magazines such as "Self" or "Woman's Day"). A lot of these claims are found on women's magazines, mainly because I think we're fed more crap than the fellas, but they apply to both genders.

CLAIM: "Tone," as in "tone those jiggly arms"- First off, let me remind you that everyone's arm jiggles; that's what happens when a muscle is relaxed. The main definition of "Tone" in exercise physiology is: the normal state of elastic tension or partial contraction in resting muscles. For example, the postural are constantly contracting and relaxing to keep you upright (or slouched...stand up straight!). The fitness magazine "tone" refers to the ability to actually see the muscles' shapely form. (So really, they should say "definition" not "tone.")

In order for a muscle group to be defined, say your arms, two things must occur: 1) the muscle is big enough to be seen (so those stupid tricep kick-backs or bicep curls with 5 pound weight ain't gonna cut it when it comes to muscle growth.) and 2) there needs to be less subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. How does one accomplish bigger muscles with less body fat? Why, picking up heavy stuff and eating a vegetable and protein laden-diet! Glance through a women's magazine at those "arm toning" exercises and you tell me if you think they would actually succeed. As for eating healthy, the details look different for each person (i.e. paleo, vegan, omnivore, etc.), however it should be 90-100% REAL FOOD with minimal crap (though a Christmas cookie or two is ok.) 90% of the time.

FACT: "Tone" means: less fat, bigger muscles. 

CLAIM: "Fat-blasting" food- The media makes it seems as if these foods (and it's a new one each week!) has heavy artillery and upon entrance to the body, starts blowing up fat cells left and right.

Uh, sorry, that's not how the body works. Fat cells, once formed, don't go away. They do however change size depending on how much fat is stored in them. So, in order to reduce the amount of fat in each cell, the body needs to be in a caloric deficit. This means you need to eat LESS than what you're using up, for the basic metabolic functions, exercise, and other activities. The body will burn it's excess energy, aka stored fat, to make up for the lack of energy intake. Altering body composition is a life style change; I guarantee you that just eating a serving or two of "fat blasting" foods will NOT be enough to reverse years of bad eating habits. There is a wealth of solid (and scientific) advice out there, and there are definitely more details than I plan on elaborating in this post (maybe another time...) however it boils down to this:

Stop eating crap, eat real food, and pick up heavy things. Take note that I put the nutritional advice first. You can not out-train a crappy diet, so clean that up first! There will be a blog post later on this month regarding that whole aspect of fat-loss.

FACT: Eating a whole-foods based diet, with minimal crap, and exercising regularly OVER TIME will reduce body fat levels.

CLAIM: "Target" body part, usually for fat loss- This myth just won't die! It keeps reappearing week after week on the covers of magazines and on the interwebz. People, YOU CANNOT SPOT REDUCE!!! The body doesn't say, "Oh, I see that you are doing thousands of crunches, I should reduce the body fat I store there so you can have a flat tummy." Really, it says, "For the love of all things iron, STOP CRANKING ON THE SPINE ! It HATES that!" Targeting is about as effective as trying to grow eye-stalks.

Oh, if grunting made it so!

For "targeting trouble areas" see the above two points: an overall body fat reduction will promote definition of muscles and those "problem areas" will be not so problematic. Again, it's a life-style change, not a quick fix.

*This is not to say that isolation work has no purpose. How else are you supposed to have guns for the ladies? Some isolation work thrown in to an already compound-movement heavy (lots of multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, pushups, pull ups etc) work out can provide some extra stimulation to a muscle group that can lead to hypertrophy (growth).

FACT: Compound movements should be the bulk of you training program. That combined with a diet of whole foods will reduce body fat levels and thus reducing the need to "target" certain areas. (anyone picking up on a theme?)

CLAIM: This is an actual quote from a celebrity trainer, who is a disgrace to our industry:

"Oftentimes, heavy weights can tear the muscle fiber causing it to bulk, but using a lighter weight for a longer duration and allowing your body to move in many different ways to target all of the muscles will lengthen them without tearing."

-Tracy Anderson

Multiple other coaches and trainers have ripped into this (and other nonsensical claims that spew forth from her mouth). Sadly, she is not the ONLY trainer out there who thinks this is true, she just happens to profess this poop where more people can read it. I'm not going to touch the first half of that statement except to say, uh, that's the method by which the body grows stronger...by tearing and repair muscles. Oi!

The phrase "lengthening muscles" is also found, unfortunately, in other fitness "experts" mouths and in their writings. It is physiologically impossible to lengthen a muscle without breaking the bones and extending them or altering the attachment points of the muscle. Yes, the muscles lengthen and shorten during normal movements, however, the actual length of the muscle doesn't change. Got a problem with that? Take it up with your parents, they passed the genes along.

I think that term is really just "tone" said in a different way. Ultimately, the phrase is intended to indicate "definition" just like the word "tone." If a trainer says/writes that claim, it's a pretty solid indication that the trainer/coach has absolutely NO idea how physiology works and therefore you should turn and flee. I'd also like to note her splendid use of the buzzword, "target."

FACT: "Lengthening" a muscle is impossible, and the intended implication is "definition" which is attained via the methods described ad nauseam above. 

Now, my SAPT readers, you are armed with the knowledge to see through the baloney that fitness magazines and products proudly display and you have the ability to recall the truth: a great, healthy body is created by... do I really need to say it again? Don't allow the stupidity of the outrageous claims dissuade you from thinking that anything but consistent hard work (both in the kitchen and in the gym) will accomplish your performance and/or physique goals.

Maximize Each Workout: 3 Practical Tips on Mindset

The mindset associated with any training plan is really what makes the difference in achieving your goals. Sets, reps, exotic exercise selection, equipment, etc. doesn't make a drop of difference if you are only 60% engaged, focused, and mentally committed. Here are 3 practical tips to get you in the zone - and keep you there - for your next workout session:

 

  • Music: I think everybody knows about this one, but it bears repeating. Music is so powerful because it has the ability to change your mindset and push you in the direction you want to go or need to be for a great training session.
  • Environment: Make sure your training environment is conducive to you achieving (and be able to focus on achieving) your goals. Constantly getting stopped by other gym members to chat? Always feeling ashamed of making any noise whatsoever? Tired of being harassed for breaking out chalk? Well, all these are signs that you may need to reconsider your training environment and get into one that supports your focus and goals.
Planet Fitness Lunk Alarm

Alright, you've got at least two of three tips that you can implement TODAY to get your training dialed up and instantly more productive.

Lessons of the Jaw: A Few Thoughts on the Body's Intradependence

As you read this, I'm either in surgery or in the recovery room. For those who don't know, I am having lower jaw surgery to correct a severe over (also called "open bite") and cross bite. That being said, blogging might be a bit spotty (more so than usual) over the next couple weeks, but I'm going to do my best. Seeing as this surgery has been on the forefront of my mind for quite a while, I thought I'd share a bit of the physiology connections I've learned over the past year or so. It's actually pretty interesting how dependent the body is on it's collective parts. So dependent that something up in my face affects the rest of my body rather dramatically.  We'll do bullet points because I really like them.

Lesson 1: Pain is sneaky. Sometimes the origin and/or cause is not where you think.

I've known I would need this corrective surgery at some point for quite a while now. About 3 years ago, I experienced severe and prolonged pain in my tempromandibular joint (TMJ), the hinge joint of your jaw that connects the lower to the upper. I didn't have the means to have surgery at the time and the pain receded a bit, so I put it on the back burner. Just over a year ago, I started having migraine/severe headaches in the front of my head that would last for days, even weeks. Medications didn't help. Then I started to have shoulder pain on my right side. This made me think something else was going on since I knew I wasn't doing anything that would aggravate my shoulder.

I popped over to this site and discovered that a tight sternocledomastoid can cause both pain in the head and shoulder. Sure enough, I had knots the size of marbles all along these muscles. Guess what? The SCM connects right up behind the ear, near the TMJ, thus a misaligned jaw (being used for thousands of reps per day) will definitely cause some tension in the poor ol' SCM.

Lesson 2: The suboccipital muscles are really, really important.

I also had pain in the base of my skull on a regular basis, thanks to irritated suboccipital muscles. I trolled around to find some information and perhaps home treatment to help manage the pain symptoms. I came across fellow strength coach, Patrick Ward's post hereReadit, seriously, it applies to everyone. It'll blow your mind how important those little muscles are to your overall health.  Patrick Ward goes into the implications of tight suboccipitals and their effect down the stream, such as posture in general and neural control over postural muscles. I found it interesting that "voluntary trunk control" was one of the muscle functions affected. Guess what? I struggle with bracing my right side. I know that sounds weird, but I can not get as "tight" on the right side without really thinking about it. Might be why I have a collapsed disc to the right side?...

Lesson 3: It's seriously all connected.

Then I came across this paper (you don't have to read the whole thing unless you're super-into-science and research papers) that linked symptoms of TMJ dysfunction and jaw pain with the suboccipital muscles. Check out pages 13 (yup, I have all those symptoms, including impaired vision) I should also note that I've suffered from vertigo since I was 13, so perhaps, once my jaw/bite is corrected and those muscles are no longer strained, I might see a decrease in symptoms.  Page 15 which connects hypertonic (too tight) neck muscles with TMJ muscles dysfunction and pain, and 17 describing short cervical muscles and posture and how they research has found correlations... craziness. Upper cross syndrome, a posture <--- description used by those in the health field, is either a creator of tight neck muscles or the result of tight suboccipitals. It's a bit of chicken-egg questions, but either way, they tend to coexist. So, if you have a hunched posture, try massaging the base of your skull, that might help loosen some things up!

Lesson 4: Pain eventually conquers proprioception

We recently had an in-service where we learned about the neuromuscular implications of injuries in regards to training athletes. The main point I retained was, if muscle tissue is acutely damaged, such as a sprain, or chronically irritated, such as repeated spraining of said ankle, the muscle spindles, which reside in the tendons, will no longer respond accordingly, much like Ariel responding to her father's command to stay away from land... Poorly.

Muscle spindles are proprioceptive organs that control the stretch-reflex, for example when the doctor taps your knee and your leg kicks forward a bit, the muscle spindles are rapidly stretched (when the mallet hits your patella tendon) and they respond by sending a signal to your brain to flex the quads (thus, pulling your knee into a bit of extension).

So, damaged muscle tissue, specifically the muscle spindles and especially chronically damaged tissue ("damaged" doesn't necessarily mean an acute injury, but a chronic posture, like your shoulders slumping and your neck protruding forward as you peer at the computer screen) tend to lose their ability to provide valuable feedback to the body in the form of proprioception (where your body is in space i.e. balance). Instead, pain signals are sent. This is bad on two fronts: 1) it hurts 2) lack of proprioception means loss of muscular control, be it voluntary or involuntary.

I don't know too much on how to restore muscle spindles and transfer them back to being proprioceptive and not pain oriented, but I do know that a) removing the irritaing stimulus (in my case, setting my jaw in the correct alignment) b) improving tissue quality through manual therapy (professional or at home) and c) retraining the muscles to move how they should (i.e. standing up straight instead of slouching, or going back to the ankle example, walking without a limp or favoring the ankle).

Lesson 5: Implications for training.

Another random fact, there's a correlation with a cross bite and scapular winging (the shoulder blade sticking up instead of laying flat on the rib cage). Winging impairs overhead movement, messes up the rhythm of the humerus and shoulder girdle and makes picking and lifting heavy things a bit problematic. I've done just about every exercise under the sun to fix my wing, to no avail... maybe surgery?

Anyway, as a coach, just by looking at my own situation helps me work with our athletes here at SAPT. If at first the basic, usual cues don't fix a problem, like "pulling yourself to the floor" during a push up to fix a winging scapula or "crack a walnut" to prevent knee pain during the squat, then, maybe there's an underlying issue that demands a different approach. Maybe some dedicated soft tissue work is in order to correct a nagging pain or it might be severe enough to refer out to a physical therapist or doctor. Whatever the case, if after working with an athlete diligently doesn't solve the problem, probably time to delve a bit deeper. (and check their bite! Kidding.)

Competition vs. Participation

It seems like we are at a crossroads in youth sport.  Perhaps mirroring the politics of today, the opinions of how sport should be played appear to be as polarizing as ever. One camp believes we are in the midst of the “wussification of America”.  They believe that today’s children are given too much and participation trophies are creating generations of American’s who don’t know how to win.  They believe that success, failure, and learning from those experiences bring out the best in our children.  The “wussification” camp has it’s own site and has even claimed that teaching activities like yoga is breeding a generation of non-competitors.  Comedian Adam Carrola went off on the “Participation Trophy Generation” and talked about how it’s impacting our economy.  Even the Iron Man, Cal Ripken Jr., talked about his concern with where youth sports are heading.  There’s statistics that show that the millennial generation, who the Wall Street Journal labeled “trophy kids”, are as entitled as ever.  Let’s call this camp “old school”, where they believe we are softening up on our future leaders and creating a less competitive culture.

The other camp believes that sports have become too serious.  Rick Reilly, a popular ESPN columnist, wrote about Pee Wee Coaches imploring 8 year old football players to have a “killer instinct”.  Last month, The Bloomington South High School girls’ basketball team made headlines by beating  Arlington High School 107-2.  Athlete’s are being offered scholarships before they get to high school.  Parents are being jailed for fighting at games.  Sports have become big business, and many parents have become more interested in athletic scholarship, or making it to the Pro’s, then emphasizing academics and using sport experience as an opportunity to learn.  Let’s call this camp “new school”, where they believe our society has placed too much emphasis on winning and not enough on participation and having fun.

So, who is right?  Well, both believe our children may not be learning as much as they should.  And I am not sure either is wrong.  I don’t believe in “old school”, I don’t believe in “new school”, I believe in “right school”, and figuring out what mix of the past and the future is best for the present.

Clearly, this is a topic that will continue to garner attention and changes will be made.  Whether, the emphasis for change needs to be solely on increased competition or participation, perhaps, like our politics, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Friday Musings 1/18/13: Coaching the Overhead Press, Deadlift Program, Tying the Perfect Tie

No, it is indeed not Friday at the time of posting this....decided to do this round a day early.

1. Coaching the Overhead Press

There's something intrinsically satisfying about pressing a heavy weight overhead, not to mention the host of benefits it provides, provided you don't butcher it. I actually did a little Q & A on overhead pressing HERE, for those interested. Moving on...

A cue often given in the overhead press is to "push the head and body through" at the top, the goal here being to prevent the bar from drifting too far away from the body. However, I often see people woefully abuse this cue to the extreme and jut their head way too far out at the top, slipping into gross extension, especially at the cervical spine:

Those of us coaches in the crowd often experience profuse bleeding of the cornea when we see people perform a pushup with the oh-so-prolific forward head posture, so why is does it all of a sudden become a different ball game when we press vertical instead of horizontal? You can see, if I flip the above picture of Kelsey 90 degrees, where she would be in the horizontal plane:

Not a pretty "pushup" position, right?

Yes, you do want to prevent the bar drifting away from the midline of the body, but be sure to keep the head neutral - aka a packed neck - as you finish the lift at the top:

When we jut the head forward, all we essentially wind up doing is cranking on that levator scapulae - thus cementing a downward scapular rotation pattern (not ideal) - and substituting forward head posture for actual scapular upward rotation and posterior tilt, anterior core stability, shoulder flexion, and T-Spine extension.

Translation: Shoving the head forward turns you into a walking ball of fail.

Keep those glutes tight, abs engaged, ribcage down, and ideally you'll want a vertical line going through the bar, ears, and midfoot when at the top of the press.

2. High Frequency Deadlifting

Back in 2012 I wrote a post called A Little Deadlift Experiment, Part 1, in which I briefly discussed a high-frequency deadlifting plan I used to add 40 pounds to my deadlift in 4 weeks. I never ended up writing Part 2 (yes, fail on my part), but I received a number of questions, both on the blog and through email, on how it ended up.

Well, I actually only ended up doing it for another month, but I did add another ten pounds to my total during that month. Excellent. I stopped it due to the pursuit of a few other goals, but I did want to share that I've "experimented" with the program on other people and it has worked wonders.

Mark - one of my buddies, and a physical therapist - called me up last year year telling me he made a bet with his supervisor that he could eventually deadlift over 400lbs. The kicker? He only had about 4 months to do it, his deadlift 1RM was sitting right around 300lbs, and he made the dreaded Alpo Bet, a la Dan John. So he called me in hopes I could help him add 100lbs to his deadlift in a matter of a few months.

Great.

After berating him on the phone for making me responsible to help him win an absurd bet he never should have made, I gave him the very deadlift program I used.

The result? His deadlift shot up from 300lbs to 435lbs in a matter of five training cycles, leaving him the winner of the bet and relieving him from eating a can of Alpo in front of his supervisor. What?!

Keep in mind, he had over three years of solid lifting experience under his belt, so these weren't newbie gains, either.

Note: All the credit goes to Mark on this one. He worked his tail off - despite the fact that he has a very demanding schedule and was undergoing some significant "life" changes - and trusted me every step of the way with the seemingly asinine program I gave him.  

I'm not going to share the program here yet though, as I may end up using it for future article or online program. Patience, patience....

3. Tying the Perfect Tie

This one's for you gents in the crowd.

Maybe I'm a bit of an anomaly here, given that I'm fortunate enough to wear t-shirts and athletic shorts to work each day, but getting ready for an event requiring a tie can be exceedingly frustrating. (Yes, you office workers in the crowd, go ahead and shake your heads in reproach, I realize I have it easy.)

Fortunately, Tim Ferriss seems to be an expert at doing any and every random task extraordinarily well, and tying ties is no exception. Here is a quick, extremely useful video on how to tie the perfect tie, every time.

It can take a couple tries, but once you get it, you're golden. Ever since employing this tactic I've been able to boast the best tie in the room at formal events. What what!

I've run out of musings for the time being, hope everyone has a great weekend.

10 Things I'd like to Share from 2012

As I opened my computer this morning, it didn't take long to realize I had a list of non sequiturs running around my brain. As 2012 is drawing to a close, why not allow them to run around on paper, forming a random thoughts post. Here are 10 things I either remembered, learned, or simply felt like sharing from the past year: 1. Taking the time to teach an athlete to "sit into the hip" during the foundational phases of jump training in the frontal and transverse planes will do wonders for their athletic development, as they progress onward to more "advanced" stages of change-of-direction training and force transfer outside of the sagittal plane.

Notice how in the video above, I use a "soft knee" during each landing and and push my hips back to decelerate. This displays the proper utilization of the glutes and other active restraints of the hip to create "tri-planar"  stability: eccentrially controlling flexion, internal rotation, and adduction of the femur upon each ground contact.

However, the video below shows how you'll typically see people perform lateral hurdle (or cone) hops. Note how I rely much more heavily on the passive supports of my body - namely, ligaments, menisci, and other joint structures - to decelerate each landing.

Many athletes will land with a "double step," or even fall over, when learning how to decelerate correctly for the first time. Investing ample time in mastering this entry-level progression will pay huge dividends later on within the realm of injury risk reduction, change-of-direction speed, and rotational power on the field.

2. I love coffee, and, as a result, one of the best parts of my day (other than a good poop) is preparing and enjoying a quality brew early in the morning. Either that, or visiting my favorite local coffee shop, Caffe Amouri, where I settle down to do computer work alongside my faithful squire, Aragorn.

caffe amouri aragorn
caffe amouri aragorn

The best decision I made this past year to enhance the morning experience of home-brewing coffee was to purchase a Clever Dripper to prepare my morning elixir. Some of you may recognize it as the "pour over" or "hand pour" method.

With it, you receive all the benefits of a french press - full extraction of the flavors and sugars of the bean - but without the "mud" that typically resides at the bottom of a the mug. The Clever Dripper also WAY easier to clean than a french press.

clever dripper sapt
clever dripper sapt

I highly recommend it for you coffee-lovers in the crowd.

3. Here's an important classification I like to use for differentiating between main lifts in and accessory lifts in program design: Any main movement can also used as an accessory movement, but not all accessory movements can necessarily be a main movement.

SAPT bench press chains
SAPT bench press chains

It may sound simple and borderline obvious, but it bears repeating for those that are unsure of how to set up their programs.

4. The wrong and right way to hip hinge during a squat. Be careful of overemphasizing the familiar "hips back" cue too much when either squatting yourself or teaching someone else how to squat, especially if an anterior-loaded squat pattern like a goblet squat or barbell front squat is being performed.

If you push your butt back too much at the start, then your body has nowhere to go but forward on the way down in order to find its center of gravity with respect to the bar position. I think it goes without saying that this is unfavorable, with regards to both safety and that whole getting stronger thing.

See the video above for a brief demonstration of what I'm referring to. The first two reps show what happens when you overdo the hip hinge at the start, and the third and fourth rep show how to properly push your hips back as you descend to the bottom.

5. I read through the Harry Potter series this year (yes, admittedly it was fantastic), and jotted down some memorable lines as I went along. Here are a few of them:

- "Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike." ~ Dumbledore

- "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals" ~Sirius Black

- "It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live." ~ Dumbledore

6. Speaking of literature, I'm currently reading A Game of Thrones, and it is spectacular, to say the least. The author, George R.R. Martin, does a phenomenal job of reeling you into the story relatively quickly, and the world he creates is a different than most fantasy stories in that he veers away from the typical character archetypes (few are totally good or wholly evil, you don't have the classic hero who overcomes impossible odds and is immune to corruption, etc.) and he breaks many of the "rules" of stereotypical fantasy.

Hint: Don't read it if you're afraid of your favorite and/or likeable characters to die.

Not to mention, Martin is an absolute master of metaphors, description, and overall wordplay. Read it, and thank me later.

And, while I've heard good things about the HBO series, it still doesn't count. Sorry. However, that still doesn't mean this picture is not awesome:

7. One of the most rewarding parts of my job, by far, is helping people to train around injuries. It's extremely humbling to have the opportunity to help countless individuals - be they just coming out of surgery or simply dealing with a "tweaked" ankle or knee - continue to get stronger despite an injury they recently received.

Below is a video of Conrad, a 64-year-old who recently underwent not his first, but SECOND, total knee replacement surgery within the past year. Instead of wallowing in misery over the fact he couldn't do lower body training for a while, he barged through the doors of SAPT, with a battering ram, asking us to prepare him for a powerlifting meet. Keep in mind this was just weeks after his total knee replacement.

We put him on a bench-specialization program, and the end result was him hitting a bench PR in an official meet.

He serves as such a great example to those - way younger than 64 years of age, mind you - who make excuses as to why they seemingly can't take time to care for their bodies.

8. The Hobbit was an excellent film. I honestly don't see how Peter Jackson, or anyone for that matter, could have possibly done a better job with it. Yeah, people are upset he's splitting it up into three parts, but to me that just shows how Jackson pays attention to detail, and wants to ensure they leave no stone unturned during the film. It also means we still have two more excellent experiences in the theater to look forward to around Christmastime.

thehobbit
thehobbit

I didn't want to read any of the reviews before I saw it, so I looked at them a couple days after seeing the movie. Upon reading just a few of them, it confirmed my notion that the opinions of movie critics are worthless and overrated.

9. When you set up for the basic plank (and its variations), choosing to go from the "bottom up" vs. the "top down" actually has significant impact on how much iliopsoas is recruited. Considering that heavy recruitment of the iliopsoas is generally unfavorable in core stability exercises, try setting up from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Plank SAPT
Plank SAPT

10. An admittedly strange and ungrounded pet peeve of mine is when people use the words "jealous" and "envy" interchangeably in conversation. They don't mean the same thing! 

To clear the air: Envy generally implies a sense of covetousness or a desire for something that someone else has. Jealousy, on the other hand, relates to a sense of resentment due to rivalry or the fear of being replaced.

I readily admit I don't have grounds from which to stand upon this sense of annoyance, as I am far from a grammar expert myself, and I make grammatical errors all.the.time. but for whatever reason I can't get this one out of my head.

Note: If you enjoyed this list format, feel free to check out this post or this post that I wrote in 2011.