Monday, March 31, 2014

Exercises I Never Do (Lower Body)

Several weeks ago I put up a post about upper body exercises I would never do with my clients. It was fairly well received and I promised a lower body follow up. It took a little longer because I had other topics I wanted to address first. Additionally my posts have been less frequent because work has been a little busier lately. However I had some time and motivation this week to sit down and write part 2 of the exercises I never do series (lower body edition). As with the upper body post there is always a time and a place for every exercise but this handful have very little application and have no place in 99% of training programs

Leg Extension Machine

The leg extension machine is commonly used to achieve hypertrophy of the quadriceps muscles. Hypertrophy can be achieved by any exercise that applies tension so long as rest periods provide the proper environment in the muscle. So why utilize an exercise with so many drawbacks?

For instance, look at the recruitment patterns in the leg extension vs. the squat. The leg extension machine preferentially recruits the rectus femoris to a greater degree while squat variations recruit more of the larger more powerful vastus group of the quadriceps. Rectus femoris is also a hip flexor and often over active in people who sit during the day. The vastus medialis is commonly the weakest of the quadriceps group and needs more strength to prevent knee collapse, but actually fires the least of all of the quadriceps muscles during the leg extension exercise.

Because of the location of the load in the exercise in relation to the knee, strain is placed on the passive restraints throughout the movement. We ideally want an exercises to load the muscles but the leg extension places higher loads on the ACL and other ligaments.

Lastly there is the simple fact that this exercise has no carryover to daily tasks or sporting activities, and therefore offers very poor training economy. If you want bigger quads, front squats and forward lunges will be very effective in developing the muscles in a safer and more practical manner.

Ab/adductor machine (aka the good girl/ bad girl machine)

This is actually two different exercises but they pose the same problems and look equally ridiculous so I lumped them together.

The adductor machine:
pushing the load in
The abductor machine:
pushing the load out, or away
The adductor muscles (adductor brevis, magnus and longus) are responsible not only for adduction of the thigh but also act as a secondary hip flexor and extensor (depending on joint angle). The abductor muscles (glute medius, minimus, tensor fascia latae) are responsible for abduction as well as hip external rotation and pelvic stabilization, particularly in the frontal plane.

In daily function these muscles rarely operate in isolation. Typically the ab/adductor muscles work in unison to prevent sway of the knees during gait patterns (or during sprinting or heavy lunges if you are into that sort of thing) and to allow for greater efficiency in lateral movement or change of direction.

If your goal is hypertrophy you can achieve a greater hypertrophic effect through sumo deadlifts, barbell lateral lunges or even basic back squatting. If you are looking to "tone up" your inner thighs then you should eat less crap.

Seated Calf Raise

The seated calf raise is commonly implemented into programs to increase either strength or hypertrophy (size) of the calf muscles. Unfortunately it doesn't really do either of those things. The problem is the anatomy of the calf muscles.

The calf is composed of two muscles: The soleus, and the gastrocnemius. The soleus is the smaller of the two muscles, sits deeper and is primarily composed of type 1 muscle fibers. Those are the high endurance, smaller and weaker fibers. The gastrocnemius,  is the larger and more powerful calf muscle . It sits closer to the surface and crosses both the ankle and the knee joint. For this reason when the knee is flexed, as in a seated calf raise, the gastroc is shortened and largely taken out of the movement, leaving the soleus to do all off the work.

As mentioned before the soleus is composed of primarily type 1 muscle fibers. The muscles job is to be on a low level of tension throughout the day to keep you standing up right. The muscles of the soleus are extremely resistant to growth and strength development. You want bigger calves? Gain weight. By having to plantarflex against a greater load with each step the calves will respond by increasing cross sectional area. So as usual squatting and deadlifting will help tremendously.

Bonus bad exercise: I originally was just going to do the three listed above but I saw someone doing this in the gym today and I had to include it, because it's not the first time I've seen this done. Sadly I've even seen it done by personal trainers charging over $100 an hour. The problems should be obvious in this one. Holy crap look at his back. It's worth mentioning that this isn't simply a problem of bad form. The movement is flawed and the combination of static hip flexion with load and velocity in multiple planes makes it nearly impossible to execute in a safe manner.

I realized that most of my selections were machine based, which feels like taking the easy way out. I guess I just like most closed chain exercises for the lower body. If you have any you dislike let me know.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Executing a proper warmup

A lot of ink has been spilled about which exercises are best and how to properly do them. Whether you're in pursuit of greater weightlifting prowess, improving athletic performance or simply looking better at the beach there are optimal routes for accomplishing those goals. However there is one training modification that I am going to suggest that will universally improve your progress towards your goals.

Today we're going to discuss the value and proper implementation of a good warmup. Warmups provide all of the following benefits

- elevate core body temperature
- leads to a less drastic rise in blood pressure during exercise
- increase the ease of release of oxygen from hemoglobin and myoglobin
- allows for less viscosity of synovial joint fluid
- increase in speed of nervous impulses and improved conduction efficiency

So the warmup provides benefits for the heart and cardiovascular system, acute improvements in nervous system function and makes the joints function better as well.

Additionally (and less scientifically) warmups can:

- improve range of motion (in both the short term and long term)
- improve stability
- provide low level practice of complex movement patterns
- mentally prepare athletes/clients for more strenuous activity

So clearly warmups are beneficial to anyone that participates in activity that involves the heart, muscles, joints or nervous system. That's everybody!

Sadly many of the warmups I see fall in to one of three categories

1. Lots of moving around, no attention paid to the needs of specific joints. An example would be a 3 minute jog, then a few minutes of jumping jacks, squats, and pushups. All good movements but not sufficient demand on all of the systems of the body. The heart rate is up which allows for a lot of benefits but not all of them.

2. Lot of attention paid to mobilizing, stability drills and preparing the joints for the movements to come. No attention to the actual getting warm part of the warmup. I love all of the hip flexor release exercises and plank drills etc. But if you aren't at least a tiny bit sweaty and out of breath at the end of your warmup it didn't really warm you up very well.

3. Swing your arms in a few circles and head over to the bench. Don't be that guy

Our goal should be to provide a warmup that not only provides benefit on a systems level but also allows for each segment of the body to receive the specific preparation required for that days work.

In order to provide that we need to assess what each segment of the body needs

There are hundreds of good warmup exercises out there, I've just tried to provide examples of some of my favorites and the ones that are generally a little easier to learn. Let's start at the ground and build our way up by looking at what each major joint of the body needs in order to function optimally during an exercise routine.

Feet - Feet are always overlooked in training programs. I'm not suggesting we need foot specific exercises but maintaining strength and ROM at the foot and ankle provides a foundation for the whole body to work. For that reason I like to do the majority of my warmups completely barefoot. For clients that have experience with barefoot warmups I will up the ante by using barefoot jumprope as a means of strengthening the feet and gaining an aerobic warmup.

Ankles - Ankles need a significant amount of dorsiflexion, or toes to shin, ROM. This allows for proper load displacement during squatting and hinging movements and helps prevent injury to the knees. A wall ankle mobility drill is a great start but doesn't do a lot to increase heart rate so in clients capable I will work on pistol squat progressions and squat variations. In clients with significant problems at this joint I will spend extra time here during the soft tissue work portion of the day.

Hips - Hips require range of motion in a lot of different directions. The warmup is an opportunity to work through movement patterns that will be loaded in the actual workout. That's why I approach the hips differently depending on the client. Some movements have universal application. These are a few of my favorites:

Lateral Lunge with Overhead reach

UYT reaches

Knees - The knee is commonly referred to as a "dumb joint". It's job is just to flex and extend [1]. So rather than challenging the flexibility around the joint my primary goal is to prevent valgus (knees in) stress by strengthening external rotators. My personal favorite is a squat with monster band or X band walk. Or a squat with pulse

 Goblet Squat with pulse

X band walk

Lumbar Spine - Our goals in prepping the lumbar spine are encouraging stability and preventing flexion, particularly in conjunction with hip flexion (as in the bottom of a squat). I like utilizing quadruped position reaches or bear crawls as well as the aforementioned squat with pulse.

Quadruped squat rocks are a great way to gain stability in a flexed hip position. The key is maintaining neutral spine throughout the movement. Yes, this is a very simple drill but that's fine for the warmup. If you can easily get into the bottom flexed position you can step it up by going off the hands and toes instead of hands and knees.

Thoracic spine - mobility here means the body doesn't have to search elsewhere to find necessary ROM to complete a movement. Therefore we can spare the lower back some unnecessary stress by improving our ability to move through the mid-back. We can use slow drills like a foam roller extension or book opener or incorporate more broad movements like a spiderman reach with rotation.

This drill combines hip mobility and thoracic spine rotation. Great exercise

Scapula - A wise trainer once told me "you can't shoot a cannon out of a canoe". He was referring to the importance of creating a stable platform to bench press but really what he was saying applies to any movement. A stable base is a requirement in order to generate high amounts of power. And for the shoulder that stable base occurs at the scapula. I like basic pushup and plank progressions to encourage shoulder stability but will occasionally use handstand holds for advanced clients or wall slide variations for people struggling with simple standing posture.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect pushup. The lumbar spine sags and the neck isn't packed (it's harder than you would think finding people online actually doing exercises correctly). However, It does show the basic idea behind the pushup plus exercise. The extra protraction at the top involves the serratus anterior muscle. A very important muscle for stabilizing the shoulders.
Glenohumeral (shoulder) joint -The shoulder is a lot like the hip, only smaller and less stable. Therefore the warmup is similar. We challenge the shoulder through a large range of motion in order to restore optimal external rotation and flexion range prior to challenging the joint with load or velocity. Usually I will incorporate shoulder warmups into more total body movements to increase heart rate. Something like a split stance overhead reach, or a downward dog pushup can be very effective.

Many clients will struggle getting their arms overhead in bilateral stance (feet together as in standing or squatting). However, because of the lats connection with the thoracolumbar fascia and therefore the lower body, their mobility is greatly increased in split stance. That's what makes any split stance reaching drill so effective for warmups.

So after addressing each joint let's talk about tying these examples together into a cohesive warmup. Warmups will aim to prepare you for the day's activities so to really see a good warmup in action let's apply what we've learned to a sample workout.

Back Squat 2x5,3x3
DB squat to press 3x8
OH walking lunge 3x16
ss/ Pallof press 3x30sec/side
SL RDL 3x8/side
Farmers carry 30 yards EMOM 10minutes

In order to complete this workout we need to be prepared for:
- Shoulder external rotation
- thoracic extension
- hip flexion ROM
- ankle dorsiflexion ROM
- Trunk stability
- shoulder stability
- shoulder overhead mobility
- split stance stability/range of motion
- rotary stability

That's nine qualities in all that we need the body prepared to do. My approach would be to start on the foam roller. In my experience the foam roller only works if you spend a significant time (at least 2 minutes) on a body part so usually I will only pick two areas and work there. If you are in less of a time crunch then more time on soft tissue work can be very advantageous.

SMFR (or other slow mobility work)
T-Spine and calves (or whatever needs most attention for your client)

If you have a client dealing with an injury or playing a sport with very specific demands (baseball for example) I would do some additional slow warmup here to focus on the specific needs of your client. In a healthy client with standard daily living tasks you can move on to the next section.

I would follow the slow warmup component with faster paced warmup tri-sets. More than 3 exercises in a row and people tend to forget what comes next. Sticking three exercises in a little circuit is a perfect way to improve both ROM and actually get warm

Dynamic warmup
Circuit 1: perform 2x
Yogaplex 5/side
Downward dog pushup with ankle mobility bias 10x
Bridge with alternating leg raise 6/leg

Circuit 2: perform 2x
Lunge with twist 6/side
Split stance RDL 6/side
Reverse lunge with OH reach 6/side

Each of those 3 sections should take about 5 minutes for a total of 15 minutes of warmup. Yes that is a long time. But taking 15 minutes to practice movement patterns, hone technique, improve flexibility, coordination, stability and improve the bulk of your workout is a good investment.

There are many warmup strategies that can work effectively but the mobility tri-set method has been very successful for me in the past. It is particularly useful in a personal training setting where accomplishing multiple tasks simultaneously is paramount. Give this strategy a try and let me know what you think.

[1] the knees do have a minimal degree of rotation but it's not something I have any experience training