Archive for April, 2009

Exercise Variety is the Spice of Life

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

If you think about all the movements your body does everyday, you should be quite impressed with what it accomplishes. The twisting, turning, bending, lunging, reaching stepping, carrying, etc., are all minor miracles in and of themselves. All those movements are occurring with multiple body parts working together in 3-dimensional space. Your body thrives with that kind of variety.

All too often in the exercise world, we wait until our mind becomes bored with an exercise. When in reality, if the mind is bored now the body was bored a long time ago. That is because classic fitness progressions typically revolve around either:

• increasing the resistance (i.e. weight)
• increasing the sets and/or reps
• increasing the duration or intensity

These are legitimate methods of further challenging a group of muscles to work harder than they are currently working with a given movement. Another variable for progressions that is usually forgotten about is the way we can challenge our motor system or the “software” of our body. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to introduce a variety of movements to the body that the body is not familiar with. When we do this, we can continually challenge the three main components of movement:

1. The mechanical (muscle force, direction of force)
2. The physiological (energy systems, fat burning, nutrients, etc.)
3. The neurological (the motor system and feedback systems)

An example of this is the lunge. The traditional lunge is done by stepping out with one foot in front of the body=sagittal plane. This is a great functional exercise. Yet the lunge has endless possibilities when we start to incorporate other dimensions in space.For example, stepping out to the side or in the frontal plane challenges our three components of movement distinctly differently than the sagittal plane lunge. In fact, having the toes point either forward or in the direction of the lunge would also create a different response in the body. The same is true for a rotational lunge in the transverse plane. Even changing the orientation of our upper body changes the exercise. For example, if you lunge with your torso vertical, the percentage of work done by your quadriceps is greater than if you lunge with your upper body leaning forward. The forward upper body position decreases quadriceps activity but significantly increases the work done by the gluteus maximus (buttocks).
Frontal Plane Lunge

When changing our movements frequently, the motor system has to adapt and learn to figure out the synergy to complete it. Initially, the body works harder as it uses more effort while figuring things out. Working harder means using more energy and therefore burning more calories.

If the body uses more effort in the beginning, than just the opposite is true if we do an exercise for too long. The body gets too efficient and is no longer challenged. This is improved efficiency is of tremendous value when training for sport or work related responsibilities. But if your goal is to improve your physical fitness, then spice up your workouts with ongoing variety.

Doing the same exercises for weeks or worse months on end is like driving around the fitness center parking lot for 20:00 minutes trying to get the spot closest to the door so you can go in and walk on the treadmill for 30:00. What’s the point?

What’s your balance got to do with your pain?

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Are you as amazed as I am by some of the feats that performers of Cirque du Soleil can pull off? Is this a God given talent or thousands of hours of practice? I am sure it is both.

Balance is one of those physical traits that are subject to the, “if you don’t use it, you lose it” principle. It is also a trait that can be dramatically improved upon when progressively challenged.

Balance plays a critical role in athletic and life performance. Great athletes have exceptional balance that allows them to quickly change direction, effectively recover from movement errors and position their bodies in ways that maximizes performance and minimizes the risk of injury.

Balance also plays a key role in our everyday safety. This is clearly evident in the unfortunate frequency of falls and injuries to the senior population. What is even more unfortunate is that many of these falls can be prevented.

But balance is not just about avoiding falling over. It’s also about helping us find the most stable or safe position when our environment around us changes. How quickly and effectively we react to those changes can be the difference between a shot of adrenaline and a herniated disc in the back.

Balance equates to control. Lack of balance=lack of control. And like a car unable to stop properly or control its steering accurately, the body with poor balance is an accident waiting to happen.

Regardless of our age, we all have the same basic mechanisms that give us balance or help us restore balance. These can be thought of as information gatherers that tell our muscles what to do. These information gatherers include:

* Vision
* Inner ear
* Stretch receptors in the muscles
* Movement receptors in the joints
* Touch and pressure receptors on the skin (particularly the soles of the feet)

The difference between great balance and not-so-great balance is dependent on two main factors:

1. How fast our nervous system receives and processes the signals from our information gatherers
2. How quickly and efficiently our muscles act on that information to make the appropriate adjustments

The wonderful news is that both of these factors can be improved upon. Doing so will improve performance for some and reduce the risks of injury or falls for others.

Balance training goes way beyond standing on one leg statically or standing on one leg while performing other movements. Single leg standing probably falls in the area between beginning and intermediate balance work. Standing still on one leg is closer to the beginning scale and moving your upper body while on one leg would be more toward intermediate.

Beginning balance training might include just standing still with the eyes closed to remove the outer visual references from helping. Another beginning balance work might be to tilt the head back. Doing sore moves the contribution of the inner ear for balance. Combining these or doing these on one leg would certainly increase the level of difficulty.

Intermediate balance training might include active one-legged exercises such as lunges or directional changes on one leg. Intermediate balance work might also include maintaining static stability while supported on an unstable piece of equipment such as a wobble board or physio-ball.

More advanced balance training might include explosive work on one leg such as hopping. Adding dynamic movement to the unstable apparatus will increase the level of difficulty significantly. For example, doing squats while standing on a BOSU ball or lunges on a balance beam.

The Core-Tex(TM), a new piece of equipment that I have developed works on reaction. This type of equipment challenges you by taking you out of balance within a limited area and requiring your nervous system to immediately react to that dynamically.

Balance exercises should enhance musculoskeletal stability and improve performance for sport or life. Therefore, never progress yourself until you have demonstrated a proficiency at a less challenging level. Frustration, compensation (and even humiliation!) will result if you don’t progress properly.