Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow" - Aeschylus

A while back I read an article that fundamentally changed the way I think about abdominal training.  I’ve known for a long time that things like sit-ups really work the hip flexors more than the abs and that crunches isolated the abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominis, better.  This is because that muscle serves to pull the shoulders toward the hips in a movement called “trunk flexion.”  This is an important role of the abdominal muscles, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Your abdominals have another role, though, to which I never gave much thought.  In addition to moving your midsection, they also serve to prevent your midsection from moving when that movement would be harmful.  They serve an important role in maintaining the posture of your hips and lower back.  Many people have too much curvature in the lower spine (some is healthy, but too much is bad), and a pelvis that tilts forward.  This can reduce the recruitment efficiency of several muscles around the hips and lower back, or in short, “it’s bad, mmmkay?”  I’m a proponent of the theory that what you do more of, you get better at, so let’s look at some ways to train the abs to maintain posture in.

Here is the original article that got me thinking on the subject.

It has, in addition to a great discussion of the postural effects of the abs and why that’s important in the athletic environment, 8 different exercises that focus on “core stability.”  Instead of plagiarizing the heck out of him or rewriting his instructions and taking pictures of myself doing all his exercises, I’m going to refer you all to the above link (you’ll have to excuse all the body builder photos).  If you just want to see his exercises, scroll about a third of the way down the page to where it says ,“The Test,”  this will give you some idea as to where you stand in relation to postural abdominal strength.  Scroll a little farther to “Lower Rectus Exercises.”  Most folks will get all the benefit they need from “The Dead Bug Series*” and the “Single Leg” and “Double Leg” lowering exercises.  But if, AFTER mastering those, you’re feeling diesel, go ahead and try out his “Dragon Flags” and “Hanging Leg Raise.” 

Another great core stability exercise is the “Plank.”  There are numerous variations on the plank, but let’s start with the basics.  Here is a link about the basic plank, and a side plank.
Go ahead and ignore all the adds on this page; just look at the two plank variations. 

Done from the elbows, as shown in that link, planks can be accomplished by most beginners.  As you get stronger, you can switch to doing them from your hands and feet; this works for both front and side planks. 
Then if you really want to make things interesting, you can start by doing a hands and feet plank for, let’s say 30 seconds; then lift one hand and point it straight out above you head for 30 seconds; put it down and repeat with the other arm; now put both hands back down and lift one leg, keeping it straight and parallel to the ground for 30 seconds; now the other leg; then lift one arm and the opposite leg for 30 seconds; switch which arm and which leg for 30 seconds; then transition to the side plank on hand and foot for 30 seconds; then the other side for 30 seconds; finally go back to the standard hands and feet plank for 30 more seconds before collapsing in a heaving and gasping pile on the floor.   As you get stronger you can add to the time you spend in each position, do several cycles, etc.

-Now, go do some push-ups-

*There is one error in his photos of the Dead Bug Series.  The second photo in Dead Bug 3 is a duplicate of the first.  The second photo should look like the second photo of Dead Bug 4.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Form Follows Function

If this post is a little scatter brained and spastic, please bear with me.

You may or may not have come across the term “Functional Training” in the fitness world.  Since there is little regulation in the fitness industry, anyone can call anything whatever they want.  All too often trainers or salesmen use the term “functional” to describe things like bicep curls while kneeling on a Swiss Ball.

But what does this ill-defined, oft’ misused term really mean?  If you look up the word functional in the dictionary, you’ll see it means:

“capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed”

We then must ask, what purpose are ball kneeling bicep curls designed to serve?  I’m a proponent of the theory that doing something generally makes you better at doing that thing.  If you frequently find yourself kneeling on a ball needing to lift something in a slow arcing motion to your shoulder, this would this exercise would be very functional, otherwise, not so much. 

I see it like this:

Real functional training = movements you might actually do outside the gym

Generally, in the real world, you use more than one muscle at a time.  Typically several joints and muscles move in a coordinated manner to accomplish the task at hand, so most functional training should incorporate these “compound movements.”  A bicep curl is a simple movement because the bicep is the only primary mover, and the elbow is the only joint moving.  A row is a compound movement because the biceps, lats, posterior delts, rhomboids, etc are all working together to move the weight and both the elbow and shoulder are moving throughout the lift.  Doing these compound lifts strengthen each muscle involved individually, but it also trains the muscles to work together in a coordinated fashion.  The neuro-muscular networks learn what order to fire the muscle fibers in order to do that lift efficiently. 

Another thing functional can do is make your body deal with or create forces you might find outside the gym.  For example, single leg training creates some twisting forces and some sideways forces that you have to counter in order to stay balanced.  Since you are on one foot frequently while walking or running, that one footed balance has some carry over to the real world. 

A third way to look at functional training is as a way to correct or prevent an imbalance.  For example, If you do a ton of chest exercises but never do any upper back exercises, you create a strength imbalance at the shoulder.  The stronger chest muscles will tend to pull your shoulders forward and disrupt your posture.  In that case, working the upper back will help to correct that imbalance and straighten out your posture.   Other areas you might see an imbalance is internal rotation vs. external rotation of the shoulder or hip, extension vs. flexion of the knee, etc.

An example of what I consider to be one of the most truly functional movements is the deadlift.  If you’re not familiar with the deadlift, Click Here Why is this such a functional move?  Every one of us will have to bend down and pick something up off the ground at some point in your life.  Most of us have to pick relatively heavy things up from time to time; that is exactly what the deadlift trains you to do.  It builds all the muscles, tendons, ligaments, coordination, and synergy needed to pick up something off the ground.  Also, assuming you use proper form whilst training, it will teach you how to pick stuff up safely and make it second nature to you.  How’s that for some injury prevention?  I also really like the move because it works a lot of muscles very effectively in a short span of time.  The deadlift is often one of the lifts that people can lift the most weight with; to me that says there is a lot of resistance to be shared among a bunch of muscles, so it elicits a strong response from your body toward muscle development.

Some other examples of highly functional movements: pull-ups or rope climbing, because you are lifting your body up as if climbing something; shoulder press because it’s like lifting something heavy up to put on a high shelf.

One thing to consider when looking at what is and is not functional is “what is functional for ME?”  Functional for a professional strongman is going to be completely different than functional for a businessman who plays golf on the weekend. 

-Now, go do some push-ups-

Ps. My apologies to the people at from whence the Swiss Ball picture came.  I haven’t reviewed their exercise program; it may be legit, but I just saw that photo and decided to use it as an example.