What Does Your New Year’s Resolution Mean to You?

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Here we are again! The early weeks of the year are a time for high aspirations and lofty plans to reinvent ourselves by way of time in the gym. Everywhere we look we see exciting ads on social media, print media and TV for all sorts of diets and workout plans. These products are pitched with soaring rhetoric delivered by beautiful people to those who likely perceive themselves as being less-than-beautiful—but they have hope! (Or maybe they’re desperate.)

What will all this look like by, say, April? A lot of those ambitious plans will be tossed aside, buried and forgotten. Multitudes will give up entirely and blame themselves. It’ll all start again next year…

The M-word

The title of this post asks a question—and it’s a crucial question!—because your Big Resolution depends on the answer. Do you have an emotional connection to your New Year health & fitness goal? If so, is it positive or negative? Does your goal have meaning to you? How do you feel about your resolution?

The big word here is motivation. There are several types and the one that’s driving a new year’s resolution can make it or break it.

I found an excellent three-part series from Psychology Today called Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track (Part I, Part II, Part III.) The article does an excellent job of discussing several different flavors of motivation. Two types of motivation will get you where you want to be. The other two… aren’t so helpful.

Identified and intrinsic motivation

Part I of the article describes these two types of motivation as follows:

“Identified motivation is when you have a positive view of losing weight or it is a behavior that you value. Maybe you want to be healthy for a loved one and your future together. For identified motivation there is a strong sense of personal importance and meaningfulness in the task.

Intrinsic motivation is the prototype of self-determination because the behavior is engaged for its own sake, for the simple pleasure and interest in the activity. This motivation involves a focus on the task and produces energizing emotions such as interest, enjoyment, and challenge.”

An example of identified motivation might be a grandparent or parent who recognizes the value of being healthy, strong, and able so he or she can keep up with the kids and grandkids. These people value a high quality of life and they see that a vigorous exercise and healthy eating is the way to get there.

I’ve met a lot of people in the gym like this. Exercise may not be their first love but a positive sense of purpose drives their actions.

I’ll use myself as someone who is intrinsically motivated to exercise and eat right. Essentially I love to pick up heavy things and sweat a lot. I love the process of training for a race or a bike tour. I love being in the gym with the weights. Skiing, cycling, and hiking are pure fun. I do these things for the sake of doing them. They are a reward in themselves.

Both types of motivation involve high degrees of autonomy. An individual motivated in such a way makes a conscious choice to engage in exercise, healthy eating and the like. His or her values and identity align closely with their healthy lifestyle and action. His or her efforts toward fitness occupies a significant and positive place in his or her life. Thus a trip to the gym, a run, a bike ride a swim or a healthy meal is motivated from within.

Part II of the article discusses two studies (here and here) that looked at long-lasting weight-loss management to understand why some people are successful while so many others are not. Regarding the findings the article says:

“These groundbreaking findings have shown that what plays a central role in the maintenance of exercise and physical activity behaviors are:

  • Enjoyment
  • Perception of competence
  • And intrinsic reasons for weight loss”

External and introjected motivation

External and introjected motivation are a stark contrast to identified and intrinsic motivation. The article describes these motivations:

“External motivation works on external demands and operates on the contingency of if/then:

‘If I lose 10 pounds, then I will go to my 15 year high school reunion.’

This motivation is purely external to your interest in losing weight. It is done in order to obtain a reward or avoid a negative consequence.

Introjected motivation is also motivated by external reasons to change. But it differs from external motivation in that it is done for somewhat internal reasons as well.

The problem, however, is that these internal reasons are negatively focused. They come from feelings of guilt or shame.”

It’s clear that these types of motivation involve doing something the individual would rather not do. Negativity is at the core. There’s far less autonomy, less control by the individual in their choice and probably no fun at all. External forces are largely in charge here. We are rarely happy when we perceive that something is forced on us.

If someone is extrinsically motivated he or she isn’t necessarily doomed. The article says:

“In one study conducted in England on 425 government employees, researchers found that extrinsic motives such as appearance and weight management dominated in the early stages while reasons related to intrinsic motivation such as for enjoyment or revitalization were stronger in the maintenance stage.

Studies such as this show that external or introjected motivation can produce results but only in the short term, and as we know, weight-loss is a long term problem.

It’s okay to have extrinsic motivation as long as you are not operating only on extrinsic motivation.”

The F-word and the S-word

I’m not talking about those F- and S-words. I’m talking about feeling and should. In reality we pursue all of our fitness endeavors because we want to feel a certain way. We may want to feel strong, healthy, sexy, or confident. Maybe we feel exhilaration or feel a sense of accomplishment at the achievement of a challenging goal. These are positive fuel sources for our efforts.

On the other hand, we may pursue a fitness goal because we feel we should. We feel we should look better because we feel external pressure from popular images, peers and/or family.

My guess is that what drives these negative shoulds are hopes of alleviating lots of negative feelings. We may not feel loved or worthwhile. Maybe we feel guilt, shame, rejection or intense social pressure to look a certain way. Whether we fully know it or not, we may believe that being thin or muscular will give us a feeling of peace, love and acceptance.

The problem here is we are basing our happiness on how others perceive us. Chances are that if these negative motivations are driving us then even if we become muscular and thin—then all we are is muscular and thin… But we’re still miserable. Who wants that?

Finding positive motivation

There are some strategies that may help. I won’t reprint everything on the subject, but Part III of the article discusses something the writer calls the Foundational Why. This goes to the real reason(s) why you’re working out, dieting, etc.:

“Start by sitting down with paper and pencil and write down why you want to lose weight or get in shape. Write down every reason that you can think of.

After you have gotten all of your thoughts down, go over your responses.

What are the reasons? Do they come from outside yourself or from within? If they come from within, how much are they integrated with your sense of self?

For example, let’s say one of your responses is similar to one of the following:

  • Because I should
  • Because I am ashamed of my weight
  • Because I want to look good for summer

If any of these sounds close to your answers, it means that you are working from extrinsic motivation.”

Following this Foundational Why process, the article discusses the You-at-Your-Best Exercise. It goes like this:

“Think of a time where you felt you were at your personal best. What were you doing? Who were you with?

This event is like a snapshot of you in your finest hour and something that you feel most proud of. It could be a really big action or it could be a small action but it exemplifies you and your character.

Write down this event in detail and then go over it. What does this event say about what you value in life, about what individual strengths you already possess, about what you enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it.

Ask yourself:

  • Why did you choose this event?
  • Why is it meaningful to you?
  • What does it symbolize or represent?

The You at Your Best Exercise will help you connect improving your health to things that you really care about, to things that mean something to you, by showing you what your personal drivers are. 

For example, perhaps this exercise reveals that you are someone for whom family is really important. In which case, think of your foundational why in terms of your loved ones or connect them with your health goals. It could be exercising with your partner, or perhaps going on walks with your parents.

It may reveal that you get energy from your sense of ambition. In which case, setting ambitious goals is something that you value and drives you to succeed. Maybe then sign up for an upcoming marathon?

Perhaps it reveals that when you are at your best you are using your humor and sense of play. If so, consider how to tap into that energy when deciding what fitness classes or activities to join. For some people, the addition of wearing silly socks to the gym can change their attitude to working out. 

The idea behind this exercise is to understand what naturally interests you in order to draw upon that to create lifestyle changes that you will enjoy.”

It’s sort of in the touchy-feely realm but I like these ideas a lot. If someone has any negative emotions around fitness, exercise and new year’s resolutions then this type of work should be mandatory for achieving those gleaming goals. (Never mind exercise and fitness, understanding our motives is crucial for achievement in any discipline.) Through it we gain valuable awareness of ourselves, what drives us and what’s most important to us. There is simply nothing more important for success.

My Chronic Injury is an Addict

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I'm getting off the wheel.

I’m getting off the wheel.

I’ve had recent discussions with two clients about lingering injuries. The talks brought to mind how my approach to my Achilles tendon pain. I think this new mindset will prove essential to my staying healthy and avoiding future Achilles problems. Maybe it’ll be useful to you.

To be clear, I don’t currently have any Achilles pain. I’m able to run long, sprint, and trail run consistently with no trouble. I want to keep it that way for the rest of eternity and that’s what brought up these thoughts.

Both my clients and I have battled aches and pains in particular regions that have come and gone… and come and gone again over the course of time. Our shared narratives go something like this:

I have pain. I see a physical therapist or chiropractor. He/She prescribes exercises that help. They help. I quit doing said exercises. (Those exercises are BORING as hell. They don’t feel like exercise. They don’t feel like they’re making me stronger, leaner, or more powerful.) Pain comes back at some point. Repeat the process.

Does this chain of events sound familiar?

My aches and pains have caused me to miss training, miss races and forced me out of some of the activities that I enjoy with passion. I’d like to avoid this process, thus I need to do something different from how I’ve done things in the past, otherwise I can expect the same result as before. (We all know about the definition of insanity right?)

I’ve decided that my Achilles tendon is… well… my Achilles heel. It’s my weak spot. For whatever reason, this part of my body is susceptible to problems. Therefore it needs special consideration and care. I’m now motivated to continually do the things that seem to strengthen my Achilles tendon. I want to turn that weak spot into a bulletproof, iron-clad appendage that’s nearly indestructible.

That means almost every day I’m doing standing heel raises. Some days I do high-reps/low-weight. Other days it’s heavy-weight/low-reps. I do bent-knee heel raises and straight-knee heel raises. I do heel raises with a straight foot and with my foot turned in and out. Some days I do lots of heel raises. Some days I do fewer.

My point has less to do with heel raises to cure Achilles problems and more with my behavior and thinking around the problem. The point is that I now constantly tend to this thing that has been a problem for me. I view it as an ongoing project that will never really be complete.

The analogy I’ll make is to that of an addict. Overcoming addiction is an ongoing process. An addict is either getting better or getting worse but he’s never treading water and staying put. An alcoholic/coke addict/sex addict/shopping addict/whatever-addict is an addict forever. Like an addict, it would probably be more enjoyable for me to quit doing my dinky, boring exercises and tell myself that I’m OK. I could easily do whats comfortable and easy.

I could say, “I’m fine. I’m cured. I don’t need to worry about this problem. It’s behind me forever now.”

If I take that tact though I should expect my problem to creep back in, and I hate that thought.

Losing the ability to run and jump is a powerful source of motivation for me. With proper motivation comes the ability to apply willpower to the problem. With this mindset, the boring and tedious exercises become easy. Doing them isn’t an issue at all now.

As with almost everything we do in fitness (and everything else in the world) the real target here is the brain, not the injured/painful area. If I want continued success and progress then I must decide to take the appropriate action. If I want a specific outcome (Achilles pain gone forever, weight loss, muscle mass, etc.) then I must adopt the behaviors that will get me there. I need to make new habits. That requires conscious thought and deliberate action. The work won’t do itself.

So there.

 

Two Big Reasons to Trail Run (or just hike.)

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I’ve been trail running consistently for several weeks now. I see this as a marker of success in both the continuing rehab of my reconstructed ACL (surgery was May of 2014) and in overcoming stubborn Achilles tendon pain. If all this nice

progress continues, I plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half-marathon in October (Damnit!  It’s sold out. I need to move on that earlier next year.) and then the Moab Trail Marathon in November. So all this trail running has me thinking…

Nature & depression

Good for me.   Good for you.

Good for me. Good for you.

An article in the Atlantic titled How Walking in Nature Prevents Depression discusses a study that demonstrates the real psychological benefits to tromping around in the outdoors. Specifically, the researchers found this:

“Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

When I’m on the trail, I’m very much “in the moment” as the saying goes. I am consumed with the ground and where I put my feet. I’m aware of the plants, the rocks, the temperature, and if I’m in the right spot, I might hear the rush of a stream. I Iam deeply engrossed in the experience. Rarely if ever do I think about the hassles and conflicts that await me in good ol’ “civilization.”

Searing physical exertion is often a part of my trail running experience as well. Despite the pain, I keep coming back. It would seem some part of my brain wants to be there.

Trail running & movement variability

I’ve mentioned the idea of movement variability (here and here). It (to me) is an exciting concept and a hot topic in sports skill training and injury pre-/rehab circles. The smart people at Cor-Kinetic discuss movement variability in this impeccable blog post. The writer states:

Viva movement variability!

“Movement variability is inherent within a biological system. Not only is it inherent it is also beneficial for reducing risk of overload and enabling the ability to adapt to events that occur within our ever-changing environment. Elite athletes cannot reproduce exact and invariant movement patterns repetitively even through hours of devoted practice. The best movers are those that can execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependant on the constraints and context of performance. It could be that part of being resilient and robust lies in variability. The ability to tolerate load may come in part in the way in which it is internally processed through our coordinative variability.”

If we think about trail running, then we see that it takes place in a highly variable, constantly changing environment. As we run (or walk) we can’t consciously think about how we place our foot every time we step. Rather we must react. This is a job for our subconscious and our reflexes. The movement variability researchers suggest that through this process we may protect ourselves from a lot of potential injuries. (Nothing in the world however can protect us from all injuries.)

On the trail, we have to stay upright, balanced and moving while our running parts deal with all sorts of odd angles and shapes. The great part about negotiating this rocky, rooty, up-and-down environment, is that our feet, ankles, knees, hips—and especially our nervous system—builds what I call a movement database. Our brain soaks up the subtle changes in movement that we experience so we increase our runnings kills. We have an opportunity to as the Cor-Kinetic post says, “execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependent on the constraints and context of performance.” Our tissues are stimulated in a remarkably well-rounded way so that we become more durable than if we run only on flat, monotonous surfaces.

I’m pleased that I’m not the only one thinking this way. (I’d love to come up with an original thought some day.) Similar observations on trail running are discussed in the Running-physio.com article titled Trail running – Natural rehab?

The writer describes his own experience in trail running:

“Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I’ve ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.”

And he suggests the mechanism by which this process may work:

“I’m not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?

It’s all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.”

Wisely, he goes on to discuss when trail running may NOT be the right thing for you and how to gradually introduce trail running into your routine.

All of this is anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of any strong studies that show trail running will fix any given injury. That said, a trail run fits the bill very well for a variable movement experience and it’s my belief that many runners who aren’t trail running will benefit from adding some time on the trail into their schedule.

 

Activity is Better Than Rest for Overcoming Lingering Pain

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I’m glad to see Outside Magazine delivering a message that may be very useful to anyone suffering from pain. (This is from 2009, but I just saw it.) The article mirrors my recent experience with my ACL rehabilitationThe Real Heal: Overcoming Athletic Pain says two things essentially:

  1. Rest usually doesn’t cure what hurts us. (In fact, too much rest makes us deconditioned and contributes bad feelings in general.)
  2. Moving and using our sore parts–confronting the pain–is essential to getting rid of pain.

The writer discusses his journey following a bike crash which hurt his knee (an acute injury). He rested and took pain medicine. He states (emphasis is mine):

“It turns out my belly-up approach was dated. New research is proving that the best way to treat nagging pain is to eschew pampering in favor of tough love. Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh are doing ongoing research showing that stretching irritated tendons actually reduces inflammation. And the principle extends beyond rickety wiring. Every expert I spoke with told me variations of the same thing: ‘Rest and ibuprofen cure few injuries,‘ said Dr. Jeanne Doperak, a sports-medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh. ‘During rest you’re in a non-healing zone,‘ offered Dr. Phelps Kip, an orthopedic surgeon and U.S. Ski Team physician. ‘The body was designed to move.'”

Pain is very much a psychological thing. I can relate to this:

“And it just so happens that tendinopathy chronic tendinitis is the most diabolical of recurring injuries. Give me a broken foot over tendon trouble any day when something snaps, at least you know what you’re in for. My injury dragged on into winter, deep-sixing my mood. This is not uncommon: The link between pain and depression is so well established that sports psychologists use a tool called a Profile of Mood States to monitor injured athletes. (This is a graph evaluating tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion. People in pain score extremely high in every category except for vigor.) I was five years removed from being a college athlete and I was Long John Silvering it up stairs at work. Strange questions crept into my head: Could I consider gardening exercise?”

I like the overall message of the article but I don’t agree with all the information:

  • The writer says, “… or imbalances in the body’s kinetic chain of movement (a weak core can cause lower-back pain).”

Though this is a popular concept, there is significant evidence that “core strength” (which can be defined and measured in a multitude of ways) has nearly nothing to do with back pain.

  • For runner’s knee, the writer suggests this: “Lie sideways on a table, legs straight, and slowly raise and lower the upper leg ten times. Do three sets. Easy? Ask your PT for a light ankle weight.”

I think this might be part of an effective strategy to address runner’s knee (if the problem is rooted in the hip which it often is; however it could be rooted in poor control of the foot and ankle), but there are several dots that I think need connecting between this exercise and full-on running. This exercise is very different from running in which the foot impacts the ground and the runner must control motion at the foot, ankle, knee and hip. If this is the only exercise given to a runner’s knee patient then I’m skeptical that the runner will fully overcome the issue.

  • A caption under a photo reads, “Preventive Measures: Recovering from a nagging injury? Next time you go for a run or a ride, try taking ibuprofen beforehand. As long as you’re cleared for activity by your doctor, inhibiting swelling prior to a workout can dramatically reduce post-exercise inflammation and pain.”

This is an interesting idea but I have strong reservations. Pain is a signal that should be respected. Even though pain doesn’t equal injury it’s still a message from our brain that there is a perceived threat that needs to be addressed. The pain could be signaling a threat related to poor movement control and tissue stress is leading toward injury. By taking a pain-blocking drug, we might simply be turning down that signal as we continue with what may turn into an acute injury. I would compare this to driving a car with a damaged muffler that needs replacing and instead of replacing the muffler, we turn up the stereo loud: No noise!!–but have we fixed the problem?

On the other hand, I understand that even if the movement problem is addressed, we may still feel pain. Taking a drug may help the brain experience the new, better movement in a painless way which might help break the chronic pain cycle. I’m curious to what degree this has been method has been investigated.

For me, as a personal trainer, I would never suggest someone take a drug and just keep going. Rather, I would speak with the person’s PT. If he or she OKs it, I would then advise someone to move and work below the pain threshold or at a very manageable level of pain.

Play, the Brain & Neuroplasticity

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I just found a fascinating video that speaks very much to some of the things I’ve been reading lately (and have read about in the past.) It’s an interview with a man named Stephen Jepson. In his former life he was a very accomplished ceramics maker and teacher (Is that what they’re called?  Or potter?) He founded the World Pottery Institute and he even has a piece in the Smithsonian. Now his focus is Never Leave the Playground.

A grown-up at play

Jepson is in his 70s now and he literally spends his waking hours at play. He runs around, hops, crawls, juggles, rides a skateboard (and a variation thereof), elliptical bikes, and generally moves about the earth in very novel, random, playful ways. He’s not only having fun and staying fit, he’s also stimulating his brain in powerfully healthy ways according to research. More on that in a moment. Here’s the video:

Jepson says that his play improves such brain skills as cognition and memory. He seems to be very spot-on according to several things I’ve been reading.

Todd Hargrove discusses play in chapter four of A Guide to Better Movement . He suggests:

“In the contest of movement, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge and ignoring potentially better solutions.

Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance. We could also look at play as a way to ‘return to the drawing board’ or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.”

What this says to me is that novel, unusual movement gives us the opportunity to build a broad movement database or maybe a movement Swiss Army knife. We add to our available movement repertoire when we move in as many ways as possible in as many environments as possible: rolling on the ground, climbing, crawling, standing on different surfaces, moving at all speeds, lunging in many directions. Perhaps as a result, when confronted with a movement scenario that’s a little out of the ordinary our brain may say, “Oh, I’ve been here before. I have multiple strategies for moving safely and effectively here.”

The science of play & the brain

In his book, Hargrove references a NY Times article titled Taking Play Seriously. It states:

“For all its variety, however, there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered. In the words of Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core ‘’a behavioral kaleidoscope.’”

 ‘I think of play as training for the unexpected,’ Bekoff says. ‘Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.’ Play, he says, ‘leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.”

This flexibility and growth potential of the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Though Stephen Jepson doesn’t use that word in his interview, he’s talking all about neurplasticity as he describes the benefits to his brain and both vigorous physical activity and play. His thoughts are supported by research:

  • Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition: “The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations. Indeed, some recent studies have suggested that combining physical and cognitive training might result in a mutual enhancement of both interventions.”
  • Archives of Medical Research, Physical activity, brain plasticity, and Alzheimer’s disease: “We conclude from this review that there is convincing evidence that physical activity has a consistent and robust association with brain regions implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “
  • In Runner’s World Sweat Science column, Alex Hutchinson discusses research from the European Journal of Applied Physiology. He says, “Sure enough, the… test showed that the skill athletes had greater motor cortex plasticity than non-athlete controls, while the endurance athletes showed no change.”
  • The Importance of Play, Dr. David Whitebread, University of Cambridge: “For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.” (To be clear, this is a rat study but similarities have been seen in observation of humans.)

Inside my brain

All of this is enormously fascinating and inspiring to me. It has me thinking a lot about my own fitness process as well as that of my clients. I’ve been doing a little indoor rock climbing lately and that’s a completely different type of workout. I’ve also done a little bit of cross-country skiing and I hope to take a lesson and increase my skill there. I look forward to trail running and mountain biking soon. I find both activities highly engaging, and both offer endless opportunities to negotiate with gravity in myriad different ways.

I’ve discussed my recent experience with the FASTER Global course this summer (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). As a result, my eyes (and brain) have been opened very wide to almost infinite opportunities for innovative, play-like movement strategies.

My hope is that my clients are having some degree of fun already but now I’m thinking much more about injecting an aspect of play into our sessions. Lots to think about…

Tracking Weaknesses: An Efficient Way to Monitor Progress (or Lack Thereof)

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I’ve been deeply immersed the FASTER Global curriculum over the past several months.  Efficiency (getting to your movement, physique and performance goals as fast as possible) is the key focus of FASTER.  To this point I was given a great idea by my FASTER instructor Mike Terborg. I became of what seems to be a very useful and efficient way to monitor whether or not you’re doing what you need to be doing to achieve your goals.

Self-monitoring

Most of us know that if we want to lose weight then we need to do things like eat differently, exercise more and sleep more. Research (here, here and here) has shown that self-monitoring of metrics such as body weight, physical activity and food consumption is a significant component of weight loss. By tracking these things we become mindful and more aware of our habits which is exactly what we must do if we want to change our behavior. If we don’t track some data then a) we won’t know if we’re making progress and b) we’re less likely to focus on the necessities.

Track only what’s needed.

A lot of us have experience tracking all of our food, every mile we run/bike, every weight lifted on every exercise etc. This can become tedious and I know that in my experience I end up with a bunch of information that I never use. I don’t meet many people who are in love with tracking their activity. (Some people do enjoy the meticulous tracking of data. I wish I did.)

With a mind toward efficiency, maybe we don’t need to track everything. Maybe we can track and focus on only the things we need to improve–our weaknesses. Here are some examples:

  • One client of mine likes to drink a few beers. She started using a Google calendar to track a) the days on which she drinks and b) what quantity she drank.  She shared that calendar with me so we can both be mindful of what’s going on. Fantastic!
  • If you eat well and work out consistently but you typically go to bed too late (1 a.m. let’s say) and don’t sleep enough then track every night of the week you get to bed by say midnight or 11 pm.
  • If you binge on sweets several nights a week then track every night that you don’t binge. You should be able to answer the question, “How many times did I eat sweets this week?”
  • If you exercise sporadically then think of tracking every day that you do something called “exercise.” If you’re a beginner then you will see fairly impressive benefits from simply starting to exercise regularly, no matter if it’s weights, cardio, (if you delineate exercise according to those terms) or whatever.
  • Maybe you’re an aggressive go-getter, and you’re not resting and recovering enough. You’re overtrained perhaps. Maybe you need a couple of dedicated rest days. Now you might actually track the days that you don’t work out. Or maybe you track every day that you take a nap.

It’s all about awareness.

I continue to believe that awareness is maybe the most powerful concept to anyone wanting to lose weight, get in shape and increase performance. The purpose of tracking (some of) what you’re doing is to contribute to your awareness. Monitoring some part of your activity is essential to see if you’re doing what you should be doing.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to be efficient and monitor only what’s needed. Too much information is… well… too much. It takes away from something else that’s important. Rather than monitor your strengths think of monitoring only your weaknesses.

Size Matters Not: A Case for Strength Part III

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Who should be strong and why?

Clearly athletes benefit from more strength, but what about someone who doesn’t label him or herself an “athlete?” Well, strength is like money in the bank: No one ever complained about having too much. No matter who you are, you will benefit from more strength. Here’s a list of who can benefit from strength and why:

  • Endurance athletes 
    Paula Radcliffe holds the women's world record in the marathon.  She's squatting 155 lbs.

    Paula Radcliffe holds the women’s world record in the marathon. That looks to be about 150-160 lbs. that she’s squatting.

    Plenty of research exists showing that the ability to put more force into the ground, into the pedals or into the water will make you faster. For runners, heavy strength work enhances the spring-like qualities of the Achilles tendon and other connective tissue that aids in running. More strength can help the endurance athlete maintain good form as he or she tires during an event.

    No one is too old to be strong!

    No one is too old to be strong! This image is from a Tampa-area senior powerlifting meet.

  • Senior citizens
    I mentioned previously that proper strength work creates stronger bones. That’s good for anyone with bone density issues. Beyond that, strength goes hand-in-hand with balance. Strength enables you to better keep yourself from falling and it will help you get up if you fall.
  • Martial arts champ Gina Carano is strong thrive as a fighter.

    Martial arts champ Gina Carano is strong enough to beat you up.

    Do you want to look good?
    It’s interesting, when you get strong, you tend to look strong. Posture often improves as part of the process. For a lot of people, heavy strength work works nicely to stimulate the metabolism, especially if they’re new to heavy lifting. Further, multi-joint exercises like squats, push-ups and the like do a great job of creating impressive arms, shoulders, legs and all the rest.

  • Do you do any manual labor?
    Any kind of yard work, house work, moving and carrying stuff, putting stuff overhead, shoveling snow, going up and down stairs etc. will be a lot easier if you’re stronger. The work you do in the gym should enhance your life outside the gym. Exercises like squats, presses and deadlifts loaded with enough weight will definitely help with manual labor.
  • Do you like to feel good?
    Strength training carries some impressive and interesting psychological effects. A review of literature from the University of Georgia found the following psychological benefits from weight training:

     “The weight of the available evidence supported the conclusion that strength training is associated with reductions in anxiety symptoms among healthy adults (5 trials); reductions in pain intensity among patients with low back pain (5 trials), osteoarthritis (8 trials), and fibromyalgia (4 trials); improvements in cognition among older adults (7 trials); improvements in sleep quality among depressed older adults (2 trials); reductions in symptoms of depression among patients with diagnosed depression (4 trials) and fibromyalgia (2 trials); reductions in fatigue symptoms (10 trials); and improvements in self-esteem (6 trials). “

(From my observations: For some magical reason, deadlifting a new 3-rep max has a much more powerful and positive effect on the mind and emotions than does curling 2 lb. periwinkle dumbbells for 30 reps.)

How to get strong

  • Reps and sets:
    In a nutshell, the way to get stronger is to lift heavy. How heavy? Look at the chart. If the training objective is strength then we’re looking at lifting something for fewer than six reps. The weights used are 85% of your 1-rep max (1RM) or greater.

    Effective set/rep schemes include: 2-5 sets of 5 reps, 3 sets of 3 reps, 5 sets of 2 reps and 6 sets of 1 rep.

  • Exercises:
    The best strength-building exercises are multi-joint exercises. They include but aren’t limited to the following:

    • squats
    • deadlifts
    • overhead press
    • bench press
    • rows
    • cleans
    • snatches
    • push-ups
    • pull-ups
    Olympic silver medalist Allyson Felix can deadlift 270 lbs.

    Olympic silver medalist Allyson Felix can deadlift 270 lbs.

    A solid strength workout can be built around one or two, maybe three of these exercises (squat, overhead press, row for example). There’s no need to do them all in one workout.

    In contrast, single-joint exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions/curls and calf raises aren’t as well suited to enhancing strength. They have their place and they can be included in your strength workout but never at the expense of the big lifts.

    Most of these exercises except for push-ups and pull-ups should be done with a barbell. Other implements like dumbbells and kettlebells can certainly be used but a barbell is the ideal tool for this type of work. As push-ups and pull-ups become easy, weight can be added.

    Remember, the idea here is to increase your strength. That means weight should be added to the exercises from week to week. You can also add reps to the already-challenging weight you’re lifting. Accordingly, you should track your weights, sets and reps. You should strive for progress.

    Finally, good form is vital! Heavy lifting is quite safe when done properly. If you’re hesitant then you should seek out a good strength coach or personal trainer. It’s difficult to learn how to do these exercises without good coaching. Reading a magazine article or watching other people in the gym probably won’t quite cut it.

    To wrap up

    I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of strength. When we’re strong we tend to look and feel strong. Through strength training we can build a strong healthy, useful body without any worry of looking overly muscular.  Remember, you can get very strong with virtually no risk of looking “too big.” Sorry, I’m wrong. It’s impossible for you to get “too big.”

    Seeing progress in the gym builds confidence and enthusiasm and gives purpose to our workouts. We should expect progress from exercise. Watching the weights go up is a great way to quantify our work in the gym.

    Strength has real-world use. It enhances athletic performance and allows us to better take on life’s daily challenges. Strength can keep us safe too, especially from falls and injuries.

    Finally, for you to get strong you must lift heavy!

    More resources

    I didn’t invent any of this information presented here. If you’re interested in learning more, here are some books and online resources for you. There are lot more resources out there. Don’t get confused though: To get strong, pick up something heavy! (Have I said something like that already?)

    • Books

      • Power to the People, Pavel Tsatsouline

      • Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore

      • Practical Programming for Strength Training, Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore

      • Easy Strength, Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline

    • Online

Size Matters Not: A Case for Strength Part II

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In Part I of this series I suggested that you should see progress in your exercise routine. Further, I broached the idea that muscular strength and muscular size are not necessarily the same. Finally, I argued that getting “too big” is nearly impossible for you to do. This is Part II of the conversation.

Big vs. strong. What’s the difference?

Muscle bulk is what a lot of men (especially young guys) want from their exercise program. For many of you though, your fitness goals don’t include bulking up. Most women I encounter want to get leaner and essentially smaller. Obesity is a big problem in America so many of us definitely don’t need to consider enlarging ourselves. Endurance athletes don’t need to haul around extra muscle as it can hinder performance. Because of all this we see a lot of people lifting rather light weights for very high reps (15-20 or more). The problem is, you can’t actually get stronger this way.

Let me offer this thought to you: You can get stronger–without getting bigger! You can learn to create more force with your muscles without much if any additional muscle growth. The two circumstances are not the same. Strictly speaking, bigger muscles can be stronger than smaller muscles, but strength is much more than that. Strength is also very much the result of changes within the central nervous system (CNS). Here’s more on that.

Neurology of strength

Zoe Smith is a record-setting British Olympic weightlifter.

Zoe Smith is a record-setting British Olympic weightlifter.

 

It’s helpful to understand a little bit about processes by which we get stronger. Besides some potential muscle growth, what happens when we strength train? Without getting overly science-y, here’s a description:

  • Better intramuscular coordination:
    This is learning to use more of an individual muscle. Muscles are made up of muscle fibers. Those muscle fibers are innervated (“fired”) by nerves. The nerve plus the muscle fibers it innervates is known as a motor unit. Untrained individuals can recruit only so many motor units for a given task. Effective strength training enables us to recruit more motor units within an individual muscle.

    Strength training also changes the rate at which our motor units fire. Untrained people fire their motor units more slowly than trained people. Proper strength training can enable us to fire our motor units very quickly. The result is we can be stronger and/or faster and muscle growth is unaffected.

    At the same time, strength training also teaches us to synchronize these motor units to fire together.  All of this is skill, and it has nothing to do with muscle growth.

  • Better intermuscular coordination:
    This is better coordination of muscle groups. In looking at almost any common human movement (sitting to standing, running, reaching, pushing, pulling, lifting something off the ground, climbing stairs, etc.) multiple body parts move together. Proper exercise selection (multi-joint exercises like squats, lunges, rows, presses, etc.) plus appropriate loading of these exercises enable us to develop stronger movement patterns rather than just a stronger quad, calf, bicep, etc. This again is a way of becoming stronger without enlarging the muscles.

  • What else?
    Effective strength training gives us stronger connective tissue. Ligaments and tendons become stronger just like the muscles. Our bones also get stronger if we load them effectively. A good strength program is a very effective way to protect against injury and increase bone density in people of all ages and abilities.

Examples of Stronger, Not Bigger

The majority of sports actually don’t require athletes to be particularly big. American football linemen need to be big in order to

Greek weightlifting legend Pyrros Dimas.  Incredibly strong but not stereotypically massive..

Greek weightlifting legend Pyrros Dimas. Incredibly strong but not stereotypically massive.

shove opponents out of the way. It’s a similar situation with sumo wrestlers. Shot putters need to be big so they can put a lot of mass against the shot. Beyond that, very large athletes are often at a disadvantage. They can’t generate as much power relative to their body weight. They can’t endure as well. Thus, for many athletes, some degree of increased muscle mass may be a good thing, but being “too big” is not an advantage. Strength however is always in demand.

Olympic weightlifter Julia Rohde.  Strong--not huge.

German Olympic weightlifter Julia Rohde. Strong–not huge.

Most sports involve sprinting of some sort. More strength helps an athlete sprint faster. Does more bulk help? Only up to a point. A massively muscle-bound body doesn’t help.

Weight class athletes such as boxers, weightlifters, martial artists, and wrestlers must stay within a certain weight range to compete. Now, we’ve all seen the stereotypical massive superheavyweight weightlifter or powerlifter. Look at the lighter weight classes of these sports though and you won’t see such hulking physiques. You’ll see lean, strong athletic physiques. These people are always looking to get stronger and more powerful without getting bigger.

Gymnasts are excellent examples of athletes who must be very strong and

Gymnast Danell Leyva is very strong but not overly bulky

US Gymnast Danell Leyva is very strong but not overly bulky.

powerful yet clearly don’t benefit much at all from enormous amounts of muscle bulk. Have you ever seen a gymnast that was “too big?”

So there are numerous examples of people who require great strength but have no need of excessive muscle. How exactly do they get there? I’m glad you asked! Stay tuned for Part III of this series.

 

Thoughts on Posture: Part II

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In the previous post, I discussed a few thoughts, ideas and myths surrounding our posture. A key concept is that posture actually isn’t tied very strongly to back pain. There are still good reasons to learn and practice good posture though.

Proper posture while lifting

Let’s think of a squat or deadlift. In these exercises, the legs are the engines that drive the exercise. They provide the “oomph” to move the barbell (or whatever implement) we’re holding in your arms/hands. The trunk is the transmission between the engines and the arms/hands/object.

The deadlift done wrong (left) and well (right.)

Keeping the spine braced in a neutral position ensures the best, most efficient transfer of force from the legs into the barbell. If the spine twists or bends then we leak force and risk injury.

Hold this posture during a push-up.

Glutes, abs and shoulder muscles are engaged. Keep it this way during a push-up.

 

 

Similarly, look at a push-up. Here, the arms and the shoulders are the drivers and the rest of the body is the implement we’re moving. We again want to keep the trunk rigid and braced, not loose, deflated and floppy. With proper technique we get a more thorough range of motion and stimulate the working muscles more. By doing a push-up in good posture, you’ll essentially get more out of the exercise than if you do it with poor posture. Risk of shoulder and back injury is reduced too.

Bad push-up!  No!

Bad push-up! No!

We can expand our view of posture out to any number of sports from running to golf to tennis to whatever else you like. In the vast majority of our sports, we want to keep solid posture so we can most effectively transmit force (usually) into the ground and into something like a club, a ball or an opponent.

In the grand scheme, good solid posture will enable you to lift more weight which will enable you to reach your fitness goals faster and more effectively. We can also make our sporting movements more effective through the use of good posture. You’ll avoid injury too which will allow you to train longer and more consistently.

Posture and safety.

Okay, in the last post, I mentioned that pain isn’t strongly linked to posture. Yet in this post (above) I’ve suggested that braced, neutral posture while lifting can help prevent injury. Am I contradicting myself? Not entirely.

If we load our joints at the far ends of where they can move then we do risk doing damage to joint tissues and this may bring on pain. So we want to avoid excessive spinal flexion, and/or spinal extension, and/or spinal twisting when lifting. Yes our spine can and should bend and twist, just not under heavy load. Rather we should put the spine in neutral and brace with the trunk muscles before we lift.

Posture for looks

Why do most people work out? Looks, no? For most of us, looks is somewhere on our list of reasons we exercise. We want to look lean and strong. Adopting good, erect, tall posture will instantaneously improve our appearance. Incredible! Tall posture makes us appear leaner and stronger. Slumped posture makes us look pudgy and weak. Look at the pictures and you be the judge.

(Ironically, when I look around the gym, I see lots of people exercising in very bad posture. Presumably they want good looks yet they engage in activities that only reinforce bad posture. Crunches may be the most effective way of promoting slumped, head-forward-style bad posture.)

Posture and confidence — (Yes posture and the brain are linked!)

Power Posture!

Power Posture!

The same tall posture described above makes you feel better and more confident. Don’t believe me?

He looks like a leader.

He looks like a leader.

Here’s the abstract from a study looking at this phenomenon (emphasis is mine.):

“Building on the notion of embodied attitudes, we examined how body postures can influence self-evaluations by affecting thought confidence, a meta-cognitive process. Specifically, participants were asked to think about and write down their best or worse qualities while they were sitting down with their back erect and pushing their chest out (confident posture) or slouched forward with their back curved (doubtful posture). Then, participants completed a number of measures and reported their self-evaluations. In line with the self-validation hypothesis, we predicted and found that the effect of the direction of thoughts (positive/negative) on self-related attitudes was significantly greater when participants wrote their thoughts in the confident than in the doubtful posture. These postures did not influence the number or quality of thoughts listed, but did have an impact on the confidence with which people held their thoughts.”

Here’s an excerpt from an article in Scientific American on the same subject:

“More impressively, expansive postures also altered the participants’ hormone levels. Using salivary samples, Carney and colleagues found that expansive postures led individuals to experience elevated testosterone (T) and decreased cortisol (C). This neuroendocrine profile of High T and Low C has been consistently linked to such outcomes as disease resistance and leadership abilities.”

and

“Together, these recent discoveries bolster the notion that power is grounded in the body. Not only does power change the body, but altering one’s postures changes one’s power, or at least the psychological experience of it.”

Finally, for a little more about the power of posture, here’s Amy Cuddy discussing the topic in a TED Talk:

Thoughts on Posture: Part I

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Mom often told us to “stand up straight.” (Did she ever explain how to do it though?)Look around you and you’ll see some spectacularly “bad” posture. Slumped spines are all around us.

How important is posture with regard to pain? For a long time, various schools of thought have insisted that poor posture causes back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and all sorts of other ailments. The fact is though posture and pain don’t really correlate all that well. Research by pain scientists have observed the following:

Posture_types_(vertebral_column)

  • people in pain showing poor posture
  • people in pain showing good posture
  • people without pain in good posture
  • people without pain in bad posture

 

So we see that posture really isn’t strongly linked directly to pain. Further, we can’t really tell the chickens from the eggs: Did poor posture bring pain or did pain bring on poor posture. Or maybe we see both poor posture and pain in someone yet they really don’t have anything to do with each other.  Sort of like hair and headaches. We often see them both in the same person yet we know they don’t really have anything to do with the other.

Todd Hargrove at BetterMovement.com wrote a great post on all of this called Back Pain Myths: Posture, Core Strength, Bulging Discs. He writes the following:

“In one study, researchers looked at the posture of teenagers and then tracked who developed back pain in adulthood. Teenagers with postural asymmetry, thoracic kyphosis (chest slumping) and lumbar lordosis (overly arched low lack) were no more likely to develop back pain than others with “better” posture.

Another study looked at increases in low back curve and pelvic angle due to pregnancy. The women with more postural distortion were no more likely to have back pain during the pregnancy. A systematic review of more than fifty four studies found no good evidence of a correlation between posture and pain. Leg length inequality seems to have no effect on back pain unless it is more than 20 mm (the average leg length difference is 5.2 mm). Hamstring and psoas tightness do not predict back pain.

These results are particularly striking given that many studies have quite easily found other factors that correlate well with low back pain, such as exercise, job satisfaction, educational level, stress, and smoking. Although some studies have found a correlation between back pain and posture, it is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. It may be pain is causing the bad posture and not the other way around. This is a very likely possibility. People will spontaneously adopt different postural strategies when injected with a painful solution. Big surprise!”

What am I trying to say here? That posture doesn’t matter and that we should ignore it? Nope. I’ll give you some reasons to pay attention to posture:

  • Proper posture while lifting makes you stronger.
  • Proper lifting posture keeps you safe.
  • Tall, erect posture makes you look better.
  • This same tall posture makes you feel better and more confident. (Yes, the brain and posture are strongly linked!)

I’ll get into these topics in the next post.