Truth About Hard Work and Breakthroughs

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Advertising surrounds us and comes at us from every angle. We are inundated all day by interesting/annoying messages designed to tug at our emotions and coax us into purchasing something. Take holiday and fitness advertising. More often than not, both are concocted of contrived platitudes wrapped in a seductively sincere candy coating. I don’t mean to be a grinch or overly negative, but rather I’m trying to see through the haze of flimsey, manipulative nonsense.

Christmas ads for diamonds (aka shiny dirt) and gift-wrapped luxury cars suggest in serious tones that these trinkets are the ultimate expressions of love and devotion. The message: “If you really love her/him, you’ll spend lots of money on this thing that sits there.”

Materialism disguised as love.

Fitness-related messages are similarly emotional and ubiquitous. From running to weights to yoga, pilates, and obstacle races, social media feeds are chock-full with soaring inspirational messages to Just Do It, Find Your Bliss, Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body and all sorts of sappy garbage that I try to ignore—because unicorns, fairy tales, and magic happy miracles aren’t real!

Let me calm down… If you thrive on messages like this then fine.

These messages don’t run to my taste because I find them shallow and dishonest. They imply a quick-fix approach to fitness and health. We are a short-attention-span, soundbite culture that rejects the long-term, patient view of the steady hard work that’s crucial for excellence. My role as a trainer and writer is to dispel some of the misinformation that’s out there and speak honestly about health and fitness.

With all that in mind, two recent articles are worth a look.

Running Sucks Sometimes—And That’s OK comes from running coach David Roche. David and his wife Megan are both successful, experienced runners and coaches. They know of what they speak. David discusses the idealized social media version of running:

“Let’s start this article with an assignment: open Instagram and click on the ‘Search’ button. What do you see? To start, you probably see at least a few mostly naked people. It is the internet, after all.

In addition, if the almighty algorithms think you are a runner, you’ll probably get photos and videos of people running with glorious form, on glorious trails, with gloriously big smiles. The captions? You guessed it . . . glorious.

“The perfect day…”

“Running is amazing…”

“I owe it all to [insert brand here]…”

“If we programmed a computer to use machine learning to understand running via social media, it’d probably think running was a mostly perfect, amazing activity. #brand #brandmotto. I am guilty, too—it’s just how social media works. No one wants to hear about your heavy legs and sore feet. It’s a highlight reel by design.”

Roche observes the ugly truth of running, something that every runner both new and old has experienced: Running ain’t always a bag of fried rainbows.

“Even if you do everything right, training consistently and intelligently for years on end, running will still suck sometimes. I’d guess 10 percent of my runs feel rather unpleasant, down from 30 percent when I had been running for a few years (and 100 percent when I first started). Not only is that okay, it’s an essential part of the adaptation process.

“If you felt perfect all the time, you’d probably be selling yourself short in training, not pushing your limits at all. So embrace the suck. It’s something we all share, even if we don’t always share it on Instagram.”

The article normalizes the reality of running and points out that even the best runners don’t always love it. (BTW, you could sub the word “running” for cycling, swimming, weights, or any number of athletic and non-athletic activities.) Roche gives practical advice on adopting the right mindset when the going gets tough. I most appreciate his discussion on how to mentally process the discomfort of a hard run. We can change our perception of pain and exertion.

“Solution: aim to perceive discomfort as a neutral observer. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but no, you don’t have to stop. And when you let yourself document it, running-induced discomfort actually isn’t that bad at all.”

Alex Hutchinson makes similar observations in this Wall St. Journal article titled The Mental Tricks of Endurance Performance. This process of perception is a crucial component of endurance performance. I use this process in my own workouts and it makes a difference. Definitely, read both articles if you want to change your relationship with exertion.

The second article is titled What Lies Behind Every “Breakthrough” Performance. It’s from Brad Stulberg at Outsideonline.com. He examines the underpinnings of sudden breakthrough performances. The reality is that sudden breakthroughs are built on consistent hard work and gradual progress.

Stulberg quotes habit researcher and writer James Clear:

“Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change,” says Clear, who researches and runs workshops on habit development. The problem: “People make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and decide to stop. Once this kind of thinking takes over, it’s easy to let good habits fall by the wayside.”

The message here isn’t just applicable to athletics. It applies to any type of work from writing, to music, to painting—probably to preparing taxes.

“A similar path to progress happens in other endeavors. A recent study published in the journal Nature found that while most people have a ‘hot streak’ in their career—‘a specific period during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance,’ the timing is somewhat unpredictable. ‘The hot streak emerges randomly within an individual’s sequence of works, is temporally localized, and is not associated with any detectable change in productivity,’ the authors write. But one thing just about every hot streak has in common? They rest on a foundation of prior work, during which observable improvement was much less substantial.”

Essentially, the article extols the virtues and necessity of punch-the-clock work, work that isn’t transcendent or worthy of soaring language. The bread of performance is buttered with these types of workouts.

Here’s What’s Right With You.

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We typically visit a doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor or some other medical professional because we hurt. We go to be fixed. As part of the diagnostic process, he or she may tell us what’s wrong. Similarly, many personal training assessment protocols have the trainer take clients through some sort of movement assessment and we get to tell our new client where they’re tight, where they’re immobile, and what movement skills they lack. (Often the movements that make up these assessments are highly unusual to most people and they have little resemblance to anything we do in real life. No wonder so many people don’t score well.)

By framing the discussion in terms of “what’s wrong,” we enter into a negative state of mind. We may have walked in feeling fear, hesitation, shame, and pessimism about our inability to get out of pain and get in shape. When we’re labeled as “dysfunctional” then we will only feel worse — yet we came in seeking help! There’s a better way to discuss patent and client health.

Movement optimism

Physiotherapist, chiropractor, and strength coach Greg Lehman advocates for being a “movement optimist.” In his seminar Reconciling Biomechanics with Pain Science, he suggests a better way to help our clients and patients is to start by telling them what they can do rather than what they can’t. People come to health and fitness professionals to feel good, get out of pain, and be strong. Our words matter. We can have a tremendous impact by setting the stage for success.

Lehman’s optimistic outlook mirrors some ideas from physical therapist Gary Gray. He advocates that in working with clients we start where he or she is successful. That means we find a movement with which they’re comfortable. We start where it’s easy. Then we progress gradually toward more challenging or painful movements.

For instance, if someone can’t balance well on one foot, we allow him or her to hold on to something or use their other foot to help with balance while he or she performs a movement task. Or, if someone feels knee pain with a forward lunge, but has no knee pain in a lateral lunge, then we start with lateral lunging and gradually progress to the forward lunge. If we start with success then we build confidence. If we allow the nervous system to move without pain then we help calm fears about pain and we facilitate more pain-free movement.

Research: Positive self-talk works.

Movement optimism isn’t just for clinicians and trainers. Patients, clients, and athletes have the power to help themselves. Research on positive self-talk shows that it has a measurable positive effect on strength and endurance.

Greg Nuckols of Stronger by Science discusses the effects of positive self-talk on strength athletes in this edition of his newsletter, MASS. Scroll down to page 75 to read the details. Greg writes:

“Adding mental training to your current program will likely boost your strength gains and may even decrease markers of physiological stress. Positive self-talk and first-person kinesthetic mental imagery absolutely don’t replace slinging around heavy iron, obviously, but they can help you get larger gains from your training program.”

Positive self-talk also helps endurance athletes. Alex Hutchinson has discussed research on cyclists:

“Take 24 volunteers and have them do a cycling test to exhaustion; give half of them a two-week self-talk intervention; and then do another cycling test to exhaustion and see if they’ve improved relative to controls. In this case, the answer was yes: the self-talk group lasted 18% longer (637 to 750 seconds) while the control group stayed the same. The rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on a 10-point scale also climbed more slowly in the self-talk group; in other words, they were able to convince themselves that the exercise felt easier.”

Hutchinson also discusses the effect of smiling (yes smiling!) while running:

“A new study in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise from Noel Brick and his colleagues at Ulster University explores precisely this question. They had 24 runners complete a series of four six-minute runs and measured their running economy (an efficiency metric based on how much oxygen you consume at a given pace), as well as perceptual outcomes, like effort. During the runs, the volunteers were instructed to smile, frown, relax their hands and upper body (by imagining, for example, that they were carrying potato chips between their thumb and forefingers without breaking them), or just think their usual thoughts.

“The results more or less supported the benefits of smiling. Running economy was a little more than 2 percent better when smiling—an improvement that’s comparable to what you see in studies of weeks or months of plyometrics or heavy weight training.”

(A note to curmudgeons: Your act is tired and childish. It’s a cry for attention that helps no one. Enough with the nonsense! Try something new! Do something that works. Or don’t…)

The brain is central to everything I’ve discussed. Pain science tells us that we are less apt to hurt if we feel relaxed, confident, and safe. In contrast, we’re more likely to feel pain if we’re stressed, anxious, and fearful. Clinicians and coaches have a huge opportunity to help people if we communicate in a positive way. Patients, clients, and athletes have the same opportunity when they communicate with themselves.

 

 

Two Movement Questions

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1. Do you have the mobility to get into the position required by your activity? 

For example, if you’re a powerlifter, can you squat to the depth required for competition and maintain the posture required to keep the bar on your back?  Or, if you’re an Olympic lifter, can you drive the bar directly overhead during the jerk? If you’re deadlifting, cleaning, or snatching, can you get into the start position without excessive rounding of the spine? If you work in the garden can you kneel down to the ground and get back up without pain? If you swim or play tennis then can your shoulders move through the overhead position needed for a swim stroke or a tennis serve?

Why is this question important? If one joint doesn’t have enough mobility for your chosen movement, then you’re still going to perform the movement somehow. The poorly moving joint(s) will steal movement from your healthy joint(s). If that happens then it’s a set-up for pain and weakness as the victimized joints and tissues will be overstressed and your ability to move will be compromised. That ain’t good! If you can restore range of motion to those limited joints then you’ll feel better, move better, and you’ll be stronger.

2. Can you control the mobility that you have?

Can you control your knees at the bottom of the squat, or do your knees crash inward suddenly? During a lunge, can you step out and come back home in control, or do you lose balance during some portion of the movement? While bench pressing, dipping, or pressing, do your elbows stay in alignment or do they flare and wiggle around during some portion of the lift? During any lift, are you in control of the weight or is the weight controlling you?

I compare poor movement control (aka motor control) to a door hanging on loose hinges. The door can still open and close but the door bangs around, the hinges and the wall sustain damage, and eventually, the door falls off. Similarly, if you’re not controlling your limbs then your joints and connective tissue will take a beating and eventually you’re going to hurt.

Lack of control is often seen at the end-range of motion. (End-range is where you feel a big stretch.) If you follow the work of physical therapist Gary Gray, then you may know end-range as  the “transformation zone.” That’s where a limb stops and changes direction. For example, think of a weightlifter at the bottom of a squat before he/she drives back up. Or think of a baseball pitcher or a quarterback with his arm cocked back right before he brings the ball forward. Two dynamics are at play at end-range.

 

First, we don’t spend a lot of time at end-range of motion. End-range is where our nervous system has the least experience and thus the least ability to control our limbs. It’s sort of like being in an unfamiliar city and not knowing how to navigate.

Second, we have the fewest number of cross-bridges available for muscular contraction at end-range. Fewer cross-bridges means our muscles can’t generate as much force as they can at mid-range. That makes it more difficult to control end-range

Ask yourself these two questions as you workout and move through your day.

New Year’s Resolutions Part II: Motivation

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In Part I of the New Year’s Resolution series, I said that motivation is crucial for success. Let me say it another way: If you aren’t sufficiently motivated then you will fail at your resolution. I’m not being pessimistic. I’m being realistic. Here’s a discussion on motivation.

Extrinsic motivation

If you say, “I want to look better,” then why? Do you want to be more attractive to others? That means you need validation and a sense of approval. (Dare we say you’re looking for love?) Or maybe your workplace is having some sort of 10-week new year’s weight-loss competition. The winner gets a prize and adulation! These scenarios are examples of extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation may work well in the beginning. It may keep you working out and eating better for a few weeks but it won’t sustain you for the long haul. What happens when it’s February and you don’t look like a cover model? What happens on week 11 of the 10-week weight-loss challenge?

Unfortunately, extrinsic motivation often involves guilt and shame. If someone feels pressure to live up to a certain physique standard, then he or she may feel shame for not living up to that standard. External motivation may make someone feel obligated and burdened to exercise and eat right. Those who are exercising due to extrinsic factors may feel forced to exercise. It’s very difficult to feel positive and optimistic in this situation. No one should live that way.  You must find and cultivate intrinsic and/or identified motivation if you want to win at this thing.

Intrinsic & identified motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from inside you. With intrinsic motivation, there’s a strong emotional bond that connects you to your efforts. For example, many of us simply enjoy lifting weights, running, skiing, cycling, swimming, hiking, etc. It feels good and it’s fun. The activity is the reward. We like the way we feel when we eat right and get enough sleep. The energy and vigor we get from a healthy lifestyle keeps us coming back for more. If you can find a way to enjoy your efforts then you’ve found gold!

Identified motivation is similar to intrinsic motivation. I used this example in Part I of this article where I described a mother’s love and devotion to her child as a motivator to exercise and eat right. She doesn’t love exercise. She’s not motivated by the pure enjoyment of working out. She is absolutely certain though that exercise and healthy eating will not only give her health, energy, and longevity but will also set a good example for her child so he or she will grow strong and healthy too. The mother’s motivation is tied strongly to her values, so the hard work gets done even if the hard work isn’t fun. If your closely held values are linked to a healthy lifestyle, then you’ll  succeed at your resolution.

Motivation killers

  • The resolution is too aggressive. For example:
    • You don’t run but you decide the way to get in shape is to run a marathon. Running is a great way to get fit but perhaps aim for a 5k instead. (Most importantly, you should focus on the race training—the process—not just on the race. More on this later.)
    • You hate mornings and you don’t work out, but now you intend to wake up early every morning before work and go to the gym. How long will that last? Probably best to look to lunch or after work to visit the gym.
    • In order to lose weight you decide to completely eliminate  all your favorite foods (sugar, bread, pasta, booze for example). What happens when you transgress? The guilt monster will come for you! Might be a good idea to reduce some of these foods, not ban them all outright.
  • Unrealistic expectations: This is similar to a resolution being too aggressive. Fitness takes time, persistence, and patience. This is fact. If you expect quick miracles (dropping 20 lbs. in three weeks for example) then you will be disappointed. You will reach your goal and you will do yourself a massive favor if you focus on the process rather than the outcome. Put another way, you should focus on what you can do right now over what you don’t yet have. Trust me on this.
  • Trying to do too much: A wholesale overhaul of your lifestyle can be overwhelming, and that’s understandable. It’s absolutely fine to start with one thing. Maybe you’re ready to start exercising but not yet ready to change your diet, or vice versa. Maybe you’re ready to start walking but not yet ready to join a gym. You can and should take one step at a time.Taking on too much and failing will derail you. Succeeding at one small thing will keep you motivated.
  • No support system: If you’re surrounded with people who hate exercise, only want to go to happy hour, eat poison, and play video games then you’re going to have a tough time of it. Do you have friends, coworkers, and/or family members who are on board with your efforts? Enlist their help to hold you accountable and give you encouragement for your goals. Also, hiring a trainer (like me!) can be a valuable investment.
  • The wrong environment: As it relates to working out, if you don’t like the place then you won’t go. While gyms are simply buildings filled with workout equipment, they may be aimed at very different clientele. When looking at gyms, you should visit several. Get a feel for each place. Do you feel comfortable there? Does the staff seem friendly? Maybe you don’t need to be in a gym at all. Perhaps the outdoors, a pool, a dance studio, yoga studio or some other non-gym environment is best for you.
  • Comparing yourself to others: Someone will always be leaner, stronger, faster, wealthier, funnier—something-er than you. Looking for “fitspiration” from photoshopped Internet fitness celebrities is not a healthy endeavor. An article from the National Academy of Sports Medicine titled
    Social Media and Body Image: #Fitspiration at Its Worst says,

“Social media messages aren’t typically backed by science. And self-taught fitness gurus are not health professionals. Unfortunately, seemingly innocent messages can do unintended damage including bad mood and body dissatisfaction (Brown & Tiggemann 2016). You’ll find militaristic posts (“You can have results or excuses, not both.”) that grab attention but also breed inadequacy. A more compassionate post might read: “You can totally improve your health and fitness and occasionally make excuses not to work out every single day. That’s fine and normal” (Van Hare 2016).”

Find and feed your motivation

We’d love to believe that one word, one phrase, one picture of George S. Patton standing on top of a Sherman tank would light off a magic nuclear motivation bomb inside us. That’s what happens in the movies doesn’t it? What do you think? Don’t believe everything you see in movies. Motivation doesn’t always drop out of the sky like an angel. A successful resolution won’t be built on one uplifting saying that fits on a t-shirt or Facebook meme. If you’re not already intrinsically motivated to live a healthy lifestyle then understand that you will need to put in a little bit of work before the motivation engine gets going. Here’s a way to start.

Take a moment and write down your “whys.” Here are some questions you should think on:

  1. Why do you want to be in shape? Why is it important?
  2. Why now? Why didn’t you start this journey three months ago?
  3. What event has sparked your fitness resolution? A health scare? You saw yourself in the mirror or saw your weight on a scale? A friend or family member decided to get in shape and inspired you?
  4. If your answer is, “I want to look better,” then WHY???? Just looking better by itself isn’t enough.The real question is what/how do you want to feel? You’re looking to change the way you perceive yourself. Get under the hood and explore those feelings.
  5. Fast forward several months or a year. You’ve achieved your resolution. What does that look like? How do you feel as a result? Describe yourself and your feelings in detail.

Why would I suggest this exercise? Because it’s of paramount importance! You need to know this stuff. You need to feel it. To achieve your fantastic goal you need significant emotional buy-in. The reason(s) behind your resolution need to be clearly defined and crystalized in your mind. This project is going to take a lot of work. It’s not going to be easy. Don’t take it lightly.

(A note to your conscience: If you can’t find the time to write down your “whys” then it’s a clear indication that you’re not ready for this resolution. Truth.)

Next, I’ll discuss planing.

Two Good Articles: Endurance Athletes & Income, Olympic Lifts Are Overrated

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Two recent articles are of interest to me. Maybe they’re of interest to you too. Here they are.

Wealth & endurance sports

It’s easy to detect a difference between the strength sport world and the endurance world. You’ll find a lot more tattoos and speed metal among the lifters. I’ve yet to hear a Slayer song at the finish line of a trail race or bike century. I’m not sure why that is! I love both ends of the exercise spectrum. Why doesn’t everyone?I’m not sure it has any direct correlation to this article from Outside Magazine titled Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports? but I’m guessing there might be some tie-in. The article is from Brad Stulberg is one of the authors of the great book, Peak Performance.

Stulberg delves into data about endurance athletes. Not surprisingly, the cost of endurance sports prohibits a lot of people from participating. Bikes, race fees, travel costs, all sorts of equipment costs all factor in to whom can pursue endurance activity. What I found most interesting is the discussion around the question, “What is it about the voluntary suffering of endurance sports that attracts them?”

“This is a question sociologists are just beginning to unpack. One hypothesis is that endurance sports offer something that most modern-day knowledge economy jobs do not: the chance to pursue a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that ‘despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,’ most knowledge economy jobs suffer from ‘a lack of objective standards.’”

“Ask a white-collar professional what it means to do a good job at the office, and odds are they’ll need at least a few minutes to explain their answer, accounting for politics, the opinion of their boss, the mood of their client, the role of their team, and a variety of other external factors. Ask someone what it means to do a good job at their next race, however, and the answer becomes much simpler.

“’The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,’ writes Crawford, who in 2001 quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. ‘It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He simply points: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.’”

I would like to know about strength athletes such as powerlifters, Olympic lifters, bodybuilders, and strongmen. What do we see there as it pertains to education, income, and vocation? Certainly lifting very heavy things, seeing the weight go up (or not), observing the muscles grow provides similar objective feedback that endurance sports offer. Do rich people also lift heavy?

My feeling informed by my casual observation is that the strength sports have more blue-collar participants. If so, wouldn’t the cost of participation be the main difference? A gym membership is a lot more affordable than bikes, multiple pairs of expensive running shoes, race fees, travel fees, wheels, tires, high-tech gear, etc. I’d like to know more.

Olympic lifts are overrated

I think many coaches and trainers put certain tools or methods ahead of the needs of their clients. We become wedded to the idea that one tool or strategy is the be-all-end-all best way to make someone stronger, faster, etc. We become convinced (often due to very effective marketing by gurus) that something like the stability ball, the BOSU, the barbell, the kettlebell, or the Olympic lifts are the ultimate thing for everyone, when in fact they should simply be considered tools that may be right for some jobs and wrong for others. (I plead guilty to having sacrificed my objectivity to certain tools and methodologies. I’m trying to get better.)

Olympic lifting has gained in popularity in recent years. They can be a lot of fun. I feel they can help develop coordination and general athleticism. That said, Olympic lifts probably aren’t ideal for most athletes, so it’s good to see an experienced, well-regarded coach and Olympic lifter like Charles Staley give an objective analysis of Olympic lifting.

The Olympic Lifts are Overrated discusses three reasons they’re not the best way for all people to improve their bodies and their abilities. Briefly:

  1. The Olympic lifts are too technically demanding.
  2. The Olympic lifts are overrated for developing strength or size.
  3. The Olympic lifts are highly overrated for developing athletic power.

Read the article to learn more.

 

Try Harder? No. Relax.

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“If you want to get a little zen about it, you could say that the non-doing is just as important as the doing.”

-Todd Hargrove

I appreciate and enjoy professional instruction. Coach Mary-Katherine Flemming has been a huge help to me as a runner. She’s helped me bring up my weaknesses and train smarter. I also try and take at least one ski lesson every year. Mountain biking is much safer and a lot more fun since I’ve gone through several skills clinics with Lee Likes Bikes.

I recently started working with my fellow personal trainer and boxing coach Zane Beck. He’s teaching me how to throw punches the right way. I’ve met with him twice and I’ve had a amazingly challenging workouts in just 30 minutes. We’ve broken down the mechanics of punching and it’s been fascinating.

During our last session, I could feel myself tensing up on some punches, particularly the right hook and right upper cut. Those are awkward punches so I tried harder to throw them. Trying harder was a mistake. I was too tense. Zane could see it and feel it. So I slowed down and stopped rushing. I worked to throw good punches one at a time and I worked to relax. The effort to relax led to a brief conversation similar to conversations I’ve had with my clients.

“I worked to relax…” That’s an odd concept, no? Relaxing should be easy, right? If my arms are overhead then I relax them and they drop to my side. Simple. By sitting down my legs relax. Also simple. Seems like relaxation shouldn’t even require any thought. Sometimes though, relaxation is remarkably hard to come by though, especially in athletic endeavors.

I often see clients try hard and harder to perform certain exercises, especially new exercises. For example, kettlebell swings and cleans are often performed with overly tense hands, straining arms, tight necks, and an overall rigid body. Clients try to muscle the kettlebell into the air rather than using the stretch reflex of the muscles to do most of the work. Similarly, I have a client who often defaults to rigid high tension on medicine ball throws. He braces his whole body like it’s about to be hit by a truck. The result in all these cases is poor performance, poor exercise technique, and excessive fatigue. The same teeth-gritting, wasteful strategy might be employed by someone swinging a golf club, swimming laps, or sprinting.

Thus, I work with my clients to bring awareness to their unproductive tension and help them turn it down. Relaxation can take a surprising amount of work. Bearing down harder is the exact wrong way to get better. While many if not most exercises should be performed explosively, one shouldn’t rush too much.Impatience is rarely a virtue in any circumstance. Athletic movements require the right amount of tension, not necessarily more tension.

Steve Magness is a big-time running coach, writer, lecturer, and running expert. (His recent book, Peak Performance is superb. If you want to perform better in life, not just in athletics, then you should definitely get a copy.) He captures the importance of relaxation in this recent Facebook post:

Another excellent discussion of relaxation comes from movement expert and author Todd Hargrove. He wrote The Skill of Relaxation in 2008. It includes these important points:

“Most people trying to improve their movement ability for sports will therefore spend time lifting weights to train their ability to quickly and forcefully contract their muscles.

“That is a fine idea, but it sometimes ignores the equally important flip side of the coordination coin. If coordination means all the right muscles firing at the right time, this also means that any muscles not involved in the movement must relax in the right places at the right speed at the right time. Therefore, any act of coordination requires the skill of relaxing the muscles that aren’t essential to the movement. If the non-essential muscles aren’t relaxed, they will cause extraneous movement or tension that interferes in the desired movement and wastes energy.”

Pain vs. Discomfort

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Everyone and anyone who’s been in a gym has heard the phrase “No pain, no gain.” What does that phrase really mean? Do we want our clients exercising in pain? What should effective exercise feel like?

In my experience, clients often interpret “No pain, no gain,” as “Pain is inevitable and it should be ignored.” I believe that for the good of our clients’ health, trainers should examine this misunderstood statement with their clients. This is a vital conversation, especially with clients who are new to training.

Pain & discomfort defined

I don’t recall if it was in a seminar or an article, but someone smarter than I once discussed pain vs discomfort. I’ve stolen the idea and used it ever since. (If you made this description and you’re reading this then thank you! It’s been highly valuable to me and my clients.)

My clients should understand that in order for exercise to do the things we want it to do — if we want to create favorable adaptations to exercise — then a client must exercise to the point of exertion and fatigue. The client must work hard. He or she might sweat, grunt, groan, and work to the point of fatigue and discomfort. A description of the D-word:

Discomfort:

  • Often a burning in a working muscle or muscles.
  • Comes with a feeling of fatigue.
  • Doesn’t alter the way you move (compared to a limp, for instance)
  • Is usually symmetrical if for instance you’re squatting, swinging a kettlebell, doing pushups, running or cycling.

Discomfort is a sign that we’re working near your accustomed limits. That’s a good thing, and that’s how you get in better shape.

I also tell my clients about pain. We don’t want pain. (Some minor, intermittent pain may be OK. More on that in a moment.) Some characteristics of the P-word

Pain:

  • Often felt in a joint, not a muscle
  • Sharp or electric
  • May not accompany fatigue
  • Severe pain alters your movement: Knee pain causing a limp or low-back pain altering how you bend down and pick up something
  • It’s often asymmetrical: Knee pain in one knee when squatting, shoulder pain in one shoulder during pushups or bench press, low-back pain on one side of the low back

If a client feels pain then we stop and we evaluate. Persistent, serious pain should not be a part of our day-in-day-out experience at the gym. Pain is not something to be ignored or masked with pain pills. Pain is a signal from the brain that something isn’t operating as well as it should be.

Color-coded pain

In another case of I-forgot-where-I-read-it disease, I read about a physical therapist’s color-coded, traffic-light guide to pain. I’ve adopted it and it helps guide me as to when to when or if I need to alter an exercise for a client due to pain. It goes like this:

GREEN: Everything feels fine; no discomfort anywhere. Client is ready to rock ‘n’ roll!

YELLOW: Minor, sporadic, or short-lived pain during the exercise but it’s not bad enough to stop or alter the movement pattern. We keep going as long as it doesn’t get worse.

RED: It hurts. We stop.

If pain becomes more intense, and/or more frequent, and/or lasts for more than a week then it’s probably time to seek medical care of some sort. Trainers should have a physical therapist, chiropractor, or some other licensed medical professional to whom he or she can refer clients.

I like this code system in that it’s rare that everyone is going to feel 100% perfect all the time. It’s not uncommon for us to feel something that is less than optimal but not so bad that we need to stop entirely. With the yellow reading, we can keep going through some minor pain, and we can avoid catastrophising around pain. If a client can experience a little bit of pain yet continue working then I think we can build resiliency in the client and protect against what’s known as fear-avoidance of certain movements. If we get to red then we can always stop and change things.

The fear-avoidance model. You don't want to be caught up in it.

Fear-Avoidance Model. Avoid it.

 

Unfamiliarity: Is it pain or discomfort?

Exercise newcomers may have no idea what it feels like to work hard. Their experience with muscular discomfort may be sporadic and in the distant past. Unfortunately, many people experience all uncomfortable feelings the same whether it’s joint pain or the normal sensation of hard work. They are different and our clients should learn the difference.

A classic example is low-back pain/discomfort. The epidemic of low-back pain is a unique pain in our culture. It is widespread and debilitating for many thousands of people. For those who suffer low-back pain there can be tremendous fear of recurrence. At the same time, exercise is an effective antidote for many forms of pain in older people, and for chronic (but not acute) back pain.

Numerous muscles attach in and around the low back. The glutes, erector spinae, lats, obliques, and other spinal muscles live and work all around the low-back area. Just like any other muscle, if you work these muscles hard then you’ll feel it. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and bent over rowing can cause serious — and totally normal — discomfort in the low back. Yet for many clients, any sense of low-back discomfort can be bad and scary. Thus it’s very helpful and reassuring to a client if a trainer can discuss the issue of pain vs. discomfort.

The spirit of “No pain, no gain”

The knowledge behind that phrase is well-informed and comes with good intentions. Plus, it rhymes! It sounds good. But clearly it can be misunderstood. (If I ruled the world, I’d change the phrase to “No discomfort, no pain.”) The truth is, no one will increase his or her physical capacity by sitting comfortably. Anyone who wants to get in better shape must work hard. At the same time, pain, as I described above, isn’t a normal part of working out. Pay attention to it. Get help if it doesn’t go away.

The Best Know How to Rest

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Our popular culture is filled with admonitions to “Just Do It” and “Push your limits.” We hear aggressively pompous questions like “What’s your excuse?” aimed at people who don’t adhere to some sort of arbitrary exercise pattern. A lot of this is good marketing but it’s not reflective of the reality behind truly great sports performance, career longevity, creativity, and good health. We don’t hear much about the massive importance of rest.

I’m very happy to see a discussion of rest in Sports IllustratedHow extended breaks in training help elite athletes—and why you should take them too is an excerpt from a book titled Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. They offer the example of 42-year-old Bernard Legat the multiple Olympic medalist and world champion runner:

But here’s the thing: If we never take “easy” periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the “hard” periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. This vicious cycle is often referred to by a much less vicious name—“going through the motions”—but it’s a huge problem nonetheless. That’s because few people grow when they are going through the motions. In order to give it our all, and do so over a long time horizon without burning out, we’ve got to be more like Bernard Lagat: Every now and then, we’ve got to take it really easy. In addition to his year-end break, Lagat also takes an off-day at the end of every hard training week. On his off-days, Lagat doesn’t even think about running. Instead, he engages only in activities that relax and restore both his body and mind such as massage, light stretching, watching his favorite TV shows, drinking wine, and playing with his kids.

Every hard-exercising, hard-working person should read this and take this advice to heart. This doesn’t just pertain to high-end elite athletes. In fact, the article does a very good job discussing how the need for regular and at times extended rest periods applies to everyone in any field of work. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

Smart Coaches Use Coaches

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When it comes to lifting weights and being athletic, I think most men feel like we can do it on our own.

“My high school coach taught me how to lift. I don’t need help.”

(In looking back at what my coaches taught me about lifting… My god… They knew little to none about the subject. And when I look around the gym and see men “lifting,” I think they must’ve had the same quality of coaching I had.)

If we ask for help then we run the risk of looking weak. The ego won’t allow it! Meanwhile, all pro athletes use coaches. If it’s good enough for them then just maybe it’s good enough for you and me.

Hell, I’m a certified trainer and a running coach. Shouldn’t I be able to do it all myself? Apparently not.

Two concepts come to mind:

  1. The more I learn, the less I know. (I think that should be modified a little to “The more I learn, the less certain I am.) And,
  2. Much like the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, the athlete who does his own coaching might have a pretty dumb athlete on his hands.

There’s also this:

Regarding my knowledge:

  • There are things I know,
  • Things I don’t know,
  • Things I know I don’t know,
  • Things I don’t know that I don’t know, AND…
  • Things I think I know but about which I’m wrong!

If you total all that up, then you see that the chances of my being in possession of knowledge is very slim! I have lots of room to screw up. Hence a coach.

I could’ve continued to bumble forward on my own, trying and probably failing to cook up a great running plan. Maybe I could’ve cobbled together a very good performance but I doubt it. More likely I would’ve wasted a bunch of time trying to coach myself. Fortunately, I received wisdom from who-knows-where and I enlisted help.

I hired a running coach and I am very happy with the decision. Her name is Mary-Katherine (MK) Flemming and she’s helping me run smarter, not just harder.

Every time I talk with MK I say to myself, “I didn’t know that!” or “I hadn’t thought about that.” So that’s very good. I feel like MK is coaching me based on sound principles and a throughly thought-out plan. That’s better than me guessing and hoping I’m doing things the right way. It also saves me time to do other things I’d rather do, like write this blog post.

Further, we all like to do what we like to do. None of us are very proficient at doing what we don’t want to do. For example, I want to lift more. It’s easy for me to convince myself that I feel okay, that I’m not too fatigued and that “just a little lifting” will be fine. But my version of “just a little” turns into quite a bit. The cost of lifting more while running is that my muscles ache more, I’m fatigued more often, and my nervous system will fry. Overtraining looms…

(I thought I might be able to simultaneously get stronger in the weight room and become a better runner. I’m not sure how feasible that is. Waaahh…)

MK provides accountability. So important! She treats me like an adult and tells me I can lift if I want to and there will be consequences. My running workouts will suffer and I won’t get the most out of my investment. I hate hearing that!… But it’s true and she’s right.

In short, the benefits and the value of having a coach:

  • She’s an running expert and specialist.  I benefit from her knowledge.
  • I don’t have to struggle and agonize over a plan.
  • My plan is individualized.
  • She’s provides objective eyes and accountability. That is, she tells me what I need to know, not just what I want to hear.

Do you think you know it all? You don’t. If you’re serious about your athletic performance and you’re a fitness expert/coach/trainer/whatever, you would do very well to enlist the services of a coach. Get an expert to help.

Sometimes It’s Simple

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I’ve taken lots of courses, read lots of books and articles, listened to podcasts, and attended seminars dedicated to helping my clients move better and get out of pain. I’ve spent time and money learning about so-called corrective exercises. I’ve learned that rarely is the site of pain the site of the problem. I recognize that the body is a highly interconnected system of systems and that what happens at one end can have powerful effects way out at the other end. I’ve tried to absorb and apply all sorts of complex information and sometimes, my brain gets in the way and I overlook simple solutions.

Patty is one of my senior clients. We’ve worked together for several years. She has intermittent knee pain on both, but mostly her left knee. It’s not terrible but it bothers her after tennis games and often while climbing and descending stairs.

It’s important to recognize that the knee is caught between the hip and the ankle. Rarely is it the fault of the knee that’s causing the knee pain. (An obvious exception would be an acute injury like a ligament sprain or some sort of impact to the knee.)

I’ve had her do all sorts of exercises and mobility drills for her hips. We’ve done glute drills in all three planes of motion. We’ve done all sorts of lunges in all sorts of directions. We’ve done a bunch of ankle and foot mobility work too. In the past, I spent way too much time giving her a bunch of instructions to squeeze the glutes when she walks and to try and make her leg do this or that as she moves. (These are examples of intrinsic cues. They’re usually not the best cues.)

Sometimes her knee(s) feel better but for the past several weeks she’s reported fairly consistent knee pain, particularly on stairs. This was frustrating to me in that last week we did a variety of drills and exercises such that she was able to take the stairs without pain. I was hopeful though. If we could eliminate her pain last week then we could do it again.

We went to the stairs. I planned to review a couple of things we did the prior week. My mind filled with cornucopia of lunges, stepping drills, and ankle mobility exercises. How would I tweak the exercises? How would I load them? There were many options. My brain started to overheat as I tried to contemplate them all.

Then I paused and thought, “What’s the simplest possible way to find success?”

Coach her to walk the stairs differently. No drills, no exercises, nothing special. I would give her a minimum of instructions on how to walk the stairs in a different way than when she arrived.

There were two tactics from last week I wanted to try. If those didn’t work then we could move to all the wacky, exotic stuff. The two main instructions were these:

  1. Ascending: Lean forward a little. By leaning forward I expected the glutes to work more than if she stood fully upright. It didn’t need to be a big lean forward, just somewhat of a lean. Don’t think about the glutes either. Jus lean forward.
  2. Descending: Let the heel of the rear foot stay flat longer. That way the ankle would dorsiflex more thus taking some of the load from the knee. Also, try and descend softly. Try not to slam and clunk down to the next step. My hope was that this would prompt a controlled descent as opposed to a sort of lurching slam into the step.

(I’ve seen this ankle/knee relationship several times in the past. A few of my clients have presented with knee pain and limited ankle dorsiflexion. The knee pain diminished or vanished once dorsiflexion was restored and then used during gait.)

Both strategies worked immediately! How cool! For the next 5-10 minutes I had her practice the new stair walking strategies. The only time the knee pain popped up was when she let the heel rise too early during the descent.

I didn’t tell her anything about her glutes or her knee or any other muscles or joints. Just, “lean forward,” and “keep your heel down longer.” I need to remember that sometimes giving simple cues can do world of good. I don’t always need to go through a rigamarole of creative exercises to help someone move and feel better.