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.”

Feet & Toes Should Be Strong and Able

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When was the last time you walked into the gym and said, “Okay, it’s foot day! Let’s get to work?”

Most of us aren’t too excited about building strong, healthy feet, probably not until we encounter pain. But why not? After all, it’s only every single step that we need those lower appendages to work well. Unless you don’t have feet, unless you walk on your hands, or maybe unless you live on a planet without gravity, then there’s no question you need a pair of mobile, stable, well-functioning feet.

And if we encounter foot trouble then we want to put in an orthotic, buy shoes with arch support, or do something other than make the feet stronger. Why is it that we don’t think to treat the feet like the rest of the body? Why don’t we see the need to work the feet like all the other muscles and body parts we have? I suggest that rather than resort to external aids we should work the feet in a wide variety of ways.  Here are a few ways to do just that.

I don’t promise that any of these exercises will fix a specific injury. If anything hurts then back off. See a physical therapist, chiropractor, or podiatrist for a full diagnosis and treatment strategy.

Big toe adduction/abduction

There’s no fancy name for this exercise. You can experiment with all sorts of bands. Please notice that I do this exercise under control. I’m controlling the exercise, the band isn’t controlling me. Allow the big toe to come in far enough that you feel a stretch.

Toe differentiation (aka yoga toe)

Can you do this? You should be able to. It may seem 100% impossible when you first try it. Keep working on it. Most people can figure it out in a day. Takes work and concentration. Take notice of my arch and inner ankle. Notice that the arch doesn’t drop, and my ankle doesn’t dive in as I move my big toe.

Toe grabs on a box

Sounds like one of Vincent van Gogh’s very obscure works. It’s not. I just don’t have a better name for it. It works well though. I learned it from Denver chiropractor extraordinaire Dr. Nick Studholme. You can do this on the top of a flight of steps or over a book.

Funny walks

This is a quick, easy way to engage, stimulate, and strengthen all of the muscles of the lower legs and feet. Try it and see how you feel.

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.

Achilles Pain. Time to Take Action!

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I’ve had periodic issues with my left Achilles tendon. I’ve never had trouble with my right Achilles until just lately. I felt a bit of soreness one morning and found some swelling. I knew it probably wouldn’t “work itself out” (I sort of hate when someone says that about something. Nothing “works itself out.” Someone has to put in work in order to see progress.) The upside to having had this problem before is that I know how to address it now.

I believe my trouble may have started because of the long trail run/hike I did a couple of weekends ago in Telluride. It was about 12 miles which was a sizable jump from my prior long run of 7 miles. (Sometimes I’m not smart.)

I have attacked the injury with a fairly conventional strategy of slow and controlled heel raises. Here’s what it looks like:

I’m doing these exercises frequently throughout the day. If I can hit 15 reps then I add weight. Fifteen reps isn’t a magic number by the way. Most importantly I work to a high level of exertion, pretty much to failure.

I’ve run several times since feeling pain and doing the calf raises and I feel fine. That’s a good sign. I probably don’t need to take time off from running.

This exercise is boring and I hate doing it. (Sounds like what a lot of people say about going to the gym.) I have shown a propensity for weakness in my Achilles tendons in the past though. This is exactly the type of thing I need to do and I should be doing continually. It’s easy to skip this stuff because I don’t enjoy it. My body doesn’t  though even though there are potential negative consequences to this course of non-action.

There are lots of things in life like that.

Hiking the Maroon Bells – A Training Plan

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My wife, our friend, and I recently completed a big hike, known as the Four-Pass Loop in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness. That part of Colorado is a truly world-class mountain wilderness. Mention “Colorado,” and most people will conjure images of this place in their minds. The scenery is as dramatically breathtaking as as anywhere on this planet. We were surrounded by massive 14,000 ft. peaks, high alpine forest, natural mountain lakes, and waterfalls. It’s difficult to describe how spectacular this trip was. I highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for outdoor adventure. Just be prepared. This trek was not a casual, easy jaunt.

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Crater Lake and the Maroon Bells looming behind.

The hike covered about 28 miles (Mileage varies depending on where you enter the loop.) and crossed four high-mountains passes each one above 12,000 feet. We took 2 nights and about 2.5 days of travel to get the job done.

Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake.  Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.

Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake. Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.

We carried about 30 lbs. of gear and food on our backs. The pack weight plus the elevation and the frequently very technical rocky, rooty terrain made this trip especially challenging. I’m happy to say that while it was by no means an easy task, I felt good, strong and entirely up to the event. I was pleased with my conditioning for the trip. Here are some notes our my preparation.

Specific hike training: Hike!

As I’ve said before in this blog, the best way to prepare for a specific event is to do the event. In this case, we planned to hike anywhere from 6-10 miles per day, over high mountain terrain, with heavy packs. Thus our training consisted of several long hikes with loaded packs. In addition to weekend hikes, we spent several weeks wearing our packs during daily walks with our dog. The idea being that we needed all the time we could get wearing loaded packs. We might’ve looked odd walking the streets in big backpacks, but oh well. Let that be someone else’s concern.

To be clear and emphatic: The best training for hiking, is hiking.

This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.

This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.

 

I’ve been running and cycling for most of the year. I believe both activities have helped provide me with the type of cardiovascular ability to sustain multi-hour hiking at high altitude.

Going back to the idea of specificity, trail running is a close relative of hiking and is a clear choice of exercise for hike preparation. Trail running seems especially effective at preparing not only my heart and lungs but also my feet and ankles for the demands of extending hiking. Walking and running over uneven ground requires the feet and ankles to move through a galaxy of angles and it’s a great way to fortify those lowly and under-appreciated appendages.

The muscles of hiking and weight training

Marching uphill is especially demanding of hip extension and the requisite muscles, particularly the glutes and hamstrings. In contrast, hiking downhill requires strength and endurance of the quads and control of the pelvis by way of the hip abductors. Lost balance and a nasty fall may be the price for poor pelvic control.

With these ideas in mind, I’ve spent much of the spring and summer doing exercises such as lunges, split-squats and step-ups. Those exercises seem very effective for addressing the demands of hiking.

I particularly like what I call offset lunges, split-squats and step-ups. These are done by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell on one side of the body, thus creating an asymetrical, offsetting effect which presents different demands than a typical squat or deadlift.

If we look at real life—particularly hiking—it’s rare that we’re balanced evenly on two legs while working against a load that’s distributed in a symmetrical way on us or against us. So I believe that exercises in which one leg is doing more/different work than the other while the forces of gravity are applied in asymmetric ways are very valuable. (Not that more conventional, symmetrical exercises aren’t of value.) Here are some of those exercises:

I also started deadlifting several weeks prior to the hike.  Even with a properly fitted pack, there is a lot of weight and work going through the back and hips. I knew I’d be putting on and taking off a heavy pack and I thought a deadlift would help prepare for that task.

Upon review, I believe a back squat or a good-morning might be superior to the deadlift in that each of those exercises put weight on the back, thus resembling a loaded pack on the back. (See, symmetrical exercises are good too!)

The future

I’m contemplating running the 4 Pass Loop. Others do it (Read some accounts herehere, here, among others.) and though it’ll be a fairly massive bite to take, I think it’s in the realm of possibility for me. I was very happy with the speed with which I was able to move during the hike. I’m thinking of what it would be like with a lot less gear, lighter shoes, etc. I think it’s feasible. So I ordered my first running vest and I’m contemplating what I’ll need to pack into it. The big run might happen next year…

 

Thoughts on 3D MAPS Part II: What is “Functional” Training?

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If you’re a fitness or injury rehab professional then you probably recognize the name Gary Gray. His name is often associated with the concept of “functional” training.

In short, Gray realized early in his career that the body works in a very different way from the way he was taught. He saw that the body was far less a collection of individual pieces and is actually tremendously interconnected. What happens at one joint and one area of the body has an effect throughout the rest of the body.  He recognized that muscles typically move eccentrically (lengthen) before they move concentrically (shorten). He saw that all of our movement is affected by gravity, mass and momentum. He realized that most of the time we need to be strong and mobile while standing up as opposed to sitting on something like a weight-stack machine. He also noticed that we do a lot of work on one foot as we walk, step, and run.

(I learned a traditional model of anatomy and movement and I agree very much with Gray that real-life movement and muscle function happen very differently from what’s taught in lots of text books.)

The concept of functional training has spawned endless discussion. Ask 10 different trainers or coaches what functional training is and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Some associate functional training with doing everything on a BOSU, stability ball or only on one leg. I think it’s a little more complicated. In the end, isn’t all training supposed to be functional? When would we seek out non-functional or dysfunctional training?

These are the characteristics of functional training as I see them:

These runners are primarily moving forward but rotation and side-to-side movement is clearly visible.

These runners are primarily moving forward but rotation and side-to-side movement is clearly visible.

3D/tri-plane mobility and stability

We move in three planes. We move in the saggital plane or front to back, the frontal plane or side-to-side, and the transverse plane or left/right rotation. Not only do we move in those planes but we must be able to stabilize our bodies as forces act on us in these three planes. Certain movements, sports or activities may demand more from us in one of these planes and less in another. For instance cycling is very saggital plane dominant. There’s very little transverse or frontal plane movement when we ride a bike. In contrast, tennis puts features a lot of work in all three planes. Functional training recognizes these needs and trains them accordingly.

Joints and limbs are integrated during movement. 

If we look at the body during typical real-life movement we see all the joints and limbs move together in an integrated fashion. Walking, stepping out of a car, picking up an object from the ground, throwing a ball, kicking a ball and standing up from a chair utilize all the joints limbs and muscles to accomplish the task. Gray calls these types of movements “authentic.” Functional training recognizes and favors this integrated movement process over isolated or “inauthentic” movement.

Joints and limbs are rarely if ever isolated.

Our bodies are integrated systems. In real life, we rarely move just one joint. We should train accordingly.

Our bodies are integrated systems. In real life, we rarely move just one joint. We should train accordingly.

In contrast to the integrated movement concept, we have exercises that isolate the limbs and joints. Many gym exercises (particularly machine-based exercises) are of an isolated nature. These exercises rarely have any similarity to typical human movement. In a leg extension for example, the user typically sits down with his or her feet off the ground and then flexes and extends the knee in isolation to perform the exercise.  No other muscles or joints are moved during this exercise. Now, I ask you, when was the last time you needed strong quads–but not glutes, hamstrings and other leg and trunk muscles–while seated and your feet not touching the floor? This just doesn’t happen outside of a gym.

Muscles work eccentrically before they work concentrically.

This means muscles lengthen before they shorten. For instance, if we prepare to jump into the air then must perform a partial squat before we leave the ground. When this happens we get a lengthening of the quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, calves; and if we swing the arms back then we lengthen the front deltoids, the biceps and various other muscles. These muscles then rapidly shorten in the opposite direction as we jump. Similarly in the overhead throw, the thrower draws back the ball and lengthens the abs, triceps, pecs, lats, hip flexors and others before launching the ball.

Iggy Pop is showing us  both eccentric muscle lengthening (the whole front of his body) AND amazing end-range control.  TOM COPI / MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES / GETTY

Iggy Pop is showing us both eccentric muscle lengthening (the whole front of his body) AND amazing end-range control.

This lengthen/contraction cycle (Gray often calls it “load to explode”) happens constantly throughout the day during nearly all activities. Most often it happens as our bodies manage gravitational forces as we interact with the ground. This eccentric-first model is functional in terms of typical human movement. It stands in contrast to a lot of anatomy and physiology teaching which emphasizes the concentric contraction only.

End-range control

The end-range of motion is somewhere near the furthest edge of where we can move. Once we get there we often reverse our movement and go back in the direction where we started. (Gary Gray calls this the “transformation zone.”)

This end-range is where a lot of injuries occur. We’re vulnerable at the end-range but clearly we go there sometimes even if we’re not athletes. If we have the flexibility to get there but we lack control and strength in that range then we may be in trouble. Functional training creates conditions where we go to the end range under control and learn to work there. For a lot more on end-range matters, check out Todd Hargrove’s article.

The lunge stance by the fencer on the right is a good example of an end-range of movement requirement. (Photo by Hannah Johnston/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 148073293

The lunge stance by the fencer on the right is a good example of an end-range of movement requirement. (Photo by Hannah Johnston/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 148073293

Most exercises are done standing.

Typically we need to be strong and/or powerful when we’re standing on one or two feet. It’s rare that we need to exert much muscular force when we’re sitting or lying down. For this reason, most functional training is done standing.

We typically need strength when we're standing, not when we're sitting or lying down.

We typically need strength when we’re standing, not when we’re sitting or lying down.

Perhaps more specifically, functional training is often conducted with the body in the position of the required task. Life and athletic competition may require us to get into any number of positions and postures.

Though most functional training is done while standing, I think there’s a lot of use in doing things on the ground in quadriped, on our side, and lying on our back or stomach. For that matter, just going from the ground to standing up may be very functional for a lot of people.

Externally directed vs. internally directed

I’ve discussed external cueing vs internal cueing as it pertains to coaching movement. External cueing directs the athlete to affect his or her environment. Internal cueing directs the focus internally into the body. An external cue might be “Step toward the target,” “Reach to the ceiling,” “Reach right/left,” “Reach down,” “Push,” and “Pull,” are examples of externally directed or task-oriented directions. Internal cues include “Squeeze the muscle,” “Contract the quads,” “Abduct the arm,” “Extend the leg,” “Tighten the abs,” are examples of internal cues. Functional training favors external cues (task-oriented) over internal cues, (Though I’ve found internal cues to be essential at times.) When using external cues we seem to get a full-body reaction and we can see as Gray terms it “authentic” movement. In other words we can observe how the person chooses to move and how their nervous system organizes the movement. With external cues we can see a client/patient react rather than perform for us.

(For more on internal/external cueing, this article from Bret Contreras may interest you.)

Energy-system specific

Thus far the functional training criteria I’ve listed has pertained only to movement. But if we really want to be comprehensive in our functional conditioning then we need to include a focus on the energy system(s) to be used during something like an athletic activity.

Let’s take distance running for example. It’s mainly a single-leg activity so we might want to perform one-leg squats of some sort and/or one-leg hops and jumps. So we have our exercises. With regard to the energy system, it’s the aerobic system that primarily drives distance running. With that in mind we probably want to perform the exercises while that system is up and running full-bore. That might mean doing very high reps (2 minutes or more) of our exercises. We could also run for a while, do one or more of our exercises, run more, do exercises and repeat for some duration. Or we could do several exercises in a row such that it takes several minutes to complete a circuit.

(I give further ideas for energy system conditioning for skiing here.)

Did I miss anything?

There are my thoughts and observations on what constitutes functional training. What do you think? Can you add anything else?

Thoughts on 3D MAPS & Functional Training: Part I

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I recently attended a course called 3D MAPS. The course was presented by Dr. David Tiberio and it was offered through Gary Gray’s Gray Institute. I enjoyed the course and learned a lot. I’m now applying the concepts I learned in both my own training and in my clients’ programs. Here’s a rundown.

Overview

What is 3D MAPS all about? The Gray Institute describes it as such:

  • 3D – The human body moves three-dimensionally. All proprioceptors respond, all muscles react, and all joints move three-dimensionally. It only makes sense to analyze and progress the body three-dimensionally. 3DMAPS facilitates functional assessment and much, much more!
  • Movement – 3DMAPS leverages movements – lunges, reaches, squats – that are paramount to common, everyday movements and activities. These movements are authentic to the individual and relevant to what the individual does. While other screens, scans, analyses, claim to be functional, 3DMAPS actually is.
  • Analysis – 3DMAPS analyzes the entire body’s mobility (flexibility, range of motion) and stability (strength, control of motion) and then identifies a Relative Success Code specific to individual – based on symmetries, asymmetries, and disabling pain within the movements.
  • Performance – 3DMAPS enhances the function of the individual and progresses systematically and scientifically for optimal function and improvement.
  • System – Performance Movements parallel Analysis Movements, thus creating a seamless and intuitive process for both the practitioner and the patient / client.

As I see it, 3D MAPS is a movement analysis method that asks the client or patient to move through a wide range of motion in all three planes. As the client moves, the trainer continually asks “Is he/she showing adequate mobility?” and “Is he/she showing adequate stability?”

3D MAPS uses six lunges in three planes of motion to check mobility. In the saggital plane we have anterior/posterior lunges. In the frontal plane we have same-side lateral and opposite-side lateral. In the transverse plane we have same-side rotational and opposite-side rotational.

Six variations on one-legged squats are used to check stability. The same planes of motion are used as the lunges but instead of taking a full lunge step the client balances on one leg while reaching the other leg in the various different directions described above. These single-leg movements can be quite challenging and putting the foot down is allowed if needed.

In addition to the lunges and one-legged squats, clients swing their arms in the same three planes of motion as the lunges and squats.

3D MAPS movement patterns used to evaluate mobility and stability: anterior lunge, posterior lunge, opposite side lateral lunge, same side lateral lunge, opposite side rotational lunge, same side rotational lunge.

3D MAPS movement patterns used to evaluate mobility and stability: anterior lunge, posterior lunge, opposite side lateral lunge, same side lateral lunge, opposite side rotational lunge, same side rotational lunge. The lunge images are in black. The 1-leg squats are red.

Above are the basic movement patterns used in 3D MAPS. Trainers can “tweak” (in Gary Gray speak) in our out a wide variety of movement variables to make the movements more or less challenging. For instance, clients may lunge or one-leg squat without the arm swings or they may swing the arms without the lunges and one-leg squats. Lunges and one-leg squats may move in different planes from the arm swings.

The ground reaction force of the lunge may prove too challenging for some clients. A trainer can then simply ask the client to get in the lunge position and oscillate into and out of the lunge position.

The one-leg squat variations are designed to challenge the client’s balance and stability skills. They may be too challenging especially when the arm swings are used. Therefore a trainer may allow the free foot to tap down, tweak out the arms, keep the head steady (as opposed to moving with the trunk) or allow the client to hold lightly on to something for a little more stability. The idea here is to find the limits of someone’s stability but not to totally push them over the edge of his or her ability.

As we observe the client move we take note of the right/left symmetry of the client’s mobility, stability, and whether or not there’s pain present during the process. We note their successes and deficits as part of something called the Relative Success Code. This is a way of ranking their abilities from most to least successful and it helps determine our training or treatment process.

Strengths

Based on real-life

I feel the 3D MAPS process lives up to its “functional” billing. That is, it allows us to observe movements that are specific to many real-life situations. 3D MAPS speaks to the SAID Principle which says our bodies adapt specifically to the demands imposed on us. Real-life demands us to move in three dimensions, react to gravity and that our joints, limbs and muscles all work together to accomplish various tasks. We tend to stand on one or two legs while doing these tasks. For all these reasons I feel like 3D MAPS is superior to something like the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), sit-and-reach tests, 3-minute step test, crunch test, pushup test, timed plank test, etc.

(The concept of “functional” training has stimulated my thinking. I’m writing a blog post on that concept right now.)

Feels like exercise

Most of my clients find themselves working fairly hard as we’ve gone through 3D MAPS. It feels like exercise. Not all movement analysis systems deliver this feeling to the participants. The reality is that many of our clients come to us because they want to exert and sweat. If we can gain valuable information and give our clients a workout then that’s a very good thing.

Easy to teach

The Gray Institute does a good job of teaching how to teach. Dr. Tiberio and the online videos made it easy to understand the breakdown of the movement patterns and how to progress and regress them.

Opens clients’ eyes

If 3D MAPS reveals a mobility and/or stability deficit then my clients typically perceive it. They often very clearly recognize that they’re lacking in their ability to lunge and they can always tell if they have poor balance. This is valuable in getting a client to buy into the 3D MAPS process.

Further, I’ve found that following the 3D MAPS intervention blueprint often results in noticeably better stability and/or mobility. It’s always exciting to see results!

The search for success

A very interesting aspect of the 3D MAPS methodology (and the Gray Institute process in general) is that we first want to find where and how the client can move successfully. We then want to to gradually move in on their lack of success. This is in contrast to what I think most of us want to do and that’s dive right into the task that gives us the most trouble. I think we typically want to climb the biggest, toughest obstacle before we tackle anything less significant. (Maybe that’s just me…. Nah.)

There are a couple of ideas behind the process of moving from the most successful down to the least successful movement task. One is that we want the client to feel successful and confident. If he or she can do something well and feel competent and confident then they will likely have a generally good workout experience. He or she may feel encouraged to try more difficult work.

The other idea informing the most-to-least-successful process is based on the possibility that the nervous system will best be able to solve the most difficult movement task if we very gradually expose it to increasingly difficult work. This makes sense if we think of learning anything from a language to music to driving a car to skiing. We do best if we start with very simple tasks and then progress toward more difficult territory. This process makes sense to me.

Many options

As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways to “tweak” the lunges, one-leg squats and the arm swings. Trainers can have clients move their head or not. We can ask clients to speed up, slow down, and lunge or squat farther out or closer in. We can go with lower-body or upper-body movements only and we can have clients use either the upper or lower body in ways to increase or decrease stability requirements. Beyond the assessment aspect of 3D MAPS, we can have clients hold weights, medicine balls, cables, bands, etc. if we want to create a greater challenge.

Weaknesses

Not a great upper-body assessment

3D MAPS is a very good lower-body assessment but it seems limited as an upper-body assessment. It’s very difficult to observe scapular movement quality or humeral internal/external rotation quality. Further, while we can observe mobility and stability in the lower-body, 3D MAPS gives us virtually no indication of upper-body stability.

Better for global movement assessment than local assessment

For now, 3D MAPS gives me a big picture of how the person is moving. It doesn’t reveal a lot about individual joints. My criticism here will probably lessen as I become more familiar with and more skilled at using 3D MAPS. Proper use of “tweaks” should help reveal individual joint limitations.

Relative Success Code is difficult

The Relative Success Code is supposed to be simple but it’s not and from what Dr. Tiberio said, the Gray Institute knows that there’s more work to be done. We’re supposed to score the client’s movement from their best success down to their least and then start working from their best to worst movements. But with six lunge variations and six one-leg squat variations for both sides of the body there is a lot to try and see and score. The issue as I see it is that human movement is complex and we can only simplify it so much.

Scoring should be divided into mobility and stability

This is related to the previous criticism. 3D MAPS provides tests for both mobility and stability yet we’re only supposed to give the client a “+” if they show good mobility and stability, a “-” if they show poor mobility/stability or “- P” if they have pain on any test.

If we’re testing two things it seems we should give two separate scores on each test for stability and mobility. I imagine that every trainer and therapist who uses 3D MAPS will create their own two-part score. Dr. Tiberio acknowledged this during the presentation so I’m betting the scoring system will change soon.

Many options

One of its strengths can also be a weakness. There are near infinite ways to change the testing process as well as the training/treatment process derived from 3D MAPS. Initially it’s daunting when considering all the options. Like most any new skill, the more we use it the better we get at using it. This is a minor criticism.

My overall opinion

3D MAPS gets a thumbs-up from me. I use some portion of it daily with practically all my clients. More than anything I appreciate that the driving force behind 3D MAPS is actual real-life movement requirements. I love the emphasis on three-dimensional movement. Gary Gray maybe more than anyone in the industry insists that we always look at movement through a 3D lens.

Some of this gets complicated. It does take a lot of thinking and practice to feel comfortable using the system–but what new skill doesn’t take a lot of work to master?

Dr. Tiberio said something during the 3D MAPS presentation that I found wise and valuable to me. He said, “Don’t give up what got you here.” With that he meant don’t throw out all the training methods and tools that we’ve used to become successful trainers. Don’t rush too headlong into the shiny, brand-new, hottest thing that we’ve just learned (and likely not yet mastered).

His words spoke to me and some of my past experiences as a trainer. To my regret, I’ve thrown several babies out with various tubs of fitness bathwater. There were times I was convinced that I found the absolute best, most incredible absolutely most effective tool, exercise or system and I just had to push all my clients in the direction of said new-cool-thing. While in reality two things were probably true: A) Said new-cool-thing may not have been the miracle answer to all things I thought it was, and B) Some of my previous tools, exercises and systems were still valuable. The result was that sometimes either I, my clients or both of us were frustrated. With both Dr. Tiberio’s words and my own experiences in mind, I am trying to fold 3D MAPS into my training process in a way that’s both amenable to my clients and that doesn’t frustrate me as I get familiar with 3D MAPS.

What that means is that I typically work on some of the mobility/stability issues that I see in my clients but we may not spend the whole session on 3D MAPS-related issues. We still use barbells, kettlebells, the TRX and other training tools to perform non-3D MAPS-type exercises. I have found that a very good way to work on clients’ mobility/stability issues is to put 3D MAPS exercises in between sets of say bench press, deadlift, pull-ups, etc.

Further, if someone is preparing for an athletic tasks (I train several skiers and snowboarders for instance) then their sport dictates that they exhibit athletic skill during times of fatigue. I believe an effective way of training these athletes is to fatigue them in some way (with kettlebell swings for instance) and then require them to exhibit skilled mobility/stability (with some sort of one-legged squat for instance). Thus I’ve found that 3D MAPS work can easily be used alongside whatever other training modalities a trainer and his or her clients enjoy, so hooray for everyone!

That’s about it for now. My next post will speak to the idea of functional training and exactly what that term might mean.

 

 

The Goblet Squat

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Nearly all of my clients squat. Sometimes instructing the squat can be a challenge. Though it’s essentially just sitting down, the squat can become complicated and difficult. It’s easy to over-coach the squat. That’s where the goblet squat comes in very handy.

Big-time strength coach Mike Boyle has done a great job telling us about the goblet squat. I find his instruction to be succinct and easy to follow. Here’s the video. Watch it and squat away!

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.