Bullet Proof Your Body
By Alan Levi
Do you want to ensure a set of healthy joints, improved posture and stronger lifts?
Then you have come to the right place!
In the following article I will explore ways that you can incorporate corrective exercise into your existing regime,whilst keeping up the intensity, burning fat and building muscle.
First – the boring science bit.
What is good posture? Well the American Academy of OrthopaedicSurgeons (1974) define it as “the state of muscular and skeletal balance that protects supporting structures of the body against injury or progressive deformity”.
That is primarily why it’s important that some measure of your training is related to structural balance – without it you will either get injured or get a muscular imbalance, not to mention your lifts suffering from a lack of synergy within the body. If posture didn’t effect your training or add to your risk of injury I wouldn’t waste five seconds of my clients time on it!
The manner in which the body creates a muscular imbalance is a result of the daily stresses placed upon it and the fact that it rapidly adapts to these demands. Let’s use the following analogy to make things a little clearer.
Your body is an office. Hopefully, in these times of recession, it is a productive and profit-making organisation. But there is a problem. Some heads of department are bone-idle. They are on the golf course, taking sick days, and generally slacking off. Let’s take one part of the body as a specific example, the Hip Extension Department. The head of this should be the butt – gluteus maximus.But gluteus is out all day on business lunches and has delegated all his work to his underling, the hamstrings. The result? Hamstring has got her own workload to attend to, but unfortunately the work load builds and builds –until she reaches meltdown, throws all her papers down and storms out of the office at the unfair demands being placed upon her.
The physical manifestation of this is that the glutes have become long and weak and to counteract this deficit the hamstrings have become short and strong. The hamstrings are now overloaded and in danger of being pulled or torn due to this excessive tightening.
This is a concept called adaptive shortening. It happens all over the body – the tonic muscles (those responsible for fighting gravity) and the phasic muscles (those responsible for movement) create an imbalance, so some common issues are:
The result? Excessive lumbar curvature leading to lower back pain, a perpetually rounded stomach due an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, and potentially slouched shoulders, forward head posture, hip pain, and/or lower back pain.
So what is my posture?
Your best bet isto see a trainer who specialises in postural correction or has some training incorrective exercise. However a simple test is this. Be honest with yourself.
Look in the mirror. Do your shoulders round forward? Does your head protrude forward? Areyou a woman who would take a chainsaw to anyone who tried to separate her from her high heels? If you totter around in shoes that require an oxygen mask to compensate for the high altitude, then my guess is that you have a significant arch in your back caused by adaptive shortening.
A simple test is to stand against a wall with heels, glutes, shoulders and head resting against the wall. Get someone else to try and run their hand behind your back. If their palm gets caught half way then you have a normal curvature of the spine. If you could drive a bus through the gap you have glutes that aren’t firing properly, overly tight hip flexors and weak abdominal muscles.
So what do I do about it?
Well, you know me – I am all about finding practical solutions to these issues and have outlined a plan of attack that will minimise the weaknesses in both the upper and lower extremities.
As a Personal Trainer, the key areas that clients tend to come to me with that are injured or weak are the scapula retractors, the external rotators, the lower back, the knees or the ankles – so the joints of the body at various junctions would appear to require a bit of additional attention rather than getting too gung-ho initially and having them find their 1-RM on a bench press!
First off, let’s look at a great exercise that you can incorporate for the upper body.
One of my all-time favourite exercises is the multi faceted inverted row. It is a “chinup” for the scapula retractors (the muscles that pull the shoulder blades back)and posterior deltoid. It is very easy to set up, but brutally humbling for even the most advanced gym-goer.
Move the bar on a Smith Machine down to waist height. Position yourself so that the sternum (the breastbone) is aligned with the bar. Bend your knees if new to this exercise and grasp the bar. Push up your hips into a “bridge” position, and keep the glutes tight throughout. Tense the stomach. Look straight up and not forward. Pull your sternum up to the bar quickly and lower for a count of 3 seconds. Pause for one second at the bottom. That is one rep.
If you are more advanced, straighten the legs, but remember, your glutes are tight, abs aretight. Don’t let the hips droop lazily down towards the floor, or overly arch the back.
Easy I hear you say. Have a go, then drop me a line! Still want more? Well, once you can comfortably nail 15 reps in the lengthened position it is time to pop your feet onto a bench. This will ramp up the intensity once again, and if you fancy incorporating some serious core-stability into this exercise, try it with your feet on a Swiss ball. Or, the ultimate show-off exercise that will get eyespopping – inverted row, with one leg on the stability ball and one leg off !
Another excellent, simple and highly effective exercise for the postural muscles (specifically the scapulae retractors) is the Wall Angel. It is a “must-do” exercise if you train the chest and back a lot, and will help avoid the Gorilla shoulders that are sported by many male trainers who like to look like extras from Planet Of The Apes. This exercise is always greeted by a snort of derision when I first demonstrate it to clients because it looks so simple. Then they try it. The key to this exercise is to ensure that the lumbar spine remains in contact with the wall behind you, or at the very least maintain a neutral spine. Be very conscious ofexcessively arching you back to achieve the overhead reaching movement – if you find this exercise easy my guess is you are doing it wrong!
So now with your back to the wall, and the back of your arms pressed against it, as if you are being held at gunpoint and have your hands up, reach up towards the ceiling whilst maintaining contact with the wall, then slowly lower back to the starting position (like a Snow Angel).
A very important point to consider before you do this exercise is this – remember the office analogy? Well, your pec muscles and lats are the muscles that have been overworked here, and you want to get the lazy scapulae retractors to function fully without being impinged.Therefore my recommendation is to stretch out the lats and pecs prior to doing the inverted row or the Wall Angel. You will force the muscles to work more effectively, as, by stretching out the antagonists, the agonists fire to a greater degree. Theground breaking work of Janda (1986) indicated that overactive muscles actually hinder the opposing muscles. This inhibition is called Reciprocal Inhibition and is the principle that “when one muscle is contracted its antagonist is automatically inhibited” (Liebenson, 1996). Pavel Tsatsouline, the kettlebell specialist trainer articulates this principle better when he states that the body does not wish to press the accelerator and brake at the same time, and I think this analogy works well when it comes to these principles. So, now we have worked on the postural muscles of the mid-back, you may be thinking “yeah, but my lower back is also an issue”. That however is an article for another day!
photo courtesy of UCLA ergonomics