The Barbell Isn’t For Everyone

Just because there’s a barbell in front of you, doesn’t mean you have to lift it.  If there’s one tool in the gym that has gotten more attention than any other, it’s the barbell.  And for good reason as you can load it with considerable amounts of weight.  Far more than you’d be able to do with something like dumbbells or kettlebells.  However, for many of us hitting the gym, it may be the wrong choice.

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One of the drawbacks, depending on the exercise, is that you can be locked into a certain range of motion or joint motion/angle. This can be potentially hazardous for those who don’t necessarily fit that mold of that position. It’s unnecessary to put yourself through that stress when there are so many other ways and tools to reach your goals.

“Just because something has always been done a certain way,

doesn’t mean that YOU have to do it that way.”  

But people tend to be dogmatic in their approach to fitness.  It’s either one way or nothing, and it’s hard to convince them of anything else. People will argue that it’s the ONLY tool suited for exercise, no matter what. Everyone must deadlift with a barbell from the floor or it doesn’t count, which ignores a myriad of variables that are suited for another article. It’s time to wake up and realize is that the tool is only as good as the user. If the user is unable to manage the tool effectively and safely, then how effective is it going to be?

 

What can you use instead of a barbell?

  • Dumbbells
  • Bands
  • Cables
  • Kettlebells

Each of these tools can be substituted for just about any exercise, and when it comes to our fundamental movements of push, pull, squat, hinge, and single leg movements, we can easily adjust to accommodate a different tool.

Push

Typically we thing the bench press or overhead press, which requires a barbell for either lift.  However, like we mentioned earlier, you get locked into a certain movement pattern, especaially at the shoulder joint.  And we want to avoid cranky shoulders where ever we can. Enter any of the tools previously listed.  More freedom to move which can mean less probability of injury.

Pull

The most common barbell pull is a bent over row, but again it can put some people in a compromising position.  This is especially true for anyone that has ever suffered from low back pain.  Enter the dumbbell, where you can perform just about any variation of row you can think of.

Squat

Everyone can squat, it’s just a matter of finding the right variation that suits your needs and abilities. Squatting with a barbell, whether front or back, presents some challenges in terms of mechanics that some are just unable to achieve. So why force it? Because it looks cool in the weight room when you have the bar loaded with plates?

Pick a variation, like a goblet squat and hammer away at that.

Hinge

The hinge or its most associated exercise example, the deadlift, can be one of scariest exercises to do.  More to do with images of guys picking up 100’s of pounds on a barbell, than the actual exercise itself.  But it can be an easy swap to use a kettlebell and learn in that capacity to keep you safe.

Training comes down to producing enough of a stimulus to elicit change in the body, whether the goal is more strength, more muscle, or less fat. However we need to be able to train smarter, which sometimes means steering ourselves from tools like the barbell that may not be a great choice for us now, to ones that are more manageable, like dumbbells.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t challenge yourself, but to do it smarter to avoid injury.

 

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To Squat or Not to Squat..That is the Question

The squat is one of the fundamental movement patterns that we use on a daily basis, and utilize just about every muscle and joint in the body.  That’s what makes it so awesome!  To let you in on a little insider secret, it is why most fitness professionals use it as part of their assessment or screening protocol.  It can tell you so much about how well a person can move.  From ankles, to hips, to thoracic mobility, you can get all sorts of information from watching someone squat.  Chances are, if they can squat well, they can probably move well.

“Squats are bad for your knees.” 

Have you heard that phrase before?  I’m sure you have, and it’s can come from anyone in any setting from the neighbor down the street to your doctor during a check-up.  This, the most common misinformation about squat, gives squatting a bad reputation as a knee killer.  Most of the time it’s because we’re squatting with poor form.

“Squats aren’t bad for your knees,

squats with bad form is bad for your knees.”

 

Think about how many times a day you squat.  Anytime you sit in a chair, or go to pick something off the ground, you’re using a squat pattern.  Are you going to avoid doing any of that?  Probably not.  I mean how are you ever going to go to the bathroom?

However, learn to squat with proficiency and you will be introduced to a whole new world of potential benefits.

Benefits of Squatting:

  1. Improved Mobility– This specifically happens at the ankles, knees and thoracic spine. As you work on your technique, your body will adapt to the new movement, and usually this means better mobility through the hips and ankles to get to adequate depth.
  2. Improved Strength– Squatting just makes you stronger. You’re using just about every muscle in the lower part of your body.  No matter how you squat and what rep ranges you’re training in, you are going to see a strength adaptation.  Especially if you happen to be transitioning from one rep range to another.
  3. Improved Stability– Squatting requires a great deal of stability, especially in the torso. If you think about a back squat, the weight is trying to make you fold and collapse.  It takes a great deal of stability to stay upright.  The more you improve your squat, no matter what version you choose, the more stability you’ll get through the hips and core.
  4. Increased Muscle Mass– Being that the squat is a full body movement; you’ll be using a lot of muscles to complete it. By stimulating the muscles with a proper load, you can easily increase the amount of muscle on your body.
  5. Decreased Fat– In the same way that squats can build muscle, they can also help to decrease body fat. Just like above, it uses a lot of muscle to perform, and muscle is highly metabolic.  This doesn’t mean you have to lift heavy to lose body fat, but by doing exercises that require multiple muscle groups, you’ll end up burning more calories.  More calorie burn = more fat lost.
  6. Increased Performance– Now that we’ve gained mobility, strength, stability, and muscle while losing fat, our performance should improve. This applies to not only in whatever our chosen sport is, but life in general.  Think about running.  If you improved all the above, you’ll be able to put more force into the ground, which will propel you forward harder and easier.  You’ll cover more distance in less time.  Now let’s look at life.  That heavy bag of dog food or case of water you once couldn’t pick up is now a breeze.
  7. Increased Bone Density– By doing exercises that are weight bearing or loaded, like the squat, the body is forced to adapt to a new stimulus. As the muscles get stronger, then tend to exert more force on the bone.  The bone adapts to this by laying down more mineral deposits, thus making the bone stronger and thicker.
  8. Healthier Joints– When you’re able to move the joints through full ranges of motion, they become healthier. You’re joints actually prefer going through their entire range of motion.  So when you short it, for example doing half squats, your body adapts and will lose that full range.  So do yourself and your joints a favor, use your full movement, whatever it may be.

 

It’s All about the Technique

It all starts here with learning how to squat.  Try to avoid getting ahead of yourself when first trying to squat.  Even if you’ve been squatting for a long time and you think you have it nailed down, chances are there are things you can work on that will take you squat to a new level.   Remember, correct range of motion and form are absolutely essential in order to not only avoid injury but to gain an advantage in strength.  Better technique, better movement pattern, better chance of engaging the necessary muscles to lift the weight (if that’s what you’re doing).

Every time you squat, make sure you go through a mental checklist starting from the feet and ankles, then working your way up.

  • Feet- They need to be flat and stable, with heels on the ground. You want to avoid rolling side to side or having the heels coming up.  If you’re unable to do this, start working on ankle mobility.
  • Knees- They should be in alignment with the hips and feet. As you squat there should be no excessive movement out or in.  If there is an issue, you may need to look at mobility at the hip or knee, or strength in your stabilizing muscles.
  • Hips-They should be stable with no side to side movement while staying in line with the knees throughout the squat.
  • Low Back- The spine should stay in neutral with minimal to no movement or rounding.
  • T-Spine- Slightly extended or neutral
  • Head- Straight ahead

 

Take a look at our good squat on the left versus our poor squat on the right.  Notice the differences in where our checkpoints are.  Keeping these check points in order is a good way to ensure that your squats won’t be knee killers any longer.

 

 

 

Takeaway

Hopefully you see that the squat has a lot to offer you in terms of your overall fitness level.  Ignore the hype that squats can cause problems with your knees.  Avoid being afraid to squat because they once hurt your knees.  Chances are your form was off and all you need is a few tweaks and cues to fix the issue.

Your first step should be to hammer down technique before piling on weight and intensity.  Much like you wouldn’t build a house on a shaky foundation; avoid piling on top of the shaky foundation that is your movement pattern.

There are so many versions and variations to squats that you can experiment with how you do them each time.  Don’t get caught up thinking about just the barbell back squat.  Start adding some variations into your program with:

  • Goblet Squats
  • Safety Bar Squat
  • Front Squats
  • Plate Squats
  • Split Squats
  • Single Leg Squats

Each variation will have its purpose in your training and provide its own unique benefits outside of the ones listed in this article.

Happy Squatting!


Are You Strong Enough to Run?

What does strong enough mean?  Or in the case of this title, strong enough to run?  Would deadlifting 200lbs make you strong enough to run?  Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to running and being strong, expressing strength is more a matter of resisting forces put on it, than creating them. although you will create force into the ground to push you forward.

Everybody runs or can run, but not everyone that runs does so efficiently with good form.  Sometimes it looks a little wonky, like Elaine Benes trying to dance or like a calf trying to walk for the first time.  While running is a natural movement (for some), it does require a number of things to work synergistically so as not to get injured.  How often are you thinking of stride length, frequency, how your foot is landing, hip shifts, arm movement, etc when you go for a simple run or jog.  Or maybe its yogging, it might be a soft ‘J.”  Probably never.

Strength has more to do with running than you think, and it doesn’t just stop at the legs.  Think of running as a full body exercise, where all your muscles are coordinated to fire to ensure you absorb the forces appropriately.  And if there is a weak link in the chain, you can bet that your body will find it, and expose it.

Everyone can run, but not everyone SHOULD…..right away.

As a runner you may think that strength training doesn’t necessarily apply to you as running is all you need to either stay or get in shape.  I had that thought once, and it didn’t work out too well for me.  Achy knees and a lot of hip pain from poor mechanics.  Don’t let my mistake be your downfall.  Let’s learn from it.

Mechanics or Phases of Running

Breaking down the mechanics of a stride, it’s a series of single leg exercises, with 2 different phases:

  • Stance- This is where the all your bodyweight is on a single leg and typically where breakdowns occur.  This phase can also be broken down into smaller phases:
    • Initial Contact- Your foot first hits the ground, and as you touch down, the knee and ankle flex a little to absorb the force of the ground, and the foot pronates or turns in slightly.  This can create the first break down if we don’t have a requisite amount of strength or motor control.
    • Midstance-  Once the foot and leg are underneath the hip, you enter what is the midstance phase.  This is where all your weight is on the one leg.  Again, there is potential for injury here.  An over pronation at the foot can cause a chain reaction up the leg into the knee and hip.  Hip stability is also vital here as you need to be able to load the base leg in order to set yourself up for the propulsion phase.  It’s a basic load and explode situation.  Your muscles, tendons, and fascia are all storing up elastic energy from the previous phase, waiting to use it.  Lacking necessary joint stability and strength will hinder your stride, and really, your ability to run efficiently.
    • Propulsion- The final stage where the foot starts to come off the ground, starting with the heel.  This is where you will use all that stored/absorbed energy and push off to get into the next phase.  The ankle, knee, and hip all go through extension in order to achieve this.  Additionally, your foot/ankle should supinate, however this doesn’t always occur due to poor mechanics or poor shoes.  Either way, this is another instance in which we need to corrections during running.
  • Swing- From the moment your foot loses contact with the ground, till the moment it touches down again is the swing.  In this phase, your body needs to prep the leg and foot for that initial contact phase again.

There is a third phase where both feet are simultaneously off the ground, and if you freeze frame a runner, they appear to be floating or hovering off the ground.

So as you can note above, each phase of running comes with the potential for injury if the right mechanics aren’t in place.  This means a combination of strength, stability and mobility.  Thankfully we can incorporate strength training that focuses on those three aspects, and we can likely avoid injury or any aches and pains.  Then we can get back to doing what we love, which is running.

The Training

Putting together a strength program for a runner is a little tricky as you want to build as much strength as you need to avoid injury and resist the forces of running, but without putting on weight that may potentially slow you down.

Single Leg Exercises–  Being that running is largely a single leg exercise repeated over and over again, it’s important to include these into your program.  That doesn’t mean eliminating bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts, as those will set a large strength base.  It just means adding in more single leg variations to maintain or improve hip stability.

Examples:

  • Lunges
  • Single Leg Deadlift
  • Step-up
  • Split Squats

Core Strength & Stability– Everyone uses these terms, but no one really knows what they mean.  In terms of running, the core needs to be strong and stable in order for the body to transfer forces from the lower body to the upper body, otherwise we just look like one of those wacky inflatable tube guys outside car dealerships.  And no one wants to look like that when they run.  Nor do we want to have any injuries or pain when we’re running.  If we lack the necessary core stability, meaning the control of the movement of the hips, it could result in hanging out on passive structures instead.  Have you ever gone for a run and your back was killing you halfway in or when you finished?  Yea that’s one, poor mechanics, but also lack of muscular strength and the ability to stabilize the hips.

Examples:

  • Anti-Extension – Plank
  • Anti Lateral Flexion – Side Plank
  • Bird/Dog
  • Anti Rotation – Pallof Press
  • Chops

Hip Extension Activation & Strength– The main mover for hip extension should be the glutes, however many end up predominantly using their hamstrings.  Hamstring injuries occur in part because they aren’t strong enough to control the eccentric contraction of the muscle, meaning a contraction as the muscle lengthens.  But also because the hamstrings compensate for a lack of glute strength.  It’s vital to the health of your hamstrings to get your glutes strong.  Then you can focus on strengthening the hamstrings via eccentric exercises.

 

Running is a simple way to exercise and probably one of the most accessible to those of all levels, from beginner to advanced.  Now that the weather is getting nice, more and more people will be out there running.  Just because you can run, doesn’t mean you have to run or should.  Take account of your strength and stability, but also look at your own mechanics to see if running is for you.  Then you can move on to what could be the most important, whether or not you actually enjoy running.


Eliminate Low Back Pain

Eliminate low back pain by becoming a better mover and making your entire body stronger.  We have become a society of weak, poor movers and it has led to many people having various injuries, none more notable than back injuries and back pain.  Back pain is debilitating and can sideline the best of us, but the best thing you can do to help that is to move, move more, and become a better, stronger mover.

At some point in your life you are going to experience low back pain.  It’s surefire statistics, that at some point you’ll have a nagging ache or pain in your low back.  Sometimes it happens to be because we lifted something the wrong way or pushed a  little too hard on a certain exercise.  Other times it could be because we have something actually going on in our back.  Or it could be for no reason whatsoever.

Back pain or really any soreness & tension in the back draws the same reaction from just about anyone.  That they need to rest it before they “throw it out” or they should avoid such and such an exercise.  Basically because back pain can suck so much, people get scared at the slightest hint of anything going on in the back.  THis often leads us to make sure we inform our clients that they may experience some back soreness after their first time deadlifting, or doing some of the exercises listed below.

Commonly the go to is core stability or core strength, and while I would agree that it is an important aspect to preventing back pain, the other route to take is actually making the muscles of your back stronger, and resistant to fatigue.  If you’re standing right now, your erectors (the muscles that run the length of your back on either side of the spine) & your quadratus lumborum (deep back muscles) are working.  Now stand there for hours on end.  Those muscles are going to fatigue, and no doubt pain may set in.  In fact, people with poor muscular endurance in their low back muscles are more likely to develop an issue.  What do you have to do to not only strengthen your back muscles but also increase the muscular endurance?

A big part of that, like mentioned previously, is because our core muscles are weak and can’t handle certain stressors.  Another part of that is that our back muscles lack the muscular endurance.  When that happens, there ends up being a breakdown and we experience pain.

One of the reasons many people, especially those coming off back injury fear lifts such as the deadlift is that they think they are going to do damage to their lower back, when in reality a strong deadlift done with proper form will strengthen your back within a neutral spine.  What this means is that the muscles surrounding your lower back, specifically the erectors get stronger and can handle more stress.  So doing something stupid or lifting something incorrectly won’t be as much of a problem for you as it was before.

Outside of strengthening our core muscles through various exercises like deadbugs and planks, there are other exercises specifically geared towards making our back muscles strong and more durable.

The Exercises:

Sorenson “Plank” (in GHR) – This exercise is commonly used as a test for muscular endurance for the low back muscles.  In fact, there is a big discrepancy in holding times between those that have low back pain and those that don’t have pain.  This seems to suggest, as I mentioned before that muscular endurance is an important aspect to avoiding low back pain. _dsc1725

Back Extensions (in GHR) – Similar to the positioning for the Sorenson Plank, you are going to go through a particular range of motion.  It is important to note that you do not want to hyperextend the back at the top of the movement, but just come to parallel.  Another tip is to make sure you are squeezing your glutes in both this exercise and the one above. Almost think of how you finish a deadlift or a kettlebell swing.  It’s more about the hip extension than the back.

Good Mornings– Typically done with a barbell, you can also use a band as in the linked video to accomplish the same effect, however with a variable resistance.  Not only is this a great exercise to strengthen your erectors, it will also strengthen your hamstrings and glutes. So bonus for you!

Bird Dog- What looks like an easy exercise can be hard to control if you don’t have the necessary core strength.

Side Plank- You may be thinking that this has nothing to do with the lower back, but a side plank activates and strengthens that tiny muscle called quadratus lumborum we mentioned before (QL).  What it controls among a lot of things is lateral flexion of the spine and weakness here can cause you to lean one way or another.  Additionally it has a big part in walking mechanics and it’s important to have plenty of strength endurance in both QL’s.  Try side planks and maintain them for at least 20-30 seconds.  What is important to note is that your body should be in a straight line through activation of the glutes.  Imagine you are standing in a straight line, and then maintain that in a side position.

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Takeaway

What shouldn’t you do?  Well when you feel back tightness, the usual go to is stretching you lower back for relief.  Right? And it can feel really good.  Almost instant relief, but that feeling is only temporary.  Those muscles are meant to maintain stability and if you just stretch them, you’re trying to bring length to an area that just wants to maintain rigidity.  What ends up happening is a reflex in which the muscles get defensive and tighten up more so.  What you can do is work on some SMR techniques using a lacrosse ball, or see a licensed massage therapist for some sports/medical massage.

 

 


Loaded Carries

loaded-carry

Carry Yourself To Real Core Strength

Loaded Carries are about as basic of an exercise as you’re going to get. In fact, they should be a staple of your program along with the other fundamental movements of push, pull, squat, and hip hinge that can be loaded heavy and trained hard, all while enhancing full body resiliency against injuries in the process. Whether the goal is to get stronger, build muscle, rehab an injury, or build work capacity, loaded carries are the way to go. It’s why they are a staple of Dr. John’s FHT Program.

Loaded carries, no matter what variation you choose, challenges the core more than any crunch or direct core training exercise ever could, but also provides a test for grip strength and full body stability. As if that isn’t enough to start carrying some heavy weights, as an added bonus, for many of these variations, shoulder stability is challenged, creating more ideal shoulder positions to train from, and hence optimized shoulder health.

If you want to build strength, improve your metabolic capacity and bulletproof your shoulders and back against potential injuries, loaded carries need to be a staple in your programing.

Full Article posted on DrJohnRusin.com