My thoughts and perspectives on health, science, and logic… Keep an open mind!

Health vs. Fitness???


As is the case with many fields, the world of fitness sees many words used interchangeably when they probably shouldn’t.  Trainers with any experience have probably encountered times when two people used the same word to mean different things or vice-versa.  While I could harp on plenty of these disconnects in language (and I likely will in the future), today I’d like to look at two words that are at the core of what we do:

HEALTH… and FITNESS

So what do they really mean?  To many, that’s open to interpretation.  A lot of people might think it’s silly to give it much thought in the first place, as we all know what these words mean, right?  Well I’ll suggest that it’s never a bad idea to double-check these ideas before moving forward.  After all, if these are words we use to describe our goals — and our goals will determine everything we do in the gym — then shouldn’t we be COMPLETELY sure that we’re using them as accurately as possible?

abc_gma_health_3_101006_wg

For decades, Jack LaLanne served as an example of someone who focused on health AND fitness — performing countless incredible feats of strength and endurance over the years as well as living to the ripe age of 96 (image taken from abcnews.go.com)

 

If we’re to paraphrase the Merriam-Webster definition, good health could be described as the mental and physical condition whereby we are free from illness, injury, and pain.  Sounds reasonable enough, yes?  You could also describe it as a state of metabolic efficiency (all of the body’s processes are in good, working order).  So basically, a health-oriented goal would be focused on ensuring that our biological machinery is working well and that we’re not malfunctioning in any way.  And if you think about it, that’s indeed what a lot of people are going for when they exercise.  Lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate, reducing the risk of cancer, recovering from a sprained ankle so we can walk properly again — these are all attempts to preserve or improve our body’s basic ability to function.

But what about fitness?  The most appropriate definition I’ve been able to find is something along the lines of: the state of being adapted to a particular task or goal (being “fit”) — in exercise, this would mean being fit for a specific type of exercise-related or performance-oriented task.  So if we take this approach, we see that physical fitness could be demonstrated in a number of ways.  We can have a certain ability to run fast, jump high, be flexible, demonstrate motor coordination, etc.  It varies depending on the goal.

So we can see that — if you accept these definitions — fitness and health are NOT the same thing.  While health is a sort of baseline quality of someone’s biological function (are all the parts in good working order?), fitness is more about the way we can perform a particular task (how much endurance do we have, how strong am I, etc.?).

It’s certainly possible to be healthy but not particularly fit.  Just think about someone who goes into doctor’s office for a yearly checkup and has every test come back “normal” (healthy), but he/she doesn’t necessarily exercise and isn’t able to perform at a high level in any sort of athletic capacity (not really “physically fit” for those tasks).  Conversely, there are plenty of cases of extremely high-performing athletes who can run extremely fast or lift incredible amounts of weight (high physical fitness), but their cholesterol levels or blood pressure might not be very good (not extremely healthy).

fast car slow car

A Smart Car fresh off the lot will have all of its parts in good working order (“healthy”), but it obviously won’t perform the same as something designed for more speed.

 

So why am I mentioning all of this?  Because I think it’s important for us to realize that, while many of the improvements we make through exercise can aid in both goals (improved cardiovascular health will also aid in fitness tasks relating to endurance, etc.), it’s not always the case.  Sometimes, we can confuse one thing for another.  Just because someone looks great or can move well doesn’t mean he/she is as healthy as appearances might suggest.  Keep that in mind before chasing that next marathon, adding more weight to the bar, or insisting on taking aggressive measures to lose weight.  You can perform well, but don’t compromise your own health in the process!

 

More to come.  Cheers

 

-G

Squats — Front or Back?


“Shut up and SQUAT!!!”

Ronnie Coleman doing his thing, of course

Ronnie Coleman doing his thing, of course

Few exercises in the gym are as loved and as hated as the ever-present squat.  If you’ve spent any length of time in the exercise world, you’ve undoubtedly encountered countless individuals who swear by the practice of grabbing a bunch of weight and dropping their butts to the ground.  Many more engage in the practice sans weight (just think about how many 30-day fitness challenges involve bodyweight squats).  Whatever the flavor, it’s pretty widely accepted that squats are the “go-to” exercise for building the derriere of your dreams.  While I COULD spend this entire post picking apart some of those misconceptions, I’ll save that for another day.  Instead, I’ll assume that you’ve determined that this movement is appropriate for your body and goals and get right to the meat of this write-up.  That is, a comparison between TWO TYPES of squats.

– Allow me to interject before we go any further that I am not a big fan of sticking labels on exercises and saying, “THIS is the way it must be done!”  At the end of the day, such an approach is inappropriate if you’re trying to tailor an exercise to a particular body for a specific goal.  BUT, in the spirit of simplicity, I’ll make some generalizations so I can get some basic points across.  –

Now that that’s cleared up, let’s continue.  The main focus of this post is to look at the difference between the back squat and the front squat in terms of how they might load the different joints and musculature of the body.  While both movements certainly challenge the legs, hips, lower back, etc. to some degree; the exact amount of effort required at each region of the body will change depending on exactly where you put the weight and how your joints move.  To give some understanding of this, we need to understand what joints are going to be moving during a squat-like exercise in the first place.  The list of main players, in no particular order, will be as follows as we descend during a squat:

1.) Ankles — Increasing dorsiflexion (shin moves toward the top of the foot)

2.) Knees – Increasing flexion (knees bending, smaller angle between the calf and back of the thigh)

3.) Hips – Increasing flexion (torso and fronts of the thighs get closer together)

*.) On the way up (coming out of the squat), these movements will necessarily be reversed!

** NOTE ** I’m assuming a bunch of other joints are able to stay still during the motion.  If you can’t keep the rest of the body relatively stable during this exercise, then you shouldn’t be doing it!  I’m also not mentioning motion of the intrinsic joints in the foot, as such a discussion is beyond the scope of this post.  We could spend all day talking about how the foot does or doesn’t move during different activities.

Anyway, all exercises that are traditionally known as a squat will include movement at the 3 joints listed above.  The question is how MUCH movement will occur!  That will depend on a bunch of different factors that I’ll try to hint at here.  Let’s start by looking at a diagram of three different squat scenarios.  On the left is a low-bar back squat (where the bar is kept relatively low on the back, as the name implies).  In the middle is a high-bar back squat (I’ll let you figure out why it’s called that).  And on the right is a front squat:

Much thanks to Lon Kilgore for the illustration.  Note the different body angles between the different squat configurations (Low bar, high bar, and front).

Much thanks to Lon Kilgore for the illustration. Note the different body angles between the different squat configurations (Low bar, high bar, and front).

 

WARNING — SCIENCE AHEAD!!!

 

So — What do you notice?  In each scenario, the hip, knee, and ankle are obviously bending.  But do you notice how the angles are all markedly different?  That’s worth taking a moment to appreciate.  This is due to a little thing called PHYSICS!  Specifically, the center of mass of your body (including the weight you’re lifting) has to stay over your base of support in order for you not to fall over.  Let me say that again:

Your CENTER-OF-MASS must stay over your BASE OF SUPPORT to stay upright!!!

Your center of mass refers to the point about which all of your body mass is distributed.  If you averaged the positions of ALL of the mass you have, that hypothetical average “spot” is where the center of mass would be.  It’s also called the center of gravity.  If this falls outside of your base of support, you can’t stay upright.  In the case of a standing exercise, that base of support is your feet!  So the bar plus your body weight will need to be balanced over your feet for you to remain standing (or “squatting”).  In the pictures above, you can think of that vertical dashed line as passing through the center of mass.  Notice that it’s over the feet in all three cases.  So when you move the bar farther forward or backward, you also have to adjust your body position to compensate and KEEP that line from falling in front of or behind your feet.

If you have to hold your body in a certain position for the lift when the bar is on your back (picture on the left), it should make sense that you’ll have to lean backward more if you decide to put the bar IN FRONT of your body instead (picture on the right).  Think about it — you’ve just put more weight in front, so you have to bring some of the weight back somehow to keep yourself balanced over your feet.  A great way to do that is to sit more upright.  And that’s exactly what we see in the front squat picture.  Notice also that sitting upright means that we have to bend differently at the knees, hips, and ankles if we want to get down into the bottom position.  Look at the angles in the picture closely!  If we have LESS hip flexion, we have to make up for it by having MORE knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion.  This coordinated movement has to occur for us to get into the bottom position effectively.  Keep that in mind :)

So you can see that you’ll have to adjust your body position to accommodate the way you’re holding the weight.  If the weight moves, the body has to move as well.  You do this all the time when you carry things and move around in a typical day.  Most of the time, you probably don’t even notice!

Alright, that’s all well and good.  We’ve established a basic understanding of how the body can move to adjust to different bar positions.  But what does that really mean in terms of what muscles get used?  To explain this, I need to throw another picture at you.  This picture will be similar to the previous one, but it points out another aspect that I haven’t yet talked about:

 

Edited image gratefully borrowed from barbellacademy.com — Note the distances between the hip and knee joints and the dashed vertical line of force.

So here you see three pictures that are similar to the ones in the previous image.  But instead of joint angles, we’re pointing out something different.  See the horizontal lines coming from the knee and hip joints at each squat position?  They help us to visualize how far those joints are from the line of force (that dashed line representing body weight and the bar in this case).  That distance — the blue line for the hip, and the green line for the knee — is known as the moment arm for the joint.  It’s the perpendicular distance between the axis of rotation (the pivot point or joint in this image) and the line of force being applied to it.  If that all sounds kind of wordy, think of it this way:

How does a wrench work?  It is a tool that lets you grab onto a nut or a bolt and turn it.  And we all know that a longer wrench makes it easier than a shorter one.  But why?  The answer is simple — the longer wrench has a longer moment arm.  That’s important, because the amount of torque (rotational or turning force) that you generate at a joint or axis (the bolt you’re trying to turn, in the wrench example) is directly related to how far away the force you’re applying is.  A long wrench gives you a longer lever, which means you can apply force to turn the bolt from farther away.  That imparts a greater torque to the bolt, making it easier for you to turn it!

So taking that logic back to the squat example, what do we see?  When the joints are farther away from the weight, we can see that the weight will generate more torque at those joints.  That means the weight has a greater mechanical advantage to cause those joints to move (hip and knee flexion, in this case).  So if we’re trying to lift the weight, that means that OUR MUSCLES have to generate more force to oppose that weight.  So if the weight on the bar stays the same, then moving a joint farther away from that imaginary dashed line in the picture will make our muscles work harder at those joints!  We can see that the front squat creates the greatest moment arm at the knees in this picture, while the low bar back squat creates the greatest moment arm at the hips.

With that understanding, we can then say the following (assuming we haven’t altered anything else about the lifts):

1) A front squat will tend to require more work at the knees, AND

2) a back squat (particularly with a lower bar) will tend to require more work at the low back/hips

 

END OF SCIENCE-Y STUFF!

 

So there you have it — a somewhat wordy explanation for WHY a back squat is different from a front squat.  Note that this is still EXTREMELY simplified, and there are many other factors that can further affect how these movements challenge your body.  People with different body segment lengths will “fold up” differently, and some people have much more joint range at the hips, knees, and ankles than others.  As such, not everyone will be able to achieve the same depths or positions.  That’s okay!  But if you understand some of the basics behind body mechanics, you’ll be better equipped to understand why that is and what might be the best approach for your workouts.  There are also different artificial tools that can affect a squat — such as lifting shoes, Smith machines, hack squat machines, etc.  So this is just scratching the surface!

Finally, this was just looking at some basic joint mechanics and trying to appreciate how the major body segments are moving in relation to one another.  Want to know how that affects specific muscles in the hips and legs?  Stay tuned for a future entry that will examine some of the muscular anatomy of the area and give a little insight into what’s actually responsible for lifting you (and that bar!) up off of the floor!

Cheers :)


As I get ready to head to the gym — for a WAY overdue workout, lazy me! — my mind fills once again with the sights and sounds I’m about to encounter.  I’m a member of a local Max Fitness, which means it’s your typical corporate chain gym atmosphere.  Clanking of weights, pop music over the sound system, the shuffling of feet on the alarming number of treadmills.  You get the picture.

Also of note are the people you encounter in such an environment.  You have your teenage first-timers, “problem area” moms, weekend warriors, “gun show” fanatics, and all other sorts.  Some you can learn from.  Some are a little questionable in their methods.  And others you should avoid like the plague!  For a person new to exercise, it can be quite intimidating and confusing.  Whom do you turn to if you have questions?  If there’s one group that should be safe to listen to, it’s the trainers.  Right?  RIGHT???

Well… maybe not.

You see, the problem here is that the term “personal trainer” or “fitness trainer” carries a LOT of latitude.  There’s no single, official, government-sanctioned definition of the term.  Furthermore, there’s virtually no legal oversight given to the field to enforce standards regarding what does or does not constitute a personal trainer.  The only specifics exist in terms of legal boundaries that protect the scope of OTHER professions (for instance, a personal trainer cannot legally dispense medical or dietary prescriptions, as those privileges are preserved for specific professions that require a license).  Since the U.S. government does nothing to define most fitness professions, the fitness industry is left to regulate itself from within.  It does this rather poorly.

 

You'll often see certs like this hanging on the wall or in an office somewhere.  They look quite neat, don't they?

You’ll often see certs like this hanging on the wall or in an office somewhere. They look quite neat, don’t they?

 

If you’ve been around for any length of time, you’ve almost certainly encountered people who are “certified” personal trainers or something similar.  Most of the time, it’s held up as something that needs to be pointed out.  A badge of pride, a sort of “quality seal” for the individual that lets you know that they’re the real deal.  But what does it really mean?  Unfortunately, not much.

A certification process really just establishes a sort of minimum standard.  You study the material, you take an exam (usually just a multiple choice test on a computer these days), and if you get the required 70% or so, you’re now a “Certified Personal Trainer” or something similar.  There are a variety of organizations that offer certifications — ACE, AFAA, ACSM, NASM, NSCA, NFPT, etc. — and they have varying levels of quality in terms of the accuracy and depth of their training materials and the rigor of their testing processes.  Having said that, none of them are really THAT hard.  I would say that, with rare exception, none of the major fitness organizations have tests that a reasonably intelligent person couldn’t pass with 3-4 months of study (and that’s WITHOUT an exercise-related education/background).

As hinted at in that last sentence, there are also no educational requirements beyond a high school diploma and generally a CPR certification.  What this means is that, based on the requirements for certification alone, the piece of paper that someone holds doesn’t stand as any real indication that that individual is QUALIFIED to train you.  It only shows that they passed a test.

Now this is by no means a condemnation of personal trainers.  It merely shows weaknesses in the process by which people obtain certifications in the first place.  I felt it was important to explain this before getting into what you might want to look for in a trainer (if you are seeking the advice of one).  There’s a big difference between having a piece of paper that says you know something (certification) and having the knowledge and thought process to perform the job at hand (qualification).

 

So what the heck DOES constitute a good trainer???

So what the heck DOES constitute a good trainer???

 

Good question, Jackie!

There are quite a number of attributes that I would ascribe to a “good” trainer.  While not exhaustive, the list below contains a few major qualifications trainers should have:

1. – A solid fundamental understanding of exercise science.  This includes sound knowledge of biomechanics (body structure and how it works mechanically), exercise physiology (underlying biological processes related to nutrition, energy, how we adapt to exercise, etc.), and exercise/sport psychology (including understanding of motivation, adherence, and how people can develop good habits for health).  This DOES NOT mean the person goes spouting off jargon every chance they get.  It’s not about trying to show off book knowledge.  But if a trainer is afraid to talk about some of the more technical aspects of why he/she is having  a client do something a certain way, then that’s a big red flag.

2. – An openness to using a variety of tools to get the job done.  By this, I mean that the trainer should not be “married” to any particular exercise method or rigid philosophy.  He/she should be willing to apply whatever method is most appropriate for the particular person and situation for which exercise is being designed.  If a person doesn’t “believe in” machines, bands, free weights, yoga, etc., then there’s probably an issue with that person’s understanding of how those different tools might be applied to serve someone’s capabilities and needs the best.

3. – An ability to justify the approach that is used (NOT be random).  As an important counterbalance to the previous point, an effective trainer knows that variety is only as effective as our ability to temper it with good judgment.  Someone who haphazardly throws a new method or exercise at a client every set or every day is likely to cause injury or, at the very least, impede their progress through a lack of specificity in terms of how the workouts are approached.  The trainer MUST have a good reason for every tool or method that is used.  Do you want to use whole-body barbell movements today and nothing but isometric work with resistance bands tomorrow?  GREAT!  Just know why you’re doing it.  There must always be a justification!

4. – An ability and willingness to communicate effectively with a client.  This includes things like explaining the long-term goals of a particular exercise plan, conveying information about nutrition and lifestyle, and helping the client to develop realistic expectations for progress.  It also means the trainer is able to teach/coach effective techniques for exercise and — now this is a BIG one — knows how to cue a person effectively between and during every repetition if needed so every moment of the workout is used effectively.  This communication will likely be a combination of verbal and nonverbal, and it will strike a healthy balance between too stoic and overly wordy.

5. – Honesty and integrity at all times.  A trainer has an enormous responsibility to the client.  A fitness professional must recognize that someone is putting their health and well being in their hands.  As such, it’s irresponsible to lie or withhold any information that might have any bearing on that person’s health.  If a client is not holding up their end of the agreement (let’s say not eating well or showing motivation), the trainer should take them to task on it.  Likewise, a trainer should hold him/herself responsible for mistakes or oversights AT ALL TIMES.  In addition, the trainer should n0t pressure a client into paying for something he/she doesn’t need.  This includes questionable nutritional supplements or other “secondary income” avenues for the trainer (as well as gym services that the client does not want or need).  I understand that trainers at many gyms are required to try to sell additional services, but there’s a way to handle this that is classy and not overly pushy.

 

 ^^^ EVERY good trainer should fit these characteristics pretty well ^^^

It's important not to mistake a piece of paper for the knowledge it supposedly represents.  Evaluate the person, not the credential!

It’s important not to mistake a piece of paper for the knowledge it supposedly represents. Evaluate the person, not the credential!

You’ll notice that in that list, I didn’t once mention a certification of particular educational background.  That’s because they aren’t necessary to develop the attributes above.  Sure, studying for an exam will probably teach you a few things.  Maybe a lot of things.  But it’s not enough to make you the trainer you need to be.  I’ve met many people with certifications who are great, and many who are terrible.  I’ve also met many without any such credential who are ALSO at both ends of the spectrum.

So when making a decision about whether a person is qualified for the job as a fitness professional, it’s important to look beyond the certification.  Look at the person who earned it.  Because at the end of the day, it’s what you DO with that piece of paper that determines its worth :)

Look Who’s Back!!!


Long time no see, everyone!  But here I am, finally back at the keyboard after too long of a hiatus.  Grad school certainly has a way of being selfish with your time (who’d a thunk???)

Anyway, I wanted to give a quick update on how things are going.  The keen observer may have noticed a slight change in the letters I have after my name in my “credential” tag.  That’s not a mistake, as on August 2nd, I hit a pretty big milestone.  Namely, I FINISHED MY MASTER’S DEGREE!!!  That’s right — I now have a master’s degree in Exercise Science from Auburn University, with an emphasis in Exercise Physiology.

So what does this mean?

Basically, I now have formal documentation that I SHOULD know a little more about this exercise stuff that I keep going on and on about than some other enthusiasts.  Cool, right?  Now I just have to prove it ^.^

 

Watch out -- Geoff's got a graduate degree now!

Watch out — Geoff’s got a graduate degree now!

 

As I proceed with my own professional development, continuing to push the educational boundaries is key.  I have a responsibility to know as much as possible about everything I talk about here.  So don’t expect me to rest on my laurels as I move forward!

I say all of that to say this — I’ve been LONG OVERDUE to bring you guys new content for the blog.  But don’t worry, I’ve been hard at work.  I’ve put together a couple dozen exercise and health topics that I think you’ll enjoy, and I’ll start rolling them out VERY soon.  So thanks for being patient!  I’ll also be providing regular updates on upcoming certifications, travels, relevant experiences, general science shtick, and my quest toward my next degree.

 

What — you didn’t think I’d quit before getting my PhD, did you??? ;)


This post is a bit more geared toward fellow fitness professionals, and especially those in the NSCA (though all trainers and coaches can hopefully benefit from the points I’ll be making here).  It concerns the following:

An article was posted today on the NSCA Facebook page that I found a bit bothersome.  It is presented as a reasonable argument for the inclusion of a new exercise into the traditional strength and conditioning paradigm that most coaches are familiar with.  Well intentioned, no doubt, but the substance — at least in MY assessment — doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  While this is not an indictment of the Strength and Conditioning Journal as a whole, I think that someone should have been a little more vigilant before allowing this article to reach publication.

 

The National Strength and Conditioning Association --  Usually pretty sharp in their presentation of research and their endorsement of exercise professionals.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association — Usually pretty sharp in their presentation of research and their endorsement of exercise professionals.

 

Specifically, the article is entitled, The Benefits of Performing the Split Alternating Foot Snatch, by Allen Hedrick, MA, CSCS,  Hedrick is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at Colorado State University in Pueblo and a FELLOW of the NSCA (National Strength & Conditioning Association).  In a nutshell, the article argues for the inclusion of the aforementioned exercise in S&C programs and attempts to cite a few research papers in support of the claim.  My writing here focuses primarily on a single study that is used to support the notion that the “Split Alternating Foot Snatch” (referred to here as the SAFS or split snatch) is superior to a more commonly used movement such as the power clean for power development in an athlete.  Other claims are made regarding improved variation and “sport specificity” that I address briefly as well.  Before reading further, I encourage you to read the original article which I have linked above.

 

After reading the article, all I really see is a pile of assumptions and conjecture.  While they MAY be somewhat correct, there’s no direct research cited here to show the efficacy of such a movement.  Not so much as an EMG study to tell us anything about muscle activation patterns.  Before jumping to conclusions and declaring that we should definitely include this or any other exercise into a program, there needs to be something a little more solid to support the notion.  This is especially true in light of the fact that much of the article itself is based on an erroneous reading of the Garhammer study, which you can read for yourself HERE.  Let’s look at what really occurs in that study…

 

An example of a split snatch (SAFS) -- shamelessly taken from www.crossfit.com

An example of a split snatch (SAFS) — shamelessly taken from http://www.crossfit.com

 

First, a quick note on physics — while one can make an argument for a snatch as having a higher velocity than a clean, that all depends on the loads being used.  Lowering the mass of the implement being lifted during a power clean will allow for it to be accelerated more quickly.  That may or may not offset whatever speed “benefits” are seen from the snatch.  It is certainly NOT a given that a power clean cannot move as quickly as a snatch under certain circumstances.

 

It should also be noted that the Garhammer study that’s used to support Hedrick’s statement was EXTREMELY specific in its scope — it used 5 OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNING lifters performing the snatch, power clean, and jerk.  That’s not exactly a large and all-inclusive sample size, and the study was performed with 16mm camera footage almost 30 years ago.  And here’s the kicker – the author of the post above talks about how increased bar velocity was noticed in the snatch when compared to the clean during this study.  That’s mostly true, based on the numbers.  But when you discuss power output (which is a major point of argument in Hedrick’s article), things become murkier.  During the first pull, the higher power value between the two lifts waffles back and forth.  In questions of greatest INSTANTANEOUS power, however, the power clean is usually greater.  So this blows a hole in the idea that the author tries to put forward that the snatch is the best option for training for power output.

 

Once again, we have arguments that the SAFS is beneficial because 1) it allows for greater power output (unsupported by the research cited), and 2) it allows for variability that MAY introduce a novel stimulus to the nervous system (not clear due to lack of evidence).  I’ll cede that the second point is true in principle.  But the question remains as to whether that novel stimulus will produce any actual benefit on the field.  Will adding a split motion to a power lift translate into better in-game performance for an athlete?  I have yet to see evidence of this.

 

The power clean that we all know -- taken from www.crossfitkrypton.com

The power clean that we all know — taken from http://www.crossfitkrypton.com

 

I balk at the idea that we should consider replacing, without any strong evidence, the power clean — a power movement that is relatively easy to learn and coach – with a split snatch.  The SAFS is a far more difficult movement to teach, as it contains a much higher degree of movement complexity.  Introducing something novel for a specific purpose is one thing.  But this seems to be veering off into the realm of unnecessary challenge that will not produce any appreciable benefits to the athlete, and due to the increased mechanical complexity of the movement, it will likely require significant reductions in the actual force that can be generated in a controlled manner.  If your goal is power, then compromising force output is NOT what you want.

 

Let me be clear here — I’m not trying to condemn anyone (including the author of the article in question) or point a finger of blame.  But it’s vital that we all, as professionals, do a better job of interpreting the research that is out there.  We must also be very careful not to make any claims that aren’t backed by the science or, if we do make such claims, make it perfectly clear that we are only speculating.  Always check the sources of your articles, friends.  Always question what is being fed to you.

In my opinion, Hedrick should have done a much better job of fact-checking his article.  Furthermore, the Strength and Conditioning Journal should have done a better job of vetting the sources and scrutinizing the paper before allowing for its publication.  But hey, I’m just a grad student.  So maybe there’s something I’m missing ;)

 

Cheers


So I left off a while back having discussed the MAIN STRUCTURAL COMPONENTS responsible for flexibility (bones, ligaments, etc.) to give some idea of the hard limits that we have to our total joint range.  But as most of us realize, that’s not the whole picture.  After all, it’s not usually our skeleton that’s restricting us in day-to-day activities.

Where do we typically feel “tight” instead?  In our muscles!  And that brings me to the major focus of this blog entry — the NEUROMUSCULAR SYSTEM!!!

You see, the primary job (mechanically speaking) that our muscles have is, simply put, managing joints.  Put another way, they’re primarily responsible for making sure that the bones can actually maintain proper contact with each other, can move (or not move) properly, and that force can be distributed throughout our bodies in an appropriate way.  If our muscles are working well, then we’re having a good time.  If not, then we start to see dysfunction — in the form of pain, arthritis, weakness, poor performance, coordination issues, and all sorts of other not-so-fun stuff.

 

A less-than-optimal neuromuscular system often leads to pain and other issues -- from www.treatingpain.com

A less-than-optimal neuromuscular system often leads to pain and other issues — from http://www.treatingpain.com

 

So to illustrate how some of this works, we have to break down the actual structure of a muscle and the “stuff” it interacts with.  Note that this will be PRETTY basic, but there’s still some science ahead.  So saddle up!

Muscles are, at least in my opinion, some of the coolest things ever devised by nature.  They consist of tons of tightly packed subcellular machinery that allows our bodies to convert the chemical energy of our food and the products of food breakdown into actual mechanical energy (FORCE)!  This is no small feat.  I won’t get into the metabolic pathways and mechanisms that govern this right now, but just know that there’s a lot of stuff that has to happen for your muscles to work!  So let’s talk a little about their structure (feel free to skip this portion if you’re already familiar with basic muscle structure):

 

– BEGINNING OF SCIENCE!!! –

 

***Keep in mind that this post is going to talk about skeletal muscle.  This is the stuff that attaches to our bones and helps us move.  There are two other types of muscle — cardiac (heart muscle) and smooth (which operates in our organs and around blood vessels) — but this isn’t immediately relevant to us.  So I’ll stick to skeletal muscle today.***

 

First off, I want you to look at the structure of a typical muscle.  Notice that it’s a big hunk of tissue that’s attached to a bone by something called a TENDON.  But when we break it down, we see that the whole muscle is actually comprised of a bunch of chunks of  muscle units called “fascicles.”  The word “fasciculus” actually means “bundle” in Latin.  This makes perfect sense, as you can see that each fascicle is really a bundle of individual muscle fibers.  I sometimes like to think of it as a bundle of straws wrapped in a thin sheet of tissue.  And all of those bundles come together to make the whole muscle.  Also– in muscles, a “fiber” is the same thing as a “cell.”  So keep that in mind if you see it anywhere else.  Again, FIBER = CELL.

 

Skeletal_Muscle_Fibers

Muscles have a really cool structure — notice how muscle fibers (cells) are bundled together into fascicles, and then THOSE are bundled together again. It all packs together into what we know as a whole muscle — Taken from http://www.medicalook.com

 

This gives a good basic overview of how our muscles are organized on a larger scale.  Now let’s look a little closer at a single muscle cell (one of the straws) to see how it’s put together:

 

So we see that, even on a smaller scale, things are bundled up in a similar fashion.  Inside a single cell, we see these individual cylinders called "myofibrils" that have their own components within THEM -- from www.24manuals.com

Smaller bundles of “straws” within each of the ones from the previous diagram — from http://www.24manuals.com

 

So we see that, even on a smaller scale, things are bundled up in a similar fashion. Inside a single cell, we see these individual cylinders called “myofibrils” that have their own components within THEM.  It is within these myofibrils that the smallest functional unit of a muscle is found — THE SARCOMERE.  I won’t get too deep into how this little guy works, but suffice it to say, these are where the magic really happens.  Here’s one last picture to help you visualize things on this microscopic level:

 

A diagram of the basic structure of a SARCOMERE -- from www.studyblue.com

A diagram of the basic structure of a SARCOMERE — from http://www.studyblue.com

 

So all you really need to know about sarcomeres is this — tiny little proteins (filaments or myofilaments) inside the sarcomere attach and “crawl” over each other so that each end (the Z-disc or Z-line) is pulled toward the middle.  Now all of these sarcomeres are attached end-to-end (in “series” as it is known).  If we zoom back out a bit, we can imagine how the whole muscle will shorten as each individual subunit shortens.  Here’s a neat way to visualize this:

Imagine you and nine friends are all side-by-side, and you each represent a single sarcomere.  You each have your arms outstretched and are holding hands with the person next to you.  Now imagine that, while doing this, you’re sitting on a REALLY slick surface so you can pull all of the people on either side of you closer to your position.  If you pull your arms in (“contract” like a sarcomere), you get “thinner” and the people on either side of you will slide in towards you.  The overall length of the system (all 10 people) will get a LITTLE BIT shorter.  Now imagine if ALL TEN of you do the same thing.  Every person pulls the people they’re holding hands with closer to them.  As you might imagine, the whole chain will get MUCH shorter, as everyone is pulling their arms in at the same time.  This is what happens within a myofibril, and within a whole muscle on a larger scale.  The whole muscle shortens, because TONS OF INDIVIDUAL SARCOMERES SHORTEN.

I mentioned earlier that muscles generally attach to our bones at what is called a tendon.  While they don’t generate force directly, healthy tendons are absolutely vital for allowing us to transmit that force from our muscles to the bones (or vice-versa) and do all of the things that we ask our bodies to do.  If a tendon fails, then the muscle can’t do its job.  This is important to keep in mind, as these structures are often overlooked when we talk about building strength and power and developing our physiques.  We’ll look at tendons and how they are involved in stretching a little more later.

 

– END OF SCIENCE!!! –

 

So from all of this, we can see that there’s an intricate structure that contributes to the way our muscles do their jobs.  Millions of tiny units work together to create the large-scale movements that we see and use every day.

I needed to go into the structure of muscles a bit so you have a basic understanding of the pieces that make up the whole.  Muscles are an intricate (and WAY COOL) system of components that come together beautifully to allow us to perform all of the actions of daily living that we take for granted.  Without muscles, there is no controlled movement.  So now that you know a little bit more about how muscles are put together, what about the effects of stretching?  How does attempting to move into extreme ranges affect these tissues?  I’ll describe this in the next entry :)

 


Okay, this is sort of an impromptu post that I decided to put together after reading a Men’s Fitness Article on strength training.  More specifically, it’s entitled “10 Ways to Lose Muscle” and is authored by Rachel Cosgrove, CSCS (ironically the best-selling author of The Female Body Breakthrough, according to her website).  The article is linked here, and I encourage you to read it before reading the rest of this post:

 

http://www.mensfitness.com/training/build-muscle/10-ways-lose-muscle

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(Taken from the aforementioned article at http://www.mensfitness.com)

While some valid points are made, there are also a few areas where I believe Cosgrove actually reinforces certain misconceptions.  An uninformed reader might take a few of these oversimplifications (and in one or two cases, outright fallacies) and cause him/herself more harm than good by following them.  So forgive me if I put on my “exercise physiologist” hat for a minute, but I want to address each point made by the author of this article in order.  Here goes:

 

1 – YOU DON’T EAT ENOUGH (FOR FEAR OF GETTING FAT) — This is basically true. Calorie surplus is necessary for tissue anabolism (growth) to occur. Though it’s incorrect for the author to say most of what you eat is “converted to muscle,” as only a small portion will be. But in order for that small conversion to occur most effectively, you need a certain caloric surplus (and a certain minimum of carbohydrate present) to stimulate it.

2 – YOU AMP UP YOUR CARDIO — Correct basic statement in that you do work against yourself by doing too much too often. But the author is mistaken by saying that “daily cardio sessions simply burn too many cumulative calories to allow you the surplus you need for muscle mass…” as typical cardio won’t burn as many calories as most people think. Take a look at a lot of the cardio freaks that hit the treadmill religiously and still never enter enough of a caloric deficit to lose weight. Cardio can interfere with muscle gains, but it’s generally for more complicated reasons than stated here.

3 – YOU WORK TO EXHAUSTION — While a certain amount of training volume (and possibly fatigue) seem necessary for muscle growth, there are many people who commonly do too much. So this point is pretty accurate.

4 – YOU FAVOR BODY-PART WORKOUTS — I have to take issue with this point. The author makes too many assumptions about body part-focused exercises. I have seen no evidence (or logic, for that matter) to support the idea that full-body exercises will somehow prevent more injuries or catch those “problem” muscles we often ignore. In fact, non-focused exercises by their very nature are LESS specific and therefore CANNOT challenge the individual muscles that would otherwise get overlooked. In a person with any hiding dysfunction or muscular imbalance, focusing only on compound movements and ignoring exercises focused on specific body parts will almost assuredly encourage deeper compensation and worsen existing imbalances. So the author has no authority on which to base this particular claim. It’s simply biased, and I think it could actually harm many people reading the article who don’t know any better.

5 - YOU SHUN STRETCHINGWRONG!!! I can’t decide between this point and the previous one for the title of most incorrect claim in this article. Stretching has been shown to enhance recovery a TINY bit in SOME cases, but it is by no means a magical cure. Active recovery (moving around and keeping the muscles lightly working) is far better, and the research shows it. Stretching can apparently improve muscle range of motion, though the mechanisms through which it operates are not actually understood by most of the people who encourage it (not surprising). I think there are specific times and places to stretch, and outside of those specific scenarios it simply shouldn’t be done.

 

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What was she THINKING???

5 – YOU SHUN STRETCHING (CONTINUED) — The author also mentions how simply lifting weights will increase risk for injury. I have seen no evidence to support this, and in fact, proper resistance training can stabilize joints and PREVENT injury. It’s all in the execution. And finally, the claim that stretching somehow gives muscles more “room to grow” is simply preposterous! It makes me question this woman’s basic understanding of anatomy and muscle physiology, as that’s simply NOT how muscles work. You don’t magically get less flexible by lifting weights, and you don’t magically have more room to grow by stretching. Muscles have the room that they have, and outside of specific pathological scenarios like when there is significant scarring, etc., nothing will occur that will change that available space. Outside of surgery, you’re not going to alter the length of a muscle. Its attachments are fixed in place (AS THEY SHOULD BE!!!)

6 – YOU ONLY EAT SPORADICALLY — Another myth. While not eating for extended periods of time can EVENTUALLY slow your metabolism down, a few hours won’t have much appreciable impact on your resting metabolic rate. The idea that you need to eat every three hours somehow worked its way into popular “fitness” culture a number of years ago, and it’s been lingering like that last awkward guy at the party ever since. You know… the guy that nobody even remembers inviting??? Think about it. If going three hours without eating significantly slowed your metabolism and then caused the subsequent meal to be stored as fat, then how catastrophic must breakfast be when you’ve been sleeping for 6-8 hours and potentially fasted for 9-10 or more?!? It just doesn’t make good logical sense, and it’s not supported by the science. Eat whenever you’re hungry, don’t ignore the signals, and try to balance nutrients in a sensible ratio when you do eat. Just smartly plan a little extra around your workouts, and you’re probably golden. No need to be a slave to an unrealistic and biologically non-beneficial “every-three-hours” schedule.

7 – YOU RARELY ALTER YOUR ROUTINE — This is basically sound advice. But it should be noted that, while variation is needed over time (altering intensity, speed, weight/resistance, or range of motion, etc.), it must be planned and have a purpose. Randomness for its own sake is a recipe for disaster. And this whole “muscle confusion” thing that P90X and other similar exercise programs out there spout is a farce. Muscles don’t get “confused” by randomness in the way that people selling those things would like you to believe. There is unaccustomed challenge, but calling it “confusion” is missing the point entirely.

8 – YOU ONLY TRAIN WHAT YOU SEE IN THE MIRROR — This is a big one that I have to agree with the author on. Especially seen in novice lifters who like to worry about the “sexy” muscles that they think about. With no appreciation for all of the players on the team, you’re bound to develop some issues sooner or later. If you’re lucky, the imbalances will only manifest aesthetically. But in worse cases, they could lead to asymmetries that cause injury and abnormal joint wear. Also, while the author seems to imply that most of the inappropriate focus gets placed on the front of the upper body (neglecting the legs and back), I’ve seen many people who do the opposite. There’s a lot of “leg worship” out there, and it can be just as problematic if not handled properly.

9 – YOU DON’T DRINK SHAKES — Skipping a shake isn’t necessarily a problem if you still get prompt nutrition in a proper ratio after a workout. Shakes are seen as good, because they’re usually put together in such a way that the essential carbs and amino acids needed for proper muscle repair and growth (as well as glycogen replenishment) are easily accessed and absorbed by your body. So yeah, they’re convenient. But it’s wrong to say that shakes are NECESSARY. The MOST important thing is just making sure that you get something that your muscles like soon after the workout. It’s the wait that kills your gains (waiting an hour or more post-workout can put a serious dent in the growth you’re hoping to see). So make sure you eat something. A shake may be the best option, or it may not. It just depends. Just make sure you get the carbs and protein you need SOMEHOW!

10 – YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH REST — I have to agree with this one for the most part. Lack of rest can kill your progress and lead to injuries, not to mention making you irritable and just plain tired (which kills the intensity you’re able to bring to your workouts!) Sleep deprivation can disrupt hormones like GH and cortisol, as the article says. The only issue I have here is the claim that working out every day will also kill your gains. This depends on a variety of factors, the biggest of which is probably the training status of the individual (closely followed by the nutrition/supplementation status). Some people can handle it just fine, while others will certainly break down and go in reverse. It’s just not right to make a blanket statement. Too many people DO get gains from working out that much, but it’s all dependent on how well trained they are and how smart they are in going about it.

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As I said, this was just an attempt to clear some things up!

So there you have it… my quick little point-by-point analysis of the article detailing where I think the author was correct and where she was a little (or a LOT) mistaken.  One could certainly go into MUCH more depth than this if desired, but I just wanted to highlight some of the biggies that I thought needed attention for the semi-casual reader.  It’s important for anyone with significant play — such as this lady who’s writing articles for Men’s Fitness and, as of this posting, has had this particular piece shared on Facebook about 19,000 times — to be careful with the statements they make.  We as fitness professionals have a duty to be accurate and nuanced in the way that we share information with our clients and the public.  I feel that this article in Men’s Fitness fell short of that goal.

I’m not trying to demonize Ms. Cosgrove, as I’m sure she has done a lot of good for a lot of people.  But regardless of the person, I will call out errors where I see them in an attempt to help at least ONE person better understand what’s being said out there.  If anyone benefits even the slightest bit from my efforts, then they’re not wasted.

On a final note, I don’t claim that my views should be taken as gospel, and I encourage you to challenge any of these points by looking into the research yourself if it strikes your fancy.  While I know a decent bit, I’m still learning more about this stuff EVERY DAY.  You might come across something that would even surprise me, and I hope you’ll share it if you do :)

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