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For my first few years as a personal trainer I essentially treated hamstring stretches the same way Oprah treats cars.
Everyone got one.
If you’ve ever set foot in a gym you’ve probably seen this happen. The client lying on their back, whilst the trainer gradually raises one of the clients legs until they feel a stretch start to happen in the back of their thigh.
Sometimes the leg would only come a little way of the ground before the stretch really bit in. It would like trying to stretch the Tin man after he’d been caught in the rain without a brolly.
Whilst with other people, their leg would fly up of the floor and almost go through 180º and still feel like there was zero stretch occurring.
What I found really odd was that some of those super bendy people would complain that they felt really tight and really really wanted to feel a stretch.
How could they feel tight when they were so flexible?
I just didn’t really appreciate at the time the difference between flexibility and stability.
Some people are genetically more flexible than others, or to be a little more precise, they have more laxity in their joints.
They are capable of going through a very large range of movement.
The body makes collagen with a lot more elasticity.
But that extra flexibility is usually present without the ability to stabilise and control the available range of movement.
Certain sports have a very high ratio of hypermobile athletes.
Gymnasts, dancers and swimmers are often hypermobile as their inherent flexibility allows them to achieve the positions and movements demanded by their sport.
This movement is something that this young lady has been born with rather than purposely developed....and it's no surprise to see her in a gymnastics setting.
You may be thinking so what? Big deal?
Here’s the big deal, joint hypermobility affects approximately 20% of the population. That’s quite a few people, and if you’re one of them it will affect the type and choice of exercises that best benefit you.
It is also a very important consideration in staying injury free. If a joint can move through a large range of movement but cannot keep itself stable through that movement then it is very likely to get injured.
I’ve seen two examples of this in the last month.
Both were hypermobile and suffering from knee pain after running as they were unable to stabilise and control their leg sufficiently as it went through it’s gait cycle.
So how how can you tell if you’re hypermobile?
A standard test is the Beighton Scale which you can view below.
As you can see it only takes a second to do and you’re probably fiddling around with your pinky right now to see how far it moves.
If three of these apply to you then you can definitely assume that your hypermobile. Even just two and you’ll have some laxity to consider.
So what do you do if this applies to you?
Be very selective with how you stretch (if at all).
Your joints are not lacking the ability to move so logically you don’t need to stretch them, in fact stretching could be hindering you.
Often there is still the feeling of being”tight”. What you need to realise is that feeling tight muscles are not the same as short muscles.
The issue is actually guarding tension from the nervous system.
The muscles are tight as the body is trying like crazy to get some stability and hold things in place. The hamstrings are probably tight as they are the main thing preventing the pelvis from going into a huge anterior tilt.
The solution is to focus on getting stronger. As the body develops new strength and becomes more stable the muscles will start to relax. The increased stability around the joints will allow the nervous system to start chill a bit.
Be very careful at end ranges of exercises.
Hyperextension at the knee and elbow are very common in hypermobile folks, if you look at the Beighton Scale both are on there.
With one of the hypermobile clients I saw this month she would stand in knee hyperextension when at rest, so the front of the leg looked slightly bowed.
It’s these very excessive end ranges that need to be avoided, especially when under load.
Lunges, squats, leg press and all other variants that involve knee extension under load need to be very carefully controlled. It may feel rather odd for the trainee at first, like they’re stopping a little short or not completing the movement.
The same goes for the upper body and exercise that involve flexion and extension of the elbow. Presses, rows, the start point of a chin up…..avoid letting the elbow go into hyperextension.
To really get the feel for this it may help to slow down the speed of the lift. Avoid any explosive movements (especially things like box jumps), then take 2-3 seconds for the lifting phase of an exercise, to allow full concentration on where the joints are moving too.
Non of this is to put a blanket ban on certain exercises or activities. As always every activity and exercise is dependant on the individual.
What it does mean is that the Beighton Scale is a fantastic assessment you can safely use on yourself to determine if laxity may be an issue.
If it is, do not stretch indiscriminately, yep that means that yoga may not be a very good option for you.
Understand that any “tightness” you may feel in your muscles probably has nothing to do with any actual shortness of the muscle, but is the body trying to hold/keep structures stable.
Using a well designed resistance program will probably be hugely beneficial for keeping you injury free and reducing the feelings of muscular tightness.
Avoid hitting hyperextension of the limbs, especially during exercise. No matter how much the HIIT class instructor yells for more reps or jumps, the focus more than ever needs to be on quality reps rather than quantity.
If you thought this was useful or just a waffle of piffle, leave a comment lemme know.
I’ve decided to call it a lesson in empathy (my wife may have called it a pain in the rear end).
Two weeks ago my back decided that it hated me and wanted to make my life a misery. It felt tight, sometimes started to spasm and was generally not a happy bunny.
I’ve worked with plenty of people with back pain, most of whom have had to live with a lot worse discomfort than I was in. But it’s so easy to forget to disassociate with other peoples personal pains.
So it was a (weirdly) good experience for me to get a better idea of what some folks live with.
The frustration of not being able to properly play with my daughter and give her a daddy carry.
Not being able to exercise, or lie in my favourite position to sleep, being overtaken by the entire world when trying to get a train at rush hour.
All minors in the grand scheme of things – but enough to take the jam out of your doughnut.
I’m no way smart enough to be able to write a blog that will specifically help every individual with back pain.
But there is a ridiculously smart chap who set out some very simple steps and exercises to help you avoid dealing with back pain yourself.
Dr Stuart McGill is generally regarded as the international Mr Myagi of spinal and back care. He’s a Professor of Biomechanics and author of numerous books on low back pain – I could carry on playing the hype man but would rather leave it at “he’s worth paying attention to” and crack on with the rest.
So what is “the rest”?
Well Dr McGill has a small group of exercises that he calls (or at least have become known as) the Big 3 for preventing back pain.
Each exercise focuses on developing the endurance of the muscle groups responsible for looking after the back.
After all, these muscles are required from the moment you bounce out of bed in the morning until you hit the sack in the evening. So endurance is a pretty important quality.
By now you probably just want me to tell you what they are….well here you goes.
Why is it called that? I dunno and have never been sufficiently curious to ask Google, if you have an idea why feel free to comment below and improve my education.
What do you do?
Start on all fours, hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
From there extend the opposite arm and leg (so right arm would reach forward whilst left leg extends back).
When the limbs move you need your torso to stay dead still. Imagine that you have a glass of your favourite, most expensive tipple balanced on your back and you don’t want to lose a drop.
There will be a temptation for the torso to either shift over the supporting leg and/or for the lower back to arch. You need to develop enough strength and control to prevent these movements from happening.
As the points of support are reduced from four limbs to two it is the role of the core muscles to provide the extra support.
If this is really tough at first you can start by only extending the leg and keeping the hand on the floor for more support.
Aim – start with holding each rep for 10 seconds on each side (remember to breath – breathing is a great habit I highly recommend).
Try 3 reps per side. As you improve work towards holding the rep for 30 secs. Eventually aim to be able to hold 1 rep each side for 60 seconds.
A common staple of many exercise classes but one that is easily butchered.
Key points – try to hold your ear, shoulder, hips and ankles in alignment with each other.
Do that breathing again and squeeze your booty (as in clench it….not grab it with your hands).
Start at 10 secs per side, if that’s tickety-boo ramp it up to 30 secs per side for 3 reps each.
Modified Curl Up (McGill Crunch)
Lie on your back (no closing your eyes for a cheeky snooze).
Bend one leg at the knee (keeping foot on the floor), keep the other leg flat on the floor.
Place both hands under the small of your back, this is to maintain a slight curve at the spine.
Raise head and shoulders of the floor so that shoulder blades just come of the floor but lower back remains in contact with your hands.
Hold the position for three seconds, then return the floor.
Perform 4-5 reps then swap sides.
And that’s it.
Three low intensity exercises that require no equipment other than a small space of floor and 5 minutes to yourself.
I don't what it is.
It may be getting older, it may be becoming a dad and having the honour of watching my kid grow, it may just be that I'm getting more comfortable with being me.
I seem to come close to having an emotion every now and then....not quite, but almost.
I listened to the Baz Lurhmann track Sunscreen the other day.
You know the one where he doles out good advice over a nice beat. I remember hearing it when it first came out and it was alright.....I was too busy finding pubs to stagger home from as I was at university at the time (doing the first stage of becoming a dropout).
But the other night I thought it was fantastic and wished I'd been smart enough to heed it's advice 20 years ago.
Check it out here if you're wondering what I'm banging on about.
But there's a great piece of advice that I think dear ol' Baz missed out.
And that's to stretch.
Man I wished I had stretched more often.
I also wish that I knew how to stretch and to get the most out of the stretch.
Feeling tight seems to hit most folks at some point after the age of 28. But why?
Why do we feel tight and what the fish can we do to improve things?
In my experience muscle tightness is just about never to do with a muscle being truly short.
The muscle doesn't lose length but instead increases in tone.
In plain English, the body starts to feel that a joint or area of the body is unstable so acts to protect it self. The nervous systems cranks up the tension in the muscle to hold things in place.
Tightness is just the body trying to find a solution to a problem.
Now before you run of and start tying yourself into a pretzel there are a couple of things to consider first.
The first is general stretching is not for everyone.
Some people are born with looser connective tissues than others. This often means they can move like a bendy straw.....often they'll gravitate to activities like dancing and gymnastics as they can hit all the funky positions.
Often they'll feel tight and really really want to stretch......even though their limbs can hit some crazy ranges of movement.
They feel tight because the muscles are holding on for dear life to try and keep things together.
To see if this applies to you, use the Beighton Laxity Scale. (Despite it's name this isn't a constipation cure.)
The tests are demonstrated in the picture below.
The sawn off version is if you can bend forward and touch your palms to the floor with straight legs, extend your ring finger so that it's almost pointing to the ceiling and/or bring your thumb back towards your forearm then you have some laxity present.
The best way forwards would be to focus on strength training activities.
Make the muscles stronger, therefore better able to support and stabilise and you'll feel less tight.
Stretching a hyper mobile joint will really mess with your chi.
The next considerations are the simpler things you can do right now to help things move better.
Such as drinking enough water.
If your connective tissues are dehydrated they're going to get tighter and move poorly.
Think of it as putting WD40 on creaky old door hinge.
This has been an absolute game changer for me.
Ab muscles which aren't as strong as we need them to be can cause havoc on the rest of the body.
I've lost track of the amount of times I've been able to improve a clients range of movement in their legs by getting their core muscles switched on.
The ab muscles attach to your pelvis, as do many of the muscles from your legs.
If the core is weak then the legs have a weak foundation to move on. Therefore the body restricts the movement possible.
The body can even start to use the leg muscles as stabilisers for the pelvis and causes even more tightness.
Personally I've improved the movement of my shoulders and cleared up some long term pain by getting my core into the game more.
It doesn't need to be anything fancy. Some ab-plank variations are a great place to start.
Something that looks a little like this.
I like to think of the core as a peg in a tents guide rope. Without it you can't hold anything in place.
You can stretch your hips all you like, but if there is nothing to hold things in place, no stability at the pelvis then the body will just go back to as it was.
It still has the same problem to solve and it will use the same solution as before.
You need the strength at the abs to make the stretch permanent.
Let's Get Stretchy
I said at the start that I thought stretching was mucho important. I didn't say that I liked it.
At best I'd describe my relationship with stretching as "it's complicated".
If you train at a gym you can start by choosing exercises that involve a stretch.
An example of this is a split squat.
The front of the thigh on the rear leg goes through a stretch whilst the muscles on the leading leg get put through their paces.
For bonus points keep the butt on the rear leg tensed and firing hard.
If you really want to hate life a bit more you can elevate the back leg slightly on a step block.
But get used to regular split squats before doing this, otherwise it may feel like you're trying to detach something that would rather not be detached.
Dumbbell pullovers are another example.
They get length into the lat muscles whilst getting the abs to fire hard when performed well.
Focus on keeping the lower back in touch with the bench, don't allow it to arch away. Elbows stay nice and long as you reach back.....you should feel your abs having a fine ol' party.
Finally we have regular ol' stretches, you can do these guys at home and it takes nothing more than placing enough value on your body to spend a couple of minutes doing them.
You don't even need to do a dedicated stretching session.
You could make a deal with yourself to do one each time you stand up from the desk, couch or where ever you spend a decent amount of time.
My favourite cover all bases stretches are....
Half kneeling hip stretch - the hip flexors tend to get a little gritty. Tension in these guys can contribute to back and knee pain (which ain't ideal).
This stretch is performed in most gyms and absolutely murdered with poor technique which makes it at best ineffectual.
Squeeze the butt on the kneeling side as hard as you can, the whole time. Don't try to extend your knee a meter behind your body as I assure you, you will only be cranking on your back and doing zero for your hips.
Check out this video to avoid the pitfalls.
The lats are another area that can cause mucho issues all over the body due their attaching to the shoulders and the pelvis (The only muscle to do so).
A good option to keep these chaps happy can be found here.
Finally the dear old pecs need some lovin'.
I love stretching them out on a foam roller. It's effective and you get to lie down....what more could you want.
If you take the arms straight out to the sides in a T position, you'll hit more of the pec major. Moving the arms into a Y position (think about the YMCA moves), goes for the pec minor.
Both need some care. But move between the two and see where you feel the most tension, then just hang there and let gravity do the work.
Saturday morning found me faced with two of my favourite things.
Food and books.
I was at a cafe with the family munching my way through a club sandwich (chicken, chorizo, fried egg, tomato and lettuce in a baguette....I have no idea what the macro's were, but there were definitely some).
The cafe had a pile of random books and on the top was a massive tome about Muhammad Ali.
Filled with big glossy pictures of the man himself.
Even a glance at the book gave truly magic tales.
Like being in the ring with Sonny Liston before the biggest fight of his life, looking down at the man who had terrified other heavyweights and whispering "I got you now sucker".
But one quote really hit home to me.
"I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."
It's easy to think that people who have achieved something remarkable have somehow found it easier than most people.
That they're lucky cos they have a natural capacity....if we had that then obviously I could have done that.
Then comes a well rehearsed story as to why it's just not that simple for us.
I know the urge for instant gratification has got the better of me too many times.
(Hmmmm, write a blog post in the evening or watch Netflix?)
When it comes to training for a change in body shape, another quote jumps to mind.
"Everybody wants to be a body builder but nobody wants to lift heavy ass weights"
Ronny Coleman, (a multi world champion body builder.)
Ok, chances you may not want to be a body builder and perhaps the idea of "suffering" like The Greatest doesn't float your boat.
But making a positive change in your life demands an up front payment.
You can't get the result first.
The effort comes first.
For most of us it only requires a few months of effort.
By effort, I don't mean living like a monk (or nun), hating life and eating nothing tastier than a celery stick.
But prioritising yourself and what you value.
Then doing the actions necessary to get there.
After all what's the alternative?
We only get one chance to do this life right.
How are you going to spend your time?
Wishing, day dreaming and being envious of those who put the effort in?
Or chase what you want.
Personally, I've been a wishes and a day dreamer for too long.
It never makes me happy.
But when I put the work in, do the things and look back and say "fuck me,I did it", then that's exciting.
But when you're standing at the start line it can all seem so daunting.
It's almost enough to put you of before you've even started.
So what to do?
I've recently met a number of people who swear by the "12 Week Year".
This is a book that in all honesty I haven't read yet....but it is a system I've started using.
The basic premise is trying to do a years worth of work in 12 weeks....kinda.
You've probably come across the well known fact that work expands to fill the time available in which to do it.
If ever you've been a student cramming for an exam at 2am the night before you'll know exactly what I mean.
So instead of focusing on what you want to achieve in a year, you focus on what you want to achieve in 12 weeks.
It's a long enough period to see real results and improvements to your life.
But not such a long period that you feel there is no urgency (such as happens with year long goals).
For 12 weeks you go for it.
You prioritise you and what you need to achieve.
You stumble, fall and keep pressing forwards.
After 12 weeks you back of.
Have a slight bask in the glow of achievement.
Then figure out what you want to do in your next 12 week block.
^^^ Can't believe I just wrote "simples"...shame on me.
We have a choice.
Choose today to take a step towards being who we want to be.
Or hide and keep on hoping, wishing and dreaming without ever being.
To be honest with you, I've never been a fan of Meatloaf (the singer not the food).
And now, through no fault of his I like him even less.
For reasons that I'll come to in a minute I've had one of his songs running around in my head today, I've not enjoyed it, but the little devil has lodged itself firmly in.
So I looked up when it was released.
It's 24 years old.
It's probably got a car, kids and a student loan it'll never be able to pay off.
I thought it was still on Top Of The Pops (that's still on right?).
Anyways....it isn't even properly his song that's trotting around my head. It's a slightly bastardised version based on a few incidents in the last month.
It goes "I would do anything for abs, oh I would do anything for abs, but I won't do that".
Sing it to yourself, go on, you know the tune....I'm sure it won't still be running around your head in three hours time.......
So reasons for said song is this......
Client: "I want to be in great shape in x time, I'll do anything, anything at all"
Handsome trainer: "cool. Will you do a food diary then please?"
1 week later.....
Handsome trainer: "How's the food diary coming along?"
Client: "Yeah, about that. I started it, but then it was Dave from the offices birthday and we had a few glasses, so I started again. But then there were these biscuits and it wasn't very good....so I'll um do it, soon, kinda, perhaps....."
Before we go any further, a food diary is a record of what a person eats or drinks. I do mine over a three day period with one day being a weekend day.
The aim is for me to be able to get an idea of where someone is right now with their lifestyle. To find the simplest thing that we can change that will have the greatest positive impact in getting that person closer to their goals.
It also helps the person doing the food diary to become aware of patterns in their behaviour that they hadn't noticed.
And it's a really effective tool.
What it isn't in any way is some sort of moral judgement.
I think we use the words "good" or "bad" about food far too often.
"I was good on Wednesday and had celery, lettuce and hunger pains, but then I was bad on Thursday when I ate all the biscuits".
What you eat doesn't make you good or bad.
It's not murder.
It's just a choice you made about you ate.
But if you feel bad and guilty about what you ate then you'll more likely feel like you need cheering up and make more decisions that don't serve you best.
Guilt and shame are the two feckers that keep so many people stuck in cycles they struggle to break.
The food diary is nothing to have an emotional attachment too. It's just a record of where you are now.
A reference point.
After all, you can't crest a map to get somewhere if you don't know where you are right now.
Handing it over to a coach is highly uncomfortable for most folks. I've done it myself to see what it was like to be on the receiving end and felt like I was back at school handing in an essay that I'd rushed the night before.
Even if you don't have a coach or trainer of some kind I highly recommend keeping a diary as it is really surprising what you find out about yourself.
Especially if you're convinced that you eat all the "right" things but struggle to lose weight.
So what do you do?
You record everything that passes your lips for three days.
Well, maybe not everything, some things are best kept to you ahem.
But any drinks, snacks, sauces on foods all get recorded along with an idea of portion size. Along with what time you consumed it.
There are a few ways you can do this.
Pen and paper - as a full time techtard this is my preferred method. It means having your recording sheet or a notebook with you at all times for the three days. Don't trust yourself to do it later. We have a nasty habit of wearing rose tinted glasses or simply forgetting to do it at the end of the day.
Take a photo - we've all got phones with so many gadgets they'd be thought ridiculous and over the top in a James Bond film.
So whip out your snazzy camera phone and take a snap of what's about to go into your face hole.
Use an app - for all you crazy tech lovers there are loads of food tracking apps. The most popular seems to be "My Fitness Pal". In all honesty I haven't used it yet, but I will be this week as a client has used it for their diary. But I understand it does a couple of handy things like give you an idea of how many calories your diary comes to.
There are probably other ways.
Whatever works best for you is the option you should go for.
Remember, this is only an assessment to see what's going on in your life before creating a plan of how to progress.
After all, if you're not assessing you're just guessing.
If you have anything you need to do.... I mean anything, including eat, sleep or communicate with other humans who share your home....then do not read this book.
Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz
I haven't enjoyed a book so much in ages.
Ok, so Orphan X is basically Jason Bourne by another name. The bad guys get bashed, the good guy gets complicated and the plot keeps thickening.
But here's the thing......
.....it's REALLY goooooood.
Every day I head over to a coffee shop to get work stuff done, but this book was too much of a test for my self discipline.
It got so that I had to make sure the book wasn't in my bag when I left the gym, otherwise the temptation for "just one more chapter" would have been too much.
This then got me thinking about other ways I can keep myself on track, even when my will power is being tested. The different ways I can "shape the path" to get the stuff done that is important to me.
Shaping the path is something I pinched from another book, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.
They use the analogy of your sub conscious and conscious mind being like an Elephant and it's rider.
Your conscious mind is obviously all the thoughts you're aware off. Like your good intentions to get the gym more, eat more veggies and have your Christmas shopping done before December 23rd.
Your sub conscious usually has other plans, often involving short term comfort, such as hitting Netflix or the pub instead of the gym.
The sub conscious is this powerful beast of an Elephant that careers all over the place whilst your good intentions are the rider that struggles to keep it in check.
But if you create a good path for the Elephant it becomes a little easier to control....such as not having an addictive book near you when trying to work.
Here's what I currently do to shape my path.
Keep goodies out of the house
We had trick or treaters knock on our day the day before Halloween this year and you know what I had to give them?
Cos my wife and I are oversized children who can't be trusted with treats.
If they're in the house they will get destroyed.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and in one devastating attack the biscuits or chocolates will be consumed.
If you're trying to lose weight, keep these things out of your house, because no matter what you tell yourself about them being for visitors yadda yadda, it will be you or someone you care about who scoffs them.
I make life awkward
I know there are times when you need things in your house. We have a two year old daughter and we have snack bars for her. The problem with these was that her dad was eating most of them when peckish (or bored).
They're now in a bag hanging at the back of the cupboard under the stairs in a place I hate rummaging in.
So if you have to keep something in the house, put it somewhere that is an utter ball ache to get to.
Stick gym kit out the night before
Have you ever felt super motivated during the evening?
Told yourself about all the wondrous things you're going to do tomorrow? The workouts you're gonna have, the biscuits you're gonna say no to, the recipes you're gonna cook.
I'll have every Rocky montage running through my head, about how I'm ready to smash training in the morning......then morning comes and all I feel like smashing is the alarm clock.
Morning Niall will look for a way out.
If gym kit is still in the wardrobe I'll find I don't have time/don't want to wake the family up so I'll best start again tomorrow.
So morning Niall gets out thought by evening Niall who has the kit ready, which afternoon Niall is grateful for as he really wants to train.
(Ok, that's enough third person talk...I think I'd better move on pretty swiftly).
Foam roller in the front room
Yep, that gets hidden by the side of the sofa. Quick and easy to grab to do a minute or two of soft tissue work when crashed in front of the goggle box.
Super shake evening prep - this one is down to Androulla.
We've got one of those Nutra Bullet blenders. So we can pack all the dry ingredients, veg, fruit and various wonderous powders into the cup each night.
This means in the morning all that's required of me is to add some liquid and blend.
Again pre empting my lazy self who would much rather duck out of morning veg and protein hit, even though I appreciate how beneficial it is.
Buy training programs from people I respect/are smarter than me
This may sound a little odd as people pay me to write their workouts. But buying a training program is a smart move.
First, I can't argue with myself.
I can't decide that when I wrote split squats, I actually meant deadlifts, and surely those 6 sets were only meant to be 4.
There's no blagging.
Our default setting is to do the things we like all the time...the reason we like is that we're good at them. The stuff we're bad at we avoid even though that's the stuff we need to work on.
I've been through programs by Eric Cressey (www.Ericcressey.com) and Dean Somerset (www.deansomerset.com) and can highly recommend their products - and no I don't get anything for saying that, I'm trying to help you out here.
A bottle of water always near by
I know that I'll drink less water at the weekends than during the week as I always have a water bottle Monday-Friday.
This makes it easy to take a swig but it also lets me see how much I've actually drunk. If intake has been too low I can see that and up my intake for the rest of the day.
At weekends I don't tend to notice until my wee starts glowing in the dark.
So, going forwards I'm going to bring a water bottle into my weekend life.
The possibilities for shaping your path are huge. You can just start by being aware of the areas that you struggle with, then make a plan to make it easier for you to make the right choices.
Let's be honest, foam rolling isn't sexy. You will never see a buff dude posing with a roller on a magazine cover.
But if things like staying injury free, getting rid of pain and being able to move better so you can dominate your workout are up your street, then it's pretty damn useful.
So after speaking to three people in the last four days who were complaining about shoulder and knee pain and finding out that none of them used the rollers I figured I'd get my act together and write a little something on the subject....what it is, what it does and doesn't do.
Let's Take This Back To The Start
If you currently have a slightly quizzical look on your face and wondering what the hell a roller is, then here's a pic.
There are few greater loves than that between a man with a sore knee and his roller.
Essentially it provides a free massage. Just as a therapist applies pressure to your muscles and tissues to help them to relax, moving across the roller provides relief for tense tissues....it's never going to be as good as having a skilled therapist, but my athletic skills have never made someone want to pay for me to have my own, 24 hour masseuse.
One of the things it doesn't do in the short term is make you look attractive. The way your face will move and your eyes twitch when you find a fun spot will not attract anyone you would feel safe being alone with.
The idea is that your tissues relax which, in turn, improves your ability to move. Tissues are less likely to be inflamed by faulty movement mechanics, therefore "ouchies" will get a bit easier and you may find it more comfortable to get into previously difficult positions, such as moving through a squat pattern easier.
It also doesn't create a permanent change.
What it does do is create a window of time, which you can use to perform exercises that will help you to move and feel better in the long term.
Neither is it stretching. There is no change to the length of the tissues, rather the tone of the tissues (how tense they are) is decreased.
Rolling targets the myofascia, which is a tissue that interlinks and surrounds every part of the body. It's kinda like The Force in Star Wars....hmmm, surrounds you it does.
Fascia links muscles, bones, ligaments, organs....everything. If it's not a happy bunny then it'll let you know about it.
If you've ever cooked or chopped a chicken breast you'll have noticed that breast is in two parts. If you peel the upper part away from the lower you'll see a membraneous tissue - that's the fascia of the chicken.
As a Brucie bonus - if you've ever left a chicken breast out of the fridge for too long you'll know that it goes tough and hard to move. This is what happens to your fascia if it becomes dehydrated. One of the simplest ways to avoid low back pain - drink water and keep the fascia happy.
When to roll?
Personally I think just before a workout, as the first part of your warm up works best. Decreasing the tone of the tissue before moving into the mobility drills is the best way to set yourself up for productive workout.
But if you're feeling a little beaten up from training then spending a longer time hanging out on the roller can be pretty nice. If you're new to training just getting yourself moving across the roller can feel like a bit of a workout to begin with.
The structure of having it as part of the workout means that it generally makes folks more likely to actually do it. I'll be honest, I've got a roller at home. There have been many times I've looked at it from the couch whilst thinking how my time would be better used by getting on it, before slumping a little further into the couch and Netflix binge.
Important point - a foam roller is very different to a steam roller.
The aim is not to put lots and lots of pressure onto the roller and attempt to annihilate and knots you discover.
There are 13 different kinds of receptors that cause contraction and relaxation of different tissues. There are some that tell you you're stretch too far, some that make the muscle very fast and there are some that are on a spinal loop. This means the signal to make them fire comes from the spine without consulting the brain. Such as when you touch a hot surface and immediately draw your hand back without any thought. By the time the brain realised you were in danger and decided a course of action you'd be seriously hurt. So a more primitive system gets you away.
The receptors we affect in the fascia are also on a spinal loop but a much slower rate (they're known as Pacini fibres and Ruffini Endings for the nerds in the audience). They also have a low threshold to pressure.
This means in practice that foam rolling works best with a lighter pressure and over a slightly longer period of time. If you're making the sexy faces I mentioned earlier then it's probably a sign that you need to go a little easier.
This doesn't mean that you need to spend a long time on the roller.
If the area you're working on feels ok then shift on to the next area. If you find a fun spot just hang out on it for a little longer. You're probably looking at 15-20 seconds per body part.
Neither do you have to roll across the whole body every workout. If it's a lower body session then rolling the legs probably makes sense. If there is a particular spot that's been feeling a bit ouchie lately, then probably give that some love.
If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this.
Yep, breathing is a fantastic habit for most people and something I recommend you continue to do for the rest of your life. But finding a fun spot with the roller often makes people tense up and forget to take some oxygen in.
Steady state breathing is a very important part of getting the tissues to relax. So move steadily across the roller and focus on some steady breathing from your belly and not sounding like you're entering the later stages of labour.
Increased tone in the muscle is very often related to sympathetic nervous system activity, otherwise known as the fight or flight option. This can be increased by any kind of stress, physical or psychological. Taking deep breaths is the easiest way to transfer out of this into a more parasympathetic nervous system mode (otherwise known as "rest and digest")
This is something you already kinda knew....just think of a time when you've been seriously wound up and someone told you to take a deep breath. We instinctively know this whether we realise it or not.
The take away points:
Roll before you train.
Don't try to smash the muscles into submission, go fairly easy. No more than 7/10 discomfort.
If you find something fun, spend a bit time there, if not move on.
Then go forth and dominate your workout.
Have you ever had that moment when you realise something extremely obvious that you somehow managed to overlook?
So obvious that it doesn't just hit you between the eyes, but stomps on your toes, sweeps your legs from under you and elbow drops you from the top rope.
And I'm not just talking about the time I spent 5 minutes looking for my glasses only to realise that I was already wearing them.
It came in the form of the simplest piece of advice that I've ever had regarding training.
In a few seconds I'm going to share that bit of advice with you, then approximately 2 seconds after that you're going to get all disappointed and think "is that it?"
Stick with me and consider it with me for at least another 10 seconds then feel free to have a reaction.
Cool, so here it is.....
"If you are using a muscle you should feel that muscle working working"
How often do you finish a set and actually feel the working muscle burning and fatigued? I don't just mean that you had to stop the set cos you ran out of energy.
I mean did you feel the muscles you were supposed to feel doing all the work and fatiguing?
If you're doing a chest press do you feel your chest burning and emptying of energy?
On a deadlift can you feel your butt and hamstrings squeezing and working?
For the majority of people the answer is a straight out "no". In fact the idea of creating tension in the working muscle has become one of the first things I teach to new clients, even experienced ones.
As the strength coach Dan John is fond of saying, we have to keep the goal the goal.
The goal of the session isn't to just get through the session. It isn't to just move some weights around.
The goal is to create a demand on the body that forces it to make a change. To burn more fat, to change our physique for the better.
To get the most from them, exercises need to be a considered a skill. They take thought, practice and a level of understanding to be truly effective.
Ok, you may be wondering how it could be possible to do an exercise and NOT work the right muscles. I took this attitude for years.
Here's a quick example.
Grab something that will work as a small weight. Can be a dumbell, a tin of beans, jar of coffee...anything.
Next, perform a biceps curl with it. Palm facing forwards and bend the elbow to bring the weight up.
Now, do the same thing but change your focus. Think about squeezing your bicep as hard as you can. Like a dude trying to show his "gunz" off. Your hand only moves as a by product of the muscle flexing.
Instead of thinking about moving the weight in your hand, think about contracting your muscle against that weight.
Feel any different?
We're primed to find the most energy efficient way to move. From an evolutionary point of view the body wants to conserve energy as much as possible. It's forever worried about when the next famine will occur. It still hasn't clocked on that Tesco's down the road is open 24 hours a day.
Changing your focus from moving a weight to contracting your muscles against a weight will hugely improve your results if adopted correctly but don't expect the transition to be a smooth one as a number of things stand in your way.
For a start your ego is likely to kick up a fuss. Especially if you happen to be the owner of a penis.
You may find that doing your dumbell chest press changes from lifting 38kg dumbells in each hand with your leg twitching around like you've decided to use your hair dryer in the bath and your shouders coming of the bench as you lump the weights towards the ceiling. To using 28kg and actually feeling your chest working.
Yes, it may mean that the guy on the next bench is lifting more than you when the gym hottie walks past.
Yes, you really should get over this.
Secondly, you may not currently have the mobility required to perform some of the more complicated exercises such as deadlifts. Your body loves the path of least resistance. If it can't do something the ideal way, it'll find another way of doing the movement even if it risks long term harm.
For example, if there is a lack of mobility in the hips for a deadlift then the body will move through the lower back instead. Lifting heavy weights with your lower back is only ever a good idea if you're a fan of living in long term pain.
(This is an unecessarily sarcastic way of saying that this is a bad idea.)
Pay attention to where you feel an effort or tightness. If it comes from anywhere other than the desired working area treat this as a red flag. You may just need a technique tune up or focus on appropriate mobility exercises before bringing the exercise back into your program.
Thirdly, you need a rough idea of what certain muscles do and where they are. You don't need to swallow a copy of Greys Anatomy. But you get best results by knowing how to stretch a working muscle then contract and squeeze it like crazy on the lift.
Being able to picture your bag squeezing on a one arm row will make a huge difference. If you're serious about getting great results then it would be a good investment to spend a bit of time with a knowledgeable trainer.
^^^Hands up if you can spot the subtle sales pitch^^^
This way of lifting is uncomfortable.
You can't just switch of in your head and day dream. You have to concentrate and focus. It hurts. But that good kind of hurt. The hurt that feels beneficial and you find your self chasing once you make friends with it.
The kind that lets you know you've done something truly beneficial once you've gotten through the session.
The kind that delivers results.
There's a great cartoon that you've probably seen of a man and a woman looking into a mirror.
On one side there's an overweight slob of a guy who see's an adonis reflected back at him - he's a happy guy.
On the other is an attractive women who sees an overweight, bedraggled image reflected back at her - she's not so happy.
24 hours ago that would have made me smile. Haha, yeah us guys are numpties and women worry about the size of their bums, haha.
But not today.
Today that cartoon is too close to home to be funny. Cos I realised I'm like the guy in the cartoon.
I've had some shoulder issues lately. Doing a push press weeks ago I felt something "go" a little in the front of the shoulder.
Obviously I took non of my own advice, kept training and irritated it further.
This has led to a month of pretty lax training til yesterday I'd had enough of excuses and my own nonsense, it was time to stop just hoping it would go away and let me crack on with doing the stuff I want to do, it was time to get myself fixed.
So I set up the video camera to assess my movement and see what the hell is going on.
These assessments are all with the shirt off to see how the shoulder moves.
I haven't trained for a while now.
But I've been a pretty fit guy.
Ran marathons, deadlifted 2.5 x my body weight, ran 5km in under 17 minutes.....all this was quite a while ago (the last marathon was 2009) but in my head I was still that guy.
I could even see that guy in the mirror.
But that wasn't the guy I saw on camera.
This guy looked soft, with wonky shoulders that were different heights, tired puffy face, love handles and an out of position pelvis.
The view of my back gives a clear indication of why the shoulder doesn't feel too good.
The long downward slope of my shoulders are a pretty clear sign that my latissimus muscles (back muscles) are in a shortened position, even more so on the right side. This makes getting my arms overhead very difficult without creating some compensations else where in my body.
One of the key aspects for my training is to create some good length in them, to fire up the muscles at the top of the shoulder (upper traps) and to create good stability where the head of my arm bone meets the socket.
Without these being in a better position I'm going to struggle to lift significant weight over my head or to get back to dominating chin ups.
No wonder things were feeling beat up.
Don't get me wrong I don't look hugely fat but I sure as hell don't look like a fitness professional.
Man I was angry at myself at first. How did I let this happen? How did I not notice?
I'm 38 now, I'm not prepared to turn into some soft mushy middle aged chap who sighs everytime he sits down.
Fuck. That. Shit.
I'm on a 28 day mission.
I don't expect to be all ripped and running 10 miles for fun in 28 days. But I do expect to be in a damn sight better place than I am now.
I want to be moving without feeling like I'm going to break.
This is what I do day in day out for other people. Being busy is no longer an excuse for missing training. I'm booking my own session first and putting clients around me rather than the other way around.
After all who wants an out of shape trainer?
I'll do a post here each week with progress, you can help to keep me accountable.
That's it for today.
There's no big lessons or take home points for you. When I started this blog I intended to be completely honest in it.
No rainbows and unicorns farts.
Just the truth.