Friday, April 5, 2013

It's All in the Details

Today I want to talk about technique.

It seems to me that the most recent trend in fitness is intensity. You've got P90X and Insanity making people jump up and down while spinning and ripping off pull-ups until they puke. You've got your bootcamps where you pay someone to yell at you and abuse you physically and emotionally over the course of an hour. Then there's CrossFit (my second love) and all of the other derivative fitness programs that preach work out till you vomit or pass out.

I love it. Intensity is king when it comes to improving your fitness. The fitness nut-job in me loves that going hard in the gym is now as cool or cooler than going hard at the bar. That being said, I also used to have a supervisory role in an outpatient orthopedic rehab facility. The number of people who needed some type of joint repair surgery as the result of their weekend warrior lifestyle would be funny if it wasn't for the fact that on average these procedures put you out of commission for three to six months and may permanently alter the functionality of your body.

No bueno.

One of the biggest gripes people have with CrossFit is that it's dangerous. I actually tend to agree, but not for the reason most people think. It seems like the average gym-goer's perception of CrossFit is simply that the choice of exercises and the intensity/load with which they are performed is dangerous in and of itself. This is very, very wrong.

CrossFit can be dangerous due to the highly technical nature of the exercises used. Olympic lifting, power lifting and gymnastics are all very complex, multi-part variable technique activities that require the utmost concern for proper form to avoid injury. When done safely the results and benefits of this kind of stuff are astronomical. Done wrong, it can literally f*ck you up for life.

Any CrossFit Coach worth their salt is aware of this. The instructors in the community tend to be some of the most well informed, humble and helpful individuals I've interacted with in the fitness industry. These guys know their stuff and they want you to be safe. The same can not be said for the average gym trainer or bootcamp instructor. I can not tell you the number of people who would get hurt in bootcamps and then scoff at the thought that their beloved saturday morning fitness massacre was responsible for the deteriorating state of every joint on their body. "You mean to tell me Steve down at the Corp-O-Gym who never graduated high school and has a certificate he bought on a website doesn't really understand how the body works??" I know. I must be crazy.

Biomechanics is not a simple science. Understanding the proper movement of the human body across all planes and in all directions requires more than simply having lifted weights since high school. This doesn't mean every trainer needs a PhD. It just means that as an active person you should take some responsibility and learn what perfect form is for every exercise you do. Just because you're drenched in sweat, breathing heavy and about to pass out does not mean you're getting a good work out. A good trainer can take you to the point right before you break and hold you there for the duration of your session. They can also do this while ensuring every exercise is done perfectly or at the very least in a manner that is not detrimental to the structural integrity of your body.

Injury prevention, while important, is just one of the reasons to focus on form. Here's a list, because apparently people like lists.


1) Prevention of Injury - Yes.

2) Efficacy of exercises - This is one of those things that should be obvious but apparently isn't to most people. Every repetition done with picture perfect form counts exponentially more towards accomplishing your goals than a hundred done poorly. Proper form ensures you are placing the stress on the appropriate parts of your physiology and stimulating them to respond the way you want. You can do as many half squats on your toes as you want, but all it's going to do is stress your knees and ankles and stimulate your patella to snap in half. You can do two hundred half- assed squats and get mediocre results or you can do three sets of five perfect squats with serious weight and see a difference in a matter of weeks. Your call.

3) Development of improper movement patterns - Neurology plays a huge and often undervalued part in exercise. While your skeleton provides the system of levers you need to move and your muscles act as the little engines that move it, your nervous system is sitting in the driver's seat making sure it all goes down the right way. I'm sure you've heard of the term muscle memory. When you do an exercise improperly, you are hardwiring your nervous system to prefer this movement pattern over the correct one. This has implications outside of the gym. Say you do a lot of box jumps, which are a great exercise, but when you do them you always land hard and loud because no one has taught you how to use your body to absorb the shock properly. Now, in addition to the damage you're doing in the gym, you are teaching your body that any time you do something that involves landing like this, this is the way it should be done. This is very bad.

4) Creation of muscular imbalances - Following directly off the heels of the previous reason, improper form can create tightness where it shouldn't be while over strengthening the wrong muscles and under strengthening some of the more important ones. This can be the result of poor form but it can also result from poor program design. Ultimately this all relates back to the prime reason for doing things properly - muscular imbalances and tightness can alter your movement patterns and lead to injury.

5) Daily Functionality - I genuinely believe that one of the main motivations for being fit is to improve the quality of your life. It makes day to day activities easier and lets you engage in things that not everyone may be capable of. Being fit is just one more way to get everything you can out of anything you do. When you perform your workouts with perfect form you achieve the opposite effect of everything described above. You prevent imbalances, you improve your motor patterns and you get the most out of every workout.

You've already gotten past the hardest part. You're up, you're moving, and you're in the gym. Why wouldn't you want to get the most out of all the energy you're putting into it? Take some time, do some research and figure out what perfect form really is. One of the coolest things I've discovered is that I really feel like your body does want to do things correctly. It's almost instinctive. When you do an exercise with complete bio-mechanical perfection, you can feel it. Or, well, I like to think that I can.

You could also hire a trainer to teach you how to do things right. Despite what I said before there are plenty of good trainers out there if you know what to look for. They should have some sort of formal education in the field and ideally a certification from NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association). NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) is supposedly a good one too, but the people who I know who have a NSCA-CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) are consistently the most intelligent and well informed in my opinion. Also, don't be afraid to ask questions. If your trainer can't give you an exact, scientifically sound reason as to why you're doing something, it might be time to take your business elsewhere. Would you take a drug from a Dr. who couldn't tell you why you need it? Then why would you let someone with 1/10 the education get away with the same thing? I wouldn't, and neither should you.

Good luck and good lifting.


Today's workout:

Dynamic Warm Up - 10-15 min
-Jump Rope - 5-8 min
-Dynamic Stretching - 5-8 min

Strength Training:

Hang Clean
135 lbs
3 reps EMOM - 6 min

Sprint 200m
5 Pull ups
10 Box Jumps
15 Dips
20 Squats
25 Mountain Climbers
30 Sit Ups

3 rounds for time

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