Friday, June 14, 2013

Mastering Movement

It' a bit of a philosophical Friday. Bear with me. It's worth it. Now watch this video. It's not an absolute must, but it serves as a solid primer for what I'm going to discuss. It's by Elliot Hulse, one of the very few bro-like strength experts who I actually think is brilliant in his own way. Check it out, at least the first minute or so. (Warning: NSFW language) If you're on your phone the embedded video may not work. You can find it here.

Strength training. Running. Injury prevention. Rehabilitation. Exercise Correction.

On the surface it seems like these are all very different aspects of human performance. As someone with a background in both performance enhancement and clinical rehab, I can tell you that many of the driving principles behind these things do seem to contradict one another. Running tends to take long bouts of repetitive motion. Strength training improves fastest with a periodized program that includes intentional variety. Getting stronger usually requires focusing on big, multi-joint, multi-muscle compound lifts. Rehabilitating injuries usually means the opposite, isolating single joints and single muscles. Corrective exercises supposedly focus on balancing imbalances and fixing structural deficiencies. As I said, they all appear to be very different.

The reality? They're not. They're all the same thing. At the end of the day it all comes down to fundamental human movement.

Exercise science is a constantly evolving field. Sometimes the direction is confusing to me, but one of the prevalent paradigms that is beginning to rise to the forefront is this: the mastery of basic human movements trumps all else in terms of genuine fitness and functionality. That's why you start to hear trainers referring to "movements" rather than "exercises." I do it fairly frequently. To some it may seem like semantics but in my opinion it's not only different, but understanding the difference can be both useful and instructive.

If you've read this blog at any length then you know how much I harp on proper form and technique. I've already stated that in terms of both getting the most out of your workouts and preventing injuries proper technique is paramount. It's also larger than that, quite a bit larger. The key to true functional fitness is the attainment of healthy movement patterns and building strength in and through those movements.

This may seem like a bunch of esoteric fitness guru b.s. but I'm going to try to break it down to make it a bit more accessible. I'm not trying to sell you on some mystical fitness philosophy. I'm trying to point out a simple truth that we've been dancing around for years and for some reason we've only recently come to acknowledge. I'm not blaming anyone. It's something I've only recently come to realize myself.

I have a bad hip and a bad shoulder. They're both old injuries from when I used to do MMA. My hip is jacked up from throwing high kicks without the proper flexibility or focus on technique and my shoulder is messed up from a combination of jujitsu training, throwing too many punches and having landed on it wrong one time when a girl half my size flipped me over her back. (Yes, that happened. No, I don't want to talk about it.) 

Both of these injuries plagued me for years. While I was working at the physical therapy clinic I would frequently request fixes from the PTs to the point that they all became somewhat annoyed with my constant pestering. Now, I can understand not wanting to do more work for free after having put in a ten hour shift, but I never really did understand why they would seem so irritated until one of them explained it to me. Basically the general consensus was that I was constantly injured and in pain because I was constantly doing dangerous and (in their opinion) stupid things to my body. They could give me a "fix," but ultimately I would just go back and spar with someone and undo whatever good their fix had done. This underlies one of my biggest problems with the PT profession. Do nothing is not a solution. 

In the short term, resting injured joints and muscles can have obvious benefits. That is not what I'm talking about. What I'm saying is that frequently if you ask a physical therapist how to stop the pain you get in your shoulder from say, heavy bench presses, their answer will be painfully simple: stop doing heavy bench presses. As far as I'm concerned, if your solution to an athlete's nagging issue is to tell them to stop participating in an activity they clearly love, you are a poor practitioner. There are obvious exceptions, i.e. if you just had your hip replaced you probably shouldn't try to go back into your tae-kwon-do class, but if you are an otherwise healthy individual and the only solution they can offer is, "stop," then they aren't doing their job. I think, unfortunately, this solution frequently arises simply because the practitioner has run out of options and is frustrated that they can't solve their patients issue. Giving up, however, is not the appropriate response, nor is telling the patient to give up as well.

Anyway, back to my injuries. After having tried all sorts of different "rehabilitative" techniques I decided to step back from martial arts for a while to give my body time to repair itself. The trouble was that my injuries had become so bad that they were preventing me from even working out normally. I couldn't do a set of pushups without my shoulder flaring up and if I ran at any speed more than 6 miles per hour my hip and groin would get so tight that I would be walking funny for days. Honestly the pain had gotten so bad it was just a part of my day-to-day. It wasn't ever 10/10, but it was constantly there in the background, buzzing and annoying me and always ready to scream at me anytime I moved too quickly or in a slightly incorrect direction. 

So what did I turn to? Powerlifting. It seems like a bizarre choice until you examine the underlying logic. What was causing the injuries to flare up was a lot of intense, fast and repetitious movements at both joints. Powerlifting training typically involves sets of very few reps and very simple motions. You squat, you deadlift, you bench and sometimes if you get really ambitious you overhead press. I would also throw in some pull-ups to balance it out. That's pretty much it. With just those five movements you're hitting all of the basics. It may seem counterintuitive but after a couple of weeks of training basic movements with heavy weights a really interesting thing happened: my pain went away.

For a while I figured it was just that the pain was gone because I was no longer doing the things that would set it off. I was worried that were I to go back and try any of that stuff, it would come right back. I stuck with the heavy lifting for another month or so until my joints were feeling so good that I figured, hey, what the heck. I did a CrossFit workout that involved a gnarly combination of sprinting, push ups, pull ups, and dips. 6 months prior that would have been a direct recipe for sitting on my couch in pain all weekend, unable to walk with my arm in a sling. But that's not what happened. I crushed the workout and there was no pain, just that amazing workout afterglow of having beat the ever living sh*t out of yourself while loving every second. 

I've been doing this fitness thing for a while now. I've been reading, researching and self experimenting with all sorts of modalities and philosophies for almost thirteen years. I have a degree in the subject and several certifications and even with all of that education and practical experience the realization hit me like a freight train. I was wrong. All that time and all of those years, I'd been doing the wrong things.

I was focusing on numbers and times. I was more interested in the way I looked in the mirror than the way my joints felt at night. I always went as hard as I could no matter what because no pain, no gain, right? Wrong. Oh so very, utterly wrong.

Powerlifting requires complete mastery of the technique involved in each individual lift. Mastery of the technique involves serious structural integrity and flexibility through every joint and muscle. You can't do a real squat with tight hips and poor thoracic extension. You can't bench press properly with overly tight shoulders and you really can't deadlift well if you have terrible posture. The same muscles and anatomical configurations that aid in your ability to do those lifts, aid in your bodies ability to function at a maximal capacity.

So why are we told to stay away?

A lot of people think lifting heavy is just for meatheads and morons. It's how you get hurt. You guys know how I feel about that. You get hurt from being stupid, not from going big. Accidents do happen, but claiming that lifting heavy is dangerous is tantamount to saying eating makes you fat. Sure, it's possible if you're not paying attention but that hardly makes it an absolute outcome. Lifting heavy forced me to learn how to truly squat in an anatomically beneficial manner for the first time in my life. Lifting heavy forced me to learn how to use proper posture to stabilize myself while deadlifting and doing overhead presses. Lifting heavy forced me to re-program faulty movement patterns into healthy ones and the benefits were far more than simply adding a hundred pounds to every lift.

After you learn how to squat properly every time you bend down to pick something up your bodies preferred method of doing so is healthy and reinforces a beneficial pattern, rather than placing unnecessary stress on the wrong structures and eventually leading to a silly and completely avoidable overuse injury. It teaches you how to land properly, how to use your legs to absorb shock. Learning how to lunge is an incredible asset to any athlete because it teaches you how to stop and drop your center of gravity in a healthy way. Whether you're catching a frisbee or reaching for a lacrosse ball, an athlete who can forward, side and crossover lunge properly is going to do it faster and with less chance of injury than the one who was never taught how to do so. The same principle applies for every basic movement: overhead pressing teaches you how to lift things over your head safely, pull-ups can teach you how to climb better and how to use the pulling muscles of your body to do just that; pull. Think about how profound the effect on your overall health would be if you had a healthy and proper running gait as opposed to a dangerous and inefficient one.

This is also why I have a negative view of things like the Bosu and all of that obnoxious, overly complicated "functional" fitness crap that certain vendors are pushing these days. These accessories can be good to change it up from time to time, but every program should be built around basic human movements. There's nothing basic, functional, or transferrable about hopping onto and off of a Bosu while waving a weighted bar over your head like a ninja turtle on meth. There's also a lot of evidence that the balance you learn on an unstable surface only translates to other unstable surfaces. In other words, being able to balance on a Bosu won't help you balance better on flat ground. Seems counter intuitive I suppose, but think about it. You're training your nervous system to respond to a lack of stability. When you stand on a stable surface you're now providing a stimulus you haven't trained for and as such, your body responds by not knowing what the heck it's supposed to do. Pretty straight forward, really. 

When we move properly we are stronger, faster and more efficient. We are also healthier and less likely to get hurt. It absolutely bears mentioning that the bio-mechanically correct way for me to do these motions will not be exactly the same as the way you do them. Every body is different and as such every movement is unique. That is not to say that there aren't certain guidelines you should follow and any trainer worth their salt should be capable of teaching them to you. 

Also, on that note, there is a trend in gyms these days that I want to warn you guys about: Corrective Exercise Specialists. Do not trust these people. Despite what I said about physical therapists earlier, I do think that they are frequently incredibly intelligent and highly educated. I have my issues with their practice but we all know that nothing is perfect. In order to become a PT you need a bachelor's degree and then a 3 year doctorate. People with a CES basically claim to be able to do what PT's do and you don't even need a high school diploma to become one. If that doesn't make you skeptical I would seriously question your capacity for rational thought, or at the very least assume you have a drinking problem. One of the best things I learned form my foray into powerlifting is that the best corrections, very simply, are regressions. If you can't do it right, lower the weight until you can. If your form sucks you have no business lifting that heavy weight any way. Check your ego, go back to the foundation and build it correctly. In many cases muscular imbalances are the result of improper movement patterns. Fix the patterns, and you should fix the imbalances as well. 

Humans are obligatory movers. It's the reason we so thoroughly admire athletes and feats of physical prowess. We are drawn to their examples on a primal level. Throughout history our survival and the advancement of our societies has depended on our physicality. Whether it was the ability to hunt down a meal, escape a predator, or defend ourselves in a large scale physical conflict, human beings are obligate physical creatures. It is a defining aspect of who are and it seems, as of late, most of us have forgotten that. If you're here and you're still reading, chances are you aren't one of those people. Frankly, I think that's pretty awesome and I hope it never changes.

Good luck and good lifting. Happy Friday folks.


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