In this age of blogs, podcasts, TV shows, radio programs, magazine articles and Dr Google, it is amazing just how many people perform strength exercises which are at best doing little to enhance their strength and at worst, making them more injury prone. So here are 10 principles that you can use to enhance your strengthening exercise program so that you can "Get Better, Stay Better and Live Better".
Secret 1 - No Pain No Gain Is a Myth - Train But Not Into Pain
Understand that pain means danger and to change how you are doing something or you will cause injury. To train into pain is not only foolhardy but it doesn't work. Why? Because your brain will inhibit and / or impede your muscles from contracting so that you don't injure yourself. This is called "pain inhibition". A great example of this is watching an arm wrestle. Often there will be a great struggle between opponents until one person's arm suddenly gives way.
High intensity strength (load) training should only be used by people who have been training for more than one year or with people who have trained up to this intensity during rehabilitation from injury (e.g. eccentric training for tendinopathies). It should never be used people in the acute stage of injury, beginners and / or with children (until well into adolescence).
Respecting pain is especially important when treating injuries. Use pain as your guide and remember if you always work short of pain, you will be unlikely to flare-up your injury. Having said that, there is no doubt that a progressive strengthening (loading) program is one of the key stimulants to tissue remodelling and maturation. This means that strengthening and placing tension on a repair becomes important towards the end of the proliferation phase of healing (about the 10 - 14 day mark) to align and strengthen healing fibres along lines of force.
Secret 2 - Stabilise First
"You can't shoot a canon from a canoe." In other words, you can't perform strong, dynamic movements off a flimsy and unstable base. And there are many reasons why supportive, stabilising muscles stop working as well as they should.
Remember, these are the small muscles that attach closely around each joint to hold the joint surfaces in optimum contact so that they form a strong, stable platform. The more stable your platform, the more resistance or weight that you can lift and the stronger you will get.
Pain, swelling, inactivity, poor postures, repetitive movements can all reduce the activation of these muscles leading to joint instability and potentially injury. Research has shown that these muscles do not begin working again without specific training. They must be specifically targeted and activated.
To stabilise, "pre-tension" or contract all the muscles around your joints to what is maximally comfortable. Even better, position yourself correctly by having your knees slightly bent, feet apart and on a slight diagonal. Then, stabilise your whole body by drawing your stomach in, your pelvic floor up and slightly tuck in your chin.
Secret 3 - Isolate
As mentioned above, pain, swelling and general deconditioning, can all act to stop muscles from being effectively activated. And just because you perform a movement, doesn't mean that these muscles start working again. They need to be "woken up". Research has shown that not only do these muscles need to be trained specifically to begin working normally again, but that if they're not, people will begin to substitute other muscles and use incorrect strategies for movement which may eventually lead to injury.
To isolate a specific muscle for strengthening, you need to know what the muscles attachments are as well as the precise movement that the muscle performs. For example to best strengthen your biceps, muscle on the front of your upper arm), you need to start with you hand turned with the palm facing backward and then turn to bring the palm forwards to the front of the shoulder as you bend your elbow only.
Almost all muscles have a rotation component as well as an angle and direction at which they are best activated. Know these and you will better target that muscle for strengthening.
Secret 4 - Activate
The more nervous impulses that enter a muscle and the more effectively and efficiently muscle fibres are activated, the faster your muscles will adapt and get stronger.
Here are a 5 of tips to engaging your muscles better.
1. "Tension" or contract your muscle first to what is maximally comfortable.
2. Hold the muscle at this maximum tension throughout the movement and do not allow it to be turned on during shortening of the muscle and off during the lengthening of the muscle.
3. Perform the movement slowly engaging the muscle with maximum tension and use holds at different parts of the movement.
4. Understand patterning. In other words, position your body to better activate the muscle. For example, if you hold your hand open and backwards whilst trying to perform a bicep curl, you will be less effective at activating the muscle than if you tension your fist and hold your wrist slightly forwards.
5. Know how to use your breathing to assist with stabilising your body but not so much as to increase the pressure within your body to dangerous levels. Some authors have suggested that better results from strengthening may be achieved by breathing in during bending or closing down movements and by breathing out during straightening or opening up movements.
Furthermore, if you hold your breath just to a catch point (most difficult point of the contraction) the increased abdominal pressure will assist in stabilising your spine. However, to prevent possible adverse effects of this pressure, you must breathe out just after this point to release this pressure.
Secret 5 - Use Feedback
Mirrors are not just there to show you how good you look! Visual feedback along with the voice and touch actually play a crucial role in ensuring the correct technique, maximum activation and optimal performance that is needed for the best results.
This feedback can be gained from mirrors, a coach or partner and even your own fingers placed on then muscles that you want to contract. It is especially vital early on when learning an activity, as generally the more the better feedback, the better and faster you will learn.
It has been said that to learn a new skill requires about 300 to 500 repetitions and can take about a month. However, to correct a poorly performed skill with a better technique can take about 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions. Learn how to perform exercises and activities correctly the first time. It can save you weeks and months of poor results as well as the possibility of injury.
Secret 6 - Integrate
For better transfer of strengthening over to everyday life, isolated strengthening exercises must be followed strengthening exercises that use these muscles in functional activities. Muscles must work in co-ordination to perform an activity to achieve a result and the only way to improve at these functional activities is to practise and progress them.
There are seven types of movements that are the basis for most of the activities that we do. They are bending, twisting, pulling, pushing, squatting, lunging and ambulation (walking / jogging / sprinting). I call them Primary Movements as they are the movement patterns that you need to be able to live and function optimally.
To get better results, follow an isolated strengthening exercise with the functional strengthening of the muscle in a related everyday activity in which it is used. This will enable you not just to look better but to live better as you will have greater strength and co-ordination in the activities that you do every day. Examples of this might be to follow a knee extension strengthening exercise with a double or single leg squat.
Secret 7 - Automate
You can't live by thinking about activating every single muscle during every single movement. To live effectively, correct muscle activation and movement have to occur automatically and without thinking. This means that you must train your brain as much you train your muscles through performing these exercises with varying speeds, directions, amplitudes and on varying surfaces, progressing from very stable to unstable.
You must keep your brain guessing by progressively reducing feedback to the point that your brain is literally anticipating and automating muscle co-ordination and movement without the need to think about contracting muscles consciously.
Break the seven Primary Movements into their component parts and then combine them again and progress them with ever increasing levels of co-ordination, speed and agility demands. Activities such as learning to balance standing on one leg. Then progress this by standing on your toes, then squatting, hopping first up and down and then at different angles and speeds whilst catching a ball. You are only limited by your imagination.
Secret 8 - Think Anti-Gravity
There's one thing for sure as you get older and that is that it will get more difficult for you to be up straight. Take note of the posture of our senior citizens and you will get an idea of where you are heading.
There are many reasons why people might be bent forward; genetics, habits, occupations, poor balance, may all play a role. And sometimes inadvertently you can make things worse through your strengthening program. As you only see and focus on the front of your body (chest, abdominals), this means that you are more likely to strengthen the muscles that by actually pull your body further downward and inward.
It then doesn't become too difficult to know what muscles you need to strengthen; the front of your neck, your upper and lower back, your buttocks, quads and calves. If you biased your strengthening towards these areas, you will enhance your ability to be up straight as well as perform anti-gravity activities such as standing from sitting, walking up stairs and climbing.
Secret 9 - Optimise Recovery with Optimal Rest and Nutrition
Adequate sleep means at least 7 hours of good quality sleep each night. Deep sleep is simply essential for renewal, recovery and repair - the essential elements of good health. It is important for the immune system, and it reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, obesity and improves concentration. The Chinese body clock and circadian rhythm indicates that there are various times of the day that the body is more likely to be performing certain functions.1
Recommendations for a good night sleep include:
Optimise your nutrition
It makes sense that optimal recovery, repair and regeneration can only take place if you have adequate amounts of the optimal nutrients.
This means at least:
Secret 10 - Have Fun
Whilst exercise takes effort and energy, it doesn't have to be and shouldn't be boring. Find activities that you love to do and add some resistance and holds to them. Get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. Rock climbing, stair / ramp climbing (1,000 steps) and walking / jogging with strength interval stations can all be great fun. Mix it up. Explore different locations and different surfaces. Ever tried to walk or jog in soft sand? Go trail walking or running. Find a friend to share your training with and you might just double the fun. Not only is variety optimally beneficial for your body, it is healthy for your mind as well.
If there is one thing that we are all short on these days its time. Don't waste your time by doing ineffective, inefficient strengthening exercises. Use these techniques and strategies to enhance your program and you will enjoy the benefits of looking younger, feeling stronger and performing better in all areas of life.
If you want to overcome injury, if you want to eliminate pain, if you want to get your health and your life so that you can begin enjoying your life more, call Bodywise Health on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994) for a complimentary*, no obligation assessment and Recovery Action Plan from one of our expert physiotherapists.
We look forward to helping you get your life back.
Until next time, Stay Bodywise,
* Rebates are available through your private insurance extras cover;
* For complex or chronic conditions, you may qualify for the EPC (Enhanced Primary Care Program) allowing you to receive 5 allied health services each calendar year with a referral from your GP.
For more information, please call Bodywise Health now on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994).
364 Hampton St,
Victoria. Australia 3188
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