I see it all the time. It’s frustrating. People performing strength exercises which are at best doing little to enhance their strength and at worst, making them more injury prone. So here are 7 secrets that you can use to enhance your strengthening exercise program so that you can perform better, live better and achieve more.
Secret 1 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, “clench” 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 pulling your stomach in, tightening your butt and pelvic floor up and tucking your chin in.
Secret 2 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 different strategies for movement which mayl 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.
I see so many people trying to strengthen muscle with the wrong starting points, wrong actions and with poor control, all making these exercises less effective whilst at the same time potentially putting themselves at risk of injury. If you are going to exercise and you want the best results, learn to do the exercise correctly the first time. It will save you much time
Secret 3 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 couple of tips to engaging your muscles better.
The first is to “clench” or contract your muscle first to the maximum you can comfortably.
The second is to hold the muscle at this maximum tension throughout the movement and not allow it to be turned on during shortening of the muscle and off during the lengthening of the muscle.
Further from this, the third tip is to perform the movement slowly engaging the muscle with maximum tension and use holds at different parts of the movement. This might mean that with very heavy weight (and only if you have been training for longer than a year) that you are still trying to perform the movement explosively but because of the high resistance, that you can only move very slowly.
The fourth tip is to 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 clench your fist and hold your wrist slightly forwards.
The fifth tip is to 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 the breath is held 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 3000 to 5000 repetitions. So better to learn how to do things 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.
So 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 thinking at higher and higher levels of control.
Think about the primary movements of bending twisting, pulling, pushing, squatting lunging and ambulation. Break them down 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. Or progress from kneeling on a swiss ball to standing, squatting, catching a ball on and so on. You are only limited by your imagination.
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.
Be Bodywise and enjoy the best of health.
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