If you’re a fitness enthusiast like myself, then you probably know about NBC’s hit show The Biggest Loser. For those of you unfamiliar, it is a reality-based fitness show that features morbidly obese contestants training for weight loss and a grand prize of $250,000. The contestants work closely with personal trainers at a dormitory-like ranch and are put through extreme and rigorous training for a number of weeks. The person who sheds the most pounds upon completion of the program is branded The Biggest Loser and gets the money.

Sounds motivational and enticing right? After all anybody offering a quarter million as an incentive to lose weight must have good deeds. Not necessarily.

As a concerned and dedicated fitness professional, I have a plethora of issues with the show. If you’ve had pleasure of catching an episode of The Biggest Loser, then you’ve witnessed the intense training these contestants are put through. There’s no reason why a 300-plus pound deconditioned individual whose lung capacity is very low should be doing plyometric activities like jumping off a box or treadmill. The joints of an obese individual are already too compressed and adding shear forces will only damage and weaken them further and potentially lead to injury. Although I’m an advocate of giving your all and training at a moderately challenging effort level, there are progressive stages that sedentary individuals must go through in a training program.

According a 2009 research article by IDEA, a fitness and wellness organization with whom I’m a member of, the producers of the show maintain that the contestants are screened thoroughly prior to each season and so many things happen behind the scenes that aren’t seen by the viewers. For example, contestants alternate walking on the treadmill at a very low pace for a minute and then slowly progress to 30-second sprints initially. Great! But how do they explain seeing an individual holding on for dear life walking or running on a treadmill and being scolded by the trainers not to let go and to keep pushing? In an episode I saw a while back, an individual who could no longer maintain his pace on the treadmill completely skidded off. Moments earlier this individual waved his white flag and indicated he had nothing left in his tank. But the trainer discouraged him from stopping. These contestants simply do not have the cardiovascular endurance to push for a long time due to their limited threshold. Asking them to train at or near that level is downright risky and dangerous.

Biomechanically speaking, some of the exercises that the contestants are told to do are performed with poor form and some too advanced. In the same IDEA article, some of the fitness professionals who were interviewed expressed their concerns about lack of program design and inadequate regression of exercises. In fact some of the exercises the contestants do should only be reserved for collegiate and world class athletes. But the producers of the show know they are in a business of ratings and what better way to get them than to try the extreme. It is no surprise that The Biggest Loser has become one of NBC’s highest rated shows with over 7.4 million people tuning in to watch the finale of last season.

Some of the views expressed by the various fitness professionals interviewed in the IDEA article are ones I can relate to. These contestants are made to progress to early in their training while ignoring their limitations and weaknesses. I seriously question the screening process and initial assessment protocol of the contestants, who most likely bring with them a host of chronic and preexisting health conditions like high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes and joint pain. Bob Harper, one of the trainers on the show, says the contestants do in fact go through progression stages early in the program but that part isn’t captured by cameras. Still the impression of that part that viewers see is that a morbidly obese person should be able to perform all-out sprints, do plyometric jumps and be able to explosive movements. That bothers me a lot because the physiological response from a sedentary person will be extremely low early in a training program. Muscular endurance, strength and VO2 Max need ample time to adapt to training demands on the body. Due to lack of mobility and resistance on joints and muscles, simple movements like stair climbing can be very difficult for these individuals.

To  make matters worse, the contestants work out five to six hours a day while consuming supervised diets. Scientifically speaking,  2 to 4 pounds of fat is the most achievable weight one can lose in a week on a sound training program and good diet. But most of them drop double-digit pounds a week. While that may sound good, keep in mind that fat, muscle, water and bone make up body weight. The majority of these contestants lose mostly water weight and it is no surprise that many of them gain all their weight back after the show. Whether the goal is to lose 5 pounds or 50 pounds, the best approach is taking small steps and gradually increasing over time. Slow and steady always wins the race!

The yelling from the trainers is probably the most entertaining and controversial part of the show and is mostly displayed by the polarizing Jillian Michaels. Her intimidating antics and constant berating towards the contestants has made her a household name. In fact, Michaels is her own brand today as evident by her numerous books, DVDs, dietary supplements and numerous TV guest appearances. Her no-nonsense style of training has earned her the moniker ‘America’s Toughest Trainer’, which many fitness professionals in the industry find laughable, insulting and comical. She is the fiercest and most feared trainer on the show. Subsequent contestants who get assigned to her team automatically quiver at the thought and brace themselves for the ride ahead. Should a potential client be afraid to work with his/her trainer? The idea, though strategically clever to a degree, is preposterous, senseless and risky. Viewers at home get a perception of personal trainers when they see this and could be reluctant to work with one in the future.

Although yelling by personal trainers and boot camp instructors has been around for a long time and has proven to work for some, it is something I’m against. In my humble estimation, any fitness professional should be able to inspire and motivate in a non-confrontational and positive way. I believe Michaels and all those fitness professionals who yell and shout at their clients lack true motivational skills and need to work on ways to encourage their clientele without being belligerent. Michaels, who’s obviously aware that the cameras are always rolling, claims that she pushes her clients the way she does because she knows what their potential is. Fine! I get that! But everyone has an intensity threshold in which if reached can cause some serious fatigue, dizziness and exhaustion. Pushing a sedentary and morbidly obese individual to these threshold levels isn’t only risky and dangerous from a safety perspective but it can also permanently discourage that person from ever training again.

In conclusion, I’m pleased generally with the idea behind The Biggest Loser. As a fitness professional who’s goal is to motivate and inspire the world to fitness, I commend NBC on it’s efforts to do the same. Though extreme to an extent, the fact of the matter is many people’s lives have been saved because of the show and our country is a bit healthier and fitter today. My only appeal to the producers of The Biggest Loser is that they find positive ways to convey their message to the public. I challenge the trainers to come up with better encouraging and inspirational ways to push these contestants without suppressing their self-esteem further and making them feel worthless. Unfortunately with the 15th season of the show slated to air next winter and with ratings continually skyrocketing, I highly doubt much will change.

The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.

The correlation between the hip flexors and back pain

It is estimated that 8 out of 10 people living in this country will at some point experience some sort of back pain. That’s an alarming 80 percent of the country! Poor posture, mechanical imbalances and lack of physical activity are the major prevalent reasons behind this epidemic. Although a recent UN study now ranks Mexico as the most obese country in the world, America is still a close second with a 31.8 percent adult obesity rate. Obesity has been linked to knee, hip and ankle pain, all of which have a direct impact on the lumbar spine.

While back pain can result from a number of factors, perhaps the most common cause of it is weak and tight hip flexors.

The hip flexors are a group of muscles that enable to thigh bone to flex or allow the knee to bend towards the trunk. Activities like stair climbing, squats, lunges and sprinting all require engagement of these muscles. Collectively referred to as iliopsoas, they consist of two major muscles, the psoas major and the iliacus. The psoas major originates form the lumbar spine area and attaches in upper region of the upper thigh hip bone. The psoas is the primary hip flexor. The iliacus originates and attaches in front of the upper thigh hip bone.

Hip Flexors 2

In my experience, almost everyone has some sort of issues with their hip flexors. I’m yet to find a person with super pliable and strong hip flexors. Many of us have tight and weak hip flexors and don’t even know it until it chronically gets bad and starts to affect the low back. Prolonged sitting, not enough emphasis on glute training and excess abdominal crunching are 3 of the major causes for tight hip flexors.

When we stay in a seated position for a very long time, the psoas shortens and pulls on the lower back. Imagine the psoas as an elastic band. When the body is standing in a neutral position, the band is fully stretched in its highest elasticity. But when the body sits, the elasticity of the band gets slack and the length is reduced as a result. When the psoas stays in this slacked position for a long time, it causes the pelvis to tilt anteriorly causing arching of the low back and overstretches and lengthens the glutes.

When the butt gets too slack due to overstretching from prolonged sitting, it automatically gets weak requiring the need for more glute training. Certain abdominal crunches like the prone jackknife where there is repeated hip flexion has also been known to tighten the hip flexors. This is the reason why some us feel a an uncomfortable burning sensation in our upper thigh area while performing these exercises. This ultimately leads to low back pain due to excess stress on the psoas.

The good news is that there are ways to loosen the hip flexors and permanently prevent back pain. Activation mobility drills, self myofascial release work, strength exercises and dynamic stretches are the remedy.

1. WALL MARCHING (PSOAS ACTIVATION): This is a great drill for anyone who sits at a desk for the majority of the day. Stand in front of a wall at arms length with a neutral spine. Place both hands on the wall so you’re in a vertical push-up stance. From there, lift one knee to about hip height or slightly higher. Your pelvis should tilt posteriorly as your upper back rounds slightly. Don’t worry about that. Just make sure it doesn’t round excessively. Hold that position for about 5 seconds and switch to the other knee. Aim to do 8 to 12 repetitions per side.

2. SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE: This is the most uncomfortable of all the hip flexor drills because of it’s direct contact on the fascia. However SMR is the one of the most effective ways of loosening tight muscles and restoring blood flow. A foam roller or small hard ball is needed for this, though using a lacrosse or tennis ball will work much better. Place the foam roller or ball directly under the hip flexor muscles on the floor and roll around it for a couple of minutes. To intensify this, locate a tight spot and stay on it for 20 to 30 seconds. After about a couple of minutes of doing this, you should feel some warmth in your upper thigh region indication increased pliability and restoration of blood flow.

3. STRENGTH EXERCISES: The reverse lunge and hip thrust are two great exercises for fixing tight hip flexors. As mentioned earlier, the glutes weaken and stretch as a result of shortening of the hip flexors. These two exercises serve to activate the glutes while stretching the hip flexors simultaneously. In a reverse lunge, the hip flexors of the back leg is relaxed and stretched while the butt activates. The same theory applies in a hip thrust where the hip flexors get a deep stretch at the top of the thrust while the opposing glute muscle gets contracted.

4. DYNAMIC STRETCHES: Many hip flexor stretches exist for loosening of the psoas and iliacus. Most of them are effective and will certainly help the cause if done correctly and held for a good amount of time. However one of my favorite and perhaps the most common is the half-kneeling stance hip flexor stretch. From a half kneeling stance, drive the butt of the knee on the ground forward until you feel a mild stretch in your hip flexors. It is imperative to drive from the glutes and NOT the lower back. The spine should be neutral all along and arching of the lower back must be prevented. Hold this for about 30 seconds and repeat on your other leg.

These movements and exercises must be performed routinely for results to occur. Make sure you incorporate them in your workout sessions and work and keep the intensity mild. As always listen to your body and consult with a fitness professional if you need any help.

A case for the front squat.

Based on my observation and experience over the years, a large number of trainees rarely incorporate the front squat in their lower body training. In fact, I can argue that even the most obsessed lifter at your gym has never performed a front squat. There are several reasons for this. Many who routinely perform the traditional back squat have never been properly taught how to execute a front squat while some that have an understanding of the exercise chose not to do it because of the discomfort it puts on the shoulder and wrist.

While both are legitimate reasons against doing the front squat, the research shows that it is a far more knee and lower back friendly exercise than the back squat.

All squat variations illicit compressive and shear forces on the knee joint and lumbar spine. These forces are also evident in almost every human movement pattern that require the hips and knees (stair climbing, getting up from a chair, ice skating, etc). However it is the compressive forces that cause the most degenerative damage to the cartilage and ligaments of the knee. According to a 2009 research study conducted by Gullet JC, Tillman MD, Guiterrez GM, and Chow JW that measured the force and torque during a squat, the back squat resulted in more compressive forces on the knee and back than the front squat. A person with a herniated disc or pinched nerve in their lower back will only do more damage by loading weight on a back that’s already inflamed. Staying in a neutral spine is the safest way that person can perform most traditional exercises.

Because of the upright position of a front squat, there is significant less torque on the lumbar spine during descent. For this reason, those with chronic and degenerative lumbar and knee ailments could benefit greatly from the front squat. Aside from that, the same study concluded that the front squat is a better Quadriceps developer than the back squat because the quads are stretched further in the bottom position. The back squat will continue to activate virtually every muscle of the lower body (most notably quads, hamstrings, gluteus maximus) with very little work on the gluteus medius and minimus and burn the most calories. But if the goal is to develop and sculpt the quads, then the front squat is the remedy.

The front squat is a very unique exercise that requires precision and near-perfect functional mechanics for proper execution. Unlike a back squat where the barbell sits on the upper shelf of the shoulder blades, the front squat places the load in front of the body and can be performed in two ways. The conventional clean-grip is the ancient and most common. Using this method, the shoulders are flexed under the barbell while the elbows flex so both the shoulders and elbows are aligned horizontally. The final part requires extending the wrists under the bar.

The second way is much easier on the shoulders, especially in those with poor shoulder mobility and flexibility. Known as the ‘cross-grip’, both shoulders are flexed under the bar while opposite hands are crossed and placed on barbell over opposite anterior deltoids. The challenging part about this method is that you have to essentially hold on tight and press the barbell hard especially during descent to prevent the bar from rolling over the shoulder. Because of my limited shoulder and wrist mobility, I prefer this method over the clean-grip.

I’d strongly suggest you perform the front squat regularly in your training (if you’re currently not doing it) to allow for the knees and lower back to take a break from compressive forces. The back squat will remain the most universally accepted and performed squat variation. But we can avoid excess torque and tension on our knees and backs by incorporating the front squat occasionally. If you’ve never done a front squat before, start with a PVC pipe or a broom stick to learn the fundamentals and mechanics.

Regardless of the method you elect to go with, the front squat could be very uncomfortable to perform initially because of the position of the bar. But don’t get discouraged or frustrated. After a few practice sessions, you’ll get it! Shoulder, elbow and wrist flexibility all impact performance and could call for additional mobility work and dynamic stretches. Keep in mind that the kinetic chain of the body has to function well for any squat variation to execute perfectly. If you have ankle and knee mobility issues or trunk instability patterns, you may want to dial back and address those via corrective exercise training before performing a squat. Because of the position of the bar placement in the front squat, one will never be able to front squat more weight than back squat. It is virtually impossible.