Fine-tuning The Pull-Up

The pull-up is one of the most popular bodyweight exercises and widely regarded as the perfect complement to the push-up. It’s also one of the premier exercises for upper body strength and development as evident by its use in assessing upper body muscular strength and endurance by various sectors of the world including our armed forces. Unfortunately most people have loathed pull-ups from the time they were asked to perform them as part of the mandatory physical fitness test in high school. It is for this reason many people substitute other pulling exercises like seated rows for pull-ups in their strength training programs.

Another reason most people don’t do pull-ups is because of the gravity component. Isaac Newton‘s laws of gravity says in part that whatever goes up must come down. Gravity is that force that attracts or pulls a body towards the earth. This means every time a person does a pull-up, they have to resist gravitational forces trying to pull them down. According to Newton, the mass or object has a direct correlation with gravity. This is why lighter individuals can generally perform more pull-ups than heavier individuals. But that doesn’t mean heavier individuals can’t or shouldn’t perform pull-ups. It’s a matter of mastering the technique and repeated practice sessions.

There are several modifications that allow the pull-up to be made possible. But before I get into that, let’s get a basic anatomical and biomechanical understanding of this bodyweight exercise.

The pull-up is a multi-joint, closed-chain exercise that requires just a bar for its execution (modern day cable pulley stations now have specially-designed pull-up handles for ease). It is performed with an overhand grip with the latissimus dorsi as the prime mover and the biceps and forearm as secondary small muscles. Because the lats internally rotate the shoulder and humerus, posterior muscles like the teres major and trapezius also get some work. The flexion of the elbow joint at the top causes the contraction of the biceps while the brachioradialis get engaged via extension of the wrist.

A standard pull-up requires the body to begin hanging with arms fully extended from an overhead bar or pull-up handle bars. The movement begins with pulling of the body upwards until the chin clears the bar followed by a controlled lowering back to the starting point. Though debatable, I prefer the elbows to remain slightly bent at the bottom so there is constant tension in the muscles being worked. Grip width varies in individuals and is usually determined by the most number of repetitions that can be completed. Although there isn’t a universally accepted grip, the shoulder-width grip or slightly wider is generally utilized. Crossing of the ankles, extension/flexion of the knees and hips don’t necessarily make a difference and are usually based on individual preferences. But ‘kipping’ (generating upward forceful movement of the legs to gain momentum), which was popularized by the CrossFit movement, should be avoided because it devalues the engagement and importance of the upper body work. (I’ll address the controversial training methods of CrossFit in one of my subsequent blogs).

Unlike a pull-up which uses a pronated grip, a chin-up uses an underhand (supinated). Both exercises are similar in nature but their names shouldn’t be used interchangeably. The chin-up emphasizes a greater degree of biceps contraction than lat work while the pull-up does the exact opposite: more lat contraction and less biceps work. This is because the elbow flexion line of pull in the chin up is greater than in the pull up due to ‘tucking in’ of the elbows. In other words, if one were pictured at the top of a chin-up, it would look like the top position of a barbell biceps curl.

Apr16-2013Daniel-001-ed2Apr16-2013Daniel-010-ed2

So what if a person can’t do a single pull-up? All hope isn’t lost. Here are 4 ways to make the pull-up a little easier:

1. Partner Assistance: This method requires a partner to hold on to the legs, ankles, waist or hips of the person doing the pull-up. By doing so, the exerciser pulls only the torso of the body resulting in less weight. The partner can also provide just enough ‘forced rep’ to help the exerciser get the full ROM. It is important that the partner let the exerciser ‘pull-up’ with as much effort as possible and only assist when a sticking point is reached.

2. Strength Bands: This is becoming one of the more common modifications of the pull-up. It requires the use of strength resistance bands which come in different sizes and tensions. One end of the band is looped over the middle of the pull-up bar while the other end goes over the feet or knees. Although the challenge is greater at the top where the band is slack, the bottom of the pull-up, where most people struggle, is where it’ll be most helpful. It is important to know that the greater the tension of the band, the more assistance it provides. Also multiple limbs (both feet, both knees) on the band require more effort and use less assistance than single limb (one foot, one knee). I utilize strength bands for pull-ups with most of my clients.

3. Assisted Pull-Up Machine: Every commercial gym has at least one assisted pull-up machine. It is ideal for deconditioned individuals and rehabbing patients. Its premise is similar to that of strength bands in terms of assistance from the machine. A decent amount of weight should be selected for a challenging number of reps with good form. The resistance should continually decrease over time until the person is able to perform one or two unassited pull-up.

4. Lat Pulldown: This is best regression of the pull-up. It essentially uses the same exact muscle groups but allows the lower body to take a break. So which is better, the pull-up or lat pulldown? It’s a matter of preference, training goals and comfort level. If your goals are to maintain an optimal level of fitness, either one is fine. However the lat pulldown pales in comparison to the pull-up in terms of greater isometric contraction in the hands leading to enhanced grip strength and forearm development. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed the pull-up as having an impact on lean body mass. This comes as no surprise since the pull-up is a staple in strength training and hypertrophy programs.

The pull-up has been around for many years and is certainly here to stay. But because of the level of difficulty, many people refrain from doing it often. It is a fantastic exercise for developing upper body strength, improving grip strength, increasing lean body mass and even using various trunk stabilizers to keep the abs engaged. If you’ve never done a pull-up before or can barely do a few unassited reps, try one of the aforementioned modifications the next time you’re at the gym. Your body will adapt over time and soon you’ll find yourself doing unassited pull-ups. If you’re an elite trainee than can do a lot of pull-ups with relative ease, increase the challenge by attaching additional resistance (in the form of weight plates) via a dip belt. Another way to make it challenging is by pulling the chest towards the bar as opposed to just clearing it. This requires more effort thereby making the lats and forearms work a little harder.

Why You Should Deadlift

Aside from the traditional barbell back squat, no other exercise works the entire body like the conventional deadlift. In fact, some would argue that the deadlift offers more benefits than the back squat. Both exercises are functional in nature and engage nearly the same muscle groups. However the deadlift, which is a a hip dominant exercise, additionally recruits fibers of the upper body musculature and as a result burns more calories. The lower and upper back, anterior core and forearms are greatly engaged. The prolonged gripping of the barbell also helps to improve grip strength. I’ve always maintained that if I only had to do one exercise for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one.

Apr27-2013DanielGym-043-ed1

Contrary to popular belief and societal misconceptions, everyone CAN and SHOULD deadlift. It is not a ‘guy’s exercise’. Although different versions like the Sumo Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift and Suitcase Deadlift exists, the traditional version yields the most dividends and should be prioritized in everyone’s training programs. The deadlift addresses virtually every health and fitness goal from fat loss and lean muscle gain to strength, power, core stability and even postural enhancement.

Here are 5 reasons why you should deadlift:

1. Functional Component: If you had to pick up a box or bin from the floor, you would without a doubt hinge your trunk slightly forward, push your hips back, reach down with you arms and then drive back up with the box using your heels. That’s a deadlift in a nutshell! We pick things up from the floor everyday and the deadlift is perhaps the only exercise that mimics that action. By deadlifting regularly, the body continually adapts to picking up dead weighted objects from the floor. This can become extremely helpful in the event a much heavier box had to be picked up.

2. Full Body Work: The deadlift is one of the few exercises that requires lifting a dead weight from the floor. It is a true integration of the upper and lower body musculature due to the simple fact that the entire kinetic chain has to work in synergy in order for any object be picked up from the floor. When executed properly, the quadriceps and dorsiflexors activate themselves at the starting phase and contract to about the middle of the rep. From that point, the forearms, hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back take over. Although you won’t feel a ‘burn’ in your abs, believe me when I say your core will activate via resisting anti-flexion during the eccentric (lowering) phase

3. Postural Impact: Complete execution of the deadlift requires a lockout at the top of the movement. This means the shoulder blades must retract and hips must fully thrust. Both movements are essential for correcting short hip flexors and tight shoulder internal rotators. The extension of the hips at the top of the deadlift forces the opposing iliopsoas muscle group to get a stretch and lengthen. Simply put, contraction of the hip extensors will correct short hip flexors. At the top of the movement, retraction of the shoulder blades forces an internally rotated shoulder to externally rotate. When performed routinely, this will have a tremendous impact on a person’s posture. Even the dorsiflexors, which activate during the start phase, helps improve ankle mobility by stretching the calf muscles.

Apr27-2013DanielGym-037-ed1

4. Best Upper Back Builder: When it comes to overall development of the upper back, no exercise works better than the deadlift. Traditional back exercises like the pull-up and bent-over row are fantastic choices for adding mass to the back but they pale in comparison to the thickness and density the deadlift provides. Part of the reason for that is because of the constant tension in the posterior trunk muscles during it’s execution. So many exercises can be used to work the back in an exercise program but the deadlift is the king.

5. Power & Strength: Of the 3 primary powerlifting movements, the deadlift has the potential for developing maximal power and strength because it uses the entire body. The bench press and squat can do the same but are affected by shoulder and knee limitations via max load. The shoulder girdle complex can only handle so much weight from bench pressing. Almost every guy I know that regularly bench presses heavy has some kind of shoulder pain. The shoulder is one of two joints impacted during a bench press (the other being the elbow), therefore too much tension on it makes it susceptible to injury. And although the deadlift and squat use similar joints (knee, hip, ankle and lumbosacral joints), the compressive forces on the knee and back in a traditional back squat makes the potential for maximal strength and power minimal compared to a traditional deadlift.

Stretching Vs. Warming Up

One of the first thing I learned as I made my way from regular folk to fitness enthusiast was the importance of a proper stretch prior to exercising. It was a cardinal rule that was engrained in me early on that I had to adhere to if I wanted to perform better and avoid injury. For a lot of you reading this, I’m sure you can attest to this. For many years, stretching was considered the end-all be-all protocol before and after exercise. Static stretching, the most common type of stretch, was a mainstream phenomena for most of the 80’s and 90’s.

But at the start of the 2000’s, several research studies on stretching started revealing new findings. It turns out the hype about stretching isn’t all it’s made out to be. In fact, scientific studies now conclude that excess static stretching can cause injuries and affect performance in sports and exercise. Earlier this year, a research conducted by The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed that stretching before strength training negatively impacts strength. Another research study conducted by the same publication measured the impact of pre-exercise static stretch on power and muscular explosive performance. The researchers concluded that static stretching prior to strength training should be avoided. This means a person attempting a Deadlift 1RM, bursting off the block for a 100-meter dash, jumping for a tip-off in a basketball game or even a tennis serve will be at a disadvantage if stretching was done prior.

So this must mean stretching is bad for you right?

Not necessarily. I’ve always been of the mind set that stretching is extremely overrated. Now I’m not saying stretching is bad and should be discontinued. I’m simply stating that too much emphasis has been placed on pre and post-exercise stretching rather than dynamically warming up the body and self-myofasical release (arguably the most effective way to loosen tight and stiff muscles). Most people often confuse stretching and warming up but it’s important to note that they are very different. You can warm without stretching but you can’t and shouldn’t stretch to warm up. Stretching has many benefits including increasing range of motion and improving flexibility. However, when it comes to reducing soreness and injury prevention, the British Journal of Sports Medicine found little to no impact from static stretching on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in a 2011 research study. The researchers looked at 12 case studies on static stretching in the past 25 years and concluded that “stretching does not produce important reductions in muscle soreness in the days following exercise.”

Dynamic warm-ups and soft tissue work have replaced static stretches in the last 15 years as the protocol for prepping the body before physical activity. Dynamic movements mimic the activity that’s about to be performed and sends blood to those working muscles quicker than static stretching. Soft tissue work (rolling with the foam roller or tennis/lacrosse ball) is another phenomenon that has garnered mainstream attention over the last two decades because of it’s impact on loosening muscles without overstretching the fibers. Because movement is more efficient when muscles and connective tissues are warm and lengthened, dynamic mobility drills and soft tissue work are more effective than static stretching prior to sporting events and exercise. Jumping jacks, hip circles, inchworms, butt kicks, scapular wall slides and high-knee walk are some dynamic mobility drills that positively impact performance. Stretching loosens muscles and the surrounding tendons that connect them to bones. But when this happens prior to exercise, the muscles aren’t able to produce enough power and energy at an efficient rate. The elasticity response from the a static stretch prior to exercise weakens the muscle for up to 30 minutes, which isn’t the right way a person wants to begin an exercise or sport.

Warming up dynamically before a physical activity is the new norm and should have preference over static stretching. It allows for continuous movement, increase body core temperature and promotes blood flow, all of which can help improve performance. Motor control, coordination and balance are variables that are positively impacted from dynamic warm-ups. Static stretching on the other hand limits movement patterns and does very little redirecting of blood to muscle groups.

So here are 5 takeaways:

1. Static stretching improves flexibility while dynamic warm-ups improves mobility.

2. You should only stretch tight and short muscles. Stretching the whole body is a waste of time and can be counterproductive.

3. Post-workout static stretching does NOT reduce soreness.

4. Statically stretching a muscle too far and too long causes pain and injury to muscle fibers.

5. Stretching prior to exercise or sport negatively impacts performance.

Stretching has been and will continue to be one of the most controversial topics in fitness. While several research studies rule against it, there are some that are in favor of it. Although more research is still being conducted, the universal conclusion at this time is that it does very little to improve health, exercise and athletic performance. However if you must stretch, do so only when you feel stiff, after sitting or standing for a long time and upon waking up in the morning.

Top 10 Nutritional Mistakes Active People Make

Hope everyone is enjoying the Labor Day weekend thus far. For many of us, this is yet another opportunity to gather around the grill to BBQ with friends and family. It is a tradition rooted deeply in American history that I too am a part of. But as fitness enthusiasts, we have to draw a line between eating healthy and going overboard. While it can be difficult to eat healthy all the time, there are some nutritional mistakes many active people, myself included, make everyday.

We all know nutrition is a big part of optimal health and fitness. We’re not always going to eat the right meal. It’s just virtually impossible. But there are certain mistakes active people can and should avoid for long-term success and continued progress in the gym. I came up with 10 of such mistakes.

Here they are:

1. Skipping breakfast: This is by far the most common mistake active people make. Starting your day off without a meal is like asking a car to move without any gas in the tank. Breakfast jump starts your day and ignites your metabolism for the rest of the day. When we wake up in the morning, our bodies would have been without food for several hours during the night. A breakfast is exactly what it is: A fast being broken after several hours with no food. No matter how pressed you are for time in the morning, try to grab a small bite before heading out!

2. Not eating before a workout: Eerily similar to the first mistake, working out without the adequate nutrients in the body can affect performance and cause fatigue and dizziness. An ideal preworkout meal should contain sufficient amount of carbs with little protein and fat. It is important to note that carbs should be the preferred source as they supply the body with the most readily available fuel.

3. Waiting too long after exercising to eat: The body has a short window for optimal recovery and maximal growth after a workout has been completed. Most fitness experts conclude that window to be within 30 to 45 minutes although I’ve heard some say as long as 90 minutes. The bottom line is carbs and protein must be consumed immediately following a workout. The carbs will aid in recovery and replenishing glycogen stores while the protein will facilitate muscle growth and repair damaged tissue fibers.

4. Replacing meals with shakes and snack bars: For a lot of us with hectic schedules, getting balanced meals frequently may be difficult. While protein shakes and bars can be good substitutes, they shouldn’t be relied upon too much. No healthy snack or energy drink compares to balanced, nutritional whole foods which contain more healthy nutrients, vitamins and minerals. As a rule of thumb, only one-third of your daily number of meals should come from protein shakes and energy bars.

5. Consuming too much protein and not enough carbs: Whether you’re an endurance athlete, powerlifter or just an all-around gym goer, carbs are mandatory for effective performance and optimal recovery. Simply consuming a lot of protein all the time will slow down your progress, affect your performance and potentially cause damage to your kidneys.

6. Relying on the accuracy of dietary supplements‘ claims: I use dietary supplements regularly and have been doing so for over 10 years. But I take all their claims and belief with a grain of salt. The supplement industry, though worth almost $70 billion, remains an unregulated industry with many of the manufacturer’s claims not supported by the FDA. So many products promise intense pumps, massive gains and a host of other things. Don’t buy into all the hoopla. Always do your research, use caution, listen to your body and follow a sound nutrition.

7. Not consuming the right amount of calories based on your activity level: By now we all know in order to lose weight, calories burned must exceed calories consumed and vice versa for muscle gain. However, the number of calories you consume daily should reflect your physical activity. Competitive athletes and bodybuilders need to consume a lot of calories because of how much fuel they expend during their training and events. The more active a person is, the more calories that person’s body will demand. However, one must be careful not to consume too much calories so fat mass doesn’t increase.

8. Being active means you can eat whatever you want: For the most part, extremely active people can get away with a cheat meal or two every now and then. Because these folks have a high metabolism, their bodies will process food for fuel at a rapid rate. However, if too much calories are consumed, especially meals that are high in trans and saturated fat, weight gain in the abdominal/trunk region will increase. It’s easy to get a little complacent with diet if you’re active, but remain steadfast and try to make healthy choices 90% of the time.

9. Not drinking enough fluids: Approximately 80 percent of muscle is made up of water and roughly 65 percent in the human body. An adequate amount of fluids must be consumed daily for body maintenance. Active people need more water because water is lost via sweat during exercise and excretion when we urinate. Not replacing these fluids can lead to fatigue, dehydration, dizziness and nausea. Thirst isn’t the best indicator for water consumption. If the color of your urine is yellowish or orange-like, you’re already dehydrated. Whether active or not, everyone should aim to consume between 75 and 120 ounces of water daily.

10. Falling prey to the latest exercise and diet fad: We live in a society where so many dietary pills and exercise equipments flash across our televisions as infomercials promising instant results. These ads are usually very tempting and luring in their presentation but don’t buy into the hype. There’s no such thing as a ‘magic pill’ or exercise equipment that guarantees instant results. These are gimmicks! The best remedy for a fit and lean body remains exercising regularly and a sound nutrition program.

Introducing ‘Rapid Fire : Installment 1’

Hey y’all!

Allow me to apologize for not having written a blog in two weeks. Family and career-related commitments absorbed a huge chunk of my time. I hope everyone’s enjoying the last few days of summer. Fall season is on the horizon so let’s try to soak up as much vitamin D as we can!

And if you’re a football fanatic like myself, it means the weekend is about to get entertaining again with college and NFL football seasons kicking off over the next two weeks! Can’t wait!!

In today’s blog, I present to you my first ever installment of ‘Rapid Fire’ where I briefly address some of the pressing issues in the fitness industry. Unlike my blog format, I’ll only be devoting a few sentences (no more than two paragraphs) to each topic I write about. I will address no less than 3 and no more than 5 topics per ‘Rapid Fire’.

So without further ado, I present to you Rapid Fire : Installment 1

1. No Such Thing As ‘Exercises For Men’ & ‘Exercises For Women’: By now we are all aware of the health benefits of resistance training. It has been historically documented well enough. However a topic of discussion often heard in fitness circles around the world is the notion that certain exercises favor men and some favor women. Nothing is further from the truth! The male and female musculoskeletal systems are created with equal parts. Why then should a woman train differently from a guy? Who came up with the idea that women had to perform resistance training with very light weight for endless number of reps? There is no reason why women shouldn’t be doing barbell squats, bench press, deadlift, overhead press with challenging resistance for a moderate amount of reps. Not only will these exercises burn tons of calories due to their compound nature, they also allow for maximizing of time. Women will see leaner and better sculpted physiques.

No matter how intensely hard a woman trains with weights, she will never be able to achieve the level of hypertrophy a guy can. This is based on the primary male hormone testosterone. It is what allows a man to have a deeper voice than a woman, broad shoulders and larger cross-sectional tissue size. For this reason alone, men are already at an advantage over women for strength and mass. Those bodybuilding and powerlifting women you see on TV and magazines inject themselves with testosterone and other anabolic enhancers to achieve the size that they have. Conversely, exercises like the machine hip abduction/adduction that are considered for women only can in fact help improve a guy’s squat and deadlift by strengthening certain hip external and internal rotators.

2. The Idea Of Muscle Confusion Makes No Scientific Sense: If you happen to have seen those P90X commercial ads, you’ll know that there’s a phrase the creators use constantly when marketing the product: Muscle Confusion. For those of you who’ve never heard of P90X, it is a home-based workout program created by celebrity trainer Tony Horton with the sole objective of transforming your body in 90 days. You perform selected workouts several days a week via DVDs sent to your home. As a fitness professional trying to spread the gospel of health and fitness to as many as possible, I have no problem with this. The issue I have with confusing the body often with different exercise is that it never gets to adapt to a stimulus over time. In sport science and strength training, there’s a term called the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand). It simple states that when the body is exposed to some kind of stress or load, it starts to make adaptations that will allow the body be able to withstand that stress over time.

This means if you want to get stronger in the barbell back squats, you’ll have to consistently increase the stress and load so the body can continue to adapt. All of a sudden, your 225lbs for 10 reps becomes a bit easier after a week weeks. Before you know it, you’re squatting 255lbs for 10 reps. If you’ve been biking for years and your speed and endurance hasn’t changed much, it means you’re not stressing the body enough for an adaptive change. Maybe your legs and core need better work or you need a tougher terrain to challenge the body. If we constantly confuse our bodies by frequently performing different workouts, we will fail to build adaptation which means little to no improvement in our strength, muscle gains and endurance. Calories will still get burned if the body is confused because any physical activity does that. It is from that standpoint alone that Tony Horton’s P90X will certainly help a person burn fat and lose some weight.

3. Protein Before Training Doesn’t Help Much: Protein supplements are arguably the most consumed dietary supplements in the world. We know about it’s impact on the body specifically with muscle gain, recovery and health of bones, cartilage, skin and blood. But consumption of protein prior to a workout session has little to any impact on training mainly because carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. The USDA recommends 45%  to 65% of our daily calories to come from carbohydrate sources. Part of this reason is due to the fact that carbohydrates and fats are have  plenty of storage in the liver and muscle and are readily and easily called upon by the body for energy. The body does not store protein so chugging a glass of protein shake prior to a workout won’t do anything because protein’s primary objective in the body is to repair tissue after a workout and facilitate growth.

Because carbs provide the body with the most readily available fuel, they should be consumed before training or recreational activity. Protein is best consumed after a training session and on less active days. Both are vital for optimal functioning of the human body but it is important to know the different roles that they play. If you’d like to read more about the importance of carbs, check out this blog I wrote a few months ago.

5 exercises that can help improve posture

For many fitness enthusiasts who train regularly, posture and body mechanics are two vital areas of concern. We often hear people say to others, “Sit up straight”, “Pull your shoulders back” or “Keep your spine tall”. The term ‘slouch’ has never been more apparent in our society the way it is today. Thanks in large part to several case studies that have linked poor posture to imbalances in the kinetic chain, back pain and other degenerative diseases like scoliosis and kyphosis.

Those who know me well will tell you that I’m a strong advocate of postural awareness. Before I take on any new client, I put them through a series of movement pattern screening and postural evaluation exercises. So many different exercises can be used to assess and evaluate posture. In my humble and professional estimation there isn’t a best one, although some fitness professionals could make a case for the Overhead Squat.

There is currently insufficient evidence that supports the notion that exercise can correct posture or lead to deviations. More research is still being conducted at this time. While I don’t believe postural training exists, there are few exercises that can help improve and enhance poor posture. It is important to remember that these exercises shouldn’t be relied entirely upon for postural correction. Active stretching, myofascial work and mind-body awareness should be integrated as well.

So without further ado, here are my top 5 exercises for improving posture:

1. DEADLIFT: I’ve written extensively about the Deadlift in some of my previous blogs. This is arguably the best resistance exercise for improving posture because of it’s functional component. No other exercise mimics the action of picking up an object from the floor. But even more important are the mechanical aspects of it. Setting up for this exercise requires the trunk to be in a diagonal alignment from shoulder to hip which reinforces neutral spine. Flexion of the hips automatically causes activation of the dorsiflexors of the leg forcing the ankle to be mobile. The retraction of the shoulder blades and full extension of this hips  via thrusting at the completion of the movement emphasizes good posture. Retraction and adduction of the scapula will help a person who is internally rotated in the shoulders via external rotation. Likewise, extension of the hips will help a person who has  tight hip flexors and over-lengthened glutes due to prolonged sitting by stretching them at the top of the movement.It is important that you don’t hyperextend the lumbar spine like some people do.

Deadlift1

2. REVERSE LUNGE: The most knee-friendly lunge variation is also a good exercise for those with short and tight hip flexors. When dumbbells are used, the shoulder girdle and upper back region get activated. The hip flexors of the leg that lunges backwards get a deep stretch during execution of this exercise. When I perform this movement, I try to hold the bottom position for 2 seconds to illicit a good dynamic stretch of the hip flexors. When dumbbells are held in each hand, the shoulders ‘pack’ and forced to pull themselves back due the challenge of maintaining good balance. A much farther center of gravity forces the shoulders to externally rotate to prevent tilting forward because of the additional resistance in each hand.

3. SCAPULAR WALL SLIDE: This is an exercise that will garner weird looks from others when you’re doing it. If only those people knew the amazing postural impact it has on the trunk musculature. The good thing about this movement is that it can be included as part of your pre-workout mobility warm-ups or as an exercise in a resistance training program. Stand with your head, upper back and butt against a wall. The heels of your foot should be anywhere from 12 to 18 inches away from the wall. Lift your elbows to shoulder level and press your forearms back against the wall so your elbow and shoulder make a 90-degree angle. Most people won’t be able to get their forearms to press firmly against the wall indicating tight shoulder internal rotators and chronic slouchy posture. With your head, upper back and butt pressed against the wall, fully extend the elbows in a diagonal pattern, hold for a second and return to your starting point. Many will also have a hard time keeping their back flat and will arch quite often early on. The objective here is to continue to keep the forearms close to the wall as much as possible and do your best to keep the back flat. I used this movement to correct extremely tight shoulder internal rotators I battled with for many years. My forearms were 10 inches from the wall when I started this movement!  Though they’re not quite touching yet, they’re about 4 inches from the wall today.

4. DUMBBELL SUITCASE DEADLIFT: This deadlift variation, which was developed through the real life action of picking up a suitcase, is ideal for training the core stabilizers while also strengthening the posterior chain. Though identical to the conventional deadlift, it is different in it’s unique way. Hold a dumbbell of moderate resistance in one hand and stand in front of a mirror in neutral alignment. Your stance should be 3-5 inches less than hip-width apart. Push your hips back and bend the knees as you would do in a regular deadlift. Lower the dumbbell as far as your can without rounding your back or letting your knees cave in. The objective here is trying to remain symmetrical despite the destabilizing forces from the dumbbell attempting to pull you out of alignment. The reason for the mirror is to keep an eye on your symmetry and alignment ensuring you remain neutral all along. Do not allow your trunk to tilt laterally while performing this movement. It is the resistance to tilting that yields the benefits of this exercise. As an added bonus, the core musculature is activated via anti-lateral flexion exercises.

5. WAITER’S WALK: Popularized by the innovative Gray Cook, this exercise is eerily similar to the suitcase deadlift due to the asymmetrical nature of both. The idea behind this exercise came to fruition after witnessing the incredible dexterity and skill waiters display as they constantly hold and walk around with a tray in one hand above their head. To perform this exercise, hold a dumbbell of moderate resistance in an overhead stance. Earlier I talked about ‘packing’ of the shoulder girdle for increased joint rigidity. The same technique applies in the Waiter’s walk. With the dumbbell over your head, ‘pack’ and pull your shoulder back into the scapular without shrugging. Keep your upper arm as parallel as you can next to your ear. As you begin to walk, you’ll feel the weight of the dumbbell trying to pull you out of alignment from all directions. The challenge is to resist these forces and remain symmetrical as much as you can. Do your best to avoid tilting and hiking up the hips. When all the mechanics fall in place, the result is an erect posture in neutral alignment. Begin by walking 20 to 30 yards per arm and work your way up to 40 to 50 yards.

So there you have it. 5 exercises that can help improve your posture. Keep in mind that these are based on my personal experience and years of extensive theoretical studies and research. As always, use good form and work with a moderately challenging resistance. Incorporating active stretches and self-myofascial release will make the process much easier.

WHY ‘THE BIGGEST LOSER’ ALREADY LOST.

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.

-1