I hope that title is enough to grab some attention. I am quite serious here, I will describe 5 things you can do today and every day, (that part is important), that will increase awareness of your muscular strength and possibly rid yourself of some nagging pain. If you will commit to practicing these 5 things each day, they will become a part of your muscle memory, your "movement programming" will be re-written. Then, you will probably want to add more strength and endurance practices because you will recognize the positive changes that have occurred. When people feel better, they tend to do more of the things that make them happy, and happy is the ultimate goal.
It is important to note, that I am quite passionate about approaching fitness goals with a a "'practice" model, as opposed to a "workout" model. As an Instructor and Personal Trainer, I teach movement and strength as a skill set. As a teacher, I am always, and forever a student. I am always searching out the latest science and practical application to assist my students in every way available to me. When you approach strength development as a practice, you learn to incorporate it into your everyday life. That is where it will come in handy, and with this approach you are much less likely to get injured. In the gym, or in the default world.
It is also important to note that I am writing this for the average, fairly sedentary person who wants to increase their everyday strength and endurance in a safe and sane way. This post is not written for strength athletes with a highly developed, consistent practice that has paid off with championships and lucrative contracts. Those people already know this stuff. They know it in great detail. They have committed each of these principles to their long term muscle memory, their autopilot, if you will. Strength is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned and taught. You can incorporate patterns into your everyday life that will unlock your potential for full range movement and increased strength. This strength and mobility will help with the aging process, help with the management of chronic pain, and provide precious motivation to try new activities and enjoy your body for as long as possible. In my mind, fitness is less about looking a certain way and more about the ability to do things that help us live happy lives. People contact me because they want to get fit. I believe that we all want to be happy, and fitness opens doors to many things that contribute to happiness.
I can, will, and do go into great detail into each of these concepts in my work, but here is a quick run down of my current top 5 practices to get anyone started on their strength and endurance journey.
Tip #1 Find Your "X".
This simple, but not necessarily easy, concept aids with "shoulder packing". The idea that you want to keep your shoulders down while performing movements. My favorite way of cueing this is to say "Put your right scapula (the large, flat bone in the back of your shoulder) in your left back pocket. Now Put your left scapula in your right back pocket. Feel the X." That "X" we feel is because the fascia that wraps the right lat also wraps the left glute. This means that the two largest muscles in our bodies actually form an X in our back. It would appear that the human body is designed to lift and carry heavy things throughout our lifespan. Weather it is suitcases and kitty litter, heavy objects at work, free weights or kettlebells. Lift and carry exercised done with the "X" firmly in your mind and body will make it better and greatly reduce your risk of injury and fatigue.
Daily practice suggestion: Imagine sliding your right shoulder blade, (scapula), down and toward your left butt cheek. Now do the same thing with your left shoulder blade, imagine sliding it down and toward your right butt cheek. Hold that position. Feel that "X". Now make it small. Keep it small as walk around, swinging you arms naturally. Keep it small when ever you are carrying something in your hand/hands. Keep it small throughout any exercise that calls for a "neutral" spine position.
Tip #2 Use Your Breath to identify and activate many "core" muscles.
Please notice here that I refer to "midsection muscles" rather than using the term "core". Core muscles are much more than just the muscles of our midsection, which are the ones I am referring to here. In Hardstyle practice, we call this "Power Breathing", and it can go much deeper as the application changes for a specific lift or movement. Similar breathing patterns are used in the practice of many martial arts, as well as in singing and playing horns and woodwind instruments. The idea is to sift air in through your nose and consciously, on purpose, use your diaphragm so that it feels as if your midsection fills up with air. Be sure that you feel this all the way around your midsection as opposed to just pushing your belly out when you breathe in. A great way to get a good feel for this at first is to wrap a Theraband, or exercise tubing around your middle and inhale through your nose. You should feel the band or tube getting tighter as you inhale. Notice that our chest does NOT rise. You can also put your hands on the sides of your belly. Feel the muscles expand under your fingers and your thumbs as you take in air, and your chest does NOT rise. You can further practice by placing a hand on your chest, and a hand on your belly. As you inhale through your nose, you feel the muscles of your midsection move under your belly hand, while the chest hand does not move at all. Once you have that down, and it may take some time and patience...breathing patterns can be pretty difficult to change. Please be patient with yourself. Now, make a valve by plugging your teeth with your tongue. Now, when you exhale, notice that it becomes harder for the muscles in your midsection to "squeeze" the air past this valve and you make a "hisssss" sound with your mouth. Notice what is happening with the muscles around your midsection. Notice that they must now work harder to "pull" in to force air past your "valve". Each Power Breath is a Crunch, without changing the shape of your spine! THIS is HUGE! Sit Ups and Crunches, while engaging and challenging the muscles of the midsection, also put a LOT of stress on the spine. They hurt most people's necks and low backs. I do NOT teach conventional crunches or sit ups at all. Power breathing does several very important things: It provides support spinal stability and support. I could spend hours on just this subject, but that is for another post. It allows for healthy air exchange. People will tend to exhale more fully when practicing Power Breathing. It activates, the muscles around the midsection so that you feel where they are, and trains them for endurance. It is the basis for the " Bio-mechanical Breathing Match" used in Hardstyle lifting, again, another set of posts.
Daily practice suggestion: Practice slow, deliberate Power Breaths, focusing on the muscles of your midsection pulling in, pushing air out, past the valve you have created by pushing your tongue against the back of your teeth. Do them slowly. If you get dizzy, see spots, or become lightheaded, so back to your regular breathing for a few breaths and them come back again. This happens to a lot of people, but not to everyone. When you are comfortable with the breath, do 5 sets of 5 slow breaths. You can do this as many times per day as you want to. Seriously, notice what is happening with the muscles of your midsection as you practice this. You can, and should, do these standing, sitting, and lying down. Be sure you are totally comfortable before you try it at an intersection in your car!
Tip #3 Find and Maintain Your Neutral Spine
Notice that I used the word "your" in the description of the tip. That is simply because your spine is your spine, and everyone's spine is a bit different. Further, your spine will most likely change as you progress along your strength journey. So, when I say "neutral", I mean for you, right now. So, stand up as if you were in front of the "most important person in the world to you'. Nice and straight, proud chest, feet firmly planted on the floor. You can hold this position for at least a minute without the need to move. This is neutral spine for you. You want to be aware of how this feels for you. You should be able to maintain this neutral spine throughout 3 positions: Standing. Sitting. Laying down. This is very simple. That does NOT mean that it is easy. It will be very hard for some people, and not hard for others. The best way to really see this is to have someone take you picture from the side as you stand, sit, (either on a chair away from the back, or on the floor), and lying down on your back, and your belly. Look at the shape of your spine in the photos. Feel what neutral feels like in your spine. Practice those three shapes. Think about it as you go throughout your day and evening. challenge yourself to maintain neutral for a set number of seconds or minutes, adding as you get stronger. Notice, if you have already been practicing the first two tips, how they help you find and maintain your neutral spine. Really take time and notice what is happening within your body as you begin to re-program your systems with a "Strength Mindset" approach to practical strength training practices. Do you see how each of these tips build on each other? Building a strength practice is like building any other practice. Humans typically learn new skills in "layers".
Daily practice suggestion: Stand up. Feel your feet firmly attached to the floor. imaging sinking your feet into the very foundation of the floor, imagine grabbing the floor with your feet, not just toes. Stand up tall, as if you are "presenting yourself to the most important person in the world to you". Now, relax a bit. Breathe. Without feeling too forced, stand there, without moving your feet, for 8-10 seconds, then "shake" it off. Wiggle and shake like a dog shaking off water for a few seconds, then go back to standing upright. Hold 6-10 seconds. Repeat this for five rounds. Then sit, either on the edge of a chair or ottoman, (no backrest contact), or on the floor. Sit upright, make your back the SAME SHAPE as it was when you were standing. Hold 8-10 seconds, then "slouch", letting your back go into flexion, (this may be "normal" for you) for a few seconds. Repeat this for five rounds. Now, lay down, preferably on the floor, but a bed or couch will do until you are comfortable getting on the floor if you are not. Important note here: Getting up and down off the floor is a LIFE SAVING SKILL. If you are at all able, please do not rob yourself of this precious ability. Lie on your back, feel your calves, hips, upper back/shoulder blades, and the back of your head against the floor. At first, many people need to just lay here for a little while while everything "settles". If you keep up this practice, it won't take very long before you are more comfortable on the floor. Feel that the shape of your spine is the SAME in this position as when you were sitting, and standing. Lie motionless and feel for 8-10 seconds. Now roll over to your belly. You can place your hands under your chin, or forehead, or turn your head to one side to lie on your ear. Stay here for 8-10 seconds, noticing the shape of your back. If you feel a change, try to "fix" it. Roll back over to your back and repeat this for five rounds.
Tip #4 Squeeze your Butt, but not Your Face.
Sounds pretty funny huh? Seriously here, many people, especially those who must sit at a desk for 40+ hours per week, develop what we have come to call "Gluteal Amnesia". Now, this does not mean that these people's glutes (think butt muscles) do not work at all. If that were true they would fall down. It means that they do not have good voluntary control of these very powerful muscles, (largest in the human body). Now, for the most part, I do not teach people to work their muscles in isolation, however, learning to isometrically contract specific muscles, or groups of muscles is neural training. It is about the brain and central nervous system. It is about body awareness and control. About muscle memory. Practicing contractions of your butt, while not contracting any other muscles is key. Many people, when asked to "squeeze their butt" will actually also squeeze the muscles in their faces and hold their breath. While kind of adorable, this is not what we want to do automatically. Other people find that when they try to squeeze only their butt, their quadriceps, front of the thigh, also contract, or the muscles in their belly also contract. This is quite common, and can be "reprogrammed" with practice.
Daily practice suggestion: Practice squeezing your butt, and only your butt. Hold each contraction for 8 to 10 seconds. Practice 3 to 5 sets of 5. Practice the sets standing, sitting on a firm chair or the floor, at intersections in your car, at your desk, while doing dishes or watching TV. You get the idea...Once that is easy enough, add shorter "pulse" contractions. Hold each contraction one full count. Release. Repeat. Do this for reps of 10. Once you can perform both kinds of contractions without involving any other muscle groups, do 3 to 5 long hold contractions, followed by 10 "pulsing" contractions. Repeat this for 3 to 5 sets.
Tip# 5 Extend your Hips.
Okay, this one is kind of like my first Tip of finding your "X" to keep your shoulders in a good position. I think it is very important to understand that what affects the shoulders will, in time, affect the hips, and visa versa. "Hips and shoulders are friends, siblings even." Since you are practicing finding and keeping the "X", you are practicing keeping your shoulders safe, home in their sockets. Now, you can learn to identify hip extension. Hip extension feels much like a "pelvic thrust". Like in the "Time Warp" from Rocky Horror Picture Show. MMA Fighters and Jujitsu Players understand hip extension because it gives them extra reach with a well done kick. For people with low back problems, this hip extension usually feels pretty amazing, as it creates space between segments of the lumbar spine.
Daily Practice suggestion: Stand in front of a full length mirror if possible. Put your hands on your hips. Imagine the bones of your pelvis as a "bowl", now imagine that you are going to pour water out of the back of the bowl as you send the front of your hips "across the room". This usually feels like a "tuck", making precious space in your sacral spine, (very low back). Notice that it is almost impossible for you to tuck your pelvis and not squeeze your butt. Notice also that there is a little "extra fabric" in your pants in the back. This is because your glutes just moved forward and under as you tilted your pelvis. Your hips are now in extension. Now imagine that you are going to pour water out of the front of the bowl. Notice that this accentuates the curve in your low back. Your hips are now in flexion. Repeat this motion, standing in Hip Extension, (notice your butt is tight), and Hip Flexion. Go back and forth 8 to 10 times. Throughout the day, put your hips in extension. Notice how strong this position feels with practice.
I have described for you 5 basic things that you can do that will help you gain awareness and functional strength that aids with day to day activities and actually help alleviate many common aches and pains. Practicing these 5 things as a part of your continuing strength practice will help assure that you will reduce the chance of you getting injured doing exercises or doing routine work or home tasks, and help as you heal any thing that does happen.