Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Consumption Junction: What's Your Function?

Just like "Jumbo Shrimp" and "Government Organization," the term "Functional Training" as it's used in most gyms and fitness magazines is an oxymoron. You may disagree, but there is nothing even remotely functional about a single leg deadlift and overhead fly with a leg lift while holding pink dumbbells! And unless you plan on playing tennis while standing on a mini-trampoline, using one during training probably doesn't make much sense, either.

In fact, this study clearly demonstrated that training on an unstable surface might actually decrease your performance in sports and athletics (when compared to training on a stable surface). If you look closely, you'll notice that Eric Cressey was the lead author of the study (it was his Master's thesis at UConn), and I'm pretty sure that he knows a thing or two about training for performance...just not about choosing teams to root for.

This will make more sense if you understand the Principle of Specificity. Specificity states that in order to become better at a task, you must practice that specific task. For instance, if you want to become a better free-throw shooter in basketball, you have to specifically practice free-throw shooting! If you decide that you want to practice your free-throws while standing on a Bosu, then you'll only become better at shooting free throws while standing on a Bosu. This is easy to see if you consider how we learn from a neuromuscular standpoint, which I wrote about in this post.

Instead of throwing together some random circus training and calling it "functional," you should instead think like a coach and consider what your particular needs and activities are. In other words, what is your particular "function," and how can your training actually help you to accomplish this? Just as importantly, what can you do in the gym to help you to counteract the potential negative impacts of what you do every day, keeping you healthy and functioning optimally?

For instance, if I'm working with one of my Rugby teams, they will probably perform Olympic weightlifting as part of their workouts to develop power and explosive force which they can use on the field. If I am training a secretary, I will make sure to include plenty of rowing and scapular retraction exercises as well as core postural training in order to undo the affects of sitting at a computer for 8 or more hours each day. If I am training a firefighter, I will utilize exercises that duplicate the job tasks of a firefighter with activities such as sandbag carries and even sledgehammer side-swings into a tire (think about carrying a person from a burning building or breaking open a burning door with an axe).

...And if I should ever find myself in the position of training a Professional Bosu Basketball League player...well, that's when I'll take the Bosu out of the aerobics studio and incorporate it into my programming!

Don't get me wrong: there's nothing inherently bad about unstable surface just need to understand why you would choose to use that form of training. Hopefully, you now recognize that any exercise can be labeled as "functional" depending on what specific activity need it addresses, and not just because someone happens to be doing a handstand on a stability ball while he/she is exercising.

Depending on your goals (weight loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, etc), you can adjust your sets and reps to produce the results that you're looking for (you can have a look at my Men's Fitness article Long Term Fitness for how to adjust your workouts for your particular needs). But always choose your exercises according to your specific tasks and individual needs.

In other words: make functional training actually functional!


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For...

This past weekend, I attended the Perform Better 3-day Functional Training Summit in Chicago. It was a fantastic conference, and I was able to see some really informative presentations, as well as meet a lot of great strength coaches and trainers. I also got the chance to remind Eric Cressey that the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLII, you know, just in case he had forgotten.

One of the standout presentations was given by Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS,*D, FNSCA. In his presentation, JC spoke about what motivates our personal training clients, as well as what their true goals are when hiring a trainer/coach. Our clients may set weight loss or muscle gain as their primary goals, but according to JC this isn't really true most of the time. The fact is, many of our clients aren't just trying to change their bodies, they are really hoping to change their lives.

Let's face it: life isn't always so easy. So many of us may go to the gym thinking that we want to simply "get fit," but in truth we bring so many more issues and concerns through those health club doors, from low self confidence and fear of the gym because of the way that we might feel that we look, unfulfilling personal relationships or marriages, or unsatisfying jobs and careers, to name just a few.

Looking good may not be what a client actually wants in the end, JC argues: that client really wants to be happy, and believes that joining a gym and hiring a trainer will somehow deliver that happiness.

In my own experience, I have seen a number of clients achieve their fitness goals, only to feel even more lost or unhappy afterwards. Without even realizing it, these clients thought that the key to their happiness somehow was correlated to a number on a scale. Instead of being proud of their efforts and accomplishments, they were left only seeing the failings in their lives and the unhappiness that remained after the weight had been lost.

With my own clients, I often warn them about this possibility. I encourage them to enjoy the journey of their workouts and weight loss, and to use the positive experience of their hard work to spread throughout the rest of their day. Losing weight may not actually be the goal that they are looking to achieve, but exercise can become the means by which they ultimately do achieve it.

So what are your goals? Do you know what you are truly hoping to accomplish? Are you trying to lose weight, or are you really trying to gain happiness? By understanding yourself and working on every aspect of your life and not just the physical aspects, you can achieve your goals...all of them. Losing weight is a wonderful experience; Gaining happiness is sometimes something very different. By knowing and understanding that difference, you really can make all of your dreams come true.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Education Qualification

CBS News recently ran a report on unqualified personal trainers and the fitness industry's lack of regulation:

While the report is obviously focusing on very extreme examples, it also sheds light on an unfortunate and frightening "dirty little secret": without industry-wide regulations concerning the training and education of personal trainers, there is absolutely no assurance of professionalism, knowledge or even safety when it comes to hiring a "fitness professional."

Think about that for a moment: right now as you read this there are literally thousands upon thousands of people across the country that have entrusted their health and safety in a group of "professionals" that probably know just slightly more about health and basic human physiology than the people that actually hired them...and that is a terribly scary thing.

So how can you tell a good trainer from a bad one? You can take a look at what I've written before about evaluating a trainer, and you can also check out what my friend (and excellent coach) Tony Gentilcore had to say about the subject on his blog at the Boston Herald

In the end, a fitness professional, just like any other professional, requires two basic qualities to be effective: knowledge of his/her field, and the ability to apply that knowledge. Until the fitness industry develops a standardization of knowledge-base and entry-level requirements, it will remain a terribly scary thing indeed.


On a more personal (and positive) note, congratulations to my best friend Rochelle: she was just accepted to the City University of New York's Ph.D. program in Speech and Hearing Sciences (where I am currently finishing my own clinical doctorate in physical therapy). She is one of the brightest and most gifted people that I know, and there was never a doubt in my mind that she wouldn't be accepted!

I'm SO proud of you, Rocks!


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Poor Practice

I have no idea how to tie my own shoes "the right way." As a precocious four year-old, I taught myself how to tie my sneakers one day, but because no one had shown me the "right way" I had to figure it out myself. Unfortunately for me now, I didn't get it quite right, and I am now the master of the "bunny ears" method of shoelace manipulation. Even though I've tried to learn how to do it more efficiently a number of times, I just never could break out of how I had taught myself while sitting on the floor of my kitchen over 25 years ago.

Whenever we try a new exercise or movement, we learn. Just like studying a foreign language will eventually allow us to become fluent in that language, consistently practicing a new technique in the gym will allow us to become "fluent" in that technique, eventually mastering it. However, learning another language takes more than just knowing how to translate your words: to truly become fluent, it takes an awareness of the differences in inflections, tone and even speed of your speech so that you truly learn how to mimic the accent, slang and expressions of that language. This is also true of weightlifting and even in tying your shoelaces: paying attention to the details along the way will make the difference between getting something done and getting something done well.

When we need to move, our Central Nervous System will figure out a way to do it. Whether the resulting movement is technically "right" or "wrong" in terms of muscle activation, recruitment, force or even the resulting movement itself isn't as important as actually getting the task accomplished, "properly" or otherwise. If one muscle isn't doing its fair share because it doesn't know "how to," other muscles will take over in the process. This is known as "Synergist Dominance," and over time it causes strong muscles to become stronger and weaker muscles to become weaker. In turn, this will begin a chronic cycle of altered biomechanics at the joints and soft tissues, and once your body becomes accustomed to moving "wrong," it's a very difficult cycle to break. The problem is that if you don't break this cycle of poor movement, eventually your body will break instead.

To understand why this can be so difficult to do, first we have to look at exactly how our brains learn to move our bodies, a process called "motor learning." Motor learning is a physical reorganization of cortical neurons in the primary motor cortex through a phenomenon known as "cortical plasticity." In other words, your brain actually changes physically whenever you learn something new! This requires a reorganization of synaptic connections in the brain, which takes time and energy. It is a difficult thing to reverse once it occurs, because not only do new connections need to be formed, but the old ones must be down-regulated. You may be more familiar with another form of down-regulation which can occur in our bodies: the down-regulating of motor units in unused muscles, which is what happens when a muscle atrophies and shrinks if you take a very long time away from lifting weights.

This is why "breaking old habits" can be so difficult for people to do, and why *some* of us can't tie our shoes correctly. Rewiring your brain is tough work! Learning a new exercise and proper form can be a challenging experience, but unlearning an exercise because of poor form can be even harder. Paying attention to the details and making sure that you learn how to move correctly early on can make all of the difference in the world, ensuring that you'll be improving your body for a long time to come.

Hopefully you took that time when you first began lifting weights and exercising. It turns my stomach when I see trainers or coaches not take the time to instruct their clients or athletes properly, either because they don't know how to see those mistakes in the first place or they don't realize how important it actually is. Luckily, it's never to late to fix those mistakes, even if it is more difficult to do after the fact. At least half of what I do in a typical coaching session is just that: fixing mistakes and improving movement, form and technique.

So check your form every time you attempt a lift, and make sure that you're able to spot your flaws and to correct them. Even better, find a qualified and expert trainer or coach to help you and ensure that everything that you do is done correctly.

Practice makes perfect, but BAD practice makes imperfect.