This was inspired by a client of mine who wanted to restart yoga after a bad back injury.
What if, as a trainer I told you that we were going to do an exercise that did the following:
I want you to lengthen out your posterior chain as much as you can, throw both of your shoulders into extreme extension, put yourself into spinal flexion (even if you can’t properly tilt your pelvis) and stretch out your hamstrings and calves as far as they can go (thereby also yanking hard on your sciatic nerves) – oh, and do it while loaded with up to 70% of your body weight, and the load increases the further you get into the exercise. So for a 150 pound female that would mean their shoulders and knees are loaded in extension with up to 105 pounds on their spine and other joints.
Does that sound like a good idea for anyone, let alone people recovering from injury?
The funny thing is, people in yoga classes do this almost every day. It’s called a downward dog.
Now, before the yoga community absolutely freaks out and starts thinking I’m bashing the movement, I’m not. All I’m doing is providing a practical analysis of what people are required to perform to get into this position. I’ve had a client recently with severe back issues try to get back into yoga and the one movement she had immense trouble with (not surprisingly) was this one. I’ve also attended yoga courses where thankfully the instructors were aware of the limitations of this movement and realized that not everyone should perform a downward dog – in fact several of my most respected colleagues actively discourage it since they have realized what it does.
On the flipside I’ve also been to yoga classes where the instructors did absolutely NOTHING except for sun salutations over and over again. You can guess which class I didn’t go back to.
“BKS Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world asserts that this asana stretches the shoulders, legs, spine and whole body; builds |strength throughout the body, particularly the arms, legs, and feet; relieves |fatigue and rejuvenates the body; improves the immune system, digestion and blood flow to the sinuses, and calms the mind and lifts the spirits.” (ripped from Wikipedia) – and it does all of these things.
But what people need to realize as a whole is that some movements that you perform in a typical yoga class are very hard forceful strength movements. Simply because it is packaged as something healthy and therapeutic doesn’t mean that it is. Just like any other type of exercise, it needs to be tailored to the person participating in it. A 200 pound deconditioned person has absolutely no business getting into this position and here’s why:
Here’s what people need to be able to do into order to successfully perform this movement:
Put your arms overhead fully or even behind the torso while internally rotated. This requires a healthy rotator cuff complex, the rib cage to be able to move and the shoulder blade to be able to move with proper rhythm. One loaded movement I often have clients do to test this area is a loaded shoulder extension (think a front raise but over the head with a cable) at various angles in order to engage the entire shoulder complex.
Hinge the hips with proper pelvic movement so that the lower spine isn’t flexed forward putting strain on the lower spine with load – while it’s flexed. Think loaded Romanian deadlifts, and even things like good mornings (I have a bias against these because of where the load is placed but whatever). Just because your hands and feet are on the floor doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of pressure going through the lower spine in this position.
Fully extend the knees and dorsiflex the ankles as much as possible – general limits here are thought to be 30 degrees but most people have much, much less than that. Generally here in a squatting position I look for the ability of the knee to travel forward properly and therefore dorsiflex the ankle. Can you squat low? Or does your person have longer legs relative to their torso? Are they recovering from a knee issue that might be contraindicated to full knee extension (like a meniscus injury?).
There can be many restrictions in this area and it also has the highest risk of issue due to the excessive load people will put on their knees in order to force themselves into a straight legged position. The restriction might also come from hamstrings, calves or somewhere else, not even the ankle.
So here’s my question: Can or should you do all of these things and hold them for time? No? Maybe this movement isn’t for you.
What people need to realize is that even though it is relaxation based and supposedly “stretching”, yoga is still force on joints. Sometimes a lot of it. Another common flaw of the downward dog is that people will generally run away from weakness. This means that if they are weaker in the shoulders and have trouble there they will dump more load into their lower body in this position. If they are weaker in the lower half they may dump more load into their upper body. I have seen this often in classes. And it can cause a serious problem if suddenly the load shifts by 20-30% into the wrong area suddenly due to a weakness somewhere else. However, due to the nature of the position there isn’t any way to get out of it. Except for compromising by say, lifting your heels or bending the knees or even elbows to put load elsewhere.
So what are some good modifications? Well, like in any other loaded position if you can take the load off a bit, then the person can attempt the range of motion without the excessive joint force. For example, a person with good shoulder mobility but poor posterior chain range and pelvic movement might want to perform a simple hip hinge with their shoulders extended and brace their upper body against something. Prenatal classes often recommend this.
Another option might be to intentionally elevate the heels and bend the knees as I expressed earlier. You can also bend only one knee or alternate sides. For less force on the arms and shoulders, lower the body and rest the forearms on the ground. These are all modifications that can easily be suggested in a class but often aren’t. During a busy class most instructors just don’t have the chance to go around and suggest individual modifications to people.
Or here’s a thought – don’t do it. There are ways to work up to this movement, just like any other yoga movements but so many people make the mistake of jumping in and following along, and then wonder why they are sore the next day and never want to go back.
The good news is that with my modifications to her positions and telling her to skip downward dogs my client successfully navigated two yoga classes and has been able to get back in touch with something she previously enjoyed but couldn’t do.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of yoga. I’m a fan of anything that keeps people moving, enjoying loaded positions to develop strength and will over time develop additional range of motion. I’m also a big fan of the relaxation side of the practice and allowing people to be in a parasympathetic state, even if it is only for five minutes at the end of class in savasana. It’s something most people should do a lot more of. The reason I’m writing this is to make sure that if you are about to jump back into yoga because you think it is a good way to ease into exercise again – it might not be depending on the class.
As always, if you have comments feel free to comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck with your future practices!
As a trainer and coach I tend to read a lot of stuff written by other successful trainers and coaches in order to try to make me better at my job. Throughout the years there has been one main theme I have seen that I thought I’d point out to the rest of you, trainers and potential clients alike.
Newer trainers and coaches tend to think they need to reinvent the wheel in order to make themselves more marketable or stand out among the crowd. They try whatever the latest fad trend is with the hopes that it will cause the client to be impressed. Eventually (with any luck) they realize that a coach is only as good as their results. Doing something showy and flashy in order to create a temporary response is usually a sales tactic – anyone can push someone really hard, as I wrote about previously HERE.
This means whatever the client goal is they need to be working towards it and making constant improvement. For my strength clients, this is being able to generate more force or move more weight. For my running clients it is being able to run greater distances, faster or both. If you coach a sports team, then they should be increasing their skill levels at whatever position they are performing in and also hopefully using that to win games.
So what is the key? Throughout history of successful coaching, it really comes down to one word: fundamentals.
Successful coaches can make people better at things that they should already be doing well. For a strength coach, this can mean the basic lifts like squatting, deadlifting, pulling and pressing. For an athletic coach this can mean things like power, agility and coordination. For my runners, it means being more efficient with every foot strike, which in some cases means starting over again at the beginning.
Throughout the sports world, high level athletes will tell you that they spend hours upon hours practicing fundamentals. Basketball players practice foul shots. Cyclists ride their bikes for hours a day. Swimmers swim lots of laps. Baseball players take batting practice daily for hours. Often this has no major goal beyond building the fundamental mechanics or strength they need in order to improve.
Just two months ago I started working with a post surgery client who had recovered but had shin splints daily. When her basic walking gait was corrected and she started to use the proper muscles again the shin splints disappeared. The same thing tends to happen for back issues when the person learns how to deadlift and squat properly. Some trainers would call this “correcting an imbalance”. I’d rather call re-educating the client (and their tissue) on something they already know how to do.
Your body is a very smart thing. It learns based on the input it is given. As I always say, crappy information IN means that you will generally get crappy information OUT. If you overwhelm your nervous system from the get go it doesn’t have a chance to adapt and make improvement. This means spending weeks (for some people) practicing simple things until they have them down.
So what are the fundamentals? Well, it really depends on the person. For some people, walking properly is hard enough. Throw in a few activities of daily living like sitting down, picking things up and climbing stairs and they might be done. I’ve had to reteach these things to hundreds of people over the years, and more often than not when they are practiced and put into place little painful issues tend to resolve very quickly. Same with high level performers. Often with my athletes they simply need to be coached on how to perform a movement they have forgotten how to do properly. This can be as simple as a squat (for a powerlifter) or as complex as an ankle mobility movement for a soccer or football player.
Most movements can be broken down into basic primal movement patterns, which is echoed by both movement gurus and athletic trainers alike. Deadlifting. Pushing and pulling. Spinal flexion, extension and rotation. This is generally what 95% of my clients start with, even if it is completely de-progressed like a basic box squat within a range of motion their hips, knees and ankles can perform at without deviation.
In fact if you’re a reader of fitness magazines, you can see this plain as day. Any program that tells you how to get a BIG LEGS has a squat in it. BIG CHEST means lots of bench pressing. Not a one armed dumbbell press on a Swiss Ball. Stick to fundamentals and you are guaranteed to see progress. Another of my mantras is that you EARN THE RIGHT TO DO MORE. This means if you can’t do something basic you have no business doing a progressed version of it. Most high level coaches adhere to this.
If you have run into a coach or trainer who tells you that you need to perform some sort of elaborate system in order to improve a simple movement, maybe you should think twice. There’s a time and a place for breaking down movements to isolate weak points, but it should not be the primary focus of any workout. There always needs to be a goal, and in my opinion that goal should be centered around the fundamentals.
So the next time you read about some amazing NEW system that is going to explode your gainz please put down whatever article you’re reading (unless it’s mine) and go deadlift. Or do some pullups. It’s probably what any decent coach would tell you to go and do anyway.
This is another success story I’d like to share with my readers and anyone interested in what I do. This case really illustrates the gradual use of resistance to create tension and hold positions for spinal issues and how they can be improved.
Randi came to me through a referral from one of my local MAT practitioners. Often when these people are receiving treatment they require someone who has my skills to help increase their strength once their body is able to fire muscles properly again. Having this combination is a really great way to enhance your gains in strength and allow your body to develop at a much more rapid pace. By the way, I highly recommend MAT to anyone looking to improve their physical self, you can find more about it HERE.
When I first assessed Randi it was a challenge. In a nutshell, everything we tried caused pain in her back, localized mostly around the right SI joint area which was indicated as the main issue. This had been going on for almost eight years and caused her to give up a lot of things she enjoyed doing, like hiking, cycling and even caused her problems while walking her dog. She had trouble with simply standing in proper posture, which put pressure in areas that her back “didn’t like”. This became a frequent gauge of her pain levels during our first few sessions.
Doing what I do, I will at first admit that I miscalculated and didn’t realize how much Randi’s back would react to my initial movement pattern assignment. After our first session she was okay, but after the next couple her back was sore for four days to the point where she couldn’t do normal everyday activities. This is after doing much movements as simple hip flexion, mild bracing, some basic extension (ie hip hinging) and trying to integrate her hips with her shoulder girdle. I was surprised, but glad that Randi (after she recovered) allowed me to try again.
The lesson here for both you and myself, is that you can reduce any level of force to an appropriate one for any person. So what did I reduce to? Randi started out most of her subsequent sessions with postural holds (bracing in a standing position), walking in proper alignment, and then going through various drills and movements unloaded in order to teach her body to facilitate coordination without any load. Loads were added eventually, but using angles of her body and longer ranges of motion, not weights. This Is a very broad description, but it worked. Before long, Randi’s body was to the point where she could endure long car rides, do sustained long activities she enjoyed like cooking and was able to think about buying a bicycle for her main goal.
Randi’s main goal was to be able to bike 26 kilometers for her trip to the Canadian Rockies, something she had wanted to do for a long time. The first step was to get her back on a bike again. She lasted for only 45 seconds the first time we put her on one. Then, through gradual application and increasing of mileage not only did we get her back onto a real bicycle (after finding one her body could tolerate) but we got her to the point where she could bike for over an hour (with breaks) and while her back was tired, she was able to recover quickly and function normally afterwards. Progressions were done weekly and she was also given specific technique rules and ways she could approach what she was doing on the bike to take tension off of her back. With some movements, it is a matter of reteaching the body how to move.
One interesting weekend Randi pushed herself a bit too hard, not realizing that a 15km route (which was prescribed) was actually a 20km route with hills. Her back reacted accordingly, but the great thing was that she recovered fairly quickly. Recovery time is always a great marker for performance improvement. Normally what would have done her in for a week had her sore for a couple of days, which is fairly normal when you’re doing something you haven’t done in eight years.
I’m happy to say that Randi has made incredible progress. Not only did she successfully ride the trail in the Rockies, she is now dead lifting up to 50 pounds, performing movements like lunges and pulldowns and planks, and is able to recover from workouts quickly. Her MAT therapist has seen a significant change in the way her muscles hold onto position. This is all in a period of about six months.
Once of the best parts of my job is helping people like Randi and sharing in the results. Here’s a picture she sent me of her on the bike out in the Rockies accomplishing her goal:
Randi’s goals have moved away from reducing pain and into more typical goals like weight loss and strength gain, which is fantastic. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the great benefit that I tell my clients is that if you can teach your body to tolerate forces, then it will always improve. If you have any specific questions about my work with Randi (or anyone else) feel free to contact me through this site or at email@example.com. I’m always willing to help if I can.
I thought I’d share this story as a way to show people what real dedication can get you. I’ve had the privilege over he past eight months to work with a woman who had the ultimate motivation towards getting healthy and losing weight and wanted to see if it might inspire others like it inspired me.
Now, before I begin I realize that motivation is often a struggle for a lot of people. I often cite the scene in the movie Fight Club where a man holds a gun to another man’s head and tells him to go follow his dream or he’s going to shoot him. Motivation is the ultimate struggle for many of us when it comes to changing your lifestyle, but when you have no choice but to do something then it is pretty hard not to. This is where my client Nadia comes in.
Nadia’s mother had liver disease and needed a new liver because hers was failing. Unfortunately a transplant from someone else wasn’t likely to happen any time soon, so Nadia decided to get checked and found out she was a match. The only problem was that she was 60 pounds overweight and also had a fatty liver. So in order to save her mothers’ life, she had to lose a significant amount of weight and also get extremely healthy. The problem was that it basically needed to happen as soon as possible. Her mother’s life was at stake.
So Nadia got to work. She got my name through a referral from one of my successful clients. When she contacted me I was honestly a bit overwhelmed only because she had a very short timeline and a very big goal to reach. I was also very honored to have the chance to help her. We got to work immediately and she flew into changing her lifestyles completely. She was in the gym dedicated 5 days a week following a strict program and completely overhauled her eating habits. We put her on a carbohydrate cycling protocol, something I wouldn’t normally do with a client because it is aggressive, but this was ordinary circumstances. And the pounds and inches started to come off.
In terms of exercise, part of the problem was her losing weight and inches, but also maintaining strength for a potential surgery. We worked through a couple of phases of training from introductory strength and moving into heavier lifting, then changing into higher intensity once her joints had the strength and integrity to handle it. Her nutrition stayed spot on and the pounds came off steadily.
To make a long story short, within eight months Nadia was down 60 pounds and many many inches. In fact, the first time I did her waist measurements I was astounded only because it was down over 10 inches just in that one area alone.
Nadia busted her ass – literally. She worked incredibly hard and suffered through a lot of stress. In short, she was a complete rock star and did exactly what it took in order to get to where she needed to be. She had setbacks and pushed through them, even doing her last six weeks on bariatric shakes totaling 900 calories a day because her liver fat needed to come down faster in order to be healthy. In my fifteen years I have rarely seen this type of dedication towards a goal, and the result was obvious.
Nadia and her mother had their surgery (successfully) a couple of weeks ago and she is now recovering. She will be out of commission for a couple of months and then is looking forward to getting into maintaining her new body and hopefully doing some really cool things that she might not have been able to previously. We’re going to work on maintaining her strength and then setting new goals for her new body. She has told me that she never wants to go back to the way she was before and the good thing is, she doesn’t have to. Nobody does as long as they stay consistent.
So I’m not writing this as a big pat on the back for myself. On the contrary, Nadia did 96% of the work on her own. She planned her meals, she did the workouts (which I designed), she went through all of the ups and downs she needed to (with the occasional support email needed). In fact, she only saw me about once every few weeks to make changes and adjustments to her programs. Only towards the end when things needed to become more supervised did she see me even once a week. You don’t need to spend a lot of time with a trainer if you’re willing to put in the work on your own, as I have said many times before.
My true point with this article is about motivation. So many people get into exercise and health without having a really clear picture of what they want. Having that picture and really, really wanting to do anything that you need to in order to make it happen virtually guarantees success. Nadia had that. So ask yourself this: if it was your mother, if it was another family member or if a doctor told you that you had to make changes, would you do it? I hope that the answer is yes. Think about that the next time that you want to skip a workout, or stop what you started, or eat another really crappy meal. What if you didn’t have the choice to give up because someone else was relying on you? Well, I can tell you that someone probably is. You.
Life always comes down to choices. You can choose to do what it takes or keep on cycling through what you have always done. All you have to do is find the motivation that Nadia and countless others have found in order to completely change how you feel, look and perform on a daily basis – not only now, but years from now.
I’m very honored to have been a part of this transformation, and I’m also hoping that by writing this it inspires more of you to get up, get going and find that part of you that will never give up. Good luck with whatever fitness journey you are undertaking and if you are ever looking for help feel free to contact me.