Finally the finishing touches to my back pain series. This was prompted by the epidemic of back issues that have been posted all over my social media lately. It seems that this winter many people have decided to “throw out” their backs. And this is something that is completely avoidable. The problem lies in that you’ve already likely done it to yourself. Now we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
In July I wrote two articles on back pain. The first one which you can find here was about identifying what and why back pain typically occurs. The second one, which you can find here was about movements you can use when you’re feeling stiff or sore to help provide relief for general stiffness and soreness.
This part is about the exercises. Now, most therapists and trainers would identify that you need “more core strength”. What does that actually mean? Many people will think that yoga, pilates or even just simple crunches will do the trick. As I said in Part Two, the “core” is a very complex thing and can’t be isolated into one or two muscles. You have to strengthen the entire complex, and this stretches from the pelvis all the way up to the shoulders and even down into the legs.
So how do you begin? Well, a good place to start is by working on movements that you have to perform daily anyway.
My number one exercise to develop and improve back strength and resolve symptoms of back pain: The Deadlift.
In fact, if you were only allowed to do one exercise for the rest of your life, this would probably be my first recommendation.
Pretty simple, right? Picking something up and putting it down. This is not actually true. There is a lot of proper technique and intention behind this movement and I strongly suggest you have a competent coach (not your “brother-in-law who lifts”) teach you the movement and all of its’ parts. It includes the ability to squat, hip hinge and also keep your spine engaged throughout the movement, all individual components that you need to be aware of.
The good thing about this exercise is that it can be regressed so that my 103 year gold Grammie can do it, or progressed to an Olympic lifting level. It is very versatile and hits most of the muscles in your body in a very good way. One of my goals with any of my clients (even those with compromised backs) is a good solid deadlift.
My second choice for back strength actually involves the hips more than anything. Strong hips (and you can feel free to think “glutes” here) are essential for spinal integrity. Therefore my number two is: Hip Thrusters.
Now, this can be an uncomfortable position for many so I typically suggest starting this movement on the floor, then progressing to a Swiss Ball for mild loads, then a bench or modified floor position for heavier ones. You also need to make sure that your legs are in the proper position and you can actually hinge at the hips before you can do this properly. Again, please consult a professional coach to help give you the right technique.
Easy regression is an isometric hold in the up position (on the floor or a mat) for 15-20 seconds to start. Focus on pushing through the heels and pretending you’re holding a pencil between your butt cheeks and not letting it go.
Now, we also need a movement that takes place in the frontal plane – which means up and down if you’re standing up. This makes sure that the spine is being trained with forces that it will experience frequently. One way that people frequently hurt their backs is by extending a load over their heads they have no business lifting.
Most people also have very little upper body strength in relation to their lower body or vice versa. Men are horrible at this because they want to have a big upper body and never make their legs strong so their poor spine is like a pipe cleaner balanced with a big rock on top of it – and easily collapsed.
Therefore my next exercise for proper back health is very simple: The Pull-Up.
I realize that most people can’t do one full pull-up properly. Therefore I’ve given you two pictures that show easy ways to do these assisted in a gym or at home. If you need more ideas feel free to email me or google it and you’ll find a few more. I have at home clients do this with a bed sheet and a door frame sitting on the ground.
This movement not only is great for loading your spine in a frontal plane, it also hits those often neglected upper body pulling muscles that don’t get a lot of use. I encourage all of my clients to get to the stage where they can do pull-ups without much assistance. There are also a variety of choices in terms of grips and adjustments to enhance the strength in your shoulders without wrecking them. Please be careful and progress things appropriately.
Oh, and yes there is some debate over whether this is a frontal or sagittal plane movement. I believe it is a frontal plane movement. If you want to debate it, feel free to call me out.
There is a long list of complimentary exercises that I would add to this list. Some of them include:
- Overhead Pressing
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Back Extensions and Reverse Back Extensions
- Loaded Planking with movement
- Lateral Side Flexion
- Loaded Trunk Rotation
- Split Squats
And the list can go on. However, if you want to get started on the path to good spinal strength, these three are your first and best bet towards good spinal strength.
You might also notice that none of these first three exercises are traditional “core” exercises. However, all of them load your spine quite nicely and give you the benefit of adding strength in a bunch of other places as well. This is essential for total body health.
All of these exercises can be progressed and regressed by a competent coach. Always remember that exercise is tailored to the individual, and a good coach will adjust your program based on need and result (and goal).
I’m planning on putting together a proper E-Book on Back Strength coming soon. If you would like a free copy, feel free to subscribe to my site by adding yourself to the list at the side, or follow me on Twitter at @strengthottawa, Instagram at @strengthrehabottawa and on Facebook at Strength Rehabilitation Institute of Ottawa. I’m also always interested in your thoughts and feedback, so feel free to Share this as well on any social media.
Take care of your backs!
It’s a New Year and gyms are flooded with people with the best of intentions. They’ve set a weight loss or other fitness goal to work towards in the New Year. Many of them have never been in a gym or haven’t used their membership in a long, long time. So what’s a good idea? Hire someone to help keep them accountable and help them with your goals, right?
Now before I go into the negatives, I believe strongly in my industry. A good trainer is worth their weight in gold towards keeping you accountable, safe and progressing towards better health and physical movement. Someone who is dedicated to their craft, learns constantly and uses many types of tools depending on the client.
The reason for this article is that in most chain gyms this is rare. The personal training world has no barrier to entry. I can direct you to a web site where for $200 and doing a quick multiple choice exam (which I got 92% on without studying a thing) you can get a certificate as a personal trainer. Many certification courses out there aren’t much better than this. Goodlife for one actually has their own training certification (called GLPTI) their employees are forced to go through (and have to pay for themselves) that teaches sales techniques, not proper training principles beyond periodization. Here in Ottawa, I recently learned that another big chain gym (Movati) is doing the same thing now. It’s not about results – it’s about money. Sales drives the training industry, especially in chain gyms.
Training also has its’ share of people who really don’t care. Most trainers (80%) leave the industry within two years and get into it for the wrong reasons. They want an easy way to make money because training has a high pay rate per hour while they can work where they like to hang out – the gym. At the beginning, maybe they have good intentions but quickly realize that they aren’t going to be working with athletes and fitness models and have to get up at 5am to service people. So their motivation is gone, and therefore your results.
So what can happen is a lot of people who really need help hire a “trainer” who has no knowledge or intention to really do a good job. Or, at most chain gyms you book a “free consultation” (ProTip: EVERY TRAINER OFFERS THESE, IT ISN’T SPECIAL). You get paired with not who is the best fit, but who has an open time that fits yours or a new trainer who needs to fill their schedule. And you get results – maybe – or possibly a higher risk of getting hurt or bad advice.
So here’s my recommendations of what to do when anyone starts looking for a trainer, either at a chain gym or elsewhere.
Do Your Homework
Chain gyms often have a wall of trainers, with lists of their skills and certifications. The newer ones will have less – or have things like “former college athlete” on their bio along with their one certification. This is to fill space, it isn’t a qualification. They will also be a lower level therefore cheaper to hire. This isn’t necessarily bad, it is just an indicator that they haven’t been around as long and possibly don’t sell packages well (ProTip: At most chain gyms, the “Level” of trainer is based on sales – not skills.)
Read the bios, then if you find one that you think sounds like they have qualifications to match what you want – go find them. Preferably WATCH them with a client. Some things to look for:
- Are they paying attention and focused on the client?
- Are they writing things down or recording somehow (some use tablets now)?
- Are they coaching and correcting when needed or just counting reps?
- Are they doing proper rest periods or chatting for minutes between sets?
Then – if they seem to be doing all these things – approach them (or the manager) and ask specifically to meet with them for a consultation. I’ve been doing this job for over 15 years and my consults are my time. Why? Because I as the trainer need to know if we are a good fit to work together, and sometimes I need to refer people to someone else if we’re not. I just recently did this with a friend of mine because she wanted something I don’t specialize in, even though she wanted to work with me.
If you’re going the independent or at home trainer route, make sure to ask for references from people who have similar goals to yours. Any good long term trainer has lots of happy clients, even if they are former clients for whatever reason. If they can’t provide this simple thing, then you might want to be wary. You also want to make sure that their style and facility matches with things like your location and how they will motivate you since you likely can’t see them work with people ahead of time.
Don’t Fall For Sales Tactics
A good trainer will have a plan, but if a potential client asks me how long it’s going to take to get to their goal my first answer is I DON’T KNOW. I can give a rough estimate, but it depends on a variety of factors, the biggest of which is your adherence as a client.
Many trainers will sit you down and say “It will take x amount of weeks at this phase of training (usually using big words like hypertrophy or mesocycle) to get to the next phase, we go through these phases and then you’re at your goal!” Hooray, right? But that’s over a period of 9 months and most will tell you you need 3 sessions a week to get proper results. Don’t get me wrong, you get the best results with more sessions – but cost (and time) is a factor for most people. Any trainer who says you MUST have this amount to reach your goals is trying to sell you something.
But wait – the total amount might be $$$ but we can stretch out that amount and you can pay for it over 12 months instead of 9, so it’s affordable. And then they start in with telling you all your flaws, or reminding you of that dress you want to fit into in six months and try to shame you into signing a big contract. I had a former co worker who prided herself on making people cry during consultations. Many trainers are really very good salespeople disguised as experts. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine and honestly it disgusts me. However, many trainers are hired by gyms for sales skills, not training skills.
A good trainer has a plan – but it is adjustable and takes into consideration things like time, budget and realistic situations. Most of my client roster basically had three weeks off schedule recently because their kids were out of school for holidays. A good trainer will adjust based on these circumstances. If you are in a specific phase of training then it can be extended, adjusted or whatever you need. Life happens.
If it sounds more like you’re buying a used car than hiring someone for a service then please think twice. The person should be telling you about how they are going to do things, not haggling on prices.
Don’t Sign a Long Term Contract
You’ve found a good trainer. You’re getting results, you get along and they seem to be a good fit. Excellent! But one day your trainer tells you that they are changing to a different gym that is inconvenient for you – or worse, is leaving the industry. There are little to NO safeguards that you can get your money back if you have paid them up front.
A chain gym will simply assign you another trainer (it’s in your contract). If you do your vetting process properly as in my previous paragraph this may work out well. But they will NOT give you a refund. Find another trainer that is a good fit for you and hopefully you can continue on the road to results. However, if you never signed a long term contract in the first place you can potentially move with the trainer which might be a better option.
If it is an independent trainer, then hopefully they are ethical enough to refund you, but this can be drawn out, and if they are more of a salesperson than a good trainer then likely they will simply disappear, especially if they are leaving the industry. Buyer beware. It’s much safer just to not have a long term commitment paid for up front. If a potential trainer is trying to get you to sign something for a long period of time, be careful and ask for options. (ProTip: Sessions should not cost less just because there are more of them, no other professional does this type of thing.)
Don’t Be Afraid to Fire Your Trainer
One thing that should drive the personal training industry is SERVICE. Just like any other industry. If your trainer is showing up late, constantly cancelling or rescheduling and you’re not getting the level of service you want then have a discussion with them about expectations and if they don’t meet them, you have the right to find another one who meets your needs.
The trainer/client relationship is often fairly close and can develop into friendship (which some trainers take advantage of in my opinion) so a client can “feel bad” for asking for good service from someone they are paying for a service! This is ridiculous. You’re paying $1 a minute for service – not a chatting partner or rep counter or someone who just doesn’t feel like working that day.
Just like any other professional, you have the right to expectations, and so does the trainer. I can count on one hand the amount of clients I’ve actually fired myself over fifteen years, but it has happened. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate and do what is best for yourself and moving towards your fitness goals. Any professional will understand.
I applaud any of you who are looking to improve in 2017 and work towards getting healthier and in better shape. Set some short and long term goals, and remember the key to your success is consistency over time. The journey is worth it when you realize how good you feel and how much you can move without pain. A good trainer is a partner in that journey with you and I hope that you all find good ones.
If you want to reach me for inquires within the Ottawa area or elsewhere you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or head to my web site at http://www.srottawa.com if you have questions. I’m always happy to help.
Happy New Year!
The full title of this should be How To Shovel Snow (And Not Hurt Yourself). We just had our first fairly serious snowfall in Ottawa and inevitably this brings on clients starting to shovel large amounts of the white stuff.
This also inevitably brings on back problems, shoulder problems and even knee problems from doing this seemingly simple activity. If I told you to pick up a 20 pound weight, for most of you it isn’t a problem (especially if you work with me). However, if I told you to pick it up, then throw it about five feet beside you while twisting, then repeat that about 200 times you might be a bit sore. This is actually what you do when you’re shoveling snow, it’s just you don’t realize it.
Some simple physics: The further something is away from you the heavier it is on your joints. This is actually an exponential relationship, meaning if something is twice as far away, it is four times the load. So my first basic thing is to have a compact shovel – the shorter handle you can manage the better. However, this is sometimes a trade off for having to bend more, which we will get to in a second. Having the right shovel in terms of size and length can help in the long run.
Tip #1: The place people run into problems most while moving snow is that they tend to pick up a load, then twist and throw it. Twisting under load makes your lower back extremely vulnerable, especially with a flexed spine (ie bent forward). Position seem familiar?
If you can pick up the load and throw it straight in front of you it lowers the impact on your back significantly. Pushing it in front of you also works, using one of those large sled like shovels. It may take some creative positioning but your back will thank you.
Tip #2: People have a dominant side, and feel more comfortable moving with that side. My next tip is to switch sides frequently in order to give one side a rest. You can do this with every 10 shovel loads, every 5 or whatever you like. Make a system and use it. Not only will this help your back, but it will also lower the impact on your shoulders and arms. This usually means you can go for longer if you need to. However, this isn’t always the best way to do things.
Tip #3: If you’re not in fantastic shape and don’t have good cardiovascular health, take frequent breaks – even long ones. The snow isn’t going anywhere (until April) so you have lots of time. Lifting and repetitive movement is hugely anaerobic activity and can get your heart rate to dangerous levels for long periods of time (hence frequent heart attacks). Keep your exertion levels in check. If you need to, stop and take 2 minutes – is your heart rate back to below 60% of your maximum? Then continue. As you work harder, your body will take longer to recover from the exertion and if you find that your heart rate isn’t coming back down even after 5 minutes then stop the activity altogether and come back after a long break. Don’t be a hero just because you want to get the driveway finished. It’s hard work just like any other workout.
Tip #4: To save your shoulders, try to keep your arms bent, especially when you have a loaded shovel and you’re lifting. Having your arms extended puts most of the load directly on your shoulders and they usually aren’t strong enough to support it. Again, imagine if I handed you a 20 pound bar and asked you to hold it straight out in front of you. Your shoulders would think it was about 80 pounds. If you simply bend your arms, and put some force into your biceps and wrists then the load is lessened to the shoulder significantly.
Tip #5: Shovel more frequently if there is a large snowfall. Doing it 2-3 times with a small amount is much better than trying to move 30 centimeters all at once. So many people wait until the snowfall is over and then move a huge amount all at once, rather than moving 1/3 at a time 3 times. Again, in terms of overall volume this will greatly reduce the potential for overload and therefore injury. Better to lift half the amount more often than a larger load and increase risk of hurting yourself.
We here in Ottawa embrace winter (or at least we’re supposed to). Don’t let something as simple as clearing your driveway be the reason you have to rehab a serious back injury or shoulder problem this holiday season.
If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to SHARE it on social media. And, if you have a problem with your back or shoulders you need help with, feel free to contact me at email@example.com or on Twitter @strengthottawa or find me on Facebook here.
As a bonus, here’s my dog Woofie enjoying the snow! Hope you have a great day!
This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a cadaver dissection lab, the first one ever offered to trainers in Ottawa. This was a unique opportunity to see the things that I affect every day stripped right down and actually see inside the joints and muscles and other structures. Incredible for learning even more about how we work from the inside out.
You have over 640 muscles in your body, some estimates go as high as 667 depending on what is classified as a muscle. Every time you move you affect dozens of these. When you can actually move a joint that has been stripped away and see how these muscles pull and stretch and work together, one of the most amazing things to me was how resilient your body is on an ongoing basis.
One example was that there were two different feet from the tibia down. One had one heel basically underneath the tibia and another had the heel slightly offset to the outside. Imagine every foot strike (taking thousands a day) hitting just slightly off center. What would that do to things further up the line? Multiply that by say ten years and you’re talking about 7.3 million steps. Knee cartilage takes the same wear and tear over time, as does the hip and back. And that’s without ever lifting anything or moving quickly.
We take this for granted. Our body is obviously really, really tough but more often than not especially in athletics we think that it will heal and all will be fine. This type of movement and trauma changes it permanently. I saw several examples inside joints where wear and tear that you wouldn’t even know was there existed.
I got to see nerves actually coming out of the spinal cord and how thick they are. There are areas of the body where these nerves are constantly compressed over and over again, even without any type of inflammation. They still hold up for long periods of time without fraying, breaking or even compressing enough to cause an issue. This told me that when you have a problem with a nerve – it’s a serious problem. On the flip side, I got to see the nerves that actually run through the center of the spine and how protected they are, but also how delicate and could be easily destroyed.
There were certain muscles that until I saw how the fibers actually sat and saw the lines I thought functioned in slightly different ways. When you moved them you could also see how the muscles might stretch and align themselves to allow a completely different type of mechanical ability. It also illustrated how many muscles work together to achieve movement, whether it be something as simple as typing on this computer or as complex as lifting something quickly from the floor over your head.
I actually got to see fascia – connective tissue that provides tension for a lot of the body and also creates patterns of contraction that move throughout the body and connect different areas. Many of you probably know Gil Hedley and “The Fuzz Speech”? It’s there. Seriously. I saw it, touched it and even broke it up. Incredible to think that such a thing is really there, but there it was. All over the place. And it was very easily altered.
Now you may not really care about this stuff – but you should. These muscles don’t just help you when you’re exercising. They help you walk, get out of bed, brush your teeth, sit down, stand up and play with your kids. They provide strength for lifting your grocery bags or performing household tasks like gardening and cleaning. It is an incredible thing and very humbling that all of these things just work – on demand – for dozens of years without stopping or really breaking down until the buildup becomes so extreme.
The other big takeaway from a spiritual point of view was actually something I hadn’t considered when I first signed up. All of these cadavers were once people. They had lives and families and experiences that reflected in the way that their bodies presented. A couple of them had joint replacements. A couple of them obviously had trauma or arthritis or something happen to their bodies over a period of time. You really never know when this body that you are walking around in could suddenly either break down or simply pass on. We all are a sum of the experiences that we have, whether it be emotional, mental, or in this case, physical. If there’s one takeaway I can give you, it’s this:
DON’T TAKE YOUR BODY FOR GRANTED
You have a finite amount of everything. Steps, breaths, movements and experiences. Treat your body well because it is truly the vessel that carries you every day from one of these experiences to the next. It will fight off what you do to it, and obviously incredibly well, but eventually it will break down. Stave that off as long as you possibly can and enjoy being able to move, breathe and experience amazing things for decades to come.
If you enjoyed this please feel free to share and like it on social media. My Facebook page is here and you can follow me on Twitter @strengthottawa. You can also check out my web site at http://www.srottawa.com and feel free to contact me if you have any issues you need help with. Treat your body well today!