Movement Tip: Isometric Low Range Squat

Isometrics can be a great way to strengthen weaknesses throughout a range of motion in a movement.

In this example I’m using an assisted low range isometric squat, but you can take the principle and apply it to anything.  Use that pause to connect with your muscles and feel what’s working, what’s not, what should be.  Take the time while in that pause to figure it out and get everything responding the way it should be and then groove it proper.  You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so find it and strengthen it.

I’ll typically start people between 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps with 5-6 second pauses per rep.  I like this for slowing down mechanics and working on grooving proper patterns.

I’ve found this exercise to be an excellent way to get people comfortable with the bottom position of a squat. (Note:  Make sure the range of motion is there first.)

Sleep Well with S.E.L.F. Correction

Rest and recovery are often undervalued components when it comes to fitness and achieving performance goals.  Many people feel that they need to do more in order to achieve more, which may be true if you’re currently not doing much, but if you’re already grinding away, then doing more is often not the answer.  Quality restoration is crucial to optimize performance and so I’d like to share some of the highlights and strategies that I found valuable from Eoin Lacey’s presentation on Sleep at the 2018 SWIS Symposium interlaced with some of my own findings on the topic.

Your body rests in cycles as you sleep and there are 4 stages within a sleep cycle.  There used to be 5 stages, but recently stages 3 and 4 have been lumped together as researchers have stated that there were no physiological changes between the two stages to necessitate having two different stages.   Each cycle can last from 90 to 120 minutes in length.

Stage 1 – Is usually the shortest stage lasting from 5-15 minutes where your eyes are closed, but you can still be easily awakened.

Stage 2 – Is a little longer in length than stage 1, but your body temperature and heart rate starts to drop along with a reduction in muscle tone as your body prepares for deep sleep.

Stage 3 – Is usually the longest stage where you are in a deep sleep.  In this stage physical restoration such as tissue repairs occur along with strengthening of the immune system.  If you were to be awakened during this stage, you would feel a little disoriented and groggy.

Stage 4 (REM Sleep) – REM stands for” rapid eye movement” and happens around the 90-minute mark of the sleep cycle.  In the first cycle it usually lasts about 10 minutes but increases with each successive cycle of uninterrupted sleep.  During your final sleep cycle REM sleep may last up to 1 hour.  The REM stage is where you may experience intense dreams as your brain is the most active during this phase of sleep causing the rapid eye movements.  Heart rate and breathing quickens along with an increase in oxygen consumption by the brain.  This stage is thought to be the most restorative stage for our brain and central nervous system.  While some may use alcohol to aid in falling asleep, it interferes with the body’s ability to achieve REM sleep and will reduce your overall REM sleep.

Ideally, we would like to get between 3-5 uninterrupted sleep cycles each night.  That’s about the popular 7-9 hours we’re accustom to hearing, but 1-2 hours should be a deep REM sleep.  According to studies, most people get about 60% of the sleep they need for optimal functioning.  Most of us are going through our daily activities only having a 60% recharge!  Most of us don’t like leaving for work in the morning with a cellphone that’s only got 60% of a recharge, yet we do this with our body and mind regularly.  If you consider that studies revealed that people who suffer from sleep apnea are 3 times more likely to develop diabetes and 23 times more likely to have a heart attack, that drives home the importance of getting proper restorative sleep.

So how can we improve our sleep at night?  There’s an array of tips out there for what is known as Sleep Hygiene that we’re familiar with such as sleeping in complete darkness, set a cooler temperature, avoid caffeine 6 hours before bedtime, reduce blue light exposure, etc.  While many of these tips have been shown to help, they are usually part of a wind down routine performed close to bedtime.  But it’s what you do upon waking in the morning and your habits throughout the day that have a greater impact on how you sleep at night.

S.E.L.F. Correction is an approach that might be of greater value, especially if these habits are stacked with good Sleep Hygiene.  Before I break down the S.E.L.F. acronym, I’m going to quickly explain the hormone cortisol because it is mentioned a few times throughout the S.E.L.F. Correction approach.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands and released into your bloodstream.  It helps with many of the body’s functions including the control of blood sugar levels, metabolism regulation, blood pressure, helps reduce inflammation and assist with memory formulation.  It is a crucial hormone for wellbeing.  It has a bad rap as it is well known as being the “stress” hormone.  There’s a lot of articles about lowering your cortisol levels, but we absolutely need cortisol for proper balance.  The problem comes when we secrete too much cortisol too often and have sustained high levels.  Sustained stress is one of the top culprits for that happening, which causes the release of too much cortisol as our body tries to combat the stress.  Cortisol is trying to help us, it’s not the bad guy.  We want to lower stress to properly balance our cortisol secretion.  That generally means a lifestyle shift that involves less stress.  Proper sleep habits and S.E.L.F. Correction can help with this by boosting cortisol when it’s supposed to be high and having it taper throughout the day.

Here’s what S.E.L.F. stands for:

Social stimulation – within your first hour of waking, interact with someone or people.  Whether it be your partner, children, possibly even some emails if you can’t be face to face with a real person.  Social stimulus boosts cortisol levels which is what you want in the morning to feel awake.  As the day goes on cortisol levels should taper down as adenosine (sleep drive) levels rise toward the evening.

Exercise – get moving sooner than later upon waking.  There is a post exercise spike in cortisol levels which will contribute to that wakefulness, not to mention increased circulation and the array of other health benefits exercise has to offer.

Light – natural light is preferred, but light first thing in the morning will help shut down melatonin and boost cortisol levels to wake your body up keeping your circadian clock on a healthy sleep/wake cycle.  It’s recommended to get at least 1000 lux of light in the eyes for about 20 minutes upon waking.  (This does not mean stare at the sun.  Please do not do that.  You will go blind.)  1000 lux is comparable to an overcast day.

Food – What you eat and when you eat it throughout the day will affect cortisol levels and mood.  Food creates stimulation in your body so eating breakfast and consuming the majority of what you will eat throughout the day earlier on will help make winding down at the end of the day easier.  Foods such as legumes, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, leafy greens and colorful vegetables, whole grains, dairy, lower sugar level fruits such as berries, and healthy fats are good options for breakfast and early day meals to help boost morning cortisol.  Starchy carbs boost adenosine and serotonin levels and actually help you wind down, which is one of the reasons why you feel nice and lethargic after eating meals with a high carbohydrate content.  I can sum this up as saying eat balanced meals comprised of real food, don’t get crazy with extremes.

I hope that you have found this information useful!

3 Tips to ensure you stick to you New Year’s fitness resolution

Consistency is the key element.  You need to be consistent to ingrain a new habit.  That may be a good habit or bad.  You didn’t become a couch potato by sitting on the couch once or twice, it took a consistent pattern over the long haul to get you there.  Likewise, going to the gym a handful of times at the beginning of the New Year isn’t going to transform you the way you’d hoped.  It will take a consistent pattern, and sorry to burst your quick fix bubble here, but it’s going to have to be a lifetime habit.

So, here’s 3 quick tips to ensure you stick with your habit:

  1. Choose a physical activity you will actually enjoy!  If the gym isn’t for you and you hate going, don’t go!  You won’t stick with it and it will deflate your mental wellbeing doing something you hate or hating yourself for missing your workouts because you hate them.  Choose an activity that suits you.  Once that is consistent you might find that an extra gym day or two added on might become palatable and add more value to the other activity you like.  They will feed each other and you’re on your way!
  2. Choose one new thing. Don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking you need to do everything at once.  You can’t, so you won’t be able to maintain it for the length of time needed for it to become a habit.
  3. Make Space. Many people start a new thing in an already cluttered life without actually making space to fit it in.  It’s sort jammed in because you think you have to.  This additional pressure is unhealthy and makes your life harder, not easier.  If you’re going to start something new, you’re going to need to make space for that thing and take something else away.  Think of it as purging a crowded closet.  Creating this space makes everything visible so that new thing doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.  You see it every time you look in the closet, so you’ll use it.

Movement Tip: The Banana Stretch

Most of us are one-side dominant in our daily activities.  We typically open doors, carry groceries, get in and out of vehicles more frequently on one side than the other.  Over time these unconscious movements add up and create imbalances in our body which can sometimes lead to insidious aches pains or injuries.  One of my favorite stretches that can both expose imbalances from left to right and help restore some balance is the Banana Stretch.  Here’s a quick video tutorial! Hope you enjoy!

The Banana Stretch can also be performed in a door frame.

Tips for Healthy hips!

Our hips play a huge role in our mobility.  They are at the center of where all the action takes place.  Just about every way we move involves the hip joint in some capacity, whether it be direct or indirect when we initiate movement, forces travel through the area.  It’s needless to say that keeping them healthy will have a huge impact in our overall well being and quality of life.

So, how do we keep them healthy you ask?  With 21 muscles crossing this incredible piece of architecture you might think that the answer is going to be complex.  Many experts will give you numerous stretches and exercises to take to task however the most important thing to do is keep them greased by keeping them moving regularly through all their movement ranges.  This is something that should be done daily however most of us have set patterns throughout our day that have us using our hips in a very limited capacity and so they become limited to that.

There are 6 primary ranges of motion that the hip joint provides for us:

Flexion – when the thigh bone moves forward ahead of the hip.

Extension – when the thigh bones moves backward behind the hip.

Abduction – when the thigh bone moves out to the side of the hip.

Adduction – when the thigh bones moves across our mid-line.

External Rotation – when the thigh bone rotates so that the knee points out away from the body.

Internal Rotation – when the thigh bone rotates so that the knee points in toward the body.

Do you move your hips through all these ranges in a deliberate manner daily?  Chances are that you don’t and by limiting the range of motion and freedom of your hips the cascade effect of compensatory patterns and the insidious onset of pain occurs.

To help mitigate this terrible outcome, I’m going to provide you with one simple dance that takes just seconds to perform to keep those hips greased and mobile daily.  Whether you’re young, old or currently experience some form of discomfort, this little jig has got you covered.  I have to give full credit to Kevin Darby, strength coach/educator extraordinaire and the authority in Canada for Fascial Stretch Therapy, as I picked this up from his playbook.

You can read this description, but the video provides a clear and easy visual as well as instructions.  While my mother is from South America, you’ll see that I clearly didn’t inherit those well greased dance hips often associated with South American populations.  Enjoy!

The Dance:

Step 1:  Take one foot and plant it to the ground.  Remember, plants don’t move so this foot will stay where it is for the whole dance as we maneuver around it.

Step 2: Take your other foot and step forward. (Planted foot hip is now in extension)

Step 3: Take that same foot and step back. (Planted foot hip is now in flexion)

Step 4: Now take a step across your planted foot to the side. (Planted foot hip is now in adduction)

Step 5: Step over to the other side. (Planted foot hip is now in abduction)

Step 6: Step back over to the other side crossing that planted foot and facing your whole body that way. (Planted foot hip is now in internal rotation)

Step 7: Now step back over to the other side again and rotate your whole body to face that direction without moving that planted foot.  (Planted foot hip is now in external rotation)

Can you see how we’ve just covered all of the primary ranges of motion for our hip?  It’s genius!  You can repeat these steps and each time you go through them as your hip frees up, you can take larger and deeper steps increasing the range of motion.

Avoiding Knee Pain During Hill Training

We have an annual hill climb challenge at Active Life Condition called the Grind.  It’s about a 2.2km trail that ascends 237m up Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ontario.  With this challenge seems to come a sudden increase in the amount of hill climb training volume and in the past, this has led to the surfacing of knee aches and pains.  I wanted to highlight an often-overlooked weakness that can contribute to knee pain to help mitigate these issues.

Often the knee itself isn’t the initial problem but becomes the primary concern when other structures in the body aren’t functioning optimally.  Hips and ankles are the two most common areas that directly effect the health of your knee.  When we look at the biomechanics of a hill climb, due to the incline and increased forward angle of the torso, the demand placed through the hips differs from walking or running on a flat surface.  The force that is driven through the ankle and foot also changes dramatically due to these angles and combining this with the uneven ground surface of a trail, the demand for ankle and foot mobility intensifies as well.  Having the stability and awareness to maintain the proper alignment to channel these forces through your body in the safest most efficient manner is crucial, and what we often see is the poor knee having to take up the slack being sandwiched between rigid or unstable hips and ankles.

The glutes get a lot of attention when it comes to hills or stairs, but I find the hip flexors tend to be a little more overlooked.  With an incline they are required to move the thigh higher into a range of motion often not used and generally weaker.  This leaves them prone to quicker fatigue and compensatory patterns occurring to achieve the hip flexion movement.  The videos below lend an explanation as well as an exercise tip to help create strength within this range.  Remember, this is just one of many things that could be occurring, it’s important look at the big picture, and take everything into consideration.  Enjoy!

Movement tip: Isometric Straight Leg Raise Adduction

In the past I’ve mentioned how I’ve felt that the hip adductors seemed to have been a little neglected with the glute focus that’s been so prevalent in the past few years.  I’m happy to see a lot of higher profile “guru’s” starting to bring them back into the fold again due to their importance in core, pelvic and knee stability.

If we look at their functional anatomy we can see that they play a huge role in core and pelvic stability.  In my experience I’ve found that many patients with deep core dysfunction also have dysfunction with their hip adductors or vice versa.  If you follow the deep front net of Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains, this makes sense as you can see how these structures are interwoven with one another.

In my practice I’ve found a lot of people unable to coordinate this sling which leaves them very vulnerable to back strains or more serious injuries.  In working with a soccer team over the winter months (who won a tournament in Italy in the Spring.  So proud of them!), my colleague and I noticed many of them were giving up a lot of power due to this instability.  This movement prep exercise was discovered to try and help them connect and strengthen this line.  I’ve found it to be quite effective with most populations.  It requires the deep core and hip adductors to work together creating that link.  Give it a try!

Isometric Supine Straight Leg Raise Adduction

  • Attach a large O-band to a secure anchor about knee to mid-thigh height.
  • Lie on your back with body parallel to anchor placing feet inline with the anchor point.
  • Position yourself away from the anchor point at a distance that will provide a challenging tension for you.
  • Loop the O-band around the mid-foot portion of your inside leg.
  • With the band under tension, clamp your body into the ground maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Use your hamstrings and glutes of the outside leg to squeeze into the ground and anchor your sacrum and hips keeping them square with shoulders throughout.  Lock down this position.
  • Ensure that rib cage does not rotate or glide laterally out of alignment with hips.  These are common errors.
  • Start movement by raising inside leg up to about 30-45 degree angle and squeeze in toward mid line of body keeping leg straight with knee and toes point up toward ceiling. Hold contraction for specified time.
  • Slowly release but do not let leg drop before repeating next repetition.

Suggested variables: 

2-3 sets, 4-6 reps of 5-10 second holds per side.

Meal prep – you don’t have the time to not do it

Food Prep

Preparation in general is a habit that pays back tenfold.  Meal prep in particular (in my opinion) is one of the best foundation habits you can have.  It’s close to the base of the pyramid in that it supports and affects so much of your daily structure.  There are a plethora of studies that show how proper nutritional balance improves everything from cognition and sleep to performance and body composition and much more.  Basically everything you need to be the best version of you, yet so many resort to the habit of, “Oh, I don’t have time to prepare a proper meal, so I’ll just grab something on the go.”  That’s okay every now and again, but that shouldn’t be the norm.  With all of the positive outcomes that can occur from one simple habit, it should be a priority, which is a nice segue into a few suggestions that might help make it so for you.

 

Make it a priority – because it is!  Do it during the hours that you feel the most productive so that you can get it done and out of the way efficiently so it takes less time and you can put the quality into it that it deserves.

 

Build an arsenal – Thinking of what to cook is an age old dilemma, but slowly building an arsenal of recipes that become easy to prepare, is a key element in being consistent with food prep.  Try learning a new recipe every couple of weeks and before you know it, you’ll have a wide variety of meals to choose from.  This takes a little bit of time in the beginning, but once it’s in place it will always be there for you.

 

Batch Cook – If you don’t like leftovers, get over it.  Batch cooking is one of the most effective methods of meal prep.  Each week I’ll take a couple of hours to prepare a few different meals all at once so that there’s variety and I have them ready to go for the week.  A lot of recipes will use similar base ingredients, such as onions, garlic etc.  So, if you’re chopping those up already for one meal, you might as well chop up what you’ll need for a different dish as well and prep that too.  It saves more time in the long run, plus it frees up intellectual real estate throughout the week when you don’t need to think or worry about what to cook or eat.

 

Have the right tools – Having the right equipment to perform a task makes it far more efficient and a lot more enjoyable.  A few good quality kitchenware items such as a good knife and frying pan can really make a world of difference.  This plays into something that I mentioned in a previous post about creating an environment that is conducive to the habit you want to create.  What items do you find yourself using the most when you’re cooking?  Do you feel miserable when you have to use them?  Get quality items for the tools you use the most that help you the most and you’ll find a much more enjoyable experience.

I hope these tips give you some food for thought!  Enjoy your week.

Structural Balance: Why it’s important

The majority of the injuries that I see with my patients are usually the result of some form of structural imbalance.  What do I mean by this?  Let me try to explain… 

Our bodies are designed in such a way that everything is interwoven and in a pre-tensioned state.  When everything is balanced as it should be, we are able to adapt to and withstand different ranges of internal or external forces.  This is what makes our bodies so resilient.  To give you an idea of how this works, Fascial Stretch Therapy founders Chris and Anne Frederick often use the example of a geodesic dome (think of a dome tent).  When the poles and tent fabric are placed together and under balanced tension, you have a durable attenuating structure.  By themselves, the fabric or poles wouldn’t be able to stand erect with integrity if at all.  The term tensegrity is used to describe this sort of structural phenomenon. 

So, we have bones which act similar to the poles of the tent, and soft tissues such as fascia, muscles, ligaments, etc. that are like the fabric.  If any of the soft tissues are tensioned more or less than they should be, the entire structure will be unbalanced and compromised. 

Of course we can still function, but not optimally and usually at the expense of an area of our body that is compensating for this imbalance.  You can drive a car that’s slightly off alignment for quite some time, but more wear is put on the tires and they will need to be changed much faster than if the car were aligned properly.  Sometimes that extra wear might result in a premature flat.  Often times our joints are like the tires of a misaligned vehicle.  This is why I am so keen on structural balance as it can provide a solution or prevention to many of the ailments we experience.

I hope this simplified video explanation of tensegrity helps!

Simplified tensegrity/structural balance explanation.

Movement Tip: Half-kneeling palloff press

It’s well known how important core stability is, and while static exercises like planks are a great place to start and learn how to feel and engage your core for stability, you’ll need to advance and be able to maintain stability with weight and or force transfer.  I’ve found that most people are good with sagittal plane stability (resisting a forward or back bend), but poor with coronal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) stability.  The latter two are especially important for all populations as something as simple as getting in and out of your car requires the awareness and stability of all planes.

The Palloff Press is an excellent movement choice that incorporates stability work in all planes, with focus on the transverse and coronal while adding some force transfer through the press.  I like starting with the half-kneeling variation to promote the locking in of good pelvic stability, and for people with tight hip flexors and quads, you get to work in a nice open hip position on the knee down side.  I’ll initially use an isometric hold at the top of the extended range to make sure that people are able to feel and adapt appropriately to the force transfer.

This is a fantastic movement to include in your movement prep. or warm-up exercises.

See the video below for a full demonstration and explanation.

Here’s what it looks like:

Anchor a Large O-Band or resistance band to a stable object at about shoulder height when you are kneeling.

Face 90 degrees away from the anchor so that your torso is perpendicular to it. Holding the band with inside hand first and overlapping with the outside, center hands over solar plexus (mid-torso) and move away from the anchor so that there is resistance on the band. (Distance will depend on your current level of comfort and strength.)

Assume a half-kneeling position with inside knee down on the ground inline with hips, shoulders and head. Outside leg should be forward and flexed 90 degrees at hip and knee with foot maintaining full contact on ground.  Ensure pelvis is level and lock it in by contracting glutes, hamstrings and core.

From this position slowly press hands forward straight away from torso fully straightening arms and maintaining shoulder height.

Keep hips and shoulders square with one another and resist the torsion of the band. Hold arms extended position for specified time and then slowly bring hands back toward torso.

Remember to breathe throughout.

Complete full set with weaker side first before switching.

Recommended variables to start with:

2-3 sets, 4-8 reps per side, 3-5 second holds in extended position.