When there’s smoke, don’t fan the fire | Continuing Our Look at “Hard-Core” Workouts

Posted on September 28, 2012

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This is the 2nd post in the series on “hard-core” workouts. (Find the 1st post here)

***This is an extremely difficult topic to write or talk about, as it always is when trying to do a best/better/worst comparison. I fully understand that there are differing views on what is “best” in the fitness world. Of the ones that have actual merit (i.e. NOT the ones promoted on tv by famous people, and most of the at-home workout videos), even amongst colleagues of mine, there are differing views on the fastest/best path to fitness. I am not claiming that there is no place for “hard-core” workouts – not at all – this is merely a perspective on the harm I see “hard-core” workouts causing when used incorrectly, on the wrong populations, and without taking careful consideration of the kinetic-chain linking that I have found to be such a critical component of the way I coach. That said, what follows is my majorly edited version of reason #2 why “hard-core” workouts may not be awesome- I found that I could go on for sometime about the problems with these workouts, but I have attempted a concise, science-based, unemotional response. If you have comments or questions, I welcome them.***

Remember when your parents gave you chores & you totally slacked off on the quality you put forth on that chore, and then your parents made you do the chore again & again (& again for the tough-learners) until you did it with superior quality and at a level that they were satisfied with? Yeah, that’s not how your body works. There is a finite amount of quality movement before the movement pattern breaks down, eventually degrading enough that your body is at risk for a variety of issues, including injury, if it continues.

First, what is a movement pattern? It’s a classification of various movements that all humans should be able to do at any age regardless of size/gender, i.e. “push”, “pull”, “squat”, “carry”, etc. When I first meet a new potential client, I evaluate their movement patterns to determine what joints are moving well, which ones are not, and based on that, I know which muscles are either too short & tight or too long & weak – both of which need to be corrected in order for them to move optimally (example: you have bad posture at your desk job?…lots of pushups in your workout does not help you until you fix the icky-desk-posture; AND the pushups can, in fact, hurt you by further increasing the imbalance of the muscles attached to your shoulder, thereby angering everybody inside your shoulder joint).

In workouts, coaches use the various movement patterns (& hopefully, the knowledge of which patterns you need to get better at) to put together an appropriate workout that moves your body closer to your goals, while correcting muscular imbalances that were noted early on, that will, sooner or later, limit your potential to reach your goals (they will eventually become the roadblock if they are not already). When you attempt to lift too much weight, do too many repetitions, or go for too long – as is often featured in “hard-core” workouts – you get a breakdown in quality movement patterns. Cue smoke…the fire’s on its way.

So what does a ‘breakdown in movement patterns’ look like? It’s the reverse of your parents making you repeat a chore until you get it ‘right’.

There will be a point where no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you will ‘cheat’ – you’ll use the wrong muscles to get through the movement pattern because there is a time/rep/intensity goal you’re aiming at and the goal is past the point of your optimal movement pattern capabilities.

Your mind is saying ‘keep going! the time isn’t up yet! don’t stop!’, but your brain-body connection is saying ‘screw you, we don’t have anything left for that optimal movement pattern so this is what you get’…and since you’re already under-using the right muscles, you’ll start over-using the wrong muscles. I think I hear the fire trucks coming…

Bad squat/good squat…fail to fix #1 before you load it & you are in for some problems. And by ‘fixing’ I mean, lengthen the muscles that are too short, tighten the muscles that are too long, and better activate muscles that are slacking off.

Unfortunately, some (not all) “hard-core” workouts get their participants into structurally scary movement pattens quite often as they encourage them to continue on long after quality movement got lost. And sadly, many folks think that if it ‘feels’ like a crazy hard workout, it was a good workout (we discussed why this may not be true in the last post) – and they never catch the fact that all that busted-up, dysfunctional, broken-down movement patterns they are using to get through the required movements of the workout are leading them down a risky path. Doing this is a genius way to train your body to use incorrect muscles & sketchy movement patterns not only during exercise, but recruit those same sketchy movement patterns when you need to push/pull/carry/etc in the real world.

Fitness is not an “at all costs” sport. You should not reach for a goal if in the process you allow/create (and by ‘allowing’, you are ‘creating’) bad movement patterns that create legit injury potential. Conversely, this is not to say that if you cannot do a movement in a workout perfectly that you shouldn’t do it. There is a learning curve and some amount of non-perfect-quality is acceptable in a workout when you are in the learning phase. This is where the coaches’ expertise comes in – and that means the coach does more for you than just ‘scale’ the workout (an example of scaling is that you do less reps if you’re newer, more if you’re more advanced). I believe that some folks need entirely different exercises or major variations to exercises in order to create the best situation for their kinetic chain strength, movement pattern capability, and thus, reach their fitness goals.

Now, what about if you’re already on a risky path with your movement?…you’re coming into these “hard-core” workouts with pre-existing dysfuctional movements. That is, your a$$ hasn’t activated properly since the last century, or your deep core muscles took a coffee break after your last kid & never came back.

Humans can rarely move through their ideal movement patterns these days because of excessive movement in 1 direction (usually the ‘movement’ that we do too much of is ‘sitting’, a non-movement, but that non-movement majorly destroys your other actual moving movement patterns). Combine this with little to no daily movement in other patterns, and no attention given to changing that & you’re the perfect setup for permanent faulty movement patterns. And then you start a “hard-core” workout that asks you to push, pull, lunge, squat, carry, jump even! – with that body of yours that is optimally trained for sitting and not much else – and well, bad things happen.

What did we say earlier?…when your body truly canNOT activate the kinetic-chain linking needed to do the movement required because it is under-using the right muscles, it will over-use the wrong muscles i.e. just because you’re doing what looks like a squat does not mean your glute muscles are actually doing much of anything.

The kinetic chain is linked from head to heel. Example: if the ankle is restricted, a person will never be able to stabilized their scapula as well as they should. Thus, their shoulder becomes compromised. Sounds crazy but you are completely linked & a good program addresses that!

Human tissue doesn’t fail on a single-episode of faulty movement…it fails on the 10,000th episode of faulty movement. It’s a matter of when – not if – for an injury to occur if you’re not structurally & muscularly functional. If you live a modern lifestyle (who doesn’t), & haven’t addressed your kinetic chain with a coach (or done some serious reading on the topic & implemented it on yourself), you will come into your workout of choice with dysfunctional movement patterns. When you do not correct these dysfunctional movement patterns, and instead load them with weight/speed/endurance/power, you will strengthen your dysfunction – that is, you will move even more incorrectly, which means your joints move even more incorrectly, which means all the muscles, ligaments, and tendons connected to those joints (and even ones that seem to be totally disconnected from that joint!) will be recruited to work at incorrect times and will wear down from over-use & mis-use. Ladies and gents, there’s your full-blown fire.

It’s not a matter of ‘if’ you will need to fix your kinetic chain mobility…you WILL need to fix it, either now, before the issue becomes severe, or later after you get hamstrung by your crappy mobility & imbalanced strength. So what if your movement patterns are dysfunctional? Fix them. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. If something isn’t working don’t continue doing it: that only teaches dysfunction & permanent faulty movement patterns.

In the words of the great Coach Rut: “Don’t add strength to dysfunction.”

I’m not ‘anti-hard core workouts’, I simply take a more global approach to the body & performance, dropping in “hard-core” workouts when I begin seeing quality movement out of my clients. I aim to enhance the whole body, not improve one area while simultaneously hurting another area.

If you’re having trouble reconciling what I’ve explained here with what you’re doing in your own fitness routine, I’m all ears to what you want to say, but be sure that if you have an opinion, you’ve got some logic & science behind it; and if you have a question, ask it – don’t worry – no question is a dumb question. There are a few more reasons to cover as to why “hard-core” workouts may not be awesome for you so I hope you’ll come back to check those out!

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