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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

September 2011: Fitness Section

Are you undermining your personal physical fitness?

Are you undermining your fitness?

Traditionally, fall is the time when we start to migrate back to indoor activities due to significantly less daylight hours and changing temperatures. Every year I witness the resurgence of gym usage with a mixture of elation and trepidation. So many people repeat the performance of exercises that are, at best, least effective, and at worse can cause significant injuries.

Below are some exercises that will help you improve on your results and replace some tried and true exercises with some that will give you more pay-off for your time invested!

Strength training
There are three exercises that almost all men perform in the gym (and many women as well) that need to be replaced with more effective and less injury-provoking options.

  1. The behind-the-head lat pull down. What man doesn’t want that desirable V shape to his physique? The lat pull down is one of the exercises that promises to deliver that look due to the target on the large latissimus dorsi muscles. Unfortunately, most people have significantly rounded lower backs (due to prolonged sitting in everyday life), which further rounds when pulling the weighted bar behind the head. Thus, the head comes forward due to the inflexibility of the lower back, which means most people can’t get their back into proper alignment for this exercise, and the head position is a compensation for this problem. What results is not only an ineffective load on the lats, but a significantly high risk of both lumbar and cervical spine disc issues.  A better exercise to do is to lean back on a 45 degree angle facing the bar and pull it toward the chest while lifting the lower back forward, thereby maintaining proper lumbar position.
  2. The standing shoulder row on a machine, with dumbbells or with a barbell.  Again, most men want that build-up of the upper shoulder muscles. The problem with this exercise is that by pressing the dumbbells above the shoulder line, the potential for impingement in the nerves coming out of the cervical spine is high.  Women also do this exercise, even though that large shoulder look is generally not what we are after, but I find that many people do what they see most other people do without thinking about their own personal goals. For women, not only does this exercise place us at risk for the nerve impingements mentioned above, it also develops the upper trapezius muscles resulting in that thick ropey looking development of our neck/shoulders. I have clients taking Body Pump classes  who complain to me that they notice an over-development of the muscles that show when wearing tank tops and strapless dresses and they are experiencing more neck tension.  A better exercise to perform is lateral raises to the side at no more than shoulder height, which avoids the impingement and the over-development of the areas women don’t want to build.
  3. The Smith machine squat and the leg press machine. These are both very commonly performed by both men and women for lower body strength and development. The smith machine squat is a problem because the position of the bar is in a fixed uni-linear track. What this means is that in order to perform the squat, which involves not only going up and down, you also need to perform a back and front movement of the hips in order to maintain proper alignment (also known as forward and sagital planes of movement). But, the bar does not allow for forward and back movement, therefore the body has to compensate, forcing the lower back to round, which means the pelvis moves into an unsupported position and the emphasis comes off the legs and glutes and moves into the improperly positioned lower back and glutes. The better option is to use a squat rack with a free weight loaded bar (or dumbbells on the shoulders or in the hands) and performing a squat where you have to sit back towards a bench.

There are similar issues with the leg press machine. In many cases the lower back is tight and rounded, so when lowering the weight and bending the knees the lower back rounds off the back of the bench and takes the lion’s share of the load (which is prime territory for blowing out a lumbar disc or pinching the sciatic nerve).  Again, replacing this exercise with a standing squat to a bench is a better option.

Who isn’t using some form of cardio-machine when working out?!  I am not going to tell you that cardio machines are ineffective (you’re welcome!), but I am going to suggest that using too high of a resistance or too high of an incline on the treadmill is a problem!  What typically happens is the exerciser wants to burn the most amount of calories and programs the machine at a level that is too demanding for their fitness level. In order to continue at that level the body starts to rely on “cheating” positions. Most commonly, I see a treadmill cranked up to a 10-15% incline with the walker holding on for dear life over the top of the console while leaning back at an incredibly large angle. Not only does this put tremendous and improper load on the lumbar spine and discs, they are displacing almost a quarter of their body weight, thereby lessening the intensity they think they are getting from the incline. In essence, the calories per hour burned that the machine reads is now wrong because it doesn’t take into consideration the reduction of body weight due to hanging on AND there is monumental increased risk to the lower back.

A better strategy would be to walk at a lower incline and not hold onto the machine and/or to purchase a weight vest to add intensity while maintaining proper alignment and loading on the skeletal frame.

Retreating indoors to workout is not only necessary, but also desirable as the weather changes in the northeast. But it doesn’t have to mean doing ineffective and injury- provoking workouts. Use the modifications I have suggested to quite possibly get even better results!

Enjoy your return to indoor workouts!

Judy Torel is a USAT coach, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and psychotherapist. Her office is located in Planet Fitness, Loudonville. She can be reached at 469.0815 or [email protected].

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