Releasing the Brakes-The Science of Total Training

Posted: November 26, 2009 in exercise, health, physical therapy, Sports Medicine, Uncategorized
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An excerpt from Alwyn Cosgroves article: Releasing the Brakes

Imagine that a guy walks into my gym, and he’s looking to add 10 pounds of muscle — a simple and straightforward request. The first thing we do is go through a short checklist:

1. Is he lifting?

2. Is he eating enough, and eating enough protein?

3. Is he lifting often enough, heavy enough, and with good technique?

Obviously, if someone wants to gain size and he isn’t lifting weights, there’s no mystery about the first step. We get him on a training program, introduce him to the magic of progressive resistance, and watch him grow.Since nobody is confused about the need to lift in order to gain muscle, let’s move on to the next two points.  You’d be surprised how many people lift weights but don’t eat enough total calories to reach their goals. Same with protein intake: It seems obvious, but some people do need to be told to eat more. So once we figure out what he’s eating and when, fixing the problem is relatively straightforward.

“Heavy enough” and “often enough” are subjective, of course, but once we understand what he’s been doing, these are easy variables to manipulate. Technique? Well if you’ve been to any commercial gyms recently, you’ll see a lot of underdeveloped guys lifting with really bad form. If our guy’s form on the squat and deadlift leaves a lot to be desired, we might be able to add size just by teaching him to use the right muscles on basic lifts.  But what if the problem isn’t so easy to detect and fix? What if he’s doing everything we expect him to do with his training and nutrition, but he’s still not making the gains he wants to make, and that we’d expect him to make, given the effort he’s putting in?

Our next step is to release the brakes.  When Pushing Harder Doesn’t Help.  I got the “release the brakes” idea during a conversation with Dax Moy, a British trainer and gym owner. We were talking about “accelerating” client progress, and came to an interesting conclusion:  All of us in the fitness industry, trainers and trainees alike, have been brainwashed into thinking that the only way to improve results is to push harder. If you aren’t making gains, it’s because you aren’t training hard enough or often enough. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about systemic gains in muscle size or body composition, or strength in particular lifts, or the size of individual muscles or muscle groups. The answer to every problem is to punch down harder on the accelerator.  But think of a car with the parking brake on. If you push harder on the gas pedal, you’ll only run out of fuel quicker, right? But if you take off the brake, the car will go farther and faster, and probably use less fuel in the process.

This leads to two important conclusions: First, removing the impediments to your progress will probably help more than adding another set of squats, bench presses, or sprints. Second, it’s pointless to increase load and volume while those impediments are in place.  So What’s Holding You Back?

A friend of mine went to see a chiropractor for a back problem. The problem: misaligned vertebrae in his lumbar spine. The culprit: heavy Romanian deadlifts.  My friend is strong as hell — he was using close to double his body weight in the lift. His glutes and hams could handle the load, but his lower back couldn’t. Since my friend’s goal is to get even stronger than he was before the injury, what’s his best strategy? Keep pushing, despite the fact his injured back has already shown it can’t handle bigger loads? Or design a program that releases the brakes by strengthening his weakest link?

We switched to a heavy emphasis on core training that allows direct loading of his lumbar area, along with heavy single-leg RDLs, which maintained the strength of his glutes and hams without the risk of a lower-back injury.  Core strength is often the underlying issue, whether we’re talking about something major like misaligned vertebrae or something that’s annoying but minor, like a lagging body part. The core muscles need to stabilize and protect the spine, particularly when the extremities are in motion. If those muscles aren’t strong or stable enough, the first clue could be a lack of size or strength somewhere else.

Quick experiment:

Stand up and hold a single dumbbell out to your right side, as you would in the finishing position of a lateral raise. What muscles are working? Obviously, it’s your right deltoid. If you’re a trainer or otherwise knowledgeable about exercise physiology, you can probably name a few other muscles in the shoulder girdle that come into play, but we can all agree that the prime mover here is the deltoid.  But think about how your torso stays upright with that dumbbell hanging out in space. Your center of gravity has been thrown off, so something besides your right deltoid must be working pretty hard to keep you from listing to the starboard side. In this case, it’s your left oblique. It’s working to stabilize your spine, allowing your right deltoid to lift that weight and hold it out there away from your body.

Now imagine that the oblique on your left side is weak, or recently injured. You wouldn’t be able to lift that dumbbell, since the muscles charged with protecting your spine aren’t prepared to do their job. Your body cares more about the health and safety of your spine than it does about the size of your shoulders.  Your best strategy, then, is to rehabilitate and strengthen your obliques, thus releasing the brake on your muscle development. Stomping on the accelerator by increasing the volume of your shoulder training wouldn’t do any good, and might make things considerably worse.

Let’s assign some completely hypothetical numbers to this example, and say your right deltoid can lift 30 pounds for 10 reps. To achieve overload and force growth, we have to train the deltoid to do one of two things: lift 31 pounds for 10 reps, or 30 pounds for 11 or more reps.  But let’s say your core muscles, either because of injury or disuse, can only handle 29 pounds for 10 reps.  A bodybuilder might say the solution is to find a way to overload the delts while bypassing the core. Maybe he’d use machines designed for that purpose, or wear a lifting belt for his lateral raises, or do something else that wouldn’t occur to me. Ultimately, the strategy is counterproductive; even if it works, it only exacerbates the imbalance, which makes the brakes work harder to slow your body down and keep your spine safe.

See more at alwyncosgrove.com

Get Strong! Stay Strong!

Chris

 

 

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Comments
  1. Ryan Lowther says:

    Does Stewart McGill have anything on deadlifts being destructive to the back if done correctly? What is your opinion ?

  2. chriskolba says:

    A good resource would be his book “Ultimate Back Fitness” Check it out, it will provide a lot of great info regarding exercises and the low back.
    I think the deadlift can be a good exercise if done correctly and even safer if done off the rack or boxes. Most people just dont have the flexibility unless very skilled/experienced with this lift.

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