Sweat every detail (none of it is small stuff)

It’s been too long since I have written a blog entry. I have been caught up in an effort to improve some equipment. As advanced as the MedX machines are beyond the vast majority of exercise equipment, there is room for fine tuning especially since it was produced with the intention of using movements that are more than twice the appropriate pace. I have a great appreciation for the work of Ken Hutchins and the entire RenEx team especially since they have been careful to appreciate the work of Arthur Jones and other contributors. Their concept is right on target and will continually be refined.

I have gone through an extensive process to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the leg curl machine for starters. I chose to start with it because it is a single joint exercise and that simple form allows a little bit less complexity in analyzing the muscle mechanics involved. I also chose it because it is used by more clients than the knee extension machine, but this means that it is also less available to work on refining.

I’ve balanced the movement arm as much as is practical, and I need to now determine an average weight of subjects’ legs resting on the movement arm in the start position and counter balance that. That weight has a varying effect on the effort required throughout the movement thus it should be neutralized. I’ve had a new cam made to vary the resistance through the stroke more closely matching the hamstrings’ varying strength capabilities during movement. This will need another refinement once the subject’s leg weight is counterbalanced. I’ve reduced friction by using improved guides on the weight stack that run clean and dry.

All these steps make for some very subtle improvements that very few clients will recognize. For those who focus their efforts as instructed though it will take away some potential distractions. It offers an improved environment and thus the opportunity for a better result. The onus remains as always on the subject to make the most of it.

Now to pick up my list of items to use in evaluating one’s level of progress, here are some thoughts on the next 5 items. Comments are always appreciated.

1)      Avoid distractions
2)      Position carefully
3)      Maintain stationary origin
4)      Mastery over breathing
5)      Proper attire
6)      Avoid firing out
7)      Avoid shifting positions
8)      Avoid re-gripping
9)      Grasp the repetition cycle concept
10)   Avoid momentum
11)   Minimize acceleration
12)   Mastery over turnarounds
13)   Constant load
14)   Mastery over unloading
15)   Exit properly

16)   Mastery over discrepancies

Exercise is not a natural function. It is something that we do intentionally. Form discrepancies on the other hand come very naturally. Jabbing, heaving, shifting, bouncing and yanking are all terms commonly used to describe motion that we use to take advantage of momentum in order to save energy. We learn these techniques without even being aware of them. The key for exercise is to be aware of our tendencies and consciously override them. Be aware that they take place very subtly and that there may be little or no outward signs.

17)   Avoid changing speed

Another subconscious way to save energy is to linger in any position that requires less effort and to hurry through an area that requires more. Without intention the positive stroke will become faster and the negative will drag out slower. Decisively do the opposite of what comes naturally.

18)   Mastery over pace

This involves more than simply maintaining a constant speed of movement because the movement is not what is important but rather the steady decline of the strength reserve. Focus on the delivery of force so that the muscles stay constantly loaded. Find that pace that seems to be the most oppressive and intentionally drain the strength.

19)   Recognize and avoid energy savings

The items in this list can seem redundant and they do overlap a good bit. All form discrepancies are a result of the sensation of fatigue and an accompanying lack of self-control. The discomfort of exercise is not desirable, but it is inherently related to the growth stimulus that is desired. If the limit is not seriously challenged, then why would any change take place to expand the limit? Real progress involves distinguishing discomfort from pain and disregarding the discomfort instead of avoiding it or masking it with distractions. Take the time to honestly evaluate every element of an exercise session. Identify any behaviors that result from avoiding discomfort and eliminate them.

20)   Exaggerate range and form

Focus your concentration before you begin. Don’t be in a hurry to accomplish some reps. Make the first bit of movement more gentle and subtle than what you imagine is appropriate. Creep out of the start, creep to the end point, reach it emphatically, and creep back away from it. Waste energy with more emphasis on form every chance you get. When you’re convinced that you’ve performed flawlessly, do it even better. If you receive instruction follow it; more than follow it; exaggerate it. Make the movement appear as if the resistance is less than half of what it really is.

21)   Reach legitimate failure
22)   Eliminate facial expression
23)   Move quickly between exercises
24)   Engage squeeze technique
25)   Inroad beyond failure

There’s No Psychological Reward

In 2006 my exercise sessions were done at a fitness center that was popular enough that I was forced to wait until about 15 minutes before closing time to start. I would observe the activity in the room and when I thought I had enough of an opening, I would set the five machines in reverse order and hope that everyone there was more interested in their conversations than in using the equipment that I had planned.

One night as I finished my last exercise and unloaded from the resistance I glanced across the aisle at a man who was seated on a chest press machine looking quite relaxed. He was shaking his head and sort of smiling as he said “There’s just no psychological reward”. I asked for clarification while still breathing heavily. He explained that he observed and understood the protocol that I used, but that he couldn’t find any satisfaction in it; such effort only leading to ultimate failure.

I assured him that I understood his viewpoint and moved on. I wondered later if it would have helped him for me to explain my purpose, but I concluded that this was a classic case of “no explanation is possible”. I convey the story here because I find it an accurate illustration of the distinction between exercise and recreation.

Recreational activity is often confused for exercise. Sports, aerobics, step aerobics, danceaerobics, this aerobics, that aerobics, kick boxing, pilates, yoga, taebo, boot camp, crossfit, p90x, zumba, spinning, running, swimming, just move it, play60, wii, x-box … I could go on indefinitely. Recreation is a good thing. I encourage everyone to get as much as they care to. I don’t understand why people are often offended to hear their favorite activities referred to as recreation? Other activities get confused for exercise also that fit into the categories of work or skill enhancement. The important characteristic is “what’s the purpose?”

The purpose of skill is simply to become more efficient at any given task; from a backhand stroke in tennis to stacking hay bales on a flatbed truck, get the mission accomplished with the least possible expenditure; nothing wasted; nothing extra. The purpose of work is simply to get the object moved from its present state to the more preferred state. The single purpose of recreation is enjoyment. None of these activities have exhaustion for a target. It may be an ancillary effect, but it’s not desirable.

Conversely, exercise has one simple immediate goal and that is exhaustion of strength in order to provoke the reaction of overcompensation. When work, recreation or skill activities are confused with exercise and are taken to an extreme that nears exhaustion the result is always bad. The goal of each is undermined; skill is diminished, work is counterproductive, and recreation ceases to be enjoyable. The worst part is that each becomes dangerous at the same time that its purpose is eroded.

Exercise is not intended to provide a psychological reward. The reward is a physical improvement.

Now returning to the level evaluation list that was begun a long time back. I’ll elaborate on the next five items. Once again read through the list visualizing the process of an exercise session and add a comment with any thoughts.

1)      Avoid distractions
2)      Position carefully
3)      Maintain stationary origin
4)      Mastery over breathing
5)      Proper attire
6)      Avoid firing out
7)      Avoid shifting positions
8)      Avoid re-gripping
9)      Grasp the repetition cycle concept
10)   Avoid momentum

11)   Minimize acceleration

Imagine a slow buildup of your force to just meet the resistance setting and balance it at that level for a fraction of a second and then add the smallest possible increment until movement begins. This is a big waste of energy. It makes for quality exercise. Don’t be in a rush to get movement started, rather exaggerate the opposite extreme. Every change of pace and direction involves acceleration. Realize its existence and master your control over it.

12)   Mastery over turnarounds

Approach each extreme of a stroke with careful precision. Don’t bump into either end. Sneak in to that stroke peak gradually and take the time to definitively meet it before turning around and sneaking back away from it all the time consciously keeping as near as possible the exact same force applied. Reach the bottom out without allowing any sound, but feel that slight difference while maintaining the force in the same direction, and then leave the bottom out without a sound again and not even a hint of jolt.

13)   Constant load

This idea crosses over into minimal acceleration, turnarounds and momentum. Focus every bit of attention on measuring the force applied to the movement arm as if the weight stack is being carried by a strand of wire precisely gaged to be on the verge of snapping.

14)   Mastery over unloading

In the same way that the repetition cycle and the turnarounds are strictly under control, when failure is reached, continue to handle the apparatus as if it’s delicate. The concern here is not for the machine of course but for safety and quality of the exercise. Keep any movement under strict form and make the bottom out silent again. Take that extra second to gradually lower the tension after touching down.

15)   Exit properly

Once you’re unloaded from the resistance mechanism, focus on removing yourself from the machine safely yet quickly. Don’t merge movements together, rather keep them separated. Turn, if needed, then get your feet firmly planted, then stand. Make each one distinct like a robot from a bad sci-fi movie. When you have gained control of your motor functions, step to the next exercise. Your coordination is not expected to be normal at this point. Emphasize the same care as you load into the next. Maybe #2 Position carefully should be first on this list and #15 Exit properly should be second.

16)   Mastery over discrepancies
17)   Avoid changing speed
18)   Mastery over pace
19)   Recognize and avoid energy savings
20)   Exaggerate range and form
21)   Reach legitimate failure
22)   Eliminate facial expression
23)   Move quickly between exercises
24)   Engage squeeze technique
25)   Inroad beyond failure

Perpetually Dissatisfied

During the Olympic coverage, I caught a portion of a volleyball game for the US indoor women’s team. A comment made during the match sparked my interest. It was said that the team had adopted the phrase “perpetually dissatisfied” as a team motto. I found a blog from April in which John Kessel credits head coach Hugh McCutcheon with often saying “that his job is to be perpetually dissatisfied.” I think that all successful coaches have this desire to improve continually.

When it comes to exercise instruction, I consider it an important task to convince the subject to always be dissatisfied with their form, not to the point of discouragement, rather to be encourage to improve form no matter how good it becomes. The practice of exaggerating every subtlety keeps the focus on effort and not on external performance measure.

There is a strong association between movement intended for exercise and athletic or other physically demanding performance. We need to break that erroneous association. For a performance we must move with efficiency and reserve our ultimate strength as much as possible. For exercise we do the opposite. Exercise is to stimulate growth, giving us greater ability after the adaptation, allowing a better performance. When a performance activity is encumbered for the purpose of stimulating growth, then we practice a hampered performance and skills are diminished. Don’t be fooled by the sensationalism. Keep exercise and practice separate and as distinct as their respective purposes.

Now picking up the list of items for evaluating a subject’s level of proficiency that was started in a post in June, I’ve added some explanation to a few more of the items. Read through the list visualizing the process of an exercise session. How well do you adhere to the protocol? How many of these items have you gained mastery over? Are you progressing through the list or does anything seem out of order? Are you satisfied with your form? (I hope not.) Please add a comment with any thoughts or questions.

1)      Avoid distractions
2)      Position carefully
3)      Maintain stationary origin
4)      Mastery over breathing
5)      Proper attire

6)      Avoid firing out

Any exercise movement begins properly at the commencement of the positive stroke regardless of the point at which the load is accepted. It would be ideal to accept the load near the mid-range and move to the starting point to begin, but this is not often possible. Whether in the first or the last repetition of an exercise, never fire out of that bottom position. Move it like a rattlesnake is inches away and you want to make that movement without startling the snake into striking. The goal is to keep your force output as constant as possible throughout the entire repetition. This is a waste of energy (good!) and against our instincts (good!) but it intensifies the exercise (better) and avoids injury (best!).

7)      Avoid shifting positions

Since you’re already in the correct position (#2 above), there is no need to shift and fidget. If your exercise is going to have any value, it is going to be uncomfortable. When it becomes uncomfortable, your subconscious will challenge your resolve with a multitude of distractions. Learn to control the desire to escape toward comfort. Maximum results will never be possible without progressing in this area. It’s a never ending battle, learn to expect it, identify a single discrepancy and master it, and then find another to work on.

8)      Avoid re-gripping

Re-gripping is a specific form of shifting position. Establish your hand position from the start so that your forearm is directly in line with the application of the resistance. If you are pulling against the resistance then wrap your fingers securely around the handle and grip with only the amount of force necessary to maintain that position. Avoid curling your wrists. Concentrate on the larger muscles that move your upper arms. If you are pushing against resistance then don’t grip at all. Let your fingers settle in as much of a relaxed position as possible. Let the heel of your hand absorb the distributed force. The perceived need to re-grip is a distraction technique. Practice the conscious control of overcoming the distraction.

9)      Grasp the repetition cycle concept

It’s natural to think of a repetition as an out and back stroke. It’s also natural to think that our goal is to perform as many repetitions as possible. Unfortunately, what is natural in this case is also the most counterproductive. The idea of as many repetitions as possible leads to compromising form to save energy. It also leads to lingering in any portion of the repetition that requires less effort, again to save energy. By making the repetition into a continuous cycle of steady effort we waste energy and make the exercise effective toward stimulating growth.

10)   Avoid momentum

We learn about momentum without even realizing it. We use it all the time to our advantage as another energy saver. To make exercise as effective as possible we need to be aware of all of the energy saving techniques that we acquire naturally through practice. Once we become aware of the things that are used to give us mechanical advantage, we must give full concentration to eliminating their use.

11)   Minimize acceleration
12)   Mastery over turnarounds
13)   Constant load
14)   Mastery over unloading
15)   Exit properly
16)   Mastery over discrepancies
17)   Avoid changing speed
18)   Mastery over pace
19)   Recognize and avoid energy savings
20)   Exaggerate range and form
21)   Reach legitimate failure
22)   Eliminate facial expression
23)   Move quickly between exercises
24)   Engage squeeze technique
25)   Inroad beyond failure

There’s Always Room for Improvement

The single focus of exercise is to stimulate muscle growth by inroading strength. This is not an attempt to oversimplify, but rather to properly identify the immediate target. The benefits that we desire don’t come about directly from exercise. They come about after the exercise is no longer present as a reaction to counter the potential threat that exercise poses.

Proper form is vital to making exercise effective, which goes without saying. The issue is that practicing proper form is very unnatural and our form begins degrading immediately, unless we give it the strictest attention. We have a very strong propensity to avoid danger and discomfort even when we take them on intentionally.

To continually progress in exercise we must be critical of our form and be diligent to improve it. By form improvement, I mean to maintain a constant load on the target musculature. It’s natural that with experience we learn the subtle mechanics of our own movements and of any apparatus that we use. Without realizing it, we learn to be more efficient and save our energy resources.

Think about how you can perform more work by resting periodically. This doesn’t mean inactivity necessarily, but can simply be changing to a different activity. Without thinking about it, we’re practicing efficiency to gain a greater quantity of work output. It’s all unloading from our effort if only momentarily. We shift position; we often adjust our stance or grip to avoid the discomfort of fatigue. We use acceleration to our advantage; our own stretch reflex saves energy, winding up and reversing suddenly. We use an off-on motion; short impulse movements accelerating and resting. We use momentum all the time; get a running start before impact. This is how a hammer works. Just try driving a nail without swinging the hammer and only pushing with a constant force. We use a change of pace; back off the effort when resistance is met and cruise through when we get a downhill run. Post a comment when you think of other examples.

All of this is natural and it makes good sense. This skill refinement is great for accomplishing work or for enjoying our recreation to the fullest. But for exercise effect, it’s the opposite of energy efficiency that’s needed.

Maximize the mechanism  =  maintain a continuous load  =  strict form  =
waste energy  =  override our strength preservation techniques

The following is a list that I’ve been composing to try to evaluate the level of exercise that a subject might be getting and what instruction would be appropriate to advance his/her progress. It still needs refinement, but it can be useful. Some items may be a bit redundant or out of order; it’s intended to be a progression. Read through it and picture yourself in your exercise session. How well do you adhere to the protocol? I’ve added some explanation to a few of the items. In the future, I intend to further elaborate on some more of the items. Again, please post any comments; it can only help.

1) Avoid distractions

Clear your mind of every event of the day. Tune out everything except your effort to apply strength from the targeted muscles. Determine to ignore every sensory input from your nose itching to a glimpse of movement outside the window to a car horn sounding. Don’t turn, don’t comment, don’t acknowledge. I recall a subject once had a fly land on her leg while engaged in an exercise. Her eyes never moved. I asked afterwards, and the fly had definitely been noticed but ignored.

2) Position carefully

Alignment in an exercise needs to be established before any load is accepted. The overall exercise session is more effective if time is not wasted moving between exercises, but safety and effect are enhanced if we take care to move under control. It’s well worth a couple of extra seconds to be properly positioned so that we don’t feel a need to adjust after we’re under load. Don’t be in a hurry to start the exercise. Don’t blend movements during transition to the next exercise. Imagine moving in a brisk demonstration of control.

3) Maintain stationary origin

The padding of the machines is designed to offer support and stability more than comfort. Once positioned, it’s normally intended that you stay in contact with the stabilizing support throughout the exercise movement. Avoid extraneous movements. Don’t let moving the apparatus become your goal. Concentrate on keeping a steady load on the muscles that are directly engaged the entire time.

4) Mastery over breathing

Review the information covered in the preliminary considerations to exercise. Study the Valsalva maneuver and become acquainted with its occurrence to break the association. Make a practice of freely ventilating before you begin exerting and refuse to let it stop. Be aware of any sound that indicates air flow is the least bit inhibited. Don’t allow your breathing to develop any rhythm because this reinforces the natural tendency to Valsalva.

5) Proper attire

The high level of effort involved in exercise quickly produces heat. It’s best to be dressed in a way that allows heat dissipation. Don’t allow the outdoor weather to influence your attire for exercise. Loose fitting, but not baggy shorts and a short sleeve tee shirt are best. These also help in viewing major joints for proper alignment and any form discrepancies. Flat comfortable gym shoes are best. Leave every unnecessary encumbrance behind; keys, wallets, change, belts, even glasses.

6) Avoid firing out
7) Avoid shifting positions
8) Avoid re-gripping
9) Grasp the repetition cycle concept
10) Avoid momentum
11) Minimize acceleration
12) Mastery over turnarounds
13) Constant load
14) Mastery over unloading
15) Exit properly
16) Mastery over discrepancies
17) Avoid changing speed
18) Mastery over pace
19) Recognize and avoid energy savings
20) Exaggerate range and form
21) Reach legitimate failure
22) Eliminate facial expression
23) Move quickly between exercises
24) Engage squeeze technique
25) Inroad beyond failure