Be Well Personal Training

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Goal setting for mindful movement and the asana in progress project

One of the things that I love about movement is there is always something to work on. Regardless of one's physical endeavors, there is always room for increased efficiency, improved performance, or simply moving to the next level. Over the years, I have had many different goals, some extremely specific ("I will run up this 2.5 mile hill without stopping to walk in the next month," "I will learn how to do the Turkish Get-up,"), others specific to what I viewed as weakness ("I will learn to fire my lateral hip stabilizers on my right side during single leg squats," "I will learn to use my adductors while arm balancing"). Perhaps the most challenging change in my movement that I implemented was last year when I realized my deep core stability as it related to my breathing was not just less than optimal- it was non-existent. I spent three months re-training my neurological system and did so much diaphragmatic breathing that I bruised a little muscle under my sternum called the triangularis sterni. I get bored easily, and setting a goal keeps me interested and moving towards something.

In my quest to learn about movement, I spend time on Youtube watching people move really well. There are the yogis, that float gracefully from one pose to another, the Ido Portals of the world, that could seemingly spend hours in handstand variations, and the Scott Sonnons and Erwan LeCorres that move seamlessly, fluidly, as though there is no effort required at all to lift a giant log or swing a club bell. This is wonderful, inspiring, and can be a great learning tool; however, it never showcases all of the work it takes to get there. I truly believe that almost anyone can achieve whatever movement task they desire, as long as they work mindfully and intelligently on that task. The task will not come overnight; it takes months, sometimes years to accomplish a movement task that poses a large challenge to an individual, and often requires addressing a specific weakness, looking at the task from several different angles, or dedicating specific time to practice the task daily. The way I finally made it up the 2.5 mile hill, for instance, was running it in the dark. Because I couldn't see how much longer I had, I was able to trick myself and just keep running.  In a world where movement tasks such as climbing trees for fruit, hunting down large prey for food, and carrying heavy logs to build shelter are no longer necessary, it is important to set movement goals periodically to keep the mind and body engaged and working together. The mind/body disconnect and lack of movement efficiency that exists in western society isn't healthy for our overall well-being. So, I invite you to join me. Pick a movement goal. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it is something that you can't do currently. Examine it, practice it, figure out your sticking point, and get creative about moving past the sticking point. To measure your progress, once a month, either film yourself, time yourself, or have someone assess you, depending on what your goal is. My goal, as you will see below, it to link together some of these postures together on my yoga mat. I filmed myself in the middle of my practice, which is eventually where the task should be performed with ease. I will work on these tasks in a variety of ways, by performing some of my sticking points in isolation, in the gym after a strong core session, and in a less fatigued state. However, since the task is to be done during yoga, each month, I will film during a yoga practice and examine my progress. I am giving myself 12 months, and if I complete the task before then, I have two other asanas I am working on that I will devote my attention to. When I was debating graduate school, a client pointed out that in 24 months, I would be two years in the future, with or without the knowledge a master's degree would provide. Which version of myself did I want to be? The same is true with any challenge. Twelve months will pass regardless of whether I decide to improve my strength and mobility. I want to be a stronger me, and I hope you do too.

Yours in health and wellness,

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Training the unstable client

I began training Amy* 8 years ago. She came to me because she wanted to build strength and prevent her osteoporosis from getting any worse. I was a much greener trainer at that point, and did my best to challenge Amy with heavier weight, dynamic movements, and body weight exercises. This didn’t go so well, and it became obvious that Amy was unable to support heavier weights, particularly in her upper body. Her shoulders were sloppy, and she didn’t have the ability to perform the movements in a technically proficient way. She also had some instability in her hips, and would occasionally get hip pain. 

My first three years with her was a lot of trial and error to figure out what wouldn’t bother her shoulders and her hips, but would still give her strength (some of my clients are amazingly patient people. Why she stuck with me, I will never know). It wasn’t until I began studying joint position and mechanics and actually understanding how that impacted function that I was able to help her. Instability is rampant in the yoga world; to be good at many of the advanced postures requires quite a bit of mobility. While this should be balanced with an equal amount of strength, it is not unusual for people that already possess a large amount of mobility to gravitate towards the practice. Unless they spend time focusing on finding strength in each asana, this can be detrimental and lead to a lack of cohesive movement. The body will move in a way that lacks underlying support- it’s like removing the foundation of the house and hoping that the beams are strong enough to hold up the roof.

To understand the importance of joint stability, it is important to have a brief understanding of how the nervous system works. When we want to lift our arm, for example, the brain sends information via motor neurons to the appropriate muscles required to both stabilize the body for the action and to the muscles that lift the arm. Inside the joints are sensory nerve fibers that provide information to the brain about forces exerted on the joint tissues, joint position, and whether or not the joint is moving (Grubb, 2004). The nerve fibers that provide this information are called proprioceptors, and are located in the joint ligaments. This poses a problem when a person has joint laxity, or ligaments that are overstretched. In the shoulder, for instance, it is believed dynamic ligament tension is involved in signaling how much force the rotator cuff muscles need to exert on the humeral head (Kelly, 2002). If the ligaments lack tension, this would alter the activity of the 4 muscles of the rotator cuff, as well as decrease the stability of the joint simply because the ligaments aren’t doing a very good job keeping the shoulder in the socket. In a healthy joint, full range of motion should be pain free, the person should know where his arm (or hip, or ankle) is in relation to his body, and there should not be a fear that something is going to “slip” or “fall out,” common descriptors when you work with hyper mobile clients. It has been my experience that when someone falls into the category of hyper-mobility, it is important to change the training strategy to give stability on the deepest level.

In the case of Amy, she returned one summer from travel with shoulders that were not in a very good position. They were painful, her neck was overactive, and she said she couldn’t figure out “where they [the shoulders] are supposed to be.” At this point, I suggested we back off the weights for a while and try and a different approach. She agreed, and while it was frustrating at times, (“why is this so hard? I am not doing anything”), we progressed slowly and steadily. I gave her things to be aware of when she wasn’t with me, such as how to move from the scapula rather than the shoulder to reach for things. We worked on other things as well, such as breathing and improving her thorax/pelvis integration, and eventually we got back to weights, though I don’t have her go very heavy (she is 64, and I find it is better to train smart with older clients, rather than harder). She said to me last week, “thank you. My shoulders haven’t given me trouble in a very long time, and I feel way more stable.” Sometimes, people need mobility, sometimes they need strength, and often they need a combination of the two. We tend to avoid the things we aren’t good at; these are frequently the things we need the most. Having a little patience and an overall plan can go a long way in improving function and well-being.

Yours in health and wellness,

P.S.- For a glimpse of some of the things I use to enhance shoulder stability, view the link here:

Grubb, B.D., (2004). Activation of sensory neurons in the arthritic joint. Novartic Found Symposium, 260, pp. 28-36.
Kelly, I. The Loose Shoulder, Maitrise Orthopedique, 111.