Ask a Trainer Omnibus: All The Questions Edition

This week we’re going to speed-answer a whole batch of questions. Lets do this!

1. What benefits does lifting weights have, other than appearance and strength?

So many things! With a strong body you are less likely to get injured in everyday life, and when you do get injured you recover faster. Exercise also has been shown to help with mood, and vigorous exercise releases endorphins that make you feel better about everything. These effects have been shown to have long term benefits in stabilizing emotions over time. Not only that, but you will also age more gracefully to become the 80 year old who can still run and climb, instead of the one who needs a walker. Common age-related issues that strength training helps include posture, general muscle weakness, and decreased bone density – strength training helps minimize of prevent all of them! Lastly, clothing will fit better when you have a more fit physique, becoming the difference between “she looks confident” and “he looks frumpy”.

2. What the heck is a Tabata and why should I do it?

Tabata training was discovered by, and named for, Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. The research showed that with two groups of comparable athletes, short high-intensity exercise produced both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (muscular) benefits above the benefits provided by more frequent moderate-intensity exercise over the same time frame. Tabata is simple: you work one movement for 20 seconds of maximal effort followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a total of four minutes. The goal is to perform the movement as intensely as possible during your working sets to stimulate your anaerobic energy systems. You can Tabata any movement, including running, push-ups, deadlifts, etc. as long as you can perform the movement quickly with good form (which means you might need to lower your working weight).

3. Why should I use a foam roller and when?

First described by Andrew Taylor Still and his early students, myofascial release is an osteopathic discipline. As you use your muscles – especially in a workout routine – you develop small areas of prolonged tension as the muscles and their enclosing tissue (fascia) contract and extend. Foam rollers are a great way to help muscles recover by pinpointing areas of myofascial tension, applying pressure for an extended period of time, and assisting the tissue in releasing small contracted portions of itself. The idea is that the system of fascia in the body is interconnected, and tightness in one area can negatively impact other areas of the body, including organs. You should be “rolling out” after your workout – not before – to help the muscles relax and recover.

4. How long do I really need to rest before working the same muscle groups again?

About 36-48 hours should pass before working the same muscle group at a high intensity during a workout. This gives the body the time it needs to recover and recuperate, rebuilding muscle tissue and cleaning up the waste by-products of training. Generally, the more intense the workout the longer you may need to recover. If you are coming into a workout feeling really weak and fatigued, it may be time for a rest day. In some cases, the cumulative stress from workouts and life may mean you need an extended rest of 2-5 days;

5. What the heck is a FitBit and do I need one?

If you’re into fitness (or on Facebook) you probably have at least a few friends with one of these. At their core, a FitBit is an activity tracker that keeps record of the steps you take in a day (they normally also function as a watch). The more expensive versions can also track sleep, stairs climbed, active minutes, heart rate, sync with your phone for caller ID, and have GPS. They get pretty crazy, really. Realistically, you don’t need one, but your goals might make one nice to have. If you have trouble staying active and getting enough sleep, having a personal tool to track these things without your direct intervention will be helpful. At the same time, if you like to “gamify” your fitness by competing with friends, you can use a FitBit to compete in “step competitions” or other group competitions with your friends/family.

6. What’s a good full-body warm-up?

A good warm-up does two things: gets your muscles moving and gets your circulatory system functioning at an athletic level. Said in another way, you should feel like you’ve actually done some work and you should be sweating a bit. Stretching, which is intended to relax the muscles, is not a good warm-up. A general full-body example would be the following, completed over about 10-15 minutes of constant, low-intensity work: squats, sit-ups, push-ups, & pull-ups. Complete 5-10 reps of each, for 4-5 sets. Depending on your workout plans for that day, you should also include a move or two that targets the muscle groups you’ll be using, such as doing low weight barbell Cleans if you’llbe working those that day. The summary is that a warm-up should be movement.

7. What exercises help with posture?

Posture refers to the positioning of your body as a whole, though most people refer to bad posture as being dependent on the position of your back and shoulders. Going by the common definition, exercises that will help you develop & maintain a strong, upright stance include sit-ups, back extensions (or the Cobra pose in Yoga), bicycle crunches, side bends, Deadlifts, Front Squats, shoulder shrugs/rolls, and the Yoga Chair Pose. All of these movements force you to focus on your core and shoulder positions very strongly, improving your ability to hold good posture in your everyday life. If you’re now wondering, okay but why bother, then just remember that according to science, bad posture makes you look older, fatter, and less confident to everyone around you. If good health isn’t a good enough reason, how about looking better?

8. Why does the depth of my various squats (Goblet, Back, Front, Overhead) differ so much?

The depth of a squat is determined by the relationship between your hips and your knees. With a good squat we are attempting to get our hips below the level of our knees, also called “going past parallel” or “getting full depth”. The ability to do this is dependent on the mobility of your hips, knees, ankles, and thoracic spine, as well as the strength of the core muscles responsible for maintaining torso position. In theory, your torso remains in the same basic orientation at the bottom of a squat as it is while standing up tall. The tell-tale forward chest lean you see in many athletes with an immature squat is due to these factors not lining up properly, and in particular not being able to maintain their thoracic spine position while moving their hips. The easiest of the weighted squats, the Goblet Squat allows you to sink into a forward lean under the pretense of holding the weight steady, often rounding your back in the process. Next on the list (for most), the Back Squat helps maintain a pseudo-upright position since the weight is planted on the back of the shoulders. I say “pseudo-upright” because in reality many people are still leaning their torso forward. The Front Squat is comparatively more difficult than the Back Squat, because it also relies heavily on mobility in the shoulders, wrists, and elbows to maintain bar position. An athlete with good upper mobility may notice the Front Squat is easier than the Back Squat for maintaining posture, but only because they are focusing more heavily on good elbow position as well. Lastly, the Overhead Squat is the most difficult positional squat for the majority of athletes I see, often showing maximal lifts at 50% or less of the Front/Back Squats. The OHS relies entirely on the mobility of the athlete being applied at the same time as their lifting power, which is a very difficult feat to accomplish for most beginner, and some more advanced, athletes.

9. I clench my jaw really hard during Deadlifts. Is that bad?

Short answer: yes, it’s bad. Don’t do it. The longer answer is that the muscular system of the body is sympathetic to itself, meaning that tightness and tension in one part can impact other parts. In this case, keeping your jaw muscles over-tight during a posterior chain exercise (i.e. one that uses the muscles along the back of the body) can cause neck stiffness, localized acute pain, or a sprain to occur. This happens because the muscles being worked in the deadlift movement are complementary opposites to the muscles required to tighten the jaw, meaning they pull in opposing directions. Imagine trying to do heavy tricep work while also trying to flex the bicep at the same time. If this happens, you’ll have issues moving your neck through it’s range of motion (turning, looking up/down) that can be either a nuisance (slight pain at the extreme part of the movement) or near debilitating (inability to move the neck at all without pain).

10. I can do a handstand push-up but I can’t press my body weight. Why?

Three words: range of motion. We talk about your range of motion a lot, and it refers to your ability to move your joints through their natural movement path. An example is the knee, which has about 155 degrees of motion from straight to bent towards the buttocks. Much like an injury can reduce range, some workout movements also intentionally work at a reduced range of motion in comparison to similar movements. The Overhead Press takes the barbell from resting on the shoulders in front of the neck, to above the head with elbows fully locked out. The elbows work through their full range (comparable to the knee) and the shoulders work through about half their range (180 degrees). This is, generally, the weakest lift for anyone since the muscles supporting the movement are relatively small. In comparison, many athletes who can’t Overhead Press their body weight can do a handstand push-up. This is because the range is truncated significantly, supporting the athlete’s weight in the strongest portions of the pressing movement. The elbows only hit about 90 degrees of motion and the shoulders a little more than that. The stronger pressing position allows for more weight to be lifted with similar perceived effort.-