I am currently two weeks into my new workout program and my program is a stark contrast to my previous episodes of working out in the past.
My current fitness goals have shifted from training the larger muscles that you can see to the smaller muscles that you cannot see.
Thus, my new exercise program focuses on different movements, most of which can be done with only my body weight (which is currently more than I'd like at this point).
Before you exit this page with the fear of me babbling on about my boreing workout routine, stick with me, I am going somewhere with this.
I am now 28 years old and my fitness goals have shifted from trying to look good toward feeling good. I have placed more emphasis on a few things which I preach daily in my office:
- Emphasis on joint stability
- Strength at various ranges of motion (mobility)
- Increased strength / control of your "trouble joints"
These three principles have allowed me to use my workouts to make me healthier, perform my activities at work with less pain, and to look forward to trying new leisure / sport activities in the future.
Read on to hear my explanation on why I believe you should change the focus of your workouts and make smarter fitness goals to make yourself feel better while staying injury free.
Emphasis on Joint Stability
Stability, (in any joint) which I describe in my office, is achieved via three systems: congruity of joint surfaces, ligaments, and muscles.
Congruity of joint surfaces – quite simply, the joints of the body are shaped in a way that each bone of the joint "fits" into the other. Similar to a key into a lock. Congruity of joint surfaces is useless at achieving stability when we are moving. Some joints have more congruity than others, meaning some joints are more stable than others. The shoulder for example has very little "joint congruity" while the hip has a lot. For this reason, some joints require more contribution from the other 2 systems of stability. I compare this to a stack of 30 coins one on top of another. The coins will stay there assuming the surface in which they are on does not move. When movement occurs we need something more adaptable other than joint congruity. This is where ligaments and muscles come into play.
Ligaments – these are tight bands of fibrous tissue that attach one bone to another at a joint. They are there to make sure that bones of a joint do not move too far off of each other (dislocation). Unfortunately, ligaments can be stretched out with prolonged stretch (poor posture) or an injury which can occur from a slip or a fall (ankle sprain). Once ligaments lose their pre set "tension" they become less efficient at stabilizing a joint and signalling muscles to contract to protect us from putting our joints into harmful positions. Take a person who has had a previous ankle sprain, after the initial injury they're balance on that ankle is poor and they are more likely to have another sprain. When ligaments are less "in tune" with our joint positions and have less ability to create stability we need more protection from muscles.
Muscles – muscles come in all shapes and sizes. We use muscles to move our joints and we also use them to keep our joints in a safe range of motion to protect our joints from injury. When we have poor muscle strength and endurance we put more stress on ligaments which will eventually lead to injury. For the sake of this article I want to stress the importance of the smaller muscles that are in close relationship to joints. Specifically, those in the spine which provide stability to the joints of each vertebrae. There are 29 pairs of muscles in your core and included in these are the smaller muscles of the spine which run from vertebra to vertebra. They are about the size of half your pinky finger and despite their size, their importance is huge. These muscles are similar to ligaments in their size and orientation, however, unlike ligaments, they can be trained to handle the increased stresses of our activities. Muscles can lengthen or shorten based on our physical demands and different joint positions. In any strength program, these muscles should be contracted (along with other core muscles) in order to achieve a stable base / core from which you perform your activities. This brings me to my next of three training emphases in my new program, the training of mobility.
Strength At Different Ranges of Motion (Mobility)
Joint mobility is the ability of your muscles to provide you with sufficient strength at different ranges of motion. Thus, a muscle is not as helpful unless it can work at the specific ranges of motion which we put our joints in during our specific activities. For example, a pitcher who puts their shoulder in extreme ranges of motion needs muscles to contract at those motion extremes in order to ensure peak performance and protection from injury. This is not just specific to the arms and legs, this same thing goes for your "core" or torso.
If you cannot perform a contraction of the muscles that create "core stability" at different ranges of motion then when you go into that motion during activity you are more prone to injury. I see this all the time in my office with low back injuries. Someone explains to me that they did a seemlessly harmless activity such as bending down to pick up a pencil and they "throw out their back". This situation is merely a patients inability to contract the right muscles at the range of motion they put themself in to pick up that pencil. This causes a momentary lapse in muscle contraction at a certain range of motion. This lack of strength at a certain range of motion is an absence of mobility meaning they had an inefficient contribution of low back muscles (discussed above) at a certain range of motion which then caused the joint to go into a vulnerable position where ligaments and other joint structures can be damaged and thus pain is experienced.
Increased Joint Stability and Mobility at "Trouble Joints"
Everyone has their areas where they have had injury and / or pain in the past. Whether it is an "old hockey injury," a bad shoulder from baseball, or "a bum knee" we all have certain areas that are in need of special attention during exercise. In my experience, pain is the most common barrier to physical activity, second, would most likely be decreased range of motion or "stiffness" in a specific joint or joints.
Pain can come from almost any tissue in the body, however, there are very few conditions which cannot benefit from specific exercises emphasizing specific ranges of motion while contracting specific muscles. When dealing with a painful or limited joint, this type of exercise needs to be perscribed by a professional to ensure you are not making your injury even worse.
When instructing my patients on how to exercise properly I explain to them that in order to do an exercise safely and effectively you need four things:
1. Enough range of motion
2. Enough strength to keep your joints safe (stability, mobility)
3. The knowledge to perform it correctly
4. The patience to perform it correctly
Many people that come into my office who are on exercise programs usually lack the range of motion and the knowledge to perform exercises correctly. In fact, I cannot begin to tell you the number of patients who have reported to me because they have injured themselves working out. So, I take into account the injuries they have:
- Perform manual therapy (muscle work, stretches, etc.) on the patient to increase range of motion
- Prescribe the best exercise for their current condition
- Give them knowledge to perform the specific exercise properly with their new range of motion
- Emphasize repetition of the exercise to achieve increased strength at new ranges of motion
- Give the patient a progression to the exercise to further stress the tissues to obtain further improvements in strength and range of motion
This strategy is entirely devoted to making a weak joint that was injured in the past a future area of strength. Once this injured / trouble area is improved a patient no longer has a barrier to physical activity and can return to doing the activities that they love (golf, hockey, curling, etc.)
In closing, since beginning my new workout I have felt great. I have focused more on stability of my low back, mobility of my hips and shoulders, and I have made my weak left shoulder stronger and more pain free. This all equates to me going through my day with less pain, more energy, and less excuses to try new activities.
If you are looking to change your workout to accomplish any of these goals then please do not hesitate to contact your local fitness specialist or health care provider. You will be suprised how easy it is to get back into physical activity and enjoy the many benefits of exercise.
Dr. Jim Forbes is a chiropractor based at Hare Chiropractic & Natural Health Centre.