Monday, January 27, 2014

Heavy for Hypertrophy?

There was a recent review article here on the topic of training for hypertrophy. Many assume that training with heavy weights, defined as 1-5 RM is the best path to growth in muscle size. Others disagree with this notion. The article is a summary of the peer-reviewed literature investigating the notion.

I want to highlight the article for the way in which it is good science. The author doesn't simply look at one or two studies that may support his thesis.  Instead he looked up as many studies specific to the question as he could find. The article then summarizes the findings of these 10 studies. Strong conclusions cannot be made from a single study, replication is a key to proper science.

The Results?

The ten studies compared heavy (1-5 RM) with moderate (6-15 RM) and/or light (15+ RM) loads, as well as lower reps done very slowly which require lower weight. Of the 10 studies, 3 found that heavy training produces more increase in muscle size. The other 7 were equivocal, with no particular weight category providing superior results.

The evidence that training heavy provides superior muscle size growth is weak but still slanted towards the thesis being correct.

All of the studies were limited by being relatively short, most were only a few months. And by using only untrained athletes. Other research already establishes the expectation that almost any resistance training will produce a reasonably broad response from the subjects. That is, any of the load categories would be expected to produce at least modest gains in size, as well as absolute strength, muscular endurance and similar measures.

However, once an athlete moves past this initial training period specificity starts to matter much more. In the long-term heavy training is needed to maintain gaining in strength or high-reps for endurance. The present studies have not addressed trained athletes or long-term training. So our conclusions must be limited.

Frankly, I would not expect that lifting heavy is actually the best strategy when measuring hypertrophy alone. It's not what bodybuilders do to win their competitions after all. Real strength training is not the same as bodybuilding.

Emphasis on Hypertrophy?

The other half, of course, is do we need to emphasize hypertrophy? Increases in muscle strength, for an individual muscle, results from two factors alone: 1) the cross-sectional area of the muscle, and; 2) the neural coordination of the many motor units in the muscle. Obviously, in discussing fighting with all our strength we are not only concerned with each muscle's strength, we are concerned with focusing our entire body into the strike. Hence the need for strength training with large compound movements like squats and Olympic lifts.

That being said, muscle growth is clearly useful for our purposes. It is one of the elements to maximizing our strength. Furthermore, since we practice a contact sport muscle mass is useful for it's ability to absorb hits with minimal detriment.


Lifting heavy isn't a bad way to get bigger. But since getting bigger isn't our only concern we don't need the best possible method for increasing size. We need training that suits our total objectives. And for that lifting heavy is needed for getting strong and reaching our personal best.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Funny Walks for Stability

"Core" exercise is a lot more than just crunches and other trunk muscles. I sometimes feel that the conventional training approach to the core misses the forest for the trees. We need our "core" training to support an overall practical goal. We want our "core", that is our trunk, to provide stability for transferring power from our legs to our upper body. This requires the torso be able to stiffen as needed.

So the following exercises should be part of your program to provide a complete approach to stability and torso stiffness.


 Carry Exercises

With all of these exercises the key points is keeping the torso rigidly upright. This focus on torso stiffness is essential to training the torso for both daily life and martial applications.


Suitcase Carry

This exercise develops unilateral stability for the back by placing the weight on just one side. The muscles used are similar to those used in basic side plank, but we are able to combine that stimulus with the complexity of moving and using the shoulder to control the weight.


Farmer's Carry

This exercise puts weight in both hands and can be done with quite significant amounts of weight. The focus here is on structural loading - the torso development inherent to holding a large weight off of the ground.

Both the Farmer's carry and Suitcase carry can also be used for training grip strength for grapplers.


Bottom's-Up Carry

Here the weight is held upright thereby focusing the effect on upper body stability. Lower weights are used and the limiting factor is usually the forearm muscle's ability to keep the weight in place. This exercise is usually shown with a kettlebell, but as you can see here, plates with handles work just fine.

To achieve fine tuning with weight, and to make it more sword specific, an adjustable dumbbell can be used with weight on just one end and held upright.



These exercises make good finishing exercises done at the end of the workout. Attach each of these to one day's workout and do all three over the course of a week. Each set should be about 12-16 paces. You can work your way up in duration as well as weight, while maintaining good form.

For most fit individuals the Suitcase carry starting around 25-30 pounds is usually good. The Farmer's carry can usually start with a dumbbells of the same size in each hand. Start small with the weight to practice good form at first. For folks most starting with 8-12 pounds for the Bottom's-up should be reasonable. Be sure you can keep the weight safe with this exercise since getting hit in the forearm by a heavy bell will ruin your training.


Mini-band Walks

The exercises illustrated here help to turn on the stabilizing muscles of your hip. They will increase your knee stability and hip power. The mini-bands can be bought from Perform Better. They come in several strengths.

Start easy and work your way up slowly. We are mostly interested in the endurance of these small muscles and making sure they are active. They will never be big strong muscles.

For the walks, after you get used to the band around your knees move it down to your ankles. Later you can move the band to your around your mid-foot, this emphasizes the hip external rotation component of the exercise.



As these exercises are primarily geared towards activation they should be done at the start of a work-out or training session. They can, and should, be done most days initially and then they can be scaled back to 3 times a week after a good base is developed.



Good 'core' training comprises much more than just simple exercises for the abs. We must build on those to develop movement patterns and activation, so that the core muscles work with our whole body to produce a stable torso.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Back Pain and Strength Training

My mother posted this article from NPR and asked for my comment: Pain In The Back? Exercise May Help You Learn Not To Feel It

There's a lot of good in this article. Though the specific exercise recommendations in it are dubious in my mind.


The Good

The basic premise is that strength training is good for back pain. I have no doubt about the accuracy and helpfulness of this recommendation. A lot of back pain is caused not by structural defects but by movement defects. Pain and movement defects form a positive feedback loop. A little bit of pain causes a person to avoid certain movements and move differently. These modifications end up contributing to more pain - and so the circle goes round.

Many pain-free individuals have MRI scans that look like a back problem with herniations and similar structural abnormalities. The correlation between these scan results and actual symptoms are fairly poor. But these kinds of scans encourage the prescription of surgery and injections to treat the problem even though the success rate is only middling in some patients.

I don't want to give the idea that I'm discouraging surgery. I had back surgery myself and it was an amazing improvement for me. However, I had a severe herniation and it was possible to see on the scan that my disc was actively pressing against the nerve related to my pain. And I had sciatica. These are the kinds of problems for which surgery is clearly indicated.


Non-Surgical Treatment

Strength training and movement training will help correct many kinds of back pain. And I firmly recommend physical therapy referral for minor back pain. (I just wrote an essay for my Simmons application explaining my philosophy on how PT can better deal with back pain)

Joints are primarily stabilized by the muscles and not by the passive bones and ligaments. As such strengthening will improve joint stability and address some kinds of pain. Additionally, strength training will improve range of motion, which helps to address other causes of pain.

Movement patterns need to be fixed in people with pain. A good physical therapist or strength coach will be able to spot these movement errors and fix them. Creating new grooves for correct movement patterns. It takes time, skilled supervision and a lot of conscientious practice. So the 'boot camp' approach discussed in the article makes sense. I would gladly take this kind of approach with patients when I complete my DPT.

Personally, this is what I have done for my back. After the surgery I was back to the ACSM recommended amount of exercise within 2 weeks. I endeavor to place as few limits on my activity as possible. With ongoing back pain I still strength train, do conditioning work and martial arts training. The primary limitation I accept is on sitting. Sitting too much is bad for my back and I know it.



The article poo-poos pain-killers. And I disagree. But I disagree in the context of a complete program to address back pain which includes the above kind of training. If the only thing you are doing about back pain is pain-killers and avoidance then that is a problem. Pain-killers to improve quality of life and facilitate movement and strength training are a positive thing.


The Dubious

There are several specific exercises recommended in the article that I'm dubious about. This comes in part from recently reading Stuart McGill's "Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance", as well as my own personal experiences and martial training.

As I've said before the primary role of the trunk (or core) muscles in most activities is to hold the torso stationary. Not to move it. Our back is well designed from this perspective. It can move but it is not well designed to move under a load. As such we can look at two categories of back movement:
1) Loaded and stiff
2) Unloaded and mobile

The combination of motion and high loads seems to be a primary mechanism of injury for the back. Exercises for the back should instead focus on holding the back stiff and stable while under a load. For instance planks. Weight or other challenges can be added to the basic plank exercise to increase the difficulty as you progress.

But the torso rotation machine that combines twisting with moving weight is probably a bad idea. Same with the back extension machine. Yet both of these exercises are included in the 'boot camp' program.

Stretching is also mentioned. Flexibility in the back is unrelated to back pain and it is mostly useless or even counterproductive to stretch the back. There are a few exceptions but they aren't the norm.

Alternately I could be suffering from a limited point of view based on what I've read and experienced so far. Time and a three year graduate degree program will afford me the opportunity to gain a more complete picture.

That being said I doubt that the kind of program Stuart McGill describes is bad for you. It just may not be the only kind of program that works.


The Bad

Like any popular science article it relies on personal stories and anecdotes instead of good research findings. Well done science reporting would look at literature reviews and meta-analysis as well as positions stands from reputable organizations (like the ACSM and NSCA). This is unfortunately typical and frustrating to me.



Strength training and movement training are more useful for typical back pain than surgery, injections or other invasive procedures. Get thee to a physical therapist!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Tight Hip Flexors and Squat Depth

Last night I was talking a to a HEMA friend about strength training and she showed me her squat. She could only get to about 1/3 of full depth with her heels flat. Letting her heels up she could squat to 'till her butt touched her heels.

This is a common kind of limitation when a person is new to squatting. There are a lot of possible reasons for this but the most common is that the person spends too much time sitting. You end up with shortened hip flexors and stretched, weak glutes and hamstrings. Correspondingly, the abs are weak* and the lower back is tight. This pattern is known as Lower-Cross Syndrome.

* The abs can be weak despite lots of crunches, because lots of reps per set of any exercise is about endurance and not actual strength.


Just stretching the tight hip flexors won't do a good job of solving the problem - this friend told me she had been stretching her hip flexors for 9 years without the problem going away. First, the stretches being done could be insufficient. This article at T-Nation has a good run down of less common, advanced stretching approaches that can address this problem.


The other half of the equation though is strengthening the weak muscles. Most modern folks will have weak glutes, hamstrings and abs. Here are basic exercises for strengthening these muscles:
  • Planks - once you can do this for  :60 seconds then you start adding weight. Place a plate on the small of your back.
  • Bridges - same instruction as planks. Can also be made more challenging by putting your shoulders up against a chair, instead of on the floor.
  • Leg Lowers - Keep your lower back flat against the floor - stop when you reach the point where you can't keep your back flat. Also, do them slower than the animated GIF shows.
  • Bird Dogs - The point of this exercise is to activate hip extensor muscles that are underused.
These can be done for 3 sets each, cycling through the items. These types of exercises can be done everyday since they focus on muscle activation, or alternating days when adding weight.

There are a huge number of possible variations on these exercises, many of which will be covered  in later articles.

Don't Lift with Your Knees

The other kind of exercise for you hips is doing exactly what you've told not to do all your life. You've been told to always lift with your knees. And it's not bad advice. But: a) it's not always possible - try and get something out of the trunk of your car while lifting with your knees; and b) you don't do a good job of strengthening your glutes and hamstrings without these exercises.

So, straight-leg deadlifts. The most important aspect of doing these exercises correctly is keeping your back flat. Focus on this aspect first before adding any weight. It's useful to watch yourself in a mirror or have a partner to check your form while you develop this motor pattern. The above exercises will help you develop the muscles and skills for keeping your back flat.

Practice it both single-legged and double legged.

And here is what they look like with weight:
Barbell Double Leg
  • The slight knee bend is acceptable, just make sure the action is being driven primarily with a hip hinge.
  • Keep the weight close to your body. You should be just about scraping your shins and thighs. If you are wearing loose-fitting pants the bar should be touching those. This is done in part by engaging your lats and traps (and rhomboids), all of which also helps to keep your back flat.
  • Don't worry about your range of motion when you start. Make sure that you keep moving to the limit of your range of motion with each rep and slowly your ROM will increase. 
  • Note though that the depth of the motion is limited by keeping the back flat - don't curve your back to get the bar lower!
Single-leg Dumbbell
  • Initially do this exercise with weight in both hands
  • Gradually move to holding the weight only in the 'opposite' hand, that if your left leg is on the ground then hold the dumbbell in the right hand. This increases the demand on the external rotation aspect of the exercise.
  • Begin the movement with your heel, not by lowering your torso.
  • Keep your neck neutral, so you finish by looking at the floor. Arching your neck to look at fixed point will be too much strain on the neck.
As always, start with a light weight and develop good form first. Then gradually add weight to the exercises. These exercises can be safely up to an intensity of about 8RM, higher than that is too risky.

As a weight lifting exercise you should incorporate these twice a week.


Tight hip flexors are a common limitation in developing a good squat. Stretching alone is seldom enough, and advanced stretching modes are commonly needed. The tight hip flexor leads to other problems that need to be addressed with strength training.