From time to time, clients of mine ask me questions about exercise. Their questions have highlighted certain popular ideas about exercise that need clarification. So, let's look at certain benefits of exercise, the ideal of the "hard body", the major cause of "pulled" muscles (it's not failure to stretch, exactly), strength, and coordination. Let's examine free weights and exercise machines, concentric and eccentric contraction, and an advanced form of exercise that improves muscular control: somatic education exercises.
Have you ever "pulled" or torn a muscle? Do you work out with weights to improve your muscle tone? Do you want to develop a hard body? Do you wonder which is better -- free weights or weight machines? If so, this article can make a difference in the results you get from training.
Benefits of Exercise
For a person in a sedentary
(which often means "high stress") lifestyle, exercise is refreshing. Circulation and energy improve, in part, because with consistent exercise, the body grows new blood vessels and partly because increased breathing and circulation help eliminate metabolic wastes. It's refreshing for another reason: exercise helps people to eliminate some of the tension they accumulate on a day-to-day basis. Relaxed muscles present fewer barriers to blood circulation, so the heart's job is easier. The cardiovascular benefits of exercise have much to do with the discharge of tension.
Exercise is refreshing for another reason: muscles pump blood as they contract. They pump blood similarly to the way the heart does: as they contract, they squeeze out their fluid and as they relax, they fill with new fluid. The body fluids of a person in an inactive, high-stress lifestyle get stagnant because of sluggish circulation. Anyone who works at a desk job experiences this effect. The pumping action of exercise flushes out stagnant fluids. That's why a certain amount of exercise is invigorating.
A Hard Look at the "Hard Body"
The popular notion about a hard body
is that it indicates fitness. Actually, a hard body means only one thing: that muscles are chronically tight. A hard body doesn't relax, waking or sleeping, which is why some people wake up stiff in the morning; they may not look like people's idea of a "hard body" and still have muscles that are always tight, hard, and sore to the touch. Weight training, for some people is a way to train themselves to stay tight. On the other hand, you can be strong and loose. In fact, loose muscles have more strength reserves than tight muscles, which are always partially fatigued. (One reason "toned" muscles are more responsive is that the nervous system is in a state of readiness to contract them; a few quick repetitions of specific movements is sufficient to bring relaxed muscles to a state of readiness. What is getting "warmed up" is not the muscles; it is the nervous system.)
What happens when muscles get contracted and stay contracted?
They burn nutrients on an ongoing basis, compress neighboring joints, and make a person stiff (muscle-bound) and prone to spasm.
The part about burning up nutrients sounds good, from a weight-loss perspective, so let's look into it.
Muscle Tone and Metabolic Rate
Exercise physiologists point out
that exercising increases a person's metabolic rate. One way it does that is by increasing muscle tone; "muscle tone" is just another term for "muscular contraction." Muscles in contraction burn fuel (nutrients) faster than muscles at rest. That, in turn, increases the carbon dioxide level in the blood; heart and breathing rate increase to eliminate that carbon dioxide. Result: higher metabolism. Benefit: weight loss.
Muscle tone automatically goes up during activity. Too much muscle tone, however, has side-effects: increased strain on the heart, increased pressure on joints, and a tendency to spasticity (cramping). I'll say more about these side effects, later.
For now, let's look at what happens in a hard body.
Muscles in contraction for longer than about four seconds begin to produce lactic acid -- the "burn" of exercise. The body has three ways to deal with lactic acid: remove it by blood circulation, dilute it with body fluids, or convert it back to glucose (blood sugar) and burn it (which requires blood circulation through the muscle).
Without movement, muscles do not pump fluid. So, in a person who has a hard, highly toned body, metabolic wastes get concentrated. Their muscles swell up by osmosis -- meaning water moves into the muscles to dilute the lactic acid and other wastes. The "pumping up" effect, in which muscles get larger, comes largely from that swelling. The pumping action of a good workout flushes out trapped fluids. As a result, many people who train with weight get hooked on working out as a way to decrease soreness. If they stop working out for a few weeks, their muscle tone decreases, their muscles lose their excess water, and they lose that buffed, "pumped up" look.
Muscles in contraction pull neighboring bones together and squeeze joints. Joints, like all other parts of the body, need rest. Chronically tight muscles place an excessive load upon joints and deprive them of rest. Eventually, over the years, the joint cartilage breaks down, leading to pain and loss of mobility. The answer: prevent tension from accumulating.
Cramps and Stiffness
Muscles at a chronically high level of muscle tone
create stiffness and make a person prone to cramps and muscle pulls.
Improper training methods condition muscles to contract and not to relax. That means they accumulate tension and fail to lengthen with movement away from their line of pull. That's stiffness.
Muscles at a high level of tone have less elasticity and trigger the "stretch reflex" (the "kneejerk response") more quickly (and relax much more slowly) than muscles that are relaxed.
The stretch reflex normally helps the body maintain balance and position by causing muscles to contract when suddenly stretched. For example, if someone bumps into you, the sudden, involuntary change of position triggers the stretch reflex; as muscles contract, you stiffen, slightly, so you don't simply lose your balance and fall over. In persons who have high muscle tone, the added contraction of lifting something heavy (or just leaning over) may increase the muscle burn enough to trigger the stretch reflex, and they go into spasm.
You may not feel how tight your muscles are because you are used to being that way. That happens with any sensation that continues long enough. However, if someone (like a massage therapist) presses on a tight muscles, you are likely to feel ticklish or sore. The soreness is different than the temporary soreness you get from working out.
Chronically tight muscles create a hard body and a higher metabolic rate.
Tight muscles are less elastic and interfere with flexibility. Tight people are stiffer and more prone to injury.
Tight muscles are often chronically ticklish or sore (or sore to the touch and prone to cramping or spasm).
The Neglected Step-Brother of Strength
The word, "coordination," means
moving together toward a common goal. Muscles all over the body coordinate to produce movements, such as lifting. Coordination control how much strength each muscle contributes to movement, how much muscle tone each muscle carries, and how muscles create posture and balance. Coordination is the intelligence that controls movement.
People with poor coordination
typically have uneven control over muscle tension. They lack the ability to "ramp up" smoothly from zero power to full power or to "ramp down" from full power to zero. They often use more strength than is necessary, often thinking "more power is better", rather than, "more
is better". They may also be unable to relax completely and may hold residual tension twenty-four hours a day. This tension accounts for the pain and stiffness that many athletes attempt to get rid of through stretching, icing, and massage: muscles that are always tense always have a "slow burn" going.
People's body mechanics
is only as good as their coordination. When coordination has not been refined, muscles other than those best suited, by their location, to do the job come into action, distorting movement and increasing the effort of movement unnecesarily. People in that condition often hold unnecessary tension or have incomplete use of their full strength. Certain muscles may be weak, and others, too tight, too tired, and sore.
Coordination develops with practice;
it does not exist automatically, nor are people born (or not born) with it (though some people have a greater talent for developing it than others, just as with any learning). We develop coordination through practice. To improve your coordination can raise your weight training program to an entirely new level.
The Favorite Son of Physical Conditioning
Strength has two parts:
power and control. The power of a muscle (to oversimplify a bit) comes from its bulk; control of that power comes from the brain. Power plus control creates strength.
Under ordinary circumstances, no single muscle causes a movement. Rather, the muscles of the body work together; the whole body must be involved in the balancing act of movement under the influence of gravity. Muscles always pull upon bones to which other muscles attach. Those other muscles may stabilize the movement, add power to it, simply allow it, or interfere with the movement and reduce your usable strength. As coordination (brain control) improves, so does usable strength. That is why it is important to exercise in a well-rounded way and not favor certain areas of the body over others, except to make them all more nearly equal.
Weight training improves muscular power both by triggering muscle growth
by improving your ability to control muscular activity. In other words, weight training affects both your muscles and your brain. If you consciously improve your coordination, so that muscles work together instead of against each other, you increase your usable strength. In other words, by improving your coordination, you improve your strength.
Free Weights vs. Weight Machines?
Weight machines that have a person strap themselves in immobilize some part of the body while exercising others. This is the logic of "isolation" the exact opposite of how the body works in real life. The machine determines the direction of movement, rather than muscles acting in coordination doing so. So, while you may gain power and bulk in selected muscles, you don't gain coordination. As a result, to work out on certain weight machines may leave you feeling awkward, moving like the machine.
Free weights can provide a more complete workout because they require a person to use muscles in coordinated effort.
A problem with free weights, however, is that people may use muscles in awkward ways. In other words, people who have not developed a high degree of coordination are likely to misuse free weights. For example, they may favor one side of the body over the other by twisting, or they may overload themselves and then work in sudden movements in an effort to make faster progress (they are fooling themselves). They may, therefore, miss the chance to improve their coordination.
The trick is to move slowly enough to exercise the weaker muscles that tend to give out, if overloaded. That may mean using less weight or fewer reps.
Even if you do exercise underused muscles, there is something else to consider:
Good coordination involves leaving muscles that are not needed for the movement, relaxed.
In good coordination, ideally, when you're at rest, you're relaxed, like a cat, not musclebound, like a gangster. A personal trainer can help, if he or she trains along those lines.
Eccentric vs. Concentric Contraction
There are two ways to contract a muscle: more and more, and less and less.
Lifting a weight involves a "more and more strength" (concentric) contraction. Lowering a weight slowly involves a "less and less" (eccentric) contraction.
This all-important distinction
makes the difference between weight training that makes you strong and supple and training that makes you musclebound.
People who lift a weight slowly and let it down quickly are practicing concentric contraction; they are conditioning themselves to get tighter and tighter.
People who let weight down slowly are practicing eccentric contraction. They are conditioning themselves to relax from strength. Done properly, eccentric contraction builds strength without the dangers of excessive muscle tone.
Control of relaxation is as important as strength. Muscles that get tight and stay tight with weight training are always working, always partially tired, always prone to injury and soreness.
Doing eccentric contractions (slow relaxation with less weight) can help to decondition habitual tightening and shortening. The key point is this: Always relax completely between repetitions. Even better: Relax and take a full, deep breath between very slow reps. If you're using a weight machine, adjust it (and your position) so that you can completely relax without overextending your joints (very important). Try this, and you'll find your strength and endurance increase significantly.
All competent trainers include stretching and warm-ups in their programs. An advance in physical conditioning, called Somatics, does even more than stretching and warm-ups to prevent muscle "pulls" and other injuries, both in the short-term and in the long term.
Somatic exercises use
slow, systematic patterns of movement
and concentrated attention on
the feeling of the movement
to develop both usable strength and coordination. Muscles with too little muscle tone develop tone, while muscles with too much tone relax. Coordination, strength, and posture improve.
People who practice Somatics learn how to use the muscles they need and to leave the rest relaxed. These changes improve your body use as you work out.
Somatics systematically uses many exercise patterns to reach every part of the body. The exercises reduce the chance of injury, improve coordination, reverse certain effects of aging on movement, and enable you to get more out of weight training.
If you have alread been injured, chances are these exercises (or, for especially painful problems, sessions with a clinical somatic educator) can help you recover from the injury much more quickly than by traditional therapeutic techniques, alone.
Here's an exercise to loosen tight hamstrings -- WITHOUT stretching.