In the depths of my back issues the chiropractor thought part of my problem had to do with the relative positioning of the left and right sides of my pelvis. The pelvis is not one solid piece, and the two sides can rotate with respect to each other. Every time I saw him he would note this and give me an adjustment.
Once I started feeling better and was developing a new exercise program for myself, I decided I wanted to incorporate some sprint work. I went to a soccer field to run 100 m sprints. I took a couple of warm-up laps, and then I hit the first all-out sprint. Here's where it gets strange. As I was running I felt this movement in my pelvis... a slip and then a catch between the two sides... like when you switch gears on a bicycle going up a hill. I thought, "God I hope I'm not screwing up my back". I continued the sprint session, and the next day my back felt... AWESOME!
So, what does this mean? I can't prove anything, but I wonder if there might be a self-corrective mechanism in sprinting. I talked with my chiropractor about it, and he alluded to the scene in Forrest Gump when, running for his life, Forrest shakes off the shackles of his leg braces - his body's attempt to re-establish its natural movement pattern. It makes sense from a survival perspective that our bodies would be able to correct imbalances through movement since there were no health practitioners in primal days. As for me, I'm not going to overthink it. I'm just gonna run with it.
After working to correct my squat pattern and muscle imbalances, the next challenge was to craft an exercise program that wouldn't re-aggravate my back. I wanted to avoid loading my back, so bodyweight movements were the order of the day - air squats, push-ups, pull-ups, bear crawls, and lunges. High reps to achieve sufficient intensity. It felt remedial, but at least I was working again. The silver lining was that doing so many air squats allowed me to ingrain the new movement pattern I had been working on.
Next, a lot of research started to come together. I had read that sandbag squats were good for addressing movement dysfunction. When I felt I was ready to load my squat I started with those, and I felt the magic. Something about the low center of gravity of bear-hugging a sandbag reinforces good mechanics. Plus, those suckers kick your butt.
Simultaneously I had read that single-leg exercises were good for back issues, and also that one particular trainer, Mike Boyle, preferred them over standard movements like the squat and deadlift for the professional athletes he trains. So I incorporated Bulgarian split squats, single-leg squats, single-leg deadlifts, and weighted lunges into my program. Another trainer used sled pushes for his athletes with back issues, so into my program they went, too.
I've still got a few more stories to round out what has gone into my comeback program, but this post is getting long so I'll save those for a future time.
Nothing saps your spirit like low back pain. It takes the fight right out of you. When I got the MRI results it was definitely alarm time. I talked to my coach. I talked to my chiropractor. I read tons of stuff online. At times like this you feel alone in your little rowboat in the middle of 20-foot seas. The fear can be paralyzing, but as the saying goes, you have to stay calm and just eat that elephant one bite at a time.
I was fortunate enough to have access to a very good physical therapist, Kevin Lulofs-MacPherson of KLUMAC PT. He impressed me with his pragmatic, evidence-based approach that placed more emphasis on tangible measurements of movement and pain rather than radiographic imaging. He identified a problem in my squat pattern whereby I was engaging in a lot of lower back extension. He also found some weakness in my hip abductors.
He put me on a corrective exercise program that focused on strengthening my hip abductors and practicing the bottom portion of my squat. I took some video of myself squatting, and that was very helpful in correcting the pattern. It's one thing when you watch somebody else move, but when your brain can see you move it is much more impactful. One practice I've picked up from this experience is to occasionally video myself during exercise. Not for posting on Instabrag... but as quality control to make sure I'm not developing any bad habits.
My back didn't start feeling better immediately, but having a program and support goes a long way in terms of your emotional state, and as my physical therapist pointed out that's a big part of the game.
In my last post I talked about how a back injury really got me down. Well, it was definitely a thing, but ultimately I learned a lot from the experience, and I want to share it. My "ooohh" moment was at the bottom of a back squat. It felt like an invisible plane of weakness slicing through me just above my pelvis. I got up from the squat and racked the bar. It got stiff real fast, and I was walking around like Redd Foxx. I call it the "Sanford & Son feeling". Bamp bum banna...
The pain and stiffness diminished somewhat, and after about a week I resumed exercise, but it was still present. A short while later I tweaked it again, and the pattern repeated itself. This went on for a few months until I acknowledged that I needed to address this issue. Of course, I had already been trying every lower back stretch I could find, but clearly that wasn't fixing the problem.
So what does Richy Rich do next? He goes for an MRI. Stay tuned...
When I lived in NYC and decided to buy a bike I remember reading something about how on one hand riding a bicycle raises your risk of suffering acute trauma, but on the other hand it provides the health benefit of cardiovascular exercise. The piece went on to make the point that the benefit outweighs the negative... as long as you don't get hit by a bus. Haha.
If you do Crossfit or some other form of intense exercise long enough you will experience injury either on the acute or nagging level. Similar to the bicycle in NYC, I would argue that the benefits of exercise, community, and fun outweigh the occasional injury. But as any crossfitter will tell you, injuries can really mess with your mind and bring on feelings of depression. I had a string of injuries recently, and it taught me some important lessons.
Don't shut everything down
Avoid exercises that directly irritate the injury, but keep moving. Work around it. There is magic in movement - both physical and psychological.
Have a good support system
When I tried to throw myself a pity party my coach called me on my bullshit with something like, "At least that's the story you're telling yourself". But at moments when I was truly shaken he provided moral support - "Your body WILL heal itself".
We take our bodies for granted until we get hurt. Show your body some love. Take time to acknowledge all the parts that aren't in pain. Your body is a miracle, and it's gotten you through all kinds of shit. Return the favor by being patient.
Remember the pain
You will heal, and when you do... don't forget the pain. Harness the misery of being injured, and channel it into proactive mobility, stability, and strengthening work. Don't let that snake bite you again... at least not in the same spot.
I've been reading the book Brain Rules by neuroscientist John Medina. He takes the latest scientific research and understanding about how the brain works and puts it into plain english.
As a result of our evolutionary history, the brain has three layers. The first layer is the lizard brain. It cares about the four F's - fight, flight, food, and f___, um... reproduction. Next there's the mammalian layer which gives us our nurturing instincts and emotions. Finally, at the top of the brain pyramid sits the cortex - rational thought, planning, and impulse control.
Our brain was forged in an environment of constant motion. We hunted and gathered all day long. This has a major implication. Cognitive health is predicated on an active lifestyle. Statistics show that regular exercise cuts your risk of dementia and Alzheimer's in half.
Sharks have to keep moving just to breathe. We aren't quite that dependent on motion... but it's close. You don't need a crazy amount of exercise to get the cognitive health benefits. A couple of intense sessions a week and a daily walk does the trick. So hit it!
Remember in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi has Ralph Macchio training by doing household chores? Just when Daniel is getting ready to tell Miyagi to go fuck himself, he realizes that the movements have become second-nature and are actually useful for defending himself against the neighborhood bullies.
I had a similar wax on wax off experience recently. My schedule has gotten a little jammed, and finding time for yoga class has become a challenge. One day in my living room I just started rattling off different poses. To my surprise, I could freestyle from one pose to another almost as if choreographed. Within a couple of minutes I had hit most of the basic poses (asanas)... almost as if Mr. Miyagi was barking commands at me.
Now I pepper the day with four or five of these micro-sessions. That's probably only about 15 minutes of total time, but I've actually improved versus when I was hitting a daily 60-minute class. Frequency seems to trump volume, at least for yoga. It's interesting... and in a future post I'll explain how I've leveraged this practice to yield an unusual benefit.
Mitochondria (the purple guys in the sketch above) are tiny, little organelles scattered around the cell body. They are the remnants of ancient bacteria. Back in the early days of life formation a bargain was struck between our cells and bacteria. Bacteria would be admitted into the cell body in exchange for performing the vital function of generating energy to power the cell. You can think of mitochondria as the power plants of the cell - ATP production.
Why should you care? Because there is growing consensus that mitochondrial dysfunction is at the heart of chronic disease and aging. Mitochondrial health is a function of quantity (number of mitochondria per cell) and quality (how efficient they are). In the sketch above there are only 3 mitochondria, but cells can grow more.
A recent study, The Pleiotropic Effect of Physical Exercise on Mitochondrial Dynamics in Aging Skeletal Muscle, shows that exercise improves both the quantity AND quality of mitochondria in muscular tissue. Furthermore, the combination of endurance and strength training improves mitochondrial health better than performing only one of those activities.
Here's the take-home message. If you want to stay young, hit the weights... and also hit the cardio. A training regimen that incorporates both will be most effective in maintaining your vitality.
Tony Robbins says we have 4 basic needs, and that all behavior is a result of attempting to fulfill one or more of those needs.
He says meeting just one need is enough to motivate us, but if a behavior fulfills 3 or more needs it will become addictive. So, just for fun, let's take a look at which needs I fulfill in the gym.
All four. Addicted? I guess so. It's interesting, right? Try looking at something you do frequently, and see if you can identify the needs that behavior fulfills.
This has nothing to do with being single. I just like the beat and the way Beyonce is calling to all the ladies out there. It's in a similar vein that I'm writing this post. One of the most unfortunate fitness myths perpetrated on women is that lifting weights will turn them into bulky, musclebound freaks. This simply isn't possible. Women produce one-tenth of the testosterone that men do. Even men can't reach Schwartzeneggerian proportions without chemical assistance (steroids).
Now let's talk about why women should want to train with weights. And I'm not talking about the cute, little pink dumbbells either. I mean weights. "I just want to be toned" is the common battle cry. Here's the thing. Our bodies don't have tone. They have muscle and fat. When we say toned what we really mean is to increase the ratio of muscle to fat. Weight training is the most effective way to build muscle. It's also the most effective way to burn fat because muscle is metabolically active 24/7. More muscle, less fat... greater tone.
The hidden gem that many women find once they engage in weight training is that getting stronger is an empowering experience. It builds confidence that bleeds over into other parts of life.
All the single ladies
Now put your hands up
Oh, oh, oh... Oh, oh, oh