So this is not exactly a post about fitness and nutrition but I went down a rabbit hole this week and this is what has come out of it…
There is a Hindu saying – The world is as we are. The world around us is a reflection of how we think of ourselves and how we behave. Hatred is not borne from a loving heart. I believe that health and self love are intrinsically linked and I can easily see how this can spread to the people around you. Another saying goes – you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. but it is much bigger than that. A study on the extent of social influence on health was published in 2008. The researchers, Kirsten Smith and Nicholas Christakis found that if a friend of yours becomes obese, that you have a 45% chance of becoming obese yourself and if a friend of a friend becomes obese you have a 20% chance of also becoming obese. Even if you don’t know that person! This trend was similar for other health signifiers but the most intriguing part of the study was that it was also true for happiness. If a friend of a friend is happy with their life, you are 6 % more likely to be happy. Take a second think about how many people you have influence on and are influenced by.
I am going to go off track for a bit here but I promise to make some sense of it all by the end. Actually, no promises…
Traditional Chinese medicine links emotions to the health of organs and internal systems. I suppose it is logical that the state of our minds shapes the decisions we make, our behaviors and in turn how healthy we are. But is it possible that their is a more direct link from emotions or mental health and our body’s well being at a cellular level?
In Chinese Medicine sadness or grief is linked to the lungs. Sadness or depression saps the body of energy and weakens the nervous system. Strong lungs are important for immune function, fighting both bacterial and viral infections, water metabolism and skin health. Symptoms of lung deficiency include, shortness of breath, shallow breathing, fatigue, persistent bouts of crying, sweating, allergies, asthma and frequent colds and flu.
But what is the physical link? Chinese medicine has been using the 5 element model for several thousand years, in which emotions correspond to seasons, elements, colors, organs etc.. But our Western scientific paradigm insists on statistical significance within the current research template in order to come to any truths. We also have a hard time wrapping our heads around anything mystical or spiritual. So where is the hard evidence?
In the 1980s Dr. Candace Pert demonstrated that Neuropeptides act as chemical messengers between the immune system and the brain. Neuropeptides are protein-like molecules that neurons use to communicate with each other. Pert dubbed these peptides “molecules of emotion.” While mapping peptide receptors in the brain she noticed clusters of them in the Hippocampus and Amygdala, structures linked to emotion and memory. But beyond this, the peptide network extends throughout the body, into the organs, spinal chord, glands and even muscles. it is still a theoretical leap, but Pert insists that emotions are stored within these locations outside of the brain in the form of peptides and their receptors. It’s a fascinating idea and one that lends itself to the belief that physical manipulations such as chiropractic, osteopathic, massage therapies and even exercise can illicit extreme emotional responses. I have been witness to this in the studio with some of my clients but I resist any assumptions as to what the causal pathway is.
Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that work in the immune system to clear debris or other cells that may be harmful to normal function. They also carry receptors that can accommodate almost every kind of neuropeptide we are aware of. In fact, Pert’s husband, Michael Ruff who is an immunologist theorizes that macrophages may be something like nomadic brain cells allowing for a more direct link from emotion to immune response and vice versa.
More recently the gut – brain connection has garnered more research interest and general acceptance as a causal link to function and dysfunction. Almost all of us have anecdotal evidence of anxiety causing digestive issues. Stress is a major cause of chronic stomach and intestinal health problems and what is stress if not the manifestation of fear, sadness and/or anger.
The microbiome-gut-brain axis is now being understood as a bidirectional line of communication. The theory is that colonies of gut microbiome can instigate pathological change via the immune endocrine and nervous systems.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and extends from the brain stem down to the ends of the intestines. Again, what researchers are seeing here is bidirectional communication – a “neuro-endocrino-immunilogical” pathway that seems to impact gut and intestinal function as well as energy homeostasis. So, while top-down information (external factors like environmental stress) may have impact on your gut health, bottom-up information from the kinds of bacteria in the gut may in turn affect emotion and behavior. The link between gut health and depression is currently being studied extensively.
In the online journal called Deviant Behavior, Gato et.al. review research on the gut-behavior connection and suggest that criminologists may want to study a link between crime and biochemistry. While the mechanism in which this works has yet to be researched, the idea is similar to what current research in other areas is supposing – that environmental stressors, including exposure to violence can have an impact on gut microbiome (and may even be passable through pregnancy and delivery of babies). Can subjection to violence have a lasting impact on our health at a cellular/bacterial level? And can this impact in turn lock us in to create further stressful or even violent acts? I have no idea, but this is where science is headed and it is fascinating stuff.
How strong can the influence be from the gut? Can it actually have serious influence on behavior. Hold on, this is where things get weird…
Have you ever heard of toxoplasmosis? Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that lives in rats (but also humans) and while it carries out most of its life with the rat as its host, it needs to move into a cats body in order to carry out the rest of its life cycle. So what does this parasite do to get there…it controls the rats mind. By reducing the rats fear of cats, and even making it attracted to cat feces. The rat gets a little too courageous for its own good. Rat comes out of hiding – cat eats rat – parasite now lives in the cat. Super cool and terrifying, right?
Now the million dollar question and real life horror movie plot is: can gut bacteria have this kind of control over human behavior? Well first of all…apparently researches have seen risky behavior, specifically daredevil driving increase by 2.5 times in people who carry the same parasite as our poor, possessed rat friends. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any adverse effects for the majority of us who carry it. As of yet, there is no such research on bacteria and human behavior but we do know or believe that it can cause mood disturbances which can then lead to unhealthy behavior so maybe it is exerting some kind of control just perhaps not as specific as the above example.
One study found that supplementing the diet of prisoners with vitamins, minerals and fatty acids led to a decrease in anti-social and violent behavior. I am not sure if the supplements given would have had any impact on gut microbiome but a link from diet and behavior is a start. A number of other factors may have been at play here but it is still pretty interesting.
I can’t help but wonder what happens to people and communities on a larger scale and over a longer period of time when exposed to daily life threatening stress and social exclusion due to sexual identity or racial, religious or ethnic background. Can we have a predisposition to violent behavior based on the microbiome profile we may have inherited from our mothers? What kind of effect does the trauma of our parents have on our future? And are we perpetuating this behavior throughout our communities through our ‘friend of a friend’ social influence studies?
Using fMRI imaging, an international team of psychologists attempted to investigate whether social exclusion rather than religious or political beliefs led to acts of terrorism. Based on a survey screening for susceptibility to terrorist recruitment, the team found a sample group of 38 people. They noticed high activity in an area of the brain associated with “matters too important to be traded.” This area also lit up for those who expressed a willingness to act violently in the name of their cause. The most interesting finding was that when the researchers manipulated the environment so that the participants felt excluded – the willingness to use violence increased, as did the activity in the brain linked with this thinking. By no means did this study come to any concrete evidence but the researchers concluded that social exclusion is an important factor in determining the potential for acts of violence.
Lots of questions and interesting ideas floating around.
A traditional Chinese medicine practitioner may treat Anger, frustration and resentment by improving liver function. Current Western medicine might prescribe sedatives and counselling but maybe eventually we will begin looking at microbiome profiles and be able to match them with a mix of the above approaches for an even more holistic approach.
If “The World Is As We Are“ I would like to believe that if we start with love and inclusion we may give everyone a better chance at living long, healthy lives. If we want to illicit change in our worlds I believe we need to start with ourselves.
If you’re reading this, chances are you are already suffering. Maybe you strained it shoveling snow, or trying to hold your kid as they flip flop through ‘stiff as a board’ and ‘dead weight’ modes. Or maybe you just sneezed and ruined your life. It can happen at any time, and more often than not it turns into something chronic. My best advice for back injuries is – don’t get one!
Easier said than done. The thing is, that particular moment where you got up weird or just reached for something wasn’t actually the trigger. Unless you were in a high impact accident, most back injuries happen over time. Lack of stability, overloading, loading with bad posture or hyper-flexibility can all, slowly lead to wear and tear that at some point gives way at that final “trigger” moment, where you felt sever pain. So yes, prevention is best but often times our only clue that something bad is happening is pain. And if pain has started, then you are most probably already at a point where some damage has been happening for a while. Unless you are very health conscious and have had an awesome training program designed for you by someone who has done a full physical evaluation that focuses on injury prevention…this was bound to happen. Right now your saying “oh great, so I’m fuc*ed!”. Yep. See ya!
Just kidding. Here is my best advice on what to do right now. Get a proper diagnosis – this takes a few steps. A physiotherapist, chiropractor or Osteopath can’t actually diagnose you. They can tell you what the source of pain is. that’s the easy part. But telling you that your pain is located in your sacroiliac joint is not a full diagnoses but is still the first step. A scan, isn’t a full diagnosis either, but it is also necessary. Without getting in their and seeing if you have severe disc compression, disc bulge or vertebrae slippage, or whether you have sacroiliac joint dysfunction or tissue inflammation, you won’t actually know how to approach remedying the pain. Again, identifying the point of pain is not necessarily going to fix the problem in the long term. With a scan, you can then head back to a physio or osteo and try and figure out what the source of the problem actually is. If they are good and take a holistic approach they can then deduce where it might have all started – pronated feet, unstable knees, rotated pelvis, etc..
Okay, so you have a full diagnosis of where the pain is – if there is a structural, or tissue problem and if it is degenerative or not as well as a pretty good idea as to how it all started (often not in the back). What now? Surgery may be your best bet for pain relief but it won’t end there. You’re gonna have some homework. Forever.
Also manual therapists will never heal you. This isn’t my opinion its actually the opinions of both of the osteopaths I go to and I trust with my spine (life). What manual therapy can do is reduce pain and put your body in a place where you can then work on stability, mobility and strengthening so that you can prevent further degradation and pain.
Once this is all figured out, what exercises work best?
It depends on the source of the problem but you will probably need a 2 pronged approach. Exercises that stabilize and/or mobilize the area of pain and then exercises that focus more on fixing the true source of the problem. Unfortunately I can’t give you any magic exercises that will work for your specific lower back issue. But my approach to most injuries is stability first, then mobility.
First things first for stability work. You need to learn how to brace your core. This is paramount for performing exercises properly but also for surviving the day to day movements that may put strain on your back. For a quick breakdown on this go read my article on fixing diastasis recti. There are also 2 exercise examples for beginner stage stability work that are perfect for low back problems.
We use more than a dozen exercises, with various progressions to work on core stability. You want to try and find movements that activate more than one aspect of your core; your transversus abdominus, pelvic floor, major abdominals, low back muscles, priformis and glutes all need to be worked. You also want to do exercises in different positions, not just on the floor. Though there is a natural progression for all of the movements we use at the studio, I am going to jump ahead to 3 slightly more advanced exercises that I like.
In all honesty these 3 exercises all but eliminate my back pain, and when I am consistent with them, they allow me to move and train the way I normally do. Consistency is key. But remember I have spent years building stability beforehand, so these 3 may be too advanced or just may not work the same way for your injury.
– You will need a small resistance band that you can wrap around your legs, just above your knees for all 3 of these exercises. You can order some from amazon here –
1 – Pelvic raise and knee press – Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet hip width apart and heels fairly close to your butt. Draw in your abdomen slightly. Press your pelvis upwards as high as you can squeezing your glutes hard. At your topmost position press your knees out against the resistance band. Bring them back in and then return to starting position. Repeat. Start with 3 sets of 10 reps and work your way up 20 reps. Go to a higher resistance band once this gets easy.
2 – Standing fire hydrant – You can also do this on all fours. But this is an easier progression for when you’ve recently hurt your back.
Stand just beyond arms length of a wall, feet hip width apart. Draw in your abdomen slightly to create a brace that you will maintain for the entire set. Place your hands directly in front of your shoulders on the wall in front of you. You should be leaning forward on a slight angle, keeping your torso and head in line with your legs. Raise one knee off of the floor, bending it at about a 90 degree angle. The raised knee should be slightly ahead of the planted knee. Now bring the raised knee to the side and slightly behind you, pressing against the resistance band. As you do this your foot should, more or less, remain in the same position. It’s just the knee that is going outwards. Repeat 10x before switching sides. 3 sets. Make your way up to 3 sets of 15 before switching to a higher resistance.
3 – Quadruped glute raise – Start by kneeling. Create a strong abdominal brace. You need to maintain this brace for the entire set. Get on all fours, hands directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Keeping a 90 degree angle in your knee, press one foot upwards towards the ceiling, squeezing your glute. You want to try and maintain as stable as possible. This exercise, when done properly is way harder than it looks. You want to perform each repetition without shifting your weight when you lift your knee off the floor. You also want to avoid rotating your hips as you lift. This may limit your range of motion but for the time being that is just fine. Repeat for 10 reps then switch sides. 3 sets. Make your up to 3 sets of 20 then switch to a higher resistance.
Once a moderate amount of stability has been accomplished I like to start working on mobility. Mobility is not the same as flexibility. Stretching or increasing range of motion in the spine and hips is often times our reflex to relieve pain and ‘prevent injury’. But increasing range of motion without increasing control or strength is simply expanding the range of movement in which you can get hurt in. So we put together some movement patterns in which you can run through to gain further control in. As your mobility increases, your control of movement within your current range of motion. You can then extend that range gradually and let your body tell you if it is okay or not.
The patterns we use are too complex to describe in a blog post but you can find some good examples in this video. Start slow and listen to your body. After doing a mobility session take a day or two before doing it again to make sure it did not tweak anything.
As for the corrective exercises pertaining to the true cause of your injury, these will have to come from your osteo, physio or trainer. Every situation is different and it is well worth exploring different avenues to find the right combination. If your therapist or trainer does not do a full physical assessment before prescribing a program, walk away. Do not ask your doctor for exercise ideas, go seek a specialist. It will take a bit of trial and error but the right person will do so in a safe manner.
As a fellow sufferer of low back injury, I wish you the best of luck and can assure you that investing some time and money in getting a full diagnosis and proper individualized program will save you from a lifetime of pain. These injuries don’t go away without work. Sometimes they lay dormant until the next time it gets aggravated and each time it will be worse. So get out there and get your life….back.
Want to come in for an evaluation or sign up for our online training program? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
In my opinion, If you want to grow old but maintain an agile, stable and strong body, youthful skin and a sharp mind; you have to struggle a little bit. or “make an effort.” In a way its about creating stress, but just the right amount.
While we may be able to find happiness in extremes, it is fleeting. Sustainability of love, health, happiness or interest is usually found somewhere in the middle. I think we all know this yet we are attracted to extremes and so this is what is often sold to us. You don’t make money in the middle.
I think it is a mountain of youth rather than a fountain. The fountain idea suggests a passive way in obtaining or retaining our youth – the modern day idea being a pill or super food. The mountain can represent challenge. I think overcoming challenges, no matter how small, give rise to joy, appreciation and development of further motivation to seek out more challenges. The right amount of challenge keeps us engaged, allows us to momentarily forget the unwanted stressors of our days and in the end probably better prepares us for those very stressors that we were trying to escape from.
Finding Balance is an overused catch phrase that I don’t want to use but this is essentially the whole idea. Homeostasis is defined as “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.” I like this phrasing – relatively stable equilibrium. It allows for moments of extremes or at least deviations from the middle. This is where the challenges exist. The occasional intense challenge is also important. Failure and perseverance are integral parts of human achievement and progress, but no one thrives in a state of constant failure.
I am not a fan of the trend towards extreme fitness, nor extreme diets (anything that eliminates foods completely – unless you are allergic to that food).
I just don’t think that overly complex movements, extreme loading, or long periods of high intensity exercise supports longevity. I do think that there is place for all of it in a training program, but I don’t think it should be the focus. All of these elements fit into the Glamour Training idea. Focusing on how you look or what kind of crazy movement you can do for instagram rather than what will keep you feeling young well into your old age will get you hurt. Stress is a killer and constantly loading your body with physical stress as well as psychological stress is probably going to age you. I do think that you need to exercise often. I also think that most of your workouts should be difficult but never to a point where you are compromising form. That said, push yourself and really make an effort to maintain proper posture. All the benefits come in the reps or seconds that your body and mind find challenging. If you always stop when it gets hard, you will never progress.
The same goes for foods. We have begun to try and identify ourselves by how we eat. I think this has happened because the “average person” or average diet is looked at as unhealthy and in order to separate ourselves from the “norm” we have radicalized nutrition. Only raw, only meat, no sugar, no animal products, all fat, etc.. Can we survive this way? Some can. Can we thrive? I would guess that some could, at least temporarily. But to extend life and optimize health throughout your entire life, I believe we need to come back to homeostasis. I am not saying we should eat processed food as a way to find balance but I am saying that longevity is almost never found at the end of a spectrum. So if your nutritionist wants to eliminate all sugars, including fruits so that you can lose weight..this is an unnecessary extreme to try and force metabolic change. When you force something, you tend to break it. If you eat too much processed sugar then that is challenging enough as it is. Lowering that is where you start.
The equation for health and physical fitness is simple and it always has been. Move more, eat whole foods, get quality sleep and reduce unwanted stress. The only thing I would add to increase well being is to seek struggle. Go challenge yourself, be it by getting to the gym, trying a new sport, learning an instrument, or a craft. Joy keeps people young and lasting joy seems to be found more often on the mountain rather than in the fountain. Unless its a chocolate fountain..
You can lose fat and build or maintain muscle at the same time. In fact this is what happens the majority of time with the average person. If you are building muscle, then you are losing fat. The rate may be different and what you are eating will effect this heavily.
If you are already muscular and simply want to define further by reducing the last bit of fat, then this is a slightly more complex version of the same thing. If you are trying to bulk up heavily, than maybe what you eat will focus a bit more on the bulking rather than the trimming part. But you can still do both. You don’t need different phases. Though separating it into phases can simplify things nutritionally for those who are competing. The problem I have with phasing things is that this can mimic a “diet”. If you are eliminating a lot of foods and/or cutting calories significantly and consistently then we may be looking at a hit to your metabolism and hormone balance.
Dieting is NOT going to help you maintain weight. CONSISTENCY with nutrition and exercise is what is going to get you lean or ripped and it is what is going to keep you there.
The following are general rules but the details of a workout and nutritional program depend on the individual. Everyone performs movements differently, digests different foods with ease, finds motivation from different sources, etc..
Forget cardio. I’m sure you have heard this a lot. If you follow my blogs then you’ve been hearing me say it for about a decade now. Use cardio to maintain or improve cardiovascular ability specific to whatever movement you prefer. Other than that…it’s not helping you. In fact its probably hurting your progress.
Resistance training keeps you in a higher metabolic state so that you are doing “work” for longer periods of time. And if you lift with short breaks you will still maintain an aerobic effect which will keep your endurance capacity up.
You don’t have to lift heavy
The majority of studies comparing heavy to light resistance training shows statistically insignificant results favoring the heavy side. Many studies show that high rep/low weight will do just as well as low rep/high weight. There are 2 things that make this less appealing to most. First, it takes longer to do high reps..people want a more efficient program. They also lose focus quickly and we need perfect form for every rep. The other problem is that we tend to want to impress with big plates and heavy dumbbells. But you know whats more impressive? Not injuring yourself. If you think a lifetime of lifting heavy isn’t doing damage to your connective tissue, you are lying to yourself. Lifting lighter still adds stress to the tissues enough for you to build size but it keeps the load low on your joints and tendons. This will allow you to stay strong for longer. Longevity is the goal, folks….sorry sorry getting shredded is the goal…just for longer.
Try 30-50% of your max weight for a movement. Upwards of 20-25 reps. 3 sets.
You can try adding one set where you increase your weight by 10-20%, reducing the reps accordingly. One study showed this to be effective in building mass while maintaining a minimal load for most of the workout.
You can also prolong muscle activation by adding tempo to your lifts. Try a moderately heavy weight but elongate the eccentric phase of the motion. You can even hold the pose for a few seconds before the concentric movement. As long as you can keep perfect form, this is a way to keep the load lighter and maximize results.
A common tempo for a bench press would be 4-1-1-0. This translates as 4 seconds of the lowering phase then a 1 second hold, then 1 second to press the weights up and no rest at the top (0).
DO STABILITY WORK
Your ability to train for long periods of time depends on your foundation. Stability in movement or under load while static is going to be a major factor in your success in consistency. Build a strong foundation and you will find less need for prolonged recovery from physical stress.
EAT WELL AND EAT LOTS
You need lots of protein to repair and build muscle tissue but you also need lots of fats and micronutrients for recovery and to keep your digestive and immune system working properly. Your demanding more of your body when training hard so don’t deny it nutrients thinking it will help you lose fat while you build muscle. Without the proper intake of micronutrients your recovery, focus and performance will all hurt. This may lead to injury which will slow down the whole process way more than the added calories will. More over all calories will increase the training effect, just be smart with what you’e fueling with!
You don’t need to carb load. But if you do, first figure out if your body can handle the sugar spike. You can often find glucose level testing kits at the pharmacy, go grab one and see how your body reacts to a plate of pasta or a couple sandwiches. If your blood glucose and insulin (you can test for this too) spikes and if you feel tired or bloated or low energy afterwards, you are unable to handle carb loading.
If you are training for 2 hours and lifting really heavy while adding a prolonged cardio segment to your routine, than you will definitely need some fuel. But I would suggest changing the routine rather than the over eating. Seems like a waste of time and unnecessary stress on the body. Again, this is for the average person trying to put on muscle, not for a competitive body builder.
Start by adding 250 calories per day. Monitor your progress for 3-4 weeks. If you haven’t gained any muscle then add another 150-250 calories. It may take a bit of time before you see results so don;t rush into a massive increase just to force it. You may end up putting on fat as well.
HARD GAINERS – Train less / eat more – but watch out for the gremlin
If you have a really hard time putting on muscle than you will need to adjust a bit further. 500 extra calories a day may not cut it. But start with that and increase/monitor if need be. I have a tried and true method for both vegans and non vegans. It means counting calories for a couple months but then it becomes second nature.
Train less – eat more. Sounds good, right? It’s not. You need to watch what you eat still. funyuns and pizza pockets might jack up your calorie count but this is going to set you up for low returns in your performance – in the gym and in the sack! Your body is under performing in its capacity to build tissue so lets figure out why. A hormone profile may do you some good. I would test for food allergies and micronutrient level as well. But often times it comes down to you just not eating enough for your metabolic rate.
Even so, get everything working well so that when you do flood the system with high quality foods, it will use them accordingly. Try not to eat 5-6 times a day. Eat 2-3 big meals and don’t snack too heavily. We don’t want to spike your insulin too often. Again, we want consistency. Find something sustainable and healthy, If you get your body used to food intake all day long, your circadian rhythms will follow. You will teach your body to expect and want food all the time. Lets say you go on vacation for 3 weeks. Lets be real, not all of us keep up our training nor our eating habits when we are on the road. But guess who is coming with you on this trip – the gremlin. You fed the gremlin for the last several months..it may have been fruit and nuts or veggies and hummus, but now you’re traveling and the closest food is pizza, croissants or ice cream. Its going to happen…the gremlin is real and it is hungry.
If you become dehydrated, your energy will lag and your performance with your weight training will be hampered. This is going to slow down your progress physically but it will also take a bite out of your mental game. Consistency fuels motivation and so we need as many good days as possible, Hydrating keeps everything running smoothly so that we can surpass any mind games that come up when we are struggling a bit due to external factors such as work stress or every day obstacles.
I talk about this all the time so I won’t go into detail here but Sleep is so important. Your muscles heal when you sleep, your brain heals when you sleep, you work out complex emotional problems when you sleep. Some people say they thrive on little sleep, I don;t buy it, I’d say they thrive until they dive. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are both linked to lack of sleep. We need to rest and recover in order to be healthy for long periods of time. It is really the easiest thing we can do to improve health and fitness. Stress borne adrenaline can keep someone running for a while, until adrenal fatigue sets in and when it does you are in real trouble – this can take a long time to recover from.
So take recovery days from your workouts, practice stress management techniques and get some sleep!
A ten to twenty minute, daily exercise regimen should suffice to augment the natural healing process. If the abdominal separation is the width of 2 fingers or more, this is what I consider level 2 diastasis. While a similar routine may be enough to heal it, I like to put emphasis on changing daily behaviors so as to really avoid putting unwanted stress on the tissues in between training sessions. If you’re going to spend an entire hour of your day jogging and then go eat a cheeseburger and fries…I mean, sure, have at it but the burger and fries basically undid all of your mind numbing, boring work running, and then some. Can you tell I love running?
When you get up from sitting or lying down, or you hunch over, pick something up, lean against a counter or wall; these are all moments of opportunity where you can avoid further damage and actually help heal the separation. Up until now we have relied on reflexive activation of our muscles to get us through our daily activities. This is fine and dandy for most of us but when you suffer from any kind of core weakness, be it diastasis recti or slipped discs, you have to switch over to purposeful activation.
The very first step in our postnatal rehab program is learning how to connect to your deep core muscles, primarily the transversus abdominus (TVA) and the anterior pelvic floor. These are the two main muscles we want to use for your “purposeful activation” or your brace. The other, bigger muscles we can allow to act reflexively once the deeper muscles are properly contracted. Creating a connection to these muscles can be difficult. While we can see and touch our biceps ass we contract them, there is no visual feedback for the deep core muscles. Some of us have a small pocket between the rectus abdominus and obliques where you can feel the TVA. But if this isn’t an option there are a few tricks on learning how to feel it contract. Some of the low impact exercises we use in our conditioning program can be used to make the mind/body connection. The TVA muscle is solely involved in stabilization so taking the body just slightly out of stabilization while concentrating on changes within your core can help give you an idea as to where the muscles is and how it feels when in use. Any exercise that requires the bigger muscles in addition to stabilize or move the torso will override any connection to the deep tissues.
There are also some breathing techniques that can help form a connection. Something simple that often works is this –
Lay down on your back, knees bent and feel flat on the floor. Take a breath and then exhale allowing for all the air to leave your lungs without pushing it out forcefully. Before taking another breath, draw in your belly button towards your spine trying not to press your back into the floor. It helps to put your hands on your abdomen to check that your big muscles in the front are not being activated. When successful, it is your TVA being used to draw inwards. Even though this is pretty simple, it takes a lot of practice to properly activate this muscle when you are not laying down and completely focused on it.
Add a pelvic floor hold to the TVA activation and you have got the brace! I suggest that you activate the pelvic floor before activating the TVA. The transversus abdominus contraction, if significant, can put pressure on the pelvic floor and make it difficult to initiate the hold.
The degree at which you need to activate depends on the movement you are performing.
If you are attempting to sit up out of bed, whether you turn over on to your side first or just sit up straight like a creepy vampire, you need to create your core brace first, and a strong one. I would suggest bracing at 75% of capacity or more.
You really have to brace for any kind of crunching motion. Same goes for any time you bend over to pick something up. If the option is there, try to bend into a deep squat to pick whatever it is up. If pelvic floor weakness is part of the issue for you, then be sure to activate your pelvic floor before squatting.
Try and avoid leaning on counters and walls. Use the moment to activate your brace and practice purposeful posture strengthening. A light brace of the TVA will do.
Sitting on the edge of a chair rather than leaning back is another small change you can make. Sitting on the edge tends to put us in proper posture. It keeps our tailbone from tucking in and rolling our pelvis upwards. In this position we can then lightly activate our brace and keep a neutral spine position.
We use dozens of different exercises, all with several progressions to help heal diastasis recti. Every single one involves some sort of movement. It is so rare that we are completely still during every day life, so the isometric exercises, though helpful for creating connection to muscles, are less functional for our purpose here.
The very first exercise I teach is the knee drop –
Lay down on your back, knees bent and feet flat on floor, hip width apart. Do not use anything to support your head, we want to maintain neutral spine. You can keep your hands next to your hips or you can rest them on your abdomen to try and feel the slight activation that occurs. You can start with pelvic floor activation if this is something you need to work on. Often times it is, so it won’t hurt to start there. Lightly draw in your TVA to about 25% capacity. The movement will be the drop of one knee outwards towards the floor. The movement should be as slow as possible trying to maintain a fluid motion rather than a stop and start like motion. This takes time and practice. Go as low to the floor as possible without changing your foot position. While you are dropping your knee to the floor you want to make sure that there is no compensation for change of stability by movement of your opposite leg or your torso. Keep an eye on your stable leg and if you need to you can place a plate or piece of paper on your abdomen to give you some feedback on whether you are moving. And don’t forget to breathe! The TVA can minimize your ability to take deep breaths and often times my clients go red faced not realizing they are holding their breath.
What we want from this is to preemptively activate your stabilizer so that the motion can be carried out without compensation from any other parts of your body. You may need a reflexive increase of activation to maintain proper form. This is great. We want a bit of both purposeful and reactive contraction.
One repetition should take at least 20 seconds – 10 seconds down and 10 seconds back up. I suggest taking a break between each full rep. The relaxation phase is just as important. While we want to train the muscles to contract on command we don’t want to create a tendency to stay tense all day. So take the time to breathe and relax your muscles. 3-5 reps on each side is a good start for this exercise.
A progression to this would be to strap an ankle weight around your knee to add a bit more resistance. A more advanced version would be to create a much stronger brace and lift the “stable” foot off of the floor before beginning the knee drop. This will require involvement of your bigger muscles and so you will want to make sure you have gone through other exercises to get prepared for this one.
There are youtube videos of people flapping both knees up and down like a drunk butterfly. This does not work. Many of the exercises are slow and involve high concentration. Its boring as all hell but this is what works. remember its just 10-20 minutes per day!
There are many progression of this exercise. It is probably the most important one we use but It is important to go through the stages at the right pace.
The first stage is the heel tap –
Lay on your back, knees bent and feet flat, hands at your side. Create your brace, activating your pelvic floor and TVA. You want to maintain neutral spine, so try not to push your lower back into the floor when you draw in your abdomen. From this position you will raise one foot about 12 inches off the floor, hinging at the hips but not bending your knee. You should have about a 90 degree angle in your knee for the entire movement. When you lift your foot off of the floor, the combination of your brace and any reflexive contraction should be enough to keep the rest of your body completely still. Just like the knee drop exercise, we don’t want any compensation for the instability brought on by taking one of your points of contact off of the floor. This is what enhances the activation of the TVA.
The movement should be fairly slow but not as slow as the knee drop, maybe 2 seconds per repetition. You want to just tap your heel on the floor rather than place your foot down. This keeps the stability work going through the entire set. Start with 8-10 repetitions. When you finish with one leg, take time to relax all of your muscles. Take 3-4 deep breaths allowing for slight expansion of your abdomen. Then reset your brace and move onto the next leg.
A note about breathing
In our prenatal fitness training, and really all of our training other than postpartum, abdominal rehabilitation I encourage all of our clients to use diaphragmatic breathing as a way to enhance oxygen intake and stimulate the vagus nerve in order to bring on a relaxation effect, trigger gut/immune response and create elasticity with the abdominal tissues. BUT, too much of this kind of breath work can stretch the linea alba (tissue that has been thinned out in your abdomen) and slow the pace or even stop recovery. A few deep breaths is fine but prolonged diaphragmatic breathing may not be what you need just yet. Allow for some of the healing to happen first.
The two above exercises are a great start and I usually keep them in the mix for the entire recovery process. As you begin to move on to harder progressions, these exercises can be used as an excellent warm up.
The program must evolve. You want to increase your endurance for the brace and be able to hold it under much more pressure than a simple heel tap or knee drop. You want to do these kinds of exercises while on your knees, on your feet and while in movement. Don’t limit yourself to a program that keeps you on you on the floor.
Building solid stability and then working on elasticity will increase your functional health for the rest of our life. And if you plan on having another child, these exercises may save you from sustaining diastasis recti the second time around.
I have written about this in the past but it still seems to be a topic that so many people are unaware of or not sure about, so it seems fit to have another go at it. First off, diastasis recti is not limited to women who are pregnant or just delivered a baby, men and non pregnant women can suffer from this as well. The information below can be applied to anyone but most people with diastasis recti are new mothers and so this post reads more specifically for them.
After 10 years of experience helping my clients recover from Diastasis recti I can tell you two things for certain. One is that, in almost all cases it is fixable using specific corrective exercises along with changing daily habits. And the other thing is that there is no one-size-fits-all program.
In Part 1 (of 2) I am going to answer a few of the most frequently asked questions I get from my clients. Part 2 will cover some habit changing tips as well as a few progressions of the more universally effective exercises. Read More
If you have become resistant to weight loss, the things you used to do don’t work anymore chances are your metabolism is damaged.
Many of us have gone on diets throughout our lives, losing significant amounts of weight and then gaining it back. Every time this happens, if done quickly and improperly, your metabolism can slow. Studies on some contestants of The Biggest Loser have shown that most of them have gained back a lot of the weight. Sadly, even if they held on to the weight loss, many of these contestants have shown metabolic problems, lowering their daily potential caloric burn to as much as 700/day. At this point, weight loss is next to impossible.
So, what can you do to lose weight and maintain a healthy metabolism?
Get food allergy tests – You could be eating a fantastic diet, nutrient dense and clean food with great ratios of macros. But if something(s) in your meal plan are causing inflammation or destabilizing healthy gut bacteria then you will have a hard time losing weight and/or gaining muscle. The first time I did a 6 month vegan experiment, I responded very poorly to an increased intake of soy and it caused major inflammation and ended with a loss of muscle mass and tendinitis in my forearms. The second year I did it, I cut all Soy and managed to gain 8 lbs of muscle (this is a lot for me, I don’t put on weight very easily. It took over 4000 calories a day with less training than I had done in years) and my tendinitis was under control!
* If any of you are suffering from tendinitis, I highly recommend getting food allergy tests done. 3 other things that might help – cut out coffee and tea, in Eastern medicine, the tendons are directly linked to the liver and if your body is taxed by processing caffeine it may have detrimental effects on your tissues. For the same reason, avoid alcohol. Maintaining hydration will help keep your tendons in good shape so cutting these diuretics will do wonders.A systemic enzyme supplement may help reduce inflammation. I took one for about 6 months and it seemed to help.
Fine tune your systems – Every system in our body needs to be fed in order to run optimally. Vitamins and minerals play a huge role in maintaining your digestive, immune, cardiovascular, lymphatic systems. A blood panel is a great tool to get a glimpse into what you may be deficient in. Of course multiple tests are ideal but one will at least let you know if anything is in serious need of attention. Is getting your micros from food better than supplementation? Absolutely. But is it possible? Depends on how much you eat and how varied your diet is. If you have a hard time getting any one vitamin, do yourself a favor and get a high quality supplement. Look for companies that self regulate so you know you are getting what they say is in the capsule or liquid.
Avoid drastic calorie cuts – While you may want to change your macronutrient ratios, focusing on serious calorie cuts will only increase the damage done. Putting your already stressed and potentially inflamed body in a starvation mode will increase hormonal imbalance and solidify your bodies reflex to hold on to fat stores. You may even need to eat more for the time being. Adding nutrient dense foods to your diet while increasing your exercise can optimize how your body functions and get the ball rolling for weight loss. Remember it should be the long game you are playing. Quick weight loss destroys metabolism.
Improve your sleep – The two most important factors for maintaining a healthy weight are nutrition and sleep. Your circadian rhythms play a direct role in hormone cycles and recovery. Having a stable pattern of high quality sleep will help you put on muscle which will increase your metabolism and improve fat loss. If you don’t sleep your body and brain do not recover from your activities. This will inevitably lead to a build up of tissue damage and allow your stress hormones to run wild –> fat stores.
Increase your protein and fat intake – More Protein and fat while limiting unhealthy carbohydrates will reduce stress on your digestive system. Your sources of protein should be as clean as possible – organic, grass fed or pastured meats, organic yogurt, grass fed whey protein powder, wild caught bottom-feeder sea food, organic beans, lentils, chickpeas etc., are all good examples. Protein first thing in the morning is much better than starting with breads or cereal.
*Not everyone responds to this kind of eating in the same way. Some people, if very active, can keep a decent level of high glycemic carbohydrates in their diet. Not everyone reacts with the same spike of insulin. You can check by testing your blood glucose levels after a meal. You can buy testing kits at almost any pharmacy. But if you tend to crash after a meal with carbs in it then you already know that your body has a hard time handling it.
Choose strength training – Exercise is a key component to fixing your metabolism. Not all forms are equal for this purpose though. Steady state, long distance cardio is going to have to take a back seat for the time being. If you like running or spinning or rowing, don’t worry, you can get back to it eventually and you can even do these exercises for short sprints.The problem is that long distance cardio tends to increase stress hormones in the body, the same ones that your body may already have too much of floating around.
Metabolic rate decreases as we age. One of the factors is a reduced amount of muscle mass. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that intense strength training leading to higher lean muscle mass increased the resting metabolic rate in healthy older men, After a 16 week resistance training program body weight didn’t change but fat percentage dropped while muscle mass increased. No steady state cardiovascular work was used in the program.
Try some breath work – While the above mentioned exercise works the parasympathetic system, we want to balance things out by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation or simple breath work all have amazing benefits in this department.
Slow Diaphragmatic breathing is easy and effective. It stimulates the vagus nerve, which has been shown to connect the digestive/immune system and the brain. Here is a link to a quick explanation from Harvard Health on how to perform this kind of breathing exercise. But I urge you to try something with some movement involved like Tai Chi or Yoga, the benefits will go way beyond what you get from the breath work. Even better, is if you can find a class that takes place outdoors. Research has shown that outdoor activity has a significant positive mental benefits. A 2010 study showed that even 5 minutes of outdoor activity can improve mood and self esteem. Regulating mood as you would guess reduces stress and physical tension. A body and mind at ease will smooth the way for the metabolic benefits from improved nutrition and exercise to lose weight!
Everything is connected. If you want to improve or maintain your metabolism there isn’t one quick fix, its about finding balance. What works for you won’t work for everyone, which is why it’s important to do things like find out if you have allergies, intolerances or deficiencies. If you don’t know what to do for exercise, or how much muscle to put on that makes sense for your body type, find a professional and get a program designed for you!
Your body is constantly feeding you information and one of the best ways to get results from a nutritional and exercise program is to listen.
I have a list of behaviors and sensations that I ask clients to monitor on a daily basis. Small things like if and when you hit a wall in the afternoon, or if you crave certain foods or when you fall asleep can say a lot about what your hormonal balance is like. Read More
I keep saying this during conversations with clients, friends and strangers (pro tip – when you meet people while out for dinner or at a party, don’t tell them you’re a trainer unless you wanna hear their excuses for eating bad food in front of you. Ps – I don’t care, eat drink and be merry!). The conversation starts with how someone is trying to cut something out of their diet or is trying to eat better in general. We talk about what foods you can use to curb cravings or keep hunger at bay. By the end I always end up saying the same thing – food should be boring.
Variety is blessing and a curse. We can use it to maximize our nutrition by adding all sorts of fruits and vegetables for a wider range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. But we can also become a slave to change. If we don’t know how to use herbs and spices and bring new life to old staples, then the healthy meals we eat become dull. This inevitably leads us to using foods that appeal to our tongues more than anything else, like sugar, salt and fats (the deep fried kind). When in doubt, deep fry it! Am I Right? No! That was a trick question!
We have made an art form out of pleasing our taste buds by exploiting our tendency for fatty or sugary foods that long ago would replenish much needed nutrition and energy reserves during times of rarity. It’s an amazing feat really – the highly manipulated use of foods to mesmerize nations into quiet acceptance of illness – mass suicide by muffins, also known as breakfast cake.
It’s not fun to eat the same thing for lunch everyday. Trust me I get it. I love going out to eat, I truly enjoy trying new foods or new combinations and I occasionally indulge in the fatty, sweet and salty goodness that tempts everyone else. But here’s the thing, food isn’t supposed to be fun. Its meant to sustain, nourish and build community. I do think that cooking and eating together is important. Removing this part of the equation will again push us towards fast food. When we don’t know how to cook, when we grow up without the knowledge of what is good for us, or where it comes from then we end up forgoing the whole thing.
The food itself can still taste good. But it shouldn’t have to tantalize our taste buds every gosh darn meal. I truly believe we all need to find a way to live with boring – to live with less. One of the best results from trying intermittent fasting for me was to remember what it was like to be hungry. Truly hungry. I mean, I’ve been hungry here and there but rarely has it been so apparent. I usually get to the point where my body says ‘hey, I think you’re forgetting something” but not the “For the love of god, feed us” point. It puts things into perspective. It awakens this deep genetic imprint, a feeling and reaction that our ancestors lived with on a fairly regular basis. It reminds me of how many people at this very moment don’t have enough food. Those people don’t give a damn about variety, they just want to survive.
I’m not saying that we need to return to this extreme. Don’t starve yourself and don’t limit your diet to bugs and mushrooms (sounds kinda good though). But cycling your meals on a weekly or even monthly basis is a good place to start. This is very effective for weight maintenance. Why? It allows your body to balance. When your nutrition intake is predictable your body can find hormonal balance, your digestive, lymphatic and immune systems work better and cognition and mood stabilizes. Of course, this is only true if you are eating foods that have enough vitamins and minerals and fuel your activity level. But we can figure this out a lot easier if you eat the same things. If you change your meals up all the time then its harder to track where/when your deficiencies are coming from.
If you want to lose weight, eat the same meals every day. Want to bulk up? Same thing. Are you trying to balance your hormones to get pregnant? Same same! Is it boring? Hell yes it is! But I really think it does us all some good to bring it back to boring.
The key to avoid committing crimes in the name of boredom is to cycle your meals. Start with 1 week. Plan out your meals for the entire week. Keep them simple so that your prep and cooking time isn’t insane. For example, I make a bean salad every week. I eat it at lunch and dinner. The size of the portion depends on whether I have something else prepped or not. Sometimes its a side and sometimes its a main. Here is the recipe –
- 1 cucumber
- 2 bell peppers (different colors)
- 2 cans of beans (Kidney and black)
- 1/2 cup of olive slices (black and green)
- 1/2 avocado (I add this after, so I get this amount each serving)
- Small amount of Feta (optional)
- juice of 1/2 lemon
With this super simple meal, I get plenty of protein, fiber, slow carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients and it’s cheap! Yes, if I made a baby with my girlfriend it would probably come out as a bean but I’ve become accustomed to this meal as a major staple of my diet and my digestive system loves this. When I remove it from my diet everything goes wonky.
I usually don’t eat this on the weekends. This seems to be a good cycle for me I get a bit of variety a couple days each week but the rest of the month(s) its the same. I actually look forward to it now! For those of my clients that are trying to lose weight (and we are on a macronutrient counting phase) keeping the same meals on rotation makes this whole process so much easier. We count everything out once and then they just repeat the same portion. If I try and get someone to count macros on a “free diet” it inevitably fails. Without mild OCD, almost no one can keep up this attention to detail for several weeks or months.
So, Is this sustainable? We have been reprogrammed to expect change and eat according to taste. I think it is if you don’t take it to an extreme. If you can cycle your foods 80% of the time and then allow for days or weeks where you focus on variety then you will be doing well. Once you’ve figured out your meals and taken into consideration adequate levels of macro and micronutrients you can rest easy knowing everything is accounted for and all you need to do is eat and move on. The time spent searching for a recipe is no longer an issue, you won’t be as tempted to fill your meals with easy carbs and before you know it your weight will begin to shift. As always though, if you have intense fitness goals, then you may need to be more consistent than 80%. If you don’t know how to manage your nutrients, hire someone to set out a plan for you.
Before you begin, find about 10 recipes that you really like. Try them out, experiment with spices and cooking methods to see what you enjoy the most but remember, keep it simple. Scrambled eggs are an easy breakfast. You can add vegetables and spices such as turmeric to keep things interesting. Try adding some heat! Spicy dishes release endorphins. If you find the right amount this may make a boring baked chicken into something you look forward to!
Example week for a moderately active client of mine. Portions will change for each oerson so I have not included measured amounts here.
- Breakfast – 1 piece of Kamut toast with avocado & 3 scrambled eggs 1 serving of fruit (alternating the type of fruit daily) – for slight changes of flavor they alternate between adding chili powder, turmeric, or just salt and pepper to the eggs. The kinds of veggies they add to their scrambled eggs depend on whats in their fridge but the base meal stays the same.
- Lunch – Cucumber, mushroom and tomato salad with spinach, kale, flax seeds, feta and entire can of tuna. Big portion. On training days, they add avocado and a turkey burger they prepared earlier in the week (no bun)
- Grass fed beef tacos and baked vegetables – 1 on a wheat tortilla and 1-2 others on a lettuce shell with hot sauce and a light sprinkle of yeast to give it a cheesy flavor. We alternate this with a black bean “sloppy joe” mix for weeks where they want to eat a more vegan diet.
- Snacks – nuts – change the type of nut regularly. Veggies and humus, fruit
1 day per week is a variety day – Anything goes as long as they stick to the same portions of macronutrients and include lots of vegetables. We switch up the meal plan every 2 weeks as that seems to be this clients’ particular threshold of food boredom.
Trust me, if you want results you need consistency and the easiest way to remain consistent is by keeping it simple and dropping your need for variety. Sometimes boring is best!