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Breathing: The Foundation Of Movement And Proper Technique

For some people the detail and minutiae of lifting technique is very appealing, and they may find themselves driven to make every rep the ‘perfect rep.’ For most it is something to generally shoot for but it seems like a mere distraction on the way to finishing a set or reaching a new max weight. As a trainer and a rehabilitative specialist I definitely count myself in the second category; why do something if you’re going to do it wrong? And the issue goes deeper than whether or not you’re targeting the right muscles (though this is a big deal). Our goal is to give us function and improved performance, and I certainly expect that my clients want this ability to translate into being able to have better movement and performance in real life applications, not just to hit a max lift once in a gym setting to the detriment of their body.

As is quite common these days, let’s fall back for a moment on a race car metaphor. If everything was on the line for one last career race, a drag race let’s say, I’m sure many people would be perfectly fine burning through their engine, their breaks, and every last bit of the car to get to the finish line as fast as possible. All we want is the single best performance in one instance, and nothing else matters. But what about a different kind of race, a Formula 1 for example, where it is certainly not the last race of your career. To insure the best performance in that race you will want to hit every turn perfectly to get the maximum speed in the corner without crashing, you’ll want your pit crew to be as fast as possible while keeping your car in good condition and the engine will be tuned more carefully than the space shuttle. The results of this care and attention? A faster time and a car that doesn’t fall apart during the race, making it so you either don’t finish or you certainly don’t do more races without being completely rebuilt.

So the analogy should be fairly obvious. When lifts are done without technique it wears on the body, especially in the joints. The heavier the weight and more intense the movement or exercise, the greater impact it has. Everyone in the industry has seen extreme competitions go incredibly wrong as a muscle, tendon, or ligament tears under the strain of a lift, most often so during bad compromised form. This never applies so specifically to my clients but what if you’re working out at good intensity, as we often do, with just sub-par technique? It may not lead to an engine meltdown…but it’s like running that race car without changing the oil. It will wear things down, and in life outside of metaphors, we’re never on our last career race; there’s no such thing.

I think you get the picture pretty well. It burns down to better technique keeps you from injuries where too much pressure is put on a mechanically compromised structure, and better technique minimizes the wear and tear from the activity. I’ve no interest in giving people strength, speed and endurance if it’s something that can’t last in the long run. Technique for lifting as well as technique for how to move in daily life is something that we have lost in our day to day culture and it is so important. Simply learning how to stand and sit from a chair, let alone the ground, is becoming more of a ‘lost language’ each year.

Time to get to the real point I want to make today, however (Obviously I couldn’t just come out and say it, this is me after all!). The particular movements, their order, and the posture during a lift or functional movement is a large part of technique but breathing is the lynch pin of the entire foundation of stability. Before we make any movement, even as simple as reaching for a glass of water, muscles other than the ones that will move us prepare to stabilize the joint and other parts of the body to keep joints and organs in place. When it comes to more substantial movements like running, jumping, or lifting something heavy, the sequence of muscles that allow us to breathe and stabilize our core are the most vital. This is because while most of the force we generate to move through and manipulate the world is generated in the limbs hips and shoulders but all this force has to transfer through the torso, and thereby the ‘core.’ The core musculature is what keeps us upright, lets us transfer this force functionally through our legs to arms (or the other way around) and out into the world, while also keeping our organs and spine protected.

So, seriously, what am I getting at with all this? All of the ‘back story’ is about how and why this is all important, but I’m getting to the ‘good stuff,’ I promise. We have several main abdominal muscles, most of which people are familiar with. The rectus abdominus is the ‘6 pack’ muscle, and the internal and external oblique’s are the abdominal muscles on the side of our abdomen. The lesser known muscle that is responsible for so much of our stability (especially for our organs) is the transversus abdominus (TVA), which wraps around our entire torso from belly button to spine and acts like a weight belt or corset. When we need to brace and keep our organs in, it contracts and goes rigid, keeping any force going through our torso from pushing organs out. When our interabdominal pressure increases (as in when there’s more pressure in and around or organs because we’re lifting something heavy) the TVA is what keeps our organs safe and prevents hernias. If you get a hernia, the chances are your TVA wasn’t working when it needed to be to prevent that organ attempting to escape. This doesn’t mean the TVA is weak, or even that it doesn’t work (which it usually doesn’t), but that it’s not working when it needs to be.

The TVA and core

So why does this happen? Let’s add a smidge more anatomy to the picture for our explanation. The TVA and these other abdominal muscles stabilize the core and help forces transfer through, basically increasing abdominal pressure when they contract, but also containing it. When we breathe in (activating the diaphragm) these abdominal muscles relax to create room for the expanding lungs, so they become softer and don’t perform their intended role at the same time to the degree that it’s needed. The pelvic floor also relaxes, which is a set of muscles at the very bottom of the torso around the genitals that essentially holds everything in from the bottom (If you get ‘leaking,’ especially from mild activity like jumping or laughing, your pelvic floor probably doesn’t work. If you’re severely constipated, it may be over active). So in effect our core turns off to a significant degree when we breathe in. Does that sound like a good time to lift something heavy or be in a compromised state? Certainly not; it’s an easy way to get injured, let alone trying to get performance out of a soft unstable torso instead of one that can transfer force.

The solution is simple timing and patterning. When we apply force (contract or actually go to move with power in a situation like a heavy lift [deadlift!]) breathing in is a horrible idea for the reasons we’ve just detailed. Instead we should breathe in when we are relaxing and setting a weight down, and during the contraction we should breathe out. Not only does breathing out not turn off the abdominal muscles, but actually turns them on (specifically the TVA) to increase pressure and help push our breath out, especially when it is a strong forceful exhalation. This simple breath out and lift, breath in and set the weight down, creates a far more stable movement that is not nearly as likely to lead to injury. You can see many athletes in the gym going for very heavy weights and aside from the common sight of already questionable technique, you often see the breath being held (along with other postural ‘cheating’ compensations like jaw clenching) which creates pressure in the abdomen but doesn’t contain it in a way that can transfer force safely!

diaphragm

The breathing is the foundation for so much of our movement in that our brain will adapt our movements after what our breathing does and then incorporate movement around it. If you spend thousands of reps holding your breath or breathing in during the concentric load bearing portion, your body will start thinking that it should be using the diaphragm to stabilize (which it does poorly compared to the TVA!). These get burrowed into our movement patterns in no small part because we’re already breathing 20-25,000 times a day so it becomes deeply ingrained very quickly once it takes hold. This means every time you have to stabilize outside of the gym through the torso, your body will also try to use this faulty pattern, so it will infect all of your movements creating a core that may be muscularly strong but can’t actually do anything for you! All the weight and force transfer will go through your low back muscles, spine and your organs, and this is the biggest cause of hernias and one of the biggest reasons for back pain. Spare your back and organs and let your core do its job.

And lastly: don’t hold your breath! Not breathing in is not enough, focus on breathing out during the toughest efforts of your lifts and functional movements, both in the gym, on the field, and in daily living and you will be rewarded with better actual performance (higher numbers on the wrack), fewer injuries, and a lot less pain (ever get back pain during/after heavy lifts?). Don’t just work hard, work smart!

What Causes Diabetes Anyway?

What is the actual cause of type two diabetes?

Most of you (diabetics especially) will be familiar with insulin. It is the hormone that transports blood sugar (glucose) and some other nutrients through the blood vessels and into cells; you can think of it as a delivery truck that is taking cargo (the sugar or nutrients) into factories (your cells). The problem arises when there is a considerable to severe imbalance between how much insulin+glucose is supplied and available, compared to how much your cells (those little factories) actually need. Cells can’t store more sugar on hand than they are going to use in the near future, otherwise the sugar crystallizes just like honey left in a jar for a long time, which locks up the cell like glue. So if too much insulin/sugar is present the cells will start lowering how much is allowed in, and over time it will barely let any in at all, even when it needs it because it has become severely ‘insulin resistant.’ The cells can no longer get energy and blood sugar starts piling up in the circulatory system. Since a constant over-abundance of glucose in the blood has tissue damaging toxic effects, as a safety mechanism it is stored as fat; and the whole imbalance leads to a wide range of cascading problems, including diabetes and obesity!



So diabetes in it’s actual mechanisms is caused by the hormone imbalance caused by having more insulin than is needed, and usually in great amounts. Our goal to reverse this imbalance, and through that we reverse the disease as well, by decreasing glucose supply which lowers the need for a cell to maintain insulin resistance, while simultaneously increasing the need for insulin which directly lowers insulin resistance from within the cells and takes up more free floating blood sugar. We accomplish this through better nutrition with improved food quality, type and timing, and through weight training which grows muscles and forces them to need and take up more insulin (Cardio is not nearly as effective at this, but is an important element of overall health). In the end we look to create the opposite pattern as described in the picture above, and when we fix the imbalance, diabetes type two is on it’s way to being functionally gone. Some type two diabetics after may have some degree of a decrease in pancreatic function (the organ that creates insulin, among other hormones) that develops, but this combined lifestyle approach offers the best chances and progress in insulin regulation and the defeat of diabetes.

To Juice…Or Not To Juice


Juice has long held a special place in pop nutrition and pop health as a holy grail of vitality. In a certain sense, this is true, being rich in some vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients. However, it’s not this simple by any measure and as the oft quoted phrase goes, it can easily be “too much of a good thing,” if what you’re drinking is really a good thing at all. At the worst, commercially made juices are mostly water and heaps of sugar, with a scarce amount of fruit juice (if any) and a smattering of artificially created vitamins and minerals that our body doesn’t absorb well, that may even cost us more vitamins and minerals to digest that we absorb, on top of artificial chemicals of all kinds (preservatives, color packets [which aren't generally listed on the ingredients] food coloring, etc.). Most of the time, these juices are even made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which despite the ridiculous ad campaign by the corn industry that without actually directly claiming anything, try to suggest that HFCS is the same as table sugar, and that our body doesn’t know the difference. To those that have any nutrition background with biochemistry knowledge…this is ludicrously and laughably insulting. On top of it’s use as a health product, we overload our children with juice boxes and 5% fruit juice in general, which just kills me to see.



For more information on how fructose specifically affects us differently than glucose, sucrose, or other sugars, and how it’s really a toxin…take a look Here. I have covered at length elsewhere how refined carbohydrates, especially sugar, are among the biggest scourges to our health, and this is one of the biggest problems with juice. Fructose is essentially a toxin to our body, requiring our liver to digest it (our main detoxing organ) and the very epitome of a ‘hollow calorie.’ In nature this isn’t a serious problem because sugar always comes with what is essentially its antidote: fiber, and we didn’t have constant heaping amounts of it in ancestral times, just a sizable amount during seasonal periods of availability. In juice, whether it’s homemade or from the store, fiber has been almost entirely removed unless you used a high grade blender and didn’t remove the skins. I won’t go into the topic of fiber here beyond to say that fiber is immensely important, and is crucial when eating such foods as those that are heavily saturated in fructose. Our diets are already terribly low in fiber as almost all of our modern carb sources are heavily refined (their fiber removed). We spent hundreds of thousands of years only getting fructose from fruit and vegetable sources that were encased in fiber.

Aside from the fiber, as I said at the beginning, most of the nutrients in fruits and veg are in the skin and pulp. When juiced, almost all of this is removed, and with it most of the nutrients. I will not deny there are some in the juice, but the majority are now gone and must be artificially added via elemental sources which are not derived naturally. These ‘fake’ vitamins and minerals are not the ones your body has evolved to digest, and so the body has a lot of problems ‘recognizing’ them and taking them up for use; they have low ‘bio-availability.’ The real problem with this comes from the fact that to absorb minerals, a large amount of minerals are used in our intestines to digest and absorb our food. If our food is without more vitamins and minerals than we use to digest our food, we become nutrient deficient over time (think of it as constantly investing in a stock that only goes down in value). Again we can easily see how juice can be ‘hollow calories,’ quite similar to soda in most respects (and almost identical if it is low in actual fruit juice, and uses HFCS).

Another nail in the coffin is the common practice of using preservatives and other strong chemicals in commercial juices as mentioned above. Some are known carcinogens, some are endocrine disruptors or hormone mimickers (as too are the plastic containers they come in as well, quite commonly) which wreaks havoc on our metabolism, mood, energy levels, reproductive function, and really pretty much every aspect of our health. Regardless of their specific effects, the chemicals present can be considerably dangerous. So too can the chemicals in the commercial fruit fertilizer, the pesticides used, the irradiation process on most fruit that kills many of the nutrients before even being juiced, and so on and so forth. Local organic non-GMO or home grown with organic non-GMO seeds and methods gives you a better chance, but still doesn’t alleviate many of the problems we have here, mostly just those concerning chemicals.

So is juice a total write-off? While I certainly haven’t covered all of the reasons to not drink juice, I’m not going to tell anyone to go completely cold turkey. At least…not for homemade or other quality organic non-GMO juice. I personally go for Good Belly juice, an ounce in the morning and again in the evening with a pro-biotic. This juice is an organic super-food and pro-biotic packed blend, and I suggest you find a similar juice to enjoy when you fancy, or make your own in a high speed blender that includes the liquefied skin and pulp, but try to keep it to a small glass a day of good quality juice regardless of its source (Never anything less than 100% fruit/veg!) and taken with a decent fiber source (as in not in-between or before meals, have it with food) and also preferably only in a diet that has done well to avoid other simple carbohydrates in any abundance (don’t have a diet high in sugar and then just pile on more with your juice, no matter how nutrient filled!). In this way juice can be something to be enjoyed, just as any other treat, but it has to be seen with the knowledge that it isn’t a magic shot of health without any qualifiers. All things in nutrition in balance, juice certainly not being an exception.

What is BMI?

Over the last decade, the term BMI has been tossed around a lot, but I feel it is very important to know what BMI is and what BMI is not. It stands for Body Mass Index, which is one way researchers have used to measure body composition, that is to know the approximate lean body mass (Muscles, bones, organs, etc.) compared to the non-lean mass (adipose tissue). They calculate this by taking your height and weight and putting it through a formula, and this gives us a number that is the BMI. A number under 18.5 is underweight, 18.5 to 24.9 is normal, 25-29.9 is underweight, and anything over 30 is obese. This is nice and simple, but it also is a gross over simplification that leads to very rough data, which for the individual is not useful.

A BMI calculation does not look at what your weight is actually composed of, it only compares it to what an average person’s height and weight should be. If you have a very large frame, so larger bones and organs, compared to most people your height, BMI rankings will probably show you overweight or even obese, even though the extra weight may not be coming from fat stores. If you are a well muscled athlete, this extra muscle is just extra weight as far as the BMI formula is concerned, and you will be marked as obese! While it is certainly a far end of the spectrum, if you look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is absolutely nothing but muscle, the BMI says he is obese!

So why is it that researchers use this obviously inaccurate formula? Well the thing is that for most people in any given population it is set up for, it will be correct for the population, even if it is not accurate for the individual. The BMI was designed to be used by epidemiologists, who are researchers who study entire populations for the purposes of health so that they can see how certain elements that affect health are interacting with a population, so that they can advise policy makers and the health industry on certain related elements of health. If a population’s BMI goes up or down, it is likely indicative of gain or loss in fatty weight.

So what I’m trying to get at, is that if you calculate your BMI, and it says you are obese, you might be, but you also might have a big frame or have lots of muscle. You will most likely know which you are, obese or muscular, but obviously if you both have lots of muscle but are also overweight, the BMI number will not help tell you how overweight you are. It is simply not a precise tool. It is good for tracking populations, but is essentially useless for use with an individual. What is better, is to use any one of the three (or all) of the methods we use during assessments: circumference, caliper, or bio-impedence measurements that will much more accurately tell us your lean and non-lean mass. These look at actual measurements in adipose tissue compared to your weight to let us know your real measurements.

The BMI is useless for any practical application for an individual, and remains in service of of health scientists and the misuse of insurance companies.

Why “The Fat Burning Zone” Is Wrong

At some point I am certain most of you have used a modern piece of cardio training equipment, and doubtlessly somewhere on it could be found a sticker that showed the ‘fat burning zone,’ or at least something similar. This is a heart rate range where cardio equipment sales persons and marketing staff has stated that your body burns off the highest percentage of fat out of the calories it uses. This gets people to exercise at a certain moderate intensity range, which certainly hosts many cardiorespiratory and metabolic potential benefits, but the entire premise of it is a lie, or at best it is wrong, and can lead people away from methods that will truly achieve the particular goals they are going after.

So first of all let’s approach the mathematical side of it. If we accept the numbers these machines tend to give, then yes fat is burned at a higher percentage in the ranges they give than sugars. However…that does not mean you would burn more fat or quicker than say, at a higher intensity range that uses a lower percentage of fat. If you burn (for arbitrary example) 50% fat at intensity level A, but burn say, 200 calories an hour, you burn 100 calories of fat in an hour. If say (again for arbitrary example, these have no tethering to real biology) you exercise at higher intensity (intensity level B), you may only burn 25% fat, but you may burn 800 calories an hour! This means you’ve burned twice as many calories of fat at this higher intensity level in the same amount of time, even at a lower percentage of fat burned. So again, these numerical examples are fictional, however the relationships depicted are completely real. If you exercise at a higher intensity level you will burn more fat quicker, even were we to concede that you burned a higher overall percentage of fat at a lower intensity.

However, I do not concede such a point! Let’s take a step into a simple lesson in how your body uses energy, especially in exercise. The average adult body holds around one hundred grams of sugar when the ‘tanks are full,’ for example shortly after eating and replenishing stores of sugar. This is only about 400 calories of energy, so about 15-20% of our daily caloric needs with no exercise. At the same time we may have tens of thousands of calories of fat stored, depending on our body’s composition. Because our species spent around two million years trying to survive on a daily basis, with frequent bouts of fasting, or even starvation, our bodies have learned to hold hard onto this fat. That means that even though we have this MASSIVE abundance of calories available from fat, even in a very athletic body, we use our sugars first.

Our body gets energy from four basic pathways, three that use carbohydrates (sugar), and one that uses fat. Some of these can use protein, but that isn’t a normal significant part of energy supply (protein mostly being used for construction in our cells) so we’ll ignore that for this discussion. The first two of the sugar pathways are very quick, but inefficient and don’t last long. The last sugar source and the fat energy pathway are considerably slow but very efficient. On a constant basis our body needs energy for running our organs, pumping blood, breathing, and so on, and all four of these energy pathways are used, but to varying degrees. As I said before, our body wants to use sugar first before it dips into its valuable fat stores, which is our insurance policy against a famine and potential death from starvation. This means that when we have eaten recently (in the last few hours), we get most of our energy from the slowest but most efficient sugar system, with lesser use of the other three. When we get up in the morning or haven’t eaten for long stretches of the day, our body is mostly using the energy pathway that uses fats.

When we exercise at any given intensity, the same process happens. Our body wants to go through its sugar first and only uses fat as a last resort. This is actually why endurance athletes go through what’s called a ‘second wind’ during longer bouts of exercise, because they have gone through their sugar stores and the body has to start primarily using fat for energy, and because this cuts into important survival energy reserves, the body sends unpleasant signals to the mind trying to get it to stop, something like biological/mental ‘demons,’ as it has been called before. You generally feel overly exhausted, sometimes even sick to a degree, but as your body realizes that you aren’t going to stop, it finds its ‘stride’ and breaks more fully into using fat for energy.

So from this alone, we can see that the premise of the fat burning zone is complete rubbish. Your body always uses a degree of fat at any given time, but unless it has to it will not burn any substantial amount of fat unless it has to. The notion of calories in exercise is not completely useless, however. When you start exercising, the different energy pathways will start churning to create energy (basically they are all processes used to create or recreate a chemical called ‘ATP’ [adenosine tri-phosphate for those geekily curious]), with each of the four pathways working at different speeds as mentioned before. They are different speeds because they basically have different numbers of reactions that they have to do to give you energy, with the fastest process only really having one reaction, so it is extremely quick! However under any real exercise it gives it’s ‘all’ in just a few seconds, and then the next system takes over as the biggest supplier of energy for up to about one to two minutes before it can’t supply energy fast enough either. So basically the more intense the exercise, the higher ‘energy demand’ there is and while your body will burn energy using its fastest system first to make sure any activity you are trying to do it can give you as much energy you are asking for for as long as possible, especially if you need it quickly and possibly for a while because you are being chased by a bear! Eventually, however, the energy demand simply can’t be met fast enough if you are exercising intensely (regardless of whether it’s running from a bear or sprinting to a goal line) and your performance will go down until you rest some to replenish these different pathways ability to supply energy.

So to bring it more ‘basic’ once more, the higher intensity exercises, if carried on longer than the body would like will force more fat being burned because to supply the energy demand of the body it has to run all your energy systems at full speed, including the fat pathway. As you run out of sugar stores (which happens pretty quick at high intensities) then your body has absolutely no choice but to either stop working (which it may try to convince you to do!) or it has to start getting most (or nearly all after a while) from burning fat. The more intense and longer you exercise for the higher percentage of fat you will burn, and the more fat you will burn. I think the notion of “the fat burning zone” has been thoroughly torched through this discussion.

A few final notes, though. You can definitely burn more actual fat during exercise by exercising longer and harder, but the largest portion of fat is still usually burned while you are sleeping, during that many hour stretch when your body has run out of sugar and has to burn fat. Your body also is very active when it sleeps, believe it or not, rebuilding cells, building more muscle tissue if you have been exercising enough in a way that stimulates muscle growth, it is cleaning out your systems, and restocking it’s stores of chemicals. The fat you burn during exercise is still important, though the more and better quality exercise you do while you’re awake increases the amount of fat your body will burn while you are asleep on a permanent basis as long as you keep it up. Also I want to note, not eating enough calories each day, going long stretches without eating without professional guidance, or not eating before/after exercise in a proper fashion will all kill your metabolism and stop any fat loss you were hoping to cause! The true cause of fat loss is building a healthy functioning metabolism through being active, exercising, keeping each one of your muscles from getting too ‘dusty’ from misuse! Lower intensity cardio has its uses for heart and body health, don’t think I’m knocking it, just know that it is not the fat killing tool that it has been claimed to be for so many years.

That being said, use this knowledge as motivation and justification to exercise harder and for longer, always working smarter towards a healthier you!
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