The beginning of every year is always a good time for reflection and assessment. It’s a time to take stock of how things went in the prior year and look ahead to the goals of the next. As far as the fitness scene is concerned, the past few years have been really exciting. In 2007, CrossFit came on strong and has now grown to the point where there are thousands of gyms across the world and the annual CrossFit Games are broadcast on ESPN. In terms of functional, full body fitness programs to rise in popularity, CrossFit does not stand alone. In the past 5 years, we’ve seen P90x, TRX Suspension Training, Insanity, kettlebell training, bootcamps, boxing classes, and countless other group based fitness programs explode in popularity in the US. There is an obvious shift happening in the past decade. Folks are leaving behind machine based isolation exercise in favor of total body circuit training. There are some very clear reasons why:
- Better Fat Loss and Muscle Building Potential – Full body, high intensity interval training with weights and bodyweight is more effective for fat loss than isolation work and steady state cardio. While some might throw studies at me to debate this, it’s a fact that I’ve seen in the real world. Interval training with weights and bodyweight is also muscle building and muscle sparing unlike repetitve, steady state cardio which is incredibly catabolic. What’s the point of losing 10 pounds of fat if you lose 15 pounds of muscle at the same time?
- It’s More Fun – I have yet to meet an average gym goer who enjoys machine training and trudging along on the elliptical or treadmill. While bodybuilders might like that type of training because it’s an important part of their sport, the average person would rather watch paint dry. Full body circuits provide a much more interesting stimulus and let you take an engaged role in the workout. If a workout includes a TV and a People magazine, let’s face it, you’re really enjoying the work you’re putting in.
- More Motivating – One of the big keys to circuits in a group format is the ability to push you outside your comfort zone. Getting locked into a comfortable routine is not going to get you anywhere and you’ll start to get bored anyway. We all have that intrinsic motivation to succeed in front of others and group classes tap into that perfectly.
This shift to full body group training is powerful and is completely re-shaping the way we get fit. I’ve already seen CrossFit alone attract a huge crowd of folks that would otherwise be splitting most of their time between their couch and their desk, living a very sedentary lifestyle. The enjoyment, motivation, and results you can get from this type of training is sustainable for a lifetime and can even bring you into new social circles you might never have discovered. It’s a brave new world out there in the fitness scene and now is the time to jump in…
With one caveat.
We Need to Learn How to Move Correctly
With high intensity, total body training comes much more responsibility for yourself. The power of circuit training to get you fit is only matched by it’s power to break down your body over time. While all of these programs (CrossFit included) are not lacking in intensity and effectiveness, the biggest problem with them is that they do not focus on moving correctly. I’ll lay off CrossFit a little in this regard since they do a much better job of trying to educate on proper movement patterns than the other training methods. However, best intentions tend to go out the window when you’re redlining on a workout like Fran (kipping pullups and thrusters) and trying to go faster than the person next to you.
The main focus of all of these programs is how much work you can do. Pullups, pushups, squats, presses, lunges, etc. All of it represents mechanical work. And Tony Horton wants you to do more and more every week in P90X to show that you’ve made progress. Pullups are a staple of P90X, CrossFit, and many others. If done correctly, the simple pullup is one of the best tools available to build a fit body. The problem is that we have very simple standards. Chin over the bar and you have yourself a pullup. But in the context of moving correctly biomechanically, the simple ability to get your chin over the bar is almost irrelevant. With a strong enough kip, I’ve seen people get their chin over the bar during a pullup who are moving WAY WORSE than other folks who aren’t even close to a pullup. If you’re craning your neck, protracting your shoulder blades, flexing your upper spine, reinforcing pec/anterior delt tightness, beating down your inner elbow, and have no control over shoulder torque throughout the movement, is it really that great that you can do a pullup? No. And if doing one pullup like that is bad, what type of shape do you think you’ll be in after doing thousands over a three month period? Sure, you may be leaner and a little stronger in certain muscles, but you’ll be incredibly unbalanced and a few pullups away from a torn labrum or worse.
And it’s not limited to just the pullup. Simple pushups, squats, lunges, rows, and ab work can make imbalances even worse if done incorrectly. They can also put a beating on soft tissue like cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. These imbalances arise for a number of reasons and continue to support the billion dollar industry of chiropractory, massage therapy, and physical therapy.
Why We Get Imbalances
One of the reasons I’ve taken such a keen interest in muscle imbalance is because I’ve been fighting it myself ever since getting into the functional, group training scene back in 2007. At first, ignorance was bliss and I charged all out into full body circuits without trying to do any corrective exercise on myself. I’d been through rehab for surgeries before, but as most of us know who’ve done that, once you feel you’re recovered is when you throw out the rehab work for good. After a while, I got some good advice from some very smart people and started trying to take care of my imbalances. Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see how I got off track.
- I’ve spent most of my life as an overhead athlete. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been throwing a baseball, shooting a basketball, playing tennis, swimming, and playing golf. Add in some rec volleyball and that is a recipe for pretty banged up, unbalanced shoulders over the course of my life. I have protracted scaps, wicked internal rotation that has not been helped by years of bench pressing, and poor range of shoulder rotation and extension. Eric Cressey makes a living by ensuring elite baseball pitchers remain in perfect shoulder health.
- I’m tall. This isn’t an excuse for being average at lifting. There are a lot of tall, fit dudes who can squat 400, deadlift 500, and press 200. But when you add in the imbalances above to longer levers, the little things get exacerbated. Sitting on planes, in cars, and ducking and leaning encourage a forward neck position, a rounded upper back, and the dreaded forward shoulder syndrome.
- I sit at a desk. This adds even more to the conditions above. Forward, hunched over, craned neck, overextended lower back, inactive glutes, and a host of other problems. Check out this video from Charlie Weingroff on the Janda Upper and Lower Cross Syndromes if you have any of these issues (which you probably do if you’ve ever had back, shoulder, or neck pain)
- Three knee surgeries, low back issues, and shoulder tweaks. After two ACL surgeries, a menicus, a cracked patella, rotator cuff injuries, and disc issues in the low back, I still have residual orthopedic issues that linger.
It’s taken me a CSCS certification, a few years, and ton of research on anatomy and kinesiology to understand my problems (and I’m only part of the way there. You can NEVER stop learning more). What you need to realize is that full body circuit training will expose all of these movement problems and imbalances. You cannot just turn someone loose on a random assortment of exercises and expect them to move correctly.
The Body Will Make Sacrifices to Get You Where You Want to Go
The body is highly adaptable. Its main goal is to keep you alive. And if you convince the body badly enough that you want to get over a pullup bar or not get pinned by a 400 pound squat, your body will find a way. Even if that means putting body structures into the most jacked up positions imaginable. I can do 15 terrible strict pullups in a row. We’re talking craned neck, forward scaps, internally rotated shoulder, overarched lumbar. I can do 3 in a row correctly. What does that tell you about how my body has adapted to moving the wrong way? If I only train them correctly from now on, I might be able to do 30 at some point (and some cooler shit like an L pullup, bar muscle up, and back lever). Training them incorrectly? I might get 20 in a row and a few shoulder surgeries to go with it.
This is why our simplistic movement standards are not good enough. Just because you can squat below parallel, get your chin over a pullup bar, or touch your chest to the ground on a pushups does NOT mean you’re moving correctly. Even if you’re getting a passing grade on those artificial standards, your body might pay the price down the line. And if you have any type of higher performance goals, you can forget it if you’re moving poorly.
People Without Fewer Imbalances Are Fitter, Better Athletes
Some folks come from backgrounds that set them up with very well balanced bodies. It can be a combination of body type, activity level, and the way they learned how to move, but you know it when you see it. You can spring them loose on anything in CrossFit and it’s a lot of fun to watch. They learn very quickly. Remember this regardless of whether they are jacked, fat, tall, thin, short or whatever…they ALL have great shoulder function, hip function, and the ability to stabilize in between. I’ve seen people in every shape and size like this. The ability to control and mobilize the structures around the scapulae (shoulder blades), pelvis and the torso in between the two is EVERYTHING. If you can do those things, you’re an athlete. Plain and simple. There will be no mechanical problems holding you back from learning almost any physical feat. It may take time, but you can learn anything.
You can see this clearly if you watch any of the CrossFit Games broadcasts on ESPN2. The guys and girls who finish in the top 10 are making almost ZERO sacrifices in their body position during the workouts. They have excellent hip and shoulder function in any position and the torso stability to match. Form certainly follows function in this respect. There isn’t a single CrossFitter in the top 10 at the CrossFit Games with a rounded upper back, forward/elevated shoulders, overextention in the low back, or glute inactivation. In fact, look at any athletes that move with grace. Kobe, Dwayne Wade, Mike Trout, Adrian Peterson, every gymnast ever. Scapular control, pelvic control, and great stabilization in between.
Bringing Performance, Health, and Rehab Together
The problem is…throw well built folks like that into a CrossFit or group fitness class with regular, unbalanced people and the latter get left behind. Those that are set up well structurally will continue to make progress while the others will bump up against a ceiling, make little progress, and get injured. Then they’ll blame the program for being ineffective while the well balanced folks thrive and continue to lose fat and gain muscle.
So what’s the answer? A lot of therapists and trainers would offer up a steady dose of isolation work and physical therapy and tell you to ditch CrossFit for good. Not only is that an extremely boring route, but it’s unnecessary. For years, there has been a pretty clear delineation between rehab work and general fitness. But lately there have been some very innovative and exciting things popping up that really bridge the gap between corrective exercise and performance. These methods offer up a way to correct your imbalances and see immediate benefit in a workout session.
The key thing you need to remember is that learning how to fix your body and move correctly is the fundamental path to all of the fitness goals you have. Whether you want to look good naked, squat double bodyweight, kick ass in a TRX class, or be able to ski and wakeboard until you’re 70, movement quality is the place to start.
That is the goal for 2013. Take an active role in fixing yourself
There are some very knowledgeable people out there that you need to get acquainted with. I’ll give you three of the most important names now. They are smart, committed, and offer a refreshing perspective on movement that ties directly to fitness and performance.
There are many more resources, tools, and stories to be shared from both me and my clients. Stay tuned….2013 will be the year of better movement.