Wednesday 2 December 2015

Do you cross your legs?

If you do, then stop it. If you do that double crossed/entwined thing that some people manage that is often accompanied by the perched sideways approach to a keyboard, that really messes up the body. That habit pulls your pelvis out of alignment which causes further compensation elsewhere and that leads to structural stress which leads to dysfunction and pain.

Of course stopping is easier said than done. There is something comforting in this action. It's the leg equivalent of sucking your thumb and many people find that it calms them or they feel that they can concentrate better in this position. It's as if getting into your 'work position' signals the body for the activity ahead.

We are such creatures of habit that we have a favourite posture for most things. Sleeping; do you prefer the foetal position? Do you sprawl? Lie on your back or front?  Do you curl up on the sofa or do you spread out? Whichever way you habitually do things it is difficult to change. It is much more difficult to break a habit than it is to bring on a new one.

So, when I explain to clients that working with their legs crossed is damaging their body I don't then ask that client to stop,  instead I suggest that they start a new habit.

Stick a wobble board under your desk so that your feet can play with it. Throw a few tennis balls or even better an assortment of different textured balls under your desk and put your feet onto them. The massage will be soothing and good for your feet and hopefully you will soon be habituated to a healthier seated posture.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Core Strength...the complicated core.

What is it?

There is a general acceptance and acknowledgement that it is important to have a strong core but I wonder what people think it is.

Clients may tell me that their physio has told them that their ailment or postural issue is due to their lack of core strength. The client is then confused because doing what their fitness professional describes as, core strengthening exercises, isn't helping.
I see people in gyms performing the plank until other gym goers are using them as a storage bench for sweaty hoodies. Some unfortunates perform various kinds of sit up until they become bow shaped often adding yet more structural stress to a body already in postural crisis. They are all missing the point.

The core is stimulated into action when we are infants. When a child is first able to stabilise itself upright in its parents arms and stay upright while that parent empties the car and the washing machine. This is core stabilisation. Once functioning it is the root of all basic movement patterns. Creeping, crawling, jumping, climbing walking and not falling over, squatting to pick things off the floor, reaching for that thing you didn't want them to have.  All of that involves core stabilisation.

The core isn't a single muscle. Unlike eg the bicep, which is one single muscle(well sort of- it's double headed and crosses 2 joints but you get the drift) -where all the fibres run in the same direction and initiation clearly and simply flexes the elbow.(yes yes it also impacts on the shoulder joint but we are keeping it simple) This makes it easy to work, simply flex then extend the elbow and you are doing it. The core is way more complex. It is many muscles, fan shaped funnel shaped long and short, multi directional and muti-purpose. It isn't necessarily limited to the tummy area. Some professionals think of it as extending from the toes to the jaw.
We can't understand the core by figuring out what it does. It's more about how it supports our structure  while we do other stuff. If you lift something heavy it's the core that ensures that 'something' comes to you rather than you to it. There is no one exercise to fix or initiate the core.

 I always have an analogy. In this case it's a tree. As a young tree grows it gets bashed about by the wind. The trunk responds by becoming strong and flexible. As the branches grow the wind exerts great forces through the branches to the trunk, in response trunk becomes stronger while maintaining the flexibility to pull back the branches and stabilise itself regardless of the changing direction and force of the gusts of wind. That trunk is your core. It doesn't have to do anything because its job is to stabilise all other actions.

If the core is weak this analogy also works well.
If a tree grows in a sheltered spot and is never subjected to winds the trunk will be narrow and weak (this is true, ask a tree surgeon!) subjected to a forceful wind it will bend, uproot, disfigure and break. If we strengthen the branches until they are heavy they will pull the tree out of shape or break from it.
To treat such an ailment by repairing the break is naive. You need to strengthen the trunk.

You can do as many planks and sit up variations as you like but you need to go back to your simple balances to find your core. Try sitting in your car without leaning back and hold yourself against the  turns and you will soon find out if your core is on. You need to be reaching and changing direction and balancing, catching and throwing to turn on the core. There is no one move it is a complication of many which makes it elusive but kinda cool.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Finding Your Feet

Here’s a thing I find myself saying a lot.

Feet do stuff. They are highly complex 'feets' (sorry had to) of engineering. All of the postural muscles in our bodies are attached to our feet, whether directly or indirectly through other fascia. The feet not only propel us forward, they also help us to store energy, so that we can be propelled forward more efficiently. They absorb impact and deliver to our brains masses of sensory information about the environment, allowing us to make adjustments to our posture, to stay upright and stay safe. Left 'au natural’ to do their thing, they grow wide and flexible, sensitive, tough and powerful.
Stuffed into tight fitting  'supportive capsules (ie regular shoes) and deprived of sensory feedback, they become stiff and weak and flacid. Many feet remind me of dead fish, in shape, appearance and odour. The bacterial build up, due to encapsulating such a naturally sweaty appendage, is pretty distinktive.

dead foot
2 years later
People are often surprised that their sore hip, knee or even neck can have anything to do with their feet. People seem to assume that if they put the right shoe on, then they need not work their feet or exercise them at all. Why? We do not apply this logic to any other part of our body! 

People often say, "But the guy in the shop says these shoes are ideal for me as I pronate/invert/have fallen arches..blah blah”.  Please remember people that the guy in the shop, however lovely and well-meaning he may be, is there to sell you shoes. He is not qualified to give you movement advice or correct your posture. ( I know the odd one might be but then he wouldn't be putting your feet into coffins if that is the case)
As a child did you ever make stilts out of tin cans and holding onto a length of rope you'd go marching about and have races with your mates? It took a while to get the hang of the movement and it was always awkward and inefficient. You had to learn a new movement technique that excluded the foot. Jumping was impossible!

Yet I see many people who seem to have learned to do something similar in fashion shoes. 
High heels of course make the feet rigid and puts you out of balance. Lack of space reduces the elasticity of the foot, lack of flexibility stops the foot from working and distance from the ground means we have no sensory information. I do wonder if the blood even gets to some of them.

This issue of foot destruction is not easy to correct and the longer your feet have suffered from incarceration the more difficult it will be to undo the atrophication. But if your boby is aching and you can't get to the root of the problem, Look at your feet and start there.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

How to Walk

Walking properly...It all seems so energy demanding. But it isn't, if you do it right! 

People tend to think of the feet and legs as a lot of levers and pulleys that, through muscle contraction and extension, drag the body across the ground against the pull of gravity. It all seems so energy demanding. But it isn't, if you do it right!

This lever and pulley model is way out of date now that we have the work of people like Tom Myers, Art Riggs and James Earls, all sorts of models are suggested to help us get our head around the biomechanics of walking. The way I describe it to clients is this... (Excuse the oversimplification professionals but..)

Think of a soft foam ball. It can contract and absorb impact - you can squish it, it can lengthen - you can pull it and if you drop it - it will bounce, but not very high. Then think of one of those denser rubber balls that rebound straight back at you when they hit the floor. As a child I called these 'super balls'.

The muscles and fascia and all the other stuff in your legs change tension during the mechanics of walking, they morph from one state to another so that after your foot hits the ground your legs become the super ball. In this way all the energy of the foot striking the ground is stored in the tissue to create a fabulous energy efficient rebound while also reducing the stress of that foot strike impact on the upper body. The signals for this change are created by your nervous system monitoring the movement in the joints and the contact with the ground below.

For this reason it is important to allow your body to move correctly, freely. Otherwise energy is lost, muscles have to work harder and you become tired and sore. This of course brings me back to my old favourite subject of bare feet or minimalist shoes that allow your feet to move naturally. Because the whole process starts when the foot strikes the ground.

Saturday 27 June 2015

The trick to getting Fit without Pain or Injury

I get a lot of pleasure and feel very privileged to hear so much about my clients' life but of course my special interest is their physical activities, their sport and their challenges in particular. I am intrigued as to why some seem to feel the need to torture themselves. I listen to descriptions of the icy rain in their face as they cycled into the wind up a 6:1 incline as the fog came down, starving, cold and exhausted they promise themselves, 'never again will I enter this damn event'. Yet that client will enter the same thing next year and again be on my couch complaining.

On questioning them most will say that if they don't enter the event they will not be motivated to do the many hours of gruelling painful training and the long winter of spin classes. "But can't you find an exercise class that is fun", I say and "can't you ride out with friend on a sunny weekend and have a good time? Why the pain?".

I am using cycling as an example but the same could be applied to other events. Do something that suits you, do something you enjoy and it will not be such a painful chore. Am I being illogical? Maybe there is an element of sadomasochism in these people that has to be fed?

I was therefore well chuffed with one particular client. Madge was inclined to overdo all her activities and come in to the clinic injured over and over. I talked her into going for a good walk and at least for a while forget the abs classes, the bodypump and the half marathons. Madge leaves near Arthur's seat and therefore has the opportunity to make the walk as strenuous as she likes. She took my advice, noting her time and getting faster and faster each time. She was able to involve her young family at the weekends and missed her outings if something prevented her.

Then something wonderful happened. She had the sudden urge to run a bit. Walking was easy, her body wanted more. She did just 2 mins and stopped, out of breathe. But her runs got longer each time.

Then one day after 10 mins running she thought, "well, I am 10 mins from home, I could push on". I was thinking, "oh no! She is going to tell me that she has injured something". But no, her new found ability to listen to her body clicked in, she slowed down.  Madge is still improving, still enjoying herself, still not injured. Way to go Madge!

Exercise needn't be about pain, it shouldn't be punishment and it shouldn't be an addiction - it should be a pleasure.

Sunday 31 May 2015

Problems Sitting?

I recently attended a wonderful family wedding in a fabulous ancient church that offered stone seats and backless benches throughout the ceremony and banquet. This made for some interesting posture watching as I observed how people coped without back support for so many hours.

Some coped beautifully. They were forced to sit on their seat bones. In this position slouching is more difficult and finding that correct position where balance is achieved by the shoulders  being held above the pelvis and the head held directly above the shoulders becomes the easiest  least stressful way to sit.
Others struggled. I call them the C sitters. They sit with the sacrum tucked under their bodies the back is rounded, many of the postural muscles that support the torso are turned off. Such bodies struggle to find balance and become exhausted trying to hold everything up.

I have 2 favourite correction tips for the C sitters.

no 1. Imagine you have a tail. It is a beautiful and sensitive tail and you must NEVER sit on it. So when you approach a seat flick the tail behind you before you sit down. This will take you off the sacrum and onto the bottom of the bowl.

     PASSIVE    ACTIVE     
      no 2. Passive and Active Hanging. Sounds sinister but you will see that I have posted about hanging before. It works so it's always worth reminding people. We are fundamentally apes. We  have the apparatus allowing us to hang and swing from our arms. Like everything else if you don't use it you lose it. Losing power, and in many people even the ability to initiate these muscles, causes a weakness and imbalance that manifests in some difficult and  painful postural issues.

        Passive Hanging is so good for you. It lengthens the muscles attaching the arms to the body and spine. This gives better range and freedom of movement, elasticity to the shoulders and takes the strain off the poor lumbar spine that is often left to soak up the work that the shoulder girdle isn't managing. It also allows a little intervertebral stretch, it opens the space between the chest and pelvis allowing all your organs a sort of breathing space; literally, a chance to stretch out!

        Active hanging means pulling yourself up with the arms kept rigidly straight. It activates and strengthens all of these same muscles and even corrects little uncomfortable vertebral twists.
        You can take as much weight as you want on your feet  until you are strong enough to dangle for 30secs with these little active pull ups.

        To go back to my wedding. One particularly charming young man was having terrible trouble  sitting at the table. When I checked him out he was unable to even initiate the muscle system required to hold up his chest. He couldn't locate the movement pattern in his neural network! But we got the system working again doing moves like those above and I am keen to find out how he is doing now.

        Wednesday 13 May 2015

        Kyphosis and righting it, a HEADS UP!

        Holding up the head is one of the earliest  strength reflex actions. When a baby is left lying on its front it will try to lift its head back from the floor. In doing this it is practising and strengthening its body in preparation for upright posture.
        This early rudimentary positioning, coded in at an early stage should last a lifetime. It is therefore alarming when we see this position distorted.  

        When the head is held in a forward position for a long time, the body does what it does so well, it compensates and makes adjustment. Our ability to do this is the secret to our success as a species; it's how we overcome injuries that would otherwise handicap us. By sitting with our heads in this forward position we literally train our bodies into a new shape. Think of it 8 hours training a day. You can't rebalance that with a 30 min massage or a quick stretch. You take this new position with you in the car, on the bus and into the gym. What this forward held position ultimately does is pull the vertebrae of the upper back and neck forward into a a shape described as kyphosis. There was a time not so long ago when it was associated with an elderly population but now even children of primary school age can be seen to have already lost that natural position and their head hangs forward.

        What to do?
        People think oh I've got round shoulders I just need to pull them back. But no they are wrong pulling the shoulder blades together and the arms backward gives the impression of a straighter spine but under there the vertebrae are still doing and impersonation of the leaning tower of Pisa.
        Strengthening and reprogramming are what is required. Then once you have got it working simple awareness and practice as you move through your daily life will keep it all in place.

        Think of your position as you work in front of a screen, drive, prepare meals or just read.
        It tends to be as in the left drawing (sorry about my artwork). When you lift the head from this position the inclination is to tip it up, as in the middle fellow. You can see the effect this has on the vertebrae and  how that might eventually result in worn joints and slipped discs.
        The chap on the right, below has lifted his neck from the middle vertebrae, he has straightened his spine no damage, clever chap!
        You can practice this move whenever you are upright. To start set yourself straight by ensuring the chin points forward, keep it there and pull the head back. It's a sort of chicken movement. The more often you try the more active the muscles will become. I suggest you put a sticky label on your computer screen and one on the bathroom mirror another on the fridge door. HEADS UP! Do it until you can and keep doing it until it is your natural posture.

        Sunday 19 April 2015

        Frozen shoulder and a simple way to help

        Do an on line search on frozen shoulder and you'll get opinions from medics and physiotherapists explaining that the condition is the result of a virus, hormones, muscle spasm, and from poor movement patterns.  Remedies range from muscle relaxants and pain killers to playing pull with a low resistance band (really! This is ridiculous how is the patient supposed to know that they are initiating the correct muscle group?)  You will find suggestions that you need to wait it out for 2 years and don't expect a full recovery! I have seem a lot of these in my years and whatever factors contribute, the main one is that the shoulder was designed for a function that we never put it through.

        Put simply, we have big muscles, I call them the big pull me push you muscles. Their names don't matter, they are there to do the heavy stuff. We should have programmed them in childhood leaping off the furniture, climbing trees and testing ourselves in play grounds. We also have little muscles for fine motor skills, using tools, preparing food, clothing etc. We programme these doing crafts at school, learning to use a pen and a keyboard.  These muscles work in a team allowing us power and accuracy. The entire animal kingdom works this way; developing relevant motor skills through play.

        So big muscles programmed for big jobs,  small muscles for small jobs. But we leave childhood and all the crazy movement that goes with it (when did you last climb a tree?) and do only small jobs therefore the programming for the fine muscles becomes dominant and the brain 'forgets' the big muscle programme then, when a big job comes up it signals the dominant muscles. The little guys do the big jobs, the big guys shrink down and can't play. The team gets messed up. The shoulder gets broken. 

        The fix is uncomfortable but easy. Re-programme. Get the the big muscles back on line and into the game. Ideally you should do the thing you did as a child to programme them. But realistically you can make a huge difference in a simple 2 step programme. 

        Step 1  lengthen and activate.

           PASSSIVE HANG                                          ACTIVE HANG

        Start with hanging. A simple pull up 
        bar on your door frame or anything else that is handy will do. Grab the bar and release your body weight. If you can't support yourself don't worry, take as much weight as you need to onto your feet until you achieve full extension and have the strength to hold the position.

        Over time you'll be able to just hang there passively and let your body weight open and lengthen all of the short muscles. Work until you can do 30secs then you can progress to an active hang. In the active hang the arms kept straight but you lift your body weight with your shoulders. Play with this action lifting and dropping to activate the shoulder girdle. 1 minute a day is all you'll need to feel a difference.

        Step 2    Power up

        Dip. The simple tricep dip can be done off any chair or the side of a bed or desk. It opens the chest muscles, activates the shoulder girdle and helps tighten up bingo wings.

        Sit on a chair or any useful step and grab it with your a hands as shown. Take your bodyweight forward so that it is distributed between your hands and feet. Bend at the elbow to let your bottom drop towards the floor. The further down you allow yourself to drop, the more difficult it will feel.

        Don't worry if you can only manage an inch, it will come with practice. You can take as much weight on your legs as you need to. To progress the exercise you can move your feet further forward as in picture below, right - this puts more weight through the shoulders.

        Start at 6 a day then increase the load by taking the feet further away or increasing the depth of the dip rather than add to the duration of your workout.

        This alone will make a huge difference. You can,of course do more. At Back in the Game, we climb, swing and stretch in a variety of ways to bring back full functionality. Reprogramming bodies is like pressing the reset button. It's simple. It's natural, and it works!

        Rediscover your basic programming at Back In the Game Edinburgh

        Thursday 19 February 2015

        Exercise is not always healthy!

        This a lot of talk about this recently. People are naturally sceptical and justly so as often the information or research on which such statements are based is often suspect, biased or just plain silly.

        There is however a certain smugness among those who exercise regularly, a belief that they have put in the time therefore it stands to reason that they must be better in some way as a result of this. 
        Most will believe that even if their preferred form of exercise is a bit one sided - like racket sports or involves a repetitive unnatural action - like cycling then surely they at least benefit from the endurance aspect, the improved muscle tone/strength...???  Is this so  ????

        So lets examine the strength aspect first. 
        If I may use my favorite analogy.. A house that is built of mud and straw has a certain strength.
        A house made of metal girders and and steel bolts will be stronger. One that is made of steel girders and mud will be weaker than both. Repetitively playing the same sport or doing the same training regime will not make you stronger it will make unbalanced and more susceptible to break down.

        Now the cardiovascular system. The systems and cells in our body are very specific, if we train them to be good at transferring oxygen so that we can e.g run 5 miles along a road in 25 mins that will not give us the cardiovascular ability to spend 25 mins shifting logs. To shift logs you need to send energy to a completely different part of the body. I recently went out for a dog walk with a friend who regularly does long road runs, 10K is a regular distance. But walking straight up a Perthshire hill with a dog had him out of breathe and trailing behind me..and I don't run at all!

        Being fit for your chosen sport or activity and being fit to be healthy are not the same. 

        Sunday 1 February 2015

        Functionality - as it applies to Children

        For a description of "Functionality" please see my previous blog.

        Functionality is even more interesting when we apply it to children and teenagers. 

        While children are still undergoing physical development, the number and type of movements you expose them to is crucial to their lifelong physical potential as well as their long term health. To add to this, children have highly adaptable bodies, so the acquisition of new movement patterns, especially those with demanding physical or mobility components comes more naturally to children.

        If we focus on developing functional skills with our children we can raise their potential abilities. But it needs to be a complete training regime. We have seen that most sports have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to functionality. So what’s the proper balance of sport, dance, play or whatever else that produces the most functional child?

        Children need: 
        ~Power ~Endurance ~Strength ~Stability ~Agility ~Coordination ~Balance ~Flexibility ~ challenges ~and Fun.

        This is the opposite of specialisation. It is exposure to everything and it is rarely offered.

        However if you are in Edinburgh take a look at what we have on offer at:
        The Mary Erskine Sports centre:

        The Dragon Academyfor under 12’s and under 18’s
        The Dragon Academy has been developed by a leading parkour coach, John (Hedge) Hall and Yoga (and kickboxing) teacher, Mark Smith. It has been developed over 6 months with input from many health and fitness professionals from many disciplines. The class is focused around all of these aspects that are vital to children’s progression.  It is far from complete, or finished. But it’s closer than anything else I’ve seen out there and, most importantly, it is very accessible. It is a functional class for anyone.

        Access Parkour  Adults   *   Youths   *   Under 12’s

        "Individual ideologies may blind us to what is the healthiest progression methodology for our children and the healthiest form of exercise for ourselves. It is only through a truly functional training regime that we can produce the best athletes. And I suppose, that is the goal of every coach. To produce a generation of athletes who put your own skills to shame. And so that, is what I will try to do". Hedge from Access Parkour.

        Sunday 25 January 2015

        Functional Fitness

        ‘Functional fitness’, ‘true functional fitness’ and of course ‘functionality training’ are the exercise community’s biggest buzzwords right now. Every PT focuses on it, every crossfit gym claims it and every parkour coach offers it. 

        What does it mean and why it is important?

        What does it mean?
        Being ‘Functional’ is the ability to do a movement safely, efficiently and with a very low risk of injury. It allows us to function in our lives and adapt ourselves to any task asked of us. It makes us a ‘jack of all trades’. And also enables us to pick up new movements/skills quickly. It simply keeps us fit for life.

        Many form of exercise offer some functional movement training.
        • Endurance- Is the ability to do a movement many times - like running
        • Strength- is the ability to complete a movement increased pressure like lifting or holding a plank.
        • Skill – the ability to perform a movement well and is practised by repetition – like football
        • Flexibility- the ability to perform movement through a very full (and often extreme) range of motion in e.g. gymnasts.

        But none of these on their own can be classed as functional. A functional movement training program would have to improve our functional potential by that I mean our ability to learn or perform as wide a range of movements as possible. It would  increase our overall efficiency of dynamic - rather than specific or held - movement.

        This sort of training must obviously be broad and encompass strength, mobility, coordination, agility and power. It would also be highly specific because it would also have to highlighting the weakness of each person and bring balance to that individual.

        A functional athlete is therefore, almost by definition, in direct contrast to a specialised sports-person or athlete, who is training in a specific movement or subset of movements in an attempt to become the best at that activity. Some obvious examples of this would be rowers, swimmers or cyclists. These athletes, while hugely talented and at the peak of their physical fitness are not functional by this definition.

        The  Goal is health
        We spend a whole lot of our lives moving but only a small portion of it taking part in physical exercise. Everything you do is movement. Our functional athlete is therefore more likely to move through their day to day lives at much lower risk of physical injury from poor posture and muscular imbalances. 

        This also impacts on their health. A functional body should be a healthy body. Joints work best when in proper alignment and are only likely to ‘wear out’ if exposed to unusual torsion or odd loading, and well-conditioned, mobile muscles are less likely to tear or snap than their tight, knotted alternatives.

        Functional movement is natural. This of course brings me back to my old friend the barefoot or minimalist shoe which allows the feet to function dynamically and helps promote a natural gait using the musculature that is designed for movement. Dynamic balance is what it's all about.....