Over the last several years I’ve pretty much covered every meaningful piece of advice on how to get in shape.
This year I’m going to cover how to prevent injury. I’d say that this is probably the most difficult lesson for former competitive athletes to learn because the most significant way to prevent injury involves not exerting yourself 100% when you aren’t feeling 100%…Probably common sense for most people. Anyhow, lets git our lern on.
Before I begin, I just want to repeat the most fundamental lessons for success in fitness:
(a) The work out/physical activity you actually enjoy and will do regularly is better than the perfect physical activity that you hate and will quit after a few weeks.
(b) If your primary goal is weight-loss, calories in vs calories out is your first guiding principle of how to eat. Obviously, don’t be dumbass about it and eat small meals of nutritionless food, but by and large, calories in must be fewer than calories out or you simply won’t lose weight. That’s science!
(c) Medium-high intensity activities generally yield better fitness and health results than low intensity activities.
(d) Leverage the effects of social pressure: If you aren’t naturally motivated to exercise, you’ll probably have a better chance of sticking to an activity if it’s a social activity. Also, publicly announcing your goals and/or having a friend check up periodically on your progress increases your likelihood of success.
(e) Resistance exercises: (i) Over the last decade, there’s been a growing body of quality evidence showing that resistance/strength programs outcompete endurance exercises in terms of combating the effects of aging. (ii) If you want to incorporate strength exercises (i.e., weight training) and you’ve never really done it before, please, please, please hire a professional personal trainer to get you started. Make sure that the person actually weight trains themselves (and has done so for at least 5 years) and isn’t some yoga or aerobics instructor who took a weekend certification course. A simple heuristic to find out if they are knowledgeable about weighlifting is to ask them: “Do you even?”. If they reply with “do I even what?” or “I don’t understand the question” find another trainer.
(f) Don’t waste your money on supplements. 99% of them don’t have any good evidence to support their efficacy. If you insist on supplements, the only ones I’d recommend are protein powder and creatine. Possibly pre-workout powder if you need an energy boost but a coffee does the same thing, has the same active ingredient, and is cheaper.
I Enjoy Preventing Injury Because:
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, lets get down to the important matter of preventing injury. At the very real risk of stating the obvious, it’s important to avoid injury because:
(a) injuries hurt and make me cry
(b) injuries keep you away from your activity of choice thereby causing you to lose (i) your precious gains and (ii) your momentum which in turn sends you back to you pre-activity sedentary state from which you must one more time begin the difficult task of overcoming the inertia of inactivity.
(c) injuries cause further injuries. Often in protecting your injured body part, you’ll compensate in a way that causes you to injure another body part.
By far, one of the most common area that gets injured is your back. So, if there’s a way to minimize back injury, maybe we should check it aus…
Ok, if you aren’t going to include weight lifting into your fitness plan, then this section isn’t too relevant to your needs. But it may be, so read it anyway. I spent time writing the damn thing!
Fact: 99% of fitness trainers teach incorrect breathing technique for weightlifting (source: Ami’s Journal of Test Tubes, Beakers, and Scientifical Facts). Let me qualify that: it depends on the type of lift (and some will say the amount of weight in relation to your max). But lets not get caught up in distinctions, this is a fitness post! Everything I teach you will make you lose 20 lbs in 2 weeks and cure cancer!
The valsalva maneuver. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout! Instead of ‘splaining it, I’m going to illustrate. Nay! You’re going to illustrate it! Good teachers explain, great teachers make you figure it out your own damn self (or something like that).
Drop something on the floor right now. Slowly bend over and reach down to pick it up. Wait! Stop! While doing this, I want you to focus on the sensation in your lower back. When your torso gets to about perpendicular with the floor, I want you to exhale. Now, pick up the dropped object and return to your erect position (heh heh heh….he said “erect position”).
Now I want you to try to duplicate the exact same motion but this time before initiating your movement inhale deeply and hold your breath. Without releasing the air in your belly and chest, bend over and pick up the fallen object and focus on how it feels in your lower back. Don’t release your breath until you are almost fully erect again (heh heh heh…he said “fully erect”).
What were the results? In the second case, your lower back should have felt more support and less strain that in the first.
Here’s another experiment to illustrate the principle: Hold yourself in push-up/plank position. Now exhale all the air from your lungs. What happens to the stability of your core? Does it sag?
Repeat but this time, while in push up position, inhale and fill yourself with air and hold it. What happens to the stability of your core? Is it more stable?
Doing this carefully controlled experiment should reveal to you the one secret the fitness industry doesn’t want you to know! You should only breath in, and never exhale! This will make you appear more buff and saving you 1000s of dollars on expensive
Ok, I kid. Here’s the real lesson: When you are doing strength exercises that require a stable core (mainly: squat, deadlift, bench press, military press, shoulder press, any olympic and power lift), before you initiate the movement, you should breath IN and fill your belly and torso with air and HOLD your breath during the main exertion of force, releasing it only once the most difficult part of the movement has been completed (you can let a little air out through pursed lips during exertion).
To summarize the technique (video below):
1. Using your diaphragm (not your chest), inhale deeply before the non-exertion phase of the movement. E.g., in a squat it will be when you are standing upright before you go down; with bench press and military press it will be when the bar is overhead before you lower it.
2. Hold your breath and tighten your abs as though someone is going to punch you in the stomach as you lower the bar. This stabilizes your core.
3. When you exert force to begin the upward movement, keep holding your breath for the first part of the movement (the most difficult part) and then, near the top of the movement, release your breath. Note: some people say to release a little bit of air through pursed lips during the main exertion. Figure out what works for you.
Here are a couple of videos illustrating how to use this breathing technique (called the valsalva maneuver in fancy talk) with the most common lifts:
Nerd Note: There are actually 2 types of valsalva maneuvers: (a) the most common one is the one you do during the descent of an airplane when you plug your nose and try to equalize your sinus and ear pressure; (b) the weightlifting one is called the gloittial version because you close your windpipe (with your gloittus) to create pressure in your abdominal and thoracic cavities.