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STRETCHING - A SIMPLE BACK STRETCH
We hear a lot from students past their teen years that stretching the lower back is becoming more and more necessary. No surprise since we use the lower back muscles for virtually every movement we make from lifting a box to getting out of a chair. It might also become problematic when you consider these very muscles are some of the weakest as they crisscross the spine and therefore easily strained. The lower back can cause severe problems for us even while we are trying to sleep and we rarely ever fully recover if we injure them to any degree.
You can study the mechanics further but we just wanted to offer a simple back stretch using a door frame and the adjoining wall. It is also one of the safest stretches for recovering from lower back strain, preventing further damage, and keeping the muscles strong. We can also offer some simple weight training ideas in later posts but please remember stretching is paramount before any exercise or weight use.
Sit near the open door and scoot up close as you can. You need for your butt to actually be touching the door frame and wall if you can. Too much separation further strains the back. Lift a leg and prop it against the wall with the other leg extended but comfortable so plan to bend the knee as needed.
Now, straighten the leg placed vertically on the wall until you can lock the knee, or the best you can. Work very slowly until you get the hang of the idea. Scoot forward more if your butt isn’t touching the wall. Your back will not touch perfectly to the floor due to the natural curve of the lower spine and that’s okay for the moment.
As you lock the knee of the raised leg you will feel the hamstring muscle pulling and stretching if all you want from this exercise is a leg stretch. Now is where the choices begin and you can vary the exercise to get the muscles working the way you want to get a good stretch.
Place your hands behind your head or flat on the floor for balance and bracing. Now execute a simple abdominal crunch raising the head from the floor and pressing the lower back to the floor. If you cannot get the lower back to stay in contact with the floor you will need to be very careful. If the raised leg is hurting then bend the knee as much as you need since what we are planning here is a lower back stretch and muscle strengthening exercise.
Straighten the extended floor leg while locking the knee, and if you can rotate the ankle joint until your toes point toward your face. While pressing the lower back to the floor raise the floor leg about a foot in elevation. Eventually you can go as high as you can comfortably but for now just small elevations. Then lower it back to the floor. Raise and lower the leg several times but always while keeping the lower back pressed to the floor. Switch your position and change legs and perform the same exercise on the opposite leg.
If you feel tight then bend the wall knee. If you are having any difficulty raising the floor leg then wrap a cord around the foot and use your same side hand to assist.
When you have completed a few leg raised scoot yourself away from the wall and move the lower back muscles slowly. They should feel tight as first as all muscles will upon completing any exercise but loosen up and start relaxing as you slowly execute the trunk rotations we wrote of in an earlier post.
STRETCHING – STARTING A PROGRAM OF EXERCISE
Presumably you have been working your core muscles but if not stretching is a great way to get started. Keep in mind that stretching is anaerobic, meaning it is of little value toward cardiovascular health. If you’re out of shape then short walks at first, lengthening the time until you can walk faster and not necessarily farther. Aim for 20 minutes and an increased heart rate. I will cover more on this in a later post but accept you must stretch before and after your walk. Make sure you can handle the exercise without harm. Take water with you if it is dry, humid, or hot outside. You will need to hydrate.
Start with a simple wall stretch for your calf muscles.
You can complete this with your feel an equal distance from the wall or one more forward of the other.
Next stretch you can do standing or if balance is an issue, sitting on the floor.
If this proves difficult, use a strap or a towel and wrap it across your foot and hold each end. Pull yourself forward – slowly. It is not a speed drill, and you only need stretch and limber the hamstring so how far down you stretch at first is irrelevant.
You are just helping warm up the muscles and make it more limber. The walk will tighten the muscles used so remember to stretch after the walk as well. Walk and stretch as if no one is watching so you can go at your own pace. An injury from rushing or pushing too hard requires time to heal and them you must start again so there is nothing gained by working yourself hard at the initial stages.
After the side stretch, using the same foot position, try to aim your elbow toward the floor as you lean from side to side. You have now covered the side oblique muscles and the rotation exercise has stretched the major muscle groups that cross over the chest, abdomen, and back. There are several variations sitting or standing.
As we progress in the posts dedicated to stretching I will happily describe the exercises, provide photos or drawings to offer visual depictions, and offer the benefits to specific muscle groups, not to bore you with medical terminology but to suggest what type of martial art technique will be enhanced. As always, toss us an email and we will try to offer something of value that will interest or help you. It is our pleasure.
STRETCHING - LEARNING YOUR LIMITATIONS
The body has more than 600 muscles and just your kicking leg contains over a million individual muscle fibers. They are attached to your skeletal structure by tendons. Here is the point - tendons and muscles don’t respond well to periods of inactivity followed by rapid or strenuous activity. Make a note, you Weekend Warriors.
Almost all movements utilize the major muscle groups but there are differences in what’s required from the smaller groups depending on the range of motion needed. Change the sport and you change the minor muscle groups needed for strength, speed, agility, and durability. Tennis is different from golf and different again from baseball or soccer; all require modifying your basic stretching program for maximum results. Interestingly, practicing martial arts requires more individual muscles than virtually every other sport so it is an awesome workout.
Muscles require you to stretch them (regularly) to get to their full potential. In karate, the more you stretch the higher you can kick. To kick high, you will have to stretch. Without learning the proper way to stretch, and developing a maintenance plan, you will suffer injury.
Yoga is great for stretching. I may be a poor representative for yoga but I will happily have Ivan write up a couple of posts to curry interest. As for the remaining of you reading the posts I will focus on stretching for martial artists for the sole purpose of avoiding muscle damage and increasing range of motion.
Can you touch your toes from a standing position? Do you really need to? Even in my most flexible years I could not put my feet together and bend forward far enough to place my head on my knees, considered at the time as the quintessential Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon stretch to prove flexibility.
I could however, with one leg extended and the other resting at an angle with the foot touching the inner thigh, place my forehead on the mat on either side of the knee on the extended leg.
It still bothered me until a Yoga practitioner mentioned it was not a lack of flexibility in my hamstring muscles but tightness in my lower back preventing the other stretch. Since I don’t front kick with both legs at the same time, I gave the problem no further thought and ceased trying to do a stretch my body would not do well. The stretch I was using was working for me and getting the correct result and my front kick was almost vertical.
For your own edification, make some notes regarding past injuries. Some show up later in life as you wake up and feel pain for no apparent reason you can imagine. Talking to my doctor about a serious lower back pain that seemed to linger, I mentioned for all my injuries over the years, that I had never hurt my back. He was quick to say, “Sure you have, it’s just now showing up as painful.” Splendid, so if it’s a given old injuries lay dormant until just the right activity brings them out with a vengeance, it behooves us all to do a bit of homework on what might become problem areas. Once you remember where the bumps and bruises are you can focus specific muscle groups and slowly work your way back into physical condition.
It may also mean adjusting the type of workout you prefer, buffering a sore muscle by slightly stressing a nearby one that places no heavy strain on the damaged area. In some cases it might be as simple as turning your foot at a different angle or shifting the angle of your body just a few degrees to get the muscle group working properly. Keep in mind what you cannot yet do, but will be able to in time with practice, and what you should not do because it just won’t work for you safely. Adjust when you need.
Accepting limitations is not weakness; it is simply pragmatic and good judgment. Spending a lifetime trying to do something that provides no gain emotionally or physically takes away time better spent.
FOOD: A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO EXERCISE AND EATING
As I turned 40 and then 50, I began to realize the seriousness of a holistic approach to health, eating, and exercise. It all became self evident when I could no longer burn off the calories in a Snickers Bar by rolling over in my sleep. It was time for a plan.
Stand sideways in the mirror turn your head and take a quick look. For men, make a note, unless the mirror was once part of a Carney Show, if your stomach is farther out than your chest there is a problem. So how do we fix it? In America, and I can assume many in other countries, we overeat. I can offer numerous suggestions here but perhaps discipline in the face as you look into the abyss of the refrigerator and see it staring back at you (paraphrasing Nietzsche) should be enough. For a moment allow me a bit of latitude by first using an example from science and then a modification for our use regarding food and exercise as the two are not mutually exclusive. Newton described motion as being remarkably simple: objects in motion stay in motion; objects at rest stay at rest. So it’s all about momentum. The more we sit and eat the more we want to sit and eat. Too much sitting or eating (including our choice of foods, high fat, sugar, booze, etc.) increases our craving for them. Now translate this to exercise. As we move our bodies, over time, we begin to crave movement. Chuckle if you wish but the body will begin to cleanse itself of impurities (Cheetos, Twinkies, etc.).
Change is annoying. So, start any mental or physical change slowly. It will gather momentum by its own initiative and soon change will become the catalyst for increased change. Now, this isn’t an article about diets. Personally I think they work only under controlled circumstances and then only for short periods. It is also not about denial and depravation. If you want a snickers bar because the commercial says you should have one, then have one – HAVE ONE.
As we age (yeah, I know) our bodies lose a lot of our digestive enzymes. Pity, because they are important in breaking down complex carbohydrates (white stuff – breads, pasta, etc.). The resulting lack of activity after dinner means we retain more calories than we got rid of during the desk sitting day and couch reclining evening. The problem goes even further as excess or residual complex carbo loads can eventually turn to sugar, meaning we turn diabetic.
Food intake is crucial to fitness but if you want a happy life you cannot go overboard. For a period in the early 80’s I dated a serious nutritionist. She darn near forever ruined the joy of eating for me. It was years before I could pick up an item in a grocery and not feel an almost obligatory need to read the ingredients. Reading what is in stuff is important but weigh out the restrictions with a little common sense. I seriously doubt we were as animals intended to live off of rice cakes as a proper desert, unless you baste them in chocolate or rum.
Mothers often gave the advice of “Everything in moderation.” It’s hard to improve on Mom.
START SLOWLY: SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO START AN EXERCISE PROGRAM WITH A PRACTICAL IDEAGet off the couch. If the butt dents seem permanent, get a new couch and use it with less zeal. I’m not saying don’t use it. I not even saying don’t nap on it. Couches have been around as a perfect platform for leisurely lounging since the Romans. Of course keep in mind they also believed in Vomitoriums – and enough said on that subject. Compromise with yourself, for every hour of television at least stand during some of the commercials and look down at the seat couch to see if the butt dent goes away. It not, it’s a message.
Recovering from a period where I had far less energy to sustain a workout than I had discipline over my eating habits you might imagine the result. Extensive medical testing yielded no conclusive findings on my drained energy levels, but a lighter travel schedule and sleeping better self corrected the problem. However the side view in the bathroom mirror told a tale of woe; my frustration and I guess my vanity was as much a catalyst as my desire to fit back into my standard wardrobe. But I knew I needed small steps to get back into shape.
The return trip to proper physical condition requires a plan to prevent injury where the mind retains how to do things and muscles are willing but unable to keep up until they regain their strength. I also knew my core must become strong to sustain the activities I once enjoyed. Sit ups are good, if you can do them without stressing the lower back. So are pushups. They are staples in any workout. You can replace pushups with dumbbells or an exercise machine but I’m old school. When you add that I didn’t feel like paying for another gym membership until I could take full use of it I was stuck with what I could do in my home, or a hotel room.
I made a pact with myself because I knew that travel and standing all day speaking to an audience is tiring, both physically and emotionally. I would be in front of people on a stage for eight hours or longer, maybe have a meeting with my host or a short talk after the class with students, and then retire to my room. I also knew from experience that if I was going to work out I did not dare to sit, even to take off my shoes. A chair or couch, or worse, the bed, simply would suck me into oblivion. After the “I’ll just close my eyes or rest for a minute would become an hour, or two, at which point I could do little else with my level of motivation than order room service.
A lengthy workout was not practical. But, a few very short workouts were easily within my reach, just as was the television remote. Hotel rooms are lonely and I was never much of a hotel bar fly so the room became a sanctuary of sorts. The pact was simple. I would watch an hour of television and during the commercials I would get off whatever I was sitting or reclining and do sit ups and pushups. Not many. Just double the sit up to the pushup ratio. I began with twenty sit ups and ten pushups every commercial break. It doesn’t seem like much effort but there are five commercial breaks during an hour program. One as the program starts, the three during the actual program, and the closing credits. Completed, I had done a hundred sit ups and fifty pushups.
Muscle memory returned within a week and I was increasing at a rate of five pushups and ten sit ups per week thereafter or whatever I felt appropriate. Soon I was at one hundred twenty-five pushups and two hundred fifty sit ups in an hour without breaking a sweat, causing any injury to my muscles, or missing any of the program. Just once a day and taking weekends off to rest completely. I added a walk of ten minutes with a short stretch of the major muscles. The walk turned into a ten second wind sprint followed by however long it took to get my heart back to its standing rest rate.
The wind sprints in time became over thirty seconds each and completing ten of them I would return to the hotel and commence the pushups and sit ups, which were now after three weeks at fifty and one hundred respectively at each commercial break. At the end of an hour program I was at 250 pushups and 500 sit ups. Once per week I would supplant the program with a two hour movie, again doubling the numbers, and no one really needs a thousand sit ups and five hundred pushups but there they were.
I changed my diet without denying myself anything although I did lose my appetite for both overeating and most of my sugar intake. I ate more green things (my doctor calls them vegetables) and smaller portions of the amounts of meat I was consuming by about half.
The bottom line, I lost forty-three pounds and seven inches on my waist line in 40 days. The chest muscles and arms remembered what exercise was so eventually so it all sort of fell into place. No fuss, no mess, no injuries and no regimented diet plans to follow or calorie counting.
Understand that no program is perfect for everyone and no plan is perfect without adaptation. Any program you choose will be good to start. I knew I did not dare begin a kicking and punching regiment without the strength in my limbs to balance out the shock of my martial arts training. I just needed a little jump start. Use a little good judgment; if you feel pain, it’s a warning signal. Slow down, stop if you need until the pain is gone or you are certain you are not causing an injury. So, get off the couch, walk before you run, tire yourself but not to a state of exhaustion, be patient, be steady, be honest with yourself, and most of all - be kind to yourself. Exercise is not supposed to be an experience in misery.
TAKE BREAKS AT WORK: TOO MUCH SITTING IS LIKE A SLOW DEATH TO YOUR MUSCLES.
I had spent a lot of time yesterday in a marathon writing event – 10 hours to be exact. I had the preparations correct with a comfortable chair, relaxed but posture correct, my laptop and eye level at an adequate position, and I even went as far as to ensure the occasional neck rotation to self-correct any spinal stiffening. Yet, even with standing every couple of hours moving to refresh my coffee (yeah, I know) or other beverage (yeah, yeah, I know) I awoke this morning with a degree of atrophy I have not felt since my last knee surgery. Couch ridden for several days while the knee rested elevated I felt fine with remote in hand; I arose for the first post surgery session with a physical therapist only to receive a stern lecture regarding my slothful slacking behavior of the previous few days. It was earned as my body felt like I had just completed a martial combat against a far superior opponent. I had apparently taken the doctor’s recommendations too much at the exacting advice of his wording but missed the interpretation completely. Resting is not supposed to be the absence of movement unless you are dead when everyone will then find it perfectly acceptable.
Muscles need movement. Blood needs to flow. Mental activity is great for philosophers but a strong body can actually help the mind clear obstructive thoughts and speed clarity and concentration. Okay, we have a simple dichotomy of physical movement making it darn hard to type unless you are adept at dancing in place, but there is no harm in the periodic break. Not just pushing away from a desk like a post meal reaction to a need for additional space but as a calculated and conscious action.
The short version is muscles shorten, beginning at the top of the spine or neck and working downward. The result is stiffening of the joints, posture problems over time, and the most obvious – injury to the muscles from any strenuous activity in the immediate future, and worsening over time. Considering how few calories we burn as we sit all day in a cubicle or in front of an idiot box spewing reality television shows with scripted conflicts for our dysfunctional entertainment, we are at base zero on the physical exercise model. So, the bottom line becomes any activity at all post couch or chair session is strenuous to the body. Sit all day and then be asked to lift a file box to the top shelf of anything and if you’re not feeling it from the action of lifting the box then you will feel it as your recoil your spine like a slinky as you come back down off your toes to a otherwise normal standing position.
Here is a harsh word to most people – discipline. Set an alarm if you need to for a reminder. I used to work on a laptop for only two hour sessions, or the length of my battery. But technology and lithium has changed the playing field. So under normal situations I count pages, or the bottom of a coffee cup. Occasionally, when I am writing in a coffee shop a distraction presents itself, typically in a beautiful woman, or a police raid. It can be whatever, but use it as a sign to stand and move about for a minute. Try the 30–60 minute rule. Never remain stationary for longer than thirty to sixty minutes without moving the major muscle groups. We can offer a respite for this rule if you are a pilot where standing up to leave the seat might be problematic. But for the rest of us, give it a go as my English friends from across the pond would say.