Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Weight Lifting Belts: The Gym-Goer's Crutch

For many, the weight lifting belt is an essential part of any workout. It seems to be a given that it's the tool that will allow individuals to push heavy loads while protecting their backs. Without the belt, injury can ensue and lifts become weaker. But yet, why do so many serious weight lifters still experience low back pain and injury?

Good Intentions

For the right reasons, weight lifting belts definitely have their place. The purpose of the belt is not, itself, to create stability of the spine. Rather, the compression around the abdomen is a trigger for users to breathe against it and increase the pressure of the abdomen; also known as the val salva maneuver. With the resistance to brace against, this pressure is increased significantly compared to when not using the belt.

On deciding when to use a belt, there are two main reasons. Firstly, when pushing maximal or near-maximal loads that place compression on the spine, such as when trying to break a new squatting record. Having the extra intra-abdominal pressure protecting the spine is going to be a valuable resource to prevent the risk of injury during this instances. The second reason is when training during back-injury recovery. When the strength and stability of your trunk are compromised, the protection turns from helpful to vital, in many cases.


Stuart McGill wrote an informative summary on the use of back belts. Most significantly, his research found that, in individuals who had never experienced a prior back injury, a belt did not provide any additional protective benefits.

In fact, based on a study done in the 90's, individuals who regularly trained with a belt had a slightly-increased risk of injury once they returned to their jobs following training. Why would this be?

Well, as I always seem to talk about, training core stability is a crucial aspect to spinal and overall health. Having the external assistance during your workout to help brace the core will, essentially, begin to remove the need for your core muscles to be strong at all. This being said, it makes sense that, if you're training every muscle group except for the core and allowing it to become weak, then you'll be at an increased risk of injury outside of the gym, once that protective brace is removed.

A personal observation that I've also made is that heavy belt use creates a trend toward chest-breathing. Yes, while lifting heavy loads, the belt cues you to brace and breathe into your abdomen. Once the lift is done, however, and you're resting between sets, you're no longer making any attempt to breathe against that resistance. Instead, you follow the path of least-resistance and start reverting to breathing through your chest. As I have quickly demonstrated in the past, chest-breathing does not constitute proper core stability. By becoming a chronic chest breather, you're essentially dooming yourself to an unstable core as well as upper back and neck dysfunction as a result of improper spinal mechanics.

A Physical and Mental Crutch

Can people really be overusing belts so much that their injury risk increase is really going to be so significant? Yes, yes they can. Back to the research, it's been observed that many gym-goers are wearing their belts during inappropriate situations, such as while lifting light loads or doing exercises that do not require trunk stability. Anecdotally, I can attest to this, as I regularly watch gym members still wearing their belts while doing bicep curls, bench press, and even walking on the treadmill.

This becomes a problem. Like any crutch, the more you use it when not necessary, the weaker and weaker you'll become in the areas you're trying to compensate for. Chronic lifting belt use is going to result is chronic core instability, and eventually, these individuals can lose the ability to do even submaximal lifts safely without that support. Furthermore, once they leave the gym and return to their daily lives of lifting boxes or doing yard work, their risk of injury has skyrocketed since they're bodies are no longer trained to self-protect their spines.

It's not as easy as simply telling people that they need to phase out the belts either, though. At this point, people will have also developed a mental reliance on the belts. For anyone who's experienced a bad injury before, think about how it felt when your cast was finally removed, you started walking without a crutch again, or you stopped getting your ankle taped for soccer. As soon as that protection is removed, it's stressful. Many people have difficulty leaving the protection phase (such as in cases of chronic ankle taping) due to fear of reinjury, and this is exactly what will occur when trying to remove - or even decrease - the use of weight lifting belts from many gym rats.


The first solution to this problem is education for prevention. Individuals who are new to weightlifting should be encouraged to lift using their own muscular strength without any external assistance like this. Learning proper core stability is vital to learning how to exercise if we are to expect these people to train towards good health. Once people begin to push very heavy maximal loads, the belt may be used. However, caution must be used. I definitely do see proper use of the belt in the gym, which involves use of the belt during those maximal lifts only followed by immediate removal as soon as the exercise is completed - even when it's only a rest period between sets. Dysfunctional patterns cannot be encouraged, so the crutch must be removed as soon as it's no longer necessary.

In those who are already stuck in this loop, the only answer is, essentially, rehabilitation. Many people now have a significant muscular deficit that must now be retrained, not to mention the mental insecurity without the belt again. The crutch cannot simply be removed cold-turkey. It's a matter of restrengthening and stabilizing the core muscles gradually and training the proper muscular systems to fire during exercise. This means more submaximal loads without the belt, but care will need to be given to still allow use - albeit weened use - of the belt during heavy loads in order to not allow the person to lose their overall strength progress that they've worked so hard at over the years.


For those who have been training for years, these are hard concepts to accept, as their routines have revolved so heavily around these dysfunctional patterns for as long as they've known. (I'm challenging some "core" beliefs here, if you don't mind my awful sense of humour.) Both the research and the anecdotes speak for themselves, however. Traditional lifters are too-often prone to low-back pain and injury. Weekly chiropractor appointments become too common. Clearly, there's has been a problem. Lifters, are you willing to change?

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Core Stability and Hip Hyperextension

I've been a runner for years, and in the most recent ones, I've done a ton of core training, to say the least. Ever since I learned, myself, of the importance of core stability, I threw it into my regular routine in order to optimize my running performance.

One thing that plagued me, however, was how I still remained prone to lower back pain while running long distances. Not all the time, but definitely often enough to be a bother. I couldn't understand it though; I was specifying my training in order to prevent this back discomfort. Why wasn't it working?

The solution eventually came to me. When doing exercises such as planks or deadbugs, the core is always being trained to stabilize the spine through the hip's range of motion from 0 - 90 degrees, and nothing more. However, when you jog, sprint, skate, or doing virtually anything else active, we are constantly exceeding those 90 degrees, with the hip moving into hyperextension during activity rather than stopping at 0.

It should start to piece together now. Understand that, since the core hasn't been, at all, trained to stabilize during those extra degrees of extension, the integrity of the support breaks down and allows the spine to deform and extend itself, resulting in low back pain.

Now that we have figured out the problem, please enjoy the solution!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

5 Weight Training Tips for the Distance Runner

As an avid long-distance runner myself, it seems about time that I publish some tips for my own sport.

I was a competitive runner back in high school and then continued on to longer-distances during college and beyond. Back in high school, however, I was under the impression that to train to run, you only had to run. Boy, was I wrong. I plateaued in performance and was bogged down with knee injuries and shin splints. Nowadays, I wish that I had the advice that I offer you here now.

1) Stop Training Like a Bodybuilder

I see this issue in my younger athletes, primarily. While the most common advice for weight training in general is typically sets of 10 reps, usually for 3-4 sets, revolving those parameters around running training won't be ideal. Those rep ranges are reserved for beginners to weight-lifting or for individuals wanting to increase muscle size. For long-distance runners, size gains will be counterproductive.

Instead, focus on strength parameters (3-6 reps) to condition your muscles to be able to withstand high impact, and power (2-4 reps) to be able to generate those explosive forces required to propel you forward. Mix in endurance ranges (15-20+) for good measure, but know that more than the occasional set of these isn't necessary, as the running that you're still doing should be close to enough from an endurance perspective.

2) Target Your Glutes

The way that your body works is that all of the strongest muscles are located near the center while the assisting muscles branch out. That being said, the main muscles you need to be targeting for strength are your glutes. During walking and running gait, those butt muscles are meant to be the main drivers of hip extension. When the glutes becoming weak or inactive and the knees and calves take over, this results in overuse injuries. (ie: the knee issues and shin splints that I formerly mentioned.)

It's common to assume that glute work is going to consist of high-volume squats and lunges. In theory, yes. However, the glutes actually tend to be inactive in a large chunk of the population with people being unable to initiate proper contraction of them in the first place during these exercises. Thus, exercises such as glutes bridges and hip thrusters will be vital to isolate the area.

A fair number of people, still, will have an inability to fire their glutes properly during the bridge movement, with the hamstrings being the dominant muscle instead. (If you feel the contraction occurring at the back of your knees, then you fall into this category.) Here's a quick video tutorial on how to deactivate the hamstrings for optimal gluteal activation.

3) Isolate the Glutes and Hamstrings; Leave the Quads and Calves Alone

As I just stated, isolating the glutes is important as they are the main force drivers while you run. The hamstrings are a good idea to target by themselves as well, mainly due to the fact that they're often much weaker than the quads and can be prone to cramps and strains when not strengthened properly.

As for the quads and calves, leave them be. You're constantly targeting those guys during the every single compound lift and while running. (On an average day, you're doing between 10,000-30,000 calf raises already.) Apart from that, isolation exercises to those areas can actually be damaging. I already talked previously about how calf raises can result in imbalances and shin-splint issues. As for the quads, it's been shown without doubt that the compressive forces going through the knees are maximized during the range of motion used when you use the knee-extension machine at your gym. In other words, "Oww, my aching knees".

4) Remember the Little Guys

Straying away from the big muscles that we all like to look at the most (figuratively and literally), we also can never forget to neglect the little muscles that keep them together. Specifically, the lateral stabilizers of the hips. (Glute medius, minimus, piriformis, etc.) Without proper activation of these smaller muscle groups, the biomechanics of walking and running break down and result in secondary compensations and complications.

These muscles are most active during unilateral (or single-sided) exercises. This is important for when you realise that, when you run, only one foot is in contact with the ground at any given time. (Believe it or not!)

With that being said, exercises using a single-leg stance, or with alternating legs (ie: lunges) are going to be your friend. Like with the big glute muscles, however, you may need to think about isolating them if they are not activating properly. That takes us to more of the rehab realm, which I'll touch on another time.

5) Core!!!

Ahh, you thought that we were gonna get through a post without me mentioning the core. Keep dreaming.

During any type of running activity, there are high-volume stresses being placed on the spine. Whenever you swing your arms and legs, physics demands that your spine twist as a result. When you strike the ground with your foot, impact shock is travelling up your legs and into your back. When you push the ground away from you and extend your hip behind you, the spine wants to follow your hip movement and moves into repetitive hyperextension.

As you can guess, these stresses can wreak havoc on your back health and are the reason why so many runners struggle with lower-back pain. Thus, it's vital to train the core with isometric exercises that will prevent these deformities from occurring by stabilizing the trunk against these external stimuli.

What's more, having a strong core will also increase the strength of your strides!

Are these tips the secret to a gold medal in your city's next marathon? Of course not. But they're a tool to use and modify your training to help move yourself past a plateau and prevent injuries. I've gone through quite a bit of research as well as trial-and-error to come to these philosophies which, indeed, I'm sure some may argue. Minds constantly change, however, and I'm sure my methods of training will continue to change in the years to come.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Shift To Health Shaming

The past decade has seen some interesting shifts. The media era created an "ideal" body image that has obviously been cause for mental and social problems that I don't even need to bother getting into. However, just this past decade or so, there's been a backlash against those who would condemn others for not looking ideal and beautiful. Body shaming has become the new social taboo, and now every time that a celebrity or athlete is photographed having gained some weight or lost their muscle mass, the public lights up and rallies to their defence against the scrutiny that's sure to come. As public awareness projects spring up to support realistic body types, it highlights this excellent and refreshing new trend, to say the least.

With the fight against body-shaming being in full-fling, a different trend has snuck up on us without much notice. Do any of these phrases sound familiar?
  • I can't believe you're eating that. It has so much added sugar.
  • Do you know how many preservatives are in there? That's so disgusting!
  • How can you eat something with so many empty calories?
  • Gross, what you're drinking is nothing but artificial flavouring!

Western society is making a transition of people now wanting to be overall healthier now, rather than solely looking a certain way. The beauty aspect will never disappear, but people are now less willing to damage themselves to attain it and strive to find a healthy balance. The problem we're seeing now, though, is the shaming of individuals for poor healthy practices and dietary habits from the few who feel that they have "perfected" their own. The girl at the gym who eats perfectly clean now looks down on her friend for eating a burger. The personal trainer scoffs because his client chose the wrong energy bar that has too much added sugar. It's not limited to food, either. Think of the person who's mocked for not going to the gym often enough. Or even doctors and other health clinicians who get caught in this, putting negative spins on what their patients are doing and creating excessive frustration and anxiety.

To anyone who took a psychology class in school, you'll recognize this as textbook negative reinforcement. The most frustrating examples of this that I see are when professionals start to use this tactic in order to generate business. If the personal trainer can make their client feel self-conscious about what they eat and how they exercise, or if the chiropractor can make his patient feel out of control of their own health, then repeat business is (allegedly) assured.

I asked my friend Alison Quinlan, a Mental Performance Consultan who has a Master's in sport psychology, for her input on this as well.

Although food shaming on the surface appears to be coming from a place of good intent, this type of negative labelling often has an adverse effect causing a person to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty about what they are eating. These negative emotions often lead to disordered eating habits that are becoming increasingly prevalent.
Negative comments towards ones eating habits is a counterintuitive approach to helping them make a change. “Subjective norms”, which refers to the beliefs and values that we perceive other people to have towards ourselves and our acceptable behaviours, plays a large role in our choices. If a person thinks that other people will criticize their choices but they don’t get to the root of why they are making that choice, this can lead to lying or hiding the choices oppose to openly talking about the reasons behind those particular choices. In a 2014 study examining the impact of feelings of guilt versus feelings of celebration in regards to food choices, Kuijer and Boyce (2014) found that feelings of guilt (when thinking about a typical “treat food” such as chocolate cake) were associated with more negative food patterns and less feelings of control in regards to food. Whereas, people who perceived the chocolate cake to be something special and to celebrate and enjoy, were found to eat less, have more control over food choices, and at one year have maintained a healthier weight. 
Instead of judging people for what they are eating or trying to impose a “has to be this way” mentality, there are a few alternative strategies that have shown to have success and result in more positive changes for eating habits. For example, understanding the person first and how they perceive what is a “healthy” or “non-healthy” approach can be helpful. The second step is to focus on pro-active steps that are within a person’s control to make a change. For example, it just may not be feasible for a person to completely revamp their diet in a week. Instead, starting with small changes that are within their control and the person agrees to will help empower the person to make that change. For example, “this week I am going to focus on having two servings of vegetables at each meal”. This is a proactive, clear step the person can incorporate in. Allowing a person who is trying to make a change a safe and supportive environment to share their challenges and perceptions will be the positive empowerment they need to actually start to create change. (Reference)

It's not a complicated concept to grasp. The reasons on why shaming is more derogatory than beneficial should be obvious. Why does it happen then? There are probably a multitude of reasons. Ego and insecurity, perhaps, or maybe simply an overzealous attempt to offer help. It's not really my place to determine those roots. Regardless, some self-reflection for both the followers and the professionals within the fitness and healthcare industries is vital in order to maintain good mental health among those seeking help.

Indeed, society will never be without it's members who hold themselves on pedestals, and this isn't an attempt to knock them down. However, the high-and-mighty attitudes that are becoming rampant need to be kept under control. The moral here is going to sound like an after-school special; negativity is not a good catalyst for change. Demonizing poor habits creates feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression. Positive feedback helps promote positive changes.

Be kind, everyone.

Alison Quinlan is a Mental Performance Consultant, an avid athlete, and fitness enthusiast. You can find out more about on her website at http://www.kaizenmind.ca/ or follow her on Twitter.