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Semper Pullus

Strength Is A Skill–You Just Need To Practice

The Marine Corp just decided to delay implementation of the 3 pull up proficiency mandate for female recruits as only 45% of the female soldiers could achieve this level of proficiency.  They plan on revising their training protocol and assessing the results later in the year.

Bad news sells.  The stories that broke in the newspapers and on TV all mentioned that 55% of the female recruits could not achieve three pull ups, but what they did not tell you was that the duration of the training was only sixteen weeks and that the initial level of fitness for many of the female recruits was poor.  Ask any strength coach that has trained female clients and they will tell you that the Marine Corp pass rate of 45% on the 3 pull up test is above average.

The October 28, 2013 issue of the New York Times ran an article detailing all of the reasons women are unable to perform pull ups.  Research done at the University of Dayton on a pull up training program was the basis of the New York Times article.  The program consisted of only seventeen participants, so the training protocol was far from optimal.  The fact that they were able to progress four of the seventeen participants to one pull up with this flawed three month regimen shows that nearly every female can achieve pull up prowess.

For the military, the three pull up test demonstrates that the soldier can manipulate her body weight over an obstacle.  If you can perform three pull ups, you will be able to get out of a ditch, climb a fence, and haul your body out of the water and onto a raft.  For fitness clients, the ability to perform pull ups improves posture, bulletproofs the shoulders and makes you less likely to develop head, neck, and upper back pain problems.  Pull up proficiency makes you stronger at other skills, such as push-ups, sprinting, and throwing.  I have some suggestions on how female trainees can get better at pull ups.

Do Not Train With Other Machines
Strength is a skill and just like any other skill it is neurologically very specific.  You will not get better at hitting golf balls by hitting a tennis ball–it is too different.  Lat pull down machines, incline total gym trainers, and all other devices are too different from a fixed bar pull up.  If your goal is to get better at pull ups, you have to stay away from these devices.

Perform Inverted Rows
Watch the video and add this exercise to your training program.  Inverted rows require proper positioning of the spine and shoulders.  Inverted rows will make you better at initiating the movement with the back muscles and not the arms.  The horizontal pull strength you develop with an inverted row compliments the vertical pulling skill you need to perform a bar pull up.

Do Not Train To Failure
Pull up prowess requires you to make a connection between multiple muscles in a manner that will be very new to most fitness clients.  You need to keep the neural lines of communication fresh and free from fatigue.  You will start your training with one solid repetition followed by an extended recovery.

Do Not Train Your Biceps
You need to learn to pull with your back muscles and not your arms.  Stay away from any kind of direct biceps training while you are working on your pull up program.  Your biceps will get stronger from the pull up training.  Gymnasts are the “pull up kings” of the athletic world and they perform no direct biceps exercise activity.  This was a big mistake in the University of Dayton research program.

Do Not Do A Lot Of Cardio
The University of Dayton program had their female clients do cardio activity in an effort to lower their body fat levels so they would have less to lift during a pull up.   Lots of cardio blunts your acquisition of greater strength.  It is difficult to get stronger if you are sapping your recovery capacity with lots of miles on the treadmill or bike.  Use intervals of intense work with short rest periods as a substitute.  Increasing the strength and control of your muscles keeps you lean, pain free, and healthy for a lifetime.

Improve Your Thoracic Spine Mobility
Many fitness clients have a thoracic spine- mid and upper back- that is stuck in flexion.  Hours in the car, computer work, iphone, and some poor training practices have locked them in a bent over position.  You need to be able to extend the thoracic spine in order to set the pulling muscles of the back in a proper position for a successful pull up.  A simple foam roll can help improve extension in the thoracic spine.

Train With A Band Assist
The pull up novice needs to use the assist of an elastic band.  The band gives you assist at the bottom of the pull up, and then has you working harder as you get closer to the bar.  Make sure you keep your knee down so the band does not snap off the leg.

Do Not Kip a Pull Up
“Kipping” a pull up is when you use motion of the lower body and torso to help propel your body up toward the bar.  As a physical therapist who treats people with shoulder pain problems, I love the kipping pull—especially for high repetitions.  As a strength coach interested in improving function and not injuring clients, kipping a pull up places far too much stress on the shoulders of clients who are new to overhead training.  When you have trained on improving your pull up performance for six months and can execute six solid smooth pull ups, you may be ready for some kipping pull ups.

Train Pull Ups More Often
The beginner golfer who practices five days a week is going to have an advantage over the golfer who practices twice a week.  Pull ups are a skill and newbies need to practice more often.  Get a bar set up in a doorway at home–one you must walk under frequently.  Get your kids to practice pull ups and work on this skill as a team.

Improve Rib Cage Stability
The pulling muscles of the upper back attach to your rib cage.  You need to be able to hold the front of your rib cage down with your abdominal muscles to become proficient at pull ups.  Get better at planks, ball roll outs, and the power wheel, and you will get better at pull ups.

Be Patient And Stay Consistent
It is going to take longer than three or four months to become proficient at pull ups.  You need to give this training nine months.  If you have long arms it is going to take more time to get better at pull ups.  Female Olympic level gymnasts are four feet, nine inches tall, so they make it look easy.

The Formula
Three days a week in the gym you do this:  Set up a bar with a band if you need an assist.  Perform one smooth repetition and then stop.  Go do something else as long as it is not biceps exercises or long slow duration cardio, and then come back to the bar in seven to ten minutes and do another single repetition.  Repeat this process three or four times every time you go to the gym.  As you get stronger, use a lighter assist band or perform two repetitions as long as each repetition is smooth and struggle free.  On two of your off days, perform three or four single pull ups.  Space them out throughout the day.  One pull up in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night.  The emphasis should be on performing every repetition in a smooth and struggle free fashion and keeping your neural system free of fatigue.  Perform inverted rows for three sets at least twice a week.  Work on your thoracic spine mobility with a foam roll, and improve the strength of the rib cage stabilizers with some planks and roll outs.

Test Progress
Every six weeks, test your maximal pull up capacity.  How many pull ups can you perform in a row with no assist.  Do not get discouraged if after six weeks you cannot perform a single.  Only 20% of the female trainees will get a single with just six weeks of training, but after twelve weeks, 40% of them will get one pull up.  Most will require five months of training to get a single pull up.  The good news is that once you achieve a level of success with pull ups, your body holds on to the neural connections that make them easy to perform.  As your skill level increases, it takes less effort to get even better at pull ups.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

Testing Fitness Readiness

Isometric Spinal Extension Strength Test

A big problem in the fitness industry is that there are no standardized performance evaluations that participants must achieve in order to begin or progress in an exercise activity.  Anyone, no matter how deconditioned, posturally flawed, and orthopedically challenged can walk into the gym and get a workout.  As a strength and conditioning coach, the present “free for all” system is a challenge that at times can be very frustrating.  As a physical therapist treating orthopedic injuries on a daily basis, the present system keeps me busy.  Performance tests and movement assessments identify asymmetries, strength deficits, and potential pain problems.  A good coach uses assessments to determine the appropriate exercise prescription for their client.  I will be posting some basic user-friendly performance assessment tests that should be a part of all fitness programs.  If you pass the tests, congratulations and keep up the good work.  If you did poorly on the tests, you need to get to work on improving your performance.

Isometric Spinal Extension Strength Test
The muscles around your spine and pelvic girdle are designed to reduce and not create motion.  They are isometric muscles that brace the torso and pelvis to create the pillar strength you need to carry in firewood, lift the wheelbarrow, or push the lawn mower.  The Isometric Spinal Extension Strength Test is an assessment of the component of core stability that isometrically resists spinal flexion.  This test is used in industrial medicine to assess a worker’s ability to return to material handling tasks.  In my evaluation of fitness clients, it is often the stability test with the most significant deficits.

You need a Roman Chair or Glute-Ham Developer Bench to perform this test.  The support pad of the bench should be on the front of the thigh just set below the pelvis.  Position your body so that the ankles, knee, hips, and lumbar spine are in one long line that is parallel to the floor.  Cross the arms across the chest and hold a solid, floor parallel position as long as you are able.  Pain with the test is a fail and you need to be evaluated to find out why the test is painful.  Less than thirty seconds is a poor grade.   You need to improve your performance, and in the meantime, avoid activities that require you to resist spinal flexion-resisted squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and bent over rows.  Thirty to sixty seconds is a fair grade and clears you for most resistance training.  Athletes and those involved in occupations that require lifting and carrying need the isometric strength that permits a sixty-second hold.
Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

30 Minutes Of Fitness

Remember, You Asked For It

“I don’t have enough time” is the big excuse people give for not exercising.  At FFAC, we can get you in and out of the gym in thirty minutes.  Our movement based training sessions produce excellent results with minimal time commitment.  We program in high value exercise activities that produce optimal gains.  This is the second of six, 30 Minutes of Fitness, sessions.  The best workouts are short, intense and frequent.  Intensity is usually the missing factor in most gym goer’s training.
Session Two
1.    Four point thoracic rotations x 10 each side.
2.    TRX “Stoney Stretches” x 10 each leg.
3.    A. Sled Push 3 x 50 yards.
B. Kettlebell Swings 3 x 12 repetitions.
4.    A. TRX Atomic Push-ups 3 x 6-10 repetitions
B. Dumbbell Row right / left 3 x 6-10 repetitions.
5.    Medicine Ball Rotation Throws 3 x 4 repetitions each side.

One and Two:  Start with the two mobility drills for ten repetitions on each side.  If you sit all day, these two drills should be part of your daily mobility routine.
Three:  Load up a sled with + /- 10% of your bodyweight and push it 50 yards.  Rest for no longer than thirty seconds and then perform twelve good kettlebell swings–lots of hip motion and minimal knee bend.  Remember a swing is a hip dominant explosive throw, not a slow squat pattern lift.  Repeat this circuit three times.  
Four:  Set up a TRX for Atomic Push-ups followed by a dumbbell row on each side.  Move back and forth between the two exercises for three sets.
Five:  Finish with some rotational medicine ball throws off the wall for three sets of four on each side.  You should be done in well under thirty minutes.

Session Two 30 Minute Synopsis
Effective mobility training.
Twelve sets of strength training exercises.
Explosive power production training.

Watch the attached video and if you are still unsure of how to perform any of the exercises get with one of our trainers for some instruction.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

Skeletal Strengthening

Exercise Training That Prevents Osteoporosis

bending_the_age_curveI recently heard a talk by Dr. Joseph Signorile on the latest and greatest research in regards to exercise that prevents and reverses osteoporosis.  Dr. Signorile is a professor of kinesiology at the University of Miami.  He is an expert on fitness for older adults and conducts research in the field of geriatrics.  Based on what field proven research is telling us today, Dr. Signorile has these suggestions:

Bone reacts best to dynamic mechanical stimulation.  The best bone building exercises create a stress that changes as we move, rather than a static force.  Progressive resistance training involves moving your body against a resistance.

If a bone is to respond to training, the stimulus must be at a suprathreshold level.  The participants in the studies that got the best results carried, lifted, pulled, and pushed some serious loads.  “Suprathreshold level” means it has to be physically challenging.  Elliptical training and those five pound chrome dumbbells will not produce a bone building response.

Optimal bone building skeletal loading.  What the research studies have found is that the best gains occurred with forty repetitions of loading at each skeletal region per training session.  Less than forty is less than optimal.  More than forty repetitions have no further bone building benefit.  Two or three properly executed exercises can take care of loading the entire skeleton.  An appropriate skeletal training session can be made up of 80-120 repetitions.  You can get that done in fifteen minutes.

The response of bone to exercise is improved by brief but intermittent exercise.  Loading your skeleton more frequently creates a stronger mineralization response in the bone.  Five or six training sessions per week will produce more bone density than two or three sessions per week.

Bone responds best when you employ a loading pattern that differs from the usual loading pattern.    I have been ranting about this for years.  Bone only adapts–gets stronger–when the exercise stimulus is a challenge beyond what you have subjected the bone to in the past.  If you have been performing the same activity at the same load for months on end, the bone building stimulus is minimal.   To improve bone health, you should alter the exercises you perform every three to four weeks.

What the research recommends….
Based on what the research is telling us, Dr. Joe recommends you perform a program of dynamic weight training that delivers forty repetitions of loading at each section of your skeletal system.  You will see better results with more frequent training sessions and consistent alteration in exercise activities.  Pick two or three exercises and load them aggressively for forty repetitions each.  Perform your exercise three to five times a week and change your exercises every month.  To learn more, talk to our trainers for some bone building exercise suggestions.
Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

Moving Mortality

Just Slowing Down Will Slow You Down

PedometerPhysical therapists and rehab professionals know that bed rest or immobilization of a limb in a cast creates muscle atrophy in a short period of time.  Two or three weeks of either can produce a 25% loss of muscle mass.  But what about just slowing down–deliberately restricting the number of steps taken in a day—what happens then?  A group of researchers in Canada wanted to find out*.

The researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario had ten healthy older adults restrict activity to less than 1500 steps a day for fourteen days.  All of the participants were active prior to the study.  The average daily step count for those two weeks came out to 1413.  The surprising test results are listed below.  Given the short duration of activity restriction, this study should make us all nervous about “slowing down” for any period of time.

•    Leg fat free mass reduced by 4 percent.
•    Insulin sensitivity was reduced by 43 percent.
•    Inflammation markers increased by 25 percent.
•    Muscle protein synthesis was reduced by 26 percent.
•    Total body fat increased 7 percent.

This study reinforces how essential consistent activity is to our health and independence.   As a society, our overall activity level has dropped.  I encourage my physical therapy patients and fitness clients to track their daily step count with a pedometer**.  Most of us over estimate our activity level and need to make a deliberate effort to move more during the day.

In another article, I will have more information on step studies and a reasonable step goal for optimal health.

*The study was published online April 15, 2013, in the Journal of Clinical Endocrine Metabolism.

**Yamax and Garmin make reliable pedometers and they cost around $45.00.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

Super Recovery

Super Bowl Quarterback Peyton Manning

Peyton_ManningPeyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback, will cap off a miraculous recovery from a serious neck injury with his appearance in the Super Bowl this weekend.   Mr. Manning has undergone numerous surgeries and procedures on his cervical spine.  The details of his medical treatment and rehabilitation are the topic of speculation on many sports talk shows.  We do know that he underwent an anterior fusion of his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae.  An incision is made in the front of the neck and the two bones are fused together using screws and a titanium plate.  The fusion removes compressive forces off the nerve root that exits between the vertebrae and eliminates any movement between these two spinal segments.

Compression on the seventh cervical nerve root creates all kinds of problems for someone who throws a football for a living.  This nerve root carries the signals that fire the triceps muscle (back of the arm) and muscles that help grip the ball.  Trauma to the seventh cervical nerve root can cause loss of sensation in the fourth and fifth fingers of the hand.  Loss of neural control not only has an effect on muscle strength, but also on power production.  You need to be able to create muscle contractions quickly to throw a pass with any velocity.  If the signal that is sent down the seventh cervical nerve root is impeded by compression or inflammation, the pass will be slow.

There are risks associated with playing professional football with a fused cervical spine.  When you fuse the sixth and seventh vertebrae together, you lose about 10% of the range of motion in your neck and you also lose some of the shock absorption capacity in your spine.  The compressive forces and range of motion lost at the fused C6-7 segments are transferred to the vertebrae above and below the fusion.  In the general population, thirty percent of the patients who undergo a cervical fusion require a second fusion in 10 years.  I was unable to find a statistic on pro football players, but I am certain this percentage has to be much higher.

Cervical fusions are not uncommon in professional football, and 70% of the players who have a fusion are able to return to competition.  Mr. Manning plays at the high skill position of quarterback and his passing numbers this year have been amazing.  Win or lose this weekend, Peyton Manning, surgical medicine, and physical rehabilitation deserve applause.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

How To Score Your First Push Up

Improving Performance Of A Fundamental Fitness Activity

Improving push up performance enhances spinal stability from the base of the skull to the pelvis, as well as strength in the shoulder girdle.  Push ups are a valuable exercise that improves multiple aspects of fitness in a short amount of time.  Various types of push ups can be used to achieve different goals such as better rotator cuff coordination, power production, or muscular endurance.  Many people have never been able to perform a single solid push up.  Getting better at performing push ups is easy.  The trick is breaking the push up into pieces.

Push Up Planks
The biggest limitation for beginners is limited core and shoulder girdle stability.  The torso and hips sag and the shoulder blades wing off the rib cage.  To remedy these problems, work on improving isometric stability with push up planks.  Set up in the top position of the push up and hold for thirty to sixty seconds.  Get a mirror or have a training partner check your position.  Keep the gluteal muscles tight and pull the shoulder blades down the back.  Elevate the feet on a bench or box to increase the challenge.

Eccentric Push Ups
The most difficult portion of a push up is the eccentric or the lowering phase.  You often see “half push ups” performed in the gym because the trainee is unable to maintain control if they drop any further.  Start from the top of the push up and lower in a controlled fashion all the way to the floor.  You will probably find that the bottom half is difficult to control–keep trying, it will get better.  Perform two or three sets of three eccentric push ups.

Dead Stop Push Ups  
The neural link up between varying muscle groups needs to be turned on to make a push up happen.  Starting your push up from a dead stop off the floor improves these connections.  Lay prone and place the hands on the floor directly adjacent to the armpits with the elbows back.  Your upper arm should be no higher than 60 degrees from your side.  Set your body by tightening up the shoulders, pulling in the chin, and bracing the abdominals and gluteal muscles.  Think about moving quickly off the floor.  Return to the floor, recharge your neural system with a ten second rest, reset, and perform another repetition.  Once you get up to five good dead stop push up repetitions, move on to a full push up from the top position.

BOSU Leverage Push Ups
If you are not able to perform a push up from your toes instead of dropping onto the knees, I recommend using a BOSU under the thighs.  It will produce a higher core stability demand, and I have found it has far more carry over to a true, full push up than the kneeling “girls push up’.

Avoid Training To Failure
Getting better at push ups is more neural than it is muscular.  You make better progress if performing fewer repetitions with good technique rather than dozens of bad push ups.  If you want to improve your push up performance, do not train your push ups to the point of failure.  Stop the set with one or two repetitions “still in the tank”.  If six repetitions is your maximum, stop at four, rest, and then repeat for another sub maximal set.  Try laddering your sets of push ups; perform a five repetition set, and then a four repetition set, and then a three until you reach one repetition.  You will increase the total work volume–more practice, without exhausting the nervous system.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

30 Minutes Of Fitness

Remember, You Asked For It

“I don’t have enough time” is the big excuse people give for not exercising.  At Fenton Fitness,  we can get you in and out of the gym in thirty minutes.  Our movement based training sessions produce excellent results with minimal time commitment.  We program in high value exercise activities in a layout that produces optimal gains.  This is the first of six, 30 Minutes of Fitness, sessions.  The best workouts are short, intense, and frequent.  Intensity is usually the missing factor in most gym goers’ training sessions.

Session One
1.    Moving knee to chest mobility drill x 20 yards
2.    World’s Greatest Stretch x 20 yards
3.    Sled Push x 100 yards
4.    A. Push ups 3 x 8-12 repetitions
B. Inverted row or TRX row 3 x 6-10 repetitions.
C. Kettlebell Goblet Squat 3 x 6-10 repetitions.
5.    Medicine Ball Overhead Throws off wall 3 x 5 repetitions.

One and Two:  Perform the two basic movement preparation drills for twenty yards each.
Three:  Load your sled up with +/- 20% of your body weight and give it a push for 100 yards.  You can rest as needed, but try to get the entire 100 yards completed in less than five minutes.
Four:  You should be warmed up, breathing faster, and ready for some strength training.  Perform the next three exercises in a circuit fashion.  A set of push ups followed by a set of rows and then a set of goblet squats.  Between the different exercises, rest as little as possible, and then after you get through an entire circuit, you can take a longer 90 second break.  Repeat the circuit three times.
Five:  Work on power production with three sets of overhead medicine ball throws.  Use a weight that lets you throw a line drive and not a lob.
Choose the appropriate exercise variation and load for your strength exercises.

Session One Synopsis:
Effective mobility training.
Total body conditioning.
Twelve sets of strengthening exercises.
Explosive power training.

See the video for more information.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

The Lazy Man’s VO2 Max

You’re In Pretty Good Shape For An Old Guy

VO 2 Max testing is a very useful assessment of fitness.  It is a measure of peak oxygen uptake and has been shown in large-scale studies to closely correlate with longer life spans.  Unfortunately VO 2 Max testing requires a physiology lab and a session on a treadmill that I can only describe as a nausea-inducing, up hill run while wearing a gas mask.  Recently a group of Norwegian researchers created a very accurate on-line calculator of VO 2 Max and fitness age.

The mathematical algorithms the calculator is based upon are from the physiology lab assessments of over 5000 Norwegians of every age from 20 to 90.  You simply plug in your age, sex, exercise frequency and intensity, resting heart rate and waist size in centimeters.  The computer will give you your VO 2 Max number (bigger is better) and fitness age (lower is better).

I have run the Norway VO 2 Max evaluation on several friends, fitness clients, and family members.  The results have been an education for everyone.  The need to exercise at higher intensity levels and reduce waist size was a surprise to many who took the test.  Take the time to plug in your data and get your score.

Evaluate your score here: http://www.ntnu.edu/cerg/vo2max

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

Huffin’ And Puffin’

Conditioning Sessions: Better Results, Less Time, And Fewer Injuries

sledFor most of the fitness clients I work with, long duration cardio training—thirty minutes on the treadmill, forty minutes on the elliptical, and any time on a recumbent bike is a waste of training time.  It does nothing to move them toward their fitness goals.  A far better choice is to perform strength training followed by a conditioning session.  Conditioning sessions are very different than long duration “cardio”.  Conditioning work is performed for short durations at high intensity.  You link different drills together in a series to produce a metabolism boosting session that lasts ten to twenty minutes.

Conditioning Benefits
Conditioning sessions speed up your metabolism–your body uses more calories just walking around, sitting, sleeping, etc.
It improves your capacity to perform functional tasks such as lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling.
It is never boring–changing the stimulus changes your body.
Conditioning sessions maintain the physical properties we lose as we age–muscle mass, bone density, and power production.
Conditioning is time efficient–a properly designed session takes ten to twenty minutes and you are done.
You are far less likely to suffer an injury because you are not performing the same movement patterns for multiple hours every week.
Proper programming of a conditioning session will allow you train around an injury.
Conditioning can be scaled to any fitness level.
It is fun.

Conditioning Drawbacks
It will never–and should never–get easy.
You will need a new wardrobe because all of your pants will get looser.
You will not be able to watch TV while you exercise.
It will get you kicked out of Planet Fitness.

Since most gym goers are unfamiliar with conditioning training, we will be posting information on our favorite tools and a monthly conditioning session.  Give these a try and let us know how you do.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS