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Stress vs. Strain

Our bodies are built for certain physical “stresses.” They evolved to handle to them, expect them, and thrive with them. In fact, when we don’t offer our bodies reasonable exertion within these natural stresses, our systems suffer to some degree. We, in effect, downgrade our own physical robustness. Good physical stress is the day to day (hopefully) movement that supports our bone, muscle, organ, hormone, and immune function. Strain, however, results when we push our bodies beyond reasonable exertion (for our present physical condition) or when we engage in exercise without adhering to proper form and periodization. The key to maximizing our fitness gains is to optimize our good physical stress without imposing unproductive strain on our bodies. 

So, what are the “good” stresses, those inputs that are so beneficial for our fitness? Let’s review. 

  • Frequent Low Level Movement. Mark Sisson, in The Primal Blueprint, labels the imperative “Move Frequently at a Slow Pace.” The idea here is to engage in low level cardio (e.g. walking) as often as possible throughout the day. Using a pedometer like the FitBit Zip to measure 10,000-13,000 steps/day is a great means of gauging your low level movement each day. Check out Tom’s previous articles on the benefits of movement.
  • Regular Resistance Training. Sisson calls this “lift heavy things once in a while” in his fourth law of the Primal Blueprint. Periods of less volume and heavier weights can be very beneficial for most people once in a while. Fitness experts Paul Chek and Charles Poliquin recommend people should alternate between 3-4 week blocks of low volume/high intensity (i.e. 3 Sets of 8-10 Reps) and high volume/low intensity (i.e. 5 Sets X 5 Reps). Most LTF members are stuck on just the 3 X 8-10 plan. As an alternative, why not try 4 X 6-8, 5 X 5 or a 3/2/1 Ladder? Programs like this can have beneficial stress on the skeletal system for improved bone density, the nervous system to get more muscle fibers to fire, and the muscular system to activate the stubborn Type IIb fibers. It is also one of the simplest ways to get you through a training plateau.
  • Interval Training: In his fifth Primal Blueprint law, Sisson refers to this as “occasional sprinting.”. Life Time Fitness metabolic techs usually have about 10% of weekly cardiovascular training volume come from sprinting or Zone 4 work of some form. This will help increase the aerobic base and anaerobic threshold heart rates resulting in more efficient fat burning as well as increased aerobic peak to increase work capacity. In addition this type of training can help prepare you for those “unexpected situations” that happen in life where you have to move like you life depends on it. Nearly every client I have trained who has children have told me stories where they had to chase their kid to prevent an accident from happening or do an unexpected sporting event.This training helped prepare them for those moments.
  • Individualized Flexibility Based off the Movement Screen: Perform Better presenter Robb Rogers once said “20% of the exercises can solve 80% of faulty movement patterns.” What he meant by this is making sure to include a 4-6 minute dynamic warm-up at the beginning of the session or a 6-8 minute foam rolling or static stretching session at the end of the session. A movement screen from NASM or FMS certifications finds what muscles need to be stretched to open the body up prior to the session and accelerate recovery at the end of the session.
  • Primal Movement Patterns: This term is from fitness expert Paul Chek. The primal movement patterns include: push, lunge, pull, squat, rotate, bend and gait. In well-designed training programs, all seven of these movement patterns are included.
  • Structural Balance and Fiber Type Testing:  A properly designed, individualized exercise program can greatly reduce unnecessary physical stress. World-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin teaches his students the concept of structural balance in his Level 1 and 2 coaching programs. First, this ensures a client’s muscle imbalances are found and corrective strategies can be used. Often, in men it is weakness in the external rotation muscles of the upper back that can cause shoulder injuries. In women the imbalance is often in the VMOs of the legs causing knee issues. From there, muscle fiber testing is done to find out if the client needs a program of less volume/more intensity if they are fast twitch dominant, more volume/less intensity if they are slow twitch or a combination of the two in an alternating fashion.

Then there are the common strains we put on our bodies. Sometimes, it’s that we overdo a certain type of exercise. Other times, we’re simply executing the exercises wrong. In still other instances, we’re operating our bodies under suboptimal conditions, which will limit our training progress.  

  • Training When Cortisol is Too Low: I am often asked “when is the best time to train during the day?” The answer varies for everyone, but a simple way to learn is to get a stress & resilience test done. This is a saliva test that can be purchased at Life Time clubs that measures cortisol levels at four different times of the day. Many have found that best training results come at times when cortisol levels are high versus low. Also, many have found if cortisol is high in the evening, their sleep quality and exercise recovery suffer. By stretching or doing yoga in the evening, stress can be alleviated, and recovery can be enhanced.
  • Engaging in Excessive Cardio: What is meant by chronic cardio is spending the majority of the weekly training volume in Zone 3 or higher.  This can negatively affect the immune system, overstress the adrenal glands, cause people to crave sugar and possibly gain fat even though they are spending hours/week training. Mark Sisson discusses how this lifestyle had a negative effect on his health when he was an elite level endurance athlete.
  • Too Much Resistance Training Volume With No Periodization: Health club members often spend well over an hour resistance training with only the 3 Sets of 8-10 Reps model. Similar to excessive cardio, this can tax the immune system and adrenal glands. Additionally, using this method usually leads to training plateaus.
  • Traditional or No Warm-Ups Prior to Exercise: Spending 5-10 minutes on the bike or elliptical machine isn’t going to cut it as the body moves in three planes. Also, just doing cardio prior to exercise isn’t going to improve range of motion that individualized movement prep can.
  • Poor Resistance Training Biomechanics: Many gym enthusiasts have terrible form when they lift weights. Most commonly, people shorten their range of motion in exercises like the squat, chest or shoulder presses, biceps curls, and pulldown/pull-up variations. This is the number one reason why many people think lifting weights makes you muscle bound and tight. Improper form makes muscles tight and causes unnecessary strain on the body.
  • Focusing Only on Front Muscles: Most training programs emphasize front dominated exercise selection such as chest, shoulders, biceps and abs. This can make posture worse over time and increase the potential for orthopedic injury. Additionally, colleagues of mine who are trained in corrective exercise techniques such as active Isolated stretching, muscle activation techniques, postural restoration and Z-health have found that once posture is fixed, recovery and breathing are improved and plateaus in muscle gain or fat loss can be broken.

Finally, let’s look at what you can do to minimize unnecessary strain and maximize fitness progress.

  • Get a Stress & Resilience Test Done: As previously stated, this simple test can tell you the best times of the day you can train and enjoy the highest energy levels.
  • Have a Fitness Professional Assess Your Movement: By getting a movement screen done, muscle imbalances can be found. From there, individualized flexibility routines using a dynamic warm-up, foam rolling or post workout stretching like static or PNF can be used for tight muscles. From a strength standpoint, corrective exercises can be used for weak muscles.
  • Work with a Metabolic Tech to Optimize Your Cardio: Based on your activity a metabolic tech can recommend the best heart rate monitor or pedometer for you. Next, by doing an Active Metabolic Assessment, individualized training zones can be found and the right balance of workout intensities can be used. Finally, by doing future assessments or metabolic coaching, progressions and adjustments can be made monthly to optimize results as your body changes.
  • Work With a Personal Trainer to Design a Balanced and Periodized Training Program: A good trainer can design a good 12-week or longer training program that balances the right exercises for your body. From there, the program can be broken down into 3-4 week training blocks that incorporate the appropriate intensity and minimize overtraining.

What has been your experience with adding good stress and eliminating straining situations from your workout? Offer your thoughts and questions!

Written by Corey Grenz - Personal Trainer 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.




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