Tag: strengthtraining

Just Because it Can Move, Doesn’t Mean it Should be Moved Often

Most of our skeletal muscles span across two or three joints. When the muscles contract, they will move the joints and create movement. To train individual muscles, you simply move the joint against resistance. At least this is the principle behind strength training. Want a bigger biceps? Do more bicep curls! We learn this in highschool biology!

The old classic biceps curl

Based on this understanding, the classic recipe of getting a solid washboard abs is to do lots of crunches and sit-ups. If you want to have strong backs, do Jefferson Curls.

One of the clips you will see on youtube when you search for “Jefferson Curl”

What Is The Problem

As they say, the devil is ALWAYS in the details. Moving individual joints may be great for individual muscle hypertrophy, but it may not always be great for joint health. Any first year biology undergraduate student can tell you that there is a spectrum of joints in our body based on its mobility and stability. The more mobile the joint, the less stable it is.

Some of the joints with varying level of mobility

Some of these joints are built for power production (i.e. speed and strength combined) while others are built for stability. Some joints are simply stronger in certain position than at other position. The spine has many joints that allows movement. Execute too many movement under load, say sit-ups or Jefferson curls, and you will end up with spine disk herniation. There’s a reason why career powerlifters and olympic weightlifters would not move their spine while lifting weights off the floor.

The Solution

Your typical undergrad should also be able to explain that there are three types of work that can be done by muscles:

  1. Concentric. Such as when you curl up in a bicep curl.
  2. Isometric. Such as when you hold the barbell at 90 0 angle without moving.
  3. Eccentric. Such as when you lower the barbell in a bicep curl.

And here is where wisdom comes into play. Training all the muscles the same way will simply result in chronic pain. For those of you with low back pain, it is easy for the doctor or physiotherapist to say “you need more core strength”. Its another thing to train your core with proper exercise in proper posture. For those that need to train their core to alleviate their low back discomfort, Back Mechanics is an excellent source. The push up is a good exercise to train your upper body and core as long as you train properly.

Use It, Or Loose It

The first thing that pops into your mind when somebody said “elderly”

Bones, just like muscles, became stronger as you train them with combination of adequate rest and nutrition. As you grow past 30, they will plateau and then slowly go on a decline. Finally, for some people, they will experience muscle shrinkage i.e. sarcopenia. Aging and its related loss of strength is natural, hence even world class athletes retire. Common university biology undergraduate textbook will tell you that this gradual loss of strength to be expected.  And some personal trainers would simply advice old people to use barbie weights to avoid injury. But how good is this suggestion?

What the Research Says

Surprise! Multiple research, including at Tuft University have actually proven that elderly musculature responded to strength training just as much as younger people do. In fact researchers at University of Potsdam shows that elderly needs up to at least 85% intensity for the improving the rate of force development. Researchers in Korea have shown that even single joint strength training can improve balance on the elderly.

Some find it sensational, but its proven that old people can beat up young professional fighters, provided that the said old person trains properly

Why Do Most Old People Don’t Train?

Laziness is an easy answer. And its true that many of these elderly don’t even like spending time doing exercise in their youth. However, some of them were physically active in their youth. So what happened?

Very common hamstring stretch that could actually give you low back pain if not done properly

Pain is the answer! Be it low nerve pain caused by lower back disorder or joint pain caused by ligament or cartilage damage. Our spine and our joints are host to different connective tissues such as spine disk, cartilage and ligaments that unlike muscles, don’t have blood capillaries in them. Due to the lack of blood capillaries, these tissues do not recover rapidly. Think of how ankle sprain took longer to heal than a cut in the arms. Years, if not decades of bad movement habits are usually one of the reasons that causes these connective tissues to deteriorate over time. Faulty stretching can also cause ligament pain if it involves ligament instead of muscle stretch. Hence movements that used to be pain free became painful as they age.

What is the Solution?

If the elderly in question prefer a fast, easy solution, then do nothing and slowly use his or her mobility is a solution. If this prospect does not sound enticing to some people, then the only solution is to hit the weight room! After all, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the research is unanimous that elderly should do weight bearing exercise. Of course for some people, a proper movement coach is needed, and some movement coach are more “equal” than others. As mentioned in my previous article, even the simple compound exercise done correctly can have rehabilitative effect while done incorrectly will damage your joints! This is the way our body is designed, especially for muscle strength, either you use it, or you loose it. For upper body exercise, the humble push up is one of the best exercise you can do without any equipment and can be easily adjusted based on strength.

Master of the Basics

Squats! Everyone knows how to do it right? Just load the bar on your shoulders and start going up and down with your legs. Deadlifts are just picking the bar off the floor. Its so easy that anyone can do it! Its also functional for strength and muscle mass building, surely everyone should do them!

Are Squat and Deadlift All That Simple?

This person was lifting the bar in a bad form while being coached by a bad trainer

Fact is, improper technique for either squat and deadlift will cause injury when its not done properly. Back when I only had an NASM personal training certification, I didn’t realize that my poor squat and deadlift form was harmful to my back. My knee dominant squat movement was damaging my knee. Now that I have properly applied the McGill techniques described in Ultimate Back Fitness and cleaned up my techniques, none of the old injuries became problematic anymore.

Can Anyone Do Standard Squat and Deadlift?

You have probably heard the news floating around on the internet. Some old grandma was having problem simply climbing up the stairs, started deadlifting, and ended up having no problems climbing up the stairs while being super strong in the process. If a grandma can do it, surely anyone can do it too right?

What is the problem with this line of thinking?

There’s a reason why femur head replacement came in different sizes and shapes. Source: The San Antonio Orthopaedic Group

Different hips and spine angle results in different movement range. This is something determined by your DNA and training will not change it. Depending on the depth of your hip socket and your lumbar spine curvature, you might not be able to pick the bar off the floor without flexing your back. Same thing can be said about achieving a deep squat. Hence not everyone can do the standard squat and deadlift movements without high risk of injury. This may sound contradictory to my post on why you should try powerlifting. Just because you can’t do standard deadlift with a perfect form doesn’t mean that you can’t reap the benefits of deadlift exercise.

How You Should Train

Move Well

You must first learn how to move properly. When I was young, the ligaments and spine disks still have the capacity to perform even with faulty movement. But as I age, those injuries pile up and causes pain. Even if you are not in pain now, its not an excuse for you not to learn how to move properly. If your back hurts the day after every leg day, your leg day is definitely breaking your back. If you are unsure, get a proper trainer that actually knows how to coach proper movement.

Move Accordingly

If you are born with hips that will not allow you to pick the bar off the floor with a straight back, you could try using a trap bar or by lifting from a higher position. You won’t be able to compete in a powerlifting meet but you can still reap the benefit of lower body posterior chain strengthening from modified deadlifts. Having said this, it could also be a movement engram i.e. software issue but this is a topic for another day.

Ultimately these “basic moves” are not as simple as it seems and unless you want to experience spine and knee injuries by your mid 30’s (like the author of this article), you should focus on the right way to move for your body. Just like in martial arts, mastering the basics is no simple matter.

Mind and Body

Modern people are poor on time and rich on distraction.  We are all about multi-tasking and it would be great if exercise can be one of those things you can multi-task away, say while watching TV and playing with your phone.

Our muscles contracts and relaxes due to electro-chemical signals from our nervous system to our muscle.  This is the reason why our body twitch uncontrollably when we accidentally get electrocuted.  This mechanism is useful in physiotherapy.  Muscles that are not used tend to shrink. When our joints are injured, we cannot do regular exercise.  Pulsed electric frequency can be used to stimulate the muscles and prevent them from shrinking while our joints are recovering.

These days, these mechanism are being used, such as by a product that sounded like “sixpack” to promote a method of gaining muscles without breaking a sweat, allowing you to finally multi-task while gaining muscle!

What is the Problem?

Electrocuting yourself while binge watching netflix might seemed to be a good idea to get six pack abs.  But what exactly are you missing when you skipped the squat rack for electric pad?

Movement Proficiency

People that are properly trained in functional movement patterns (not to be confused with a misguided youtuber with similar handle) will learn how to  move in a joint conserving way.  For example, when they squat, they will know how to engage both the posterior and anterior chain of movement, using power from the hips and how to align the knees.  This skill will enable them to move in a joint conservative way while generating high power.  You will not learn this skill if you simply zap your legs.

My main bread and butter right now is training 70-80 year old grannies proper functional movement patterns as described in Prof. McGill’s Ultimate Back Fitness. These people are people with early knee osteoarthritis issues that have been to the best orthopedic surgeons, acupuncturist and physiotherapist money can buy in Hong Kong and still find it painful to walk, sit and climb stairs. The reliefs they are getting after several sessions with me are caused by their increased movement skills and this cannot be earned by simple muscle electrocution.

Neuromuscular Connectivity

Your skeletal muscles are connected with neurons to your brain.  This connection is what enables you to consciously move your body.  The more you train, the more refined would your connection be.  Think of martial arts masters, olympic weightlifters and powerlifters that are able to recruit high proportion of their muscle fibers at multiple joints to execute a single movement in harmony.  This is connection cannot be built when your training method doesn’t even involve your conscious mind.

Bone Density

It costs USD 22,000 / kg of items shipped to ISS. NASA and CSA is definitely spending way more money sending a glorified treadmill and squat rack into space when they could save a tonne of money in the short term simply sending those muscle electrocuting pads.

Your bone is actually alive.  It has blood vessels and neural network inside.  This is why your bone can heal after fracture.  Your bone can also increase in density with repeated loading-unloading such as squats and deadlifts.  Athletes, farmers and construction workers have high bone density due to this mechanism.  Just don’t expect this benefit if you are a couch athlete.


By all means, if your goal is simple cosmetics, then these type of devices can definitely help you. Unlike training with improper movement, this method of training have no risk of harming your joints.  But proper exercise have far more benefit than simply looking buffed.  You will not get those benefits without putting the actual work.

Training for the Ages

Nobody Likes Aging! But just as surely as the time ticks, our bodies will start to slow down once we past a certain age.

In my younger days, I could cycle for hours on end but I had to stop over five years ago due to Sciatica where my L5/S1 spine disk was pinching my right foot nerve.  I only realized the relationship between cycling and sciatica through Dr. McGill whose research can be read on Back Mechanics.

For some of us, it might be one of the knees starting to act up after walking for a certain distance.  Others might be having problems with shoulder pain after a typical benchpress session.  The easiest solution seems to be to stop training all together.  If you do, your strength will surely recede, followed by your mobility and lifestyle.  Is this how you are supposed to spend your golden years?  Below are some training trips to ensure you can extend your strength and mobility further down the road.

1. Train Movement Patterns, Not Individual Muscles

When you train the muscles individually, you are training your body in separate parts, and this will create unequal loading on your joints especially the knees. Train in movement patterns instead where all the muscles in the joint can work in concert.   Think of a proper squat training that trains both your posterior and anterior chain of movement on the legs versus a knee extension exercise. Movement pattern training will allow you to train in a more joint conserving way.

2. Train With No Pain

In the old days, its fine for you to say “No Pain, No Gain!”  The fact is, once you reached a certain stage of your life, your joint collagen has been rubbed off from decades of moving improperly and your recovery rate has simply dropped.  No amount of miracle pills can change that.  Training with the same principles will only cause increased pain the next day.  A better way is to ensure the movement patterns are done correctly. You can learn more of movement pattern training in Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. This means knees should not cave inward during squats, etc. As Dr. McGill said, “practice does not makes perfect, practice makes permanent!” There is a difference between muscle pain after training and joint pain during and after training.  The former is good, the latter is bad and if your personal trainer can’t tell the difference, then you should probably get a better one.

3. Cycle Your Training

This is something powerlifters and other strength athletes have known for decades.  Basically if you keep on training the exact same way day in and day out, you will get injured.  The best way to avoid it is to cycle between training methods.  Perhaps there are days where you train with kettlebells, other days when you train with TRX, and another with classic barbells.

4. More Frequency, Less Intensity

When we train, we are actually destroying muscle tissues. These tissues would then be rebuild stronger than before.  Hence we become stronger over time.  In our younger days, the further down we “dip”, the further we would “bounce back”.  Unfortunately, as we age, the less we are able to “bounce back” from a “dip”.  Hence a person might be able to do a two hour session three times a week in his twenties to maintain his strength.  Once this person hits his fifties, a one hour session, six times a week would be far more prudent.  Then in his eighties, half hour each morning and evening, six days a week.  This way, this person will experience less “dips” without straining the recovery too much.


Just because things are starting to slow down, it doesn’t mean that you should just give up and resign to a walking stick or wheel chair.  Instead, what you need to do is to adjust your training matching your current health to ensure that you maintain your strength and mobility without harming your joints.

6 Training Myths that Should Go Away

Once you hung around at the weight room long enough, its unavoidable that you will start hearing some “tips” that many people believed in. Some sounded more scientific than others. But not all of these are true. The following are 6 myths circulating at many gyms that you should totally ignore.

Wear Weightbelts to Protect Your Back

curved deadlift

Seriously, this is a myth long proven to be false by Dr. McGill that you can read on his book Ultimate Back Fitness. Its not about how thick or tight your belt is, its about how you keep it in neutral position and use all your core muscles to stiffen it. The image above is definitely NOT something you should be doing with or without any weight belt.

Situps, Crunches and Russian Twists are your essentials for 6 pack abs

russian twist

More like essentials for bad backs. There’s a reason why US Army and Canadian Army finally listened to Dr. McGill’s research and do away with the speed sit up requirements, namely its true that its best for some people to avoid them. I for one haven’t done a single sit up for over a year and still keep my 6 pack abs. Back Mechanics will be a good place to start if you want to do away with these bad exercises and still maintain a strong core.

Machines are Safer than Weights


This is a rather convenient myth to keep especially among lazy personal trainers that don’t really want to bother coaching proper technique to their clients. Fact is among serious, injury free lifters, machines are only useful for assistance lifts after they have done the big lifts (squat, deadlift, benchpress and Overhead press) and explosive lifts (Snach, Clean and Jerk and their variations) with free weights. And there’s a reason for that, namely that big and explosive lifts requires balance and multiple muscle coordination, hence have less risk of developing muscular imbalance or movement pattern dysfunction compared to machines.

You Must Confuse the Muscle for Gains


This is a trend that started out with the bodybuilders and later expand to those trainers that believed in a perverted form of “functional training”. Interestingly, these are the very same people that do not have actual athletic performance as their benchmark. Fact of the matter is powerlifters and olympic weightlifters only focuses on limited number of exercises and yet are the strongest class of athlete strictly on the sagital plane of movement. Joint, muscle and bones becomes stronger by adaptation of progressive loading. If you keep on changing the method of loading every time you train, you will not get stronger any faster.

You Must Train to Failure for Absolute Gains


Yet another myth from the bodybuilding circle. If you train for looks, not for absolute strength, and use lots of steroids, insulin and HGH, then this might be the case. But there’s a reason why real athletes have a motto “no ego lift”. If you struggle to get the weight up, then either there was too much repetition or too much weight in that set for you at the moment. Its not just for safety reason, but also to make sure that your “neural drive” i.e. your capability to activate as much muscle fiber as possible in a single contraction remains intact.

You Must Feel the Burn Before Your Muscle Will Grow


OK, maybe not that type of burn, but you get the idea. This is yet another misguided thinking that started in the bodybuilding circle. Except that real lifters knows that you should first get your technique right first when you are starting. And even once you get into intermediate level, you must have volume days along with recovery days and intensity days to ensure a steady gain instead of a steady joint pain.

5 Reasons Why You Should Try Powerlifting

What is Powerlifting? In short, its how much you can benchpress, squat, and deadlift. Part sport is even part of the Paralympics (just the benchpress) and in US, if your bench, squat and deadlift is below 1000 pound, then you are considered a weakling. Its a shame that your average gym goer is not familiar with the training protocol despite only needing no equipment but a gym membership. Below are the top five reasons why you should try it.

You go to Train, not for working out


Many people go to the gym with the intention of “working out”. Hence many years they would “work out” and never achieve any gain. A powerlifter will go to the gym to “train” for a specific purpose, and every session will build on previous result. He is responsible to himself. Hence training is not a burden, and he will always feel a sense of satisfaction at the end of his session.

Adjusting the training variable to achieve measurable gains


If you ask a random gym goer, he would not be able to answer which program, length of rest, or even number of sets most effective for him, he can probably only answer based on what “fitness article” he previously read. This thinking is even made worse with the latest craze in “functional training“. A powerlifter will always focus his training on increasing his raw strength. That’s why he is highly aware on what training variables works and which doesn’t and how he should tweak his training when he hits a plateau. He takes full responsibility for his training regimen.

Brings plenty of benefits towards personal health

Many people claim that they go to the gym to loose weight, improve their looks or health. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Fact is, training with heavy weights, especially squat and deadlift has been proven to increase testosterone and growth hormone that is highly important to build lean muscle mass and burn fat all over the body. Plenty of research has also proven the positif benefits of weight training towards increasing bone mineral density. This is clearly far more effective than isolated muscle training you normally see at the gym.

Gives high awareness on optimal positioning and movement

Powerlifters routinely place their muscle, bone and joints on far higher weight than bodybuilders and most other athletes. But their serious injury rate is far far lower than bodybuilding and crossfit “athletes” that does far more varied training with lighter weight. This is due to emphasis on proper technique, proper joint movement and optimal use of different muscle for the most efficient force production. Far different than simply using your muscles in isolation such as a leg curl.

Trains instant power production

Fact is, bodybuilders are far weaker than powerlifters of the same size. This is due to how bodybuilders train for hyperthrophy while powerlifters train to fire all cylinders at the same time and achieve maximal output. Do you want to be the kind of person that is just weak but moves slowly?

Bogus Fitness Trend Of the Week: Low Weight for Muscle Gain

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard the latest fitness trend that goes by different names but same meaning such as “lifting lighter weights just as effective as lifting heavier weight” by Huffington Post and “quick tip: build muscle with light weight” by Men’s Fitness. All this stems from McMaster University research led by Dr. Stuart Phillips which as I quote from EurekaAlert!:

Researchers recruited two groups of men for the study–all of them experienced weight lifters–who followed a 12-week, whole-body protocol. One group lifted lighter weights (up to 50 per cent of maximum strength) for sets ranging from 20 to 25 repetitions. The other group lifted heavier weights (up to 90 per cent of maximum strength) for eight to 12 repetitions. Both groups lifted to the point of failure.

Researchers analyzed muscle and blood samples and found gains in muscle mass and muscle fibre size, a key measure of strength, were virtually identical.

If you are interested in reading the full research paper, feel free to read the paper as published on Journal of Applied Physiology on May 6, 2016.

What do Elite Strength and Conditioning Coaches Do


Quite an intriguing conclusion considering this goes against what most world class strength and conditioning coach advises when your goal is to build strength  or power. They advise lifting 85% of your 1 RM for a few times, and never push till past the point of exhaustion. Of course this could be different if the goal is fat loss or hypertrophy.

So why such vast difference in training method? Why don’t we look at a research done in 2003 by Eastern Illinois University comparing powerlifters, olympic weightlifters, and bodybuilders. Basically all of the research subjects are of the same weight, height, and thigh muscle mass. But the powerlifters and olympic weightlifters simply outlifts the bodybuilders by a big margin. If, as Dr. Phillips mentioned, “muscle mass and muscle fibre size are key measure of strength”, then shouldn’t they all be equal?

And by the way, Dr. Phillips statement “The other group lifted heavier weights (up to 90 per cent of maximum strength) for eight to 12 repetitions. ” is also funny. If you can do up to 8 – 12 reps in a single set, you are most probably NOT doing 90% of your 1 RM. Elite Russian Olympic weightlifters and elite American powerlifters can only do 2 – 3 reps when they are doing 90% to 100% of their max.

What Causes The Difference

The key here, as Dr. Stuart McGill explained in his book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, is that muscle mass and muscle fiber size are not the only keys to measure strength. Another key ingredient is called neural density. Bodybuilders tend to train 8-12 reps per set, at 70% of their 1 RM, emphasizing the “muscle burn”. Olympic weightlifters only do 3-5 reps per set, at 85% of their 1 RM, emphasizing on technique, neural “grooving” and speed to lock out position. Hence the later group ended up with much higher neural density, i.e. the capability of having all their muscle fiber fire up at the same time at high speed. If, you train with even lower weight, at much higher rep (up to 25 on the McMaster research subjects), then you can be sure that your neural density will be even lower than the average bodybuilder’s.

As you already know, our body is great in adapting towards its environment. If you train your body to do low weight, high rep isolated training, then it will be adapt at doing that. And having low neural density means that some muscles will work while others will “cool off” at the same time while you are doing a particular movement, allowing you to have longer endurance.

So at the end of the day, it depends on your goals. If your goal is muscle mass and you don’t care about strength gain, then by and large, the low weight high rep method can also be used and its probably safer than going heavy if you don’t have the movement proficiency to begin with. If your goal is strength gain, then please don’t bother with this latest fitness trend.