The System

Here’s a little story. Jean Claude Van Damme walks into a bar. His loose fitting tank top sits on top his oiled, shorn body, glistening under the dim lights. His pants are baggy, always baggy. His $3,000 loafers side step a spilled drink on the floor and he surveys the bar.

This bar is like most bars: a mash up of disgusting human behavior and a few shiny gems strewn about. One gem catches Jean’s eye, a beautiful creature sitting at the bar. With hair like a fresh brewed espresso and fingers as crafty as a bonobo, this beauty lazily reclines on a barstool. One arm dangles over the back of the stool, the other consumes a juicy, fleshy treat.

“You know…I could eat a peach for hours…” says Nic Cage, the beautiful creature. A powerful feelings sweeps over Jean’s loins as he knows his night — Nay! His life! — cannot be complete without speaking to, without learning the secrets of Nic Cage’s heart.

Jean saunters up, thumbs hooked in his waist band, squeezing a few beads of sweat out onto his shoulders. He catches Cage’s attention and slowly rumbles, “Hello my sweet, may I buy you a dreenk?”

Cage, is startled, “Sorry boss, but there’s only two men I trust. One of them’s me. The other’s not you.”

Jean’s face slips into desperation. He can no longer hold onto his beaded sweat and it begins to embarrassingly soak through his tank top. Suddenly, a paw thuds on Jean’s shoulder. Despite the grease and sweat, the paw remains motionless after the sound of the clap echoes through the bar. All music and conversation has stopped. All eyes are on the man with the paw.

It’s literally a paw. There’s a guy holding a bear paw, and he slapped it onto Jean’s shoulder. It’s the creepy “Get off my train,” guy from the movie Ghost. He stares into Jean’s eyes and then asks, “Who do you think yer talkin’ to?” his words spilling out like gravel.

Jean’s biceps flex hard and he performs a flurry of unnecessary splits and the guy from Ghost falls through a wooden table, pieces of wood exploding throughout the room. A swarm of bar patrons rush to engage Jean, who somehow has already removed his shirt and is adamantly flexing, increasing his systolic blood pressure well over 170. Johnny Cage steps from behind a row of trees and Steven Segal somersaults into the room. Boba Fett crashes through the roof while Danny DeVito in his Penguin attire from Batman Returns stumbles in, opening and closing his umbrella menacingly. All of these villains begin beating Jean to the ground. As they pummel him, Jean looks through the mass of punches and kicks to see Nic Cage sitting on his bar stool laughing…laughing.

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Allow me to explain.

You are Jean Claude Van Damme. Your attraction to Nic Cage is your “bright idea”. Everything that happens after is a reflection of your bad decisions. Think of the bar in the story as your “system”.

I use the term “system” to summarize all of the crap going in the human body. In physiology, we teach all the systems separately to understand the whole. Systems of the body include the integumentary (skin), skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, circulatory, lymphatic and immune, respiratory, urinary, digestive, and reproductive. It’s easy to forget how these are interrelated, whether from a training perspective or in modern medicine.

In our case, it’s important to pay attention to all the stuff that effects our system. This awareness can help make programmatic adjustments to prevent illness, injury, or poor performance because the state of the system is an indicator of recovery capability. If the system is “depressed”, or something causes a debilitating effect on it, then all functions of the system are hampered.

Let’s go through two case studies.

The first is a person with a lot of emotional stress due to relationship issues for a month. Significant emotional stress itself can lowers the can lower the capability of the system, but it’s often associated with altered dietary and sleep habits. The person is tired, not getting enough calories, full of inflammatory stress hormones, and then on top of all of that, they are trying to maintain their normal training load.

The person in this example now has a depressed system and their physiology is not functioning at a normal level. Now imagine that they go out for a night of drinking and stay up late — events that depress the system. Their metabolism is working to oxidize the alcohol and they are dehydrated, further harming the system. A day or so later, they get sick.

It’s not that they were hit with a super bug infection that knocks them on their ass. It’s that their system had the shit kicked out of them by several different things and a minor bacteria or virus took advantage of the immune system being compromised. A good training program is a stress on the system. But so is emotional stress, a lack of sleep, binge drinking, and a lack of calories. All of the factors together create a storm that the body can’t recover from. Eventually there will be a fail point.

For the second case study, we’ll travel to  this Reddit post in /weightroom. The TL;DR is that a young fella’s deadlift strength has significantly decreased. He made a list of potential contributing factors he thought may be contributing. My answer is in the comments (/u/70sbig), but I wasn’t surprised to hear that he took a few weeks off, started a manual labor job, was training 7x/wk, decreased his deadlift frequency, and had a decrease in caloric intake.

Any one of those things would provide a change on his system that would likely have a debilitating effect. Seeing them all sitting before you in succession makes it very obvious to see why his strength suffers. But if you’re living your life and not looking at all of the variables that can influence training, it’s easy to miss them until the fail point occurs. The fail point is when you get injured, miss a lift, or finally realize you’re sick.

You easily can find yourself in a situation. You’re in a metaphorical bar (a depressed system) attracted to a beautiful creature (training). You won’t see the danger you’re in until you’re getting a solid beat down from Segal, Boba, and bad guys that know Whoopi Goldberg (the things walloping your system). Look, this metaphor is wildly out of control. The lesson is this: you may not be able to avoid problematic circumstances, but you can at least identify them and make better decisions to accommodate them. The last thing you want is to helplessly see the face of Nic Cage laughing at you uncontrollably.

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Contributors to Disc Injuries

One of the most worrisome injuries to a lifter, athlete, or hard charging trainee is a spinal disc injury. For years I’ve gotten questions about management, rehab, and easing back into lifting from this particular injury. This post doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, but will give a brief overview on why these injuries occur. Understanding the “why” will help prevent and rehabilitate them.

There are three things that contribute to a disc injury and any of them alone is enough to cause a problem. They are: body mechanics, lifting mechanics, and mobility.

Body mechanics merely means how a person moves (or doesn’t move) throughout the day, including posture and gait. We can throw around terms like “kinesthetic awareness”, “motor control”, and even “neuromuscular efficiency”, but it all boils down to what kind of positions the body is in. Usually we pay attention to our body position in training, especially our preferred modality of training, but neglect it throughout the day.

Body mechanics include what you do on a regular basis. Do you work at a desk and then commute a couple of hours? Lots of sitting. Do you slouch to one side to lean your elbow on your chair to use your mouse? These habitual positions can contribute to tightness or muscle dysfunction. Instead of dissecting every possible incorrect position, you need to learn what “right” is and try and do that most of the time.

Lifting mechanics is what it sounds like; the technique you use when loaded. Increased loading on the body is great for building strength, but if your technique is consistently sloppy, you can get chronic inefficient loading that can contribute to a more serious problem or injury. Quality is more important than quantity, regardless if we’re talking about lifting or CrossFit. Optimal mechanics will prevent misloading the wrong soft tissue structures.

Mobility in this case refers to your ability to properly achieve full range of motion in the major joints to properly and safely execute movements in every day life, training, or competition. Even if your lifting mechanics are perfect, crappy mobility can contribute to soft tissue irritation.

For example, if a lifter has general tightness in the hips and lower back, and they cannot properly load the muscles of the thighs and hips in a squat or deadlift, the force will dissipate to other structures that should not be loaded, like the lumbar spine. Doing this a lot over time can cause disc irritation, especially when combined with poor body and lifting mechanics.

If you know you have a deficiency in one of the above factors, educate yourself on how to improve it and incorporate it into your schedule. If you can’t help sitting down a lot during the day, then you know you’ll have to increase your mobility effort to make up for it. Add in a couple of mobility exercises to target your problem areas on a regular basis. Don’t make it complicated; simple mobility exercises will suffice. Find a way to improve your lifting mechanics, whether it be video form checks or hiring a coach. Learn how to avoid bad posture throughout the day. Focus on the three areas of body mechanics, lifting mechanics, and mobility to avoid disc related injuries. If you already have a disc injury, then it’s imperative you improve all three.

Chalk Talk #11 – Barbell Complex

Barbell complexes are merely using a light weight for moderate to high reps in several exercises in a row without rest. In this video, I demonstrate a simple complex of ordinary barbell exercises as well as explain the benefits of complexes. They include building muscle, a low to medium systemic total body stress, a decent workout when strapped for time, and decent conditioning work.

Chalk Talk #9 – One Arm Farmer’s Walk

Remember when we did soft tissue work on the QL to relieve tension on the pelvis and sacrum? Well, now we’re going to do an incredibly useful and necessary exercise to strengthen the quadratus lumborum, and it’s a one arm farmer’s walk. This is a must-do exercise for all populations as it can significantly improve back health and prevent injury.

Regular farmer’s walks are a simple two-handed carry exercise to work on grip strength and loading the entire body. The one arm variation will function differently. Whereas regular farmer’s are to be done heavy, the one arm sort should be light to moderate. The goal isn’t to move the most weight, the goal is to maintain a stable, neutral trunk position (with the chest up and lower abs contracted) without slouching the shoulders. Putting an emphasis on not leaning over in the trunk or hips forces the QL to maintain leverage of the trunk, hence our reason for executing this exercise.

The first time I did this exercise, I just used a 24kg kettlebell (~53 pounds) and could not only feel my QL during the movement, but had a healthy soreness the next day or two. Strengthening the QL along with regular soft tissue work will likely reduce tweaks or strains and improve how your lower back, pelvis, and S/I area feel.

Throw these in at the end of your training session every week, but don’t do them if you’re gonna go heavy in the next session. You don’t want your stabilizing muscles to be sore or fatigued when trying to lift heavy. They would work well in the last session of the week with adequate rest after until you are accustomed to them. Remember, weight isn’t the key; good trunk position and QL activation is.

On Drugs and Supplements

I almost died.

I was in the bathroom of the football field house as a freshman in college. The offensive coordinator, a 6’5 290+ former offensive lineman, occupied one of the toilets in the cramped bathroom. The man lived on cheap coffee and cigarettes. And greasy food. And ash trays, garbage, and misery. I knew he lived on these things because I could distinguish all of them in the pungent, putrid odor from the horrible deuce he was dropping when I walked in to take a piss. I barely escaped without vomiting, much less my life.

Now that I think about that day ten years ago, I realize how horribly unhealthy that coach was. It makes me think about people who poison their bodies in the hopes of comforting themselves, feeling better, or even performing better. Let’s get a handle on what we’re doing to our bodies before we turn into a biohazard spill in a public bathroom.

Let’s break a healthy life down into practical components. There’s physical health, or the physiologic function of the body. There’s mental health, which more so concerns things like self-esteem, productivity, and education. Lastly, there’s emotional health which can encompass social health, spiritual stuff, and stress. I’m generalizing, but these are basic aspects of health. This website usually tries to maximize these areas in order to increase performance. For example, managing life stress effects sleep quality which plays a major role in training recovery. Time management will determine how much time we get to spend training in a week. These various aspects of health not only constantly interact with one another, but they are affected by things we consume.

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I really like how The Zone Diet’s Barry Sears put an emphasis on saying, “Food is a drug,” in his original book. He was explaining the hormonal response of food choices and its effect on health. But we need to remember that everything else you consume is a drug too, and drugs have intended results as well as secondary unintended results called side effects. Learning what substances do to our body is important for health. let’s look at what other substances we consume.

Other than food, there are:
Supplements – Things we consume in order to augment health or performance
Performance enhancement drugs – Things that have a more overt role in increasing performance and are usually illegal in the U.S.
Illegal Drugs – Things like marijuana or hard drugs that have a desired effect (and are usually illegal).
Vice Drugs – Legal things like caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, dipping tobacco that we indulge in for their effect. Some are worse than others.
Prescription Drugs – Things that are prescribed by a doctor to improve physical, mental, or emotional health, but always have undesirable side effects.

I don’t intend to insult your intelligence by naming these things, but it’s a growing list of things we put in our bodies that are going to dictate an aspect of health. For example, some of the above items are abused and have a significant negative impact on people’s lives, ranging from simple behavioral issues to suicide.

I’m not trying to jump into “worst case scenario scare tactics” to convince you to be healthy, but there’s a broad range of responses from drugs. There are different ways to improve physical, mental, and emotional health, but misusing or abusing any of the above substances will likely have a negative effect.

Let’s bring the Serious Factor down a little bit with a real world example. The Law Dragon was drinking lots of coffee and progressed up to 8 to 10 cups of cheap coffee a day. His energy level would fluctuate so he’d drink more coffee or give into sugar cravings. He would only sleep 4-6 hours a night and feel groggy upon waking. He’d start shutting down around 3pm, and when he left work at 6 to 8pm, he’d feel and look terrible; dark circles under the eyes, dehydrated despite drinking water, and his skin was pale and literally painful. His bowel movements were loose. Not to mention an overall trouble concentrating that led to more coffee…

A few weeks ago he decided to do the “grassfed butter in a higher quality coffee” once a day. The results were drastic. Energy levels stay up, no sweet cravings, getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep, refreshed in the morning, not shutting down, and skin and complexion have significantly improved. Bowels are normal, but overall there’s heightened concentration and temperament throughout the day.

Some of his results are directly from reducing the bad caffeine while others are probably results of results, but the fact is he got sucked into a common downward spiral with a beverage most of us drink every day.

And this brings me to my philosophy on drugs of all kind: start with none. Allow me to elaborate.

How many of you played sports? What did you always do in the first 15 minutes of each practice? Without fail, you probably worked on a fundamental aspect of your sport. It’s because you can never work on the fundamentals too much; they are the foundation upon which everything is built. Forgetting the fundamentals often leads to break down and defeat.

Focusing on the fundamentals leads to total health.

Focusing on the fundamentals leads to total health.

Physical health is predicated on the fundamentals: good food quality, hydration, and sleep. Until these basic health skills are covered, it isn’t even worth looking at adding anything else. That goes for building a supplement stack or just energy boosters like coffee.

Things like good communication, positive thinking, and a high self esteem may be fundamentals for mental and emotional health, but some times we consume food or drugs to make us feel a certain way. Substances and drugs should never be consumed to change our mood or behavior; they should only be consumed to augment them. In other words, you shouldn’t smoke weed to relax, drink alcohol to feel better, or take a prescription amphetamine to focus. If you indulge in these substances — and I don’t really care if you do — it should be for an effect on your already positive health while still being aware of the side effects. Responsible, healthy adults are capable of indulging in things like marijuana or alcohol without a negative impact, but I’m suggesting they should only indulge when their physical, mental, and emotional health is sound.

Personally I’ve never used any substances other than caffeine and alcohol — no illegal or performance enhancement drugs — but I’ve seen the negative consequences of all of the drugs I listed above. By ensuring your health fundamentals are sound, you can avoid all of the worst case scenarios as well as the side effects that otherwise negate physical, mental, or emotional health. If you can smoke weed without being a lazy piece of shit, or do steroids without throwing off your hormone profile, then that’s your prerogative. But if your health fundamentals are sound, you won’t really need those things.

Partake in the various drugs because you want to augment how you feel or function, not because you need to. You don’t need to supplement testosterone to build muscle or lose body fat. You don’t need amphetamines to study for your exam. What you need is to focus on the fundamentals. I’m not asking you to do a silly douche juice cleanse, but stop and look at what you’re putting into your body every day. Moderate that shit, eat more protein, clean your carbs up, drink more water, go to bed earlier, and do a relaxation drill five minutes each day. That’s all the cleansing you’ll need because the fundamentals trump drugs every time.