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Health Exercise Techniques: Strength Training and Stretching

by Neil Summers(more info)

listed in physiotherapy, originally published in issue 113 - July 2005

Optimum health and fitness are not just about jogging more and eating less. The two most often overlooked elements of fitness are the importance of appropriate muscle strengthening (without adding counter productive stress and strain) and correct stretching (without adding counter productive abuse and trauma).

However, not all exercise is good for you. Actually, most exercises add unwelcome stresses and strains, making your exertion bad for you. Since only some exercises are truly 'ultra friendly' to the body where the benefits outweigh the damaging elements, a nightmare scenario develops where people further aggravate their bodies by exercising in the wrong way. It does not need to be this way.

Doing the splits

Paying the Price for Being Young and Athletic

We all know footballers are heading for a life with 'tricky knees' once they stop playing… often long before they stop.

Gymnasts worry about injuries to fingers, wrists, elbows and ankles which will come back to haunt them once they have retired – at 16.

Athletes and even Mr Average joggers fear arthritic limbs. It was recently reported that the greatest athlete of all time – Carl Lewis – is racked with arthritic pain as a result of his earlier excessive training regime.

Training shoe manufacturers have long been aware of 'heel strike' – that's the force of the foot pounding on a hard surface, with the associated jarring and shock to the lower body. However, wearing air-filled shoes does not stop the compressive nature of the head constantly 'squashing' down on everything below it. The weight of the head is, 11, 12, 13 lbs on average and is responsible for pounding the discs of the spine during all upright movement. Impacts of this nature do have a negative long-term effect.

Finding the Right Balance

So what is the answer? Should the young stop playing sports? Should we all stop exercising… or training altogether to prevent future pain and misery? Many an expert would argue this case. But whatever happened to exercise being good for us?

I believe we must be 'creative' in finding ways to gain the benefits of exercise whilst avoiding the damaging elements. It is possible. We must counter the effects of compressive loads and avoid jarring movements. The answer 'is to unload the spine of this excessive amount of force on the joints whenever appropriate'. It is possible to exercise safely and effectively without undergoing the damaging elements. But the old ways of exercising have to go.

Once we are old and arthritic it is too late…the key is stopping it happening in the first place.

Medical experts know years of intensive training of the pounding compressive nature are to blame. Activities where the joints are overused, and put under continual strain are to be avoided. Getting fit should no longer mean damaging your health.

Muscle Strengthening without Visiting the Gym

Being creative with your exercise regime means it is necessary to find new ways to get the well-documented benefits of exercise without succumbing to the (well-documented) negative effects of exercise. Is there another way? Can we get super strong legs without going to the Gym or jogging?

Let me give you one example of an effective way to strengthen the lower body without the pounding which usually accompanies lower body strengthen training. The answer comes in the form of a home-use device called the Leg Master. The Leg Master uses over 200 muscles in the lower body simultaneously; it is used in an 'all out' effort to raise the entire body weight up against gravity to the top of the ramp provided by the rails.

This 'all out' effort using all these muscles causes intense fatiguing and total 'burn out' in a matter of seconds. In fact most people start with just 20 sweeps of the legs; 20 repetitions and then they are done for the day. This takes on average just 20 seconds.

This Leg Master applies the latest knowledge of how we gain strength and how we lose weight and reshape our bodies. It uses your own body weight to provide classic resistance training. Raising and lowering your body in this manner is resistance training at its most natural. No pounding, no jarring.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if you are in need of such a device?

If your inner thigh wobbles when you walk or if you can still jiggle your buttocks when you tense the muscle – then you have lost muscle tone. The
best way to regain this is by resistance training. Stronger legs mean taut, toned, slimmer legs.

Will I lose weight?

Firming and strengthening exercises help us to maintain and increase muscle tone. Since the actual chemical process by which fat and sugar is broken down in the body takes place in the muscle tissue, if we increase the density of our muscle tissue by doing specific strength training, we will also increase the number of sites in the body where calories are used up. We then become more efficient at burning calories and you will lose weight. The goal is to lose fat not muscle. Muscle tissue is more taut and compact than fat and, therefore, takes up less space.

So can anyone benefit?

Whatever your current fitness level or ability, whether you're male or female, here is a way to sculpt your lower body – a truly effective way to shape and define your muscles to give you your dream legs – safely. Dancers' legs and gymnasts' legs are not gained just by walking, they incorporate weight and resistance training into their exercise routines.

Since the beginning of time it has been understood that if we don't move our bodies then that lack of movement creates problems for our health. Not least of which is being overweight and the associated problems of weight gain.

If you'd like to lose weight and tone your legs, and exercise without the negative damaging elements associated with weights or jogging, then this is the way to go. If you have no desire to start jogging for hours, or to take up cycling on our busy streets, or plunge into your local swimming pool, there are now alternatives.

Importance of Stretching

There are many exercise regimes available these days; however, the cheapest, simplest and most effective is that of stretching. Stretching is a subtle activity to be performed daily for life. Stretching maintains and restores function, removing stiffness, and allows the body to continue to function as it was designed to. Today we all recognize stretching as a key to a healthy Body.

But how often do we stretch? For most of us, stretching is something we are told to do as a warm-up before doing some other form of exercise. Before we start our gym session we might swing our arms a couple of times and touch our toes.

Stretching has health benefits all of its own. And if we perform them correctly they may be more beneficial than the 'main activity' that usually follows your warm-up stretches. However, to do stretches totally safely I believe you should be lying down, as doing exercises in the horizontal plane allows for stretching of the spine without the weight of the body exerting a compressing element on any joints that are damaged. I only recommend 'ultra friendly' stretches that would benefit injured athletes or ailing grannies. This philosophy has given birth to a series of easy-to-perform exercises which are of benefit to all those interested in maintaining a healthy body. Safe, easy-to-perform and physiologically sound for the body – this routine is designed specifically to counter poor posture, muscle spasm and restricted movements and to allow the body once again to function properly. I myself use it having suffered a chronic back condition and was able to correct my spinal curvature. I now have a good posture and have also been pain free since using this routine. In having solved my own problems, I believe I can provide real hope to other back pain sufferers.

Stretching is one of the oldest forms of body therapy; my routine is at www.thebackcoach.com in the Art of Backstretching.

Advanced Stretching for the Spine.

Stretch not Squash – The Key to a Healthy Body

Just pick up a light dumbbell in each hand – and that extra weight is immediately translated into extra stress and strain on the vertebral column. The spine is constantly under the compressional forces of gravity. Picking up weights, however light they may be, only adds to these compressional forces – squashing our discs and adding to the stresses and strains on the body.

People who care about the quality of their life are adding stretching to their daily fitness programmes. Nearly every physical activity involves some form of compression of the spine.

The University of Iowa's Spine centre recently confirmed in a scientific study that Backstretching devices do in fact cause the spine to lengthen at twice the effectiveness as bed-rest. They concluded that "a single ten minute usage of a Backstretcher has a statistically significant lengthening effect on the human spine". You actually 'grow' in the middle of the day by one centimeter.

Decompressive Backstretching is most effective when done at the completion of a workout or following any significant physical effort. An alternative is to stretch just before bedtime.

Backstretching products help relieve back pain, decompress your spine, stretch your back and muscles, relieve stress, and help you maintain general wellness.

Case Study

Imagine being told you had a crippling form of arthritis. Imagine being told that when you have previously been fit and active. Imagine being told that and being in your early 20s. Upright as a young person, bent double in your middle years. In my case I refused to accept that I would be bent double by mid-life, and so was determined to find my own solution.

My Story

A chink of light. I would like to share my own experience of Ankylosing Spondilitis (AS), in order to provide a little hope, where hope seems absent. My own motivation for 'experimenting' with the treatment of my condition resides in the philosophy of knowing that 'doing something' is uplifting in itself. To do nothing ensures the insidious nature of AS winning out. 'Above all else, try something.'

I have tried hundreds of activities, treatments, methods, all designed solely with the end result of straightening the spine. Nothing I ever tried worked, until I invented the Backstretcher.

As an AS candidate I was a perfect selection, a young athletic male, an ex-rugby player, trained PE teacher and an ex-Royal Marine. It was during my time in the Marines that I was diagnosed and medically discharged accordingly. The physical restrictions due to pain/discomfort and inflexibility were one aspect of course, but the psychological confusion of a person used to 'acrobatic super human physical activities', was a greater strain.

The fighting spirit helped in the early years, but even that waned several times with that, 'I just can't beat this' feeling. In the past all orthodox authorities also believed 'this thing' couldn't be beaten.

Even if AS members themselves cannot bring themselves to believe it can be beaten, at least everyone else should know that postural deformities can be licked.

Some of the things I have tried include strict adherence to orthodox methods. For one, I was fortunate enough to be told by a very enlightened/ farsighted/unusual rheumatoid specialist that flexibility exercises for the spine would be useful to maintain posture. In fact, he recommended I do them two or three times a week (and he sighed as he said "you will have to do them for the rest of your life").

Let's get one thing straight: two-three times a week of anything is not enough. This doctor was talking to a fitness specialist and an ex-marine. For two years after that conversation I did a three minute flexibility routine every hour, day and night (courtesy of one of those annoying sports watches that beeps every hour). Since I slept on the floor, at the sound of the beep I would roll into my three minute flexibility routine – even in the middle of the night – and do the back arches and a selection of physiotherapy recommended exercises.

However, even this relentless assault on the forward bending nature of AS was not enough to stop the structurally changing tendency. Something more was definitely needed. I had fought my back curvature since the beginning, at first using orthodox methods known to maintain posture (albeit obsessively), but even after five years these methods were not stopping the curvature. I was becoming noticeably stooped.

The answer to the structural deformities was the Backstretcher, a curved wooden device for lying on that aids posture correction and relieves back tension.

The invention works on the premise that excessive sitting is unhealthy for the spine. Stretching the spine with no compression, as with the Backstretcher, relaxes it and provides an antidote for poor posture.

The two principles on which the Backstretcher works are really centuries old. It's designed to prevent backache as well as treat back pain, and it works by releasing muscle tension through acupressure massage and improving posture through stretching. It's actually much more comfortable than it looks because the bony processes and nerve endings in your spine do not actually touch anything – you are literally lying on a cushion of your own muscle.

The thumb-like protrusions on it make contact with the muscles either side of the spine, so while you are lying there they release muscle tension. At the same time, the gently sloping curve of the device corrects posture and increases flexibility.

When the vertebrae in your spine become damaged, the weight on the discs in an upright position makes backache worse. What the Backstretcher does is try to reverse this process. It takes that damaged joint and releases the pressure on the disc. Taking the weight off the discs in this way allows the back to repair, recuperate and recover by itself.

Stretch therapy is not new. Stretching is known to have been used for centuries. Passive gravity assisted traction is used by physiotherapists, chiropractors, and doctors AND is supported by medical studies.

When you are backstretching and relax, your body can stretch up to two inches. "Muscles relax quite quickly and the length of the spine measurably increases after only a few minutes. Some of the lengthening effect is gained from re-absorption of fluid into the centre of the disc. Used over a longer period, this may delay the degeneration process that occurs due to 'drying out'.

Over a lifetime, you will lose half-an-inch to two inches due to thinning discs. Since your discs act as shock absorbers, thinning discs can cause intervertebral joints to become irritated and inflamed. Backstretching reverses the effect of gravity on your spine.

In solving my own problems I inadvertently provided real hope for other back pain sufferers, and at last be able to offer a real solution to the postural side of Ankylosing Spondilitis, a condition which has been known to affect the Dinosaurs and is still with us today."

Because I take stretching seriously, I have succeeded in straightening my back, I now have the strength and flexibility to perform the 'Hanging Splits'.

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About Neil Summers

Neil Summers has a MEd in exercise physiology. He is an international lecturer on physical education and a full-time exercise physiologist for Enanef Ltd, designing products for a healthy life. He served in the Royal Marine Special Forces and as a 'Body Coach' has helped heads of state, politicians, sporting stars and a whole host of Japanese, American and European celebrities. To find out more about Neil Summers's award-winning Backstretchers and Neil's upcoming back exercise book with Sharron Davies, please call 0700 222 5724.

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