Tag Archives: Muscle

Don’t aim for thin… get LEAN!

6 Feb

Following the theme from my previous post, I’ve decided to declare today as the beginning of my attempt to take over the world by getting people to stop trying to be skinny. Yes, you heard me. I think that skinny is not a good goal. I’m sorry if I offend any of the skinny people out there but skinny just ain’t sexy, and as a goal for those of us who aren’t genetically suited to looking like the average 16 year old supermodel, skinny is an unrealistic and possibly even dangerous target that is ultimately impossible ever to reach with any real satisfaction. Seriously people, if you’re going to be even remotely serious about being at your physical and emotional best, forget about being thin and focus instead on becoming Lean.

Why Lean?

Yes, Lean is definitely sexy, and it’s not simply about turning yourself into eye-candy either. It’s more about the psychological impact of both the people who see you, and of your own state of mind when you are lean. When you see someone with a lean physique, you are attracted on the surface to the physical appearance of a body in proportion with itself, and subconsciously you respond both to the vitality of a person who clearly makes an effort to maintain an attractive physique, and also to the bearing of a person who radiates confidence, pride, happiness, or any number of other positive emotions that are generally exhibited by people with  healthy bodies and minds.

Now going far beyond the attractiveness of being lean, there is also the benefit of being in the best of physical health. Being lean means you have a minimum amount of body fat without completely depleting your body’s essential fat reserves, and as the science repeatedly tells us, a lean body is statistically unlikely to develop any of the diseases that are commonly attributed to excessive body fat, such as Type II Diabetes, some cancers, gastrointestinal, liver, and other metabolic diseases.

What Lean Is and Isn’t

Michelle Bridges & Daniel Craig. Good examples of Lean.

Being lean means that you present with very little body fat, yet more than just the bare essential amount of fat that the body needs. For the guys, this is a body fat percentage between a fit 14%-17% and an athletic 6%-13%.  For the ladies, you’re looking for a body fat percentage between a fit 21%-24% and an athletic 14%-20%.

A lean physique is one where you present muscle everywhere in proportion, and where no bone shows though the skin, except perhaps for a hint of rib when you bend to the side, and a slight prominence of the collarbone, elbows, knees and ankles. There should be no sign of tendon showing through the skin except perhaps under extreme strain when lifting heavy objects. Lean is a presentation of understated strength, where the muscles show clearly under the skin, and yet lean does not imply being heavily muscled. So what we’re talking about here, is being toned and not necessarily bulky.

Health isn’t about being fashionable

Most of us regular aren’t genetically “fashionable” if you believe all of those heavily photoshopped magazine pictures are showing you what beautiful is meant to be. Normal people could never dream of being able to fit into those tiny sized clothes that can only be found barely covering the ass of your typical Victoria Secret model, and we all should know by now how poorly the magazine represent health and beauty, and how this influences the negative body image that so many people have about themselves.

The thing is, why should you even worry about whether your size or look is comparable to someone else. Instead of aiming to fit into what you think is your idealised size-x clothing or becoming what you think would be your idealised “weight” or body shape, set the even loftier yet ultimately attainable goal of being as fit, strong, and as lean as you can be, and enjoy the health benefits, the satisfaction and the confidence that goes hand in hand with living within a healthy body.

No, lean isn’t fashionable. Lean is attainable, healthy, realistic, strong, beautiful… and is definitely sexy! 😛

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Dealing with a belly bulge

18 Jan

Abs Schmabs!

We’ve all seen those really fit people who we’re kind of jealous of, haven’t we? You know the type, athletic, moves with confidence, beautifully defined muscles and those perfect and flat abs. There seems to be a kind of global obsession with the abs. You see the sports stars pulling up their shirts to show off their abs in celebration of a victory, and not to mention all of those exercise machines that the shopping channels and advertisements have been pushing into family homes for at least the last 20 years or so. I’ve lost count of the “Ab-xxx” machines out there targeting abs. Have a look at this eBay search and you’ll get an idea about what I mean.

Part of the problem that I see with these machines is that they seem to miss the point completely. You get shown the totally athletic people working out on their machines, and a quick testimonial of a “success story” complete with the before and after photos, and they’ll show you the prominent obliques, and abdominal muscles and tell you how easy it is with just 15-30 minutes of their exercise per day. And we all know that they are basically pedalling crap.

If you wan’t your muscles to show, you must lost fat, and the only guaranteed way to deal with the fat in your body is to drink lots of clean water, stay off the couch and move around during the day, and to eat a healthy diet without excessive carbs. No, not a low carb diet, but a diet where the protein and carb intake is balanced nutritionally, and nearly equal yet favouring the protein. Once you lose the excess subcutaneous fat, your muscles will show.

So what are these ab machines good for. Personally, I think almost nothing. I say almost because while some of the machines don’t seem to do a whole lot, I think that anything that encourages you to get off your ass and move enough to elevate your heart rate is going to help you to lose excess weight, and I’ll agree that many repetitive movements if done properly can and will help to strengthen certain muscles in your body. However, some repetitive movements aren’t necessarily ideal in terms of either training or toning, and when done incorrectly can lead to injury. In any case, the abs that you see – aka the Six-Pack (technically the Rectus Abdominus) – may add to the appeal of all of those hot athletic bellies that we are dying to have, yet they aren’t the abs you should be targeting if you want a strong and resilient body.

Defining “The Core”

Muscles of the trunk

Muscles of the trunk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let me tell you a little about The Core. No, I’m not talking about the movie of that name with the undeniably questionable plot. What I’m talking about is a group of muscles that provides you with stability in nearly every complex movement that your body does, whether you’re walking, swimming, bending, lifting or simply just standing/balancing. When you see a gymnast, a basket ball or soccer player, a dancer, a high diver, or anyone who seems to be able to move their bodies around in the air with perfect balance and poise, you are looking at individuals with strong core muscles that provide them with the stability needed to move their bodies with such grace and precision.

A strong core isn’t there however to simply make you look good when you are playing sports. Good core stability makes simple day to day movement easier and much more enjoyable. I mentioned in an earlier post about a muscle called the Psoas which can contribute quite considerably to lower back pain issues. While technically correct, the issue of lower back pain can be a little more complex than simply fixing a single tight muscle, particularly if you have had a back problem for many years. Instability in the abdominal core can result in improper signalling in the nervous system, and as a result the wrong muscles can become engaged in movements that they aren’t really designed to do. So when the core becomes loose and unstable muscles like the Psoas and Latissimus Dorso (Lats) can become overworked and place additional strain against the spinal column, pulling the spine out of alignment and resulting in a cascade of problems within the body. Unfortunately, injuries to these other muscles can trigger instability in the core, so it’s hard to say for certain which group of muscles should be blamed for making your back sore.

The most significant muscle groups which make up your core are all internal muscles:

  • Internal Abdominals
    • Transversus Abdominus
    • Internal Obliques
  • Diaphragm
  • Pelvic Floor group of muscles

The inclusion of the Diaphragm may surprise many of you, and yet these muscles are all significant in that they keep all of your digestive and waste filtering systems firmly contained and within the inside where your “insides” belong. Each of these muscles also exerts pressure on your insides such that your entire abdominal cavity provides a firm base against which all movements involving the back and pelvis can be stabilised. It is also significant that – with the exception of the Diaphragm – these particular muscles don’t directly influence any movement of the body. They are literally a corset required to keep everything tight and firm.

The Battle of the Bulge

Injury, pregnancy, & inactivity can all result in a loose and unstable core. After birth, many women may have a noticeable bulge in their abdomen, particularly at the lowermost part of the belly, which can indicate that the abdominal muscles have become stretched and loose. As with pregnancy, people wearing an excess of subcutaneous belly fat can also experience this stretching of the abdominals. In some extreme cases, both obesity and pregnancy can result in a separation of the left and right sides if the six-pack muscles. In the case of injuries, instability in the pelvis causes the pelvic area to pivot forward such that the inner abdominal muscles can become stretched while the Lats compress. In all of these cases, when standing straight, a noticeable bulging of the belly occurs rather than the nice athletic abdominal flattening that we would all like to possess.

Most people when they see their belly bulge think quite correctly that their tummy needs toning, and then make the mistake that a gazillion crunches and other “ab-machine” styled movements will flatten the bumpy bit out. While these exercises may effect a slight reduction in the extent of the belly bump, they won’t necessarily work the muscles which have actually lost their tone. Think about how the body moves for a moment. When you perform a crunch, you engage your Six-pack muscles which contract and cause you to bend in the middle of your abdomen. This is exactly what these muscles are supposed to do, which is to say they pull your chest down towards your pelvis. This movement can work however without ever needing to fully engage your core muscles, so I don’t care how many crunches you do, you ain’t gonna tighten that booty till you learn to activate a couple of key muscles within your core. Some of this will also be particularly of interest for all of the ladies who are concerned about the risk of a prolapse or urinary incontinence issues after childbirth, and for the guys who are concerned about urinary incontinence, erectile issues and (Ahem) “arriving at the party too early”.

Reconditioning your Pelvic Floor

The thing to get into your mind is that the body will take care of its own restoration… but sometimes it needs to be reminded about how it should behave. This is especially true of the Pelvic Floor muscles, and the Transversus Abdominus. Focus on these two muscle areas in particular, and you’ll manage to engage and tone the rest of the surrounding and supporting muscles as well. Let’s start with the pelvic floor which is a collection of about 6 muscles which are collectively called the Levator Ani.

Now, I don’t know many people who could exercise each of these muscles individually. Instead they are normally dealt with as a group using Kegel exercise, which are a isometric holds and squeezes of only the muscles of the pelvic floor. If you engage the muscles in your abdomen, legs or butt, you’re doing them wrong. Now, rather than try and describe the correct way to do these exercises, here are a collection of links that might help you to learn to locate your pelvic floor:

The other important muscle to focus on is the Transversus Abdominus (TVA). This is a large triangular bracing muscle that sits innermost in the abdominal space connecting ribs, Pelvis, and Back. When you can suck your belly button in towards your spine without either tensing your 6-pack or squeezing any other muscle, you’re activating your TVA. Two types of exercise come to mind. The first being a bicycling crunch, which works all of the abdominal muscles and indirectly encourages the TVA to kind of wiggle itself into shape with the rest of the abdominal muscles. It is however first and foremost a crunch, which while helping to tone the obliques will not work 100% effectively on the TVA. It is however pretty easy to do and can contribute well to a good workout.

A more targeted exercise is called the Vacuum Exercise. As with Kegels, the Vacuum is primarily and Isometric exercise that is intended to focus entirely on a single group of muscles. You may have seen this exercise done by body builders during a competition, where the body builder sucks in the gut and shows off the arch of the rib cage.

Here’s a couple of links to describe how to do the vacuum:

A final word or two

Now like any fine wine, beer, or a job well done, these exercises will take time. Time to perfect, and then more time to get the results you hope to achieve. If you give up after only a couple of weeks you’ll not see any change, and your core will not become as tight or as strong as you might hope. For some, particularly older people, the results may never be a perfectly strong and flat belly. Persistence however will result in improvements overall, and a stronger core can make a real difference not only to people with lower back  pain, but can also improve your balance, reduce fatigue when standing or exercising for long periods of time, and will ultimately help you to stand more confidently regardless.

So forget those crunches (not entirely), work that core, eat well, stay active, and beat that bulge!

Today I discovered my Psoas

12 Jan

No, that wasn’t a euphemism, and there is a small story attached to this post’s title, but first I’ll tell you a little of what I’ve learned about a very important group of muscles. For those of you who aren’t really interested in anatomy, you may wish to skip a couple of paragraphs.

The Psoas muscles are the most important in a group of muscles known as the Hip Flexors, and they are essentially responsible for raising the femur – you know, that big bone in the middle of your thigh. So, when you’re standing and you want to bend forward, raise the knee, perform a sit-up, or even if you simply wish to move your leg forward while walking, the Psoas muscles need to be able to do their thing.

Another important aspect of Psoai (yes, that’s the plural) function is their involvement in terms of hip rotation and mobility, because even when you have an injury these muscles need to be able to help manage the movement of your hip so that your body can maintain relative stability. Without the really subtle movements of the hip when moving, your back would not remain stable, and walking or even just sitting could be quite a difficult and possibly painful experience.

So these are some seriously important muscles, and apparently I’ve had them my whole life and never really known how important they are to me. And yet, without realising it I’ve been aware of my Psoas for nearly 20 years, although in a classic case of mistaken identity I’ve thought for all of that time that they were something else.

I’ve been dealing with chronic back pain for a long time now, and in particular I have had huge problems in my lumbar (lower) spine. I’ve had days when I couldn’t even move myself to roll over in bed because something was cramping and spasming in my back, and after a few days of lower back pain, I’d end up with lots of additional referred pains in the leg (sciatica), and in the thoracic (upper) spine.

My back condition has literally been a nightmare in terms of pain management and treatment. I’ve seen doctors, chiropractors, and physiotherapists, and never had any pain relief without strong medication. MRI has never shown anything to be wrong, and X-ray has only once shown one of my lower vertebrae to be slightly out of alignment. The only time I’ve ever had natural pain relief was when I learned a little about the Feldenkrais Technique. Unfortunately the classes were very expensive to attend more than a few times, and while I felt relief from pain, the injury was always there and I had no idea either what was causing the injury to occur, or how to train myself so that I could avoid re-injury in the future.

OK, so for all of these experts with their combined years of knowledge and experience, and the years of medical expenses and medication, it kind of sucks that the problem never went away. Even worse was that back pain had become a serious barrier in my attempts to improve my physical health over the years, and so my fitness and weight have predictably yo-yo’d almost continuously for the last 10 years. The trouble was, that the pain was in my back, and everybody was looking for the real cause of the problem in the wrong place… sort of.

Just yesterday, I decided to install and mess around with an extension for Google Chrome called BioDigital Human. This is an app that allows you to look at all of the major functional parts of the body in 3D. Now because my back has been particularly sore over the last few days (which I’d attributed to a slightly aggressive workout combined with my recent conversion to a standing desk), I decided to look at all of the muscles in the back to see if the problem might be muscular, so that I could find an appropriate method to both stretch and support any muscles that I thought were likely to be linked to my back pain.

After digging around in the app for a while, I was surprised to discover that not only did I have Psoas muscles, but that they were required primarily hip flexion, and having lived with my problem for many years, I knew that certain hip related movements were always the ones which caused me the greatest trouble whenever my back was sore. I also learned more importantly perhaps that of the four Psoas muscles, the two Major Psoai are attached at the facet joints of all of the lumbar vertebrae, yet deep below the outermost muscle tendons of the lats which were always the bits that seemed to get massaged whenever I visited the experts.

So what was my great epiphany? It occurred to me that I had never felt any knots or tension in my lats, so if the Psoai were in spasm and they were creating a lot of tension on my spine, wouldn’t it make sense that this would result in pinched nerves and a great deal of local pain? Well, it seems that I was on to something. After a little digging, I learned how to do a Psoas stretch, which has offered a little alleviation but did not seem to help with the majority of the pain.

Earlier today I had a breakthrough. I thought about how the Psoai helped with hip flexion, and how my hip was feeling stiff, so what if I tried to slowly rotate the hip in small circles at first, and then increasingly wider circles over a short period of time. I had nothing to lose, so I spent the better part of the next 2 minutes “hula hooping” my hips. Amazingly, the pain disappeared immediately!!!

Well, I felt very clever and did a bit of a Google search for “Hula” and “Psoas”, and found a few sites which mentioned this technique as a way to relieve pain and increase mobility. If only I had known to do that search back when the pain started, I could have saved myself years of hurt, not to mention the cash!!

So if you have lower back pain, chances are that you have a problem with your Psoas muscles, which may be too tight and probably need to be worked on. If you find yourself getting lower back pain no matter how careful you are while doing sit-ups, and if you have pain when you bend forward, try the following technique:

  1. Assume a hula stance with your feet about hip width apart, and your knees relaxed and slightly bent.
  2. Breathe in deeply, and then breathe all the way out – further than you would normally exhale – which will trigger a relaxation of your back.
  3. Start to rotate your hips in a circle, leading back with the tail bone, and imagining the aim is to use your tail bone to ‘draw’ a circle around your feet.
  4. Start the circles small (around your inner ankles), and gradually widen the circles as the exercise progresses.
  5. Keep your head up, and your shoulders and chest should remain still.
  6. Perform the exercise in one direction for 30 seconds, then repeat in the opposite direction for another 30 seconds.
  7. Breathe normally throughout the exercise.

You may start to feel some soreness in the hip, and at the top of your thigh, which will be your hip flexors paying for their former laziness and leaving all of the pain management to your Psoai. If so, use smaller circles until you get used to the movement. I’d also suggest a Psoas stretch on both legs after you’ve busted your hula moves, and then going for a short and gentle walk. If any movement causes you more pain, stop immediately, and certainly consult with your physician if you have any concerns before attempting to do something you feel unfamiliar with.

If your back pain disappears, even for only a few moments, you’ve probably found the cause of your lower back pain and you can repeat this exercise whenever your back starts to feel a little sore. I now do it regularly at my standing desk, much to the amusement of my lovely – and clearly sympathetic – spouse.

Please leave a comment if you find that this helps you in any way, or if you have any extra tips you think might be useful when it comes to releasing your pesky Psoai.

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