Feel Good, Inc.
I am about to reveal the biggest misconception people have about fitness.
This is no small statement. If you are a fan of this blog or happen to get stuck sitting at the table next to mine at Chipotle when I’m discussing the state of the industry with a colleague, you know that I feel there is a lot of confusion and general bullshittery (yup, just made that word up) in this field that I love and have made my life’s work. Barbells are dangerous, resistance training makes women bulky, steroids will make you strong even if you don’t train, Tracy Anderson is attractive – I’ve heard and disagreed with it all. However none are more prevailing than this:
Training makes you feel good.
Sure working out releases hormones such as dopamine and adrenaline that make you feel great during and directly after exercise. And we all know how Arnold felt about “the pump” (for those of you who haven’t seen the documentary “Pumping Iron” I’ll give you the PG version – he relates it to orgasming). But once those feelings wear off, training – and we are talking about real training here, not sitting around the gym and reading People magazine between half-assed sets on the Pec Deck – will leave you sore, beat up and achy. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night wondering why someone is stabbing your legs with kitchen knives only to realize that you are just suffering the fall out of your back squat workout from two days ago, you know what I’m talking about.
And while I can’t say there are any total cures to the repercussions of training there are modalities available to help stave off the pain and get you recovering quicker. Cause, as crazy as it sounds, as we suffer with the soreness of training and curse the day we ever laid down on a bench press all we can think about is easing the pain just enough for us to get back under the barbell again. Sick bastards.
Here are our top six recovery modalities that will make you feel great and get you back to hard training. Many of them will have you moving better as well. Are these the only tricks of the trade out there? Hell no. You have other ones that you like better? Congratulations. But this is our blog and we are going to write about what we do and like. So there.
Breathing. While breathing is our most foundational physiological function so, so many of us don’t do it very well. Sure, maybe you do it well enough to squeak by and not die but it turns out that breathing really well is not as instinctive as you might think. And the fall out of maladies like breathing through your mouth or using your shoulders to assist in breathing can mess you up in ways that you would never suspect. For example, breathing through your mouth can change the shape of your palette which then forces your teeth to change which then alters the position of your jaw which in turn shifts your head forward which finally leads to you not having good overhead positions and your shoulders being jacked up. Crazy, huh? How you breath also sends strong neurological signals that can affect your movement patterns and structural positions. Finally breathing can significantly influence your posture by flaring your ribcage up toward the ceiling and jacking your traps up towards your ears. We are so convinced that breathing is a critical part of achieving optimal movement, strength and remaining pain free that we use some before and a lot away from training. Seems like voodoo while you are doing it but it helps.
Static Stretching. Ironically this is a favorite amongst the general population and is railed against by people “in the know” like exercise scientists and researchers. And the science on static stretching is not very compelling as it takes more – a LOT more - than most people do to actually force a significant and permanent change in tissue structures. So why do we like it? Well it turns out that one thing static stretching does do really well is improve tolerance to the stretch. In other words, next time you get into that position it will be less sensitive/painful which usually allows you to get a little deeper in the stretch. This can pay huge dividends if you are struggling to get into positions during your squat or snatch or any other lifts that require a decent amount of mobility (though, and I have to say this or the fitness police will come get me, your mobility is likely not the only thing holding you back if that is the case). Plus the slight to moderate pain involved with static stretch can, in turn, release many of the same feel good hormones you get from exercising. And I’m all for a cheap buzz.
Compression. Compression actually does have some good science supporting it when it comes to recovery. Wearing compression clothing – we’re talking real compression garments, not that fitted Under Armor muscle tank that dudes will wear to the gym whether they have the physique for it or not – after exercise or during sleep will help speed the recovery process. Acute bouts of compression from pneumatic devices such as the Normatech Recovery system (think giant blood pressure cuffs that cover your legs, hips and arms) can also be helpful but likely more in the short term and during planned deloads or recovery phases. Both these compression modalities do leave you feeling better and ready to train hard quicker in our experience with them. The downside: compression ain’t cheap. Garments are way more expensive than you think they should be and the most basic Normatech model is over a thousand dollars.
Trigger Point. Trigger points are areas of the body that tend to have greater sensitivity to touch and pressure and are fairly common across all hard training individuals. These are usually areas of tension in the fascia (connective tissue that surrounds all your tendons, ligaments and muscles through the body) and can be broken up with hard objects such as skateboard wheels, lacrosse balls and elbows. You can attack trigger points by yourself but it’s even better if you have a qualified pro dig into you while you passively lay on a table squirming like a tuna on the deck of a boat. And while trigger point release is not fun or relaxing while it’s happening the result can relieve pain and have you moving more freely. Again, before the fitness police turn on their sirens, trigger point does not likely make any structural change to the tissue and has an important neurological component, but I have seen enough compelling evidence with clients that it merits the five to ten minutes it takes to execute.
Active Release Therapy. ART, as the cool kids call it, is a manual therapy in which a skilled practitioner places pressure on a specific trigger point or muscle and then has the subject move that muscle through a specific plane in order to release tension in that muscle. It can work remarkably well to relieve sore or tender areas in muscles and ligaments, particularly if done on a repeated basis. The only downside here is, again, it’s a bit painful while it’s happening and you should find a certified ART specialist who has a good touch and feel for working with clients. Easier said than done.
Position Work. Quite possibly the simplest yet most underused modality is position work. If a certain posture or movement is difficult or uncomfortable a lot of times the key to improving is to simply spend more time in that position. For example, if your overhead squat is terrible, spending more time just statically holding the end range of motion with good posture, stability and trunk engagement can go a long way to solidifying and improving those positions and, ultimately, range of motion. Many times what people think of as joint restrictions are neurological signals – the joint has plenty of capability but the brain feels the position may be unsafe and shuts you down. If you spend more time safely in that position, particularly after utilizing some of the modalities above like trigger point, static stretching or ART, your nervous system will begin to accept these positions as safe and allow you to more effortlessly move into them in the future. Just like all these modalities, it takes some time and exposure for this to take effect and feel natural but it’s well worth it if your goal is to squat deep. Finally, if a bit of load helps you move better into a position don’t be afraid to use it. Holding a kettlebell at the bottom of a squat or a light barbell instead of a PVC pipe overhead will give you something to stabilize against and can help get you where you want to be. So don’t worry if your air squat isn’t beautiful at the moment, you Froning wanna-be. Use some load to improve positions as a way into backing into better bodyweight movements down the line.
Are there other techniques and systems that work to make you feel and move better? Absolutely. Some people swear by regularly scheduled massages, rolfing, chiropractic adjustments, Graston technique, stim and an ever growing list of bands, balls, rollers and sticks that are for sale on mobilitywod.com as we speak. But one thing is for certain, if you don’t do anything for recovery, utilize nothing to make you feel better, you will not remain a hard training individual for long.