We want to thank "computer guy" in more ways than one. Why do we want to thank him?
- For saving mankind during the Y2K scare.
- For that one time you were able to salvage and retrieve our final term paper at 2AM when we spilled coffee all over our computer.
- For Pixar movies. We're not scared to admit that Finding Nemo was awesome.
- And most importantly, for always handing your TPS reports in on time.
To show our appreciation we want to dedicate this article to you. In essence, we want to show our gratitude for all you have done for us by fixing YOU. Let's be honest computer guy, you don't look so hot. We realize you're trying to make yourself look better by hitting the gym three to four times per week, but we're here to give you a dose of tough love and tell you that you're failing... miserably (in and outside of the gym).
Our objective with this article is to delve into some of the more common programming mistakes that you make in the gym, but we're also going to go into great detail on strategies and behavioral modifications you can perform outside of the gym that will help to fix your less-than-perfect posture and lower back pain, as well as make girls want to "play with your mouse" more. Chicks dig a man who can talk gigabytes, but they don't dig hunch backs.
Describing Computer Guy
So who is "computer guy"? In our experience he tends to be someone who sits in front of his computer for extended periods of time throughout the day. This can be your lawyer who spends hours on end doing research everyday or your typical office worker who is pretending to do "work," but is really checking out chicks on Myspace.
Computer guy tends to have a very kyphotic posture (rounded upper back/protracted shoulders, internally rotated humerus), an excessive lordotic curve in his lower back (anterior pelvic tilt), and as a result, has a history of lower back pain/stiffness. He also exhibits a forward chin posture, shoulder pain from all that darn typing, and he feels very restricted when he has to bend over or sit down.
In a nutshell, computer guy is in rough shape. In a nutshell, most people are now computer guy.
Computer Guy at the Gym
In his DVD series "Advanced Program Design," as well as in many of his presentations, Mike Boyle discusses computer guy at length. Watch computer guy train and what do we observe him doing? Bench press, arm curls, lat pulldowns, leg presses, leg curls, crunches, and spinning classes. DOH!
The vast majority of those exercises promote a forward flexed position or compressive/shear force on the spine [Read: not good]. By repeating the same posture in the gym that he was in from 9-5, computer guy WILL produce improper motor patterns that just cause or reinforce all of his problems in the first place!
Additionally, computer guy tends to train with a rounded back/flexed spine, which makes about as much sense as a poop flavored lollypop. First and foremost... STOP! Training with a rounded back produces shear force on the spine. Shear forces are forces directed along the curve of your lower back where the facets of the vertebrae are rubbing back and forth against one another.
Our back extensors (mainly the iliocostalis lumborum and longissimus thoracis) help to counteract shear force, but they are either "locked" at the mid-back or "shut off" from flexion. In his book "Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance," Stuart McGill notes that the ability of the back extensors to counteract shear force is a function of spine curvature. A neutral spine shows the angle of the extensors are at 45 degrees. When the spine is flexed, this angle is reduced by 10 degrees so that ANTERIOR shear forces cannot be counteracted. Result? Computer guy predisposes himself to back pain.
You may remember a little article series here on T-nation a few years ago titled "Neanderthal No More." If you haven't read it, we HIGHLY suggest that you do so immediately. Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey do a spectacular job at laying out a solid program to help fix one's posture. Not only do they go through a thorough assessment process to find common postural flaws, but they also provide an extensive corrective training protocol to boot.
This particular article is not meant to revamp their program (no point in reinventing the wheel). Rather, we want to bring light to the fact that computer guy is STILL doing the wrong things in the gym, and more importantly, not even considering the ramifications of the other 23 hours in the day.
Wants and needs
As we alluded to earlier, most movements computer guy performs in the gym just reinforce all the aberrant motor patterns that cause his bad posture and/or injury in the first place. What we propose is that you start to accept your reality and start doing what you NEED to do, not what you WANT to do in the gym. While in a perfect world computer guy would need to bench press three times per week; the fact of the matter is, his time would be better spent performing things he's not accustomed to doing.
Wants to Do: Warm-Up on Stationary Bike
We'll keep this one simple and to the point.
- You sit ALL day, why "warm-up" in a seated position as well?
- Riding a stationary bike promotes a flexed spine (remember: you want to avoid this), and recumbent bikes are for 80 year old grandmas.
- It does very little as far as preparing the body for the more dynamic nature of resistance training.
Needs to Do: Dynamic Flexibility and Self-Myo-Fascial Release
Dynamic flexibility prepares the body for movement by focusing on the areas where we tend to be less mobile (namely: hips, scapulae, thoracic spine, and ankles), and does a great job at "waking up" the nervous system to boot. Both Magnificent Mobility and Inside Out hit the nail on head in this regard.
We also need to take into consideration that computer guy HAS been sitting all day. It stands to reason that he will have a ton of trigger points, knots, adhesions, and/or scar tissue in his muscles. Static stretching is great, but it does nothing as far as working on the QUALITY of soft tissue (you can't stretch a knot out, only make it tighter). Instead, hop on a foam roller or something like a tennis ball for ten minutes each day and really improve your soft tissue quality and as a result... your movement efficiency
Wants to Do: Barbell Bench Press
We're not stupid. Asking you to not bench press for any extended period of time is like asking [insert name of talentless, over-hyped celebrity here: Brittney Spears, Nicole Ritchie, or Lindsay Lohan] to stay out of rehab for two weeks. It ain't gonna happen.
Needs to Do: Dumbbell Bench Press
We will make a compromise with you. You can still bench, but it has to be with dumbbells. And you have to use a neutral grip. As Eric Cressey has noted on several occasions, a barbell fixes us in a pronated position so we're locked into more of an internally rotated position (something computer guy needs to steer away from).
Dumbbells allow us to supinate a bit more. In turn, we are able to get more external rotation during the pressing motion, therefore protecting the rotator cuff a bit more than with barbells.
Wants to Do: Arm Curl
No offense computer guy, but we're willing to bet you're probably sporting a rather "rotund" look lately. If you have a 40-inch waist, the last thing you should be spending your time on are more biceps curls. Training arms for 45 minutes won't get rid of that pot belly. And even if you don't have a 40-inch waist, continuing to perform those incline DB curls to really blast those biceps probably isn't a great idea either; especially if you have a history of shoulder problems (which computer guy typically does).
Needs to Do: More Rows
Computer guy can't get enough rowing into his routine. Not only will a healthy dose of rows help to promote scapular retraction/depression, external rotation, and strengthen the upper back (which will improve posture), they will also build some pretty decent sized arms. Think about it. When you row, the biceps are in the direct line of pull. Which do you think will build bigger arms? 30 lb isolation curls or 150 lb seated rows?
Wants to Do: Leg Press
We don't like to throw any one movement under the bus, but leg presses are pretty close. Leg presses not only increase compressive force on the spine, but shear force as well, producing a TON of stress on the lumbar spine. Exactly what computer guy doesn't need, but performs nonetheless.
Needs to Do: Front Squat
Simply put, we like these because they allow computer guy to train his lower body, but without the additional loading and stress on the spine (and shoulders). They're also a great tool to help teach him to keep thoracic extension, which he drastically needs.
Back squats on the other hand put a ton more compressive load on the spine as well as place the shoulders in the "at risk" position (externally rotated and abducted). We LOVE back squats in general, but for computer guy it would be best to use front squats for the time being.
Wants to Do: Leg Curl
Name for us ONE sport or everyday event where you're lying on your stomach, curling a weight to your butt in a fixed plane of motion? Unless you're training to become a professional butt kicker, we see no need for leg curls in computer guy's programming (or anyone else for that matter).
Leg curls (lying or seated) only train the hamstrings in knee flexion, totally neglecting their other main function (and arguably most important from a performance standpoint)... hip extension. Compound that with the fact that leg curls totally ignore the glutes, involve very little CNS activity, and develop no core strength, and you have a recipe for a nearly absolutely worthless exercise.
Needs to Do: More Posterior Chain Work
Your hamstrings are your second strongest hip extensor (behind your glutes), and both are trained using this movement. Neither is trained in this fashion performing leg curls.
Moreover, rack pulls teach you to keep a neutral spine and strengthen the entire posterior chain. For those with extension-rotation syndrome (ahem: computer guy), this is crucial. Rack pulls also allow you to use much more weight compared to leg curls. In a matter of 8-10 weeks one could easily add 10-15 lbs of lean muscle mass to their frame if they perform these consistently. Not a bad side-effect.
An often under-rated movement in our opinion. Pull-throughs are a superb movement to strengthen the posterior chain and learn to dissociate the hips from the lumbar spine, with no spinal load. A fantastic movement for people with chronic lower back pain.
Glute Ham Raise
One of the rare movements that train both functions of the hamstrings (again: knee flexion and hip extension) simultaneously. Leg curls? Not so much.
Supine Hip Extension into Leg Curl (SHELC)
A great alternative for the glute ham raise, would be supine hip extension into leg curl (SHELC) using a SWISS ball. This is also a great movement to train the posterior chain as it trains both the hamstrings and glutes at the same time. It's also a great tool for those who are too weak to do glute ham raises right off the bat.
Wants to Do: Lat Pulldown
We can't reiterate this point enough. The last thing we want computer guy doing in the gym is performing movements in a seated position after he's been sitting all day. What's more, lat pulldowns for someone with internally rotated shoulders is just not a good idea overall, as they tend to wreak havoc on the shoulders and lead to a plethora of other compensation patterns.
Needs to Do: More Scapular Stability
More often than not, pathology in the glenohumeral joint can be attributed to dysfunction in the scapulae (or shoulder blades for those who are not anatomy saavy). As such, the rotator cuff is generally at the mercy of the scapulae. Doing endless repetitions of band external rotations or side lying external rotations won't necessarily get the job done. Instead we prefer computer guy focus more on scapular stability exercise like behind the neck pullaparts:
Behind the Neck Pull-Apart
Scapular Wall Slide
Both concentrate on scapular depression and firing of the lower trap fibers to help offset the scapular downward rotation syndrome that computer guy tends to exhibit
Wants to Do: Endless Repetitions of Crunches
What if we told you that performing endless repetitions of crunches is probably one of the worst things you could be doing in the gym from a postural standpoint? Blasphemy you say?
The rectus abdominus (RA) originates at the pubic symphysis and inserts all the way up at the 5th-7th rib cartilage and sternum. What do you think happens when you sit all day with a flexed spine and then go to the gym and perform a bunch of crunches? You end up pulling your chest towards your pelvis, further increasing your already kyphotic posture. Not only does this give the appearance of looking smaller (sternum is depressed), but it also leads to a whole host of other issues such as shoulder, neck, and mid-back problems due to the scapular winging involved (shoulder abduction).
Needs to Do: Rotary Training
It may surprise you to find out that the main "function" of the RA is not trunk flexion, but rather to PREVENT rotational forces and provide stability. Mike Boyle (boy he sure is smart) has done a great job of applying the work of physical therapists James Porterfield and Carl DeRosa and bringing to light the fact that the RA should be trained as ANTI-rotators, not flexors.
We suggest that you add more rotary work into your programming such as:
Half Kneeling Chop
Half Kneeling Lift
In addition, it would be wise to add more hip flexion work such as reverse crunches to help correct the trunk flexion induced kyphosis.
Hopefully we were able to shed some light on the fact that computer guy definitely has some work to do IN the gym. While we commend his efforts, it's obvious that he could still use an overhaul with his programming. In short, ditch the "wants" and focus more on the "needs." Stay tuned for part two where we discuss strategies that computer guy can perform OUTSIDE of the gym that will help improve his posture and overall appearance.