Thoracic Spine Mobility Tip

Moving better and getting stronger is rather contextual. For an average gym attendee it’s a clear message; “I want to lift heavier stuff” or “I want to carry out more complex movements”.

But, if you’re an individual with back pain (or any pain) at rest, whilst carrying out day-to-day activities or whilst trying to engage in exercise, the message is different. It becomes qualitative rather than quantitive. Working out hard or following the most advanced, cutting edge, progressive strength training plan is irrelevant at this stage.  Getting out of pain and discomfort is top priority.

Most of the general population will have some form of mobility issue. It could be as simple as a slightly stiff ankle or hip or shoulders none of which seriously affects the quality of life or it could be as impactful to cause pain and discomfort.

One area of mobility impairment I observe in the gym is thoracic spine mobility restrictions, or in simple terms, the limited range of movement of the upper body through rotation or side bending and also overhead reaching activities.

The thoracic spine (aka the T-spine) comprises the 12 vertebra that covers the shoulders to the waist, or the rib cage portion of the torso.

If the thoracic spine has restrictions, the lower backs lumbar spine will compensate and attempt to move more, not something it’s meant to do. This can often result in fatigue, pain and discomfort. Where I see the restrictions more often is at the top end, where the neck and shoulders take on more work and become stiff, tired and strained. Essentially when the upper torso doesn’t move well, the arms end up compensating and over-reach. There is indeed plenty of research that supports the theory that thoracic spine movement dysfunction is linked to pathologies and pain in the neck, shoulder, and elbow (Heneghan et al, 2017).

Thankfully there are systems in place to help rectify this the help of health practitioners and some trainers who may have qualifications in postural restoration – and positive outcomes can be quick. One study showed that after just three weeks of thoracic spine mobility and strength exercise practice, that participants improved movement competency, strength, posture and pain relief.

Today I’d like to share a couple of T-spine mobility drills we practice often but with a couple of tips added to help make the most of them. We are only human and oftentimes we’ll try to cheat, or get a bit complacent. My modified versions of two common drills have helped many clients actually get the benefit of the moves.

 

Have a go and see how you feel but naturally, of you’ve got pain, maybe go see your local physiotherapist for personalised guidance.

Jamie

How to Bulletproof Your Future

Part 1

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In the gym it’s pretty obvious how we spend our time. People turn up, we warm up, we do some strength work and movement skill work, have a chit-chat then say our ‘see you next times’.

The why and the what else is all-too-often not discussed in much detail apart from some passing suggestions about getting in some aerobic work and keeping up some stretching at home etc.

This year, my goal is to help people bulletproof their futures. 

I’d love to be offering a proverbial radioactive spider to help turn you into a superhero version of yourself, and actually, compared to to an alternative, I might be doing just that!

This year I will naturally be spending time espousing the benefits of strength and mobility training, because that what 90% of my gym time with people is spent doing. BUT, I am going to be spending more time promoting the other stuff, the things we probably do not spend enough time promoting.

My role is that of a health and fitness promoter, not just a personal trainer. Fitness is what most of trainers spend lots of time on but health… meh, we could be doing heaps better at that.

Our bodies maintain a healthy balanced system when it’s treated as intended. It’s a bit like a bike chain. Left unused it will rust, stiffen and eventually fail when used. Our bodies have a blueprint, a design and a purpose. There are a number of things we are meant to do daily and frequently to sustain the balance.

Let’s look at these briefly. I will be spending time over the coming weeks looking more deeply into these according to what research has found and I’ll cover to how to action improvements.

  • Sleep 7 to 9 hours a day.
  • Eat a balanced diet of plants, proteins, fats and water too.
  • Stay strong in all the movements our mechanics perform in.
  • Walk daily and get out of breath from time to time.
  • Move well and often without restriction, pain or discomfort.

What happens when we drift away from our intend? We specialise. This is a subject that puts the cat right amongst the pigeons.

Whilst admiring a specialist and their very particular set of skills, they have most likely sacrificed many other essential elements of what makes up complete health. 

A few general examples:

  • The cyclist who does not work on their strength training
  • The powerlifter who neglects their body fat levels and aerobic health
  • The overly busy father who works 55 hours a week yet neglects his family
  • The very busy mum who focuses entirely on her children and family and neglects their own fitness and nutrition
  • The Gymnast who focuses wholeheartedly on their sport and sacrifices their joint health

While you can admire all these people for their dedication and successes, isn’t it a shame they sacrifice to do so. It’s not a moral shame either. It’s a shame that the essential physical components that make us fully operational humans are missing. Being mobile, strong, aerobically capable; being able to fully recover from each day with good nutrition and adequate sleep is what amounts to enable our bodies to thrive. Being good at one thing is fine, but the pay-off is a health trade-off. 

2019 is the year I’ll be wearing more of my health promotion hat and not just my PT hat. So much of my last 10 years have been spent on learning and developing better knowledge and application of training programs, exercises, progressions, regressions and systems but one thing has become quite apparent – it just doesn’t matter if we are not getting the basics of health in place.

If you’re following a training program, not getting stronger, not losing fat, not feeling fitter, most likely it’s not the training that’s to blame, it’s the poor attention given to these other components. 

Before contemplating becoming an expert or a specialist, weigh up being a really good generalist. Being able to undertake a wide array of components of being human is so much more wealthy than being awesome at one or a restricted number of things. 

Until next time, do weigh yourself up. What are you doing more of or what are you doing proportionately less? Consider that list above:

  • Sleep 7 to 9 hours a day.
  • Eat a balanced diet of plants, proteins, fats and water too.
  • Stay strong in all the movements our mechanics perform in.
  • Walk daily and get out of breath from time to time.
  • Move well and often without restriction, pain or discomfort.

 

Part 2 – Sleep 

 

Getting Back to Old Fashioned Health Values

Attaining optimal physical health in the year 2018 is probably a little bit confusing. Do short-cuts exist? Can you hack a boost with a magical coffee and fasting for 3 days? Is there a wonder food? Is there one exercise that’ll do the job and is strength training all you need to lead a wonderful and fulfilling life allowing you to thrive into old age with grace and all your human facets in place?

If anyone tells you ‘just need ____’, they are most likely full of cr@p!

To get a grasp of how and what is means to lead an optimally, healthy life as a human, you need to grasp what it means to be an optimally, healthy human. What is our system designed to do?

Thankfully the impartial and unbiased side of the medical and sports science world has outlined this for us on numerous occasions. We’ll delve into this later on.

For the purposes of physical health, strength, wellbeing and seeing results from training, I like to focus on the following areas:

  • Recovery
  • Nutrition
  • Cardiovascular exercise
  • Resistance exercise
  • Movement practice

Here’s a wee infographic I’m working on. Eventually it will have links to resources for each area.

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For a very long time (until recently) people have included the above ‘agenda’ in their lives out of lifestyle necessity.

Until the 1950s and 1960s people had lifestyles that promoted:

  • moving more than sitting,
  • activities that kept them strong,
  • eating mostly unprocessed foods,
  • sleeping a good 7 to 8 hours rather than binge watching TV until they fell asleep.

Standards and values of basic human performance have dropped dramatically. Waist inches have climbed and even though we are living longer, we are just delaying death rather than prolonging life. Let’s read that last sentence again.

Waist inches have climbed and even though we are living longer, we are just delaying death rather than prolonging life.

There is no doubt that we will never return to a lifestyle that demands more physical living unless war and famine dictates it!

If you value old fashioned physical standards of health, attaining a good balance of physical living, what do you need to do?

At the start of the blog I mentioned that medical and sport science has informed us what we need to do. Let’s recap on what is promoted:

Sleep: 7 – 8 hours is optimal despite the fact that some people tell you that 5 hours is all they need.

Nutrition: No diets are required. Just aim to gradually reduce processed foods and meals and snacks and instead target fruits and vegetables that are in season NOW. Three to four fist sized portions a day. Eat unprocessed sources of protein, roughly the same size of 2 to 3 palm sizes. Eat unprocessed (read – natural) sources of carbohydrates like rice, potatoes and other root vegetables. Roughly 2 to 3 palm fulls a day. More information from Precision Nutrition. 

Cardiovascular: The targets have been made clear. Walk 30 to 90 minutes a day. You do not have to get seriously out breath, just get up and walk for at least 30 accumulated minutes a day. Simple really. Once this standard is met, then an additional 2 higher intensity sessions can be added a week – 30 minutes of effort that take you pulse to 180 – your age. Not flat-out death chasing stuff! Read more here.

Resistance Training: Two to three times a week undertake a strength training program that includes all the essential human movements. These are the most common physical movements we are required to perform and designed to perform frequently. These can be labelled as Squatting, Pushing, Pulling, Bracing (our torso), Hinging / Bending at the hips and Carrying weight. A well structured plan can be simple and undertaken in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. Need a hand, just ask.

Movement Practice: This is probably one area that should increase compared to strength training as we age. As a goal now, if you spend 30 minutes strength training, you should spend up to an hour on a movement practice. What do I mean movement practice? Yoga, Animal Flow, Original Strength, whatever flexibility techniques you like but in any case, you gotta get looser. As we age our hips, biceps, chest, hamstrings and other areas develop and hold onto more tension due to fatigue, posture, lifestyle. Stretch, move – get all loosey-goosey.

Building this into a week as a beginner

  • Walk every day for 30 minutes (3.5 hours a week)
  • Strength Train twice a week for 30 minutes (1 hour a week)
  • Stretch / Get Mobile 4 times a week for 30 minutes (2 hours a week)
  • Start a habit of eating mostly natural foods
  • Sleep every day for 7 to 8 hours

Yes, you read that right. Exercising for 6 ½ hours is essential for a beginner. Any less and you really are leaving a lot on the table. Any less and your lifestyle will be underpowered to assist you into old age.

It’s a serious matter but think of it this way. Do you want to spend the final years of your life in assisted aged care, unable to clean your own bum or do you want to thrive until your dying day.

To quote Steve “Coach Fury” Holiner, ‘Live Long, Be Strong, Die Mighty’! 

I know I’ve laid out a handful of information here. If you want to start to thrive now and you’re not sure where to start, get in touch and I will happily steer you in the right direction. Not a sales pitch, I just want to help.

 

 

Let talk briefly about stretching

Warning: this is not a jargon filled post with sprinkles of science. It is based however on evidence based practice.

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First off, I’m not going to bash stretching. I’m going to suggest a better way for most people to initiate a stretch that will last longer and improve muscle and movement range.

Most people who stretch use a static stretch. A position is assumed and held for 10 seconds to over a minute. But, many will report no lasting affect and indeed when returning to the same stretch again, they’d be back where they where in the previous stretch session.

Why? Therapists much smarter than I would inform you that no lasting stretch is achieved because the static stretch affects the muscle and the local nerves but not the brain. (Simplest description I dare write) The stretches benefits will last only a short time.

Simply put, the act of stretching the muscle for a period informs the nerve of no further threat and in course, the nerve allows the muscle to relax. However, no learning or adaption will be incurred without the message going to the brain. Intent movement initiated by the brain telling the nerves what to do are learned reflexes. We develop these as babies, toddlers and onwards.

As much as intentional strength activities cause a learned adaptation, the same applies to progressing a muscles range of movement or mobility or flexibility.

So how we do get our brains involved in a stretch? We move into brief moments of muscular stretch with intent. You intentionally move your muscles to take you into the stretch albeit briefly.

There are a few methods that utilise a therapist helping you to tense and release muscles, you can also do this yourself ‘or’ you can just move and have fun.

I prefer the latter.

This wee video below is not a technical demonstration. The rules are simple, briefly move into a hamstring stretching position (in this case) while moving around into and out of various mobility drills or positions you are familiar with. Heck, you can make up moves. It doesn’t have to look pretty or flowing – just move.

Number one rule though, use muscles to pull and push and manoeuvre you into each position to feel a light stretch and do not go to pain.

 

Final word. If you like stretching and it makes you feel better then do it. Make it a frequent practice. I did for years until I found an alternative that helps me achieve some of the physical activities I want to pursue.

Got any feedback, just fire a message off below.

Quick Recovery Tip

Recovery days may raise the notion that’s it’s a day for total rest, like feet up, don’t move and conserve energy.

Well, in actuality, ‘active moving’ recovery is a far superior recovery method AND preparation method for your next training session.

As well as mobilising our joints, preparing wholesome meals, sleeping a good 7 1/2 to 8 hours is vital too.

Today I just want to share a quick active recovery routine I follow in between my harder days.

Increased blood flow to remove post exercise toxins, joint mobility and regaining muscle elasticity are some of benefits but rather than write it…. here’s a video.

You can follow along to it too 😁

Simplest hack to boost your gym results

What’s the best hack to getting results Jamie?

I get frequent and some very awesome questions from both in-person personal training and online clients. One common query surrounds hacks. A shortcut to good ol fashioned time, patience oh, and putting in the hard yards.

I get asked about oils, shakes, best carbs, food timing, supplements, exercise routines, recovery methods for enhanced performance and recovery … all except one extraordinarily simple thing we do every day. This one thing for the most part, we don’t do very well but once improved, really can be a powerful performance enhancer in all aspects of our life.

Drum Roll… Sleep more.

We’ve all experienced those foggy days after waking up prematurely perhaps, or maybe after a late night or an interrupted nights slumber owing to a feisty family of possums who have been practicing their Irish dancing on your roof! This latter fits the description of my last 4 nights … sigh, yawn!

We all know we probably should sleep more, shooting for those recommended 7 to 8 hours a night. Yeah, I know, you’ve probably claimed at some time to do just fine on 5 hours a night like Elon Musk or Donald Trump who claims to sleep 4-5 hours a night and maybe you are one of those rare individuals who claim the same. However, the vast majority of people need 7 to 8 hours of clean sleep per night to recover and rejuvenate.

Contrary to what some say about getting used to reduced sleep periods, the body still needs the 7 to 8 hours+ to sequence a series of bodily processes to recover from the previous day and especially if you exercise frequently and expect to see results.

Board-certified sleep medicine doctor and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of the upcoming book, The Sleep Solution, says if it takes you about 10 to 15 minutes to conk out, you only get up once or twice at night, and you wake up before your alarm, you’re sleeping at the right level of efficiency – especially if you feel well-rested throughout the day. “You’re really looking for that happy medium.”

As for conditioning yourself to reduced sleep, If you’re falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow or while relaxing in front of the TV in the evening, chances are you’re not getting enough sleep though. It is a fine balance.

So, yes, getting those 7 to 8 hours is a balance you get to experiment with but happens during sleep that’s so important for all you exercisers?

stages of sleep

A brief look at the stages of sleep

1.

  • Between being awake and falling asleep
  • Light sleep

2.

  • Onset of sleep
  • Becoming disengaged from surroundings
  • Breathing and heart rate are regular
  • Body temperature drops (so sleeping in a cool room is helpful)

3.

  • Deepest and most restorative sleep
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Breathing becomes slower
  • Muscles are relaxed
  • Blood supply to muscles increases
  • Tissue growth and repair occurs
  • Energy is restored
  • Hormones are released, such as: Growth hormone, essential for growth and development, including muscle development
  • Provides energy to brain and body
  • Supports daytime performance

You can see the list of benefits of stage 3 and do you think we’re helping ourselves by missing out on these? Can we really recover from our training and work if we’re missing out on essential snooze time?

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Maybe keep track of your sleep over the next few nights, note what time you go to bed at assuming you’re not drifting off on the sofa and of course note what time you wake at. If you’re feeling under par during the and getting less than 7 hours sleep, perhaps it’s time to address what time you go to bed at.

On that note, I’ll stop here so you can plan your bed time – oh, and maybe investigate turning off blue light devices and changing your smart devices night mode to the orange back light.

 

Night night

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Good any thoughts? Drop me a note if you’d like.

Optimising your Breathing

Getting Started

The previous three articles (back to breathing, breath like your ancestors, eight benefits of optimising your breathing) have made the case that most people breathe more than necessary and could benefit from reducing their breathing to a more appropriate level.  This article provides some first steps in this process.

You will obtain better results by buying and reading one of the books written on the topic, or better yet getting personalised coaching, but many people will want to try out the idea before they make a commitment. And many others will want to get started before their book arrives or before they find an instructor. So here are some ways to get started.

Breathing has the unusual distinction of being both a voluntary and involuntary activity. Thus it is possible to reduce your breathing for as long as you maintain attention.

Unfortunately, when you stop paying attention, your breathing will return to its current ‘default setting’.

However if reduced breathing is maintained for more than about twenty minutes it will begin to make changes to your breathing centre – to recalibrate it towards normal healthy breathing rate. This article will look at some of the ways to do this. The same types of processes can also be used to quickly raise CO2 levels for various short term effects which will be discussed in the next article.

The first step towards reducing baseline breathing is to recognise the factors that contribute to increased breathing in the first place, and try to stop them from happening:

  • Breathe through your nose. Mouth breathing makes it almost inevitable that you will over breathe, due to the lack of resistance to air entering your lungs. It is possible to over breathe through your nose, but due to the smaller airway you will hear and feel your breathing if it is excessive.

 

If you suffer from nose blockages there will be tips in the next article for dealing with this on a short term basis. Generally once your breathing is reduced to a healthy level, nose blockages will be drastically reduced.

This can present something of a vicious cycle.  You need to breathe through your nose, so that you can reduce your breathing, so that you can unblock your nose so that you can breathe through your nose…. For some people medication may be needed in the short term to break this cycle and make full time nose breathing possible.

Many people even tape their mouths shut at night or use this glue as a way of ensuring that they nose breath throughout the night. Personally I prefer the tape, but for anyone with a beard or very sensitive skin around the lips, the glue is a more realistic option.  The improvement in sleep quality can be remarkable.

  • Breathe diaphragmatically. Breathing with your chest muscles tends to increase your breathing rate both directly, and as a result of activating the sympathetic nervous system. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing in a variety of positions (eg the Original Strength breathing drills) helps to make diaphragmatic breathing automatic.
  • Manage stress. As discussed in part two being stressed or excited while physically passive is one of the causes of chronic over breathing. There are probably many stresses in your life that are unavoidable, but we all tend to have a certain amount of stress that can be cut from our lives, so it is worth looking at the stresses in your life in order to identify any that can be removed. It is also worth minimising activities that are exciting but sedentary. If you crave excitement try to get it in ways that are physically active. When you are being sedentary try to do things which are actually relaxing.
  • Avoid overheating. One of the ways that we cool our body is through increasing breathing. In cold weather try not to overdress. Many people wear an extra jumper ‘just in case’ because they hate being cold. If the idea of risking feeling cold bothers you, try carrying the extra jumper just in case, and only put it on if you actually start to feel cold. As your breathing reduces you will find that your cold tolerance increases, and you will require less warm clothing. There are two reasons for this.
    • Reduced breathing means that you will lose less heat through your breath and stay warmer.
    • Increased carbon dioxide levels will cause your blood vessels to dilate. This leads to better peripheral circulation which will prevent cold hands and feet.

 

Practicing reduced breathing

Within the OS system one of the basic resets is to simply spend time focusing on breathing through your nose, using your diaphragm. This is done in a variety of positions in order to make breathing diaphragmatically automatic regardless of what you are doing.

Seeing as you are already doing this (you are, aren’t you?) it is an obvious opportunity to practice reduced breathing at the same time. Your aim is to reduce your breathing to the point that you feel a mild ‘air hunger’ or desire to breath more, but you do not want the process to be stressful at all. If you attempt to restrict your breathing too much you will activate your stress response- which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

There are many different techniques to help focus on breathing less, but before discussing them I would like you to try simply breathing less. Lie down and spend a few minutes breathing nasally and diaphragmatically, and simply be mindful of trying to breathe as little as possible while still remaining comfortable.

       Ask yourself the question ‘how much do I actually need to breathe?’  

When you do this, look out for some signs that you are successfully raising your blood CO2 levels. You may find that any of the following happen:

  • You start to feel calmer and more clear headed
  • Saliva increases and becomes thinner
  • Your extremities become warmer due to increased circulation
  • Muscle tension is reduced
  • Your eyes start to water
  • Your airways become more open

 

Go on …. Try it for a few minutes, then come back and keep reading.

Some people will have a significant amount of success simply by following the instructions above, but it is more effective with some extra tips.  Here are some to try.

  • Focus on the feeling of the air through your nose – cool as it comes in and warm as it leaves. Use this as a form of feedback. The more you slow your breathing the less you will feel the movement of air through your nostrils.
  • Lying on your stomach (crocodile breathing) gives great feedback that you are breathing with your diaphragm. This is one of the reasons that it is a popular position for breathing practice within the Original Strength system. The resistance also provides excellent feedback about how much you are breathing, which makes it great for reduced breathing exercises.
  • Use the elastic recoil of your lungs to exhale. Many people do not realise that their diaphragm has a resting position. You fill your lungs by contracting your diaphragm and if you then relax it your lungs will deflate very slowly until your diaphragm is in its resting position. At this point your lungs will be empty-ish (similar to the end of a normal exhale). Exhaling passively using the elastic recoil of your lungs will slow down your breathing considerably. It is also super relaxing…which indirectly slows your breathing still further.
  • To take this method a step further you can leave your diaphragm relaxed at the end of an exhale. In some ways this could be thought of as holding your breath (you stop breathing) but in other ways it is the complete opposite. Instead of tension it is about relaxation – you are not so much holding your breath as releasing it. Wait in this position at the end of each breath until you feel like you actually need to breathe.

 

Resetting your breathing centre through exercise

Perhaps the simplest way to increase carbon dioxide levels (and hence reset the breathing centre) is through exercise while nose breathing. As the amount of breathing required is increased during activity, it becomes extremely unlikely that you will be able to breathe more than necessary while nose breathing.

Go for a walk, run or combination of both depending on your level of fitness and the state of your breathing. Simply go as fast as you can while maintaining nose breathing, and staying relatively comfortable. Even people who are used to running up large hills are likely to find that they need to walk up the hills when they first begin – the trick is to not let your ego get in the way. There is no need to think about your breathing –just focus on maintaining nose breathing, and continuing to move at the fastest pace that is comfortable.

The same principal can be applied to any physical activity. Simply let your pace be governed by how much you are able to do while nose breathing. In addition to the benefits to your breathing, this is also a great way to avoid overtraining by limiting your intensity.

Should you ever mouth breath while exercising?

Purely from a health perspective, probably not. From a fitness and performance perspective the answer is a little more complex.  For example:

    • Most people will find that they can perform better if they mouth breath during competition, and possibly during some of their most intense training sessions.
    • During strength training it is advisable to breathe out through pursed lips as a way of maintaining intra- abdominal pressure.  This is a way of producing more resistance than the nose would provide, and therefore limits breathing at least as effectively as pure nose breathing does.

Nose breathing however should be the default option, and mouth breathing the carefully considered exception.

Next time – Ways that reduced breathing can be used for immediate short term relief for various health issues.

(Spoiler – it works way better if you are also making long term changes to your default breathing pattern, as described above – so get started!!)

 

This article is intended as information only, and should not be viewed as medical advice. It is not written by a medical professional, and it takes no account of your own individual circumstances.