Archive for Exercise

Foam Rolling for Warm up and Recovery

foam roller

Warming Up

For many years our warm up activities have been scrutinized, researched and changed around.  In the 70s we had ballistic movements, in the 80s and early 90s we had static stretching, and since then we’ve generally gone down the ‘dynamic stretching’ or ‘joint mobility’ exercises track.  At a recent convention I attended some interesting research was highlighted in relation to both static and dynamic stretching as part of the warm up.  We already knew of the possibility of injury with static stretching prior to a workout (see my stretching blog), but now it seems dynamic stretching is, if not in the firing line, in the irrelevant category.  Research indicates (this is my blog so there’s no citation but if you email I’ll send it) that there is no difference in relation to injury whether or not I do a dynamic stretching warm up.

So if static stretching is out, and dynamic movements make no difference, what should we do?

Well it turns out that what most of us have been doing afterwards is better done before hand as well!  Foam rolling is researched to improve blood flow to the working muscles and works well as part of your warm up.  The rest of your warm up should consist of activities consistent with ‘warm up sets’ – that is – activities that replicate your activity at a reduced intensity.  Body weight activities such as air squats, push ups, lunges and the like are great, and if you are doing a weights session a warm up set is the best way to go.  Use 50-75% of the weight you plan to lift in your normal sets.  For really heavy weights or risky exercises such as barbell squats or deadlifts, a couple of warm up sets gradually increasing the weight is suggested.

foam roller2

Cooling Down

So we’ve included static stretches as part of the cool down for years.  And although there’s no longer any reason other than increases in flexibility to do them (they don’t really decrease DOMS), they are great to help you calm down after a hard workout.  Similarly foam rolling activities can do the same.  Ideally if you’ve got time at the end of your session, both would be great.  Static stretches first, then foam rolling should help your recovery.

General Maintenance

Even if you’re not working out, foam rolling can help.  Obviously a deep tissue massage is the best way to increase blood flow into working muscles, but you can’t have one every day.  But you can use the roller every day.  My suggestion is that you go through this recommended routine at least once a day.

Start with your quadriceps, move to your ITB, piriformis/gluteals, lower back, upper back, hamstrings, calves, lats and then your neck.  If you’re just starting out use a nice smooth roller –  that will cause you enough pain!  As you get used to the feeling and the muscles respond you will need something a little more aggressive.  A ‘rumble roller’ as above is the go.  Use the regular one first and then graduate to the extra firm model.

Here’s my video for you to watch and follow… enjoy!



What Should My PT Sessions Consist Of?

Personal Goals

So what do you need to do to achieve your physical goals?  It’s not such a straight forward thing… everybody is different and your goals are different and so your training should reflect that.

There are particular principles of training that guide your program and your personal trainer should set a plan for you.  What often happens is that the training plan is a little hap-hazard and doesn’t really reflect your personal goals.

Training Principles

The principles of training, if you google them, are different according to who you ask, but there are some that are consistent in the literature.  Specificity, overload (incorporating Frequency, Intensity, Type, Time) , reversibility, adaptation / progression, and variation.  Some of these are more important than others – that is – they directly contribute to increases in fitness and measurable parameters, whilst some are more motivational in nature.

The big buzz these days when I talk to people is variety.  The 22 week qualified PTs are very big on it – and they are so for a reason:  it’s the pop tune of training.  It’s a bit of fun to be doing something different every time you go to the gym… but is that effective training?  How does it stack up against the measurable principles?

Specificity and overload are the big ones.  You must be training specifically for something, and that training must reflect that, and you must be training at the right effort level to get results.


Although this is pretty obvious, it’s not always applied.  Specificity is directly related to your training goals.  If you’re training to improve your distance running you should be running some kms, if you’re playing football your training should prepare you skill wise, stress the range of energy systems required and simulate game situations.  If you’re trying to lose weight then you need to do those activities that maximise that probability – training that increases muscle mass (and therefore increases metabolism) and depletes muscle glycogen.


Your performance in your specific goals will improve only if you incorporate overload principles into your training.  You must train the specific things above using known parameters that will improve your ability to do them.

Frequency – if you’re training to run then you must run most days, resistance training should be 3 or 4 times a week and should repeat those same activities regularly.  The fad for variety defeats this prinicple.  You can’t progressively overload a muscle if you do different activities each session. You need to do the same thing for a period of time until you plateau in terms of weight/reps/sets and THEN change your activity.  Change your program every four to six weeks, not every week.

Intensity – for weights ensure the weight is as heavy as you can do for the reps and sets chosen.  If you can do more reps, increase the weight.  It’s better to be one or two reps short on the last set than to finish easily.  For interval training monitor your heart rate to be 80-90% of MHR towards the end of the rep, and use the right recovery formula.

Type – stick to your goals and don’t swap and change your activities just to make it interesting.  The type of work you do must be specific to your goals as said above.  Variety comes from increasing weights, running or riding faster, seeing yourself improving.

Time – weights sessions shouldn’t go more than 30-40 minutes for standard strength programs, or 20-25 minutes for superset hypertrophy style workouts.  Interval training sessions can be effectively run for 20 minutes at high intensity (80-90% MHR in the reps).  For longer distance running you need to stress the aerobic system for about 60 minutes maximum most of the time.  If you’re training for marathons you’ll need to include a some runs that go for your intended marathon time in the lead up.


This just describes the effect of not training a particular thing.  If you don’t use it you lose it as they say.  Too much variety can reverse the training effects you may have developed in a particular activity.  Do you notice that if you don’t do chin ups for a while they become very difficult?

Adaptation / Progression

I guess this is really just about overload.  As you train a certain thing, you become stronger or better at it as the body adapts to that activity.  That’s the point of overload – it causes adaptation.  Once you’ve adapted you must progress to create the same training effect.  Increase the weight, speed up the run or ride, run faster for longer, etc.  This is particularly so if you’re trying to lose weight if you are to avoid a plateau.


I think this has been misunderstood to some extent, and has, as I said before, become the flavour of the month to the detriment of overload.  We used to talk about periodisation of training instead of variety – that is – when adaptations have taken place and you begin to plateau then change the program.  Normally every four to six weeks you should change the weights exercises or do a different combination of intervals.  The shock to the body of such a change puts you back into overload even if you train the same things but in a different way, for example, if you’re including dumbbell squats changing them to Bulgarian split squats will do the trick.

In summary

If you’re training for weight loss and your PT is doing a different session every time you show up then there’s something wrong.  Your trainer should have a plan for you with short and long term goals and should apply the principles of training to the plan.  Too often ‘variety’ is king.  PTs like to show off with their ability to use every new device know to man – TRX, power ropes, sleds, tornado balls, sand bags and the like and it’s easier to make money if the sessions are more interesting.  If you’re training for the SOG they’re great, but if you’re trying to lose weight they won’t work in the long run.  You’ll lose weight in the first two weeks then quickly plateau.  Your program should be about training aimed at increasing muscle mass and depleting muscle glycogen  – in that order.  That requires adherence to the overload principle which means a certain amount of repetition in your training and usually a weight gain for the first few weeks.

The truth is if you ask your PT what he or she does for training it won’t be the haphazard set of novelty events they give their clients.  They’ll be doing superset weight training and high intensity interval training.



Should I Ice or Not?

We’ve Always Iced!

Icing an acute injury has always been seen as an important way to assist repair. If you follow my facebook page you’ll have noticed that there is a discussion around whether or not icing should go the way of pre-activity stretching – that is – some are of the view that icing interferes with the repair process and we should not longer use it.
But a full understanding of what inflammation is, and how the lymphatic system works paints a clearer picture of the value of icing for acute injuries.

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is part of our immune response to foreign invaders. It consists of a network of lymph capillaries, lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, the spleen and a couple of other small organs, the major role of which is to filter lymph fluid and return it to the blood.
Lymph fluid itself is formed from blood plasma, the cells of which are small enough to permeate the blood vessel walls and so they move from within blood vessels into interstitial space between cells where various processes take place. When the build up of interstitial fluid reaches a certain pressure, this fluid seeps into the lymph capillaries through the lymph capillary walls in the same way and travels on through lymph nodes where it is filtered and eventually returned to blood volume.

All of this is controlled by the interplay of pressure between blood flow, lymph flow and interstitial fluid – and this is important to know when we talk about the role of icing for acute injury.

Innate vs Adaptive

The lymphatic system works in two ways – there is an innate reactive role which occurs quickly for sudden ‘breaches’ of the system with a common reactive process, and an adaptive learned response which is slower but identifies invaders it has seen before and applies a more measured response to the threat using T and B cells within lymph nodes and the spleen.

When an acute injury occurs, the innate response takes place. This type of response in non-discriminatory – that is – the same response occurs for a range of acute incidents. This range goes from something like a mild ankle strain to a full double lower leg compound fracture.  The body reacts for the worst possible scenario as it’s innate response – which would be for a compound fracture skin puncture type injury.  Of course the level of response varies according to the severity of the injury, but the process is the same.

Innate in Action

Firstly, when the injury occurs, there is a release of histamines into the blood which causes increased blood pressure, dilation of blood vessels and therefore increased blood flow. As mentioned before, the system works on pressure. In the case of an injury, the increased blood flow and pressure results in increased transfer of blood plasma into interstitial spaces as part of the response. This is inflammation and in the case of a full compound fracture or break in the skin, it’s an essential part of protecting the body from invasion by external bacteria etc, through the skin rupture. Icing in a situation like this should be minimal to reduce pain and blood loss, but the inflammation process shouldn’t be interfered with too much.

However, when there’s no break in the skin, the process will still occur although there is no need for the lymphatic system to be involved where invasion is not going to occur. It’s been well established that this is an over reaction to the incident based on the non-discriminatory nature of the innate reaction to injury.  The increase of blood volume in the area with dilation of the blood vessels causes more blood plasma to cross into interstitial fluid.  The lymphatic system is not able to process the fluid quickly enough, and it pools in the area.  Eventually the amount of lymph and interstitial fluid overwhelms blood flow in the injured location and restricts blood flow preventing the return to homeostasis in the area concerned.

We see for example, that this occurs in lower limbs with sufferers of type two diabetes where the fluid pressure is so imbalanced that blood flow is denied to some toes and feet, and necrosis occurs.

Whilst this is unlikely in healthy people with a joint strain, the process is similar in that the decrease in blood flow in the injured area caused by the increased fluid pressure restricts the healing process.  Blood flow with it’s protein and other elements is the main requirement for repair of injury.  The role of lymph is to remove impurities and so does not contribute to repair.  If there’s no breach of the skin then there’s no role for the lymphatic system in a minor strain.

The Role of Icing

So this is where we ice the injury.  The lymphatic vessels are more prone to dilation and restriction than the blood vessels and will restrict more quickly than them on the application of ice.  Once they have restricted, the pressure changes, the lymph fluid volume will return to normal and the blood pressure, lymph fluid and interstitial fluid balance will be restored.  After a few days, ice is not necessary to maintain the normal balance and other methods to increase blood flow and speed up repair can take place.

How Much Ice?

Ice until you are numb is the rule.  There are views on raw icing or using ice packs, and you can look them up if you like, but packs are safer in terms of preventing ‘ice burn’.  For superficial injuries just 10 minutes with an ice pack, and for deeper larger muscle or joint injuries up to 20 minutes maximum – only until the pain in the area is numbed.  You can do this a few times a day until the swelling doesn’t return – usually 72 hours or so. Then book in for a remedial massage treatment to give the repair a kick start.


Running Out of Heart Beats…


A Fixed Quantity

Did you know there is a theory (the Heartbeat Hypothesis) that states that every one has a fixed number of heart beats available to them?  It was proposed that when you reached that number your heart would just stop and you would die.  As a result exercise was frowned upon as it made your heart beat faster and you would run out quicker!  The theory was based on the fact that small mammals have very quick heart rates but shorter life spans than larger animals whose heart rate is slower.  Well we know the theory is just rubbish, but lets do the math anyway…

Heartbeats Sedentary vs Active

The average sedentary person has a resting heart rate of 72 beats per minute throughout their life.  As we get older the rate does decrease at a beat every few years until about 70 years old when it stops decreasing and may increase.  Resting heart rate is different to walking around heart rate, and it’s fair to say a sedentary person sitting at their desk doing day to day things would have a heart rate of around 80 bpm.  So assuming a person gets eight hours sleep, during any 24 hour period a sedentary person’s total heart beat count consists of eight hours at 72 bpm (72 x 60) x 8 = 34,560 and 16 hours at 80 bpm (80 x 60) x 16 = 76,800 for a total of 111, 360 beats per day. That’s 40,535,040 beats per year.

But of course, an active person develops significant efficiencies at rest and their resting heart rate is lower, even though there is a period during the day when the heart rate is elevated by exercise.  A person who is active all their life will start with the same resting rate, but this will reduce by about  a beat every two years or so.  So in my case (which is typical of a life long exerciser), in my mid 20s my resting rate was 60 bpm, and this decreased to the age of 50 where it was 45 bpm.  Walk around rate is about 52bpm, and exercise rate for one hour per day averages 155bpm.  Again assuming eight hours sleep, the total heart beats per day is made up of eight hours at 45 bpm (45 x 60) x 8 = 21,600 and 15 hours at 52 bpm (52 x 60) x 15 = 46,800 plus one hour at 155bpm for a total of 68,555 per day and 24,954,020 per year.

That’s a saving of 15, 581,020 beats per year or 38.4%.  So if a sedentary person was to live to the average age of 79.9 years, that same person would live to 110 years old if they had the same number of heart beats before they died!

We of course, know that the theory is seriously flawed for whole range of reasons, and the maths is dodgy to say the least, but the question still remains…

Does Exercise Make You Live Longer?

For along time there was little actual evidence to say that this was case.  It was clear that quality of life was better but because we were not able to research longevity for exercisers due to the lack of subjects who specifically exercised for health before the 1970s, it was difficult to prove.

Since then, there has been a plethora of research and sufficient subject numbers to come to a conclusion.  Almost every research project has shown increase in lifespan related to minimisation of disease factors amongst lifelong exercisers.  Exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of cardiovascular disease significantly and this alone would account for significant lifespan increases – in fact it halves the risk of death from heart disease.  Exercise cuts the risk of stroke in elderly men by a third, and a well rounded program consisting of resistance training including core exercises and also including interval training will stave off the risk of type two diabetes, increase the HDL percentage in cholesterol levels, reduce body weight to normal levels when measured according to hip/waist ratio, body mass index (BMI) and percentage body fat.

Yes, But By How Much?

Well the research is varied in relation to results because subjects in a research project always vary significantly, but basically for every hour of moderate exercise you can gain up to two extra hours of lifespan.  For intense exercise it’s exponentially more.  Lifelong exercises can increase their lifespan from between 5 and 8 years with a better quality of life during their active life.

How Much Exercise?

This year the Heart Foundation of Australia published some new guidelines for exercise.  They were significantly different from suggestions in the past because they acknowledged the serious change in lifestyle over the last ten years that technology has brought us.  Our sedentary lifestyle requires more than just the occasional bout of exercise during the week to maintain proper health.  The new suggestions are for one hour exercise every day at a moderate level, and 30-40 minutes of vigorous exercise per day.  So unless you’re working a physical job it’s important to do something every day.

How Hard Should It Be?

The one hour suggestion is targeted at those who get their exercise walking, but even then the walk needs to be brisk with your heart rate into the 70-75% of maximum heart rate range.  So for a 50 year old otherwise sedentary person that’s a heart rate of around 130 bpm for most of the hour.

If you exercise ‘vigorously’ you can do less.  A weight training session with interval training afterwards for 30-40 minutes of work with your heart rate at 85% of maximum (145 bpm) for most of the time is enough.

Of course, if you exercise too hard and don’t recover properly before your next session then you won’t get the longevity or long term health benefits.  It’s ok when you’re just starting out to find you haven’t recovered, but within a few weeks of training you should be at a steady state in your training even with overloading.  You can tell if you’re training too hard by measuring your resting heart rate before you get out of bed.  If you’re training too hard it will start to increase every morning.  I’d let that go on for maximum a week before I’d start reducing the load to allow better recovery.

So In Short

Exercise improves quality of life by reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease and other preventable early death causing conditions.  You should do something every day, preferably at a reasonable intensity, but monitor your exercise workload to prevent over working your body and allowing sufficient recovery to take advantage of the long term effects of exercise.




When Should I Stretch?


Should I Stretch At All?

In the scientific world we rarely jump on new research findings.  Research is done in so many different ways, and there are as many opinions of the veracity of particular research styles and techniques.  A hard look at any one research paper by anyone familiar with these styles of research will elicit at least one criticism of that paper.  So as a general rule, particularly in the exercise science field, we wait for several research projects to arrive at similar findings before we accept them as a newly accepted confirmed concepts.  In the stretching world we are nearing one of those changes, and that change is to do with the value of stretching.  The newest research in the area is heading towards discounting the value of stretching for healthy muscles.  But there’s a history to ‘stretching’ heading back many years.

The Changing Face of Stretching

The possibility of injury in the first phases of exercise prior to good blood flow to the working muscles, particularly as we get older, has over the years, generated a number of methods for ‘warming up’ the working muscles prior to starting exercise.  If we were to define stretching, we would say it is the action of lengthening the muscle towards it’s full range of extension.  This has been a common theme during warm up activities for as long as anyone has exercised past the age of about 15 years old.  Up to that point we can get away with not warming up as far as causing serious injury is concerned, but because the point at which a warm up is required varies from person to person and day to day, and because we want people to develop good habits,  exercise professionals will always include a warm up prior to activity.

If you look at the old school activities that have stayed fairly rigid in their warm up processes, such as marital arts, dancing, weightlifing (not weight training), and weekend sports where the coach has no training apart from what he did when he was a kid, you’ll see the remnants of what we used to do to warm up.  The 50s, 60s and 70s were times where ‘ballistic’ stretching was the warm up.  Muscles and joints were flung around at all angles with high leg kicks, bouncing duck walks, fast twisting windmills and tuck jumps the go.  You either warmed up or tore your hamstring.   It was always thought that the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) felt for the next few days was due to the activity we did, but it was strange that the guys who skipped the warm up were never as sore!  Of course we now know that flexing a muscle forcefully stretches the opposite muscle and will, if there is not yet sufficient blood flow, initiate the ‘stretch reflex’ in that opposite muscle.  The stretch reflex is a safety mechanism designed to minimize damage to an over stretched muscle by causing a flexion in that muscle against the stretch.  The sudden flexion in the muscle causes microscopic tearing which leads to the pain in the following days.  So the warm up caused more injury and soreness than the activity in many cases.

When sports science caught up and recognised that the stretching needed to be less ballistic, we probably went too much the other way.  During the 80s and 90s we went to static stretching – that is long slow stretching for between 10 and 30 seconds per stretch – as part of the warm up.  Unfortunately we’ve discovered what a waste of 30 minutes this actually is.  There was a landmark study done in Australia by the army which identified no reduced injury incidence between those who stretched prior to activity and those who did nothing.  It turns out that static stretching separates the fibres in a muscle.  Instead of the muscle working as a full unit, it works as several separate bands making each ‘band’ more susceptible to injury because of the reduced cross sectional area over which the force is applied.  This makes the muscle actually more likely to tear in the initial phase of activity until sufficient blood flow from movement enables the muscle to work as a unit again.

Of course, most athletes included movement as part of their warm up anyway, so mostly no harm was done by stretching unless it was the only source of warm up.

So in the early to mid 90s we went back to movement as our warm up tool, but we have since called it ‘dynamic stretching’.  Really all that means is that we move the joints and muscles we plan to move during the activity in a controlled way, avoiding the end of the range of movement until there has been sufficient blood flow to the muscle.  The warm up ‘stretching’ normally starts as a general whole body set of movements and then becomes sports specific, especially if dynamic and ballistic activities are part of the training or event.  If you’re looking for a general dynamic stretching warm up you can find one here.


What About Afterwards… Doesn’t It Help With Soreness?

Well that’s what we’ve always preached.  Static stretching after activity separates the muscle fibres, allows blood flow between them and assists in flushing out waste products thus at least reducing DOMS.  But like I said, the research is not heading that way.  A couple of recent studies have shown no difference in the level of DOMS between those who stretch afterwards, and those who don’t.  However, a couple of studies does not make it a fact at this stage.  I will say, from personal experience, I have always found stretching a waste of time and have avoided it as a rule.  Given my age (52) and my physical condition (pretty good really) I’d have to agree with the recent research, but of course it’s only my opinion (and that’s not research!).  So we’ll wait for some more work to be done in the area before we completely ditch it.

I use stretching after workouts for my clients for another reason though… if you’ve worked hard (and if you read my blog article on how hard you should work you’ll see that intensity is the key) then you probably won’t feel right straight after you stop.  I get my clients to do the standard ‘cool down’ by working at a reduced intensity for a period after their last interval training rep, but when they come to a complete stop they (and me too) can still be a little light headed.  The last thing they should do is jump straight in the car and drive off.  So we spend some time stretching to allow a slowing down of the metabolism and a period of time where your blood flow can catch up with your reduced requirement and you can be more at an equilibrium before heading off.  If you’re at the gym, you should do stretching for the same reason at least.

So Is There Any Value At All In Stretching?

The short answer is yes.  If the muscle is shorter than it’s normal working length then you need to work on it make it the length it should be.  So stretching is useful as a therapeutic tool where there is injury or there is what we call hypertonicity in a muscle that has cause it to shorten.  So when you tear muscle fibres, the surrounding fibres tend to tighten around the damage in an attempt to protect the injured area.  This is clearly desirable in the initial stages of an injury, but can cause the muscle repair tissue (the scar tissue) and more particularly the surrounding muscle tissue to be thick and inflexible if not stretched out as it repairs.  In order for the muscle to repair with a minimum of scar tissue restriction we encourage stretching throughout the repair.  But of course, stretching at the appropriate intensity – mild at first with only a small amount of stretch felt, then more as the muscle starts to lengthen and the chance of re-injuring the muscle by stretching too far has reduced.  Eventually we want symmetry.  We want the damaged muscle to have the same length as the same muscle on the other side.  In this case the stretching is definitely of value and an important part of rehabilitation.

The other time stretching is useful is when hypertonicity is present.  Hypertonicity occurs where a muscle gradually shortens through a couple of different processes, and will result in pain in a particular region due to the pull of the muscle on its attachments, and/or associated nerve involvement when the muscle tightens around or in the vicinity of a nerve supporting that or an adjacent muscle.  The two most common examples of this involve the head and neck, and the lower back.

Head and Neck Stretching

Many of my massage clients come to me with neck and shoulder pain due to hypertonicity in the neck and shoulder muscles.  They often complain of headaches related to muscle tension in their neck and attachment at the back of the head.  Usually this is sleep position related exacerbated by their job role where they may be at a computer all day, or driving a car or similar things where their head and neck are in static positions.  Rather than go off at a tangent here, I’ll do a later blog on how to prevent and treat this yourself, but for the moment I’ll go through the stretching routine I suggest for them.

These stretches are best done before you go to bed.  Prior to doing them, though, do some rotations of your head and neck so there is some blood flow before you stretch.

The stretching technique I suggest for maximum benefit is neural stretching.  In massage they call it muscle energy technique, and in exercise physiology it’s a reduced form of PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) where classical PNF is done at full effort.  Its works like this… if you apply a contraction to a muscle the stretch reflex of that muscle turns off – that is – the brain sees no need to prepare for a stretch if you are contracting the muscle.  Once you stop contracting, there is a period of time – about 2 or 3 seconds – when the stretch reflex will not initiate even if you stretch the muscle.  The stretch reflex is very conservative in that the amount of stretch it allows at a static stretch is well below that which will damage the muscle.  So we use the above technique to ensure we get a maximum stretch during stretching.

For the head and neck there are two easy stretches I suggest.  The first one is a sidebend stretch like this:

Side Bend Stretch

With this stretch, rather than pull on your head with the other arm, use the weight of that arm to do the stretching.  So you have to ensure that the crook of your elbow is past the top of your head.  Once you’re in position, very gently apply resistance against the arm for the count of three, then relax the resistance completely.  You’ll find that the head can stretch further than before.  Do that two more times as per the video.

The other stretch is a 45 degree stretch along the same lines:

45 Degree Neck Stretch

Put your bicep on your nose with the crook of your elbow above your forehead to start, and the rest is as before.

Lower Back Stretching

Generally, if you just try to stretch your back, you’ll stretch other muscles attached to the same places – hamstrings, gluteals, piriformis etc.  So when trying to stretch your back, stretch these other muscles first to that they don’t interfere with your back stretch.  Again, we use the neural stretching protocol in the same way.  First a single leg hamstring stretch like this:

Single Leg Hamstring Stretch

Then a piriformis stretch.  Note that the hands holding the stretch are under the knee joint not on top of it:

Piriformis Stretch

Finally a lower back stretch that will stretch mostly your lower back, but also thoracic it it’s tight.  Note that you should try to keep your opposite shoulder on the ground and rotate your leg over the top:

Lower Back Stretch

You must do all of the stretches on one side first, then do the other side.


So it seems that stretching for stretching’s sake is on the way out.  The research has indicated for quite a while now that stretching does nothing to help you warm up.  In fact a static stretching warm up is more likely to cause an injury than prepare you for exercise.  The latest research is heading in the same direction in terms of the value of stretching afterwards.  It’s no longer thought to reduce DOMS, and in fact, over flexibility has been shown to reduce the force applied by a muscle and reduce its effectiveness in dynamic situations.

Stretching is seen now to be only useful where the length of a muscle has been reduced through injury or hypertonicity.  It’s still useful however, after a workout, as an activity to assist in settling the body into normal blood flow patterns by allowing a time for gentle body movement prior to driving off in your car immediately afterwards with your head still in your workout.



Aerobic or anaerobic exercise? Which works best?

What’s the real question?

Eventually most of my clients will ask this question… although they don’t frame it in these terms.  The question is usually ‘Why are we working so hard?’

The answer is more than a one sentence answer because to explain what we’re doing I have to go into an explanation of energy systems and the research around what type of exercise works best for weight loss and fitness.  And because clients are here to train I don’t have half an hour to spare to give them a full explanation.  Most people are happy with ‘because it works… wait and see’ but there are people who legitimately need ‘buy in’ to a particular training regime – that is – they have to understand and believe the explanation and hear about the research before they’ll give it a proper shot.

So with that in mind… here we go!  Keep in mind that this is a blog and not a research document and that any simplified explanation of energy systems will by definition omit some important detail, but I’ll do my best.

Input vs Output

In the old days when the research on food and exercise wasn’t so precise we went by this mantra.  Match your output with your input and your weight will remain stable.  But of course whilst this is a good general rule it doesn’t really work like that.  What we know about input is that the type of food you consume is as important as the quantity.  Carbohydrates are used for energy production short term, protein assists in repair and growth of cell tissue, and fats are important for cell function, transport of essential nutrients and nerve and brain function.  So as far as weight control is concerned these days we’ve moved away from consumption of carbohydrates in great quantities as we know that their short processing time in the body means that unless they are used within a few hours they are stored as body fat.  Contrastingly, processing time for protein and fat is longer and we get a few more hours to use these as energy sources before they are stored. That’s very simplified, but in a nutshell, the body metabolizes food differently according to what type of food it is within those categories so we manipulate our input to take advantage of this.

IT turns out that exercise is the same.  In terms of output, the body acts differently according to the type of exercise we do.  In particular we’re talking about intensity.  The body uses three basic energy systems – one is aerobic and the other two anaerobic, and so here is the drum…

The Aerobic Energy System

Most of the time during the day doing our day to day activities we request and are supplied with energy using the cardiovascular system – that is – the sugar produced by your liver and transported through your blood supply to the working muscles is sufficient to supply all of your energy needs there and then.  If you were to walk faster, your body would increase heart and breathing rate and transport more oxygenated blood to your legs to provide the energy required.  If you were to jog or run at a pace that would allow you to have a conversation with someone whilst you were running you would be using this energy system.  It’s our most efficient system as it is constantly in use and can quickly ramp up if requirements increase.  And it will ramp up to a point we call the ‘anaerobic threshold‘ – that is – the point at which you are working so hard that the body can’t produce energy as quickly as you are using it.  This point varies quite a lot from person to person for reasons I’ll explain another time.  During the 80’s, 90s’ and 00’s many training programs revolved around this energy system mostly through a mistaken interpretation of something called the ‘fat burning zone’ by celebrity trainers like Jane Fonda and others, including your average certificate qualified personal trainers.  I’ll do a blog on this another time.  There was a lot of bandwagon jumping because there was a lot of money to be made.  Aerobic sessions are typically longer and require more sessions per week ( five or six) to be truly successful.

These programs have one other major problem… they don’t really work.  I remember many women coming to me and asking ‘why do I have this cellulite on my butt and legs when I’m exercising 90 minutes every day?’  We still see these ‘gym junkies’ at the gym working out for several hours with thin bodies, but no lower body definition – as if the fat has hung onto them.  The fact is it has.  And the excessive aerobic activity is the reason it has.  The body has evolved to work in a way to facilitate survival.  If we were to head back to our hunter gatherer past we would see that humans were either traveling from place to place in search of food, or were actively hunting it.  Whilst traveling from place to place the emphasis is on surviving the trip, so travel would be for several hours or maybe days at a low intensity (in the aerobic zone).  The body has evolved to make attempts to preserve what fat supplies we have in this circumstance to facilitate survival should we not find hunting grounds within a few days.  Research indicates that the body is more likely to break down muscle tissue for energy supply than use stored body fat in situations where food intake is low and aerobic activity is high – the very situation people have put themselves in to ‘lose weight’.  Thus the retention of ‘cellulite’ type fat stores in people who train and eat this way.

The Anaerobic Systems

I say systems, because there are two major anaerobic systems within our body that are used according to the intensity of activity.  Our aerobic system works constantly in the background supplying the day to day needs up to the point of intensity we previously called the ‘anaerobic threshold’ (AT).  Above this intensity the energy has to be supplied from another source because our cardiovascular system is unable to pump oxygenated blood through to the working muscles at a rate commensurate with the demand.  If the demand is marginally above the AT we will generally use what’s called the ‘lactic acid’ system.  Energy is supplied via a process within the working muscle that produces energy by using muscle glycogen stored in the muscle.  One of the by products of this system is lactic acid (thus the name) – the chemical that is believed to cause that ‘burning’ feeling in the muscle when you’re near the end of the system’s ability to produce energy (the last 20 seconds of a 400m run for example).  It is limited in it’s ability to produce energy (thus the slow down if you continue at that intensity) and is usually depleted by about one and a half to two minutes.  Hunter-gatherer wise this system is used when actively hunting and chasing food.  The other system kicks in when the intensity is maximal – the ATP-PC system (can’t explain the name here – too involved).  This is the system you would use if you sprinted 100m as fast as you could.  This  is a ‘flight’ system evolved for use to escape danger or to initiate a hunting manouvre that requires full effort.  It is limited in how much energy it supplies and burns out within about 30 seconds for most people.    These systems will replenish quickly during a recovery phase of a training session (i.e. rest between sets) according to a researched formula (later down the page) until the muscle glycogen is depleted.

The advantage of these anaerobic systems for weight loss is that they are very expensive for the body.  Unlike the aerobic system, the energy required is not ‘steady state’.  The body uses more energy than it can produce at the time and builds up an energy deficit that has to be repaid during recovery.  The production of energy without oxygen is very inefficient and uses more calories both in the production of the energy itself and in the repair and replenishment of the body to it’s resting state.  Muscle glycogen, for example, is a physiological imperative- that is – the body has evolved to fast track the replenishment should it be required for more ‘hunting’.  Typically it does so from recent food consumption, but where carbohydrate consumption is not sufficient, it draws on fat stores for this replenishment.  So rather than encouraging fat to stay on the body it uses your fat stores to replenish muscle glycogen it can’t replenish from your food consumption.  So if you’re restricting your diet in terms of carbs, this is how that works.

Effect in Metabolism

Your ‘metabolism’  is the rate at which your body works.  During exercise your metabolic rate increases, and as you recover it slows down.  The higher your metabolic rate, the more calories you are using.  Many weight loss products aim to increase your metabolism to assist the weight loss process.  The whole purpose of using anaerobic activity to assist in weight loss is that it’s effect on metabolism is far far greater than an aerobic activity.  An aerobic system is a closed system in that, as previously explained, energy is requested and supplied in full at the time.  There is no requirement for the body to produce energy beyond the time period of the activity.  The opposite is true of anaerobic activity.  The body must produce the energy on demand, but then must also replenish and repair what’s been used – and it does this during rest.  So your caloric output is made up of what you use during the activity PLUS what your body does afterwards to return to your normal resting rate.

And this is the crunch…  Research indicates that an aerobic session will elevate your metabolism for approximately 20 minutes after the activity if you are exercising below the anaerobic threshold, whereas a high intensity (90% of maximum) anaerobic session will elevate your metabolism for up to three or four hours.  That’s right.  You get three or four hours of increased caloric consumption by doing nothing more after your intense workout.  So if you run for 90 minutes (why would you?) below your anaerobic threshold, your rate increases for total of  110 minutes.  A 45 minute intense training session will have your rate increase up for up to 285 minutes.

That’s why we’re working so hard.


In summary, the most efficient and effective training session for weight loss is one where you work at 90% of your maximum effort for as long as your muscle glycogen stores will last.


How does my training program assist this?

So if you’re training with me for weight loss, how does the formula I use meet the above criteria?

The formula I use is to complete three pairs of superset weight activities followed by a high intensity interval training session (HIIT) usually on a spin bike.

More specifically I use multi muscle group exercises in non-synergistic target muscle group pairs mostly using free weight dumbbells, swiss balls and body weight activities.  These are done for 3 x 8 sets with 1 minute recovery and with fast concentric and slow eccentric movements.  The HIIT session is designed to complete the depletion of muscle glycogen supplies to the clients’ tolerance and fitness levels.

Superset weight training

The Exercises

The exercises are chosen to maximise whole body use.  The more muscle groups used in the activity, the more muscle glycogen is used and the more energy therefore expended.  I incorporate large muscle groups such as quads, hamstrings, gluteals etc as much as possible because they require more energy expenditure because of their size.  Dumbbells are used because they require the use of the upper body when doing lower body activities and they engage core muscles more often than not because control of the dumbbells is essential during most of the activities.  The exercise pairings maximise workload by switching the emphasis from one area of the body (and thus bloodflow) to another whilst recovery of the other group takes place.

Sets and Reps

Research indicates that for beginners, 8 reps is the best compromise between maximal effort and time in contraction.  By the time we get to 6 or 7 reps the fatigue sets it and the last couple of reps are difficult.  After three sets of 8 reps most people are significantly depleted of muscle glycogen in the working muscles.  If they can continue either more reps or sets, then the weight is increased.


To enable the correct number of reps and sets to be performed according to the research, we set the weight such that the participant can complete 8, maybe 9 but not 10 reps.  This ensures fatigue at a level which encourages the optimum depletion of muscle glycogen at the end of the session.


Weight sessions are mostly done using the ATP-PC energy system.  This system works maximally for about 30 seconds after which it tails off.  Research indicates that one minute 30 seconds ( a one to three work/rest ratio) will allow recovery (not replenishment that’s a different thing) of the system sufficient to repeat the activity.  As stated above, after three sets significant depletion of muscle glucogen will have taken place.  I allow one minute between supersets which equates to one minute 30 seconds between sets of the same exercise if the set takes 30 seconds to complete.

Fast concentric slow eccentric

Strength gains are at or slower than the speed of contraction.  For functional use, any strength gains have to be developed at a normal speed, so we do the pushing phase of the exercise at a fast speed.  This also contributes to energy consumption during the session and maximises replenishment requirements.  Endurance gains are directly proportionate to the amount of time the muscle spends in contraction.  By doing the return phase of the exercise at half the pushing phase time we maximise endurance gains and again contribute to increased energy use.  This method makes the activity significantly harder using more energy and requiring greater post exercise replenishment thus contributing to the amount of time of metabolic rate increase post exercise.


High Intensity Interval Training

We finish off the session with some interval training (these days called HIIT, but of course if it’s not high intensity it’s not interval training!).  The purpose of this is to work towards as maximal depletion of muscle glycogen as the participant can manage.  The weight session does most of the work, but usually the larger muscle groups in the legs / gluteal area  have the most residual muscle glycogen and so we work there.  In the past I have tried boxing activities or kettlebell interval sessions but quite often the upper body has been mostly depleted during the weights session and the activity can not be performed as intensely as it should be.  Working the legs, with the spin bike or running (which is my personal preference) ensures the maximal depletion, and therefore maximal replenishment requirements and maximises the time in post exercise metabolic rate increase.

I like to switch things around between ATP-PC and lactic acid interval training to retain the shock factor to the body and thus continually initiate a training effect.  I use 1:3 work rest ratio for a 30 second 9/10 effort  and a 1:1 for an 7-8/10 effort one minute work period.  As participants become more experienced I generally introduce random reps with the appropriate 1:3, 1:2 or 1:1 work rest ratio.


Of course, every four to six weeks depending on how we’ve been going, I change the whole program.  Normally clients will alternate two sessions for this period, after which I’ll use another program.  I have designed my programs to gradually become more difficult as clients progress from one to another.  The result is usually a lighthearted complaint about ‘this program being worse than the last one’.



There is quite a bit of sports science in the above information, and you could still get a good grasp of what I’m on about by skim reading those parts.  The essential information is that modern training sessions work utilising anaerobic energy systems as much as possible, seeking to deplete muscle glycogen through activities that work at about 90% of maximum effort.  This maximises energy use and increases the demands on the body after exercise in terms of repair and recovery.  A well participated session will increase your metabolism for hours after you finish.  Contrast with that the old fashioned aerobic training sessions where metabolism is only increased for short periods after you stop exercising.

The sessions I run for clients are aimed at taking advantage of the research which shows this.  A superset weights session with as heavy weights as you can manage for the correct number of reps and sets done with the correct timing will maximise this muscle glycogen depletion.  Finishing you off with a high intensity interval training session completes the depletion process to the clients’ fitness levels both mentally and physically.

I hope that makes it clearer… feel free to discuss!