Over the years, one of the biggest mistakes that we’ve seen those looking to rehabilitate their backs has been the way in which they approach and progress with their workouts. This is also an error that extends into those looking to get more generally “Back In Shape”. Be it after a long period of inactivity, an injury, life events, or simply a new year regimen. Hopefully this week we can help you by giving you the tools and understanding to make sure that you make progress with your workouts, whatever your circumstances.
This subject comes at a rather convenient time as this marks the first week of our July Challenge, 4 weeks of live workouts which will practically take you through some of the lessons we’re covering today. As you can expect we’re also going to be distilling this message down to some practical, concise tips later on.
One of the secrets to getting back in shape
Whether you are recovering from a bout of back pain or simply looking to improve your general health and fitness, get stronger or lose some unwanted body fat, the most essential first principle to follow is that your workouts are simple.
What do we mean by simple you might ask?
When you’re beginning with your workouts, they should consist of exercises that fundamentally are quite simple and target the areas most relevant to the goal in mind. If we use the example of our “Phases” for those recovering from a back injury. We have the safest possible exercises in Phases 1 and 2 that are working on the most essential concepts – spine stability.
In the cases of a more general workout, back pain aside, they should be simple too. We should focus on exercises that are compound, i.e. larger whole body movements. Movements that do not require high levels of skill to engage in but also movements that form the foundations of health and wellbeing as well as many other movements. Great examples of exercises that would fit the bill here would be squats and lunges. Why? The primary reason is that they are applicable exercises to everyday life, most of us use stairs and chairs and so are already doing these movements as well as the fact they use multiple muscle groups working in coordination with one another!
One final note before we move on, for those that are not contending with injuries. Beginning a program with any form of jumping exercises is completely unnecessary and unfortunately lead to many an injury! There may be some element of validity for an advanced trainer using these, but someone new to exercise will get plenty of “bang for their buck” doing simple squats, especially if you are starting out trying to get back in shape.
Why are you working out in the first place?
When you begin your workouts you should always have your purpose in mind. Most of the time the driver is a goal, “to be able to live life without impediments” or “do the things you love without pain” or even “insert your goal here”. The focus then needs to be on the vessel to get you there and the objective markers that need to be worked on to achieve this goal – Improving strength, fitness & flexibility.
You have to master the first step to getting back in shape
Recognise that with your workouts you must achieve a degree of overload to make change. In the case of an exercise for improving strength, you must challenge the muscles close to the points of failure. In the case of fitness, regularly providing significant exertion – using the array of available heart rate monitors, such as Fit-bits and Apple Watches can be tremendously helpful here.
However, you are going to find it near impossible to make any sort of progress to the above ends (without injury) if you do not first spend time focusing on your technique. Everyone has differing levels of experience and skill and a quick look around a local gym will reveal one fundamental truth. Just because a person may have been active and working out a long time, doesn’t mean they’ve developed the necessary skill in the technique department – this may or may not have contributed to injuries in the past.
Because of this, even simple exercises like squats require care and attention to make sure that you are doing these correctly. For example, becoming aware of the nuances of the technique, such as not rounding of the lower back at the bottom of the rep, or stopping the knees rolling in towards each other when you go deep. These nuances must be ironed out and good technique formed first and foremost. Without this crucial step achieved, we cannot hope to make any reasonable progress.
Having others observe you can make a huge difference here to point out areas where you’re not quite moving right, especially in the early days when your internal corrective sense is not yet finely tuned.
Seeking your improvement threshold
It is only once we have achieved a foundational level of technical competence that we can effectively and safely move to the next step, finding our limits.
It is important to know here that adding resistance in the pursuit of your personal limits will take some time, as well as a degree of trial and error. Invariably when you are adding resistance, be it through bands, weights or machines, you may well find that your technical skill is stressed, this is normal. Working to maintain good technique with increasing strain is going to be a long term battle that you will never truly win – as there will alway be a stronger resistance!
We simply want to make sure we don’t lose and sacrifice too much technical competency in the pursuit of resistance that we become injured.
The process of steadily building the resistances you’re using will often begin rather quickly. Especially on exercises involving the lower body. For example, an arm exercise might reach this “improvement threshold” long before your legs do, which is reasonable to expect given the size and use of our lower body compared to our arms.
So what is this improvement threshold?
This is merely the resistance at which you start to approach significant strain in your muscles. Perhaps the point at which you could only do one or two more repetitions with good form before your technique deteriorates significantly – or you simply could not do another repetition.
For those that are advanced in their training, it could well be that you occasionally train to failure, literally being unable to complete one more repetition of a squat, or on the treadmill simply having to get off as you could no longer remain running at the predetermined pace. However for many of you reading this, working at this level of intensity – working to failure – will not be necessary at all.
At the same time, know this, it is much more common that those working with their rehabilitation never come anywhere close to the “improvement threshold”. Over the years we’ve seen too many patients that have been doing 10 squats or a 30 second plank for the last 6 months, wondering why they’re injured again.
If you could do that many reps of this exercise 6 months ago when you started and you’re still doing the same thing today, what improvement has been made?
It’s a trap many fall into – especially when rehabilitative advice is often so lacking in the progression department.
Now comes the dance.
What do you do once you’ve started to approach this threshold? You progress, over the subsequent weeks, months and years you will conduct a performance, working towards these thresholds, pushing yourself. Fueling your body well, resting, partaking in other activities that are conducive with allowing your body to adapt. As you do this and your body adapts, your personal threshold will move away from you, your body will be capable of doing more with more ease, and so you will have to spend time working to reach that new threshold.
At times you might well find that a threshold turns into somewhat of a brick wall, and you will have to look into yourself, and maybe to others for strategies to break down this wall. This is an important role that we’ve played for many of our members, helping them with strategies to approach this plateau, wall or block. Working from different angles to help your body make the necessary changes to push that threshold back further.
Why should we bother trying to get back in shape again?
You might be thinking that this sounds like a tremendous amount of work and is it really worth it?
Perhaps, working on these things when you start out, depending on whether you have an injury or not, may take around 5 hours out of the 168 hours every week (One 24th of your day). Later on in this process 3-5 workouts per week can be sufficient to make significant progress or 3 to 5 hours out of the 168 a week – or on average, less than one 24th of your day.
Why are you using such a peculiar example you might be thinking?
Because often we make such a deal of these things in our minds that excuses and reasons not to make the time come in from all angles. Investing what in the long term, can amount to less than 1 hour in every 24, or 3 to 5 in every 168 (1 week) in order to be able to partake in all the things you love, without being in pain or limited is a trade that is so easy to make when broken down in this manner.
Now for some tips to help…
Comment of the week – Mandy
“I find the live workouts so inspiring, thank you Lara, it re-kindles my workout ethos every time!“
3 Practical Steps To Make Sure You Get Back In Shape This Time:
- Practice your technique:
Practicing your technique from the outset is the most important first step, without this you will leave yourself vulnerable to injury and failure. This can take days, weeks and sometimes a little longer depending on your previous experience, as well as the degree to which you work on this. For example, taking photos and videos and getting outside commentary will dramatically expedite this process! Remember you are not really getting any stronger at this point!
- Find your threshold:
Finding the level of resistance required for your technique to falter on specific exercises is the next important step! This is a more efficient process and could take a couple of days, to a few weeks. Remember again, you haven’t got stronger here in any meaningful way and you’re still working with your “latent strength”.
- Push yourself & your threshold:
This is where we can finally begin to make objective strength improvements, Congratulations! Your workouts are at an intensity that is sufficient to exert change on your body! From here, you’ll be in a constant dance, working hard at your current threshold and then seeking the new one as your body undergoes its transformation. Your bones, joints, muscles, heart, lungs, nervous system etc etc etc all undergo the exciting process of change – creating a better you!