The Balance

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“Musculoskeletal pain is a lifestyle issue.”  – leading physical therapist Dr. Shirley Sahrmann

There are many ways to interpret that statement, and many lessons can be drawn from it. Of all the people that come to EFL I estimate that 90% come because they are experiencing some sort of pain or discomfort that negatively affects their life. The other 10% have body composition or performance related goals but tend to also have some movement-related limitations be it chronically tight upper back due to poor posture or nagging injuries related to a chosen sport or hobby.

The commonality is that all are products of lifestyle choice. The person with chronic knee pain may be in that situation because of postural habits combined with too much running, and not enough recovery and rest. The overweight person with low back pain may have chosen to sit for hours every evening in front of the TV rather than engage in an active hobby.

We have trained rock climbers that have experienced chronic elbow and shoulder issues from imbalances in stress and recovery. Competitive cyclists and runners with chronic hamstring injuries resulting from imbalances between training/sitting stress and recovery.

And therein lies the rub. Most of us don’t have a choice whether or not we spend 8 hours a day in front of a computer or at a desk. We are however in control of how often we stand up and stretch, take a little walk, or even choose to work standing.

An aspiring cyclist or climber has to dedicate many hours in order to get good, but how the athlete chooses to balance training and life stress with recovery is critical to success, and perhaps not pissing off a spouse. Time spent stretching, planning good nutrition, getting a massage and all other methods of recovery are a choice, and one that often ends up being the real roadblock rather than not training enough.

So how do we develop a balance between that and all of the other demands on our time and energy in order to maintain health? Do we just need to spend more time in the gym exercising?

That depends. We’ve all seen gym rats whose chosen hobby is to hit the gym everyday for crushing workouts and guess what, they often have injuries or pain caused by that lifestyle choice too. My friend Nate Green from Precision Nutrition was one of those gym rats, but recently has not only written about the need to get out of the gym, but he lives it too by trying different sports and branching out in his own training instead of doing the same old bench press, squat, deadlift-centered workouts. And guess what, he feels and moves better.

My own journey in health and fitness has resulted in a number of injuries along the way, some from lifting too much while being focused on numbers, and at times practicing certain martial arts movements too much without a balance in variety and recovery. Too much bench pressing because that is what signifies strength, or so we are lead to believe in fitness media.

Ok great, so now that you know everything you’ve done was wrong (joke) now what? Here is a bit of advice on what has helped those I’ve worked with in these areas:

1. 2-3 gym workouts per week using a program structured to address weak points, imbalances, mobility deficits and so on. This is sufficient for most people for most goals. Don’t do hard workouts 3 days in a row in order to balance recovery. If crunched for time a 15 minute can work wonders.

2. A nutrition plan that will aid in recovery, enhance performance, address deficiencies, and otherwise enable fat loss, muscle gain or other goals.

3. Find an active hobby or sport you enjoy doing, and preferably one that does not place a lot of stress on the body in one plane of motion (running comes to mind here). If you are a runner or cyclist that is perfectly fine, but just be aware that the volume of steps or pedal strokes can create imbalances and so other modes of activity will help reduce the potential for injury. I highly suggest activities that use the entire body in multiple planes of motion such as martial arts or rock climbing.

4. A daily walk and or stretching/foam rolling any time of day does wonders for not only reducing stress but improving mobility, joint health and burning a few calories. Essentially low stress activity provides a great balance to higher stress activities.

It’s safe to say this topic could cover volumes so for those curious to read more here are a few resources.

Dr. John Berardi talks about efficient nutrition strategies and the idea of how to stay fit doing a couple short workouts per week.

Patrick Ward, a performance coach & massage therapist, has a number of articles on the subject of balancing stress and recovery and related topics on his blog.

Physical therapist Gray Cook on balancing movement patterns and stress.



About the Author:

Owner of Elemental Fitness Lab in Portland, OR. Our approach to training is to integrate research (I'm an NSCA CSCS, certified Functional Movement Screen, and Precision Nutrition) with practical experience. I've studied martial arts in Japan and the U.S. for many years, and have put in my time in the gym, in the water, on the snow, on the rock wall, and on the bike.
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