Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why Your Ergonomic Workstation Won’t Fix Your Pain

You’re at work sitting in front of the computer and your back or shoulder is hurting. This has been going on for longer than you care to remember so you think it’s time to improve your workspace. Maybe you’ll get an ergonomic chair or one of those standing desks. Unfortunately, after you spend all that money, it’s likely that you’ll still have pains, just in different parts of your body.

While ergonomic furniture may help, it’s not the true solution to the problem. Why? The problem isn’t your work space, but rather your habits. It’s not just that you’re sitting or standing poorly, but that you’re in the same position for too long. Even if you sit in an uncomfortable chair, you can actually avoid pain if you reposition yourself in your chair and stand up frequently enough. Ergonomically friendly furniture can help you stay in one position longer before developing symptoms, but then that also means you are being inactive that much longer.

We’re not meant to be stationary beings. Even when we sleep, we move around quite a bit. And there’s a good reason for this. Our bodies need to redistribute body weight so that pressure points don’t stay on any part of the body for too long. Pressure reduces blood flow to affected body tissue which causes damage over time. If this continues long enough, your tissues actually break down and you’ll develop open wounds called pressure sores. This is what happens to immobile people such as the critically patients in hospitals.

To prevent this, our bodies warn us far in advance by sending pain signals and motivating us to reposition ourselves. Don’t ignore those signals and keep working through the pain. Listen to what your body is telling you and move.

Some people, such as stroke patients and those with severe Type 2 diabetics, can’t feel the pain and are at high risk of developing these dangerous sores. If you have one of these conditions, you need to be even more vigilant and proactive about changing your position frequently.

Positional pain can also come from your muscles and joints. Muscles help maintain posture, both good and bad. When we stay in a position too long, muscles get tired and the weight it was working against is dumped onto your joints. Your joints are not meant to handle this kind of load for long periods of time and become damaged, leading to pain. In addition to joint pain, your muscles can also become stiff, causing the common muscle tightness and cramping between the shoulders and lower back.

Ergonomic furniture helps reduce the stresses on your body by distributing your weight better and supporting your posture to reduce the tension on your muscles. However, no matter how much the furniture helps, the fact remains that there is pressure and tension on your body. The only way to prevent positional pain is to move.

So, the next time you start feeling your leg go numb or your shoulders tighten up, stand up (or sit down if you’re standing)! Move around, take a few steps, or even do some light stretching or some exercises, such as those from The One Minute Workout. This will not only resolve your symptoms, but help you perform better by increasing blood flow throughout your body. As a bonus, physical activity will also help your brain change states, which may help you figure out a problem you’ve been stuck on!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Pull-Ups Shouldn’t Stop at Your Chin

I remember first learning about pull-ups during the physical fitness tests back in grade school. A repetition only counted if your chin went above the bar so there was lot of neck craning and leg kicking during those gym class pull-ups. When scrawny kids are only trying to beat their friends, they don’t care about form or the benefits of exercise.

As adults, pull-ups are no longer a mandatory activity (unless you’re in the military), and are a great way to build strength and functionality. Despite the change in goals, we often stick to doing them the way we first learned them, stopping with the chin just above the bar. While still effective, I would argue that this isn’t the most effective use of your time and effort.

Instead of artificially stopping with the chin just above bar-level, why not keep going? A chin-level pull-up is actually less than half of the range of motion that our arms are capable of. You can actually keep pulling higher until your lower chest is at bar-level. As you can imagine, this is even more difficult, which means a better workout for your muscles, and more bang for your workout time.

But it doesn’t stop there. If you keep going up, the movement transitions from mostly pulling to a pushing movement. That means you can work on even more muscle groups with the same exercise! At the very top, you’ll be supporting your body weight on the bar with your arms straight down, just like the top of a dip. This combined pull-push movement is called a muscle-up. When done in a controlled manner (little swinging or momentum), you can develop great strength throughout the entire range of motion with this exercise alone.

I emphasize the importance of relying on momentum as little as possible since that works your target muscles maximally and imparts the most strength building benefit. Just as in grade school, going quickly, kicking, or kipping like you often see in CrossFit may help you notch a couple more reps but that doesn’t maximize the strength-building benefits for your time spent.

Besides looking cool and being more time efficient, muscle-up training imparts more functionality. Training this combined pull-push movement erases the strength gap that most people have when they are transitioning between pulling and pushing. This means better performance for many sports. For those of you who like more extreme sports, it’s also quite handy if you ever find yourself hanging off a building or cliff and need to climb up.

So, the next time you do pull-ups, don’t stop at the chin. Keep going up as high as you can. You may not be able to do as many repetitions this way but you’ll gain more benefit in less workout time.

For the best muscle-up I've seen to date, check out the video of Olympic gymnast Andreas Aguilar below. The applause is definitely well-deserved!