Thursday, April 8, 2010

Step back to leap forward - Is it Strength you're building or just more Compensation?

You know it's time to update the blog when someone who doesn't read blogs very often asks you what's up with your lack of blog updates. I've been called out & guilty as charged, so here it is... The latest of what's been brewing on my mind & consuming my efforts in the field of human performance lately.

As many of you know, I've had YEARS of problems with my shoulders in some form or another. It started being obvious to me in high school while playing tennis. Practicing hours & hours of serves in the attempt to have a Boris Becker-like cannon and hours of groundstrokes led to a right arm that would essentially go dead after a set of matchplay just before tennis season started during my senior year. Being a right hander, that made serving, volleying, & my beloved forehand harder & harder. So I'd play matches just gutting through the pain, willing my right arm to whip through the strokes, clutching the racquet grip as hard as I could since I often couldn't feel it. The rotater cuff muscles had essentially gotten so swollen that they were cutting off nerve signal and blood flow to the arm. But I didn't know that at the time. I just wanted to play.... desperately.

With that kind of debility, it's little wonder that after high school, I decided to go deeper into another love of mine - martial arts. The full body training I'd found in martial arts such as Northern Shaolin kung-fu put me through different ranges of motion that I'd not trained before, developed stability through stances I'd not really practiced before, and forced me to use both my left and right sides like other prior physical pursuits had not.

Tai-Chi gave me yet another training factor to benefit my body by ratcheting down the speed to super slow-mo and forcing me to pay extra attention to efficiency and softness in my movement, as well as the correctness of my trajectories. I'd done Tai-Chi with my father as a boy, but focusing on it in a more formal manner during my college years made me realize how difficult it can be to let go of muscle tension that we don't need. It forced me to examine what the difference was between being "powerful" and being "rigid" - a lesson that I'm going back to re-examining now thanks to conversations about Z-Health that I've had with Kenneth Jay, Master RKC.

POWER is generated by a change in force (or muscular tension) over time. So the less tension you start with and the more tension you can consciously generate over the smallest possible time frame is your key to being powerful. The maximum change in tension over the shortest amount of time equals your power output.

But pain messes with your nervous system's ability to both relax and to tense. It leaves you in neuromuscular limbo with "guarding" tension that's not so useful when you want to move, want to perform, want to lift, want to fight, or want to really live. That guarding tension starts to create immobility in an area or system that's been injured or threatened, forcing the neighboring joints to try to create more range of motion in order to preserve general task ability.

Such neurological flip-flopping is a damn slippery slope to be on. It's one thing to be able to flip-flop the functionality of any given joint based on your position in relation to the ground or based on intention. Good athletes NEED to have that skill. Just look at any gymnast, grappler, tactical operator, dancer, or martial artist! But when a joint gets locked into one function - hypermobile or mobility-compromised - it's ugly... and usually painful.

Can we compensate around such injuries? SURE!

We do it all the time. And just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it. FMS founder, Gray Cook says, "You might be able to fake and lie your way through the entire Functional Movement Screen by doing every movement with maximal feed-forward tension and denying that you're in pain on every step, but what's your goal? Is your goal to cheat the screen, or is your goal to perform better in your chosen sport and move better in your daily life?"

Honesty's sometimes a hard pill to swallow. For me, I've been so thrilled with some of the improvements in strength that I've made over the years with my strength thanks to the RKC Hardstyle training method that I've allowed myself to, as Master RKC Mark Reifkind puts it, "live in my sport". Having had countless neck & shoulder traumas thanks to martial arts training, especially from the one system I love most - Combat Shuai-Chiao, I've been building my house of strength on a foundation of sand.

I won't lie. Sometimes we fall in love with what (or who) might not be best for us.

It's that way with me & Combat Shuai-Chiao. In all the years I've done martial arts, nothing gives me a greater thrill than having a format to be able to kick, punch, throw, and lock like I do in Shuai-Chiao training. Throwing someone through the air at high speed with amplitude & spin is a rush. And being able to be thrown that way and to hit the ground with a successful breakfall is a rush too. Knowing that the untrained recipient would likely either die, be incapacitated, or seriously injured by a throw that you just stood up from is a rush like no other. Yes, that's me hitting the sand in the pic below.

The only experience I've ever felt like it is going at high speed with live blade double swords with my Krabi-Krabong teacher in Thailand on my last day of training and emerging without a single cut or scrape.

Pressing a 32kg kettlebell is a similar rush. When you've gone from barely being able to hold your tennis racquet after the first set to being able to strictly military press a 70lb kettlebell overhead, it's a rush. No lie. When I walked into Tait Fletcher's Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, NM, this past winter, the first thing I did when I saw the kettlebells was walk up to the biggest one I saw (a 32kg) and strict pressed it without even taking my jacket off. Strength is a calling card that lends instant credibility to whatever you're going to say.

But when I tried to up that press strength to tackle the 36kg kettlebell, I ran into problems. The right shoulder that had benefitted so much from the strength training of the RKC method and FMS corrective exercises started hurting more & more. The left arm started experiencing weird strength losses at the RKC II in February after doing VO2Max Viking push-pressing. Luckily Master RKC & CK-FMS creator Brett Jones was there to have a look at me and gave me the most sensible explanation yet. The brachial plexus was getting impinged by my scarred-up deep neck muscles that were irritated by the repeated stretch that was happening at the bottom of the re-rack, and that was severely dampening the motor signal to my left arm. Not a good sign.

You know you own something when you can step away for it for a long while and still do it. It's that way with riding a bike, right? And it's that way with any skill set that your nervous system completely owns in an uninhibited fashion. Injured, sick, sleep-deprived, or inebriated, I can do this one Shaolin hand set and not miss a single movement. There have been entire years (or a few years) that have gone by when I haven't done even 1 rep of this set, yet it's still mine. It's still part of me. And that same thing should be the case with my press. If I can press a 32kg kettlebell one week, and then can't press a 16kg without pain the next in the absence of a traumatic incident occurring in the meantime, I don't own that 32kg press. Do I?

I could be stubborn and just build more on top of more, but then I'd be building more guarding and compensation on top of pre-existing guarding and compensation. So what would happen? As soon as I stop practicing it, my body will reject the load movements that I placed on it. In other words, the pressing strength will shut itself down... as it has in my case.

So I'm having to backtrack a little. It's frustrating to have to put yourself in the remedial education room when you wanna go out & play with the other kids, but I've learned that I'm not a kid any more and I've got an international spotlight shining on me. My time for gross irresponsibility is long over, whether with myself or others. And my first and primary responsibility is to be the best father I can be for my son. If I can't play with him or protect him because my shoulders are in too much pain, what kind of father would I be?

What's on the agenda for my rehab? Go back to what Gray Cook always talks about with ANY discussion about human function.

What's the FIRST prerequisite?..... MOBILITY. So I'm working on restoring maximal range of healthy, unfettered, pain-free, smooth movement to my arms, my shoulders, and my neck - the fusebox of the human body.

What's involved?.... MOBILITY WORK - BOTH PASSIVE & ACTIVE. That means that I'm receiving treatments to seek out the trigger points that are binding up my movement, to mobilize the joints that have been locked down, and to to restore elasticity of the soft tissues. 

That also means that I'm re-focusing my exercise time to temporarily steer away from weighted strength work and towards bodyweight mobility.

How do I do that?.... With my old UCLA Kung-Fu Warmup routine and its variants that include movements, exercises, & concepts from systems as diverse as Northern Shaolin, Capoeira Angola, Shuai-Chiao, & soon incorporating Z-Health drills that've been prescribed by Kenneth Jay.

Through the years of combative arts training, I've damaged my body and made it bear a heavy load by taking punishment without balancing it with equal amounts of restorative practice. As a result, I hit the wall and bounced off it when I tried to up my strength past a certain point. Now it's time for me to backtrack a bit and work on the resilience of my body, maximizing effortless, pain-free mobility again, and then rebuilding my strength to new heights of Hardstyle.


Anonymous said...

Mark, thank you for sharing your experiences in such a detailed manner. It is a tough walk to prioritize wisdom over strength but it's always so much more impressive in the long run. I hope this process brings you more rewards than the 36. And you're right, what good is anything if you can't play with your kiddo? Being a father - now that is manly.

Unknown said...

Nice article Doc! Love the honesty that you express with your imbalances. I agree as well that I have the same journey that I am approaching as well with my neck. I believe that once a true athlete accepts his/her weaknesses and works on addressing them is when they really, truly understand themselves physically.

Matt Albanese said...

Great article! And oddly enough I'm going through something extremely similar right now. I've been having pins and needles sensations down my right arm due to some nerve root irritation in my neck (which like in your case was likely the result of repeated injuries during martial arts training). Chiropractic, massage, ultrasound/electrostim, and acupuncture have been helping, but it's a very slow road. I'm anxious to hear more about your road to recovery. Be well, doc.