Behind the scenes of a different kind of body transformation
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
We've all seen spectacular body transformations where many pounds are lost but this is the story of a different kind of 8 week body transformation. This is what it took to make significant changes to a middle age body through personal training; THE CLIENT Sean, 46 years old. Director of air conditioning company. Father of 3. Cyclist, soccer player. Strengths: Good cardio fitness & leg strength from 120km per week of cycling & a base of fitness from several ironman triathlons 20 odd years ago. Determination, reliability. Weaknesses: Plantar fasciitis (bottom of foot). Long-standing nerve condition in right hand effecting grip. Tight muscles. Travel & busyness.
As he wanted to work on upper body strength 1 basic but effective strength test was used- release push ups. Consider a push up on your toes but lower torso all the way to the ground then lift hands, then put back down and push up. This is not only harder but is a very objective test with basically no chance to cheat. Other tests were done with the plantar fasciitis in mind. In simple terms if the muscles of the lower body are tight it's going to significantly stress the foot when you run. While it is worthwhile to directly treat the injury itself, by not addressing tight muscles there'll inevitably be other problems when demands are placed on the body in the form of soccer, cycling or jogging. Muscles measured for range (flexibility) were calves, quadriceps (front thigh), hamstrings, groin and thoracic spine (mid back). I was also interested in his balance, so had him do a closed eye's single leg balance. This can be surprisingly challenging and so it proved. It provided another area to try and improve upon, as it would only help with the plantar fasciitis. He'd mentioned wanting to improve his core and glutes (butt muscles). He'd been advised that'd help with the plantar fasciitis. In my experience every client needs work in these areas and it's initially technical as it's not so much about strength but more about activating certain muscles. I didn't worry about testing abs or glutes as I knew he simply needed to work on them and in an intricate way, this means not contracting those muscles too hard and doing so with an accompanying contraction of the pelvic floor. It's largely a process of undoing compensation patterns- underactive/weak stabilising muscles (such as glutes and abs/core) result in other muscles overworking and tightening (including the hamstrings, quadriceps and hip flexors).
THE METHOD AND THE EXERCISES He was happy with the amount of cardio he was doing which meant the personal training sessions could be devoted to upper body strength, flexibility and stability exercises. The lack of conventional leg strength training exercises (e.g. squats and lunges etc) was helpful in providing opportunity to retrain muscle function while preventing the tight and overactive muscles (quadriceps & hamstrings) from becoming even more dominant. The warm up consisted of 3 exercises done in continuous circuit style twice: Inch worms which stretch calf muscles and hamstrings while also working upper body as you walk your hands away from your feet while supporting a large portion of your body weight through your arms. Thoracic extensions are done by lying face down and simply lifting the head. With all the sitting and computer work we do we lose the ideal amount of extension through this part of the spine and become too flexed or rounded. This reduces ability to rotate the torso and means force is not optimally distributed on all the vertebrae below, while it is a long way from the foot, the negative effects flow all the way down the kinetic change (in simple terms all the way down the body). The movement is simple- arms outstretched on the floor in front and lift the head BUT most importantly the vast majority of the movement needs to happen through the mid spine NOT the neck. Top half of glute bridge with knees apart which work the bulk of the glutes (gluteus maximus) as you lift the butt up and also critically, as you take the knees apart, a muscle toward the side of the butt called gluteus medius. This muscle plays an important role in keeping pelvis from dropping from side to side when running as well as contributing to knee tracking correctly and even preventing foot from pronating too much. Both of the latter happen due to the leg(s) rotating inwards excessively. While not 3 typical warm up exercises they all addressed area's where Sean needed to activate/strengthen or mobilize/stretch. When done in circuit style there was a level of exertion which meant he got warmer, which is the basic idea of a warm up! So, it was killing 2 birds with 1 stone i.e. warming up but also contributing to improved function of the body in the medium term. The first strength training exercise was release push ups. This was done at a very controlled speed which generally means a lot of muscle fibres are called upon and you really get the most benefit from it. During the minute rest between the 3 sets hip flexor stretches were done for 25-30 sec on each side. Between strength sets was a good opportunity to do targeted stretches as his body temperature was up and hence muscles warm and pliable. This meant he could stretch further than usual and that's ideal for more permanently increasing muscle length. Many suffer from tight hip flexors, these muscles attach to the thigh bone, lumbar spine and pelvis. Tightness can result in compression through lower back and when running excessive lower back arch or lack of capacity to extend foot back, in addition to several other problems. A high band row/pull which is essentially the opposite movement to push ups and works the opposite muscles (mid back, rear of the shoulders and a bit of biceps) is another useful posture correction exercise. A set of that was immediately followed by a straight arm version of the same exercise, that is not a big movement and it's a real challenge to keep the elbows straight as you try and pull your shoulders blades down toward the opposite glute. This activates the lower trapezius muscle which helps keep the shoulders down, as permanently raised shoulders along with tight neck muscles are a by- product of chronic stress and sitting at computers. A band was chosen rather than dumbbells or a pull/chin up option as it better suited his grip limitations relating to the nerve condition. Between the 3 sets of that he did a face down figure 4 stretch for the deep groin muscles (hip joint internal rotators to be precise). When the glute medius muscles are weak/inactive these muscles are typically tight as the legs are constantly rotating inward, so they get tighter and tighter. As a rule of thumb that's how the body works- if a muscle is weak, the muscle on the other side, which performs the opposite function is tight. Much of rehab is strengthening 1 muscle, while stretching it's opposite. A lying dumbbell tricep extension (AKA French press for those with some bodybuilding knowledge) to strengthen the back of the arms was next.
Again, the rest time between 3 sets of that strength exercise was used productively, this time with alternate bent leg lower and raise. This abdominal exercise was done with control and with a deliberate activation of the deep abdominal stabilizing muscles and pelvic floor muscles, the emphasis being on the particular muscles engaged rather than a high level of exertion or burn. Then, as there was still time within the minute rest between the strength sets, he also did 10 dynamic point & flex of the foot (see picture) on each leg to stretch the hamstring, sciatic nerve and calf. Kneeling dumbbell bicep curls provided more load for the arms. The long-standing nerve condition was a hinderance with this at times and Sean simply went largely by feel as to how many he did on each arm so as not to aggravate things. (The nerve issue is basically permanent so was not a focus of the training, with causing no harm being the approach employed). Kneeling was opted for rather than standing as it tends to engage the glutes more (try it and see!) and people are less inclined to sway and use their torso to add momentum. Between sets of bicep curls he did a standing pole side stretch which really lengthens between the hip and bottom of the ribs. This is the type of movement you'd expect to see a ballerina do and can be a very intense stretch. The actual muscle targeted with this one is quadratus lumborum, AKA the hip hiker, which as the name suggests will impact hip and pelvis function if tight. Then the stork which is a glute medius activation exercise where 1 knee is raised and pressed out sideways against the wall for 5 second reps. That was alternated with a stretch where you forward lean against a wall with a split stance, it's done with both back leg straight to stretch both the bulky upper part of the calf (gastrocnemius) and then repeated with back leg bent to lengthen the lower part that feeds into the Achilles tendon (soleus). With the strength exercises completed any remaining time was spent doing some foam rolling on the middle and outer quadriceps, this has the effect of breaking up tension and reducing tightness. Plus the quadriceps were stretched. That was followed by a pretty technical stretch for a muscle that's located about where your shorts pocket is, which again tends to tighten and become dominant when the glute muscles aren't functioning well. That muscle is called tensor fascia lata. With an hour done there is often as much mental fatigue from such a workout as physical. It's not a personal training session that'll burn a lot of calories as it's very deliberate, somewhat finicky and takes plenty of concentration. THE RESULTS 8 weeks later the initial assessment was redone and here's what happened: Release push ups increased from 16 to 26. During this period he'd gradually progressed from 3 sets of 5 reps to 3 sets of 8 reps in the personal training sessions. Although he wasn't going to fatigue with any of the sets there'd been an increase in total reps per session from 15 to 24, and that type of gradual increase matters, it was reflected directly by the impressive reassement result. The lying dumbbell tricep extension also helped with this result.
Hamstring flexibility improved by 9cm. This was pleasing as the initial result was poor. There wasn't a lot of direct hamstring stretching done but getting the glutes to activate and strengthen meant the hamstrings weren't having to compensate and overwork and therefore tighten. Freeing up the sciatic nerve and calf muscles also helped considerably. Quadriceps range was another big shift-9cm. The foam rolling to get rid of tension along with the hip flexor and quadricep stretches clearly did the trick. I was actually surprised that he got such a big improvement on both sides of the thigh (along with the opposite muscles- the hamstrings).
There was also a a 9cm improvement in thoracic extension. The first result really was bad, and he'd never have done any exercises to specifically improve this, so he was only ever going to improve. It means lower, mid and upper spine are both more optimally positioned when sitting and he can rotate more when doing dynamic activity like running or soccer. Load will be more optimally absorbed through many joints below now. It also simply looks better as it results in a more upright posture. It wasn't just the thoracic extension exercises done during the warm up that caused this positive result but the pull/row meant the muscles of the mid to lower back became more active and bascially pull things back (for want of a better description) into a more open position. Part of this was the shoulder blades sitting down more. Calf range improved by 3-4cm, this was ok initially and he'd been consistent with calf stretching in the months before personal training. Balance hadn't improved and I had thought with all the various stretching and specific strengthening of many leg muscles that it would as a by-product. Clearly there needs to be more direct actual balance exercise and that has since been incorporated into the program. Groin flexibility also didn't change and again this obviously requires more work to shift. Although I don't have the knowledge or capacity to measure load through joints and how they function I'm pretty sure each one of them below the waist is now in better shape. In 8 weeks these are results I'm very proud of professionally and became possible through knowledge accumulated over 25 years of personal training. Of course, Sean's commitment and willingness to take instruction was more than instrumental as well!!! THE COMMITTMENT The hourly personal training sessions were done once a week, without fail for 8 weeks. He did approximately 20 minutes of some aforementioned exercises that I suggested at home, once or twice a week. Many of those weeks Sean had a deep tissue massage which is also more than helpful in freeing up the tight spots. To really change the way the body functions you need to be prepared to be consistent and repetitious. This type of rehab work doesn't usually give the same gratification and runner's high effect that regular higher exertion exercise tends to. There is no denying it can be mundane. Having some company helps, struggling for motivation is common with this type of activity. THE TOOLS Some adjustable dumbbells set at 8kg were used for the tricep extensions and bicep curls. A high-level resistance (loop) band was used for the pull/row. A cheap, but importantly firm, foam roller was used to free up the quadriceps. A mat simply added to the comfort level. A rolling pin could be used in place of the foam roller. There is not a lot of expensive or flashy gear involved. There is no substitute for hard work and knowledge! THE KEY REQUIREMENTS Identifying the specific muscles to strengthen, or stretch was paramount. Clearly the ersonal training psessions on the whole did not resemble regular general exercise. A willingness to repeat exercises that don't do much directly to change fitness levels or reduce fat was also needed. Doing seemingly innocuous movements in a way which makes it challenging doesn't always feel good to the human ego. Progression is also required. The strength exercises were increased by a repetition every 2nd workout e.g. release push ups started at 3 sets of 5 reps, then in the 3rd session increased to 6 reps etc etc. That type of simple but consistent progression resulted in an impressive 10 repetition improvement over 8 weeks in how many release push ups Sean could do in a row. While admittedly the same strategy wasn't applied with stretching and stability exercises within the 8 weeks. Once re-assessed many of those exercises were upgraded to more advanced versions. SUMMING UP What I strive to do is give optimal value by including several aspects of fitness in an hour, in this case it meant getting as much strengthening, stretching, stabilising or activating done as possible. As a personal trainer time effectiveness is high on my agenda. Like so many of us Sean had a busy schedule and so it was great that he could get a good return on an average weekly time investment of 80 minutes. As pointed toward really analysing and assessing what was needed was critical because 'for results to be terrific you need to be specific.' Need to move forward with getting in shape? A personally tailored professional exercise program could be just the answer. Alternatively personal training might be the best solution... Please also feel free to get in touch with any questions about your exercise needs or problems.
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