In case I hadn’t mentioned it enough, I was on “holiday” last week.
The reason for the inverted commas is that I was walking over half of the UK’s coast-to-coast. This is a 192 mile (307km) walk from St Bees on the west cost to Robin Hoods Bay on the east coast, crossing several of our National Parks enroute (specifically, the Lake District, the Penines part of the Yorkshire Dales and the Cumbrian Hills part of the North Yorkshire Moors). In my holidays from my desk job I review routecards for a self-guiding walking holiday company, making sure they are accurate. This week saw us trekking from Kirkby Stephen on the west side of the Penines to Robin Hoods Bay. 111 miles (177km) later we were both a bit footsore and had learned a few important primal things about our diet and our footwear. I’m going to save those for a separate post.
While we were generally wild-camping for the trip, for one night in the middle we stayed in a delightful pub in the village of Danby Wiske to get clean. Well, the real reason is that we weren’t sure we’d be able to find somewhere to sleep out. It was in the middle of a long stretch of agricultural land between the Dales and the Moors where we didn’t think we’d be in with much luck finding anywhere to sleep without being trampled by cows, eaten by dogs or shot by local farmers (or at least being asked to move on numerous times by angry-faced people). However, the two very long and warm showers and the night in a soft bed without spiders, beetles and woodlice walking across my face did make a welcome change.
While at the pub, I asked Chris if he would do some massage on the soft tissue in my back and shoulders which had been causing me grief over the first few days. His massage and some further investigation through various stretches, activation exercises and movements have given me some food for thought and resulted in a complete rewrite of my upper body workout, starting with immediate effect.
Issue #1 – Improper use of spinal erectors and abs for core stability
When you walk all day, you inevitably push muscles to their limit that have been “getting by” compensating for other muscles by doing more than should reasonably be asked of them. Such is the situation with my spinal erectors.
I thought I had a back full of knots. It turned out that my spinal erectors were just completely pumped from overuse while my abs were cruising along having done almost nothing. Essentially, my spinal erectors were the reason I stayed upright all day long with a bag on my back. There was no (or limited) support coming from the front. No wonder I was getting backache by the end of day three.
I’m a great believer that all strength should be functional. For example, there’s no point having a strong pair of glutes if, when you go to sit down you use a completely different movement pattern with your knees bending in to touch each other and still give yourself knee injuries, or you still use your quads to climb a few big steps to get over a stile in the middle of a walk. So what use is it to me if I’ve got a strong set of abs if they only know how to work when I’m doing an ab-related exercise in the gym while I’m not actually using them to stay upright while walking around?
I’ve already decided to do the 100 rep challenge, cycling a different exercise every couple of weeks. One of those exercises will now be the waiter’s walk (walking about with a dumbbell held above my head with a straight arm), teaching my abs that walking is one of those situations where they are supposed to do something.
Issue #2 – Poor scapular stability
I already knew that my upper traps were dominant and that I was bad at using my lats. It seems though that I’ve got a more persistant problem across the use of my lower and mid traps, rhomboids and serratus anterior (thanks to Chris for all the technical names – that last one is a muscle that starts on the rib cage and goes under your arm to the scapula/shoulder blade).
This, and issue #3, were identified by Chris watching closely while I tried to keep my scapula locked down and do an overhead press movement. It turns out that I can get almost all the way there and then, to extend the last bit I have to “unlock” my scapula, letting it move upwards. No wonder then that on big overhead press movements I can get a big weight almost all the way up and then it suddenly starts waving about with no control in the last few inches of the lift. The strange thing is that, once past this point, I can lock my scapula back down and bring my arm back down keeping my shoulder blades under control all the way, I just can’t push with them in that position. It also surprised me that there was no pain involved. It wasn’t like I was trying to stretch a knot or anything. My arms just wouldn’t go any further.
To deal with this I need to be teaching my body to use these muscles. And once it starts using them I need to build some strength in them too.
Issue #3 – Lack of thoracic mobility
This is another one linked to the previous issue and is also the likely cause of my rapidly worsening lumbar flexion and S-shaped curve to my spine. I put the likely cause of this problem down to increased desk work recently and the main way to increase this mobility will be stretching my thoracic spine off the top of the stairs daily. Chris wrote about this some time ago, using a foam roller, but we’ve since found that doing it off the top of the stairs stops you from compensating by allowing part of the extension to come from the small of your back (lumbar spine).
The workout change
Without solving these last two issues it is unsurprising that my overhead press and bench press are continually hitting a brick wall in their progress. Until I can do a heavy pressing motion using the correct muscles and keeping my scapula under control, they aren’t going anywhere. So all two arm presses are out of the program for now (for one arm presses I can keep my scapula locked down so I’m keeping this in to retain current strength levels).
So my new upper body workout (also reflecting the fact that I am currently playing with moving to an intensity-based programme from a volume-based programme) now looks like this:
- Bent over row (of some variant) – 5×5; superset with
- One-arm dumbbell overhead press – 5×5.
- Pull ups /chins (with added weight) – 3×5; superset with
- Press ups (with added weight/bands or elevated feet) – 3×5.
For my 100 rep challenges, in addition to the waiter’s walks I will be cycling through face pulls, behind the neck band pull aparts and chest supported rows, all of which will be educating my body, through tedious repetition and eventual boredom, how to use the correct muscles for such motions.
I’ve got an interesting few months ahead of me. Do you think it’ll work?