My years of training all walks of life have taught me various tough lessons about fitness and why people choose to engage in organized discomfort for self-improvement. The vast majority of my supporters fall into the category of risk mitigation. Of course several of them want to look good minimally clothed, and who doesn’t? However, time and again the burning problem that I try to solve every day for people is how to reduce the risk of an untimely death and create enough fitness to minimize the inevitable degenerative process of joint dysfunction.
The history of Vail has been richly immersed in mountain lifestyle. Vail and Beaver Creek are arguably two of the best ski resorts in the world and our community embraces the dogma of participating in the recreational pursuits that the landscape provides. I once heard a local man say that “one must train extremely hard in Vail to be average.” He was right on the money as this proving ground hosts a plethora of world-class athletes that compete in skiing, adventure racing, running, cycling, snowshoeing, kayaking, climbing, etc. Yet, most of these individuals are downright broken.
I was sitting in the Vail Valley Medical Center waiting room eight years ago as I was being discharged from a concussion I sustained during a big powder day at Beaver Creek. I had this not-so special epiphany as I scanned the emergency room that I had never seen so many broken, healthy people sitting in a hospital. Torn ACLs, fractured wrists, dislocated shoulders, herniated discs, concussions, hip replacements, etc. Most hospitals host people who are pathologically sick. Not in Vail. Just a bunch of hearty mountain people who are beat up from activity.
Most of the people I train have limitations because of cumulative injuries from exercising. These people are injured from activity. Ironically in our country, activity is what everyone is promoting for a better quality of life and reducing disease and injury in the first place.
WHERE IS THE LINE?
The implications of this has raised some really tough questions for me. For example, the current mainstream fitness culture is proposing that deadlifting is the best thing since Richard Simmons because we must perform this movement every day in life. It’s archetypal. It’s primitive. It is the quintessential functional movement because we have to pick up stuff all of the time, so we might as well get strong at it. I deadlift and so do many of my clients. But at what point do gym activities actually hinder the performance of real activities? Where is the threshold that deadlifts help somebody improve their overall strength and therefore help reduce injuries, versus putting undue stress on the back causing irritation for the active individual?
I train a woman who is in her 70s and have greatly improved her fitness. We perform a series of stretches, mobility drills, kettlebell swings and deadlifts. She can deadlift the 88-pound bell for several repetitions without problems or limitations. Her functional capacity is better than most women half of her age. When she squats however, her knees hurt. Historically her knees have ached when we have planned squats into her routine. Again, where is the threshold for exercise selections and the breaking point of pushing too far?
The minimal essential strain model hypothesis that bones adapt to mechanical stress by increasing mineral density and therefore becoming more resilient to stress. The mineral portion of bone consists of small crystals containing calcium and phosphate, called hydroxyapatite (fairly brittle). This mineral is bound in an orderly manner to a matrix that is made up largely of a single protein, collagen (fairly soft). This soft protein allows for bones to flex when you put a heavy weight on your back and begin squatting. Consequently, chemical and mechanical signals are sent out from the osteocytes to lay down new minerals and collagen to remodel stronger bones. At what point does the body fight back because maybe it’s not designed to squat 600 pounds for five repetitions? Paradoxically, in order to stress the body so it adapts to better handle those stressors in the future, we have to continue to push the envelope with higher stressors to establish a more resilient body. But at some point, the exercise stressors that are supposed to help reduce injuries can be the stimulus that ultimately breaks the system.
These are tough questions that I challenge myself with. What exercises am I choosing for my patrons, and why? How often do we evaluate what we are doing? Sometimes maybe we don’t ask these questions and just follow the dogma that everyone else is deadlifting so it must be good. “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” —Mark Twain
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.