It’s no secret that getting regular exercise is one of the best habits you can have. I won’t waste your time belaboring that point. Furthermore, if back pain, neck pain, or headaches are forcing you to avoid physical activity, you should be seeing a chiropractor. I won’t beat that dead horse, either.
But how do you know that your current workout routine is not CAUSING problems that could show up later? That Law of Unintended Consequences can be kind of funny that way. You do something good but you end up with problems because you were also doing something bad and didn’t even know it! There are certain mistakes that good-intentioned exercisers make that can set them up for back problems later.
Mistake #1: Forgetting to warm up and cool down.
Warm Up Basics
You should spend 10 minutes getting ready for your workout. You need to get your heart rate up and get the flood flowing to the muscles. You can go for a brisk walk around the block, jump rope, or do some calisthenics (arm circles, jumping jacks, etc.). Dynamic stretches are great during a warm up. These are stretches that are done with movement, NOT static stretches, (more on that later). Think of a fighter when he gets in the ring.
If you have some lingering soft tissue issues, foam rolling before your workout is awesome. If you don’t know what a foam roller is, google it.
Cool Down Basics
When you have completed your workout, you need to cool down for 10 minutes. Going all out in your workout and then hitting the couch is a BAD IDEA. You will get delayed onset muscle soreness which can linger for days. This makes it pretty hard to be consistent with your training. A proper cool down helps to get lactic acid out of the muscles and helps bring your heart rate down gradually.
The first five minutes should look very similar to your warm up. Take a brisk walk. Do some arm circles or easy jogging in place. This helps to get lactic acid out of the muscles and helps bring your heart rate down gradually.
The next five minutes should involve some static stretching. You should hit the major muscle groups: stretch the hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves, chest, shoulders, back, and neck. This will help muscles to relax, realign muscle fibers, and re-establish their normal range of motion. You should hold each stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds.
Mistake #2: Skipping Your Post-Workout Meal
Some people believe that you should not eat after a workout because you want to ride the wave of negative caloric balance and thus burn more fat. This is a logical fallacy. Working out will raise your metabolic rate which will help you burn fat 24/7 so there is no need to starve yourself after a workout to burn more fat. You will do more harm than good.
After your workout, your body needs to refuel and repair. The last thing you want to do is deprive your body of building materials. Eating a post workout meal will:
- Replenish muscle glycogen that was depleted during your workout
- Reduce muscle protein breakdown caused by exercise
- Increase muscle protein synthesis
- Reduce muscle soreness and fatigue
- Greatly enhance overall recovery
- Reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is released during excess stress. If you starve yourself post-workout, that is perceived as a stress on your body. Excess cortisol causes you to hold on to stubborn belly fat (which may be why you are working out in the first place!)
So what should a post workout meal look like? First of all, it is not necessary (or a good idea) to park yourself at an all-you-can eat buffet, so this “meal” can be relatively small. However, there are two things that are essential: carbohydrates and protein. How much? Feel free to experiment. You should eat as much as it takes to properly recover from your workout. If you feel satiated and energetic and you wake up the next day without an unreasonable amount of soreness in the muscles, you’re probably good. However, if you are into counting macro nutrients and calories, you can use this rule:
Protein = 0.25g per pound of your target body weight.
Carbs = 0.25-0.5g per pound of your target body weight.
For instance, a 160 lb. person who feels he/she is 20 pounds over weight would use 140 lbs. as their target weight. That person would shoot for a post-workout meal of roughly 35 grams of protein and 35-70 grams of carbohydrates (less for a shorter workout, more for a longer session). To give you a visual, a large apple contains 31 grams of carbs. A four ounce serving of chicken breast contains 35 grams of protein.
What about fat? Dietary fat slows digestion (which is why eating fat is good overall because it is so satisfying and helps you feel full) but you want your post-workout meal to get digested ASAP. A little fat is okay, but you don’t want to overdo it. Some examples of great PWO meals: salad with grilled chicken and fruit, a piece of fruit with yogurt, a whey protein shake with some fruit and vegetables blended in, etc.
Mistake #3: Forgetting to Work All the Major Muscle Groups
This is especially problematic for guys who weight train. They love working the “beach muscles”: biceps, triceps, and chest. They often hate working the legs and back. This is a recipe for disaster. These unfortunate souls end up with muscle imbalance, which can often lead to chronic posture abnormalities with the end result being crippling pain in the neck, back, hips, and shoulders.
If you are not sure, consult a good personal trainer. They can evaluate your program (and your form…more on that later). There are also plenty of great books on weight training. Find a good, well-rounded plan and stick with it.
With the ladies, the problem is totally opposite. They will often run or do aerobics (often too much) and maybe do some core work, but they neglect the upper extremities. This also leads to problems and diminishes the effectiveness of your training. When training, full body routines actually burn more fat in the long run and lead to better improvements in performance. Again, find a good trainer and get on a smart plan. You will be glad you did.
Mistake #4: Letting Machines do all the Work
Most machines are designed for convenience and they are marketed in such a way that we are led to believe that they “take pressure off the joints.” However, using an elliptical trainer and doing nothing else leads to muscle imbalance in the long run. Moreover, weight training with machines can be problematic because the joints don’t work through their normal range of motion. Your range of motion is forced on you by the machine, which can lead to joint problems. Furthermore, stabilizing the weight uses all the smaller muscles that are crucial to joint stability. By taking that out of the equation by allowing the the machine to stabilize the weight, you are only using the large muscles groups, so you can miss out on a crucial benefit of training.
One of the great benefits of weight bearing exercise is that it helps to strengthen the bones and prevent osteoporosis (are you listening, ladies?). By doing all your training on an elliptical or exercise bike, you are not sending a strong signal to your bones that they need to strengthen. This is especially important if you sit at work all day. You need some weight bearing exercise to counteract all that sitting! So, mix up your machine training with some weight bearing exercise. Go hiking. Do some weight training. (Don’t worry, ladies, weight training won’t bulk you up unless you are doing specific bodybuilding that is designed to add bulk or you’re taking anabolic steroids).
The Devil is in the Details
Exercising the right way is one of the best things you can do for your health. But you must have a good plan and follow through with it. If you skimp on the details, you will end up in pain. In my chiropractic practice, I see people all the time who have hurt themselves while training. If that sounds like you, a visit to a chiropractor may be just what you need to fix the damage that has been done. Once that has been accomplished, we want you to resume your training and do it the right way to prevent further mishaps.