• Chris

Finding the Balance: Part 2 - The Risks of Current Trends in Exercise Classes


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In this post, I'll take you through the trends in the fitness industry and what I think is the level of risk/reward for them. Traditional gyms are starting to be replaced by gyms that only do classes. F45, Crossfit, boxing, and general group fitness gyms are popping-up all over the place. Many new gyms don't even offer an individual membership option and are only open for classes to encourage people to join. Even the traditional gyms offer a wide variety of classes. These days they have to or they go out of business.


This trend shows a couple of things; classes are very popular with people, and they are cost-effective for the business. Unfortunately both these reasons do not entail being necessarily the best option for your body.


It seems obvious that sports come with a risk of injury, but they are fun and for the most part a healthy and sociable thing to do. Exercising on your own in a gym or walking, running, or cycling are known to carry much less risk of injury, but can be tedious and unsociable. Into the void then comes the exercise class, and it should slot somewhere in the middle when it comes to risk, especially with qualified instructors leading the way.


There is a downside to this trend. I have witnessed - and indeed led - many of these classes over the last few years and I see a few major problems with some of the most popular classes.


Crossfit/HIIT/Les Mills/Bodypump/Circuits etc.


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I list these under the same category as they are aiming at essentially the same thing and it is the reason people like them. The purpose of these classes is to get a good sweat on, burn calories fast, and get the endorphin, feel good rush at the end. There is nothing wrong with experiencing any of these effects, indeed they are all very positive effects, the trouble is that many people don't - and actually cannot - perform the exercises properly, and even if they do perform the exercises with reasonable technique, the high intensity nature of the exercise coupled with the lack of specificity to human movement almost inevitably leads to pain and injury in the end. Let me explain further.


I'll use Crossfit as the example as I think it is potentially the most damaging of the high intensity exercise classes. The reason it is damaging is 4 fold:


  1. Crossfit trainers do not have to be experienced or especially well qualified, meaning that error correction is both not common and when done (it is rarely done, in my experience) is not executed particularly well.

  2. Sufficient time is not spent with each client to ensure correct technique and when you combine this with very high intensity exercise, it is a recipe for trouble.

  3. Even if the technique is sound, the focus of the class is not on technique, and with the inevitable fatigue (which is the whole point), technique suffers just when you need it most.

  4. Even with perfect technique Crossfit suffers from a preponderance of bilateral exercises using vertical force vectors, causing too much compressive force on the body.

I might need to further explain number 4. Firstly, a bilateral exercise is essentially an exercise when both the left and right sides of your body are moving in the same direction at the same time, e.g. squats, bicep curls, Olympic lifts, dead lifts, bench presses, pull ups, etc. They are not in and of themselves bad exercises, but human beings move primarily unilaterally or contra-laterally, i.e. when we run one arm moves forward while the other goes back and the legs do the same on the opposite side. When we throw, we reciprocate on one side while the other actually produces the direct force for the throw (we generally don't throw punches, kicks, balls, etc, with both hands/legs at the same time, but with one).


As mentioned in part one of this series, the body is extremely adaptive. If you practice moving in one way, your body will adapt, and if you do it at high intensity it will adapt more quickly. Get good at moving bilaterally and you'll get worse at moving contra-laterally, and your body has been designed by nature to move contra-laterally. Fight against your evolution at your peril.


The same is true for using predominantly vertical force vectors in your training. If you are constantly lifting things, especially overhead or straight up and down, like in Olympic lifts, backsquats, dead lifts, etc, you are going to get good at this, which in turn will make you worse at propelling your body and objects forward/horizontally in space. Applying force horizontally is something you do far more often, even in the modern world; walking, pulling and pushing are things most people can't avoid. When you look at sports this becomes even more obvious; we throw, punch, kick, run, swing, push, bowl, etc. Apart from sports like weightlifting, how many actually require lifting very much?


I am not saying lifting is never done, it just simply isn't our primary means of functioning, either evolutionary speaking, or in the present day. Too much focus on vertical force vectors has another negative effect on your body, and that's compression.


This can be understood most obviously by the example of the back squat exercise. Load-up a lot of weight on your shoulders and you can clearly feel the fact it is pushing you down, compressing your tissues. This compression is happening every second of your lives because of gravity, and it is the primary cause of disc degeneration as you age. If you wish to aid in the degeneration of your discs further, you can do a lot of exercises that encourage the compression of your spine, and other areas of your body, like your rib cage. This both has the effect of direct compression, but also of making it harder for you to move efficiently as you age. The less efficient you are, the more pressure you place on areas of your body that aren't meant to take it, the more likely you'll experience pain and injury.


The same is true of the other high intensity classes listed above. Even bodyweight exercises can cause compression, for instance if you jump and land with bad technique, this will also accrue excessive compressive forces on your joints as the force of gravity is magnified by the impact and if it is not absorbed optimally through the fascial and muscular system, it will cause damage.


Yoga and Pilates

These are seen as the more relaxing and lower impact options, but one in particular can have a surprisingly high injury risk.


Yoga is incredibly popular at the moment. In the last few years, most classes available in the gyms I have been involved with have been full, day-in day-out. This makes my life somewhat difficult because of fact that I don't have that much to say that is good about yoga from a biomechanical perspective.


I am sure yoga has great mental health benefits, but I do see some major issues physically. On an anecdotal level, I can tell you that of all the activities my previous PT clients have said they got hurt doing, yoga is number one. I think this is for a few reasons:


  1. Many of the people doing yoga often are quite unfit or older and don't have especially good body awareness. Because yoga is so popular, with booked-out classes, it simply doesn't give instructors the opportunity to spend the time with individuals.

  2. The moves in many classes are simply too advanced for those with poor body awareness and control.

  3. Much like Crossfit, there really is no good way to do yoga that doesn't compromise your biomechanics. Many of the moves call for balance, flexibility and strength in positions that require very good core stability. Unfortunately, correct functioning of the transverse abdominus and therefore ideal posture and core stability are never emphasized (although yoga practitioners think they do). The moves do not obey principles of functional human biomechanics and often put pressure on areas of the body that were never meant to cope with it and overstretch others. Generally the exercises are poorly integrated to our principle movements, i.e. walking, running, and throwing. In my experience, regular yoga practitioners are hyper-flaccid (too flexible is certain areas) and they don't hold tension very well. This makes them very prone to taking their joints through ranges they shouldn't go and focusing tension in specific areas, therefore making them very prone to injury, especially if they do other activities.

The key to moving functionally, and therefore in the most efficient way possible, is to integrate the whole body in movement, based around what we do primarily, walk and run. This requires an interplay of lengthening and shortening of chains of muscles and fascia that hold tension to absorb the forces placed on the body. Yoga is a practice that basically trains people to switch-off many of these relationships, making people move in a very unintegrated way.


To be honest, whenever someone comes to me and tells me they do yoga, it is a nightmare. This is because I know their problems are likely to be great and most people who do yoga are really into it, so suggesting that they even do it a little less is often met with quite a bit of defensiveness. No matter what I tell these people, yoga always wins.


Yoga, in moderation, may well provide mental health benefits, and be a method of relaxing and socialising with others. One should also remember that doing something is almost always better than doing nothing, so I would stop short of telling everyone they shouldn't be doing it. Yoga almost certainly helps with strength and core stability to a point in people that would otherwise be sedentary.


There is some good news though, I think Pilates can be useful, especially with a good instructor. It is an excellent starting point for working on TVA engagement, breathing technique and general core control and body awareness. It is often much more subtle than yoga, taking vulnerable people through less damaging ranges of motion.


Boxing/Martial Arts Fitness

These kinds of gyms are increasingly popular for both men and women, regardless of whether they are interested in fighting or not. On the purely fitness side, the movements people go through are much more in-sync with human functional biomechanics, so on this side of things such training definitely has an advantage compared to the rest in this post.


Where I have my concerns is in the experience of the trainers with potentially vulnerable people and the danger of the exercises with such people.


If a vulnerable person - who has a back problem, for example - goes to a professional for help, the physio or exercise physiologist rarely gives them rotational exercises for rehab or prehab. This is because there is a greater element of acute injury risk with rotational exercises in most people. Boxing and other martial arts requires rotation because you strike on one side, i.e. right or left hand, or kick with your right or left foot, so they can be especially troublesome for people at risk of certain injury or pain, back pain in particular.


The fact is though that rotation is absolutely essential to human movement. The trouble is it requires careful coaching and good technique because most people are so maladapted to it because of their lifestyles. You are not going to find that level of expertise in the average martial arts fitness session.


If you are confident with your body, or are young, however, I can't think of too many better ways to keep fit than doing martial arts or boxing. But even then there are still some things to watch out for, like excessive stretching.


Excessive stretching may not be so prevalent in boxing, but I have experienced this myself when training in kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Because kicking and other typical martial arts moves require a certain amount of flexibility, there can be an obsession with stretching, and sometimes this can be quite brutal depending on the coach.


I am going to do a whole separate post about the negative side of traditional stretching, so I won't go into too much detail here, but much like I said yoga destroys the integration of chains of muscle and fascia in the body causing inefficient movement, so too does stretching in the way the vast majority of people do it. You get away with it when you are young, but still pay for it later and ballet dancers and gymnasts are often good case studies showing how being very flexible and doing lots of stretching can actually be a bad thing, as they do not tend to have very long careers and do suffer for their short careers when they are older.


If you steer clear of the archaic stretching regimes of some martial arts coaches and take care if you have back or joint pain, then martial arts and boxing classes have my vote for one of the better things to get into to improve your fitness.


Spinning

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Another very popular class because of the huge amount of work people can do in it with little or no impact on their joints.


Spinning is probably the safest option for anyone concerned with injury and wanting to join a class. The acute injury risk is almost non-existent, but there are some chronic injury risks to be aware of.


In the next post I will go into more detail on the biomechanics of cycling and how it really is a very unusual exercise when you think about it. The position of - especially racing cyclists - is obviously an issue, being bent over the handlebars with rounded shoulders. The other problem with cycling for our biomechanics is that the motion will shorten the myofascial connections with time because the movement of the legs and upper body never goes through a lengthening or loading phase.


Over time then, this chronic shortening can start to impair your primary movements of walking and running, as well as your standing posture. This does take some time though, especially if you cycle or do spinning classes in moderation.


Spinning is a pretty good option for those in need of a good sweat without worrying too much about injury, just don't over do it, and don't expect your fitness gains on the bike to translate to other areas like running or sporting fitness gains. The fitness you gain from cycling, while still fantastic for cardiovascular and general health, is very specific to cycling. In fact, the longer I have been involved in sport and fitness the clearer it is to me how specific fitness is to the activity you are doing. Cycling in particular, though, is such a unique exercise and a thoroughly unnatural way of moving that it's fitness gains are more specific than most.


In Conclusion


I'm going to state the obvious of, "everything in moderation", but this ancient pearl of wisdom is easier to follow with some classes than others. High intensity training, which has become very popular in classes, does tend to have the habit of going a little too far for many people within the session itself. In my opinion, crossfit and most HIIT training-like classes are for the young and robust, even done once a week.


Spinning and Pilates are the best option for the vast majority of people when it comes to classes, but even then the obsession with the activity can be detrimental over time. Later on in this series, I'll go into more depth about how people get caught up with exercising too much and also how they become overly obsessed with certain modes of exercise. I tend to find yoga, spinning, and crossfit are common obsessions that a lot of people could do with reining-in.


It is hard to get stuck into this subject in detail without having the feeling that I am discouraging people from exercising. One should note that throughout this series of posts I don't want this to be the take home message. I am generally focusing on the biomechanical problems that people face, but all the forms of exercise stated in this post undoubtedly have a wide variety of mental and physical health benefits and this shouldn't be forgotten. Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. The key is, however, making sure that what you are doing doesn't get you prematurely injured so doing nothing is guaranteed. It requires a fair amount of reflection and weighing-up of risks, often very specific to your body, to find the balance so this doesn't occur.