Finding the Balance Part 4 - Cycling, Weight Training, and Adaptive Muscle Shortening.
I talked briefly about sport in part 1, group training in part 2, running and walking in part 3, and in this post I'm going to talk mainly about cycling and weight training, as they are two very popular activities people do to stay fit and healthy. However, you'll be able to relate many other common forms of exercise in this blog also.
Firstly, before I criticize, I want to say some nice things about cycling and weight training.
Personally, I have spent a lot of my time doing both; I have spent many hours in the gym and I have cycled across Australia a few times and all around New Zealand twice, as well as numerous other smaller trips, so I am no stranger to the saddle and I love cycling, especially as a means of travel.
Both weight training and cycling have health benefits. Weight training is extremely good for health, and especially for older people, women in particular, as it helps combat osteoporosis. More broadly it is great for mental health, self-esteem, and injury prevention (well kind of, but I'll get back to this later). Cycling also has many of the same benefits of weight training with the added bonus of being excellent for your heart and lungs, and a way to get you outside into nature and saving you money in petrol by not using the car.
Both cycling and weight training are fantastic forms of exercise and significantly better than sitting on the sofa watching Netflix all day. They are both probably the most extreme examples of accentuating a problem almost all of us share as we age, however.
Adaptive Muscle Shortening
As I have mentioned in the previous posts, the body is an incredibly adaptive machine, but the biomechanics of the body have evolved around standing, walking, and running. There is some debate about whether our ancestors were persistence hunters, i.e. that we ran all day chasing down prey in groups and then killed them when they overheated or were exhausted. Maybe this is true, it seems to make sense both psychologically and physically, when you look at our anatomy and many people's strange desire to exercise over long distances. However what is not in doubt is that our ancestors would have been much more active than we are today and adapted to the stresses of their environment a lot better.
The importance of walking and running for our biomechanics cannot be overstated. When we walk and run with the correct form - something which would have come naturally to us before the agricultural and industrial revolutions - we actually lengthen our muscles, fascia, and other connective tissue optimally.
To move efficiently requires this lengthening, or priming, of the muscular and fascial system before contracting. This way you take advantage of the elastic potential energy that can be stored in these tissues as you lengthen them. This elasticity creates, for want of a better word bounce. You see this in children, they bounce around all over the place, and very obviously in an animal like a kangaroo. What you definitely don't see it in is older people, and in fact these days most people over 30, as far as I can tell.
One of the take home messages from this series should be to forget about separating injury and pain prevention from performance. The two are married together very closely, and the ability to prime your muscular and connective tissues before contracting them is a very important part of this. It has two major advantages, and that is when you prime correctly you place all the pressure of whatever movement you are making in the correct areas (usually in a connected manner with most of the tension taken by the areas of your body where the largest muscles lie) and off the joints. I.e. the force of impact or tension is taken by the muscles and connective tissue in an integrated manner and not on bones, joint capsules, and more minor muscle groups. The second advantage is that the constant lengthening of muscles and connective tissue - that something like running and walking using the correct form gives you - will enable you to not succumb to adaptive muscle shortening and the inevitable changes in gait and posture that comes with it.
Adaptive muscle shortening is basically the shortening of the muscle and connective tissue over time. This shortening will pull your joints out of alignment, restricting your range of motion which will in turn create a positive feedback loop and encourage even more adaptive muscle shortening. Integrated lengthening/priming of muscle and connective tissue through exercise can counteract and even reverse this trend, but you may be surprised how accurate you have to be, especially the further away from ideal your current gait and posture is. Exercise generally can slow the process down, but some forms of exercise can also encourage it, especially when done in high volumes, at high intensity, and cycling and weight training are two of the main culprits in this regard.
Before I get into the details of cycling and weight training, perhaps you might be wondering what on earth the purpose is of adaptive muscle shortening? Essentially, adaptive muscle shortening thickens muscle and connective tissue by laying down more of this tissue in areas that regularly are under strain or tension. It has the effect of making you stronger, but also restricts range of motion, protecting you from acute injury. This is great for an animal which likely wouldn't have lived much past 40 in the past, but now we run into the problems of it as we live much longer and have different lifestyles. I'll explain more later.
So why does cycling and weight training encourage adaptive muscle shortening? Let's start with cycling. When you think about it cycling is a curious way of getting around. There is little to no movement in the upper body and no loading or priming phase to the pedaling. Just focusing on the legs for a moment, they don't go through a range of motion required to prime the muscular and connective tissue. They go from a normal or already shortened length straight to the contracting or shortening phase.
Look at the hip flexors, for example. It is clear from the bent-over position on the bike that throughout the whole cycle, they will never be lengthened as in a standing position or in a phase of your gait cycle when walking or running. Then, from this already shortened position, they shorten even more as your knees come up from pedaling. So the exercise of cycling encourages more shortening in this area, as well as many others.
Conventional weight training suffers from many of the same issues, and we'll use one of the more popular exercises as an example, bench presses.
Outside of the gym, you may notice that humans produce force with the upper body in a rotational manner, usually requiring the reciprocation of the arms. Think throwing a punch, throwing a ball, swinging a sword, club, or racket. Generally the movement is carried-out on one side, but even if both hands are involved, you still see rotation. This is how humans produce force, using rotation and integration (i.e. force is created using the whole body in integrated movement).
Bench presses do not require any rotation, this means that - even though there is a lengthening or eccentric phase of a bench press - the pecs, arms, and muscles of the torso are not being primed or lengthened as they would be if you were carrying out a more natural high intensity activity like running, sprinting, swinging or throwing. Just like cycling, you never get the correct, integrated priming of the muscular and fascial system, so you adapt to the bench press by shortening the tissues, especially in the pecs and upper arms.
Next time you see someone in the gym who likes to bench a lot, you'll see the tell-tale sign of adaptive muscle shortening in their hunched shoulders. Although other factors are involved their pecs have shortened to such a degree to pull their shoulders into an internal rotation. The common insult leveled at such people is that they look ape-like, (knuckle draggers) and the reason for this is that apes (especially gorillas) are heavily-muscled, but also knuckle walkers. In a normal postural position, the palm of our hands should face our legs, but shortening of the pec muscles and the resultant internal rotation of the shoulders turns the palm of the hands backwards in the stance, with the knuckles facing forwards, just like a gorilla.
Pretty much all other conventional weight training exercises suffer the same problem, little or no rotation (they are mostly bilateral, sagittal plane exercises), and many of the movements are isolated, not integrated. The isolated nature of gym exercises (think "its a leg, arms, pecs, abs session today") stop you being able to lengthen as you would naturally, and therefore because the physical stress is high, you'll adapt. This adaptation won't only cause your muscles and connective tissue to get stronger, but they'll get shorter too.
The shortening in response to physical stress, as mentioned, can actually prevent injury. The shortening and thickening of muscular and connective tissue does protect joints to a degree, the trouble is that this strengthening often restricts movement at the same time. This movement restriction can prevent injury in and of itself. Imagine a very flexible person who doesn't have very strong connective tissue, they can easily go beyond safe ranges of motion and injure themselves (especially under high loads or intensities), hence why people born with hypermobility are so prone to joint problems and injury. Think of a rugby player on the other hand and it is clear that heavy muscle can protect their joints - and internal tissues and organs - from the impact of their sport, as well as make them very difficult to hurt or injure more generally.
Ideally, though, you'd have both strength and range of motion because the problem with having very strong, tight muscular and connective tissue is that it is prone to tearing if overstretched (and they overstretch easily) and they will pull posture and gait out of alignment which can cause chronic pain and injury over time.
Above: Example of a myofascial line, just one element of interconnected chains of muscle and fascia, of which there are several other lines, all working together. It is better to think of the mechanics of human movement in this way, rather than thinking about individual muscle groups.
This may be becoming wordy and complicated, so below, I'll show you what I mean using the examples of sit-ups and bench presses and then, what is in my opinion, a better option that actually helps you lengthen your tissues as you exercise rather than shorten them, and which will aid you in preventing or even reversing adaptive muscle shortening. Bear in mind that these are just two examples, and a more rounded routine is necessary. Also, in these examples I am slightly staying with the conventional way of thinking about weight training, by highlighting a better way to train the abs and chest, though in reality the two exercises I demonstrate exercise the whole body as a unit, though one with more focus on the front line of muscle and fascia and the other on the spiral and functional lines, though even these interconnect during the exercises in a way conventional weight training does not allow:
If you have bad posture and are not able to adjust it during exercise almost every activity you do with cause adaptive muscle shortening, so this post doesn't just apply to cycling and weight training. However, even if you have good posture or know exactly how to hold yourself while training, cycling and conventional weight training will create adaptive muscle shortening. There is no way to do these activities that doesn't create a shortening effect.
Adaptive muscle shortening tends to create bad posture as the shortening causes compression of tissues and therefore of joints, especially in the spine, which is what causes the classic rounded shoulder postural problem.
Even with the best posture imaginable humans are always subject to compression because of the force of gravity pulling us towards the ground. The best way to workout is to do exercise that decompresses your tissues.
In a nutshell, the way to achieve decompression is to do MFR (myofascial release) to get rid of the tension caused by shortening of the fascia and muscular tissue (re-tensioning, if you like) and then do exercises that lengthen this tissue under tension. You might then think that stretching would be a good idea, but conventional stretching lengthens the tissues in isolation, not as a system (I will explain more about this in the next post).
A different kind of weight training done with correct human biomechanics in mind can create a lengthening of tissues, under tension, that is integrated throughout the myofascial system. I give some examples of this in the exercises in the video above, as well as a very general explanation of the training. But notice the difference between conventional weight training and what I am doing in the video. Firstly, they are integrated, full-body movements; they involve mainly horizontal force vectors, i.e. I don't lift very much, it is mainly swinging, pulling and pushing; performed properly all of them involve lengthening before contracting (this will give a feeling of "stretching" at certain points in the exercise if done properly).
What is of vital importance is that the lengthening of the myofascial system is under tension, and that this tension is evenly or optimally distributed throughout the body so as to not place too much pressure on certain joints or muscles. The way you achieve this proper balance of tension is with great postural control throughout the exercise. This requires lots of practice and attention to detail. It also requires that you be careful not to overload on too much weight and go light in the beginning or the large amount of force you create by the swinging (Force = Mass X Acceleration), combined with sub-optimal biomechanics - either caused by poor technique or hesitancy doing a new exercise - can be potentially dangerous.
What if I Want to Cycle?
If you understand and believe what I have just told you about weight training, it seems logical to me that you could at least go about changing how you train with weights. You can still get strength gains and a nice body, but now you can improve the way you function too, it's a win, win.
But what about cycling? Well, I guess you could take up running instead, but that does have a range of problems (as I mentioned in my previous post) and the fact is that you can cover much more distance with a bicycle, and in my opinion it is much more relaxing than running.
I have put much thought into this, as I love to ride to get around and especially to travel by bicycle touring and bikepacking. When it comes to bigger trips, I have scaled them down, and do them less often, but I still do them.
When it comes to just getting around and whether going out for a ride is better than sitting on the couch, it seems obvious to me that it is not necessary to ditch the bike. I still love to take a gentle ride down to the mountain creeks near where I live and take a dunk in them to cool off here in Cairns. I am 100% sure that this beats sitting down watching TV or scrolling Facebook.
If you are interested in improving your biomechanics, however, regular, long, highly intense rides that are meant to improve fitness and push yourself are the rides that are going to have negative impacts. And trust me from experience that if you plan to spend months in the saddle or ride across a country or continent, your general movement efficiency on two legs will suffer.
A Magic Formula Doesn't Exist
Finally then, I have no magic formula about how much of what activities you should do. There is a general formula I work by, however, and it is this:
1. The effect/amount of corrective exercise + MFR > Tension created by poor posture, inactivity and other forms of exercise = improvement in biomechanics
2. The effect/amount of corrective exercise + MFR < Tension created by poor posture, inactivity and other forms of exercise = deterioration in biomechanics.
3. The effect/amount of corrective exercise + MFR = Tension created by poor posture, inactivity and other forms of exercise = no change in the efficiency of biomechanics.
Obviously, the speed of improvement or deterioration is up to how much work you put into corrective exercise and how much negative biomechanical activity you do. The balance of how each individual copes with this is entirely up to them. There may be stages in your life where you are simply happy to do just enough to stay where you are or even just deteriorate more slowly, and other stages where you can really focus on improving your functional biomechanics. Or maybe you just decide to give up and think it is not worth worrying about. Pain is a reality as you age, though, and you have a long life to live, so it might be worth addressing your biomechanics, at least on some level.
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