Do you have chronic pains from years of use and abuse in and out of the gym? Do you have acute pains that make it impossible for you to do some exercises or complete a whole training cycle without seizing up? If you’ve ever thrown your back or neck out so badly that you could barely roll over or get out of bed the next morning, then you know what I‘m talking about. I remember, one time it took me more than a half an hour to get out of bed the morning after tweaking my back during an ME squat session. I was literally stuck between my bed and my dresser, with my feet on the dresser and my shoulders on my bed, for ½ hour! Yeah, very funny… haha! I literally could not move! Trust me, that‘s not the way to ever start out your day! And I don’t care if it’s something small like a locked up forearm/elbow… when it gets bad enough, you can’t do #$%! I remember my buddies’ grandpa came to the gym one night to watch us train, and when he introduce him to me, I got the vice grip, handshake from hell! My elbows were killing me at that time, and that old bugger nearly brought a tear to my eye! Way, not cool!
But the point is that whether your pains are chronic or acute, or big or small, when they get bad enough, you eventually must listen. And when you are in a symptomatic or clinical state, you may be forced to back off or stop training altogether and seek chiropractic, PT, massage, acupuncture, etc. to help you get out of such an acute condition. And let’s say eventually you do get feeling better. So now you’re non-symptomatic or in a sub-clinical state… So now what? What do you do? The same stuff as you did before? I hope not… that’s what got you into this mess to begin with.
It’s time for a paradigm shift. A new addition to the plan. A whole new variable which emphasizes healing your body when injured, and one which continues to get you healthIER when your training’s going great and you’re feeling good. And what is it I’m talking about? An Active Recovery Program. An active recovery program is geared towards relaxing and oxygenating the deep tight tissues of the body, by increasing circulation through various means (we will discuss these means shortly). By increasing the fluidity of deep muscles like the scalenes, psoas, and piriformis (and many others); we can increase local neural conductivity and joint mobility/integrity. When these deep muscles are rock hard at rest, or “locked up“… you can end up with a whole host of syndromes and “Itis’s” from head to toe. (Literally, from thoracic outlet syndrome to plantar fasciaitis). An active recovery plan will help heal both chronic and acute injuries. And an active recovery plan promotes a relaxed/healthy muscle tone at rest. If the deeper layers of the body are tight, the muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems will not be in harmony, and you’ll be in pain. We must become just as good at relaxing our tissue as contracting it… that’s why I liken this to a Yin / Yang approach. Trust me, the better your body relaxes… the better your muscles will contract, the better your nervous system will fire, the better your joints will function and the better your overall proprioception will be. (Fancy word for body-awareness.)
That all sounds good, right!?
But before we get started I’ve got to express how nice it is to be on the other side of the pain fence, now, compared to when everything used to hurt. I began this process out of necessity for rehab, and as I’ve progressed from a healthy to an even healthier state… my routine has literally morphed into prehab, right before my eyes. It’s an amazing process to be able to dictate the health of my joints and surrounding tissue. I’m 41 now, I started BBing at 14, and won my 1st show at 15… I continued BBing until 2000. Did a tour in the Marine Corps, raced AFM sport bikes, and did a couple strongman meets. And I’ve been avidly PLing for almost 10 years now. (I recently hit my first Elite @ 198 w/1829lbs and set the UPA 198 Open National Squat Record w/804.5lbs. Way stoked!) And as broken and beat up as each one of these activities left me, I now have better joint integrity and less pain than ever. I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and in the best shape of my life at 41. This part of the program now provides me an early warning system, signaling red flags much sooner than I could ever sense before. So let’s work on turning your rehab into prehab and put together an awesome active recovery program.
In this first installment, we’re going to focus on our C and T-Spines and our Rotator Cuffs and AC Joints. Do your shoulders or elbows hurt when pressing or squatting? Does your neck or upper back ache and harbor tension which cause you general discomfort? Then this part of the program is going to be right up your alley. And like a workout plan, which isn’t the same every day… so too should you have plenty of variety with this part of your routine.
The 5 main modalities we will discuss how to incorporate in our plan are:
1. Foam Rollers – Spine Based Movements/Mobility – Self-massage
2. Backnobbers – Self Trigger Point Therapy – Self Active Release Therapy
3. Heat Therapies
4. Cryo Therapies
5. Ergonomics & Posture
Yes, you should loosen up a little right before you train. But your active recovery work should take place in a separate session and should occur with in a ½ hour of waking up. You can do additional work in the afternoon/evenings, but trust me, it’s much more profound first thing in the morning. (Check out Dr. Gill Hedley’s “Fuzz” speech on you tube.com)
Here’s an example of an active recovery program with emphasis on the C & T-spines, rotator cuffs, and shoulder joints:
||15 minFoam Roll
|20 minHot Bath/Sauna
|10 minHot Shower
neck traction w/movement
|20 minFoam Roller
10 min neck
10 min traps/rhomboids
10 min rotator cuff
|20 minFoam Roller
10 min neck
10 min traps/rhomboids
10 min rotator cuff
The Foam Rollers have had a profound impact on our program and on our bodies. (And yeah, my roller sat idle for the first few years, too.) Learning to move your body over the roller in a very passive, relaxing way is a must. Learning to breathe and relax, while holding or flowing through Spine Based Movements will oxygenate and bring fluidity and movement to deep, stagnant, and sometimes resistant tissue. Learning to breathe into positions of spinal flexion, extension, and lateral flexion will soften those deep, sore muscle fibers. (download the Foam Roller and Relaxation Overview) And by moving all of the connections in your neck, back, shoulders, and hips, will allow, not only your muscles relax, but allow for emvibation of the spinal discs (more fluid) and more space for the peripheral nerves to flow out of the spine (better electricity). There are two ways to use the roller in this program: 1.As an object to massage yourself against 2. As an object to perform Spine Based Movements for general spine relaxation and joint mobility. (check my site for lots of roller positions: CorestrengthRX.org) Also, for variety try tennis balls instead of the roller.
Spine Based Movement with traction is also performed for the upper extremities by holding a light weight is your hand and relaxing your C and T-Spines in Lateral Flexion away from the weight. This will allow you to traction/stretch your neck and shoulders properly. Do not pull on your head! Keep your head relaxing/tractioning away from the side which your holding the weight. Relax… breathe… and nod yes, very slowly, 10 times. This is merely adding flexion/extension. Hold and breathe into any hot spot, or position which gives you extra sensation. Move the sensation back and forth, front to back, while breathing into the area. The addition of this next move will relieve tension around the AC joint and to the front of your shoulder. While you’re laterally flexing away from the weight and looking up and feeling the sensation in the front/side of your neck… turn your palm forward (supinate the weight in your hand)… and take five, deep, slow breathes; picking up sensation from under your ear, down your neck, under your collar bone and upper ribs, through your AC joint, and down the long head of the biceps. This position will take tension off of your AC joint and let your cuff fibers flow through more easily. Then turn your hand back in and drop your head forward, while still leaning away from the weight… move the sensation down the back of your neck and down through the back of your shoulder. Breathe. Relax. And repeat on the other side.
Backnobbers and Theracanes are amazing tools! Learn to find those sore spots on the sides of your neck (scalenes/levators), between your shoulder blades (traps/rhomboids), and on your shoulder blades (rotator cuff). And don’t just merely use it as a digging tool, but rather move and finesse your body while you hold the “Hot Spot” or “Trigger Point”. Hold pressure on a sore spot and do some spine based movements, inhaling and exhaling into the area the whole time. You really can perform self active release therapy… you just have to practice.
Heat therapy to increase circulation is a no brainer. Hot am showers, baths, and saunas are great ways to get the blood flowing through your tight areas. And application of your favorite liniment to a sore spot before training is a great way to warm up a sore spot. Also, be sure to occasionally use liniment during your Foam Roller and Backnobber sessions. Mixing and matching recovery modalities can change things up a bit for continued progress… just like with training.
Cryo-therapy, or Ice/ Cold Therapy. We all know that if we get an acute strain or tear, to grab the ice immediately. You know when you’re really hurt, ice will always feel good. But try hot/cold contrast on those old, chronicly sore spots… 10 min. ice alternated with 10 min. heat, and repeat 2 times. Or 10 min. ice alternated with 10 min. liniment/backnobber. Or try contrast work in the shower with 30 seconds cold alternated with 30 seconds hot: repeat 3-5 times. Be creative and once again, try to mix things up.
I’ve got to make mention of one more very important variable, which is posture / ergonomics. Being able to relax in good posture is therapy in unto itself. You must help your body keep your spine aligned while you‘re resting, watching the tube, on the computer, driving, etc. Now, I know all of our mamas told us to sit up straight at the dinner table… well, then… do what your mama said and sit up straight, damn it! No, but really, a good cervical pillow is a must. I recommend a Double Core Pillow. An ergo-chair where ever it is you do most of your sitting, will take major strain off your C and T-spines (I like the Ekhornes line). And try using the head-rest on your car seat. They usually don’t provide much support, but they will help keep you in better alignment. ‘Nuff said on that.
So, go get a 6” Foam Roller, a Half Roller, a Backnobber, and some heat liniment… and your set. There is a science and an art to relaxing your body. Spend time with the artful side of this process and follow your internal guide and intuition. Keep your sensations mild and learn to move gently, towards your sore spots, and breathe. Next thing you know… your sore spots will start feeling better and you‘ll be fast on your way to getting healthy. Continue this process once you’re feeling good, and turn your rehab into prehab. There’s always another level! I’m going there. Are you?