Banish Low Back Pain

Here is a video demo I did on some ways to loosen up your hips. Tight hips are one of the main causes of low back pain and decreased leg drive, both of which all mountain bikers want to avoid…

-James Wilson-

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Q & A: What caused my injuries?

Q: I bought my program at perhaps the wrong time for me, since I am down with a partial tear in my Achilles tendon and a case of tendonitis in my shoulder so have been advised by the doc not to train or ride until healed. Not sure about what caused either but they are on the same side.

Two things that might have aggravated the tendon are a new pair of shoes and perhaps the clips were a bit too far forward in the shoe. Another possibility is that my seat was set a bit higher by a few centimeters for a 2 hour climb.

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Injuries are not fun and can undo months of training in what seems like just a few weeks.

This is new territory for me so appreciate any suggestions.

A: I think that there is probably a lot more to your situation than new shoes and saddle height. They may have contributed but i think that it is more like the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Here is my take – bad movement causes pain and injuries and also robs us of performance. Bad movement is caused by imbalances in the body, particularly in the area of mobility. If your mobility is poor then you body learns to create movement around that poor mobility and that is what causes pain and injuries.

Lucky for you my programs work on mobility and restoring balance so you will hopefully be able to address the real causes of your injury. I’d try to do the mobility routine while you wait for your injuries to heal as they will probably not aggrevate them and may speed the healing process. of course, do not do anything that hurts.

-James Wilson-

Injury Rehab Strategies

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If you participate in mountain biking long enough then odds are you will end up with an injury at some point. The injury scale varies, ranging from surgery and intense physical therapy to simply needing time off with some ice. However, what almost all injuries have in common is that there is usually a gap between where rehabbing the injury leaves off and the level of strength and coordination needed to safely and effectively return to your sport.

In order to best bridge that gap you need to undertake a well thought out strength and conditioning plan. Both scientific studies and real world results show us that without this added approach the odds of re-injury are much higher and the level of performance upon return is lower. Simply going into the weight room and randomly doing some exercises is not the best way, though, and may in fact make the situation worse without the right approach. In order to maximize your strength training program for injury rehab you must follow these four components when planning out your workouts:

-Train Unilaterally: It is extremely important that when you start your post rehab training that you train each limb separately. When you do bilateral exercises such as bench press or squats the stronger side will take over the movement and try to protect the weaker side. This just reinforces the strength imbalance that usually accompanies an injury.

If you do not force the weaker limb to work just as hard as the stronger limb then you will never fully address the strength imbalance, making it practically impossible to return to pre-injury performance levels. For the lower body this means doing exercises such as split squats, step ups and lunges (just to name a few) and for the upper body this means doing single arm dumbbell bench press, pullovers, rows and shoulder press. Incorporating this strategy right off the bat will ensure that balance is restored as quickly as possible.

-Follow the Weak Side Rule: This one ties in with training unilaterally. Since the injured side is usually weaker, it is important that you do not unknowingly continue to reinforce the strength imbalance. To make sure that you do not fall into this trap do your weaker side first in order to let it dictate the load and reps for the stronger side. Once you have completed your first set on the weaker side do that same load and number of reps for the stronger side, no matter how easy it may feel. In fact, if it is a major imbalance then you will want to add in one extra set for the weaker side until it starts to catch up. Only by using this approach can you guarantee the success of your post-rehab program.

-Emphasize the Eccentric: Studies have shown that the eccentric, or lowering, portion of an exercise not only yields some of the biggest strength gains, it is also extremely helpful in strengthening tendons and ligaments. Since these structural portions of a joint are usually part of the original injury, they are in a weakened state upon return. That is one of the major reasons that the odds of re-injury are so high upon return. This makes doing everything that we can to strengthen them as quickly and safely as possible a major priority during the post-rehab period.

There are numerous ways to emphasize the eccentric, some more practical than others. So, for most the two easiest ways are to slow down the eccentric portion and by using the 2:1 technique. Slowing down the eccentric means exactly that – lower the weight down to a count of 3-5, really making sure that you keep tension in the muscle on the way down instead of simply turning the muscle off and letting gravity pull the weight down. The 2:1 technique consists of raising a weight with 2 limbs and then lowering the weight down using 1 limb. For example, a great lower body variation of this is the 2:1 bodyweight squat. Set up a bench behind you, lower yourself down using one leg and then use both legs to stand back up. Emphasizing the eccentric portion of your exercises, especially on the injured side, will help you return structural integrity in a safe and effective manner.

-Emphasize Compound Bodyweight and Free Weight Movements: Since one of the major goals with a post rehab program is to restore full function as quickly as possible, it is very important to use exercises that work a lot of muscles in a coordinated effort. Using isolation movements and machines may help return strength to a specific area but unless your body can properly coordinate that area with the rest of the surrounding musculature you will not have the function needed to safely and effectively return to your sport. Remember that your body coordinates itself to create movement patterns, so using bodyweight and free weight exercises to train these movement patterns instead of individual muscles will return full function in the fastest manner possible.

As you can see, there are several potential benefits to incorporating a well structured strength training program into your post rehab strategy. Besides the physical strength and control you will also gain the mental confidence from knowing that you are doing everything that you can to ensure your success. Seeing your injured side performing well in a controlled environment like the gym will do wonders for your confidence in the chaotic environment of the trail, letting you simply perform instead of constantly wondering if you are going to re-injure yourself. Fitter, more confident athletes also tend to have more fun upon their return, which is still what it is all about.

 -James Wilson-

Are you “overskilled”?

I would have to say that 90% of the MTB riders and racers that I have met would be defined as “over skilled”. It sounds absurd since most feel that some aspect of their riding needs work, be it skill related such as gate starts or fitness related such as better power endurance (I define MTB specific fitness as a “skill”). However, when you really understand how the human body functions and best adapts to MTB specific skills and fitness you will see what I mean. First, though, I need to explain the OPP.

The Optimum Performance Pyramid (OPP) was first introduced to me by Gray Cook, a highly influential figure in strength training circles. It is probably the best explanation that I have come across describing how performance training should be viewed. Gray uses the OPP to explain the 3 distinct levels of performance training, their prioritization and how to best integrate them.

The first, and broadest, level is Functional Movement. Contrary to the current fitness trends, this does not mean standing on a wobbly doo-hicky, looking like you are trying out for the circus. Functional Movement simply refers to developing adequate mobility, body control and movement awareness in order to safely handle higher level movements.

Examples of exercises in this level would include single leg box squats, pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, single leg deadlift, push ups and their variations, inverted rows and alternating DB shoulder press. Bodyweight and unilateral exercises make up the bulk of this type of training. However, bodyweight exercises are extremely humbling when challenging variations are used. Do not underestimate the power of this type of training.

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The Functional Movement level should also address any imbalances in the body, both mobility and strength wise, as they are a huge red flag for a potential injury. An athlete without a strong base built in this level of training will be far more prone to injuries, have a harder time mastering new skills and techniques and generally find that their training efforts yield few and inconsistent results.

The second level of the pyramid is Functional Strength. This level focuses on improving your raw strength and power. As I have touched on many times, increasing these areas will effectively add to your raw potential. Riders without adequate time spent on this level will also find that they have a harder time mastering new skills and will probably feel as if they have hit a plateau with their progression.

Examples of exercises in this level would include deadlift, front squat, bench press, military press, weighted pull ups/ chin ups, and DB rows. Compound, core exercises for the main movement patterns make up the bulk of this level.

The last, and smallest, level is Functional Skill. Unfortunately, this is where most training that MTB riders undertake would fall. This includes trail riding, DH runs, dirt jumping, 4X track time, gate starts, sprints, intervals and high level strength training methods such as plyometrics and Olympic Lifts. These methods will only yield the biggest “MTB specific” gains if they are used by someone who has spent time developing the base levels of the performance training pyramid. Believe it or not, over use of training methods in this level can actually slow down and stagnate skill development and fitness progression.

In fact, if you talked with any of the originators of a specialized training method I will guarantee you that they would tell you that they intended that method to be used by someone who had progressed into it. Every good strength coach understands the importance of laying a solid foundation and building on it in a progressive manner, but that approach is rarely reported on in the media or used by less skilled fitness professionals. What you find in the magazines and training boards is someone who reports on the specialized method independent of the progression intended to lead into it. Everyone wants to report on, learn and/ or use the “special” and “secret” training method of the champs, but failure to understand the progression into that method does a great disservice to the pioneers that gave us those methods.

Plyometrics have to be one of the best examples of this. Developed and refined by the old Soviet Union, plyometrics have developed an almost mystical status here in the United States. Almost every training conversation that I have with a rider eventually comes around to “what about plyometrics”, as if they hold the key to all riding goals. Riders who can barely pull off a bodyweight squat are jumping around cones and off of boxes in the quest for a MTB specific workout. However, the pioneers of the plyometric method would be greatly disturbed by this approach.

Some of the old Soviet training texts suggest that an athlete should have progressed (there’s that word again) to a double bodyweight squat before they were ready for depth jumps and other high level plyometrics. While I may not agree with that specific suggestion (more recent suggestions are around 1-1.5 times your bodyweight), it does underscore the fact that no one came into their training program and started off with plyometrics. In fact, it could be years before they would allow an athlete to use those higher level training methods if they felt adequate functional movement and strength had not been established. BTW, the Soviets kicked a lot off butt with this approach and this template has become the model for almost every high level strength and conditioning coach in the world.

So, as you can see from this point of view, most riders spend far too much time and focus on the Functional Skill level of the OPP. A lot of them may not have spent any time working on Functional Movement and/ or Functional Strength. This makes them over skilled, as their MTB specific skill and fitness progression is maxed out compared to the base that they have built. This means that a long term approach with an eye on safely progressing through the 3 levels of the OPP is needed for sustainable results. Without it, you are simply guessing at what will help you and hoping that it will. I don’t know about you, but that approach leaves too much to chance. If I’m going to invest time into training I want to be sure that it is going to pay off.

Note: do not confuse “over skilled” from a performance training point of view with having “adequate skill” from a pure performance point of view. Most of us will never be satisfied with our skill and fitness levels in every aspect of riding so we will always be looking to get a little better in some aspect on the bike. What I am saying is that at a certain point you must re-solidify the base of your OPP in order to continue to realize the gains offered by the higher level strategies.

-James Wilson-

Going beyond a normal workout…

Are you “false fit”?

I wrote this for my regular fitness blog at www.coachjames.com but it is just as appropriate my fellow mountain bikers. We are extremely guilty of the “false fit” condition. Read to learn more…

Most exercise professionals would agree that there are many components to fitness. A well rounded approach to fitness that addresses all of them is usually the best way to achieve lasting gains and continual progress from a program. Being deficient in even one of these components leads to slow progress and results in a condition I call “false fit”.

“False fit” is when someone perceives themselves to be fit when there are glaring holes in one of the 5 Fitness Components. While each area can cover other, more specific concepts here is a list and brief description of 5 Fitness Components you need to work on:

1. Mobility – Your ability to move freely while maintaining good posture. Also includes elements of body control and body awareness.

2. Core Strength – Your ability to properly use your core to create a strong platform around which movement is created. Emphasis is on stabilizing the lower back and mobilizing the hips and shoulder blades.

 3. Power – Your ability to coordinate your muscles in order to create quick, dynamic movements. Life is dynamic and so everyone should have some sort of power training in their program, even if it is something as simple as slamming a medicine ball into the ground.

 4. Strength – I define this a little differently than most. I define strength as your ability to create proper movement and maintain that proper movement under load. Creating a movement through compensation, such as using your lower back during leg exercises, is not true strength no matter how much weight you move.

 5. Conditioning/ Endurance – Your ability to engage in your chosen activities without excessive fatigue. A good conditioning program will also act as a catalyst for fat loss. For most people proper conditioning should focus more on intervals than on traditional steady state aerobics.

Do you do yoga and/ or Pilates but do not work on power and conditioning?

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Do you run or bike but don’t work on mobility and strength?

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Do you “body build” but don’t work on mobility and conditioning?

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If you answered yes to any of those questions, or if you see something on the list above that you are not addressing, then you have developed the “false fit” condition. You are fit as it pertains to the particular activities and exercises you engage in but the truth is your fitness is limited. Get you outside of your comfort zone and your true fitness levels will get quickly exposed.

Our body wants to maintain a balance between the 5 Fitness Components. When we lose that balance we slow down our progress and set ourselves up for pain and injuries. Sometimes the answer to achieving the fitness levels that you want is not in looking for different twists on what you are already doing but in looking outside your box for new elements.

I tell people all the time that if you do not want to look and/ or perform like everyone else don’t train like everyone else. Most people are dissatisfied with their current fitness condition so don’t take the same approach they do. Make sure that you work on developing true, well rounded fitness and avoid the pain and frustration that goes with being “false fit”.

-James Wilson-

Back hurts after XC rides…

My buddy Lee McCormack (www.leelikesbikes.com) recently sent me this question…

James!OK dude. I’ve been doing longer rides lately, and it’s starting to feel
good. My climbing legs are coming back, and I’m comfortable for 2+ hour
rides.

The weak link is actually appearing on the DH. I’m training and riding the
way I always do, but my mid-back is starting to get tired. More
specifically, the erector muscles along the right side of my spine.

I can think of two influencing factors:

1) Bike setup. For many years, I’ve rocked 50mm stems. My new Stumpy has the
stock XC setup, with a 90mm stem. I’m trying the stock setup for testing
purposes, since that’s what most people roll.

2) The lack of a right clavicle. As you know, I have a non-union, and the
only thing holding my arm on is muscle. I definitely get tired in the
chest/shoulder/upper back area faster than I think I should. I’ll be getting
the shoulder fixed pretty soon.
http://www.leelikesbikes.com/the-shoulder-chronicles-ignorance-was-bliss.htm
l

What do you think, my brother? I’m really interested in the James Wilson
perspective.

– Lee McCormack –

Here is the first thing I always think when someone tells me that something hurts as a result of exercise – bad movement causes pain. Bad movement also robs you of performance so the trick is to hunt down the bad movement and fix it.

Typically, if someone is getting pain in the erector muscles as a result of riding they will have a mobility deficit in the hips and/ or upper back and the body is coaxing excessive movement out of the lumbar spine. It sounds to me that you have upper back mobility issues as a result of your shoulder traumas.

You should be able to hold your arms straight over your head (elbows locked out and in line with your ears when viewed from the side) while keeping your head and lower back in a neutral position. If you can’t then you need to work on increasing your upper back, and specifically scapular, mobility.

Our body is designed to be a series of mobile and stable joints. In this case we want mobile hips, a stable lumbar spine and a mobile thoracic spine (upper back). You have to restore balance to the system first before you can really hope to address the real causes of the back pain.

As far as it hurting more on the right side, there are few things that could cause that. My guess would be that it is extra movement on that side. Since our left side lower body works with the right side upper body that would make sense if you are weaker with the left leg and you are compensating with the right lower back.

Here is my advice – don’t do any two legged strength training exercises for the time being. Do everything one leg at a time and get your left leg’s movement patterns cleaned up. Cue in on the lumbar movement and stop it by squeezing the glute even harder when it happens.

Also, get super aggressive with your body work. Get a tennis ball and put it between your back and the wall and dig in. The main areas to concentrate on are the right trap and lat but you should dig in all over the place and get the tension levels back there under control. It will hurt like hell but it has to be done. 

Long, repetitive efforts like XC riding will expose small “chinks” in your movement patterns and cause pain. That is why strength training and mobility work is so important – they are the only chance you get to fix those “chinks”.

Bad movement causes pain – find the bad movement and fix the pain. Pretty simple theory but one I have found to work pretty well.

Hope this helps, let me know if I can answer any more questions for you…