You're Not Fat, You're Pre-Skinny! Tips to Get There

Fat is the common enemy, we all share, in modern society. Beach season is coming! We can’t live without it, as it is a necessary component of our health, yet we shun its existence at every glance. The issue of moderating weight gain, more specifically fat gain, is no longer thought to be as simple as “calories in, calories out.” Fat Chance by Robert Lustig addresses the full spectrum of how fat gain (a.k.a. obesity) is a combination of several factors: physics, biochemistry, endocrinology, neurology, psychology, social circles and environmental surroundings. The complexities around why we gain fat are far more complex than the weight loss industry would have you believe. That said, I want to give you my top take-a-way’s from this book:

Diet coupled with weight training works better for weight loss.

When you go on a diet to lose weight, do you know what you are losing? You lose some fat, but you’re actually losing more muscle unless you lift weights while you’re dieting in order to prevent muscle loss. Maintaining, and even adding muscle, is beneficial for weight loss because it improves your body’s ability to use incoming calories to fuel muscle instead of being stored as fat.

Our body seeks balance in order to maintain our current weight.

Therefore, a reduction in calories in an effort to lose weight will be unsuccessful as energy expenditure is reduced to meet the decreased energy intake. On a caloric deficit you will, at the onset begin to lose subcutaneous fat (the fat underneath the skin), however in a primal effort to save you from starvation, your body’s leptin (fullness hormone) levels will fall. This will create an overpowering sensation to reduce the activity of your metabolism and find something to eat. This is often why starvation diets do not work for very long—the body is looking to restore weight balance.

Evolutionarily, the metabolism of fat and carbohydrates developed separately.

We possess the ability to thrive on diets at opposite ends of the spectrum. The hunters ate fat, whereby the liver would beta-oxidize (the process by which fatty acids are broken down by the mitochondria) what it needed for its use and would then export any excess LDL to be taken up by the adipose tissue. Conversely, the gatherers ate carbohydrates (glucose) and upon absorption, the liver would extract what it needed. Insulin would clear the rest out of the bloodstream and drive it into the muscle for energy or adipose tissue for energy storage. Each system worked for the energy that came in, but when our modern diet combines these it is easy to get a caloric surplus.

Our entire society likes to consume both fats and carbohydrates at the same meal, for no other reason than it tastes good. Who doesn’t like steak and potatoes?! As food became more readily available, we began to overload both sides of our metabolic pathways with the breakdown of fat and the glycolysis of carbohydrates in the same meal. Both of these metabolic processes convert the food we eat into fuel for our mitochondria—the furnace that drives our metabolism—in the form of the compound acetyl-CoA. Our hypercaloric diet is wreaking havoc on the mitochondria as fuel is pouring in from both direction too fast to process efficiently. A single high-fat, high-carb meal is no problem but to keep this up for ten thousand meals in a row is most likely the cause of your creeping weight gain.

Alter your environment for systemic change.

The environment is what drives biochemistry—the hormones of insulin, ghrelin, PYY and cortisol—therefore, if you want to affect your weight you have to change the environment.

a. Get your insulin down to reduce your body fat and improve leptin resistance. You can do this by lifting weights to increase muscle mass, as well as by consuming whole foods that contain fiber.

b. Get your ghrelin down to reduce hunger. Start the day with a high protein (e.g., grass-fed meats) and fat (e.g., nuts or avocados) meal. This will reduce ghrelin and stabilize your blood sugar more than a meal consisting of high carbohydrates, so you will feel satiated longer and burn more calories just sitting. The protein has a higher thermic effect, than carbohydrates, which means that the body uses more energy to metabolize the protein we consume.

c. Get the PYY up to hasten your satiety. Putting food in our stomach lowers your ghrelin but doesn’t stop you from eating more. The signal for satiety, or the switch to turn off the meal is Peptide YY. Between the stomach and the PYY cells are a lengthy twenty-two feet of intestine. It takes time for the food to get there, so instead of shoveling the food down, practice patience. If you are still hungry at the end of the meal try waiting 20 minutes before going for seconds.

d. Get the stress down, to reduce your cortisol. Cortisol is your short-term friend by your long-term enemy. A stressful environment liberates stored glycogen, which in turn raises blood sugar that begins the cascade of insulin and eventual insulin resistance. Any bit of exercise will have a beneficial affect on your cortisol levels.

The more of this story is that, there is way more to process of gaining and losing weight than those weight loss commercials would have you believe. If it were that easy, we would all be famous instagram models, however it is not. So don't beat yourself up if you haven't found the right process to get you where you want to be. It is out there and I'd be happy to help.

 
 

Nutrition Primer: How to Start Eating Better

It hard to know where to start when it comes to bettering your health, but step one is always going to be about improving your nutritional habits. Take a look at the following questions to get an idea of where you should start.

Question #1: Where do I start when trying to improve my nutrition?

The first thing people often do is choose a diet they have be researching or one that their friend recommends, but jumping into any diet is not always the best choice. Food provides the body with energy, as well as information, and if you completely change what you are consuming chances are you are going to have a hard time adapting. Headaches, digestive issues and wild cravings are generally the mainstay of radical changes in diet. So instead of jumping on the Paleo, Ornish, low-fat, Mediterranean or vegetarian bandwagon, first address the issue of eliminating nutritional deficiencies.

Most people will be surprised to find out that they, in fact, have any deficiencies at all, but the research shows that more than 80% of the population has at least one. And who knows, the very reason you have sought out to read this article – weight gain, sleep disturbance, digestive issues, etc. -- could be rectified with a simple adjustment of your diet, without rushing into a full overhaul.

To eliminated any underlying deficiencies it is best to start with the following:

  • Adding more quality proteins by using less lunch meat and favoring more free-range, wild caught or grass-fed meats
  • Increasing vitamins and minerals by choosing a colorful variety of vegetables and fruits
  • Allowing room for sufficient healthy fats by using coconut oil to cook, olive oil in salads, full-fat dairy or avocado as a snack
  • Drinking more water. Try adding a cucumber or lime slice for some flavor.

Establishing optimal eating habits are done one step at a time. By making small changes over time you are positively altering your environment, ultimately creating a lifestyle change that is much better than any crash diet you can subscribe to.

Question #2: What’s the Best Diet to Follow?

There really is no “best diet.” What works best for one person, is probably not going to work for another. Those who have found success with a low-fat/high-carb diet (Jenny Craig) would probably find success with the equally restrictive high-fat/low-carb diet (Atkins). Macronutrient (carbohydrate/fat/protein) restrictive diets work well for weight-loss because they limit one of the body’s main sources of fuel — fat or carbohydrate. However, due to their intensive restrictions, when the majority of start to slip with temptation they tend to slip all the way off the diet and regain the weight.

A better way to ask the question would be; “What is the right nutritional approach that will create a positive long-term, systemic change in my life?” It is definitely a much harder question to answer correctly, which is why it is often not asked. As stated in question one, making small nutritional changes can have that positive affect and allow for insight as to what makes your body work more efficiently. The caveat to that is we all have limitations, whether they be financial or health related that will need to factor in to your nutritional choices. In the end, the best diet is one that is going to allow the individual to thrive in every endeavor.

Question #3: Is Counting Calories Important for Weight Loss?

No, counting calories is not something you should spend your time on when it comes to weight loss. Eating should be enjoyable, not reduced down to a math problem. When we choose to count calories with the intention of losing weight, the general approach is to take in less calories than we’re used to. Calories-in, calories-out right? Well, it’s not that simple as energy expenditure would be reduced to meet the decreased energy intake. So a calorie is not really a calorie because your caloric output is controlled by your body and is dependent on the quantity and quality of the calories ingested.

Besides, by counting calories you are essentially outsourcing appetite awareness to the food-label gods. Instead, think about regaining control of your portions with the hand-measuring system. Here is how it works:

  • Your palm determines your protein portion
  • Your fist determines your veggie portion
  • Your cupped hand determines your carb portions
  • Your thumb determines your fat portions.

Question #4: Should I Avoid Carbs?

Avoiding carbs is not necessary for weight management, nor achieving optimal health. However, if the majority of your dietary carbs come from a box – pastas, cereals, donuts, pizza – it would be best to reevaluate your choices in order to reach your goal. The quality of your carbohydrates is important in terms of nutritional content and the toll it play on our body.

When we eat a food containing carbohydrates, the digestive system will break them down into sugar allowing it to enter the blood. This causes our blood sugar to rise and in response the pancreas secretes insulin – a hormone that shuttles sugar out of the blood and into the cells to be stored at energy. When this happens we blunt our ability to burn fat and instead use the easily accessible energy within our blood.

Sugar is the biggest offender especially if it enters the blood stream as glucose, which doesn’t need to be broken down by enzymes, so it’s absorbed immediately. Starch can be in the same boat when it comes to raising blood sugar, sometimes worse if it's in the form of gluten-containing, nutrient-depleted grains (e.g., pastas, cereals, donuts, pizza). So where does that leave us?

Do not avoid carbs. Instead make better choices. The following is a list of possible replacements for when you are meal planning:

  • Low Starch Vegetables such as baby corn, jicama, kohlrabi, rutabaga, water chestnuts, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, turnips, green beans, cucumber, bean sprouts, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, artichokes, okra, zucchini, green peppers all have a high ratio of fiber and nutrients compared to the content of carbs present.
  • Moderate Starch Veggies like sweet potatoes, beets, or carrots are still reasonable but it is wise to watch the serving sizes.
  • Low-Sugar/Low-Fructose Fruits such as Kiwifruit, Blueberries and raspberries, Grapefruit/lemons/limes, melons, pears with skin, and coconuts are decent choices that have their place in a season context, however avoiding fructose altogether is likely a safe bet for most people especially those who are obese.
  • Gluten-free grains are acceptable for people who have the genetic ability to process carbs, but grains often irritate the digestive system as well as blood sugar control mechanisms for a significant amount of people.

If you found these helpful and would like answers to more questions feel free to contact using the links below:

Weapons of Mass Construction: Amino Acids

Adapted from Eric Braverman's The Healing Nutrients Within

What do carnivores, vegetarians and omnivores all have in common? They all require protein in order to sustain and optimize life. Protein is the second most abundant substance in our bodies after water. It constitutes ¾ of the dry weight of most body cells. It is involved in the biochemical structure of genes, blood, tissue, muscle, collagen, skin, hair, and nails, and is a major constituent of all the many hormones, enzymes, nutrient carriers, infection-fighting antibodies, neurotransmitters and other chemical messengers in the body. This continuous process of building and regeneration is necessary for life and requires a non-stop supply of protein.

All protein is made up of different combinations of amino acids – essential or nonessential – that are consumed as part of our diet. The body breaks down these dietary proteins into individual amino acids and then reassembles them to build the specific structures needed within the body. Like carbohydrates and fat, protein is composed of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, Yet, protein also contains nitrogen, which provides it with the ability of bodily repair and construction.

People do not realize how busy the human body is and to make it worse the need for quality protein intake often goes unrecognized in our hypercaloric environment. To illustrate, every second bone marrow makes 2.5 million red cells; every four days the lining of the gastrointestinal tract is renewed; and every 24 days a person has the equivalent of new skin. All this continuous repair work requires the building blocks of protein; amino acids.

The liver has the ability to produce about 60% of the amino acids we need, while the remaining 40% must be obtained from our diet. At present, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is between 44 to 56 grams per day. Yet, in America most people eat two to three times that amount and even vegetarians consume upwards of 80 to 100 grams a day!

So one would think that as long as we are eating adequate amounts of protein, containing the essential amino acids, we should be covered, right? The answer to that question is dependent on the individual person. The body’s requirement for essential amino acids is determined by our age group, degrees of stress, energy requirements, digestive capabilities, infection, trauma, environmental pollution, processed foods and one’s personal habits such as smoking and drinking. All these factors influence the need and availability of protein and its amino acid constituents. Additionally, one has to factor in nutrient deficiencies as there are multiple vitamins, namely pyridoxine (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2) and niacin (vitamin B3), that act as cofactors (a substance important for the activity of the enzyme) which are instrumental in the metabolism of amino acids.

It is for these reasons that while we adequately meet our recommended daily amount of protein, it may by no means be broken down and used efficiently. This is extremely important to recognize when we understand that each amino acid is designed for a specific purpose and cannot be interchanged. If our diet fails to provide, or our lifestyle uses up, any given essential amino acid problems can arise. The following list is taken from Eric Braverman’s The healing Nutrients Within to illustrate how different amino acids play a large role in our overall health and wellness:

  • Arginine has been shown to act similar to and in some cases replace viagra for restoring erectile function and a sagging libido. It has also been found to increase sperm count
  • New research measuring the breakdown products of bone in hydroxyproline may prove more advantageous for assessing bone loss than the standard bone density test
  • Scientific evidence shows that boosting energy levels in the brain with phenylalanine and tyrosine is key to weight loss
  • Melatonin and tryptophan have established themselves as multipurpose nutrients to improve sleep, defuse anxiety and slow down the aging process. Recent studies show promise for the use of tryptophan in the treatment of autism
  • Homocysteine has gained recognition as a major independent risk indicator for cardiovascular disease. New research suggests it may also pretend neural tube defects, sickle cell disease, rectal polyps, and liver failure, and may contribute to depression, dementia and loss of brain function in the elderly
  • Tyrosine can help cocaine and alcohol abusers kick their habits and combat the effects of stress, narcolepsy, chronic fatigue, and ADD
  • Amino acid blood levels are increasingly serving as important indicators of physical and mental illnesses. They provide major nutritional and biochemical clues for more effective treatment
  • Carnitine has been shown to offer significant protection against the common side effects of Depakote (a popular drug used for seizures and psychotic disorders). Its derivative N-acetyl-carnitine may surpass the metabolic potency of carnation in the brain, where it has been found to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Scientific evidence continues to mount showing N-acetyl cysteine… to be perhaps the most powerful detoxifier in the body. It is now found in every emergency room as an antidote to overdose cases and as well can render harmless everyday environmental toxins.
  • New, modified GABA compounds such as gabapentin (Neurotin) and tigabine (Gabitril) are producing improved uptake in the brain and appear to be important products in the control of seizures and anxiety disorders. Early studies indicate GABA may also be correlated to a decrease in benign prostatic hypertrophy.
  • Research with serine compounds show that blocking serine metabolism may serve to prevent autoimmune activity present in psychoses
  • Glutamic and Aspartic acids create additional neurotoxic damage in the brain following stroke. New drugs that block the action of the excretory amino acid transporters (EAATs) have recently been approved.
  • BCAAs promote optimal muscle growth and improve performance… additionally they also offer promise for staving off muscle loss as we age.

As the research in the area of amino acid therapy continues to grow we can firmly apply the idea of Pfeiffers Law: if a drug can be found to do the job of medical healing, a nutrient can be found to do the same job.

Refining Your Tune Through Movement

The ease with which we can transition into and out of the various Archetypal Postures of squatting, kneeling and cross-legged positions – as discussed in Why We Should Sit on the Floor – is related to our biomechanical tune.  These postures serve as a corrective mechanism to preserve a harmony of movement between our muscles, fascia and sinew, without which we can find ourselves at odds with the freedom of movement. For example; knee joint crepitus (the crackling noise associated with joint movement) can be directly associated with the loss of ease in the Archetypal Postures. When you cannot squat (heals down, knees over toes, with arches lifted) the knee experiences intra-compartmental pressure that are malignly altered so that wear and tear on the joint is accelerated. Over the year, being out of tune will gradually distort your musculoskeletal structure and lead to premature again of the legs and lower back in particular.

Why can’t I stretch my way to tune, like we used to do in gym class? Before you bend over to touch your toes, listen to what former U.S. National Gymnastics coach and author of Building the Gymnastic Body, Christopher Sommers has to say; “flexibility can be passive, whereas mobility requires that you can demonstrate strength throughout the entire range of motion.” The individual muscle concept presented in traditional anatomy class gives a purely mechanical model of movement by separating things into discrete, executable functions that fail provide an accurate picture of the seamless integration seen in a living body – when one part moves, the body responds as a whole. Thus, the ability to transition into and out of a squat requires more than any one muscle being flexible. The approach to mobility parallels biomechanical tune, in that they engender a systemic or whole-body foundation. Efficient structural relationships, therefore, must be exposed and resolved within the individual so that one can grow out of a the dysfunctional pattern.

We can achieve better biomechanical tune by:

1.     Enacting a healthy load upon the system that will positively remodel its architecture. Regular loading (read: floor-sitting and rising) within the healthy limits of an individual induces a muscle and it’s surrounding tissues to remodel elasticity on a progressive basis. A lack of loading not only reduces the mobility surrounding a set of muscle and tissue, but will also reduce the available recoil native to that muscle. In other words, a sedentary person leaving the couch will face a much greater challenge getting into and out of any given Archetypal Posture

2.     Training the body to react to a variety of postures. Working on isolated groups may stretch that muscle well, but it can leave out many fascial tissues necessary for a healthy body’s functional movement. For instance, tight hamstrings are often thought to be the cause of low back pain and as such individuals will proceed to do the standard hamstring stretch to little benefit. As stated before, no movement isolates a single muscle. Our body’s all work by things pulling in different directions with an appreciable balance, so why not work on mobility the same way. Moving the body to the floor and back up again, while experiencing the varieties of squatting, kneeling and cross-legged postures not only builds elasticity within tissues but the strength in the muscle and sinew allowing for greater coordination of movement.

How can I get better at any given posture? The answer is fairly simple… move into and out of a variety of postures as often as you can. Here’s how:

Start here if you're a beginner:
If you have not lived on the floor since you learned how to walk, then you will need to reestablish your foundation. Have a solid chair present that will allow you to make your way down to the floor. Do it step-by-step, respecting any pains you encounter. From a cross-legged posture, use your arms to reach out for the chair to help you twist up to a toe-sitting posture. Twisting your way up and down from the floor is the most biomechanically efficient way of transitioning. Once you are in a toe-sitting posture, bring one leg through so that the foot is flat on the floor and the knee is at a forward angle – make sure the knee doesn’t fall inside the line of the big toe, but maintains a steady position over the smaller toes. To get up you will need to push from the back foot, transitioning the balance of your weight onto the front foot as you rise. Help yourself by using your arms if needed.

Complementary Exercises: Leg Swings

 
 

Intermediate Level:
If you are comfortable on the floor in most of the Archetypal Postures then you will want to work on strengthening your erector muscles (those that help you rise) by repeating transitions from floor-to-standing through a variety of techniques and repetitions. Start with 10 times up/down using the exercise mentioned above, alternating the forward leg with each subsequent transition. If possible, do not use your arms for assistance as it makes a big difference. Try transitioning all the way up 10 times form a supine position by rolling to either side and then twisting to a sitting position, then fully erect. There is no right way to rise, ancestral cultures have adapted to many different styles so allow your body to find its way. That said, do remember to keep good form. If you get tired and your form deteriorates, then you should stop. Injuring yourself and collapsing to the floor does not count toward reestablishing a solid relationship with the floor.

Complementary Exercises: Foam Rolling & Walking Spider-man's

 
 

Advanced Level: 
If you have perfected your technique and are capable of repeated transitions with good form then you may want to increase the difficulty (and fun!) of the exercise. From a fully supine position try to rise without utilizing a twisting motion. By brining your knees to your chest to gain momentum, roll back and go straight into a full squat and rise straight up. Repeat 10 times. From a standing position, drop down into a full squat (heals down, knees over smaller toes, with arches lifted) and rise back up, keep arms out in front as a counter-balance if necessary. Repeat 10 times with arms out, then 10 times with arms in. From a cross-legged posture, bring your feet in close and spring straight up, untwisting your legs as you stand fully erect. Repeat 10 times. From the toe-sitting posture you can explode out of the position by pushing your hips forward and landing in a full squat position. Repeat 10 times. Again, there is no right way to move. Have fun and be safe with your erections.

Complementary Exercises: Cossask Squat & Overhead Squat

 
 

 

These exercises, or erectorsices, are a fundamental movement pattern. They have naturally emerged from floor living, so return to them often when you eat your meals, read your books or visit with your friends.

The Interplay Between the Gut and Brain

The classic approach to understanding the gut is that it is simply a collection of organs designed to digest, absorb, and assimilate the food we eat. While this isn’t incorrect, it does not provide the full picture. The gut is full of organisms all working on a wide variety of physiologic actions that help to regulate immune system functioning, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter production and hormone signaling. Without proper maintenance we can have negative effects to our mood, libido, sleep, metabolism, immunity and even our perception of the world and clarity of our thoughts.

Ok, so how do things get out of hand? The overall health of our mind and body is dependent on a diverse population of good organisms in our gut, when populations fall and bad organisms take control we get ill. A loss of diversity in microbial species can be attributed to a culture that favors an unbalanced diet low in plant fibers, the overuse of antibiotics as well as overly sanitizing everything. Understanding this may help to explain why we suffer from rising rates of “western” illnesses that are not seen nearly as much in traditional, mostly agrarian cultures.

Depression, ADHD, obesity, autism, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, Crohn’s disease, asthma and Alzheimer’s have been linked to inflammation in the gut. The causes of gut inflammation vary from person to person but generally stem from poor dietary choices and chronic stress. Consuming a diet high in sugar elevates blood sugar levels which stirs up inflammation in the bloodstream as excess sugar can be toxic if it isn’t swept up and used by the cells. It also triggers a reaction called glycation – the process by which sugar binds to proteins and certain fats, resulting in deformed molecules that function inefficiently. The body recognizes these molecules as abnormal and sets off an inflammatory reaction. In the brain, these structures contribute to degeneration of the brain and its functioning.

The degenerative effects of our dietary choices do not stop at sugar. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats also come into play. Omega-6 fats dominate the western diet; these pro-inflammatory fats are found in the many vegetable oils used for manufacturing of all processed foods and have been linked to an increased risk for brain disorders. Omega-3 fats, on the other hand – ones found in olive oil, fish, flaxseed and grass-fed animals – boost cognitive function, help to thwart inflammation and can actually counterbalance the detrimental effects of high consumption of omega-6. Anthropological research has revealed that our ancestors consumed a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats at roughly 1:1. Presently, the average western diet is made of as much as 10-20 times more omega-6 fats than what our ancestor ate.

Inflammation due to poor diet elevates a stress hormone called cortisol, which causes some damaging effects on the gut. These elevated levels have the ability to change the mix of bacteria, increase the permeability of the gut lining, and enhance the production of inflammatory chemical coming from immune cells, called cytokines. These cytokines ramp up inflammation in the gut leading to further permeability and also directly and negatively affect the brain making it more susceptible to mood disorders. This effect was studied by Japanese researchers who looked at mice that lacked a microbiome (germ-free mice), it was found that these mice overreacted to stressful situations stemming from an exaggerated HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) response. In other words, the lack of beneficial organisms in the gut can lead to a more damaging outflow of cortisol, thus leading affected individuals to perceive certain events as more stressful than those who have a healthy gut.

Cortisol is also uniquely tied to our circadian rhythm – the ebb and flow of hormones through the 24-hour day that factors into our biology and whether or not we’re feeling alert or tired. Insomnia is a common symptom in mood related disorders and its now known to be linked to the health of our gut. Without optimal health in our gut environment we cannot produce adequate levels of serotonin – an inhibitory neurotransmitter necessary for sleep and mood regulation. Roughly 80% of the amount of serotonin in the body is manufactured by the nerve cells in your gut and many neurologists and psychiatrists are beginning to realize that medications are often less effective in treating sleep and mood disorders than dietary changes are. Interestingly, it is thought that the actual mechanism for modern antidepressants may have nothing to do at all with their effect on serotonin and everything to do with decreasing inflammation.

Another widespread brain disorder linked to the gut is ADHD. The inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA is seen as being largely deficient in the brains of ADHD children. Deficiencies in GABA activity would mean that areas of the brain would be put into overdrive. So what’s triggering this lack of GABA, and how can we increase brains levels? GABA is manufactured in the body from the amino acid glutamine, but the conversion of glutamine requires the presence of what are called cofactors – chemicals necessary for a specific reaction to take place. Specifically, this conversion demands the affected body to be able to absorb and assimilate both zinc and pyroxine (vitamin B6) through food sources, yet without healthy gut flora these cofactors cannot be processed efficiently thus leading to the observed deficiency.

At one point in time it was largely thought that the instance of a “gut feeling” was nothing more than some ambiguous association between the interworking’s of our gut and brain, however upon further investigation it has been shown that there is, in fact, a distinct connection governing this relationship. Serving as a direct link, the vagus nerve that controls impulses and relays information from our gut to our brain and it is for this reason that the health of our gut plays a large role in cognitive function. By understanding that there is a connection, we can find a better way to promote health and prevent diseases.

LADDER DRILLS DO NOT INCREASE SPORT PERFORMANCE

 

Good luck being able to see a defender coming while you are staring at your superb footwork!

Ladder drills have become hailed as a top training tool for producing athleticism, but do the claims about creating faster feet really equal more speed and greater agility?

Ladder training typically involves following a set footwork pattern – moving the feet inside and outside the rungs of a ladder that is laid flat on the ground – where the goal becomes to increase speed while maintaining the pattern. These drills have become hailed as a top tool for producing athleticism, from youth leagues to the pros, yet the science of creating faster feet does not equal more speed or greater agility come game time. In fact, drills using speed and agility ladders under the guise of increasing on-field performance is counterproductive.

Before we dive in, let’s all agree that…

  • Everything done in a gym should be seen as physical preparation for sports not performed in the gym. Any attempt to correlate athletic performance to any drill is futile due to the chaotic nature of sports and the processing of multiple variables in any instant of gameplay.
  • For any training modality to work effectively, it has to replicate or produce similar benefits of the end goal. This means the given exercise or tool used should closely replicate the speed, force application, change of direction, as well as the metabolic and neural demands of the activity. If it doesn’t, then it will not produce the desired results.
  • And when it comes to youth or beginner, everything works in the trainers favor to improve all aspects of strength, endurance, quickness, etc. (However, it could be argued that doing body weight squats would have the same benefit.) Additionally, ladders can be a great tool for developing neuromuscular coordination and provide an excellent multi-planar dynamic warm-up at any sporting level.

That said, this article is aimed at addressing why ladder drills do not increase athleticism or on-field performance by improving speed and agility.  It should be seen that producing speed is more than the ability to move your feet fast, just as agility is more than the proficiency of learning footwork patterns. If we think about the ground as a springboard from which we draw speed, it is not how fast you can dance over it, but how much force goes into it, and how an athlete overcomes inertia to generate a powerful movement; then we can see how ladder drills do not increase performance in your sport of choice, unless it happens to be salsa dancing. Therefore we need to have a better understanding of speed and agility:

Speed is defined by the following equation: (Stride Length x Stride Frequency) / Time. Research has shown that the fastest athletes are not faster because they take more strides, but because they cover more ground with each stride. This is possible because they put more force into the ground enabling them to cover a given distance in a shorter amount of time. It is a matter of power generation; driving the foot against the ground, enables the extensor mechanism from the hip extensors (the all-powerful glutes and hamstrings), the knee extensors (quadriceps), and the plantar flexors of the ankle to propel the body in a forward motion. When you apply greater force into the ground with a forward lean and at a horizontal angle in a smaller time, you generate more speed. As that force increases there is an inverse relationship between ground contact and distance covered. Taking steps that are more powerful than your competitor, will ultimately allow you to outrun them, at least in a straight line. An example would be how Usain Bolt can complete a 100 meter sprint with a stride count of 42, while everyone else in the field managed to 46-48; his stride length was much higher (force) but his stride frequency was about the same.

Agility is the ability to decelerate one’s momentum, stop, overcome inertia and accelerate one’s body mass in another direction in as little time as possible. Essentially, if you’re running straight forward and a defender jumps out of the bushes, you want to be able to create a powerful movement that allows you to turn or change direction in a split second. The most effective way to change direction involves having the legs move outside of vertical alignment of the center of mass, and driving them into the ground at as horizontal of an angle as possible to create a strong impulse against the pull of momentum to continue in another direction. From a physics perspective, momentum along with impulse and inertia, are critical components of agility. The ability to decelerate and stop one’s momentum in as short distance/period of time as possible requires great amount of relative unilateral strength and power, particularly in the extensor mechanism musculature of the lower extremities. Equally important, impulse can be found in the period of time where switching from eccentric action (deceleration) to concentric action (acceleration) occurs. Thus, the quicker an athlete can decelerate, overcome inertia, shift impulse momentum and propel in another direction the more agile an athlete is seen to be.

Given the above description on speed and agility it should be seen that performance is inherently predicated on the application of speed in concert with the impulse of agility. The ability to generate forward momentum/force is equally as important as being able to act and react to the chaotic unpredictability of an outside stimulus. With this understanding of performance we can see that any drill that is directed toward constricting an athlete to tip-toe through a series of 15 x 15 inch boxes without posing a challenge to displacement of an athlete’s center of mass or an effort in creating forward momentum through the development of proper mechanics will only serve as a deterrent to the claims of improving performance.

There is very little to gain with the incorporation of ladder drills, as such drills are merely displays of an already present athleticism. Natural athletes learn skills quickly and replicate movement efficiently within a very short period. Within a few weeks of practicing with a ladder, an athlete can become very proficient in the drill, yet when it comes to performing in the game there is very little transfer. Why? Because ladder drills are learned patterns without the influence of an outside stimulus, like a ball or a defender coming at you, and all the hours and effort spent learning how to tip-toe properly while staring at the ground is only working against the athlete who needs to see and react. When athletes who use these drills as a main focus are required to respond in a chaotic environment like a game, their own muscle memory could work against them—tip-toeing gracefully around a defender instead of creating a quick and powerful movement, only to get blasted by a guy the athlete didn’t see because they’ve been trained to staring at the ground. Simply put, fast feet do nothing if you don’t go anywhere. Getting better at predetermined movement patterns is not indication of on-field performance as there is very little transfer from a learned movement to a chaotic gametime environment. In the end, there is no way to practice the perfect pattern for football, soccer, hockey, ultimate frisbee, or any other sport for that matter. It is a requirement to react powerfully and quickly, and there certainly isn’t any benefit to staring at the ground.

Instead of wasting precious time on ladder drills, a strong focus on strength and power development with emphasis on both bilateral and unilateral movements are the best approach, not only for performance but injury prevention as well. An example would be the following:

  • Bilateral Strength – Squats and Deadlift variations
  • Bilateral Power – Olympic lifts, Box Jumps and Depth Jumps
  • Unilateral Strength – Split Squat variations and Step-Ups
  • Unilateral Power – Olympic lifts, Sprints and Penta-Hops

Thinking of the springboard example used earlier, the ground is where we draw speed, how much force we apply to it is the amount of speed we are going to get out of it. Elite-level sprinters can produce over 360 pounds of force per leg when moving at top speed. Good luck tip-toeing your way to those numbers. Force into the ground equals forward motion, this is because speed is a matter of force production and being agile is the ability to react, absorb and overcome inertia, therefore the ability to maintain strength and generate power is the real solution to generating more speed and creating better agility. Once an athlete has corrected any structural imbalances, increased relative strength and reactive/ballistic ability, then and only then is it acceptable to place emphasis on drills utilizing the ladder. However it is important to remember that no drill is a better substitute than having the athlete play their specific sport, as the ladder will never juke one way or try to cross you over.


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Fixing the Flaws: A Look at the Ten Most Common Biomechanical Weak Links in Athletes

Written on January 31, 2008, by Eric Cressey

Even the best athletes are limited by their most significant weaknesses. For some athletes, weaknesses may be mental barriers along the lines of fear of playing in front of large crowds, or getting too fired up before a big contest. Others may find that the chink in their armor rests with some sport-specific technique, such as shooting free throws. While these two realms can best be handled by the athletes’ head coaches and are therefore largely outside of the control of a strength and conditioning coach, there are several categories of weak links over which a strength and conditioning specialist can have profound impacts. These impacts can favorably influence athletes’ performance while reducing the risk of injury. With that in mind, what follows is far from an exhaustive list of the weaknesses that strength and conditioning professionals may observe, especially given the wide variety of sports one encounters and the fact that the list does not delve into neural, hormonal, or metabolic factors. Nonetheless, in my experience, these are the ten most common biomechanical weak links in athletes:

1. Poor Frontal Plane Stability at the Hips: Frontal plane stability in the lower body is dependent on the interaction of several muscle groups, most notably the three gluteals, tensor fascia latae (TFL), adductors, and quadratus lumborum (QL). This weakness is particularly evident when an athlete performs a single-leg excursion and the knee falls excessively inward or (less commonly) outward. Generally speaking, weakness of the hip abductors – most notably the gluteus medius and minimus – is the primary culprit when it comes to the knee falling medially, as the adductors, QL, and TFL tend to be overactive. However, lateral deviation of the femur and knee is quite common in skating athletes, as they tend to be very abductor dominant and more susceptible to adductor strains as a result. In both cases, closed-chain exercises to stress the hip abductors or adductors are warranted; in other words, keep your athletes off those sissy obstetrician machines, as they lead to a host of dysfunction that’s far worse that the weakness the athlete already demonstrates! For the abductors, I prefer mini-band sidesteps and body weight box squats with the mini-band wrapped around the knees. For the adductors, you’ll have a hard time topping lunges to different angles, sumo deadlifts, wide-stance pull-throughs, and Bulgarian squats.

2. Weak Posterior Chain: Big, fluffy bodybuilder quads might be all well and good if you’re into getting all oiled up and “competing” in posing trunks, but the fact of the matter is that the quadriceps take a back seat to the posterior chain (hip and lumbar extensors) when it comes to athletic performance. Compared to the quads, the glutes and hamstrings are more powerful muscles with a higher proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Nonetheless, I’m constantly amazed at how many coaches and athletes fail to tap into this strength and power potential; they seem perfectly content with just banging away with quad-dominant squats, all the while reinforcing muscular imbalances at both the knee and hip joints. The muscles of the posterior chain are not only capable of significantly improving an athlete’s performance, but also of decelerating knee and hip flexion. You mustn’t look any further than a coaches’ athletes’ history of hamstring and hip flexor strains, non-contact knee injuries, and chronic lower back pain to recognize that he probably doesn’t appreciate the value of posterior chain training. Or, he may appreciate it, but have no idea how to integrate it optimally. The best remedies for this problem are deadlift variations, Olympic lifts, good mornings, glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, back extensions, and hip-dominant lunges and step-ups. Some quad work is still important, as these muscles aren’t completely “all show and no go,” but considering most athletes are quad-dominant in the first place, you can usually devote at least 75% of your lower body training to the aforementioned exercises (including Olympic lifts and single-leg work, which have appreciable overlap).

Regarding the optimal integration of posterior chain work, I’m referring to the fact that many athletes have altered firing patterns within the posterior chain due to lower crossed syndrome. In this scenario, the hip flexors are overactive and therefore reciprocally inhibit the gluteus maximus. Without contribution of the gluteus maximus to hip extension, the hamstrings and lumbar erector spinae muscles must work overtime (synergistic dominance). There is marked anterior tilt of the pelvis and an accentuated lordotic curve at the lumbar spine. Moreover, the rectus abdominus is inhibited by the overactive erector spinae. With the gluteus maximus and rectus abdominus both at a mechanical disadvantage, one cannot optimally posteriorly tilt the pelvis (important to the completion of hip extension), so there is lumbar extension to compensate for a lack of complete hip extension. You can see this quite commonly in those who hit sticking points in their deadlifts at lockout and simply lean back to lock out the weight instead of pushing the hips forward simultaneously. Rather than firing in the order hams-glutes- contralateral erectors-ipsilateral erectors, athletes will simply jump right over the glutes in cases of lower crossed syndrome. Corrective strategies should focus on glute activation, rectus abdominus strengthening, and flexibility work for the hip flexors, hamstrings, and lumbar erector spinae.

3. Lack of Overall Core Development: If you think I’m referring to how many sit-ups an athlete can do, you should give up on the field of performance enhancement and take up Candyland. The “core” essentially consists of the interaction among all the muscles between your shoulders and your knees; if one muscle isn’t doing its job, force cannot be efficiently transferred from the lower to the upper body (and vice versa). In addition to “indirectly” hammering on the core musculature with the traditional compound, multi-joint lifts, it’s ideal to also include specific weighted movements for trunk rotation (e.g. Russian twists, cable woodchops, sledgehammer work), flexion (e.g. pulldown abs, Janda sit-ups, ab wheel/bar rollouts), lateral flexion (e.g. barbell and dumbbell side bends, overhead dumbbell side bends), stabilization (e.g. weighted prone and side bridges, heavy barbell walkouts), and hip flexion (e.g. hanging leg raises, dragon flags). Most athletes have deficiencies in strength and/or flexibility in one or more of these specific realms of core development; these deficiencies lead to compensation further up or down the kinetic chain, inefficient movement, and potentially injury.

4. Unilateral Discrepancies: These discrepancies are highly prevalent in sports where athletes are repetitively utilizing musculature on one side but not on the contralateral side; obvious examples include throwing and kicking sports, but you might even be surprised to find these issues in seemingly “symmetrical” sports such as swimming (breathing on one side only) and powerlifting (not varying the pronated/supinated positions when using an alternate grip on deadlifts). Obviously, excessive reliance on a single movement without any attention to the counter-movement is a significant predisposition to strength discrepancies and, in turn, injuries. While it’s not a great idea from an efficiency or motor learning standpoint to attempt to exactly oppose the movement in question (e.g. having a pitcher throw with his non-dominant arm), coaches can make specific programming adjustments based on their knowledge of sport-specific biomechanics. For instance, in the aforementioned baseball pitcher example, one would be wise to implement extra work for the non-throwing arm as well as additional volume on single-leg exercises where the regular plant-leg is the limb doing the excursion (i.e. right-handed pitchers who normally land on their left foot would be lunging onto their right foot). Obviously, these modifications are just the tip of the iceberg, but simply watching the motion and “thinking in reverse” with your programming can do wonders for athletes with unilateral discrepancies.

5. Weak Grip: – Grip strength encompasses pinch, crushing, and supportive grip and, to some extent, wrist strength; each sport will have its own unique gripping demands. It’s important to assess these needs before randomly prescribing grip-specific exercises, as there’s very little overlap among the three types of grip. For instance, as a powerlifter, I have significantly developed my crushing and supportive grip not only for deadlifts, but also for some favorable effects on my squat and bench press. Conversely, I rarely train my pinch grip, as it’s not all that important to the demands on my sport. A strong grip is the key to transferring power from the lower body, core, torso, and limbs to implements such as rackets and hockey sticks, as well as grappling maneuvers and holds in mixed martial arts. The beauty of grip training is that it allows you to improve performance while having a lot of fun; training the grip lends itself nicely to non-traditional, improvisational exercises. Score some raw materials from a Home Depot, construction site, junkyard, or quarry, and you’ve got dozens of exercises with hundreds of variations to improve the three realms of grip strength. Three outstanding resources for grip training information are Mastery of Hand Strength by John Brookfield, Grip Training for Strength and Power Sports by accomplished Strongman John Sullivan, and www.DieselCrew.com.

6. Weak Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO): The VMO is important not only in contributing to knee extension (specifically, terminal knee extension), but also enhancing stability via its role in preventing excessive lateral tracking of the patella. The vast majority of patellar tracking problems are related to tight iliotibial bands and lateral retinaculum and a weak VMO. While considerable research has been devoted to finding a good “isolation” exercise for the VMO (at the expense of the overactive vastus lateralis), there has been little success on this front. However, anecdotally, many performance enhancement coaches have found that performing squats through a full range of motion will enhance knee stability, potentially through contributions from the VMO related to the position of greater knee flexion and increased involvement of the adductor magnus, a hip extensor (you can read a more detailed analysis from me here. Increased activation of the posterior chain may also be a contributing factor to this reduction in knee pain, as stronger hip musculature can take some of the load off of the knee stabilizers. As such, I make a point of including a significant amount of full range of motion squats and single-leg closed chain exercises (e.g. lunges, step-ups) year-round, and prioritize these movements even more in the early off-season for athletes (e.g. runners, hockey players) who do not get a large amount of knee-flexion in the closed-chain position in their regular sport participation.

7 & 8. Weak Rotator Cuff and/or Scapular Stabilizers: I group these two together simply because they are intimately related in terms of shoulder health and performance.

Although each of the four muscles of the rotator cuff contributes to humeral motion, their primary function is stabilization of the humeral head in the glenoid fossa of the scapula during this humeral motion. Ligaments provide the static restraints to excessive movement, while the rotator cuff provides the dynamic restraint. It’s important to note, however, that even if your rotator cuff is completely healthy and functioning optimally, you may experience scapular dyskinesis, shoulder, upper back, and neck problems because of inadequate strength and poor tonus of the muscles that stabilize the scapula. After all, how can the rotator cuff be effective at stabilizing the humeral head when its foundation (the scapula) isn’t stable itself? Therefore, if you’re looking to eliminate weak links at the shoulder girdle, your best bet is to perform both rotator cuff and scapular stabilizer specific work. In my experience, the ideal means of ensuring long-term rotator cuff health is to incorporate two external rotation movements per week to strengthen the infraspinatus and teres minor (and the posterior deltoid, another external rotator that isn’t a part of the rotator cuff). On one movement, the humerus should be abducted (e.g. elbow supported DB external rotations, Cuban presses) and on the other, the humerus should be adducted (e.g. low pulley external rotations, side-lying external rotations). Granted, these movements are quite basic, but they’ll do the job if injury prevention is all you seek. Then again, I like to integrate the movements into more complex schemes (some of which are based on PNF patterns) to keep things interesting and get a little more sport-specific by involving more of the kinetic chain (i.e. leg, hip, and trunk movement). On this front, reverse cable crossovers (single-arm, usually) and dumbbell swings are good choices. Lastly, for some individuals, direct internal rotation training for the subscapularis is warranted, as it’s a commonly injured muscle in bench press fanatics. Over time, the subscapularis will often become dormant – and therefore less effective as a stabilizer of the humeral head – due to all the abuse it takes.

For the scapular stabilizers, most individuals fall into the classic anteriorly tilted, winged scapulae posture (hunchback); this is commonly seen with the rounded shoulders that result from having tight internal rotators and weak external rotators. To correct the hunchback look, you need to do extra work for the scapular retractors and depressors; good choices include horizontal pulling variations (especially seated rows) and prone middle and lower trap raises. The serratus anterior is also a very important muscle in facilitating scapular posterior tilt, a must for healthy overhead humeral activity. Supine and standing single-arm dumbbell protractions are good bets for dynamically training this small yet important muscle; scap pushups, scap dips, and scap pullups in which the athlete is instructed to keep the scapulae tight to the rib cage are effective isometric challenges to the serratus anterior.

Concurrently, athletes with the classic postural problems should focus on loosening up the levator scapulae, upper traps, pecs, lats, and anterior delts. One must also consider if these postural distortions are compensatory for kinetic chain dysfunction at the lumbar spine, pelvis, or lower extremities. My colleague Mike Robertson and I have written extensively on this topic here. Keep in mind that all of this advice won’t make a bit of difference if you have terrible posture throughout the day, so pay as much attention to what you do outside the weight room as you do to what goes on inside it.

9. Weak Dorsiflexors: It’s extremely common for athletes to perform all their movements with externally rotated feet. This positioning is a means of compensating for a lack of dorsiflexion range of motion – usually due to tight plantarflexors – during closed-chain knee flexion movements. In addition to flexibility initiatives for the calves, one should incorporate specific work for the dorsiflexors; this work may include seated dumbbell dorsiflexions, DARD work, and single-leg standing barbell dorsiflexions. These exercises will improve dynamic postural stability at the ankle joint and reduce the risk of overuse conditions such as shin splints and plantar fasciitis.

10. Weak Neck Musculature: The neck is especially important in contact sports such as football and rugby, where neck strength in all planes is highly valuable in preventing injuries that may result from collisions and violent jerking of the neck. Neck harnesses, manual resistance, and even four-way neck machines are all good bets along these lines, as training the neck can be somewhat awkward. From a postural standpoint, specific work for the neck flexors is an effective means of correcting forward head posture when paired with stretches for the levator scapulae and upper traps as well as specific interventions to reduce postural abnormalities at the scapulae, humeri, and thoracic spine. In this regard, unweighted chin tucks for high reps throughout the day are all that one really needs. This is a small training price to pay when you consider that forward head posture has been linked with chronic headaches.

Closing Thoughts

A good coach recognizes that although the goals of improving performance and reducing the risk of injury are always the same, there are always different means to these ends. In my experience, one or more of the aforementioned ten biomechanical weak links is present in almost all athletes you encounter. Identifying biomechanical weak links is an important prerequisite to choosing one’s means to these ends. This information warrants consideration alongside neural, hormonal, and metabolic factors as one designs a comprehensive program that is suited to each athlete’s unique needs.

Dr. Chris Bump: Magnesium—The King of Minerals

In this presentation Dr Christopher J Bump discusses the value of magnesium supplementation for those individuals who experience anxiety, poor quality of sleep and acute joint pain. Magnesium is critical to muscle relaxation, energy metabolism and protein synthesis and in the US over 55% of adults are deficient in magnesium.

Link to Video Presentation