July 30, 2011

Rant and Tip for the weekend of July 30th

Today’s post is about muscle imbalances and the best way to avoid them. While the possibility of an imbalance exists in many places, I am going to focus on the back. Possibly the most common example of a muscle imbalance occurs when a lifter regularly works out their chest but does not give as much attention to their back. The chest is another example of what I call a ‘mirror muscle’, while the back doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In fact, based on my own experience from about five years ago, I believe this is relevant to the nerve impingement that Jim has mentioned. An extremely typical question that many people ask is, “How much do you bench?” But how many times have you heard someone ask, “How much can you row?” The result of high volume chest workouts without correspondingly intense back exercise, is poor posture with the slumping forward of the shoulders. If this is a problem, the solution is simply to get in more back work relative to chest work. Not only will this help cure any imbalances, it will have the added benefit of greater overall strength. In fact, strengthening your upper back will have the added bonus of increasing your pressing potential, as your foundation when laying on the bench will be sturdier. I have a friend who would say, “You should have stronger lats than me, you can bench more.” Just like you don’t want a house built on a soft foundation, you don’t want to bench with a weak, loose back.

This is another reason why you should keep a journal and record the number of sets, reps, and weight lifted. If you do so, you can keep track of the total volume of your work done pushing so you can compare it to your pulling work. Odds are you can press more weight than you can row. If this is the case, make sure the total number of reps performed pulling outnumbers the total number of reps pushing. Some trainers encourage doing as much as twice the volume of back work than what you perform working on your chest. I personally agree that if you had to choose between more back work and more chest work, I would choose back work, as it plays a more important role in everyday life.

Useful upper back exercises include, pull-ups and chin-ups, face pulls, any row variation, any pull-down variation, and also the deadlift. Note that I am not going into lower back exercises here as that should also be stressed, but that is another story. The deadlift may not be as obvious, because there is minimal arm movement, but it is the best way to work your upper back through the use of a heavy isometric contraction. Your best bet in addition to deadlifting, is to work your back in both the vertical and horizontal planes. One or two exercises should suffice, and it is easy to rotate exercises to keep back workouts from getting monotonous. My personal favorite is the dumbbell row. As a side note, if you use a fat grip handle during any pulling movement, you will also get the added benefit of a stronger grip.

Many people work out their chest and their back on separate days. I personally think this is a bad idea for the following reason. Many trainees get excited about training their bench press, but not so much when it comes to back work. If you follow a routine when chest and back are trained on different days, there is a higher probability that you will miss the back day than the chest day. This can lead to a relatively weak back. On my upper body days I both push and pull while deadlifts get a separate day once every one or two weeks. I typically will perform two pushing exercises and two to three pulling exercises. Face pulls are performed with a relatively low amount of weight and thus are not taxing on the central nervous system, so they are included every time. The other two choices are up to my mood.

I’m going to rant a little here. I know that injuries incurred during bench pressing happen. However how many times during everyday life have you heard people suffer or complain about a chest injury compared to back injuries? I’m going to go out on a limb and assume there are more workers’ compensation cases involving back problems. Quite often it is the result of a weak back combined with poor form when picking up an object. Strengthen your back, and your quality of life will most likely improve. To quote the great band, The Who: “Out here in the fields. I fight for my meals. I get my back into my living.”

P.S. This song is better than anything else released in the last decade or so.

1 comment:

  1. Muscle imbalance causes much of the pain people experience--even if they do not work out. Notice posture, especially round shoulders, forward head and head tilt. Awareness could do so much to stop spinal deterioration.