Lower Back Pain

Lightening the load

If you went down to the gym today, or rather yesterday, then you may well have been able to confirm that elevated postures or body use really make work lighter.

Magnus and Alex (in this video on YouTube) were able to increase the number of repetitions by as much as 50% when working out, because standing or sitting correctly balanced (and without trying to ‘hold the body straight’) automatically organised the direction and containment of effort within their bodies, thus making them stronger.

The same ‘lightening effect’ can be acheived by anyone in any situation, not least in workplaces. The only problem is that people in workplaces (and gyms remember) are generally taught to sit, stand and move according to models for posture that lead to oppression and not elevation. We recognise the need to lighten the load, but unwittingly we apply theory that does the opposite. And when this doesn’t work, what do we do? We just try harder! 

Interestingly, in 2007 the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work  launched a campaign called “Lighten the Load”. According to the agency “Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common work-related problem in Europe – 25 % of the EU-27 workers report suffering from backache and 23 % complain about muscular pains.”

 I contacted the Agency’s representatives here in Stockholm at The Swedish Work Environment Authority and arranged a meeting. I was curious to see how they would react to my claim that the things being taught about posture and body use were contributing to the onset of MSDs such as backache.

I met two physiotherapists and one behavioral scientist and demonstrated the difference between oppressed and elevated postures – something that was obviously completely new to each of them – and then showed them that the way people are taught to sit and stand (plumb line aligned, etc) corresponded to the oppressed postures they had just tried. They were perplexed, but added that there really was nothing they could say or do about this because they are not allowed to make recomendations regarding specific ergonomic methods.

The fact that currently accepted models for good posture, safe lifting, and so on could possibly weaken the body and increase the strain on the lower back and other joints seemed to be something never before considered, until recently it seems. Researchers have at last concluded that there is a difference in the way the body is loaded when running with shoes as compared to running barefoot (read article and watch video here). While barefoot runners land on the balls of the feet first, shod runners land on the heels. “Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing,” which helps to lessen the impact by “decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land.” If you watch the video then the difference is immediately apparent.

From a Power Ergonomics perspective the difference is also very clear – barefoot runners run elevated (light and held up) while shod runners tend to run oppressed (heavy).  The other day I had the opportunity to confirm this once again while I observed around 80 people in an aerobics class at our local Friskis & Svettis in Stockholm. When they all ran around the room, I found it impossible to pick out anyone who was running lightly. Everyone seemed to be plodding around.

While exercise is obviously good for us, there is a real difference between exercising elevated and exercising oppressed. If we truly want to lighten the load – as the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work  wish us to - then we must first conceptualise the two fundamentally opposite ways in which the body is balanced and held (elevated vs oppressed). Without this we are like drivers who do not notice that the hand brake is on while we are driving.

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If you go down to the gym today…

….and compare working out with weights standing oppressed with standing elevated – then you’re sure of a big surprise! (Watch also “Power Ergonomics at the Gym” Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

This is what Alex Grundberg and Magnus Alenesjö have been doing for the last seven weeks, after having first tried out the basics of Power Ergonomics at Axelsons Gymnastiska Institut (Scandinavias largest school of Complementary and Alternative Medicine). Both are studying to become Massage Therapists and both work out regularly at a gym. Alex is also a qualified Personal Trainer.

Last Saturday morning we met up again at the Friskis&Svettis gym in Huddinge to find out what they thought about it all. Both were quick to admit that they had initially been sceptical. After all, the promise of a 20-30% increase in performance really sounded too good to be true. But they were keen to give it a go and after around six weeks of practice and experimentation both of them had concluded independently that this increase in power was no exaggeration.

First Alex tried walking, jogging and running on a treadmill – oppressed and elevated. After that each of them tried a selection of exercises, comparing the first set done standing (or sitting) oppressed with a second set performed when elevated. For a couple of exercises we looked at what happened when performing standing elevated directly after performing to exhaustion while standing oppressed. Here are the results…

Walking (5 kph), jogging (15 kph), running (19 kph) (Alex): Oppressed: heavy throughout, feeling of moving backwards on the treadmill when running fast (very hard to maintain), Elevated: light, easy and fun at all speeds (read also Alex’s comments further on).

Squats (Alex): 1st set: oppressed (13 reps), 2nd set: elevated (17 reps), 3rd set: oppressed and then shift to elevated when exhausted (12 increasing to 17). Difference 4 and then 6. I.e. 31% increase in set 2 (compared with Set 1) and 42% increase in set 3 (compared with first 12 in Set 3). Expected outcome: decreased number of reps in both sets 2 and 3.

Shoulder lifts sideways (Alex): 1st set: oppressed (14 reps), 2nd set: elevated (16 reps). Difference 1 = 14% increase.

Biceps curls (Magnus): 1st set: oppressed (10 reps), 2nd set: elevated (15 reps). Difference 5 = 50% increase.

Standing rowing (Alex): 1st set: oppressed (13 reps), 2nd set: elevated (15 reps). Difference 2 = 15% increase.

Shrugs (Magnus): 1st set: oppressed (14 reps), 2nd set: elevated (19 reps), 3rd set: oppressed and then shift to elevated when exhausted (10 increasing to 15). Difference 5 and then another 5 = 36% increase in 2nd set and 50% in 3rd set).

Arm cycling (Alex): Oppressed sitting (leaning back against backrest): heavy, focus backwards while working forwards (divided effort), Elevated sitting: easy, light, focus forwards, Elevated ( ‘straight back’: weakened performance (like oppressed).

The increases in power/performance varied from 14% to 50% and so the promise of a 20-30% improvement is actually quite modest.

Alex commented afterwards that: “the biggest difference between oppressed and elevated was definitely during the jogging/running part and the squats. While running oppressed, it felt like my body wanted to run the opposite direction. My inward curve of the lower part of the back started to increase and this really just became more obvious as we increased the speed of the treadmill. By then I was really struggling to stay on it. I must have looked like a fat duck getting chased by some predator or something. Unlike during the elevated running, where I felt LIKE the predator: fast and extremely light. And also I felt like I didn’t have to meet the ground with my feet as many times as when jogging oppressed. During the squats the difference also became very obvious. While doing it oppressed my body felt like it was working not only downwards but also backwards, instead of just upwards – which was the feeling while doing it elevated. I think this is a recurring feeling when comparing oppressed and elevated posture during different activities.”

Magnus added that not only did he perform better, but he also now has no backache and experiences less muscle stiffness after training. Backache is otherwaise a common problem for gym goers, and one likely cause is to be found in the oppressed postures taught by trainers (in exercises that are supposed to help prevent backache!). Indeed, Alex made it very clear that he had always been taught to exercise in an oppressed manner (albeit unknowingly), both as a client when he first started training at his gym, and as a student then studying to become a Personal Trainer. He was completely tuned in to keeping his back straight, his shoulders back and stomach in as well as standing balanced on his heels in almost every exercise, and he had always passed this on to his own clients, believing just like everyone else, that this was a good recipe for ‘correct posture’.

With this in mind it is worth considering Alex’s closing remark: “In the very beginning I thought all this sounded like bull***t. But at the same time I wanted to believe it cause hey, who doesn’t want to lift more in the gym or find the regular jogging tour much easier run? So when I increased at the gym I really thought it was due to the result of the classic placebo effect. But then I started to experiment some more and it didn’t really matter if I tried the elevated posture in the beginning of the exercise or in the end when being fatigued, I always increased and found the weight easier to lift when standing elevated.”

So, if you go down to the gym today…

More power, less pain at the gym

Thursday, May 7th, 2009 | Gym, Lower Back Pain, Sitting, Sports & exercise | No Comments

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Over the years I have met and coached hundreds of people who train at gyms, including Personal Trainers and health specialists. Almost all of them had learned to keep their backs straight, shoulders back, etc. as well as keep their weight over their sitting bones (or over heels or middle of feet) when exercising. And yet despite regular exercise and despite continuous attempts to maintain ‘correct posture’ and ‘correct balance’, many still suffered from lower back pain (LBP), shoulder pain and/or neck pain.

What nobody had ever explained to these people was how the above ways of balancing and holding the back and body would create the oppressed body use and oppressed postures that not only weaken the body but also help to maintain or even exacerbate aches and pains in the lower back, shoulders and neck.

This weakening of the body occurs in gyms (and other places, such as offices and factories) because the difference between oppressed and elevated use of body is not yet sufficiently understood.

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Is this PT sitting elevated or oppressed? The difference can be 15-20% more or less power in the exercise...

Unfortunately, the general belief today is that strong, elevated sitting postures are created by ‘keeping the back straight’ or by keeping the body ‘plumb line aligned’ and balanced over the sitting bones.

But this is not true, and this is the root of our dilemma. The best sitting posture is achieved when the body is balanced onthe thighs, just in front of the sitting bones, because this is the position that invokes natural elevation, where the body is strongest and most stable and at the same time most relaxed.

The surest way to sort out the ‘recipes’ that really do created elevated use from those that don’t is by testing the function of a posture (MUBA). That is, by testing the way it works when subjected to loads that threaten to distort it and then assessing the control exerted to prevent distortion – is . Unfortunately recipes for ‘good posture’ based on plumb line alignment or ‘keeping your back straight’, etc. fail these tests consistently, because the ability to maintain mechanical cohesion is automatically weakened the moment this thinking is applied.

If you have tried the exercises I described in Sitting 101 you might like to try the same thing at your gym. That is, compare exercising while sitting oppressed with exercising while sitting elevated. Don’t be surprised if you find that exercising from an elevated posture feels much stronger and easier compared with exercising from an oppressed posture. The difference varies from person to person but a 15-20% power gain is not unusual.

Anyone can make this often dramatic shift and since most people use the body in an oppressed manner (even at gyms), most of us have everything to gain by exploring this matter a little further.

Then, when you have found that you do get 15-20% more power it might be worth asking your gym manager for a corresponding reduction in membership fee.