Exercise Variability Part I
A point that I would like to address here kind of involves not doing yoga. Limiting yourself to one exercise modality-- regardless of what it is-- can have detrimental effects on your progress. It can also lead to injury. Let's dive into this two-part post to examine why you shouldn't limit your fitness to any one activity.
What Is Variability?
Variability as a fitness concept involves varying the stimulus that you apply to your musculoskeletal and nervous systems during exercise. For example, if you're a marathoner and you decide to try some all out sprints, you're going to feel significantly more sore the following day. Since your body is used to steady state cardio, the stimulus of getting throttled with short, explosive, powerful movements will leave your body shocked and will induce an altered state of recovery. This is also known as sport-specific stimulus.
This also holds true for your cardiovascular system since heart rate variability has been fairly conclusively proven to improve overall cardiovascular health. The same principle applies: getting your body functionally out of its comfort zone provides more opportunities for your musculoskeletal, nervous and cardiovascular systems to adapt to new stimuli, thus resulting in further gains in a variety of ways.
In short, muscle stimulus is the chemical and physiological result of your muscles being, well, stimulated. It can lead to improved pliability and elasticity in your muscles, tendons and fascial tissues courtesy of a vigorous yoga practice. It can also result in bigger, more energy dense muscles and rigidity in your connective tissues imparted by a strength training or powerlifting protocol.
Oftentimes the objectives of a person's fitness "goals" are unclear to them...and to everyone else who might be paying attention. Muscle stimulus needs to be balanced to prevent imbalance in the body. Remember this when you see the dude at the gym with tiny legs and a stooped, rounded posture from doing incessant bench press and curls. This is an unfortunately common example of one group of muscles and movements being favored over others, and in training literature is known as upper cross syndrome. (Kelly Starrett refers to this as "douchebag shoulder syndrome" and I'm inclined to agree with him.)
But I digress. The first reason that variability is so important lies in exactly that: doing too much of one thing is NEVER good. This could arguably extend to just about everything else in our lives, but that guy at the gym with DB shoulders who is making love to himself in the mirror probably has a nasty case of tendinitis somewhere up in there. He's also likely on his way to some crippling shoulder injuries in the not-so-distant future.
Which leads me to the next point...
Virtually all of the muscles in your body work in conjunction with others, whether in tandem (synergistically) or in opposition to each other (antagonistically). You can think of this as a system of pulleys or levers-- or more appropriately as tension cable on a bridge, and there are systems within systems here.
We could go down a rabbit hole here discussing the whole inner universe and the scoping levels of your physiology, but instead, let's look at it more broadly. In the most basic sense, if a pulley system is out of balance, the machine will break. Yes, your body is a machine and once you embrace this, you will pay more attention to what I'm talking about.
To elaborate, let's take a look at an individual who works at a desk all day:
Let's call him Oliver. Oliver wakes up in the morning, after sleeping on his left side with his shoulders rounded in a fetal position. His neck is stiff and shoulders achy, so he stretches briefly and gets ready for work. After sitting in traffic hunched over the steering wheel for half an hour, he grabs a cup of Folgers and plops down at his desk, boots up his computer and gets to work where he'll continue to slouch in his chair for the next seven or so hours.
Now, we can't fault Oliver to this point. Just workin' to feed the monkey, man.
However, when Oliver heads to the gym to battle the mass of other slouchy dudes to do forty-five minutes of bench press, pushups and poorly executed situps; this is when the shit hits the fan.
Repetitive movement (or overuse) injuries occur when we do too much of one thing. In Oliver's case, he is in an almost constantly internally rotated shoulder position that is made all the more compromising by incorporating increasingly damaging strength deficiencies to encourage the poor posture. This is when the machine breaks down. Not only is he neglecting every other part of his physique, he is also compromised in a constantly fixed position, typically working in only one dimension or plane. And to make matters worse, he is altering his body's neuromuscular balance and breathing patterns, possibly permanently.
Variability And Solutions To Imbalances
This is not the end of the road for ol' Ollie. Say one day he realizes that the folks doing yoga in the gym seem to be getting a pretty decent workout in, so he starts mixing that in to the routine. He begins to notice that he simply can't do certain things. It's not necessarily that he's not strong enough (although sometimes he isn't) but he finds himself wondering why he can't get his arms straight up in the air without his shoulders starting to hurt.
In Ollie's case, he's spent so much time beating the crap out of his chest and shoulders that he has created a severe set of muscle imbalances in his neck, chest, shoulders and thoracic spine. Ollie decides it's time to Sit Down And Be Humble: he gets a trainer who promptly gets him on a program to repair the uni-dimensional damage he has inflicted on himself through his lifestyle and workout choices.
In this case, Oliver would have the opportunity to get an outsider EXPERT perspective on how his movement has been compromised. His trainer would steer him away from all the pushing while focusing on more pulling (or 'heart-opening' for ya'll yoga snobs out there) as well as getting the rest of his body to cooperate with itself to improve patterns and getting things back in order. Crisis Averted.
In the next post, I will discuss how yoga plays into this narrative, how variability can improve your practice and how yoga simply might not be the cure all that so many devout yogis may think it is.
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