Exercise Variability Part II
Note: this is the second half of a two-part post. Start here to get the full discussion.
Exercise variability can fairly universally be applied to any activity, and I strongly believe that yoga is a good entry-level opportunity to introduce new elements of stimulus to the average non-yogi. It allows you to build base strength in several dimensions and to suss out areas of weakness and missing ranges-of-motion in a safe way.
HOWEVER, yoga, just like any other modality of exercise can create muscle imbalances as well. This is especially true for the yogi who can't resist the urge to do a couple extra push-ups every time the instructor says chaturanga.
This is also true of backbends. Since most people seem to view themselves as a future Chinese contortionist when they start to get the hang of this yoga thing, the yoga room is often rife with reeeeeeeally dangerous lower back compression and poor form-- generally thanks to the upper cross syndrome which has created limited mobility in the upper to mid-back. (Douchebag Yoga Shoulders anyone?)
According to a 2009 study implemented by the Journal of Yoga Therapy, the most common and debilitating injuries among a pool of 33,000 participants included the following (attributed to the attached poses):
- Injuries to the neck (shoulder stand, headstand)
- Injuries to the lower back (forward & backward folds— aka backbends, as well as twists)
- Injuries to the shoulders and wrists (downward dog, variations of plank pose, other poses involving intense wrist extension)
- Injuries to the knee (largely imparted to the warrior pose series as well as other poses that involve extreme torsion of the knee-joint)
The study also states that "poor technique or alignment, previous injury, excess effort, and improper or inadequate instruction were the most commonly cited causes of Yoga injuries” in the populations included in the measurements.
The findings of this study and others indicate that these movements are the most harmful to the yoga population at large. This does not necessarily mean that those movements are bad per se, but they should be approached with caution.
That being said, the limited variability of both our yoga practice and our other activities almost definitely contributes to the range of motion limitations that often lead to injury, both in yoga and elsewhere.
Long story short, yoga is not a panacea; and like any other form of exercise, it should not be the only form of exercise that you do.
Although yoga is an excellent and generally safe modality of exercise, it is still important to sprinkle in other activity. I have found that rock-climbing, surfing, swimming and occasionally participating in Jiu-Jitsu have proven to not only enhance my yoga practice but also to help me continue to find strength deficiencies and muscle imbalances. For example, yoga compliments running well insomuch as it provides an opportunity to loosen up the brutally tight tissues of the hips, posterior legs, and calves the day after an intense running workout.
Use Yoga To Find Your Imbalances...And Then Pay Attention To Correcting Them.
As I mentioned before, yoga provides a great opportunity to take a hard look at your movement patterns to decide where you're lacking ranges of motion and where you could be stronger or more flexible. Symmetry comes into play when you consider that pulley system we talked about: if one shoulder raises or you lean slightly more to one side, or perhaps you notice that one hip is tighter than the other, you have identified the work you need to do.
As an example, lets take a look at a few of the poses mentioned in the study to see if we can learn how to identify these imbalances before you get injured, as well as how they may apply to other modes of exercise.
Let’s start with the neck. To execute any variation of a headstand, the prime movers and stabilizer muscles must be in proper working order to support what essentially becomes a pillar in the cervical and thoracic spinal region (or neck and upper back for those of you who might be less anatomy-driven.).
Consider again our buddy Ollie: if Ollie is hanging out quite literally all day long in a forward-head position as he pounds the keyboard and drives around in traffic, when he attempts to compound the weight of his body and gravity on his misaligned neck, chances are it’s probably gonna hurt him. The same is true for a competitive cyclist or anyone else who is constantly in (cervical) neck extension.
While practicing yoga for a while could potentially help remedy this problem, there are other modes of exercise that could also prove helpful. An unusual example could be found in squirming your way out of a headlock while rolling Jiu-Jitsu or increasing the mobility and strength in the upper back and posterior shoulders by trying your hand at surfing.
More practically, making it a regular practice to get in a well-established neck position— especially if you’re one of the previously mentioned folks— will pay off dividends ESPECIALLY if you decide you're gonna be a headstand aficionado.
Wheel Pose (Urdhva Danurasana)
Continuing along with the spine, let’s take a look at the almighty back bend, aka the series of poses that every burgeoning yogi is chomping at the bit to hurt themselves with.
Of course, everyone wants to do a wheel pose or maybe feels compelled to get even deeper. It’s an excellent illustration of your superior strength, flexibility, and coordination…and it looks cool. We all like feeling accomplished, right?
The problem is most newbie yoga practitioners simply do not have the means to do a lot of these things due to widespread muscular imbalances.
Again, the study YTJ study indicates that in many cases, injuries involving the low back bore direct correlation to both front and back-bending movements. How come? Let’s look once again at Ollie the desk jockey, a runner and a cyclist.
In Ollie’s case, he sits all day, which keeps his hips in a constant state of flexion, he never stretches and he’s hunched from too much pushing in every part of his day-to-day. A runner— let’s say the average person who doesn’t pay much attention to form— also doesn’t stretch out her tight hammies or hip flexors and probably has a relatively weak core creating a wishy-washy pelvis and instability in the disks of the lower back. The cyclist: constantly rounded forward with excessive cervical extension and SUPER tight hips from constant flexion.
Notice the parallels here? All of these folks, (and many of us fall into one or more of these categories of movement) have faulty spinal mechanics as well as tight hips from doing too much of the same thing.
So how does this apply to backbends, you ask?
Let’s mash all three of these categories together to create one hunch-y super-beast. So this guy/girl plants his/her feet down and struggles to get their palms flat to the floor above their shoulders and shakily rises into a poor-form wheel pose…and then hears a pop. What follows is weeks of recuperation and lots of resentment toward that particular pose…ironically while sitting to recover.
To execute a proper backbend, you need three essential qualities:
- Adequate shoulder and upper back mobility
- Proper coordination and strength of the glutes and hip musculature
- Open and mobile hip flexors.
Our super-beast has none of these things, so when the backbend goes down, the majority of the burden on the low back which hinges in a hideously crippling way. That's lights out for our new yogi friend.
Again, I am not saying backbends are bad. In fact, they are very beneficial when executed properly and, most importantly, in due time. Most people will likely be able to do a proper backbend if they are patient with their abilities. The problem is that many people simply aren't patient enough to let their body adapt to the new stimulus, and they would rather muscle into it just to say that they can do it. Furthermore, injuries to the lower back are also attributed not only to backbends but to forward folds and twists, but I’m not trying to write a compendium here...
So what could you do to add a little variety for some spinal stability and back integrity? Clean up the shoulders a bit by focusing on stretches that open up the pectoral girdle, get yourself a lacrosse ball peanut and return some mobility to the upper back, get in the habit of stretching out those nasty hip flexors and get your butt to work.
No seriously, start getting your glutes to fire, your core isn’t strong until your butt is. More on that later...
Plank Pose Variations, Wrist Nightmares
Ah, back to the ol’ Chaturanga. Nobody likes a good yoga push-up more than the yoga-dude who feels compelled to do push-ups at every possible opportunity. After all, chest and triceps are the foundation of any poorly planned strength-training protocol, right?
Despite the implications that these poses might have more globally on the shoulder girdle, etc., let’s zoom in a little more and take a look at the wrist.
In my humble opinion, wrist mobility is probably one of most overlooked— and easily dealt with— maladies that can lead to injury in a yoga practice or just plain daily living. Carpal tunnel syndrome and ganglion cysts have been around forever, but much like “text-neck” a new collection of repetitive strain injuries (RTIs) has arisen thanks to our universal obsession with technology. However, it’s important to look at why these wrist limitations happen in the first place and how yoga can either help them or make them worse.
Take a second to think about your wrist position when you do three things: type on a computer, ride a bike, or do a push-up/Chaturanga. Here's a photo of the last one if you're not familiar:
In every case, the wrist is in some degree of extension, the above photo of Chaturanga being the most extreme. So what happens when you put yourself in a position like, say Purvottanasana (Eastward Facing Pose):
Sure it’s getting the shoulders into a better range of motion and getting the glutes and hamstrings fired up, but it’s also happening at the cost of your wrist mobility. Just like Ollie’s push-heavy routine, reinforcing deeply ingrained movement patterns can and often will lead to injury. Wrist injuries will also tend to move ‘upstream’ leading to further movement misfortune in the elbows and shoulders.
So what can you do about it? Make daily wrist stretches either part of your daily work breaks or as a regular part of your yoga practice. Remembering the pulley system that I mentioned earlier if your wrists are always pulled in one direction, consider the range of motion lost going the other way. Try these stretches to loosen things up a bit. This is the type of thing you can do anywhere just to get your joints moving in different dimensions. I'll cover more on wrist health later.
These are only a few examples and is by no means exhaustive, but they give you a rough idea of what you're looking for. Essentially, if one side or the other is out of balance, there is a chance that it could potentially lead to injury, or at very least to the imbalance getting worse. Even if you're not in these positions regularly, it helps to illustrate how overdoing one thing can lead to injury.
Is yoga the answer to all of your problems? Nope. However, it can offer some much-needed variability to pepper into your daily, weekly or monthly routines. Hell, even if you hate yoga just do something else to keep it fresh. Dabble in martial arts, take a Pilates or dance class or try jumping rope. Regardless of what your fitness drug of choice is, your body needs variation. Not only will it keep things fresh, but it will keep your body moving and guessing instead of calcifying into a shell of what it could’ve been. Just do it safely...and don’t do this or this or this:
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