8 New Truths of Training

By Michael Boyle

My good friend Alwyn Cosgrove wrote an article called "Cosgrove's Five Ah-Ha Moments: The Education of a Misguided Trainer." Alwyn inspires me in many ways. Most times, his inspiration is based around his ability to twice beat cancer. This time, it was based around his writing.

So, in assembling my own list of "ah-ha" moments, a smorgasbord of tips for building strength and reducing pain (plus one nutrition tip to kick things off), I must acknowledge Alwyn, Dan Dyrek, Shirley Sahrmann and all the brilliant people I've learned from. Keep reading, keep learning, and you'll discover new "ah-ha" moments that will change what you once believed to be truths.

1. Corn is Not a Vegetable
This may seem simple, but I've always thought corn was a vegetable. It tastes like a vegetable. It looks like a vegetable. But it's a grain, and it may be the worst thing you can eat. Avoid corn, and more importantly, avoid its ugly derivative, high fructose corn syrup.

2. Injury is a Sign of Weakness
An injured muscle is simply a symptom of an underlying weakness. I learned this from the brilliant sports physical therapist, Shirley Sahrmann, who said, "Any time you see an injured muscle, look for a weak synergist." A synergist is a muscle that assists in performing a movement. For example, your triceps is a synergist during a bench press because it assists the larger chest muscles. Injured hamstring? You probably have weak glutes. Injured rectus femoris (a quadriceps muscle)? Think weak hip flexors.

3. You Don't Have Tendonitis
Most people who think they have tendonitis actually have tendinosis. In tendinosis, the tendon undergoes a structural change in response to the chronic stress placed on it and the poor initial treatment. The condition is different than tendonitis and the treatment is different. Ice and anti-inflammatories do little for tendinosis, as the condition is no longer an inflammatory one. In fact, my good friend Dr. Donnie Strack, another excellent PT, says continued use of anti-inflammatories can actually weaken a tendon and delay healing. What you need is soft tissue work, or massage. See the next tip.

4. Muscles Require Hands-on Training
Soft tissue work goes by many names. The names don't matter, the treatment does. Physical therapists use the term “soft tissue mobilization.” Chiropractors usually use the acronym ART or, “active release technique.” Massage therapists just call it “deep tissue massage.” Just remember, the magic is in the hands, not the names. It's all pressure applied to tissue to deform it and cause a chemical reaction.

5. Massage is Like Weight Lifting
Soft tissue work, whether for chronic muscle strains or tendon issues, is like weight training. Treatment is actually a stimulus. In effect, what the therapist is doing is irritating the tissue to produce a chemical response. The chemicals produced are what begin the healing process. This is why soft tissue work is often painful and can leave you feeling similar to a workout the next day. According to Dr. Strack, soft tissue mobilization (think massage) stimulates the formation of fibroblasts, which help take immature and randomly aligned Type 3 collagen (found in tendinosis) and change it back to a stronger, more parallel, mature Type 1 collagen. In other words, massage changes the quality of your muscle fibers.

6. Pain is Sometimes Necessary
I've always said, “If it hurts, don't do it,” and I still believe this in almost every case. But when rehabilitating tendonitis or tendinosis, I've learned from my studies with Dan Dyrek, D.P.T., that it may actually be necessary to endure some tendon pain. Just remember that this is the exception to the rule (if it hurts, don't do it). The painful stress to the tendon acts much like soft tissue work to initiate a healing response. The key is the type of pain. Acceptable pain is localized to the target tissue, and the tissue is painful to touch. There should be no swelling and no motion restrictions. Pain should be gone in 2-3 days.

7. Stretching Doesn't Heal All
The idea of simply stretching your short, or tight, muscles and strengthening your weak muscles doesn't always help balance your body, especially for older people. Older people have undergone structural change in both the bones and muscles that will not simply be reversed with a foam roller, some stretching, and strengthening exercises. Muscles in a chronically stretched position (think scapula retractors) become "locked long." In effect, they develop more collagen and less elastin in response to the constant tension. On the flip side, the pectoralis muscles become "locked short." It's foolish to think you can undo years of soft tissue change with stretching. It's also tough to counteract 8-10 hours of sitting with an hour of standing. But don't stop trying. Just realize that what took years to do will take years to undo.

8. Training Can Delay Osteoarthritis
Everything in the body — muscles, tendons, cartilage, and bone — responds to stress. One of my clients is a world-renowned plastic surgeon. He told me that in some extreme cases, the fibula, a thin, non-weight bearing bone, has been transplanted to replace a shattered tibia. Can you guess what the result is? The transplanted fibula gradually takes on the shape of a tibia due to Wolff's law (which generally states that bone will adapt to the load it’s placed under). In fact, studies have shown that athletes have thicker hyaline cartilage (lining bones) than non-athletes. This improves the body's protective mechanism in delaying osteoarthritis.