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Low Back Pain Stretches: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (Originally for Bach Performance)

Low back pain is as common as it is brutal. No wonder so many people turn to low back stretches to relieve the pain. But here’s the sad truth:

The wrong stretches make a bad situation worse. 

But the right stretches, done correctly, will help alleviate your pain. You’ll get back on track to looking better naked and pushing weight in the gym. 

This article discusses what to avoid and what to try. 

Low back pain is the Ben and Jerry’s of pain…minus the all the good parts. It comes in many different flavors and has many different causes. It can range from acute sharp pain in a specific area to a constant dull/nagging pain.

I know this all too well because I suffered a low back injury back in college. It left me in pain, weak as f@$% and unable to do many everyday tasks for about two months. Sometimes stretching would make it feel better, but the pain didn’t subside for good. 

I did some serious research and found that what I needed didn’t involve stretching the low back at all. Six weeks after incorporating corrective exercise and the types of stretching described later in this article, I was pain free, playing hockey and lifting heavy, and making #gainz again. Now, I want the same for you.

Back pain is crippling. And if you’re in pain, it’s time to make a change. 

Research suggests that stretching the low back can relieve pain for roughly 20 minutes.(1,2,3)  So the relief is very short term. Not good if you’re overwhelmed with work.  Performing the three stretches below stimulates the stretch receptors in your back to give you a false sense of pain relief. They should be avoided because they cause instability in your core. But you want the opposite: stability.  That’s the key to a healthy and pain-free back.

Three Stretches To Avoid

1. Toe Touches: Sure, they feel but, but you’re doing more harm than good. This stretch forces you to round your back and compress the posterior (back side) of your intervertebral discs, potentially aggravating a disk injury and making your pain worse.

 

2. Pulling The Knee To The Chest: Pretty much the same deal as toe touches, but a slightly different targeted area of the back. Plus, it looks like you’re trying to fart. Again: not a proper solution to the problem.

 

3. The Bench Slouch: Okay, this isn’t really a stretch, just another bad movement pattern to avoid.  Posture matters. A lot. And both athletes and desk jockeys spend a lot of time sitting, leaning forward and wrecking their posture.  Stay as upright as you can. If you slouch over, your low back will round and stretch. That stretch increases the pressure on the discs in your spine, exacerbating pain and injury while decreasing core stability.  Obviously, this is a great way to take a step backwards in your battle of back-pain and decrease your strength in the gym. Sit tall, stay engaged, and avoid the bench slouch.

First, an important caveat. Dr. Google is not a real doctor. And self-diagnosis is terrible idea. Only a visit to a doctor can determine what type of injury you have. Once diagnosed, you can work on a corrective exercise plan. 

But you may find  these stretches and exercises will help relieve and rehab your back.

  1. Glute Stretch and Hip Thrust

The glutes are a huge muscle group that plays an important role in preventing low back pain. They support the spine and distribute load so that the low back doesn’t take the brunt of your deadlifts. They also “externally rotate” or “outwardly rotate” your leg. When these muscles become chronically tight, or weak and inactive, the load of a weight shifts onto the lower back, leading to pain or injury and weakness in the gym.

Therefore, in the interest of getting strong and looking better naked, we need to attack your glutes. 

Stretching the glutes is the first step. You’ll probably notice some blessed pain relieve that makes you think “really, that’s all I had to do? I instantly feel better.” 

But  the next and most important part is actually strengthening and activating those muscles. You want the muscles to support your back day in and day out.

One of my favourite glute exercises is the hip thrust. When the purpose is low back rehab, you want to pick a lighter weight and really make sure you can feel the glutes contracting throughout the movement. Perform it with a controlled tempo and squeeze your butt cheeks together like you’re holding cash. This improves mind-muscle connection for your glutes, improving strength, stability, and even muscle growth. 

Tip: use real cash. 
Second tip: Use that cash to pay for something you don’t enjoy ;). 
Final note:  trying to be explosive with these may be beneficial in an athletic performance setting, but not for focusing on muscle contractions. Slow and controlled in the name of the game with back pain. 

2. Hip Flexor

Tight hip flexors can pull your pelvis into an aggressive anterior tilt. If hip flexors are really tight, you can look like you’ve got permanent stripper butt. Tight hip flexors can put pressure on the discs in the low back due to the hyperextended position, which pinches the disks themselves.

Stretching the hip flexors relieves the stress put on the low back, allowing the spine to be in a neutral position. You’ll notice that you’ll be much more upright and pain-free.

This is my favorite hip flexor stretch. Make sure that the movement and stretch is in the front from the top of your hip. It’s typical to see people overstretch and actually extend their lower back during this movement. Don’t worry about staying too upright. just make sure you feel the stretch from the front.

Just like the glutes, you’ve got to a put in a bit more work other than stretching. Tight hip flexors usually mean weak glutes and weak anterior core (abs.)

Focus on strengthening those and kiss your pain goodbye.

3. Lats

Tight lats and poor thoracic mobility (mid-upper back) can also mess with your low back. When you have weak thoracic mobility, your body will compensate by hyperextending the lower back during overhead exercises like pull-ups and overhead presses. Besides making lower back pain worse, poor t-spine mobility can open the door to shoulder injuries during overhead movements. Let’s avoid that, shall we?

These drills improve mobility by having  the movement comes from your mid back. This ensures  your low back is used for it’s intended purpose:  stability.

  1. Foam Roll the Lats

The Lats are another huge muscle that runs from your upper arm (under your armpit) all the way down the back to the top of the hips. As you can see, I’m focusing on the mid-upper part of the muscle, from under the armpit to middle of the rib cage.

2. Rib Grabs

This exercise will help mobilize the spine so that the movement comes from the proper joints and not the lower back. When performing these, make sure you keep your hips square, core tight, and don’t allow any movement to come from the low back. Just focus on squeezing your shoulder blades into your spine, and following your hand with your head.

Yeah, stretching feels good. But there is a difference between how something feels, and the physiological response in your body. It’s time to ditch the old classic back stretches and instead, focus on improving your hips, glutes, lats, and t-spine.

Add these exercises to your warm-up. You’ll be pain-free and on your way to improved gains and injury-free training.

References

  • McGill, S (2007) Low Back Disorders

  • McGill, S (2014) Ultimate Back and Fitness Performance

  • Kell, R. T., & Asmundson, G. J. (2009). A comparison of two forms of periodized exercise rehabilitation programs in the management of chronic nonspecific low-back pain.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,23(2), 513-523.

Do Ankle Weights Make You Jump Higher?

Do you want to increase your vertical? Maybe you want to be able to dunk on a regulation basketball net. Or maybe you want to start doing box jumps like you see the youtubers doing. High flying hops is bad ass and jumping is fun so I get why you'd want to.

For some reason, the go to protocol for beginners or fitness enthusiasts is to go out and buy some ankle weights. Walking, jumping, or playing basketball with them in hopes of attacking the rim like Vince Carter (or for you young kids Blake Griffin).

I have some good news, and some bad news. I always like to end on a high note so the bad news is first:

Bad News

Unfortunately, ankle weights do not help your vertical. Not even a little. I'm sorry to break it to you. I'll get to why in a minute.

Good News

The good news is that there are other far more effective things you can do to increase your jumping height!

Before I tell you why, I just want to say that this topic was sparked by my days working at a retail sporting goods store. Probably the biggest in Canada, and also the most scum. 

Kids would come in WEEKLY asking me (or any employee) where the ankle weights were. I finally caught on and realized "oh these kids are trying to dunk a basketball, or do high box jumps" and someone suggested ankle weights. I would do my best to tell them that it wouldn't help, but they would ALWAYS buy them anyway. I hated seeing this because it meant whoever was feeding these kids this bro-science non-sense had more of an impact on them than anyone who actually knew the truth. I didn't want to see anyone waste their money. I wasn't that type of salesman. 

A Few Reasons Why They DO NOT Work

1. Ankle weights are meant for flexion and extension isolation exercises. This means that they're meant more for things like this:

As opposed to this:

 

2. This is probably the most important reason to highlight however it's also the most analytical so bear with me and read carefully.

 Having the weight on your ankles does nothing for increasing your explosive strength. In order to stress the right muscles and movement patterns, the weights need to be in a position that can put resistance on the muscles which assist in jumping. Having the load on the ankles doesn't resist ANY part of the jump. If you were running, it would work your hip flexors because they work to lift your leg up from the ground to prepare for another foot strike. By pulling the leg up with ankles weights you're increasing the load your leg must lift. You're NOT putting load on the spine, glutes, hamstrings, or quads. The muscles most responsible for jumping/sprinting/most other athletic movements are the muscle groups listed above in addition to the core. None of those are specifically trained with ankle weight while walking, sprinting or jumping with them.

 

3. Training with ankle weights can actually harm you. This is because of the added weight on your joints when landing or when your foot strikes the ground during running. Having the load on the spine and above the hip ensures that the right muscles are loaded. The stress in now on the core muscles, and important leg muscles including your glutes, hamstrings and quads.

4. At the end of the day, ankle weights are still added resistance which is what you need to stress your body with for it to adapt. However, 10lbs is not even close to the amount of resistance most people need. If you consider the fact that most studies show improvements in vertical height when using Olympic lifts to train. These movements are performed with 30-70% 1RM. That's usually a whole lot more than 10lbs.

- So What Should You Do Instead?

Power is the trait that needs to be worked on in order to improve your vertical jump. Power is comprised of 2 qualities:

1. Strength (force)

2. Speed (velocity)

Work on Relative Strength (Squats, Deadlifts), then Explosive Power exercises (Cleans, Snatches) and bodyweight plyometric exercises. These will increase the load and the demand on the muscular system involved with jumping. Your body will be able to produce more force, and at a faster rate. Both things necessary for a bigger vertical jump!

Some great bodyweight plyo exercises to use include:

- Depth Jumps (and different progressions leading up to depth jumps to box)

- Single Leg Bounds

- Plyo Box Step Ups

 

At the end of the day, if you're trying to increase your vertical jump, ankle weights are not the way to go. Instead, you should focus on building explosive power with heavier resistance and throw in some plyometric exercises too.

Its Finally Happening! Gym Updates

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Keys To Success From A Client Perspective

The other week I showcased my post-partum client Ashley doing some deadlifts and getting her body back to pre-pregnancy. During our last session she told me that she had an epiphany that changed her perspective on health and fitness.

It was one of the coolest things for me to hear. Then I realized this is something everyone should know, and a mindset everyone should allow themselves to fall into, in order to achieve any goal they want.

Ready for it?

"I'm so excited! I feel like good things are happening, I can feel my body changing. And you know what's crazy? I used to force myself to come to train, because I knew it would help me achieve my goals, but I viewed working out and dieting as a chore... Now, the past few months, I wake up and can't wait to come into the gym, workout hard, push myself, and eat clean (but still drink on weekends). I feel amazing. I think it's because I know that these are the steps that get me to where I want to be."
Ashley A.

That mindset, is not only key to her success in health and fitness, but also to life in general. Having a positive attitude even when there are surrounding obstacles, will keep you motivated and always on the hunt to achieving your goals. It's easy to quit when confronted by an obstacle, no matter how big, small,  easy or hard.

In fact, Arnold himself was quoted saying something very similar when reflecting on the film Pumping Iron :

"people always come up to me and ask 'why are you smiling? You're working out up to 5hrs a day, doing the same as the other guys, but the other guys have a sour face, they're pissed off that they have to do another rep or another set'. I looked forward to it! Why? Because I knew that every rep and every set and every workout got me closer and closer to my vision".
Arnold Schwarzenegger

Mindset

  • Vision
  • Positive Attitude

Vision

Visualization is an over-looked aspect to success. It's usually more associated with athletic performance. You always hear of athletes visualizing themselves either on the podium, or visualizing themselves during game play.

The main reason for this is motivation. Visualizing yourself, gives you clear motivation as to what you want to achieve.

If you're a woman who wants to lose 20lbs of fat and get a nicer shaped butt, imagine yourself in a bikini leaner than you are now with a nicer butt on the beach, loving life.

If you want to Squat 405lbs, you've got to visualize yourself doing the whole movement from the set-up, to un-racking the weight, to taking a deep breath, keeping tight and pumping out one heavy rep of 405lbs with perfect form and lockout.

It's worked for me as well. Sometimes things in life may have you a little down and lethargic which can negatively effect your motivation in general. If I ever feel like that, I take a few minutes before my workout to envision my goals, and it fires me back up. It can even be something totally unrelated. I'm in a band and sometimes imagining us on stage killing it fires me up for lifting.

Generally that workout goes exactly as planned and I continue to reach my goal. Proper nutrition also effects how well you will perform but we're talking about mindset. If you let negative thoughts, lazy mindset or low energy get to you, good luck having the drive to push through those last few reps, or sets or metabolic conditioning.

Positive Attitude

Many of the points are the same as vision but this is where it mixes into your bodies physiology.

A positive attitude believe it or not, will help you lose fat, build muscle, strength, whatever you're looking for in fitness and health. Why?

Because your mind and body are linked more than you think. Research shows that positive mindset is correlated with motivation, organization, initiative, energy and many other attributes. Oh Yeah, most importantly, it actually physically improves your gut and your bodies hormonal balance! High stress, and many other stress related conditions like depression, are correlated with increased fat gain, decreased performance and skewed hormone responses. Unfortunately, many of us are far too stressed and it becomes difficult to overcome. This can lead to negativity, and poor body health made possible by constantly over-stressing the stress hormones.

On the other hand, a healthy and positive attitude sends different neurotransmitters from the brain to the rest of the body to continue producing good hormone responses which promote things like fat loss.

I've also personally experienced this. There have been times where I'm on a specific workout program and eating a certain way, and I experienced lots of stress from work, school, girl, etc and started gaining some fat. Once those life stressors subsided a bit, I noticed increased muscle gains and decreased fat.

The Path to health, wellness and performance is not just about exercise and nutrition. Adopting a healthy lifestyle overall, learning and gaining control over your life is paramount too. Applying the work ethic to your workouts, your diet, and the rest of your life will help you reach any goal you're after!

As a Trainer, its my goal to coach you through your journey. That includes everything I mentioned above. Being a good coach is more than giving you a workout program and counting reps. It's about finding what motivated you to change, and applying my knowledge of exercise and nutrition to make you healthy and happy.

References

Kuo, L. E., Kitlinska, J. B., Tilan, J. U., Li, L., Baker, S. B., Johnson, M. D., ... & Herzog, H. (2007). Neuropeptide Y acts directly in the periphery on fat tissue and mediates stress-induced obesity and metabolic syndrome. Nature medicine13(7), 803-811.

Hardy, M. P., Gao, H. B., Dong, Q., Ge, R., Wang, Q., Chai, W. R., ... & Sottas, C. (2005). Stress hormone and male reproductive function. Cell and tissue research322(1), 147-153.

Wolkowitz, O. M., Epel, E. S., & Reus, V. I. (2001). Stress hormone-related psychopathology: pathophysiological and treatment implications. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry2(3), 115-143.