When corrective exercise isn’t the best answer

by Ryan Wagner

Early last spring I was training in a movement club and one of the coaches was taking me through a progression for mastering a muscle-up. For the uninitiated, a muscle-up is arguably the crème-de-la-crème of strength. It’s a relative symphony of mobility and brute power. I’m a strong guy, with 15 years of lifting experience, but I remain unable to perform one.

But I was going for it. Before long, there was a problem. At a certain point in the movement (not even full bodyweight), my right elbow hurt. Now, in my 20’s I probably would have pushed through the pain and ignored it. Fortunately, at 32 I was older and wiser and really tuned into this growing discomfort. However, when I told the coach this his answer was frustratingly simple: “Just stretch more.”

When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? I’m guilty of this myself. And looking back on this experience in the gym, I realize now that the coach didn’t want to say those dreaded words, “I don’t know.”

So, why this blog post now? Because I just figured out what was going on about three weeks ago. After working with my preferred soft tissue specialist and my ever practical chiropractor, we learned that my right shoulder, down through my elbow, and into my forearm was super locked up. My right forearm, in particular, was very hypertonic. This, I had known for some time. I figured that my thrice weekly forearm stretching would eventually cure me. I also didn’t know what else to do. So, I kept stretching prior to my workouts, but I also keep working out. And hard. But this tight fascia went higher up the chain, affecting my shoulder and at some point, pulling my elbow out of ideal alignment.

My ring exercises grew in intensity and with each new success in performance and aesthetics, my right forearm was growing tighter and tighter. Then one day after a good workout, my right wrist was sore. Sore enough that I couldn’t handle my ten inch cast iron skillet in the kitchen with confidence. This was a problem, but it was also a little scary. Sore quads and triceps I understand, but complex joints in the wrist, that’s scary for me. And I certainly couldn’t make it through one of my typical workouts. That’s when I went in to visit my A-team.

We’re all different, so I certainly don’t proclaim that this wil work for you, but for illustrative purposes: My solution involved massage, dao needling, more massage, and a realignment by a skilled chiropractor. Oh yeah, and about a month of significantly reduced lifting in the gym. Then a few more weeks later, things got better and I now feel like I’m back to normal.

This is a long-winded lead-in to my punch line: That personal trainers are often afraid of admitting that they don’t know something.

I am totally empathetic to this conundrum of the fitness professional. After all, they are experts, and experts are supposed to have all the answers, right? Not always. Good experts know when to refer out and are confident doing so.

Relevant to this article, one big thing that I’ve learned over my 15 years as a fitness junkie, is that the personal training world rarely communicates with the greater wellness community. Few trainers have a group of trusted chiropractors, or soft tissue specialists, or acupuncturists, that they regularly confer with.

And this criticism works both ways. Not many folks in the soft tissue world understand what trainers are teaching and/or why. A little cross pollination could go a long ways. This was part of my hidden agenda behind creating the Fit Mornings series, which ran back in 2014 in the Denver area.

Bodies are complicated. Super, super complicated. The better fitness professionals are at communicating with their peers, the better for their clients. And the better clients are at understanding how their bodies feel and move, the better for everyone!

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