The training technique that can transform your fitness
It’s unusual to be asked to begin a first personal training session by lying down on a treatment table. It’s even more unexpected to find myself spending the whole of the first hour there, and a majority of the following three sessions as well. The clue to the reason for the unexpected delay in doing any actual exercise with Craig, is in his title as a Corrective Personal Trainer.
“Before we begin exercise of any kind, I need to make a full biomechanical assessment of your body,” Craig explains, “in order to discover which muscles aren’t working properly. Only by assessing and correcting those can I be sure you’ll be able to do the right exercises in the right way to build up your strength and fitness.”
Improving my strength, particularly in my legs, and cardio fitness had been my brief to Craig at our first meeting. Struggling with aching joints, especially in my hips and ankles, and the realisation that, after my husband’s death from a sudden heart attack, I had become nervous about pushing my heart rate up to a level where I was out of breath, made me realise that I needed help to get my fitness and my mental approach to it, back on track.
Craig uses an approach called Muscle Activation Technique which tests the ability of individual muscles to contract, by pushing against them and assessing the strength with which the muscle resists the force. For example, he asked me to bend my leg with my foot on the table, then to lift my toes up and resist him pushing the foot inwards. When he finds a muscle that isn’t doing its job fully (there were a LOT of them to begin with, hence the amount of time I spent on the treatment table), he gets you to do six lots of six second isometric contractions (that’s pushing the muscle to contract) at about 10% of its maximum capacity.
“What this is doing,” says Craig “is getting the communication between the brain - the nervous system - and the muscle working properly where it hasn’t been. When you can’t produce efficient muscle contraction, the muscles can’t do their job of stabilising joints leaving them vulnerable and prone to injury. Identifying the specific muscles that are weak and firing them up with these very precise, and small, contractions, restores the communication needed to make them work efficiently and effectively.”
I wouldn’t say I was sceptical about how this would all work, a) because Craig had been recommended to me by a friend who sang his praises, and b) because I’m always open to trying new things (provided they don’t seem too la-la). But I was surprised and impressed by how quickly his technique made a noticeable difference to the way my muscles felt and worked. (I had to do the oi-pay-attention stretches each day in-between my sessions.) Of course, getting them fired up was only the first step in getting them stronger and me fitter. (More about all of that in future posts).
There was, though, one other muscle activation exercise that Craig got me doing, that was probably more transformative than anything else.
How often when you’re doing exercise are you told to ‘engage your core muscles’? And how often do you interpret that to mean ‘suck your belly button in a bit’? You and me both.
I’m positively ashamed to admit that even having done pilates for five years, and having heard that instruction, oh I don’t know, hundreds of times, what I thought I was doing when I thought I was engaging my core muscles was actually pretty much the equivalent of walking a bit faster when you’re told to run flat out.
Turns out that your pelvic floor muscles are a key component of your core muscles (who knew) and that if you don’t fully engage those as well as really, really pulling in your lower abdominals, you’ll never get your core to work properly (Craig described it as having a basket with no bottom to it) and that puts all kinds of pressure on other parts of your body, especially your back, which have to work harder to compensate.
The exercise that Craig got me to do was deceptively simple. I lay on the floor and he put a pad under my lower back. Attached to the pad was a small pump and a gauge. He inflated the pad so it was pressing gently against my back, then told me to engage my core and watch the dial on the gauge. Only when when my lower abdominals and pelvic floor were properly engaged would the dial reach the level it should. So far so straightforward. But then, he got me to lift my legs in the air, one at a time, ten times on each leg, whilst - and here’s the kicker. Literally - making sure the dial stayed in the same place or went higher. Which, of course, it would only do if I kept my muscles FULLY engaged.
I want you to know, if your core muscles are as unused to being bothered as mine turned out to be, this is a LOT harder than it looks! But you should also know, that doing this each week has literally transformed the way I engage and use my core muscles. Now the highlight of every session is doing this (not just because I get to lie down) and seeing how much I’m increasing and maintaining the pressure on the pad as I get stronger. Oh, and it also turns out (duh) this is a great way to help to tone that stubbornly flabby bit around your middle.
You can find out more about Muscle Activation Technique and search for a practitioner in your area here
And for more info on Craig click here
I’d love to hear about any exercise that you do, or have done, that you’ve found really helps your muscle strength.