Treadmills and Ellipticals: What are the limitations?

It’s hot out now, but before you know it, it’s going to be winter again, and for most people that means moving their exercise routine indoors.  Treadmills and elliptical machines can be a practical way to maintain conditioning in colder months, but exercising on them is different from moving on solid, unmoving ground.

What are the drawbacks of treadmills?

  1. Strained shin muscles–The moving belt of a treadmill “grabs” your lead foot more quickly than if the surface was still and your leg muscles had to pull your body forward.  This motion mimics walking or running downhill more than running on a flat surface.  It puts strain on the front shin muscle, which has to work harder to decelerate the leg.  To compensate, strengthen the front of the shins by spending some time walking backward.
  2. Weakening glutes–Your glutes don’t have to work as hard to pull your leg back each stride on a treadmill.  You’re not doing your butt any favors this way.
  3. Tighter hip flexors and low back pain–The fact that you’re under-working your glutes means that you’re overworking your front hip flexors in turn.  This leads to an imbalance and a shortening of these hip flexors, which leads to an increased arch in the lower back, which leads to pain.  To compensate, you should do extra work to strengthen your glutes.  Lunges are the best way to do this.  When you do any treadmill exercise, also do at least five lunges on each side.  Another way to compensate is to do some bridges: lie on your back with your arms crossed or at your sides.  Put your feet on the ground, with your knees gently bent.  Use your glutes (squeeze!) to lift your hips and back off the ground.  Count to three as your hips come up, count to three while you hold the bridge, and count to three again as you lower your hips back down.  Do three sets of 8-15 reps, three times a week.
  4. Tighter achilles and calf muscles–The motion of the belt causes an increase in heel-strike and greater flexing in the foot.  This can cause shortening of the calf muscle.  Foam roll the calves to help them relax and stretch out.
  5. Injuries–Treadmills are one of the most common causes of injuries in fitness centers, and they are the number one cause of injury in the cardio equipment category.  According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 72,900 injuries associated with treadmills between 2012 and 2014.

What about ellipticals?

Using an elliptical does not allow your foot to move naturally.  The motion of an elliptical uses far fewer muscles than running does, especially the hip muscles.  These muscles are designed to work together, and when you exercise some of them without exercising all of them, you can develop your body in a way that makes you more prone to injury.  The arm movements of an elliptical aren’t natural either, and they can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain.  Ellipticals can also cause repetitive-motion injury or exacerbate certain existing conditions.  They are one-size-fits-all, so people with narrow hips may have to spread their legs farther apart, and people with broader hips may have to bring their feet closer together into an unnatural stance.

If you can, it’s best to exercise by doing things your body was built to do–like walking, lifting, pulling, pushing, and so forth.  If you must use mechanical exercise equipment, make sure you perform exercises to compensate for the imbalances they create: stretching and foam rolling are key, and lunges can help reduce the risks of treadmills.

TPI Test #7: The Lat Test

This is part of a series on the eight tests that a TPI-certified golf fitness professional will perform to evaluate your body’s readiness for golf.  This week, we’re going to talk about the Lat test.

The latissimus dorsi muscle group forms a large, roughly triangular slab starting from the top of your buttocks and extending up under your shoulder blades.  When we talk about exercising our “core”, most people think of abs, but the lats are equally important to think about where core strength is concerned.  Your lats aren’t just important to core stability, they’re also part of your arm strength, since they are connected to your humerus (upper arm bone.)

Here’s how to perform this test:

  • Put yourself in a “wall-sit” position, with your knees bent almost–but not quite–at a 90 degree angle.  Make sure you’re not on a slippery floor and you have good traction.
  • Hold your hands straight out in front of you, with your thumbs pointing up toward the ceiling and your elbows completely straight.
  • Start raising your arms up slowly.  Raise them until one of these four things happens: your elbows bend; your lower back starts to arch off the wall; you feel pain or discomfort; your arms touch the wall above your head.

If you have a trainer performing the test with you, they will measure the angle where you have to stop raising, and based on that measurement, they can determine the level of mobility in your lats.  For a less scientific way of measuring, have a friend look at you from the side.  If your arms don’t reach up high enough to block your nose from view, you have less than 120 degrees range of motion.  If your arms just cover your nose, then you have 120 degrees of motion.  If your hands pass your nose but don’t make it to the wall, you have somewhere between 120 and 169 degrees range of motion.  If you made it all the way to the wall, then you have at least 170 degrees range of motion, which is the PGA tour average.

Here are some good exercises to increase mobility in this test:

Floor Slides:

  • Lay on your back, with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor.
  • Reach your arms straight out from your body, then bend your elbows up at a 90 degree angle, like you’re doing a “field goal” pose.
  • Slide your arms up and down ten to twelve times, keeping your lower arms parallel to your torso.

Child’s pose:

  • Kneel on the floor.
  • Lean all the way forward and reach your arms out in front of you on the floor.
  • Lift your hips up and put your head down.
  • This is a yoga pose called “child’s pose.”  You should feel the stretch in your shoulders and your lower back.

Exercise Ball Reach:

  • Get on your knees with an exercise ball in front of you.
  • Reach forward on to the exercise ball with your right hand.
  • Roll the ball out as you reach with your hand, resting your arm on top and reaching across the ball to the left, so that your right hand is reaching on a diagonal to the left.
  • Repeat on the other side, with your left hand reaching across to the right.

These simple stretches can increase the mobility and flexibility of your lats, and therefore increase the power of your swing.

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Why I Exercise

In 20 years of being a fitness professional, I’ve learned that staying fit decreases your risk of injuries in any sports you do, both pro and rec. It will also help you do simple tasks such as laundry, carrying luggage, or gardening. In my opinion, eating well means eating local, organic foods and products, such as produce, toilet paper, toothpaste, cleaning products. You should drink half your pound body weight in ounces of chemical-free water. For example, if you weight 180 pounds, you should drink 90 ounces of water per day, which is much more than the common recommendation of 64 ounces a day. Eating right and exercising won’t get you that far unless you’re also getting 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep. Don’t use electronics in the bedroom, and don’t watch TV or work on your computer within an hour of bedtime.

How did I come by these lessons? Well, I don’t know if you know this, but when I was a young man, I was not in very good shape. I started exercising when I was 13, but for a long time I wasn’t getting the right kind of activity, and I definitely wasn’t getting the right kind of nutrition.

When I was young, I used to do a lot of machines, bench presses, overhead presses, and other conventional strength training with very little to no stretching. As I got older, that exercise history affected my movement pattern. I was having shoulder injuries, knee injuries, and back injuries. I realized that if I stopped doing pull-ups, the pain went away. I still have some limitations, but the pain went away. I now do much more functional and sports-based exercise, and I’ve been injury-free for years.

I eat clean and organic food, I sleep well, and I never get sick. Functional Fitness has vastly improved my quality of life, and it can improve yours too.
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