by Thomas Kurz
In this article I continue answering questions on strength preparation for sports and martial arts training in general and for intense work on flexibility in particular.
Question: Why do you advise doing such great numbers of repetitions for the abdominal exercises?
Answer: The muscles of the abdomen have a major role in stabilizing the spine. To control the amount of the spine’s movement or to stabilize the spine these muscles must be able to work without perceivable fatigue for a long time—for the duration of a workout, for example (Reid and McNair 2000).
Question: My 17-year-old son is in great physical shape and is on the high school soccer team. In school they are doing 200+ sit-ups for strength & conditioning. This past week in soccer he was only able to run about 10 minutes at a time because he had such severe abdominal pain. Do you think this is related to the sit-ups or is this another medical problem?
Answer: Sit-ups, if done at an excessive intensity (in relation to the person’s conditioning)—for example, at a pace too high or against too great a resistance, such as a too heavy weight plate held on one’s chest—can cause strains of abdominal muscles or abrasions of the fasciae covering adjacent abdominal muscles. If that is the case (and that is a big “if”), I think that the damage is not great because your son can run for 10 minutes. If it were bad he would feel serious pain much earlier. Your question should be directed to a qualified physician, not to me (I am just a p. e. teacher from Poland). A competent orthopaedic surgeon can determine in a minute whether the problem involves internal organs or just muscles and if so which muscle is strained or if the fascia are abraded. Similarly, a good applied kinesiology specialist can quickly give an accurate diagnosis.
Question: I am doing 5 sets of 10 Hindu squats per day 6 days a week. Now my maximum is somewhere over 24 reps nonstop. I didn’t max out. Now I have had some mild crackling in my knees from the Hindu squats. I have had mild soreness too, but not any joint pain at all. Am I doing okay, or do I need to change, or what?
Answer: I do not understand why anyone would want to do Hindu squats in several short sets. Stopping every 10 repetitions breaks the pace, is tiring, and wastes time. You stop at the time when you should be getting up to speed so you can cruise on at a comfortable pace. One hundred Hindu squats takes from 2 minutes 15 seconds if you hurry to under 2 minutes and 40 seconds if you don’t. (The time depends also on how tall you are—the taller the person the longer it takes.) Of course, you do not have to start with one hundred.
The reasons why it is better to do Hindu squats at a lively pace:
1. You can do more that way because you can better use the elasticity of your joints and muscles (Bober 1995). Moving without stopping so you can take advantage of the rebound can double your mechanical efficiency thanks to storage and return of energy by the elastic structures of your body so you can do more repetitions. The more you can do the better because it takes many repetitions to strengthen the knees. Ligaments are strengthened with “chronic activity . . . of an endurance nature” (Tipton et al. 1975) and so are the slow-twitch muscle fibers that do most of the muscular stabilization of the joints (see the previous article of this column). The surface layers of joint cartilage receive nutrition from synovial fluid (joint fluid), and intermittent compressing and decompressing of joint surfaces is necessary for providing nutrients and removing waste products from the cartilage cells (Feiring and Derscheid 1989; Hertling and Kessler 2005). Furthermore, the synovial fluid becomes less viscous and thus more slippery with increased speed of movements in the joint (Hertling and Kessler 2005).
2. You will develop neuromuscular coordination and endurance (both muscular and cardiovascular) useful for sports and martial arts. The pace of an exercise determines the result. Slow pace “increases” the resistance by eliminating the momentum of the body or of the weight and thus develops hypertrophy. Fast pace “reduces” the resistance because you are taking advantage of momentum. A fast pace also improves mobilization and synchronization of motor units (Pawluk 1985) and so develops the type of functional strength needed in martial arts and combat sports.
I suspect that your soreness is caused by doing squats too slow, forcing your muscles to work harder than if you moved fast. Because you are in terribly poor shape, the slow squats make you tense your thighs enough to damage your fast-twitch muscle fibers—hence your muscle soreness. The cracking sounds may be caused by poor muscular control of the knee joints due to fatigue of the fast-twitch muscle fibers and poor development of the slow-twitch fibers, or perhaps moving slow is not good for your knees’ cartilage. If Hindu squats are done right they relieve and prevent knee problems. After squatting with heavy weights, on the same day and a day after I used to have somewhat achy and creaky knees. Now I do a couple of hundred Hindu squats after lifting weights and my knees make no noises and feel fresh.
Question: I was interested in learning more about Hindu squats, which I read about in your recent article. I went to Matt Furey’s Web site and read up on them. His advice is to do these daily. I am not sure what is best, follow this advice, or to do them as I would other strength exercises (2–3 per week, skipping 1–2 days). If the daily routine is ok, my thought was to do them in the mornings after dynamic stretching. Also, should I do just one long set, or several sets?
Answer: Experiment and you will find what schedule suits you. My inclination is to do the least amount of work that delivers the result. I do such exercises at the end of my strength workout for reasons explained in the Science of Sports Training. Regarding the choice between one long set or several sets—being as lazy as I am and not liking long workouts I prefer one long set because it works for me.
Question: When one does dynamic strength exercises for the groin and hamstrings in preparation for isometric stretches, is it better (or necessary) to do the exercises using the full range of motion? For example, regular hamstring curls use a very limited range of motion, whereas stiff-legged deadlifts work the muscle in a stretched position.
Answer: Generally, yes, it is better to do the strength exercises in the full range of motion. You may consider doing heavy deadlifts after all your isometric stretches for hips. Isometric stretches leading to the side split and the front split involve strong tensions of your psoas muscles, which attach to the front of the lumbar spine. Back erectors are fatigued by doing stabilizing work during heavy deadlifts, back extensions, or “good mornings,” and so may spasm during isometric stretches for the splits.
Question: You don’t like hanging back stretches because of possible ligament stretching, but you recommend stiff-leg deadlifts. So, do you recommend only bending over to a certain extent when deadlifting, i.e., the weight lowered only to knee or mid calf?
Answer: When done correctly, the deadlift does not stretch lower back ligaments nor even the lower back muscles—even if done standing on an elevated platform so the bar goes down to a fraction of an inch above your feet. Information on how to do a deadlift is in the article “Advanced Strength Exercises for Lower Back—Your Best Insurance against Back Pain.”
Question: I have previously done strength training sets like this: 25 press-ups, 25 sit-ups, 25 squats, and then I repeat for, say, 4 sets. The idea being that while one muscle group rests a different muscle group is working. I got this idea from a book by a personal trainer.
In your prescribed method as I understand it you have to complete exercises in this order: hips, legs, abdominal, and back, so if I have this right I would have to do all my sets of hip exercises before sets of leg exercises, abdominal sets, and back sets. So between each set do I have to just wait around or can I do some other worthwhile exercise with this dead time as I need to be time-efficient with my short training time.
Answer: What you are describing is a form of circuit training, which is fine for low to moderate loads. (By training load I mean the combination of resistance and number of repetitions. Low to moderate loads result from combinations of low resistance and moderate-to-high number of repetitions or of moderate resistance and low-to-moderate number of repetitions.) The lower the loads the less important is the order of exercises. If no exercise fatigues any body part to such a degree as to impair the performance of any other body part then you can do your exercises in any order. Think principle: Do not impair the muscles that will be the stabilizers in your next exercise.
Regarding my method of strength training, the recommended order of exercises is to be applied when heavy loads are used (either heavy resistance with moderate number of repetitions or moderate resistance and a high number of repetitions). In the case of lifting heavy weights, you have to rest after each set of any exercise for at least as long as the duration of the set and usually longer. This is necessary for regaining the ability to mentally concentrate during the exercise and for restoring the energy sources needed for intense efforts. For the best part of such rest you cannot safely do another intense exercise, so you can as well wait and, when rested enough, do another set of the same exercise. Then after being done with it proceed to another exercise. Obviously, you can alternate the exercises after resting enough but if the alternating exercises are of high intensity, the rest periods are going to be considerable anyway and you will have to mentally refocus for each exercise (different control points and imagery), which also takes time. In the case of low to moderate loads done to exhaustion you either do only one long set or the sets are separated by relatively short breaks—for example, 100 pushups, a 30-second break and another 100 pushups.
Question: How many times a week should I do strength exercises before I perform the isometric stretches shown in your book Stretching Scientifically?
Answer: The most accurate answer is: As many times as it takes to get strong enough for the isometric stretches.
Strength training is not treated in depth in Stretching Scientifically because it is a guide to flexibility training for athletes—people already familiar with strength training. This book is for athletes who want to update their knowledge of flexibility training and maximize its effectiveness. For extensive strength training information, see either chapter 6, “Strength” of the book Science of Sports Training or the book Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports. All an athlete needs to know about strength training as it relates to isometric stretches is on pages 49–53 of Stretching Scientifically.
A simple rule for those new to strength training: Typically, strength exercises for a given muscle group are done two or three times per week. How often you should do strength exercises depends on your reaction to them. If your muscles are sore the next day after every strength workout, even if you make some progress, it means that you exercise too often or too much. If you do not get muscle soreness but make poor progress, it may mean that you should exercise more often or you should increase the resistance or number of repetitions.
Question: I am 14. What if my legs are sore the day after a strength workout?
Answer: Soreness the day after will mean that you have not prepared gradually for the resistance and the number of repetitions. Such soreness is caused by using too great a resistance or doing too many repetitions for the given resistance, and it lasts from a couple to a few days. Repeating the same exercises, at the same intensity, after your muscles are back to normal, is not likely to cause soreness again. If it happens repeatedly, with similar loads, then you need to reduce the loads and follow the advice on page 51 of Stretching Scientifically.
Children 13 to 14 years old should refrain from lifting more than 50% of their body weight. (This limitation is the reason I advise young people, whose skeletons have not matured yet, to refrain from isometric stretches, in which one can generate more tension than when lifting 50% of one’s body weight.) More detailed information on the appropriate number of repetitions, sets, and frequency of workouts depending on age is in the book Children and Sports Training.
Question: You recommend using dynamic strength exercises until the muscles are ready for isometric stretches. I do two sets of 30 repetitions for each muscle group (groin and hamstrings, using exercises shown on the video Secrets of Stretching) three times every two weeks. Is this often enough? I get sore if I do the exercises any more frequently than that. Which is better: A hard groin and hamstring workout once a week, or a lighter workout twice a week?
Answer: Slow but steady is better.
Question: I have been practicing TaeKwonDo for 2 years now, but took about six months off due to a groin injury. While I seemed to have been making progress before then, I have no progress since, and it’s been a year. For the record, I am very inflexible at this time, scarcely able to bring my legs past 90 degrees apart. When I stretch out for class, I find that for the next two days I am sore and stiff in those muscles. From your book Stretching Scientifically, I read that this is a sign that those muscles are too weak. This is the case where long sets of high reps to the point of burn are used, correct?
Answer: Perhaps your muscles are too weak, or perhaps you do too much. Long sets of movements throughout a full range of motion will help if the muscles are too weak, but not if you already do too much.
This article is based on the books Science of Sports Training, Children and Sports Training, and the video Secrets of Stretching. Get the books and the video now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs! Order now!
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Drabik, J. 1996. Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Health, Fit, and Happy. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
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Kurz, T. 2004. Secrets of Stretching: Exercises for the Lower Body. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
Kurz, T. 2003. Stretching Scientifically: A Guide to Flexibility Training. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
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