Jen Sinkler, fitness editor, asks the experts if resistance training causes inflexibility, if drinking will derail workout efforts, if chiropractic care can improve fitness and how to exercise with adrenal fatigue.
Q1: If I begin lifting weights, will I become less flexible?
A. Short answer? Nope. “As long as you’re moving your joints and muscles in their full ranges of motion when you lift weights, you’ll maintain your current level of flexibility,” says James Whitehead, EdD, associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of North Dakota.
Take squats, for example: If you squat deeply, you’ll stay flexible in your quads and hips. If you do shallow, partial reps, on the other hand, you may eventually inhibit flexibility simply because you aren’t moving your body in the way it’s capable of moving.
Whitehead’s research indicates that you can actually improve your flexibility through weight training. Simply perform the exercises in such a way that a passive stretch occurs at the end range of motion. For example, pause at the bottom of a lunge position to improve hip extension on the leg that’s back, or grip the barbell in a way that stretches your forearms and shoulders when doing a behind-the-neck overhead press. The only caveat is that you might need to lighten your load, because you’re taking the stretch-shortening “bounce” effect out of the equation when you add a pause. “Conceptually, this idea is similar to proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF stretching,” says Whitehead, “which is generally acknowledged to be the most effective type of stretching.”
For more on the PNF method, go to ELmag.com/smartstretch.
Q2: Will drinking even a little alcohol derail my efforts in the gym?
A. The answer is a bit hazy, and that’s not the booze talking. “Based on the available research, the body’s response to alcohol ingestion is definitely dose-dependent,” says Layne Norton, nutritional sciences PhD, natural professional bodybuilder and founder of BioLayne.com. “While higher levels of alcohol intake (three to four drinks for an average-size male) can reduce insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance — both of which negatively affect fat loss — a small amount (about one drink) can even enhance insulin sensitivity.” This may explain, at least in part, why epidemiological studies have demonstrated that women who regularly drink small amounts of alcohol are leaner than those who do not drink at all, despite a higher caloric intake.
Before you fill ’er up, however, keep in mind this is just a correlation, not necessarily causation. It’s much clearer that consuming large amounts of alcohol inhibits fat burning and is highly associated with obesity and insulin resistance.
“Furthermore, consuming alcohol in large amounts before exercise reduces strength and endurance, while consuming a large amount after exercise impedes recovery and power output in subsequent exercise sessions,” Norton says. “Acute and chronic alcohol ingestion in large amounts also significantly drops testosterone levels, which may negatively impact body composition long-term. Finally, consuming the equivalent of roughly three to four drinks in a sitting may reduce the rate of muscle protein synthesis by up to 50 percent, and may also impede the anabolic response to high-protein meals as well.” Bottom line: Drinking enough to catch a buzz will likely cause a negative impact on your fitness regimen, but a glass here and there shouldn’t hurt.
Q3: Can chiropractic treatments help improve my fitness level?
A. There is reason to believe it can. Chiropractic care was founded on the premise that a properly functioning nervous system is essential to the overall health and function of the body. “Chiropractic adjustments improve spinal biomechanics, range of motion and posture, all of which are essential to a properly functioning nervous system,” says Christopher Erickson, DC, chiropractor at the Life Clinic in Eagan, Minn. “Without optimal function of the nerves exiting the spine, you’re more susceptible to injury and your body has to work harder to respond to your fitness routine.” So basically, a healthy, responsive nervous system means a body more readily able to adapt to the demands placed upon it during exercise.
There’s also the structural piece to consider. “Fitness endeavors can often jar and misalign the spinal column. Impact to the legs, feet, head, shoulders and torso often transfers stress back toward the spine,” says Erickson. “Misalignment of the spine creates nerve interference, which in turn affects organs and tissues throughout the entire body, leading to discomfort, disease, disharmony, weakness and imbalance. When you remove the interference with adjustments, the body can heal itself and perform optimally.”
Research demonstrates an association between chiropractic care and decreased back and neck pain, and less pain means you’re able to be more active, perform better and move more efficiently. Plenty of pro sports teams employ full-time chiropractors to work on athletes, presumably for this reason.
Fitness Fix: Exercising With Adrenal Fatigue
Working out can help you overcome chronic weariness, but only if you balance intense effort with strategic recovery.
Your adrenal glands, a pair of small triangular glands perched atop each kidney, excrete the stress hormone cortisol whenever you need it (say, when you’re racing through an airport terminal to catch a plane and need to put on a burst of speed). The problem is, when you’re chronically stressed out, the adrenals tend to overdo it — at least until they can’t anymore; then they switch to underproducing the stuff that keeps us on our toes. This condition, called adrenal fatigue, is marked by extreme, chronic weariness and can have profound effects on your overall health. So if you’re feeling perennially exhausted regardless of how much sleep you get, consider asking your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
“Adrenal fatigue is an issue where the sympathetic nervous system — our fight-or-flight mechanism — disrupts and suppresses the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our ‘rest and digest’ mechanism,” says Jade Teta, ND, naturopathic physician and coauthor of The Metabolic Effect Diet: Eat More, Work Out Less, and Actually Lose Weight While You Rest (William Morrow, 2011). “These two aspects of the nervous system function like a seesaw that must stay balanced for us to perform at our best and recover and adapt.”
Maintaining your fitness while working through adrenal fatigue isn’t easy, but exercise, which can retrain your adrenal glands to produce cortisol appropriately, can be an important part of the healing process. The key is to focus on short bursts of activity.
“Overly taxing, very-long-duration exercise will further disrupt and worsen your condition,” Teta says. “If you add periods of rest and recovery within short, high-intensity exercise, on the other hand, you can retrain both the sympathetic system [in the intense work phase] and the parasympathetic system [in the relaxation phase] to function properly.” Try this workout for starters:
Go Hard, Go Easy
1) Wearing a heart-rate monitor, do a one-minute bout of intense exercise near your maximum effort.
2) Rest. Walk slowly, breathe deeply and focus on calming yourself. As you do, watch your heart rate. The natural response when you transition from work to rest should be a brief elevation in heart rate before it falls (this indicates the strength of the sympathetic response). You should then see a rapid drop in heart rate — optimally 20 beats within 60 seconds. Continue to rest until you feel psychologically ready to exert yourself at full intensity once more.
3) Repeat the above and watch your heart-rate recovery each time. When your heart rate no longer drops 20 beats during the 60-second rest phase, end your workout.
“It doesn’t matter if it takes five minutes or 30 minutes — end your workout at that point,” says Teta. No workout should last over 40 minutes, Teta adds, and intense sessions like this should be balanced with days of rest and recovery. Leisure walks, tai chi, restorative yoga and sauna time are great ways to train the parasympathetic system by itself.