For the past few years I have not allowed myself to lift heavy weights. Doing yoga and pilates and a lot of isometric stretching has shown me that lifting weights that are too heavy causes muscle strain and cramping all over the body. I used to lift heavy weights every day and it took a huge toll on my muscles. In fact, I used to wake up every morning in disturbing amounts of pain. My chest, my shoulders, my neck and my back felt like they were “locked up” and the pain was often “crushing.” I felt like I was in a straight jacket and I knew that it was not natural to feel this way. It got so bad, and the flexibility of my upper body became so poor that I knew I had to change something soon. Upon waking I would try different stretches and this helped, but to reverse the cramping I had to stop my unhealthy lifting routine.
I would lift weights that were too heavy for me, and I would breathe very shallowly. Lifting heavy weights causes the muscles that you are using to grow in size in the short term, there is no question about that. But it can actually be bad for those same muscles in the long term. Several masseuses have pointed out to me that I have silver dollar sized patches of scar tissue along my pectoral muscles. I developed these from bench pressing too much weight. I actually have inflammation, muscular knots, and scar tissue all along my shoulder girdle. Excessive weight puts too much strain on the muscles responsible for the motion but it can be especially damaging to the muscles responsible for stabilizing the weight. Every exercise involves stabilizing muscles which contract isometrically, keeping parts of the body steady so that the primary muscles can do their job. These muscles are integral to posture; they literally hold you together. Excessive strain makes them painful, tense, reduces their oxygen supply and leaves them more susceptible to injury. In fact, I sprained my shoulder in a fall from a skateboard and I am sure that the muscles that I injured were the muscles that I had strained from lifting weights improperly. Because of the shoulder injury I had to stop lifting weights and my upper body muscle mass atrophied very quickly. However, the pain, the tension, the knots, and the scar tissue remained as if I had never stopped working out at all. What this tells us is that lifting heavy weights has benefits that are easily lost, but comes with costs that persist. The muscular bulk comes and goes very quickly. You can quickly lose all of the bulk but retain all of the strain. I felt that I had to get this tension out of my upper body, and so I developed an alternate way to lift weights.
When you lift heavy weights there are a lot of muscles that never rest in between reps. This is especially true of the weaker, stabilizing muscles (such as the muscles surrounding the scapula during bench press). As you do each repetition you want there to be moments where even the weakest links in your muscles can relax. You can sense the overused muscles because they will usually feel sore and tender as you are doing the rep with low weight. You will feel a pinch. Now I go to the gym, sit on practically every machine on the floor, and use the lowest weight setting to do between 20 and 80 repetitions trying to achieve, and work through, that subtle pinch. For example, there are muscles around the periphery of the scapula that are very tense. During a deep tissue massage these will be very painful. You want to make it so that during each repetition there are moments where these painful muscles both rest and flex. When you work out with very heavy weights, only the strongest muscles are given a chance to rest between reps, the weakest muscles are forced to stay tense the entire time. This overuse is what forces them into a low metabolic state that is painful, causes them to get weaker, and inevitably destroys our posture.
There are even muscles that don’t even rest in between sets. These are the stiffest, most painful and most susceptible to injury. These muscles generally stay tight even when we sleep. If we can get these to relax, then we can exercise them and strengthen them, but lifting heavy weights will only keep them atrophic. The best way to get them to relax and become stronger is to use the machines at your gym at a very low setting in an attempt to stretch and flex in to them. Pinpointing them with low weights will get them to open up. Bulldozing them with heavy weights will force them to close down further. My goal is to slowly build up to lifting heavier weights, and since I started my routine I have been able to increase the weight a little every month.
Most everyone lifts weights from a compromised position. When you lift weights that are too heavy, you brace and lock up your entire spine. Most people perform, not only their bench press, but all of their exercises with their spine and shoulder girdle in the same invariant position each time. This is crippling, and leads to weakness rather than strength. If you reduce the amount of weight you can lift without bracing yourself. Now you can alter and vary your posture with each rep, changing the distribution of weight loading, and stimulating growth in areas that are usually stiff. I used this method to reach the weakest points throughout my neck, shoulders and spine. Notice where these weak points are, and try to engage them. Exercise them until you can “feel the burn” lightly.
I spent 6 months lifting very light weights and have slowly moved up to moderate weights. I try to do it athletically, with perfect posture and perfect breathing. While going through the repetitions I stretch constantly, pushing and pulling, twisting and bending. I flex kyphotically and lordotically throughout my spine while lifting. I do a few reps with my neck flexed to each side, then again with my chin to my chest, with my neck retracted, with my neck flexed backwards. In a way it is like yoga for your upper body. It is also an intense, high energy workout, for the little muscles. In another blog entry I try my best to describe the feeling of high muscle tension and how to flex into these particularly sore muscles. You can read more about that here.
I used to always tilt my neck a little bit to the left so that I could come across to others as nonoffensive. This lead to a soft tissue injury that I could only exercise while doing pull-downs in the gym. I would position my neck at that angle and perform the pull down slowly and easily. It took weeks to work through it. There are many orientations of skeletal muscles that reveal these types of weakness, we must work through them.
When you build muscle from lifting heavy loads your create tension in your muscles. Whether your chest and arms grow from bench press or your glutes and legs grow from squats, you are also introducing strain into these muscles as well. This strain makes the muscles painful and unhealthy. It also makes it so that the muscle can quickly and easily atrophy back to its original state. You want your muscles to be large but you don’t want them to be hard and tight because hard and tight muscles atrophy quickly once you stop lifting. Compression, massage, deep breathing, and light weight lifting complement your workout routine, removing the excess strain and making your gains less temporary and more permanent.