Exercises to Avoid: Leg Extensions

leg-extensions-badLeg extensions…. good burn, right? Crank up that weight, kick it out, easy to do with one leg or two. You get a chance to admire the separation on your thighs. Veins budging from that awesome pump…. and you knees getting rekt.

Let’s get this out of the way. If you’re doing light leg extensions as a warm up to get ready for squats or dead lifts or some other compound exercise, you are on the right track and will probably never have a problem. And by light I mean a weight you can do for 15 reps without much effort. Just enough to get the blood flowing and the synovial fluid moving around. If that’s what you’re doing, have at it!

But if you’re one of those people who likes to see how many 45s you can load on each side and still crank out reps, read on….

There is ample evidence showing leg extension, like leg curls, can cause some unfortunate problems. So let’s take a look, mmmmkay?

Damage to your Knees

During normal leg motions, the quads don’t act in isolation, they contract with and are balanced by the hamstrings. This bilateral tension stabilizes the knee, since force from both the the front (quads) and back (hamstrings) work together. This tension provides both medial and lateral support. The leg extension doesn’t engage the hamstrings, resulting in tension only from the front, which places an unnatural load on supporting tendons and can, over time, result in increased joint instability.

Leg extensions place the load at the shins, usually just above the feet. The location of resistance here, working against the fulcrum of a stationary knee, causes shearing forces on the knee. A sheering force is a force applied horizontally across the joint. While your body is built to handle compression stress (such as squats), it doesn’t do very well when it comes to shearing forces. Most serious injuries result from some form of horizontal force.

The leg extension is particularly hard on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) because of the above mentioned shearing force. The purpose of the ACL is to prevent your lower leg from sliding forward relative to your thigh. According to a study published in the Journal of Biomechanics, peak ACL tension was experienced during leg extension when compared to the squats and leg press.

A study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that increasing resistance while doing leg extensions increases strain on the ACL. Since the resistance is located away from the knee, the lower leg acts as a lever, resulting in your knee experiencing greater strain.

Another study, this on by the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery confirmed the squat and dead lift cause greater compression force and muscular activation, while the leg extension produces greater shear force and lower muscular activation.

Overdeveloped Quads 

The quadriceps and hamstrings work together to stabilize the knee. The quads reduce stress on the PCL while the hamstrings reduce stress on the ACL. Overdeveloped quads can result in an imbalance in strength with the hamstrings and can cause problems. If your quads are too strong compared to the hamstrings, the hamstrings will be at a disadvantage and the ACL will be at risk.

When  most people think of legs, they think of the front of the leg, the quadriceps. But it’s the hamstrings that are critical when it comes to sprinting and quickly changing direction. The hamstrings play a critical role in pulling the body forward, as well as absorbing momentum during deceleration. If the quads are overdeveloped compared to the hamstrings, there’s a greater risk of injury.

Summary

Leg extensions:

The leg extension, like many isolation exercises, is not a natural movement. Doing them puts unnatural stress on the knee and can result in muscle imbalance that increases the risk of injury. Use them to warm up, but stay away from using them as a muscle building exercise.

If you are looking to pack mass on your legs, consider squats, front squats, lunges, and leg press instead.

Bill Starr’s Big 3 5×5 For Size and Strength

image001This program, although very basic, is simple and appropriate for use by a novice up through advanced intermediate. Although Starr developed it specifically for football players, it’s a worthy program for anyone looking to put on size, get stronger, and become more explosive.

Make sure you don’t confuse “simple” with “easy”. Proper application of and adherence to this program can bring about impressive increases in strength and size.

Lifts are performed three days per week on non-consecutive days, such as a M/W/F. Each day you do five sets of five reps of each of Bill Starr’s Big Three exercises:

  1. Power Clean
  2. Bench Press
  3. Squat

Weight is increased for each set. Intensity is varied by day in the order of heavy, light, medium. Here’s the example schedule set for a M/W/F execution:

Monday, Heavy

Your top set should be as much as you can handle with good form

  • Power Clean 5 x 5
  • Bench Press 5 x 5
  • Squat 5 x 5

Wednesday, Light

Your top set should be around 80% of your day one top set.

  • Power Clean 5 x 5
  • Bench Press 5 x 5
  • Squat 5 x 5

Friday, Medium

Your top set should be around 90% of your day one top set

  • Power Clean 5 x 5
  • Bench Press 5 x 5
  • Squat 5 x 5

See? Pretty simple, right? But effective.

Increasing Weight

As a general rule, you want to increase weight anywhere from 5 – 15% between sets. If you aren’t yet moving much weight, it’s acceptable to repeat the first set weight once or even two times for sets two and three.

Say your top set on squats is 135. Rather than beginning with a lower and less challenging weight that really isn’t going to be beneficial, start instead with 115, then repeat that for the second and third sets before increasing. In this case your set/weight progression would look like:

  • 115 x 5
  • 115 x 5
  • 115 x 5
  • 125 x 5
  • 135 x 5

Alternately, if you are moving a larger amount of weight in your top set, you might start lower and increase in larger increments between sets. A good guideline is to never use more than 135 pounds for the first set for bench and squats, no matter how heavy your go for your final set.

As long as you hit your sets and reps, keep adding weight to the bar every week. Try to increase 5-10 pounds each week on squats and 2.5 – 5 pounds on bench press and power cleans. If you fail to accomplish 5 x 5 on your heavy day, drop all poundage by 10% and reset.

Rest no longer than 2 minutes between sets. Start with shorter rest periods on the beginning sets and increase the amount of rest as you increase weight. As an example:

  • set 1
    • 30 seconds
  • set 2
    • 60 seconds
  • set 3
    • 90 seconds
  • set 4
    • 120 seconds
  • Set 5

Changes for More Advanced Lifters

If you’re more advanced and your linear progression has stalled, even after a few rests, it might be time to change things up. Only consider that change after you have already been through a few resets using the basic 5 x 5.

Start with a new rep scheme of 5, 5, 5, 3, 3, 3, 6-10, replacing the last two heavy sets with 3 sets of 3 reps. This will allow heavier weight to be used in the top set. The 6-10 reps set is a back-off set that uses weight somewhere between the weight used for the third and fourth set. You want to use a weight that allows you to get least 6 reps, but no more than 10.

Here’s an example of squats done using this rep scheme:

  1. 135 x 5
  2. 165 x 5
  3. 195 x 5
  4. 225 x 3
  5. 255 x 3
  6. 285 x 3
  7. 210 x 6-10

You might reach the point where doing heavy weight for the exercises all on the same day is too taxing. At that point, instead of doing all heavy, all medium and all light on a single day, approach each exercise independently using the following scheme:

Monday

  • Power Clean – heavy
  • Bench Press – medium
  • Squat – light

Wednesday

  • Power Clean – light
  • Bench Press – heavy
  • Squat – medium

Friday

  • Power Clean – medium
  • Bench Press – light
  • Squat – heavy

The Big Three Basic 5 x 5

Here is a full week example of sets and reps using the basic 5 x 5:

Monday

  • Power Clean: 95 x 5, 115 x 5, 125 x 5, 135 x 5, 145 x 5
  • Bench Press: 135 x 5, 155 x 5, 175 x 5, 195 x 5, 205 x 5
  • Squat: 135 x 5, 165 x 5, 195 x 5, 225 x 5, 245 x 5

Wed

  • Power Clean: 85 x 5, 95 x 5, 105 x 5, 115 x 5, 125 x 5
  • Bench Press: 135 x 5, 145 x 5, 155 x 5, 165 x 5
  • Squats: 135 x 5, 150 x 5, 165 x 5, 180 x 5, 200 x 5

Friday

  • Power Clean: 95 x 5, 105 x 5, 115 x 5, 125 x 5, 135 x 5
  • Bench Press: 135 x 5, 155 x 5, 165 x 5, 175x 5, 185 x 5
  • Squats: 135 x 5, 165 x 5, 185 x 5, 205 x 5, 225 x 5

If you’re interested in learning more, check out Bill Starr’s book, The Strongest Shall Survive.

How to Thin Mucus

W0309a-1For the past week I’ve been laid-low by an awesome head cold, and by awesome I mean awful. The stuffy head wrapped in cotton feel and the giant ropes and plugs of mucus dripping down my throat only to be coughed and hacked up again. The only thing fun about it is how far I can spit a chunk of mucus after I manage to (finally) cough one up.

People were quick to offer advice.

Drink water! Hot tea! Hot tea with honey! Inhale steam! Have you ever tried a Neti Pot? Stay away from dairy!

I’ve tried all of the above and, honestly, things don’t seem to be mush different. I finally seem to be at the tail end of a cold that would have killed lesser folk and thought I’d take a stab at looking into the Science of Mucus Thinning.

First a bit about the whole mucus production factory we all carry around: our sinuses. The sinuses are cavities within the bones surrounding the nose, lined with a thin membrane that produces mucus. This mucus is normally carried along by hair cells and drains through small openings into the nasal cavity. During a cold, the mucus production of the sinuses can overwhelm this drainage system. As a result, the sinuses become blocked and before too long, you’ve got a stuffy head, along with the accompanying headache, facial pressure, and stuffed nose.

One of the problems here is that it’s easy to go from a simple head cold and stuffed nose to sinusitis, which is an infection of the sinuses. Just because sinus drainage is blocked doesn’t mean your mucus production slows down. It doesn’t, and the result is a bunch of backed-up mucus that provides a perfect place for bacteria to grow. This can cause an infection, which stimulates out immune system, which results in even more swelling and inflammation. If you get to this point, there’s a good chance you might need an antibiotic to clear things up.

So what can you do? Are there any action you can take to head off this uncomfortable cycle? The answer is simple but not easy: you need to keep the mucus flowing so it doesn’t clog everything up.

Irrigation (Neti Pot)

Nasal irrigation is flushing your sinuses with warm, salty water. it’s about as uncomfortable as it sounds. However, studies have indicated if you get started on nasal irrigation as soon as you feel that cold coming on, it can make a big difference in keeping overwhelming congestion at bay.

  1. Mix 1 teaspoon of salt into 2 cups of lukewarm water.
  2. Fill a small bulb syringe with the solution, or you can use a small pitcher called a Neti Pot. You can also buy a nasal irrigation kit with a squeeze bottle.
  3. Lean over your sink, insert the tip of the syringe just inside one nostril, and gently squeeze the bulb. The water will run back out the nostril (or possibly the opposite nostril) and into the sink. Use at least one full bulb of solution.Repeat the procedure in the other nostril.
  4. Do this 2x a day.

Yes, it’s about as gross as it sounds.

Water

Staying hydrated can help keep mucus thin and loose, letting it drain more easily. This is easy. Drink water. A lot. Drinking water is good for you anyway, so do it. Except for trips to the bathroom every 20 minutes, this is simple. Does it actually work? I haven’t decided yet…. hang on, I’ll be right back. I have to pee.

Humidifiers

If you live in a cold climate, chances are you use a heater. That and the fact that colder air carries less moisture means breathing in an of itself can have a drying effect, which can thicken the mucus. Obviously you can’t control the environment everywhere, but it might be worth your while to investigate using one in your bedroom.

Steam

Breathing steam can moisturize and loosen mucus. Take a nice hot shower and breath deep through your nose. No doubt you’ve seen the pour boiling water in a bowl towel method. Pour the water in a bowl, lean over it, and drap a towel over your head to concentrate the steam.

Don’t Overdo Nasal Spray

It’s easy, I know. A spritz or two of Afrin in the nose and viola! I can breath! But don’t overdo it. Used for more than just 2-3 days, and you can become dependent on nasal spray and experience rebound congestion. If you need it to sleep (and I have) use the minimum amount possible and in only one side. What happens here is that you can end up with increased swelling after the medication wears off, requiring another dose to keep you clear. You don’t want to get to that point.

The exception here is saline spray. You can by simple, unmedicated saline and use that to moisture you nasal passages. Like a quick-strike Neti Pot. Highly recommended, although be prepared to blow your nose after.

Don’t Overdo Decongestants

Decongestants typically contain pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine causes blood vessels and membranes to shrink, which can help keep nasal passages clear. Oral decongestants can also nervousness and increase blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, you should talk to your doctor before using them.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines don’t help with congestion. They help with the process that can cause congestion (allergies). Antihistamines actually make mucus thicker and harder to drain. But if your congestion is caused by allergies, your doctor may still want you to take an antihistamine along with other medications, especially during allergy season. Congestion due to a cold virus is not allergy related though, so taking an antihistamine for cold congestion isn’t going to help.

Dairy

I’ve been told consuming dairy, especially milk, increases mucus production. Despite and liberal application of my expert Google-Fu, I’ve been unable to confirm this. There seem to be an equal split between articles claiming dairy increases mucus production and articles claiming it doesn’t. I did find this, which sounds reasonable. That’s not to say it’s true, however…

After drinking whole milk or eating ice cream, some people mistake the residue in their mouth and throat for mucus. This is the normal creamy texture of milk fat which melts near body temperature and is not excess mucus. A study conducted by Pinnock and co-workers (1990) reported that there is no association between milk and dairy products intake and mucus production in healthy as well as rhinovirus infected individuals.

Food In General

Although there doesn’t seem to be evidence that specific foods increase mucus production wholesale, there is an association between food allergies and mucus, just like there’s an association between pollen allergies and mucus. If you consume foods that you are allergic to, you’ll experience increased mucus production. This could include foods that you might only be slightly allergic to, or foods that you don’t know you’re allergic to. Pay attention to how you feel after you consume dairy, wheat, soy, corn, potatoes, cabbage, bananas, sugar, preservatives, food additives, nuts, and excessive salt and meats. If you find yourself stuffed or hacking up phlegm, you might have a food allergy.

Alchohol

Alcohol causes vasodilation (dilation of you blood vessels). This can aggravate nasal congestion. It’s probably a good idea to lay off the sauce if you’re sick anyway. Also be wary of the sulfites in wine. Some people are sensitive to them, and drinking wine will quickly cause congestion.

Some natural Solutions

Cayenne pepper: Capsaicin, the active compound in cayenne peppers, may thin the mucus and stimulate the sinuses.

Onion: Cooking with fresh onions can help open and drain your sinuses. Onions also contain quercetin, a chemical compound with antihistamine properties that can aid in reducing inflammation and nasal congestion.

Ginger: Research from a 2008 study published in International Immunopharmacology suggests that ginger can modulate the immune response to inflammation associated with allergic asthma. Be careful though. Using ginger as a spice in cooking is harmless, but using it as a supplement could have unwanted side effects since ginger has been know to have interactions with with other drugs, such as blood thinners like coumadin and aspirin.

Garlic: Garlic’s contains the compounds allicin, S-Allyl cysteine, and ajoene, which can improve mucus flow and reduce congestion through their mucus thinning and anti-inflammatory properties.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats with anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce immune dysfunction and help alleviate allergy-related conditions.

Dietary Polyphenols: A 2010 study published in American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy has demonstrated that dietary polyphenols, such as gingerol, quercetin, and EGCG, can inhibit the secretion of mucus from respiratory epithelial cells while maintaining normal nasal ciliary motion.

Vitamin C: The antioxidant Vitamin C can help alleviate symptoms because it counteracts histamine, the substance contributes to inflammation, runny nose, sneezing, and other related symptoms.

Hypertrophy Specific Training – Basic Routine

sarcoplasmic-hypertrophy-vs-myofibrillar-hypertrophySarcoplasmic hypertrophy focuses more on increasing muscle glycogen storage capability (and thus the size of the muscle) where myofibrillar hypertrophy focuses more on increased myofibril (muscle fiber) size. Heavier weights (close to maximal loads) at a lower volume produce greater gains in myofibril size while more moderate weights at higher reps promote sarcoplasmic gains.

Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) is a training methodology with the primary focus on increasing the size of the muscle through sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

When looking into the science behind muscle growth, it becomes clear that bro-science and bro-training traditions like “body part splits” and “blasting” muscles are not based on any kind of science. This doesn’t mean they don’t work, but if you’re trying to come up with a training program based on the science vs. “bodybuilding tradition,” your approach will probably be different.

When looking at the research, a very interesting picture forms of how muscle fibers translate mechanical strain into the signals that:

A) allow them to grow and, as a consequence
B) make them more resistant to said strain

The size of a muscle fiber is linked to the number of nuclei it contains. In order to make muscles grow over the long term, you must strain the component muscle fibers in such a way that you get nearby satellite cells to differentiate and donate their nuclei to those muscle fibers. The frequency of stimulus seems to make a very large difference on the magnitude of growth. What this means is exposing a muscle more frequently to weights seems to be very effective when it comes to making them grow.

There is research which compare 9 sets of a given exercise done once a week to 3 sets performed 3 times a week with otherwise identical parameters. This compares one big stimulus a week to a smaller stimulus performed more frequently, yet with the same total weekly volume. In these studies, the three times a week routine consistently outperforms the once a week routine in terms of muscle growth.

The basis of HST is that given the option of performing X amount of workload in a given week (weight X sets X reps), you’re better off spreading that workload over 2-3 sessions than lumping it into one big “blasting” session. There are some other parameters concerning “strategic de-conditioning”, which is de-loading in the sense of trying to re-sensitize muscle tissue to the growth stimulus.

A good, basic HST set-up might be done 3x a week and look like:

  • Squat
  • A vertical push exercise (overhead press of some type)
  • A vertical pull exercise (like chin-ups, pull-ups or pull-downs)
  • A horizontal push (bench press or variant)
  • A horizontal pull (seat row, bent over row, or some sort of rowing variant)
  • Any extra isolation work you to add in for lagging body parts (curls for biceps, calf work, flyes for chest, laterals for shoulders, etc….)

For reps, consider the following schedule:

  • Weeks 1-2: 15 reps per exercise
  • Weeks 3-4: 10 reps per exercise
  • Weeks 5-6: 5 reps per exercise
  • Week 7: 1 week off for novice to intermediate
  • Week 8: off for advanced
  • Restart cycle

Effort should be close to maximal in order to complete the prescribed number of reps.

When it comes to volume:

  • 2 sets of each exercise during the 15s
  • 3 sets of each exercise during the 10s
  • 3 sets of each exercise during the 5s

A lower volume version would be 1 set during the 15s, 2 sets during the 10s, 3 sets during the 5s.

The time off is an important part of HST training theory is predicated on time off between cycles, so make sure you have at a minimum 1 week of time totally off doing resistance training between cycles.

If you’ve been lifting for longer, I’d recommend 2 full weeks off from heavy weights between cycles.

Amino Acids, Dietary Protein, Physical Activity and Muscle Mass

protein shake

protein shakeThis scientific review article reviews over 150 original research papers about dietary protein, absorption, protein recommendations, how it changes with age, meal protein composition, and more. It’s pretty jargon heavy and rather long, however, if you have an interested in health and fitness, and building muscle in particular, I recommend reading it.

Here’s a bullet-point summary:

  • Excessive protein intake is hard on the kidneys, so over time eating way more than what is needed isn’t the best idea.
  • Endurance athletes and weight lifters (bodybuilders and power lifters) have more protein requirements and the ability to absorb more.
    • Most people, even those who lift regularly, are not bodybuilders, power lifters, or endurance athletes.
  • There is a positive relationship between dietary protein intake and changes in lean body mass (LBM)
    • A daily protein intake of 1.0 g/kg body weight (BW) was established as sufficient for “active” people
    • In sedentary men and women (both young and elderly) a daily protein intake of 0.85 g/kg BW was found to be adequate
  • Those people participating in resistance training may need a higher protein intake than sedentary people, which has become “common” knowledge in the fitness world.
    • If you take time off, it is recommended to stay at 1g/kg BW.
    • A study showed that no muscle was lost or no loss in protein absorption after 7 days of bed rest.
    • Even increased protein intake did NOT prevent muscle loss or decline in whole body protein absorption during 14 days of bed rest.
    • At this time frame (or greater) it didn’t matter if you ate .8g/kg BW or 1g/kg BW.
    • This gives evidence that the body adapts during periods of activity vs inactivity.
  • MPS = muscle protein synthesis
    • MPS rate levels off with increasing doses of protein in a single serving
    • This levels off at around 20g.
    • Supporting evidence shows that diets containing 1.5 or 3.0g protein/kg LBM/day in both young and elderly had NO difference in MPS.
    • Evidence that higher protein diets (beyond the dietary needs of your body) do NOT enhance MPS.
  • The main way of looking at protein absorption is analyzing plasma amino acid (AA) concentration.
    • When consuming a protein rich meal, the protein will eventually be digested and absorbed as AA.
    • When muscles need repairing, this starts a complex cellular cascade to repair the torn and damaged muscle tissue that results from resistance training.
    • When the plasma is enriched with AA it will stimulate myofibril MPS (important component of muscle fiber), but this only lasts for up to one (1) hour even if there is a high concentration of plasma AA for 4-6 hrs.
    • This means that saturating you system with protein or AA will not continuously stimulate this myofibril MPS (new muscle fibers).
  • Some proteins are better at enriching plasma with AA than others – this is why whey protein is so popular.
    • 25 grams of whey is all that is need to increase myofibrillar Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) to roughly 180 min.
      • Another study showed that the plateau was reached at 20g of protein.
      • The study fed people 10g, 20g, 30, and 90g of beef protein in young men and women and looked at plasma AA and muscle biopsies to see MPS.
    • Note that 25g is the threshold and consuming more is irrelevant and has no benefits.
    • Some research has shown that high doses of protein can have the opposite effect.
    • This is a phenomenon and is hypothesized in the paper as a result of inhibitory signaling involving the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress.
      • The ER is a place in the cell where AA are put together making proteins.
      • When this protein synthesis system is flooded, it shuts down preventing new protein to be made.
  • There is a lot of research looking at the best way to prolong new muscle synthesis (myofibril MPS).
    • One paper cited states that continues feeding of AA to the muscle for 8 hours is the best way.
    • Since previous data shows that over-flooding is bad, the logical deduction here is that eating smaller quantities of protein over the day is best.
  • Evidence also suggests that diets higher in Essential Amino Acid (EAA) or amino acids that our bodies can’t make are better at triggering the synthesis of new muscle fiber.
    • Leucine is an important Essential Amino Acid (EAA) for muscle and is found in meat and plants.
    • Eating a meal high in Essential Amino Acids (EAA) after weight training is the best
  • Whole whey vs (chocolate) milk.
    • Whey initiates Muscle Protein Synthesis faster
    • While casein (a protein component in milk) has less of an effect, Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) lasts longer but is not as robust.
    • Fat content was found to effect casein absorbance and effectiveness: less fat the better.

This article goes into the effects of aging quite a bit, mainly looking people 50+ yrs. Summary here is that the elderly need less protein — their bodies can’t absorb it. High protein diets are worse for the elderly as they are more strenuous on the kidneys.