Body Conditioning: Training for Strength and Endurance

Body Conditioning: Training for Strength and Endurance

    Body Conditioning: Training for Strength and Endurance

    Training for strength and endurance results in significant beneficial changes in the body. The number of muscle fibers increases, as does the proportion of fast-twitch muscles. The net result is an increase in the force and power muscles can exert, as well an extension of the range and type of physical work that can be done. The presence of more muscle fibers increases the lean body mass and with it the basal metabolic rate. Strengthening the postural muscles provides more support to the skeletal frame and helps improve posture and body shape. Strengthening the muscles used in movement improves physical performance generally. Strength training helps individuals whose muscles have atrophied after long illnesses to regain the ability and confidence to move and work. Conditioned muscles look better, perform better, and endure better.
    The objectives of training for strength and endurance can go beyond muscle tone. Body builders, for example, train intensively using high external resistance (weights, etc.) to increase muscle bulk. Sprinters and discus and javelin throwers also train for strength. Each of these pursuits benefits from its own particular training regime. This chapter, however, will focus on muscle tone rather than such specialist training regimes.

    Basic Principles of Muscle Contraction

    • Muscles work through contraction in one of three ways
    • concentrically—the muscle shortens, bringing the two ends closer together
    • eccentrically—the muscle lengthens under tension to its normal length
    • isometrically or statically—the length of the muscle remains unchanged under tension as the muscle holds a position
    In sit-ups or abdominal crunches, for example, the rectus abdominus, which originates from the pubic bone and inserts into the ribs, contracts concentrically, lifting the trunk upward. When the trunk returns to its normal position, the rectus abdominus contracts eccentrically because it is returning to its normal length under tension (see figure on page 88). In squats, the quadriceps contract eccentrically when going down and concentrically when going up. In push-ups, the downward phase involves the eccentric contraction of the pectorals, while the upward phase involves a concentric contraction. In brief, concentric contractions occur when the direction of movement is opposite from the pull of gravity; eccentric contractions occur in the direction of gravity.
    Concentric and eccentric contractions come under the heading of isotonic training, which aims to allow the muscle to develop tension in opposing movement. In practice, the tension varies depending on the angle of the lever at the joint and the speed of the contraction or movement. In eccentric contraction, the downward phase of the movement, the muscle has to work with gravity and must act as a brake to stop the limb or the body part being moved from falling suddenly. This creates greater resistance for the muscle at work. If the eccentric phase is lengthened by slowing the downward motion, the muscle is put to greater effort and tension. In a progressive training program, therefore, the ratio of concentric and eccentric contractions is varied and their duration of implementation lengthened to provide the overload needed to improve strength.
    Static contractions, that is, those allowing the muscle to develop tension without varying the length of the muscle, are used in isometric training regimes. Although loosely referred to as static contractions, the prime mover muscle does shorten internally, but because it is offset by a contraction of the antagonist (opposing) muscle, the muscle length appears unchanged. In most cases, these contractions are generally effected by holding a position.
    Isometric training is useful when there is insufficient space for sweeping movements. More importantly, it is useful for developing strength at specific spots (in the muscle around the joint where it is targeted) for specific activities that require a position to be sustained for a long time. This would include activities such as downhill skiing, gymnastics, t’ai chi, and yoga. Since it involves less motion, isometric training avoids sudden changes in the angle of execution, reducing the incidence and possibilities of injuries to the joints.
    (a) Concentric contraction
    (b) Eccentric contraction
    (c) Isometric contraction
    In concentric contraction the muscles shorten; in eccentric they return to normal length under tension; and in static contraction, they remain tense to hold an unchanging position.

    Types of Muscle Contractions

    For individuals with problems in their joints, such as the knee, static contractions of muscles, in this instance the quadriceps, offer a good introduction to exercise. These advantages bring with them some disadvantages. These advantages bring with them some disadvantages. The impact of isometric training is limited to specific target areas. Because isometric contractions do not involve much movement, there is no improvement in motor skills and coordination. Finally, static contractions result in reduced blood flow to the heart during such exertion and higher systolic and diastolic pressures than other strength-training methods. Because of its benefits, isometric exercise has a role to play and remains widely used in the fitness industry, especially with the rise of holistic regimes, and for exercising after injuries. It is important, however, to use isometric training in moderation and in conjunction with isotonic training.
    Muscle Contractions in Sit-ups
    Modern technology has focused on these two broad categories of muscle training with the development of equipment that changes the position of the exercise and the speed of contraction and offers different forms of weight to provide added resistance. Faced by a bewildering choice, how should one choose?
    Moderation, consistency, and a commitment to the five goals of fitness should, again, serve as the guiding principles. It is important to master the correct techniques and positions for isotonic and isometric contractions using the body as the main resistance before moving on to the use of weights and equipment. If the body is held correctly, it offers an ideal medium, at least initially, for providing the resistance required.
    Whether weights are needed depends on the objectives: Do you wish to tone and firm up and maintain this condition, or do you wish to build greater muscle definition or bulk? Although men are more likely than women to build muscle bulk because of the size of their muscle fibers (both slow- and fast-twitch) and greater concentrations of the hormone testosterone, women themselves differ in their propensity to build muscle. Whereas female ectomorphs tend not to build up bulky muscle mass, endomorphs and mesomorphs are more prone to the hypertrophy of muscles (see Chapter 4 for a review of these three basic body types). Therefore, if you fall within the mesomorph or endomorph categories and don’t want to increase your muscle bulk, increasing the number of repetitions might be preferable to increasing resistance by using weights. By contrast, ectomorphs could use weights in a body-building program to increase strength without necessarily building bulky muscles.
    Whatever the objectives, good body alignment is necessary for effective and safe strength training. If the body position is incorrectly held, the use of external resistance could exacerbate the injuries that can result. For example, lifting the leg outward and sideways to work the gluteals and the leg abductors (tensor fascia latae) can easily transfer the stress to the small of the back, and if external resistance were to be added through the use of ankle weights, the stress would be even more severe.
    It is essential to work opposing muscle groups (see table below). If the quadriceps are strengthened, for example, the hamstring should be strengthened as well. Otherwise, unbalanced muscle strength will lead to poor posture and unequal stress on the body’s musculoskeletal structure. The most widespread example is the problem of shin splints—a fine stress fracture that results in pain at the front and sides of the lower leg. This is common among runners because of the imbalance between their strong gastrocnemius and soleus muscles (the calves) and their weak tibialis anterior muscles(in the shin). An excessive amount of jumping, skipping, and similar high-impact moves in class exercises can also result in shin splints because the powerful contractions of the calf muscles result in their overdevelopment. The gastrocnemius and soleus become tight, causing stress in the opposing muscle, the tibialis anterior. The buildup of pressure in the muscle, a condition known as compartment syndrome, causes pain.

    Selected Major Opposing-Muscle Groups


    The FITTA (frequency, intensity, time, type, and adherence) principle described in the chapter on aerobic training applies also in training for endurance, strength, and body conditioning. While the training should be regular and sufficiently frequent to have an impact (three to four times a week), there must be sufficient rest between training sessions and between muscles worked. The intensity of the training has to be moderated to ensure that muscles are overloaded but not excessively so. Overvigorous training can injure muscle attachments and joints because muscles respond to training much faster than the ligaments and tendons to which they are attached. If intensity is excessive, fatigue sets in, resulting in poor performance, incorrect positions, and injuries.
    The type of exercise and the time devoted to it also need careful planning, taking into account objectives, fitness, and age. It is important to stay with an exercise regime and to acquire correct techniques in terms of body alignment and breathing. Switching from one type of strength and endurance training to another will not serve much purpose. To achieve the desired results, consistency is required. Progress can take the form of increasing the resistance, increasing the repetitions, varying the speed of contractions, increasing the duration of the workout, and shortening the rests between the different sets of exercise.

    Training Using Body Resistance: The Fusion Recipe

    A common theme runs through all of these; namely, they are popular partly because of the search for safer methods of exercise and the desire by many people for greater tranquillity. We also saw, however, that in practice, not all that is called “holistic” (and here we use the word loosely, because they are not holistic in the sense of being complete fitness programs) is necessarily safe.
    Nevertheless, all of these regimes offer elements that are especially beneficial for achieving health and fitness. Benefits include the emphasis on correct body alignment, an awareness of breathing and its use to promote relaxation, and greater stability and control of the body. I have integrated those aspects of the Eastern arts that enhance the tranquillity and safety of workouts into the mainstream exercise regimes of the West. This, however, is not the complete story. In developing the fusion recipe I have also reviewed other practices, such as callanetics and Lotte Berk’s methods. They, too, have had an influence on the exercises outlined in the following chapters, so although you will find similarities between the fusion recipe and all the practices mentioned, you will also see significant differences, in terms of both concept and practice.

    Correct Body Alignment

    The emphasis placed by fusion exercises on body alignment is aimed at bringing mainstream Western exercises in line with some of the more attractive aspects of Eastern practices. This is not to say that Western sports science does not know about body alignment, but knowing and implementing it are two different things. Haste and the tendency in modern life to “get on with it” often mean that people rush to undertake an exercise movement without taking the time to assume the correct body posture. Rarely in the past did body-conditioning classes spend time on aligning the body or getting into the correct starting position. In the fusion recipe for fitness and health, alignment of the body and breathing techniques are the cornerstone of any movements. The focus is to get the body into an alignment where the normal curvature of the spine is maintained without the rigid tensing of the muscular system to hold the body in that position.
    It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean a perfectly upright posture with shoulders back, neck stiff, and chin forward, such as is generally associated with, say, a soldier standing at attention or even the rigid stance that we were made to adopt in PE classes when I was a young girl. So that the rest of the body does not need to compensate for any potential imbalance. Here I am influenced by the Alexander Technique of body awareness, but taking it well beyond day-to-day activities into the arena of exercise regimes.
    In the fusion approach every exercise starts by checking the posture and position of the body. Starting without ensuring that your body is correctly aligned can lead to injuries; conversely, spending a little time to get into the proper alignment optimizes the results you can obtain from the exercises.
    You should ensure that your weight is evenly distributed, that you are not standing more on one leg than the other, nor leaning too far forward or backward. Check also that your neck is
    relaxed and free, that the head sits comfortably on it, and that the shoulders are relaxed, with the shoulder blades down and not rounded forward. The crown of the head should be aligned with the feet; if the head is too far forward, the buttocks will be pushed back to maintain balance, and vice versa. Above all, ensure that the hip, or pelvic area, is wide and stable, and that the back is not rounded or the small of the back pushed forward and the buttocks back. This applies equally whether you are standing, kneeling, or lying on your back. This applies equally whether you are standing, kneeling, or lying on your back. Think of your spine as building blocks stacked on top of each other, perfectly balanced without the need to be held rigidly in place by muscles.
    When you are lying on your back, check that you are not slanted or rolled over to one side or the other, that both shoulders are on the floor, and that the weight of the body is evenly distributed with both sides of the buttocks resting evenly on the floor. Your neck should be long at the back; if the head is tilted up, the neck hyperextends and movements can result in stress to the back of the neck. Test to see if you have the correct position by gently raising your head, using both hands to support the base of the skull, and then bringing the chin slightly in toward the chest, freeing the neck. Then gently place the head down again and turn it gently from side to side. You should be able to turn from side to side freely. With practice, you will assume the correct position automatically.
    If you are lying on your side, make sure that your legs are stacked on top of each other and that your hip joints are also aligned on top of each other.
    If you are on all fours, ensure that the weight of the body is evenly distributed. Check to see if you are pressing more on one hand than the other; check that the hip joint is aligned above the knees; and check also that the back is in a neutral position and not sagging.

    Core Stability

    When you begin an exercise movement, several things happen. As I have explained in earlier chapters, the main muscle moves to effect the workout (prime mover or agonist muscle), the supporting muscle works to assist the movement (antagonist muscle), and other muscles contract to stabilize the joints (synergist muscles), ensuring that the principal movements are made efficiently and effectively. Without the coordinated and synchronized movements of the synergist muscles, the workout would not be effective and, even worse, injuries could occur. When you pull one limb of a puppet, all the other bits of the body start moving around because there is nothing to make it stable. The human body does not do that, because our muscles automatically act synergistically to stabilize the body during movement. Even so, the body works better if you get into a “correct” body position that facilitates this stabilization.
    The Iliopsoas: Stabilizing the Hips and Lower Back
    Consider performing sit-ups the old-fashioned way, with the legs extended straight in front. This unstable position causes the iliopsoas muscle (see figure on the left) to contract synergistically to stabilize the lower trunk, pulling the lower back off the floor, which in turn results in injury and stress to the back. This is a good example of an exercise gone wrong because the stability of the body was not ensured at the outset. How can we ensure stability of the body so as to allow the strengthening of the intended muscle group freely, effectively, and safely?
    The Transversospinalis-Multifidus
    Stability means control. Several key muscles need to be involved in achieving core stability. Among the most important is the transverse abdominus (see page 103). Others include the iliopsoas (which consists of two muscles, the iliacus and the psoas), the multifidus (see figure at the bottom of page 93), the pelvic-floor muscles, the adductor brevis, the rectus abdominus, the obliques, the diaphragm, and the erector spinae.
    The most important muscle in achieving core stability is the transverse abdominal muscle, because it acts as a corset for the trunk, holding it in position so that the limbs can move from a stable base without distortion or injury to the body, principally protecting the spine and the hip. Engaging the iliopsoas or hip flexor provides stability whenever movements involve the lower limbs or trunk. As explained earlier, this is very much in line with the principles of t’ai chi, in which the tan tien (the point three fingers’ width below the navel) is regarded as the central core of the body and limb movements as mere extensions of it. In all probability, when t’ai chi originated in ancient China, little was known of muscle structure, hence the use of the mystical description tan tien (heavenly gate) for that part of the anatomy which is vital for core stability. If you stabilize the central core of your body, you move and perform better. This is the principle from which fusion exercises take their cue.
    How do we engage these stabilizing muscles? As in most of the Eastern martial practices, including t’ai chi, fusion exercises focus on breathing techniques to engage the transverse abdominal muscles as a stabilizing force . You will see over and over again in my descriptions of movements in the following chapters the instruction to inhale while letting the belly expand and, more importantly, to exhale while letting the navel move toward the spine. When breathing out to draw the navel toward the spine, think of an imaginary point lying three fingers’ width below the navel and aim to draw that point and the abdominal area below it inward. This engages the transverse abdominal muscles more effectively and allows the rib cage to remain wide and stable for normal breathing. If you allow the navel to move toward the spine when breathing out, but at the same time constrict the upper abdominal muscles, breathing is hampered and the transverse abdominal muscles are not effectively engaged. As you breathe out, sending the navel toward the spine, the diaphragm relaxes and draws with it the transverse abdominal muscles because the two are interconnected. This exhalation creates a hollowing of the abdomen. Almost simultaneously the iliopsoas is also engaged, as the pelvis tilts gently forward to help stabilize the pelvic girdle. This, in turn, stabilizes the trunk and spine as well as the lower limbs. This series of stabilizing movements, initiated by breathing, provides the stable base from which to work.
    You can increase stability even more, if need be, by drawing the adductor brevis—the short inner thigh muscles spanning the front part of the pubic and lower hip bone and the femur at the top end of the thigh—inward as though you were doing a pelvic-floor exercise This is the key to the breathing techniques used in qi gong for the regulation of energy flow. I have also incorporated this move into the fusion exercises for stretching and relaxation, as you will see in Chapter 10. It is especially beneficial when breathing exercises for relaxation are carried out from a sitting position (normally cross-legged or in half or full lotus), because it provides greater anchorage to the ground, freeing the lungs to respond to the calming effect of the breathing exercise. An additional bonus, of course, is the beneficial impact on the pelvic floor.
    My mother used to draw heavily on breathing technique as an expert marks-woman. I recall when I was a child that she would spend hours standing in position gripping a hand weight and breathing into the position to stabilize her aim for shooting. My brothers and I often tried in vain to push her. So proud was she of her stability that well into her 60s she was still able to challenge her grandchildren to dislodge her from her stance. It certainly brought its rewards.
    Among her many achievements, she was a gold medallist in the Asian Festival of Sports of 1975. Now in her 70s, she remains a staunch proponent of t’ai chi and qi gong exercises.
    Other muscles can be brought into play to stabilize the body. If the exercise involves the upper limbs, the trapezius can be engaged for this purpose. Arm exercises with rigidly held shoulders are likely to transfer the stress to the neck and the rhomboids—the muscle in the middle of the upper back along the spinal column.
    By contrast, breathing in to raise the shoulder blade (scapula) and exhaling to bring it down will engage the trapezius muscles to stabilize the upper back, returning the scapula to its normal alignment. This allows the arms to work freely. Exercises involving the lower limbs hinge primarily on the stability of the core pelvic girdle, as described previously, and the alignment of the knee over the ankle.
    In all the exercises described in the chapters that follow, I place great emphasis on maintaining normal spinal curvature during the execution of the exercise, in order to avoid stress on the small of the back. In some exercises, however, the starting position might not involve this “neutral” curvature. When lying down on the back, a normal spinal curvature generally means that the small of the back is raised slightly off the floor, and this position fails to sustain and support the back when the legs are moved, even if the transverse abdominal muscle is engaged. This is especially the case when the stomach muscles are too weak to maintain that so-called corset control. To provide additional support, a very slight pelvic tilt is introduced. The introduction of a small pelvic tilt at the start of the exercise enhances the stability of the pelvic girdle, especially in exercises for the buttock and upper thigh muscles. This increases the effectiveness of the exercise, providing greater resistance to the workout.
    A: Neutral Body Alignment
    B: Stabilizing the Core: The Navel Moves Toward the Spine, the Abdomen Hollows, the Back Flattens, and the Pubic Bone and Pelvis Tilt Slightly Forward
    While the tilt flattens the lower back slightly at the start of the exercise, normal curvature is resumed once movement commences, leaving the stabilizing muscles to maintain control of the position. In this, fusion exercises converge with the Oriental martial technique of maintaining a stable stance, rather than more modern practices such as Pilates, which starts with a neutral spinal curvature.
    The benefits of maintaining a stable base during movement are significant. Working with a stable base reduces the likelihood of injury, including stress on joints, and especially injury to the back. It improves the performance and effectiveness of the workout because it reduces the involvement of other supporting muscles, allowing the workload of the exercise to fall squarely on the muscle that is being targeted. For example, in raising the leg sideways with a stable base, you are using the outer thigh and buttock muscles (abductors and gluteals) and not the hips (iliopsoas). Significant improvement in posture and bearing will result. Appearance and confidence will improve, and, more importantly, problems generally associated with poor posture, such as back pain, headaches, and poor breathing and movements, will diminish. Engagement of the transverse abdominal muscle will also contribute significantly to a flatter tummy.
    Getting It Together the Fusion Fitness Way
    Along with studying and adapting the Eastern techniques related to breath control, body alignment, and core stability, I reviewed the musculoskeletal structure and mechanics of the human body. Using the principles of isotonic and isometric contractions, I drew up a series of exercises that would condition the muscles and improve their strength and performance and, in the process, improve the appearance of the body. I drew upon the existing bank of exercises, modifying them in accordance with the principles outlined above. Using this fusion recipe I also developed new exercises to address some of men’s and women’s specific problem areas.

    How Does Fusion Fitness Differ from Pilates?


    Because both disciplines emphasize core stability, I have often been asked to explain the difference between the two. The many versions of Pilates make a direct comparison difficult, but the following points are, I believe, relevant in any discussion of fusion fitness and Pilates. In a typical fusion fitness class, cardiovascular exercises (focused on improving the heart, lungs, and the respiratory and blood circulatory systems) and motor-skill development remain essential components, alongside strength, endurance, and flexibility training. Mat-based Pilates, by contrast, incorporates little or no cardiovascular component or dynamic motor-skill development. Both disciplines place great emphasis on core stability and on the role of the transverse abdominal muscles in providing it, but fusion exercises make greater use of the pelvic roll to maintain core stability. As explained in this chapter, the involvement of the iliopsoas is particularly beneficial when the abdominal muscles are too weak to maintain the core position unaided. In addition, Pilates exercises start with a neutral spinal curvature, while the emphasis in fusion exercise is on maintaining normal spinal curvature during movements.
    The portfolio of exercises used in fusion fitness classes is generally different from that used in Pilates, although as in all disciplines there are some similarities. In strength and endurance training, fusion exercises rely on the principle of overload based on a progressive buildup of body resistance to the workout as the participant gains in strength. Both isotonic and isometric training techniques are used, but with a greater emphasis on isotonic exercises. Fusion exercises also have little in common with apparatus-based Pilates.
    In structure, fusion classes remain essentially the same as those taught in other exercise-to-music classes. The principle of  pursuing all five fitness components remains intact. The fusion recipe, however, brings together all the features that make the holistic regimes effective and sought after and incorporates them within the mainstream of exercise classes while avoiding those movements and positions that are less safe.
    I have pursued a “fusion” approach largely because I see little purpose in compartmentalizing the good features of any particular regime, obliging participants to attend separate sessions of different disciplines. Time is precious, and the full panoply of exercise regimes may be unavailable for some individuals. Integration should be the aim, so that the widest possible range of participants can draw upon the best of Oriental and Occidental fitness regimes within a single session.
    The Evolution of Fusion Fitness

    The following chapters aim to tackle the common problems of flabby tummies, legs, and underarms, love handles, and sagging bottoms. I have achieved considerable success with my own students, who range in age from their late teens to more than 70. Based on my experience, then, permit me to reemphasize a central point of this chapter: It is vital to acquire the techniques of body alignment, breathing, and stability control before rushing to perform these exercises. Spend time acquiring these techniques by stopping when you lose control over body alignment, adjusting your position, and then starting again. With patience, you will find the effort well worth the time. Enjoy the results.
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