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Kicking off a home-based workout routine? Have fun and don’t let worry over form and injury deter you

‘The body is more resilient than we assume.’ Biokineticist Jonathan Joshua cautions against ‘fear-mongering about injury’ when it comes to exercise.

There are many reasons why we should incorporate some form of exercise into our lives, and they reach far beyond aesthetics like fitting into an outfit or chasing some preconceived idea about how our bodies should look in summer. Exercise directly affects health and quality of life – for the better. It reduces the odds for heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, lowers blood pressure, combats depression and boosts memory and thinking.

With the 21-day lockdown going into effect from midnight Thursday 26th of March, working out will move from gyms into our home, for both regular exercisers as well those kicking off a new workout routine. However, even in less challenging circumstances, few questions arise when starting exercising: What is the right form and posture to maintain to get the most out of exercise and avoid injury? Is stretching before and after exercise a must? Is a carefully designed professional routine the best option?

“There is no evidence to suggest that a more specialised programme should be sought for the generally healthy population,” says Cape Town-based  biokineticist Jonathan Joshua.

“In fact, to the contrary, a generalised exercise routine, if it incorporates a range of variables that includes, but is not limited to, strength and cardiovascular exercise and some level of mobility or stretch routine, may be superior to any one form of exercise mode, like, say, strength only or running only.

“Humans walk, they run, they play, they lift, push and pull things. Humans twist and turn and bend from many angles. In fact, with the exception of the ape mammal, I don’t know how many others have access to this much variation in the movement system. It’s brilliant and blissfully optimistic.”

According to the Biokinetics Association of South Africa (Basa), biokinetics is “the science of movement and the application of exercise in rehabilitative treatment of performance. Its primary function is to improve physical functioning and health care through exercise as a modality.”

As part of his particular biokinetic practice, Joshua focuses on exercise and pain neuroscience education, particularly pain and injury management.

“We are tasked with health promotion and improving one’s quality of life,” says Joshua.

Some articles focusing on the relationship between proper form and working out highlight the benefits of proper form in order to improve the efficacy of exercise. Many also claim that failing to observe proper form and technique significantly increases the likelihood of injury. Take for example, the US gym Xperience Fitness, which claims:

“The primary reason for proper form in exercise is injury prevention.” And, “Proper form does more than just make people look good, it’s highly beneficial, nay essential.”

While Joshua concurs, that good form may be beneficial in the energy economy or energy taxonomy of movement, he disagrees with the popular view that poor form is directly related to injury.

“Form should be a means of efficiency and possibly a means of synergy and shared work amongst groups of muscles and fascial lines. Form is not necessarily related to injury. The correlation between injury and poor form in exercise is poor. There is a stronger correlation between cumulative training loads or training volume and injury than simply paying attention to form.”

Presuming that one is in good health, with no prior history of joint pain or medical issues, what then to make of the pain one might experience in their joints and tendons during exercises like push-ups, squats or lunges?

“If you do the push-up ‘wrong’ it is still unlikely that you will ever damage your tendons and joints. This is a very important point. The body is more resilient than we assume. We don’t need more fear mongering about injury with exercise. Watch your training volumes and cumulative loads. Other than this, you’re okay,” says Joshua.

“Do as many variations of the squat you can think of. The brain learns from stresses placed on the body in varying environments. This is good practice. There is hardly too much of a ‘wrong’ way to do squats. Perhaps there are only less efficient, more energy-costing and more efficient, less energy- costing ways of moving in the squat.”

In addition, he cautions against the flippant use of the word ‘pain’ (mainly by professionals): “because we are still redefining it in the medical sciences”, instead he advises risk-taking or risk-averse type individuals to “listen to signals” their body is giving them, in addition to using common sense when it comes to high loads and to be rational. “Where the individual does not have experience and knowledge, they should follow the basic guidelines of a fitness professional. On evidence for now, pain is one of the many protective systems that exists within a complex body,” says Joshua.

“There is no reason why one should not attempt the basics of human playful behaviour; this includes running, climbing, wrestling, cycling (these are obviously not options to try should the shutdown prohibit outdoor exercising. Please make stay home a priority – Ed), general reasonable weights, body weight movements and other activities if there are no obvious red flags or obviously significant medical history.”

While focusing on achieving good form and the right number of reps is a good way to achieve one’s goals efficiently, Joshua emphasises the importance of fun and variety when it comes to exercise.

“It is best to engage in a little bit of everything. As one previous teacher of mine put it, in a tongue in cheek manner, ‘The bodybuilder should explore ballet, and the ballet dancer should engage in some bodybuilding’.’”

Another point of contention when it comes to exercise is stretching before and after a workout.

“Stretching, as far as the evidence goes, does not hold its weight in water when it comes to injury prevention or rehabilitation. Mobilising the muscles and related soft tissue to move and prepare for movements that will follow is optimal,” says Joshua.

“For example, if one were to begin a 40-minute running session one would not need to spend the preparation for the activity by making muscles longer, one would prime the movement of running by, for example, running very lightly on the spot or forward, or take turns by swinging a single leg at a time so as to mimic the swing phases of running.

“These are simple but relevant examples of mobilising joints and soft tissue for readiness of action. Stretching is irrelevant in this case. We stretch because it feels wonderful, and because we love a good stretch but there is no outright benefit to stretching.”

“One exception may be a previous injury where the joint ranges of a limb, let’s say the hip or the ankle, are compromised, meaning loss of normal ranges of motion. In this example, stretching is advised to regain normal ranges. Most of the population will be within normal ranges of motion, hence stretching is not a must. Mobilise, mobilise, mobilise for action.”

He also stresses the importance of not getting too caught up in details at the expense of enjoyment.

“Of course, bodybuilding and aesthetic training, even sport-specific training will follow general specific guidelines. I agree to goals, this is person-centred, and I agree to some kind of direction with sets or reps. But let us not get too caught up in minor details and forget ‘meaning’ for the person: simply, is this exercise fun? Do I enjoy it? Can I learn to enjoy it? Will it make me strong and improve motor function for doing the things I love to do?

“Variability is key, as many variable exercises one can make up. Sets and reps become arbitrary if you’re having a good time discovering, exploring.” ML

Jonathan Joshua is a practising registered biokineticist. His qualifications include: BSc (Med) (Hons) Biokinetics (UCT), MPhil Biokinetics  (UCT), PG Dip Interdisciplinary Pain Management (UCT).

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