The Concept of Intentional Living

February 8, 2013 at 3:56 PM | Posted in Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment

I have not posted anything new in a long time. The time I have devoted to my blog has been spent editing older posts. I am trying to whittle down my ranting and “extras” so that the remaining content is of higher value to the reader. It is an on-going process.

I recently have had the pleasure of meeting new people who have changed my life in a big way. One of these persons was a particularly entrancing young woman who introduced me to the term “intentional living.” It was one of those rare moments in life where you realize the validation of a life-long philosophy. I’ll give a humorous analogy.

In the business of engineering, I often edit technical documents that have lots of big words. Even I don’t know what they mean because most of them are the brainchild of the author. Another thing the author might do is to try to sound impressive and smart to his or her audience by doing things like using “utilize” in place of “use.” This sort of thing drives me nuts – especially since those two words actually have different meanings. In my free time one day I was thumbing through a technical writing handbook (yes, I know…my free time). I ran across “affectation.” From Google: behavior, speech, or writing that is artificial and designed to impress. For years this practice had annoyed the shit out of me as an editor. Finally, I had a simple, concise way of referring to it: affectation! Stop that affectation in your writing!

So this was a very similar experience. A while back I wrote a post on the concept of presence. I think that the idea of presence is akin to the idea of intentional living. Intentional living is taking things a step further. If you are present, you are aware of your surroundings as they currently exist – you aren’t distracted by some immaterial thing or some thought that is preventing you from focusing on the now. Intentional living is taking the next step – taking charge of your life. If you live intentionally, you are consciously making choices. It seems very simple in concept, and it is. However, very few people practice it. It might seem odd at first but the proof is all around you. I’m sure that you can think of someone who appears to be simply “drifting through life.” Some people really do drift through life. Their lives are completely subject to the whims of another person or the company they work for or something like that.

My blog has been sort of an “extension” of my life, if you will. The posts I have done over the course of the blog’s existence have reflected a lot of my philosophy about life and the things that I was going through at the time. I think that this is simply the result of any writing – no writing, as they say, is innocent of the author’s intent. But without knowing the formal term for the philosophy that has driven my life for over a decade, I was unable to concisely, clearly convey my meaning to others. The term “intentional living” captures everything neatly and succinctly. Therefore, I have updated the name of my blog to reflect that. And my sincerest thanks go out to the wonderful people of the Pacific Northwest, and especially to the aforementioned young woman – not only for introducing me to the term and the lifestyle, but for being the community for which I spent my youth searching, and for accepting me into that community.



May 26, 2012 at 9:54 PM | Posted in Psychological Wellness | 1 Comment

What do you think of when someone mentions the word present? Or how about presence?

Presence is a problem I see emerging in many areas of life – or rather, the lack of presence. It isn’t something that has always been a problem, either. I recently picked up a calendar based on the book A New Earth. The book isn’t an environmentalist manifesto, as the title implies. Instead, the author’s main idea is that we need to be present in our lives.

At first, that probably sounds stupid. Of course I’m present – this is my life and I’m living it every day. That was my first reaction, too. But presence goes beyond simply being. In order to be present, we must be aware of our current surroundings and mentally in the present time. That’s actually not that easy to do. Really take a minute and think to yourself. When you’re at work, how often are you thinking about not being there? Maybe you’re thinking about what you’ll eat for dinner, or that road trip you’re taking this weekend. It’s a simple distraction like that which has the ability to sap productivity away from you in the present. If you’re sitting at your desk thinking about something else, you’re not focusing on the work at hand. Or if you are in a meeting but you are texting with a friend, you are not really present at that meeting. Your mind is not present.

Great, you say. Who wants to focus on work, anyway? Well, it goes beyond that. I’d like to take Facebook as my example. Facebook is the poster child for the social networking movement, of course, but there are so many others – Twitter, Foursquare, simple texting. Social networking is one of the ways in which almost everyone’s lives have been adversely affected. Facebook teaches you not to be present – it even encourages it. I’m not talking about you being on Facebook while you’re at work, either. I’m talking about what Facebook has done to normal, pre-technology relationships. Facebook is a good way to stay in touch with people, sure, but it should never replace the primary medium of communication between two people. I see it happening everywhere. I know there are people who would rather interact through Facebook before any other type of communication. You might say that’s normal if it’s just an acquaintance, and perhaps you’re correct on that. I’m talking about spouses and best friends whose relationships transfer in some way to Facebook, willingly or not. I think most people have had an experience where the additional connection with a person on Facebook adversely affected their real relationship – or at least made it awkward (take when you are Facebook friends with a family emember).

Because most people seem to opt for the “easy” way of being friends with someone (that being completely on Facebook), the relationship decays. But it’s more than just that. It’s the effectiveness of relationship-building that’s at stake. In the old days, before Facebook, if you met someone you wanted to see again, you would have to work up the courage to get a phone number and possibly work a time and place out together. You would do this face-to-face or via phone call. Not only does this put hair on your balls, but it is infinitely more effective than simply making an event on Facebook or sending out a text message. Everything is different in communication online. In person or on the phone, people do not have the option to simply ignore you. People seem to work on a sort of “micro demand and supply” law. If you post a worthless comment on Facebook, it is easy for someone else to come along later and post a comment or click the “like” button. However, because it was so easy and simple, that communication has little to no real-world, real-relationship value to either of you.

We can always look to the world of business for answers. I’ve said this before, but it’s my main talking point on things like this. If we attempted to conduct our day-to-day work via email and Facebook, how much do you think we would get done? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that the only way to effectively engage clients and other professionals is either face-to-face or on the phone. You can sit all day waiting on a single email, or you can get on the phone and talk for five minutes and move forward. If we don’t sacrifice our livelihoods to things like Facebook and text messaging, why would we sacrifice our social life? After all, what is life if it is not to be shared with others?

Presence then, in this case, is presence in the physical sense. Instead of interacting entirely with disjoint Facebook posts, why not call someone up? When you’re trying to set up a meeting or a get-together, get on the phone. It’s simple, it’s fast, it’s personal. People like it more. Even when you put someone in a situation to decline an offer or otherwise respond negatively, people still like it better. Just ask, or even think about it yourself.

To drive the point home, I’d like to compare Facebook, my least favorite site ever, to Meetup, which is a little better. People who defend Facebook say things like

  • It makes being friends easier
  • It increases connectivity amongst people
  • It helps you stay in touch

I contest that all it does is ruin your friendships, or at the very least makes no impact at all. Meetup, however, is a very different website. Meetup is like Facebook for people who live in real life. People who are present. Here is the process: I join a meetup group that has, at least nominally, the same interests as me. The group schedules meetups. It could be a comedy club, a hiking trip, or just a night out at the bar. You RSVP to a meetup, then show up at the scheduled date/time/location. That’s all there is to it. The internet ceases to be a part of the dynamic at that time, and the old-fashioned relationship-building begins to take place. At the end of the night, I may have made two or three new acquaintances and maybe even scored a second “date” as it were. If not, I try again at a different meetup. It’s as simple as that.

Contrast that with Facebook. When Facebook was originally created, it did allow you to “branch out” and meet new people. Privacy settings were significantly lower because there was a bar for entry to the site – namely that you had to be in college and provide bona fide proof of such. The site was a means to create events between people that already knew one another and people still had enough real-life skills and manners to make these things happen. Once Facebook opened up to the whole world and privacy settings went through the roof, the connectivity of Facebook diminished rapidly and the quality of interaction and content fell through the floor. Facebook self-imploded, in my opinion, and it cannot do what it purports to be able to do.

Presence is also a mentality. It’s an attitude. Everyone knows that our actions today have consequences tomorrow. When I say that, I’m not sure what you think, but I think about how if I were to go rob a bank I would be in jail tomorrow. That’s a simple enough concept. But it actually runs a lot deeper than that, and you don’t really realize it until you think about it very explicitly (at least I didn’t). Every second of the day and every action you take is a vote to what kind of future you want to have. Are you keeping it clean in the kitchen? Congratulations, you will not gain weight. Are you sitting inside writing a blog post on a Saturday afternoon instead of going to the Tacoma Jazz Festival to meet people (like me)? Congratulations, you will continue to be lonely. You get the point. This concept is exceptionally powerful when applied in reverse – simply look at a long-term goal and decide what you should do today to achieve it.

None of the things I have written in this post should constitute ground-breaking news. I simply wrote it as a way to organize my thoughts on the matter and to perhaps provide the reader with a new perspective on the subject. No matter who we are, where we are in life, or what our condition, we can always benefit from being present. Recognize that every second counts and every action, right down to being a lazy pile on Friday night watching movies, will affect your future. Presence is a very powerful concept that, when appropriately observed, will generate a lot of positive outcomes in your life. There are also a lot of things in life that cannot be achieved without presence. You cannot make a living or make a friend without being present. You cannot achieve a long-term goal. Nobody ran a 5k by texting or tweeting or posting on Facebook that they wanted to run a 5k. You cannot expect to accomplish much if your chosen means of communication do not take advantage of presence. It seems that our lives get more and more complicated and fast-paced every day as people take advantage of new technology and new ways to communicate. It can be easy to get lost in instant gratification or miracle solutions. At the end of the day, nothing can replace a good night out with your friends. One evening together is more than the equivalent of a million Facebook posts. One phone call is better than a hundred text messages. We didn’t get this far without the basics – why abandon them now?

Quit the “Real World”

March 25, 2011 at 3:12 AM | Posted in Psychological Wellness, Rants | Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the phrase “real world” means. I’ve been missing college life and trying to put my finger on exactly what it was. I mean, looking back, my college life wasn’t actually that great. I spent most of it around really arrogant, smart, rich people without any sense of character whatsoever, and I spent Fridays doing homework or at the gym most of the time. So what was so great? I couldn’t really decide until recently.

I think my answer to that question is this: college shields you from the real world. Before I define what the real world is, let me explain what it is not. It is not spending most of the day in a classroom or walking around a beautiful campus. It is not spending the afternoon in the shade of a large tree with friends. It is not eating dinner every night with your roommates or suitemates, talking about your respective philosophies and speculations on life and growing as a person. It is not staying up until all hours of the night playing video games or drinking. It is not hooking up with every girl or guy that tickles your fancy (double entendre?). It is not random roadtrips on the weekend, or pleasurable trips to the beach or the river with good friends in the summer. It is not a place where you can typically say anything you want. And certainly you are not encouraged to do so. I’ve seen wonderful, beautiful things happen at college that can happen nowhere else. I’ve seen a normal person put his or her brain to use and come up with extraordinary solutions to problems. I’ve seen fantastic engineers and scientists solving the problems of tomorrow for what is basically free.

But none of that is the real world. In the real world, you’re either making money or you’re out on the streets. In the real world, your old friends are off married and busying themselves with children and paying off endless bills, or they’re out of touch, or they’re enemies. In the real world, you can’t say what you want to say because it could mean your job. You can’t publicly support change for fear of being ridiculed by the so-called realists. You can’t dare to dream because the real world will dash your dreams against the sharp, unyielding rocks of living in an economically driven world. So forget your bygone leisure days of college where you were free to socialize, philosophize, and grow as a person. Forget the days of being able to naively trust someone the second you met them, or the freedom that comes with an unburdened heart. You’re in the real world now.

So, you graduate college and join the ranks of millions before you who, just like you, will work for the rest of their lives paying off bills and muttering about the management and the government. You give up your friends, your life, and maybe even your values, just to walk home with the almighty paycheck in hand. You forget all the things you learned in college because you don’t need them. No more leisure time, no more time camping with friends, no more nights turning into mornings with substantial conversation. Your mind closes off to possibility. Change becomes the enemy. You become trampled and crushed by the weight of the real world. You cling to whatever tiny sliver of happiness and positivity is left in your life, whether it be your kids, your wife, or your family. You might keep a few close friends, but your ability to open up to new people and trust new faces is gone. You’ve become inelastic. As you get older, you spend so much time and effort resisting change that it’s all you have in you. At the end of the day, you’re lucky to accomplish your obligatory daily tasks to “hold down the fort.” It’s no wonder college was such a paradise.

But I’m a dreamer. I’m a person with a heart and soul. I choose not to accept the “real world” as my reality. I’m someone who believes that reality is what you make it. I’m someone who believes that anyone can do anything they want to do. I don’t believe in being crippled, whether it be physically, emotionally, mentally, financially or otherwise. I believe that what you tolerate is what you accept. And I believe that if you do nothing, you have still made a choice. I believe that change is good. I believe that practicality does not apply to personal philosophy. I believe realism is a sad, pathetic way of admitting that you live controlled by fear instead of something better. That is my mantra. That is my reality. I control my life – not god, not the government, not people who hurt me in my past, no one but me.

What’s to blame for the way the world is? I have an answer to that: fear and your ignorance. Ignorance because everyone is so short-sighted and uninformed. Fear because no one wants to take a risk – a risk that might be necessary to get to a better life. If people had nothing to fear, why would they be so averse to change? We all know people whose lives could be vastly improved if they weren’t afraid to take a risk.

What if you didn’t have anything to fear? What if tomorrow if you lost your job and you could continue to comfortably pay your bills and support your family indefinitely? What if, instead of becoming a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, you could be what you wanted to be? What if you could stand up for your values every day – drive a hybrid car, or buy that more expensive food just to show your support for sustainable farming?

What makes rich people rich and poor people poor? Every time you say something is impossible because of money, time, or some other common excuse, you’re putting on your fear mask. The biggest difference between successful people and everyone else is this: attitude. The only people who have money and are complete jackasses and idiots are the ones that inherit it. I challenge you to prove me wrong. Sure, rich people can be jerks just like the rest of us, but I guarantee you everybody who has made it out of the “real world” has some kind of courage and strength that can’t be stopped

So I guess the point of this rant is this: stop complaining and start doing or shut up. I’m sick and tired of listening to everyone tell me how Obama is destroying the world. I’m tired of listening to how you can’t do the things you want to do because it isn’t economical. I’m tired of hearing how you sacrificed values in the name of staying alive. You can keep muttering and yamming away at whoever will listen about the government and how people have no values or character, but I’m going to do something about it.

It kills me to see believers who funnel every bit of strength into hoping for an afterlife – a second chance where everybody gets everything they want and nobody has to do anything ever. I find that belief so offensive and pathetic I’m not sure there are even words to describe the feeling. This is your life right here, right now. Every second that goes by that you waste speaks volumes more about your character than anything else ever could. What if there is no second chance? What if there is no afterlife? What if it doesn’t matter what we do here? What if it’s all over when you die? You want to be a believer? You want to make a difference? Believe in yourself. Believe in now! Stop thinking about tomorrow or crying about yesterday and do something today. That is where life happens – the present. Life doesn’t get any better unless you force it to. God’s not going to come fix everything up. The government is bankrupt. Take responsibility for yourself. Take responsibility for your actions and your thoughts. Be proactive.

And fuck the real world. You’re better than that.

“change please” by Robert Wilson

January 23, 2011 at 8:30 PM | Posted in Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment

This article appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of Oklahoma Professional Engineer magazine.  It hit home with me because, as a young engineer interested in the environment, I face (along with thousands of new engineers) the daunting task of switching the design field in civil engineering from what it currently is to something more sustainability-oriented.  Of course, the ASCE has recognized sustainability as an issue in engineering and has given formal guidelines on what is and is not sustainable.  While the ASCE has general guidelines on economic, environmental and social sustainability for projects, the fact remains that economics and policy-making drive the quality of engineering projects down to what is considerably lower than what we need to survive and thrive as a species.

As you read it, also consider that this philosophy can easily and readily be applied to anything in life – not just engineering.  As I have gotten a little older and left the artificial world of college, I’ve happened upon a new, ugly world that most people like to refer to as the “real world.”  No, it’s not ugly because I have to get up at 8 AM and the man keeps me down.  It’s ugly because I see SO many people with such heaps of wasted potential in their wake.  So many people, who could do so much in the world and have so much to offer (when the world needs it most), are stifled by fear of change and this illusion of security that so many seek, whether it be through marriage, reproduction, a dead-end job or plain old inactivity.  Keep these these things in mind as you read through the article.  And now, without further ado, the article itself.

“Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

These are the words of the woman who became the poster child for overcoming adversity.  A woman who was isolated into the two dimensional world of touch and smell at the age of 19 months.  Yet, she went on to inspire millions around the world.  Sightless and deaf, Helen Keller resolved to make something of her life.  She lived with a keen understanding that change is inevitable, but growth is intentional.  Unwilling to give in to her blindness, she chose to strive for a normal life.

Motivation is all about motion or movement.  In other words, if you are comfortable, if you are happy and content, then you DO NOT move.  you do not change.  Why would you?  On the other hand, if you are uncomfortable, if you’re unhappy, then you want to change.  you want to move back toward your comfort zone.  There are millions of motivators in the world and all of us at any one time are being motivated by a dozen or more: Hunger, Safety, Sex, Love, Enlightenment to name just a few.

Interestingly, you can take all those motivators and boil them down to a variation of two basic emotions: Fear and Desire.  You are either moving toward something you desire; or you are moving away from something you fear.

Fear, however, can become paralyzing and will keep us in one un-comfort zone because we fear the perceived discomfort that comes with change.  We fear that change could open a Pandora’s Box of more and scarier things.  I’ve seen it in relationships and in business.

I know a married couple who over the years have drifted apart and their marriage has become stagnant.  I know they both desire greater intimacy with the other, but they both fear rejection and so they do nothing.

I know a small business owner who watched his business shrink in the recent recession.  His self-esteem is closely tied to his success and his falling income triggered fears of inadequacy.  Frozen by fear into doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, he has not adapted to the changes going on in his market.

Helen Keller once again has wise words for such situations, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

When couples try new things together they actually stimulate the receptors in their brains that invoke the feelings of romance.  Taking a class or starting a new hobby together is a great way for couples to renew their feelings for each other and discover a greater depth of intimacy.

For small business owners, a recession is a great time to try out a new idea or innovation.  It attracts renewed interest in the business and can even create new customers and open new markets.

The trick is getting comfortable with change a little at a time.  Start engaging in simple changes at home.  Low risk changes will generate immediate rewards.  Here are a few you can make that will help you get into a habit of adapting to change:

If you drink coffee every day, switch to tea for a week.  If you always listen to rock music on the radio, switch to country, jazz or classical for a week.  Rearrange one piece of furniture in your house.  Read a section of the newspaper that you’ve never read before.  Take a continuing education class in a subject not related to your career.  Join a hobby group on  Taste an ethnic food that you’ve never tried before (as an alternative revisit a food you think you hate).

I’ve got a few follow-up ideas and points for discussion or critical thinking.  First of all, I hope you take this to heart and seriously think about it.  People are always searching for a quick fix to their problems – problems that have developed over years or even decades.  But I’m here to tell you there is no quick fix to a lot of things.  We’ve been trained by medicine, technology and society that there’s a quick fix out there for everything – a chemical to cure depression, a pill for anti-aging, a technology to clean up our public waterways or disinfect our mass-produced meat, even a quick fix to personality disorders or ways to manipulate people into getting what you want (how many persuasion science books have you seen out there?).  That’s just not true.  The solution to your problems lies not in instant gratification but in the true strength of character – perseverance, courage, integrity, grit, etc.  You can’t build those things in a day.  And NO one is born with them – we all have to work for it.  Genetics play no part.

In the article, he makes a few points that he doesn’t elaborate on that I’d like to call attention to.  First off, he says that you can “make a habit of adapting to change.”  This is really important.  This suggests (and rightly so I think) that people not only have the ability to adapt favorably to change, but that it can even be adopted as a habit or perhaps a skill.  I think that not only can it be done, but that it might very well be the most important habit or skill that we can create/acquire.  I firmly believe that the ability to adapt to change is of the utmost importance on both a personal and a societal level.

For example, the happiest old guys I know are the guys who adapt to change throughout their lives.  My boss is a great example – he went from using a slide rule in his youth to AutoCAD and calculators in his old age, nearing retirement.  He keeps current on all the new water treatment and water supply technologies, making him an asset to his company, instead of an unnecessary draw like so many other old men who get “let go” because they simply cost too much.  He conducts his personal life and his relationship with his wife in the same way, leading them to have one of the happiest, strongest marriages I have ever seen.  My grandfather is another great example, having the ability to adapt to changes in his market for cars and trying new things in his retirement with my grandmother.  They are two of the happiest people I know.

The crankiest old guys I know, whose level of dissatisfaction with life is beyond anything words can express, are the guys who can’t adapt to change at all.  They remain fixated on their youth or their “golden years,” when everything seemed so much better.  They spend all their time and effort trying to get back to a situation that simply doesn’t exist anymore.  They remain focused on the negative things, depend heavily on their illusions of job security and represent a threat to the company they work for because they refuse to change the way they do business or do their job.  They constantly talk about when a gallon of gas cost a quarter, or a gallon of paint cost $10.  They quit doing the things that make them happy because of some perceived change they can’t adapt to – changes in their market of business, aging in their bodies “keeping” them from being active, etc.  They have become inelastic and unbending, and strain every day under the stresses and strains of simply continuing to exist because of it.

On a societal level, the ability to adapt to change is more important than ever.  I’m in the middle of a book called Collapse, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jared Diamond.  The book focuses on how previous civilizations have failed or succeeded.  The main issue with civilizations that have failed is actually the condition of their environment.  I won’t go too much into detail, but here are a few examples – civilizations on Easter Island and in the American southwest failed because they grew beyond the constraints of their marginal environments and did not adopt policy or changes in lifestyle that were consistent with their surroundings.  The failures scream eerie semblances to our own society today as a global community – semblances that we could learn from.  But we fail so far as a society to do enough because we fear change.  People fear the slight inconvenience that comes with recycling, or the perceived economic peril from investing in clean energy.  People continue to drive enormous, gas-hogging vehicles and ignore the hybrid car market.  People continue to purchase and use extremely energy-expensive television sets and avoid purchasing products made from recycled material.  Even simple changes, like buying detergents that are safe for natural waterways or electing to get power from wind or energy sources through the local utility company are overlooked.  I can buy a bottle of natural detergent for $1 more.  I can elect to get wind energy for $4/month more.  I have literally heard people say they cannot afford such luxuries.  Why?  Fear of change.  Fear that something on the other side will make life more difficult and perilous than it is now – when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Give this article some thought.  It can be applied in so many different ways, and it can solve a lot of the problems you deal with in your life.  People keep putting off change in their lives and assume the government will fix everything, or put blame on others when a change that needs to happen doesn’t.  They keep waiting for the price of clean technology to drop and the economy to get better, or they hope for some other change that they feel is beyond their control but will make everything better for them.  If we all sit on our hands and do nothing, we will surely doom ourselves to failure.  Remember this quote from Eckhart Tolle: “The present moment is the field on which the game of life happens.  It cannot happen anywhere else.”  I hope that you’ll take something positive away and try a simple change in your home or life.

The Foundations of Strength

November 8, 2010 at 6:12 AM | Posted in Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

At some point, you have to ask yourself the obvious question: Why, after almost two straight years of not being able to train or work out to any appreciable extent, is Frank still bigger, stronger and faster than me?

A great question. Let me begin by listing off the obvious reasons I’m still better than you:

  • I’m more intense and way more serious than you.
  • I eat far more than you do.
  • I know what I’m doing.
  • I’ve been doing it for a lot longer.

You may also find the following table very helpful:

If you listen to… And you want to be taken seriously… Replace with…
Eminem ———-> Tool
Kanye West ———-> In Flames
Linkin Park ———-> Chevelle
Rihanna ———-> Breaking Benjamin
Lady Gaga ———-> Killswitch Engage
The Beastie Boys ———-> Unearth
Kings of Leon ———-> Lamb of God
Lil Wayne ———-> Sevendust
Nelly ———-> Five Finger Death Punch
Katy Perry ———-> All That Remains
Queen Latifah ———-> Bullet for My Valentine
Maroon 5 ———-> As I Lay Dying
P!nk ———-> Disturbed
Plain White T’s ———-> Sick Puppies

Table generator

This especially goes out to you “hard gainers” who claim genetics as your enemy at every turn. Two chicken breasts per day and a cup of oatmeal isn’t going to make you bigger. And neither is lifting 135 pounds on your benchpress for a set of 10. And, for that matter, neither is lifting 315 pounds once. And if you’re one of those trashbags who goes to the gym to bench and curl exclusively, just leave now. You have to know what you want and how to train for it if you ever expect to get anywhere.

But, assuming you’re actually on the ball with all of those things I mentioned, you’re still wondering what gives. Well, I have a few tricks and tools that have gotten me pretty far along in the iron game, and a lot of knowledge I’ve bothered to grunge up here and there due to overcoming injuries and strength imbalances.

First, let me talk about what I like to call the “foundations” of strength. It’s a laundry list, probably not exhaustive, of a set of muscles and joint articulations that are most likely profoundly weak in you, and not in me. This is because I have given special attention to these areas and strived to keep them in balance with all of the bigger, stronger muscles and more dominant movements. Here we go.  These are in no particular order.

  1. Rotator Cuff Strength: Yes, you’ve heard about the rotator cuff forever now.  Maybe you’ve even devoted some time to strengthening it.  But by the time you learn about this set of muscles, it’s usually too late to implement standard training.  This is because you’ve gotten your shoulder so out of balance that training the external rotation move is pointless – it’s inhibited by stronger internal rotators.  And, oddly enough, so is your subscapularis.  In most habitual benchpressers (read: most athletes), the subscapularis is either a) injured, or b) about to be injured.  I’ve already belabored this point to death, but a strong, functioning subscapularis in and of itself is almost certain to keep you from overhead injury and allow you to progress in both strength and functionality.  And, of course, pay attention to external rotation strength as well.  You usually can’t build it until the subscapularis is freed of injuries though.
  2. Rhomboids: The rhomboids are a set of deep muscles that act in scapular retraction.  However, from a myofascial point of view (look up anatomy trains), these muscles are even more pivotal in arm movements.  The rhomboids are part of a deep fascial line that connects your spine, shoulder blades and arms together.  They’re absolutely necessary for almost any movement at the shoulder.  In most athletes and even laypeople, the rhomboids are tight and weak and require considerable attention.  They are often overpowered by the middle fibers of the trapezius because weightlifters continue to pound the movement to death with horrible form.
  3. Lower Trapezius and Serratus Anterior: The fibers of the lower trapezius are known to work in scapular depression/upward rotation.  In order for any overhead movement to go off without a hitch (as in avoiding impingement), scapular upward rotation must be perfect.  The serratus anterior is a muscle that works in conjunction with the lower trapezius, keeping the shoulder blades from winging.  Aggressive benchpressers and lazy normal people almost always exhibit some kind of scapular winging.  The serratus anterior and lower trapezius can be directly trained with the right moves.  Most people simply neglect them.  Also, remember that relative strength is an important concept here.  For you more developed athletes, training these muscles with 20 pounds is probably worthless.  Don’t be afraid to put up some weight once you have the mind-muscle connection working.
  4. Lower Abs: Whenever I’m in the gym, I see people trying to train their lower abs using leg swings or leg lifts all the time.  The fact of the matter is the actual ROM through which the lower abs do any sort of movement whatsoever doesn’t even move the legs.  Consider this: the rectus abdominis basically attaches to the ribs at the top and the pelvis at the bottom.  Is any mention of the hip joint made at all there?  NO.  So stop fucking swinging your legs around like an idiot and train the lower abs.  But the problem is just that: most people don’t even know what contracting the lower abs feels like.  You can activate this portion of the muscle by practicing pelvic rotations.  A lot of people, many an athlete including, are stuck in anterior pelvic tilt and don’t know they even have lower abs.  There’s a difference between lower abs and hip flexors.
  5. Iliopsoas:While I’m ranting about the hip flexors, let me make mention of the one no one trains: the iliopsoas.  This muscle is infamous for causing all kinds of lower back pain, pelvic twist, pelvic tilt and instability.  And while it’s true that squats work the iliopsoas to some degree, they certainly don’t hit it that hard.  And since most of us are born and bred weak in this muscle, the more powerful hip flexors tend to take over and become overworked.  However, a strong iliospoas not only prevents back pain and unwelcome pelvic tilts, but it’s a powerhouse for speed production during sprinting.  That’s why this muscle is so easily overworked during sprinting routines, by the way.  Direct work for this muscle a few times per month (so as to not overwork it) is a fantastic way to add speed and power.
  6. Internal Hip Rotators/TFL: How many of you even knew that you had internal hip rotators?  How many of you knew that squatting trains external hip rotation?  Well, you’re not alone.  The tensor fascia lata (TFL) is known to be a hip flexor, yes, but it is also responsible for internal rotation, along with the gluteals and some smaller muscles deep in the thigh.  Internal rotation at the hip is usually lost by most athletes due to training in the squat move and general overuse during performance.  However, the best sprinters have phenomenal internal hip rotation ROM.  Think of internal hip rotation as being very similar to the shoulder: paradoxically, loss of internal rotation hinders the external rotation move and causes general weakness at the joint.  If you pay attention to your internal hip rotators and give them some TLC, your squat and your speed will reap the rewards.
  7. Adductors: While I’m unsure about recommending you get on the adduction machine, think about it: how many “great” athletes get benched for a season due to a groin tear?  Your adductors serve you in speed and power at the hips, and play an important role in quickly changing direction.  Furthermore, the adductors are easily injured during squatting if they aren’t conditioned properly and can become the weakest link in the lower chain if you don’t give them enough attention.  Most athletes exhibit poor frontal plane stability.  Eric Cressey has covered this subject in much more depth, so I’m not going to repeat it.
  8. Hamstrings: Hamstrings are underrated.  Sure, they’re not as showy as amazing quads, but when it comes right down to it, powerful hamstrings = speed and strength.  Take a look at your favorite runningback.  Compare the back of his legs to the back of, say, a wide receiver or a basketball player.  Hamstrings are tremendously important in terms of athletic performance.  However, even if you don’t take that into consideration, it’s important to develop them for knee stability and injury prevention.  And most average people are tight in the hamstrings because of sitting all the time.
  9. Tibialis Anterior (the shin muscles): Training the shin muscles is a challenge, and it usually involves (for me) some kind of ad-hoc method that varies with the available gym equipment.  However, it’s well worth the trouble.  Tibialis anterior is the first muscle to get injured from lots of running, especially on hard surfaces.  It will give you shin splints in a minute.  Furthermore, developing this muscle puts your calves in better balance and contributes to speed production.  If it’s bigger, it also shields your shin bones from potentially shattering impacts.  Of course, if you already lack ankle mobility, training for any part of your calves is automatically worthless, so work on that first.
  10. Neck Strength: Training the neck is underrated as well.  First of all, if you play any kind of contact sports whatsoever, neck training should be one of your top priorities.  This is because when you get demolished on the field, you want your head to stay on your shoulders.  But even for normal people and gym rats it’s worth the effort because, as I spent my last blog post ranting, a tight muscle is a weak muscle.  Most people have tight necks.  See a correlation?  Also, the cervical spine is a vulnerable structure that houses a myriad of important nerve roots, and a nervous system injury here is debilitating for life.  A disc problem will also shut down all but the most ambitious of persons for the rest of his or her pathetic life.
  11. Grip Strength: Direct training for grip strength is all but a lost art.  Only the most cult-like circles of powerlifting still know anything about the subject.  The next time you’re at the gym, look around carefully.  If there’s a guy hardcore enough to actually do deadlifts, is he using straps?  A lot of guys complain about having small forearms, yet they use straps as a crutch to doing lifts requiring grip strength.  This is counterproductive at best.  Maybe it’s just ignorance, but more people should be doing this.  A weak grip is going to hold you back on almost all of your lifts, regardless of the rest of your body.

There you go.  When we as athletes go into the gym to bang out yet another week of squats, benchpresses and (maybe) deadlifts, we set ourselves on a path of specialization.  However, the body does not like specialization.  Traditional squats, lunges and deadlifts all train the external rotation of the hip.  Sooner or later, you’ll hit a wall as your body refuses to develop that motion any more until internal hip rotation is restored.  Perhaps you’ve noticed a nagging burning on the outside of your upper hips each time you squat, or tightness and weakness in your armpit every time you bench.  This is your body telling you that you’ve become far too one-sided in your strengths.

Aside from being stronger than you on all or most of the things I mentioned in the list above, I also have a recovery toolbox that I’m guessing you don’t know anything about. Recovery is more important than what you do in the weight room. You can claim to believe this, but you aren’t doing it right if you aren’t eating enough and sleeping enough. However, there are some extra things that you need to do if you really want to be on the top of your game.  Here’s another list (it’s short though…hardly worth a list).

  1. Mobility Training: Mobility is the ability of a joint to move freely through a full ROM.  Before you “duh” me, let me just tell you that you don’t have it.  Very few people are lucky enough to be born and have a lifestyle that permits effortless full ROM at all joints.
    • Pelvic mobility: Can you do a pelvic tilt?  Do you have full, conscious control over the angle at which your pelvis sits when you stand?  Can you consciously call into action your lower abs and glutes at the same time?  SI joint dysfunction is a leading cause of injury in our country.
    • Ankle mobility: reason No. 2 no one can get big calves without steroids has everything to do with ankle mobility.  There are a number of reasons no one really has enough ankle mobility (walking/running on concrete, being a lazy ass, muscle imbalances, etc.), but it’s easy enough to train.  Look up a few drills.
    • Knee mobility: tight hammies, ’nuff said.
    • Glenero-humeral mobility: any kind of instability at the shoulder will cause the body to limit ROM through any of its ridiculously many joints, especially the G-H joint.
    • Thoracic spine mobility: Bet you didn’t think your spine needs work, did you?  Thoracic spine restrictions will cause or perpetuate poor posture and destroy scapulo-humeral rhythm.

  2. Trigger Point Therapy: Trigger point therapy is the No. 1 reason why most guys have tiny calves.  I wrote a blog about how if you have a trigger point in a muscle, it’s not going to grow.  But the problem goes even further, really.  If you’ve got a trigger point hanging out in your gastrocs or your soleus, training the tibialis muscle is going to be like paddling up a strong river.  It’s possible but excruciatingly slow.  And direct training of the gastrocs or soleus is worthless.  Trigger points work hand-in-hand with mobility reduction in order to provide protection against injury.  The other form of injury prevention is strong, healthy, elastic, balanced muscles and full joint mobility.  Which one do you think an athlete wants?  Which one do you think hurts less?  Exactly.

Hopefully you get the picture by now.  Most or all of my blog posts are related somehow to these ideas.  So the next time you’re hitting a plateau or wondering why you can’t beat me after years of inactivity, get smarter about your training.  Also, get on your horse, because the years of not training are over for me :).

Tight Muscles are Weak Muscles

October 28, 2010 at 6:50 AM | Posted in Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | 6 Comments
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Up until recently, I was always under the impression that a tight muscle was an overworked muscle that was too strong in relation to its antagonist. English: a tight muscle is too strong and needs to be stretched to restore length. This idea is also the basis for most practitioners of medicine – present a tight muscle to a doctor and it’s likely he or she will tell you to stretch it and strengthen the antagonist muscles.

Here’s an example of this idea in action. Many a year ago, when I first started having shoulder pain, I went to a respected physical therapist. He told me my impingement was a result of tight internal rotators and inadequate external rotators. The prescription? External rotator work. Well, years and years later, after living with intense pain and tightness in my rear delt, infraspinatus and teres minor, I figured out he was kinda wrong. Sure, my “big gun” internal rotators were too strong and tight. But my subscapularis had shut down, glazed over with scar tissue, trigger points and adhesions. It was weak. It never did anything.


So with that anecdote, let me show you some evidence for my case here. First of all, let me note that it is ENTIRELY possible that a tight muscle is too strong. That said, as it turns out, that’s usually not the case. Take hamstring injuries, for instance. Hamstring injuries are frequent in athletes. However, we all know that almost everyone’s hamstrings are too tight and simultaneously weak. This is well-accepted. Here’s a little piece from an article written by people far more educated than me:

“They [Garrick and Webb] feel that overstretching of a muscle is not the chief cause of strain. It usually occurs by increased tension in the muscle before it has had time to lengthen, for example, by the sudden contraction of the antagonistic muscle before the agonist can lengthen. They point to the fact that most strains occur in the normal range of motion rather than the overstretched range. Because overstretching is often inappropriately considered the chief cause, treatment is mostly directed at improving flexibility of previously tight muscles. Whenever a weak muscle is forced to work beyond its capacity, it will tighten and, therefore, be more subject to stress and strain. ” [1]


Hamstring tears are ugly. They occur because the muscle is tight and weak.

Does it make sense now? Think about it: when you overwork a muscle, it gets tight, doesn’t it? Usually, you just rest long enough and it goes away and everything’s dandy again. But if you’re a bodybuilder, you usually don’t lay off of a muscle for a few weeks at a time. Then you work the muscle again, it tightens again, and pretty soon you’ve got yourself an overtraining/overuse injury in the works.

Now, let’s do some statistical correlation. Here’s a list of the most frequently injured or weak muscles in everyone:

  • Hamstrings
  • Adductor
  • Iliotibial band (technically a ligament, yes I know)
  • Subscapularis
  • Infraspinatus
  • Piriformis
  • Peroneals
  • Iliopsoas
  • Lower trapezius

Think about it. All of these muscles are weak in most of the population. They are usually shortened and tightened as well, sometimes even to the point of complete immobility. Subscapularis is the most frequently injured rotator cuff muscle. Infraspinatus is almost always tight and riddled with trigger points. How many football players have had season-ending hamstring tears or groin injuries? Weak ankles is associated with weak peroneals. The infamous iliopsoas is tight in all desk jockeys, yet when asked to perform a psoas strength test, nearly all of them fail. A direct association between tight and weak.

The Upshot

Ok, so now that you believe tight = weak, what’s the hype all about? Well, the take-home lesson is that any muscle that is tight is going to require strengthening. That’s not really intuitive to most docs. Most of the time, a tight muscle gets flexibility training only. However, even if you are successful in lengthening the muscle back to its original state, any length you achieve is only temporary. This is because the second you strain it again, it’s going to tighten back up and glaze over with scar tissue again. And because you’ve been in a shortened, weakened state for so long, it’s pretty damn easy to strain it again. Take hamstring injuries – re-injury is ridiculously frequent.

Furthermore, it’s a well-documented fact that muscles do not respond to static stretching unless they are warmed up sufficiently. You can warm the muscle up using activity or heat. You could go sit in a sauna or put a heating pad on the area for a while, physically warming the muscle, but this isn’t going to do nearly as much as actually using the muscle. Why? Well, warming it up from the outside increases blood flow, but not nearly as much as warming it up internally. Blood and nutrients flood a muscle when you use it. Also, when you USE a muscle, it gets stronger.

So, here are your options:

  1. Flexibility Training Only:  This rehabilitation program focuses primarily on restoring the flexibility of the muscle.  Passive, static stretching is combined with disuse of the muscle in an effort to avoid straining it and re-injuring it.  This method of rehabilitation completely fails if the muscle has been shortened for any length of time longer than a week or two.  The muscle has lost strength and become accustomed to its new, shortened length.  Furthermore, strength gain is passive and takes much longer, increasing propensity for re-injury.
  2. Strength and Flexibility Combination:  This program involves direct (maybe even isolation) work for the muscle in question in an effort to strengthen it and get nutrients and blood to the muscle.  A few sets with low weight is enough to stimulate the muscle.  Following each set, the muscle should be statically, gently stretched.  Do not push the stretching, as the muscle is not yet strong enough and your nervous system will shorten the muscle to avoid further injury if you attempt to stretch it too quickly or intensely.
  3. Trigger Point Therapy + Strength/Flexibility:  This method is the ultimate in muscle rehabilitation.  Yes, it’s ballsy to call it the ultimate, but I’m doing it anyway.  For long-standing injuries, this is the only permanent solution.  First, you use massage therapy and trigger point therapy to loosen the muscle and free it from scar tissue and adhesions.  If your injury has persisted through seemingly all forms of treatment and several doctors, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.  If the muscle is riddled with adhesions and scar tissue, no amount of strengthening or stretching is going to free it in a reasonable amount of time.  Once you have mobilized the muscle, follow activation techniques to restore your mind-muscle connection and begin using light resistance to strengthen it again.  Be sure to include gentle stretches after each workout.

How Effective Is It?

Extremely. Here’s my personal story: I began noticing a nagging ache in my left shoulder 5+ years ago. After it persisted for some time, I began altering my training a little bit and started pouring money into professional medical help. I saw a renowned shoulder surgeon, had MRIs done on the shoulder and went to physical therapy. The MRI came back negative (which was good I guess), and the physical therapy provided momentary relief, but nothing really lasted.

About three years ago, my right groin started hurting during squats. Naturally, as an uneducated, younger idiot, I worked through it and figured it was a weakness I could train through. No dice. My shoulder and hip progressively became worse and worse and nothing could fix it. My father (and all of the other older people in my life) gloated over me with their “I told you so!” and “Getting older sucks, don’t it?” Of course, I was doomed to repeat their failures in my life because it was the inevitable course of action. No way anybody could “beat the system.”

So there I was, all of my 200 pounds that I worked so hard for melting away and turning into blubber, forced to sit out my favorite activities. People would tell me “Wow, Frank, you’re not what you used to be…” and assume it was because I had gotten lazy. Skinny fucks in the gym would taunt me. “Where’s your strength now? I bet I could beat you at [insert test of physical superiority here].” My mental condition was greatly diminished.

Then I discovered trigger point therapy. While not the answer to my problem, it provided me with a great deal of pain relief. In fact, without having done all the work I did on myself, no amount of recovery or money spent on medical care would be able to fix me. I loosened up all kinds of muscles, removing scar tissue. I found strength I hadn’t felt in years. The trigger point therapy was SO helpful, in fact, that I was actually STRONGER on a lot of my lifts after over a year of not doing them. I tried going back to the gym, but I was again frustrated by the same failures – left shoulder impingement and a short, tight right leg.

FINALLY, I found a few articles on the internet about this tight = weak muscle relationship. I had determined which muscles needed to have more length and functionality, but no amount of active recovery was doing it. Once I understood this relationship, however, I directed training at my tight muscle groups. You know, the ones I had always assumed were tight because they were overactive and too strong. Instead of training my hip extensors, I began training my weak hip flexors (psoas, rectus femoris). They had become injured from years of training and weakened by years of inactivity. Instead of pounding away in futility on my external rotators, I gave my subscapularis some tender, loving attention. And instead of training my upper trapezius, I directly trained my lower trapezius. The result? Shoulder impingement was gone in two weeks. Hip no longer feels like it’s catching every time I try to walk. Just for the hell of it, I decided to give the sissy hip adductor machine a go today and found out I have WOMANLY strength on adduction. After four sets, I felt like my weight was more evenly distributed between my feet, and I proved it to myself with a calf workout that worked both sides equally.


If the lower trapezius is tight, doesn't it make sense that the scapula would be pulled down permanently? And if that were the case, doesn't it make sense that impingement shouldn't be an issue? Yet, because the lower trapezius is so weak (and simultaneously tight), impingement is the result. The only way to fix it is by strengthening the muscle first, THEN lengthening.

Ok, so that’s my personal success rant. There are others who have had great success doing the strength AND flexibility option, too. Coaches who emphasize posterior chain training (with hamstrings, etc.) have a far lower occurrence of hamstring injury, and players perform at a higher level. Consider that a strong muscle will not suffer injury during overstretching, eccentric contraction or maximum force production. Consider that muscles with strength in all of their ROM are hardly ever injured. Case in point: well-trained hamstrings using straight-legged deadlifts. I have never had anything even close to a hamstring injury using this training protocol – it’s stretch overload for the hamstrings. Only a healthy muscle is flexible.


In a sentence, a tight muscle is a weak muscle. Oftentimes, injuries occur because a muscle is too tight. Hamstrings, adductors and psoas are the biggest, most common injuries seen in both athletes and average joes. While it is possible that a muscle is tight because it’s strong, this isn’t as likely as a muscle being tight and weak.  When you strengthen a tight muscle, you increase the utility and function of the muscle AND reduce the risk of injuring it.

The next time you have a tight muscle, consider strengthening it. For athletes, this entails tailoring your program a little bit to hit some underworked muscles. If you want to be big on your big lifts, start looking at your strength in adduction, hip flexion and shoulder stability. I’ll follow this post up with a few exercise programs that emphasize strength and flexibility together.  In the meantime, here’s an EXCELLENT article by Eric Cressey, the master of all things biomechanical:  .



Subscapularis: A New Perspective

October 13, 2010 at 6:16 AM | Posted in Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | 3 Comments
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I’m going to try something new with my blog posts and try to cite as much of my information as I can.  I’ll follow up with a references section at the end.

I’ve been browsing around the interwebz using all of my trusted websites to gather information concerning my ongoing shoulder pain. For those of you who may or may not know, I have suffered with impingement syndrome in my left shoulder for about 5 years now. This blog is the result of everything I have researched in an effort to end my own pain.

Subscapularis Definition/Function

I recently came upon some functional anatomy information that made a lot of things much clearer to me. First off, let’s explain what the subscapularis muscle even is. The subscapularis is part of the rotator cuff. It is the only muscle in the rotator cuff that has a large advantage in internal rotation.


The muscle highlighted in red is the subscapularis muscle. As you can see, it is pretty well-nestled in there with the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior.


The above picture shows the location of subscapularis. It is the muscle in dark red. The following picture shows it from the front. As you can see, the muscle is actually on the “underside” of the shoulder blade, and it attaches to the FRONT of the humerus (upper arm bone).


The subscapularis from the front. It is behind the ribcage, and it comes from the "underside" of the shoulder blade. It attaches to the front of the humerus.


If you think about the basic physics of it, the subscapularis is an internal rotator. That is, when it contracts, it tends to rotate your palm so it faces backwards. Therefore, it tends to get a bad reputation because most people have internally rotated humeri. Of course, this is bad. You’ve heard of it being called “protracted shoulders,” “kyphosis,” or rounded shoulders. Other internal rotators are the pecs and lats. But there’s more to the story. Note that the lats are generally considered antagonist to the pecs. This means that the lats can’t only perform internal rotation – they have to be able to do something else. Indeed, the pecs and lats can both do other things. So can the subscapularis.

What else does the subscapularis do, then? Well, being part of the rotator cuff, it is responsible for dynamic stabilization. [1]  That’s fancy for keeping your arm in the socket. But its most critical function is when your arms are above your head. Take a look at the following force diagram:


Force Diagram for the Rotator Cuff During Abduction


This figure really gets at the heart of the matter. Notice that the supraspinatus (SS) and deltoid drive the humerus up. If you only have those two forces acting on the bone, then the top of the humerus is going to be driven up. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the surpraspinatus and the bursa next to it are trying to operate in that space between the two bones (called the subacromial space). If the arm bone is driven up into the shoulderblade, you’re going to get impingement. This is where your pain comes from. But, this is also why your subscapularis (SSc) is far more than an internal rotator. The dynamic stabilization provided by the subscapularis is CRITICAL for preventing impingement because it directly opposes the pull of both muscles. In order to do this, the subscapularis needs to have fibers that can pull in any direction, because the arm can go through such a huge range of motion. Indeed, as verified in the next picture, the subscapularis has lower, mid-lower, mid-upper and upper fibers that act at different degrees of abduction (raising your arm).


Note that the fibers of the subscapularis have different orientations. This enables the muscle to pull on the inside of the humerus head at all of the angles the shoulder moves through.


As you can probably guess, any sort of dysfunction with this muscle leads to impingement syndrome. Depending on the problem in the subscapularis muscle, the problem will manifest itself in different ways. Sometimes, people only have pain at a certain part of their shoulder abduction. You can use this as a way to tell what part of your subscapularis is affected. Generally, there are three trigger points. However, if you let the problem progress for too long, your entire muscle will become affected. The subscapularis can simply fail to function and you can get impingement that way. It can also become too tight, causing every one of your external rotators and the supraspinatus to become fatigued from the constant pull.

Why It’s Important

For most people, the ability to raise the arm above the head is pretty important, wouldn’t you say? So in terms of general range of motion, you should care about the subscapularis.

However, if you’re any kind of athlete or weightlifter, bodybuilder, etc., then you probably care a lot. Let’s talk about what the subscapularis does for you when you lift weights.

The subscapularis is an enormously powerful muscle given its size. This is due to the fact that it usually has a surprisingly large cross-sectional area and its tendon is positioned to give it a good mechanical advantage. During any kind of exercise where the arm is at or above shoulder level (benchpress, chins, etc.), the subscapularis generally opposes the upward translation of the humerus. This prevents impingement. When you think about it, the subscapularis needs to be able to resist the pull of the supraspinatus (a relatively small and weak muscle but with a decent mechanical advantage) and the deltoid combined (a massive, powerful muscle with a strong multi-pennate structure). It’s not hard to see how this muscle can become overworked.

In the cult-like world of powerlifting, studies have been done that directly correlate strength on upper body lifts to cross-sectional area of the subscapularis. [2]  2This would suggest that overhead movements are limited mainly by the strength and conditioning of the subscapularis muscle in most people. If you think about it, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Generally, people recommend against using the “behind-the-neck press.” The basis for avoiding this move is that it leads to RC damage/impingement.


This guy is dominating you on a lift you aren't even supposed to be doing. What gives? His shoulders are enormous.


Yet, some people do this move and have massive shoulders and no problems from it. What gives? Well, what’s happening when you do a behind-the-neck press? Your shoulder is in what’s called hyperextension. It’s really not hyperextension, it’s just range of motion that normal people don’t have. At the bottom of the movement, your subscapularis is operating at the end of its range of motion. When you consider that people generally don’t have strength at the end of the ROM for even the biggest, strongest muscles in the body, it’s no wonder most people get an injury from this lift. However, a “properly conditioned” RC can handle this move with respectable weight and attention to form (and perhaps special attention to the subscapularis). I always wondered what that meant, and now I see. Properly conditioned refers to full ROM strength for the subscapularis.

The Rest of the Problem

There are a few things that complicate things with this seemingly simple issue.

1. Trigger Points

Yes, you’ve heard me rant and rave about trigger points. Here are the big ones in the subscapularis:


Note that the referred pain is in the back of the shoulder.


If you have trigger points in your subscapularis, any number of things could be going wrong and causing you pain. A tight subscapularis usually manifests itself in pain in the back of the shoulder and a general feeling of tightness in the armpit. [3]

2. Faulty Strengthening Moves

If you’re any kind of bodybuilder or powerlifter with hair on your balls, you’ve probably already Googled some strengthening moves for the subscapularis. Here’s what you found:


Yes, that's right. This is internal rotation cable work with a naked chick.


You can thank me later for making it interesting with a naked chick. You biomechanics nerds have noticed that this is pure internal rotation of the humerus. Well, big woop. This does nothing for the dynamic stabilization function of the subscapularis. It does get blood to the muscle and work one specific part of the muscle (making it ok for recovery). But the upshot is if you only do this (or the bench side-lying internal rotation move with a dumbbell), you’re not really training the muscle to do what you want it do.

For contrast, take a look at this page:

It shows how to activate the different regions of the subscapularis. You’ll notice that they’re not really anything like that cable move.

I’ll follow up with some dynamic stabilization moves when I find them. The internet is lacking badly in giving me this info.

3. Worthless stretches

If you Google subscapularis stretches, you’ll come up with this:


The 'broomstick' stretch.


This one stretches one particular plane of motion that the subscapularis can operate in, and it will probably feel really good when you do it. But it doesn’t stretch the whole thing. What else can you do?

Well, your creativity is the limit on this one. However, I’ve devised my own stretch that seems to work particularly well for all of the planes of motion for the subscapularis. I’ll describe the setup in words, then give a picture.

  • Lay on the floor on your stomach, but support yourself with one arm.  With the other arm, make an “L.”
  • Place the “L” arm on the ground, palm down.  You should be facing sideways, and a little down, with the support of your other hand.
  • Now if you turn your trunk upwards, away from the palm down, you should begin to feel a stretch in your armpit.
  • If you are new to this stretch, or if it feels exceptionally tight, stay here and statically stretch it for a minute or so.  Be patient.
  • Once you have loosened up, you can vary the angle of the stretch.  Keep your elbow bent at a 90 degree angle, and move your body.  You’re going to be moving the shoulder joint (not the elbow).  You can put the arm above your head and you can go all the way down, as though you were doing a pullup.

Since this is pretty hard to describe, here’s a picture. Thanks to an army of douchebags, I no longer own a digital camera and this will have to do:


Just be sure to turn your palm so that it's facing the floor. The rest of this is right.


This stretch is greatly intensified and much more useful if you attempt to “pull” your arm from the socket. Remember that the primary purpose of the RC is to keep the humeral head in the socket, so trying to pull your arm out of the socket is a good way to stretch. However, if you’re prone to shoulder dislocations, be careful (though if you’re prone to shoulder dislocations you probably aren’t having issues with tight muscles here). Play around with the stretch to see what works and what doesn’t – everyone is different.


The subscapularis performs far more than internal rotation of the humerus. Its most vital role is in dynamically stabilizing the head of the humerus during shoulder abduction. Any time the arm is at or above shoulder level, the subscapularis is critical to preventing impingement. Overall upper body strength has been directly linked to the strength and conditioning of the subscapularis. Moreover, people with a strong, healthy subscapularis can generally perform shoulder exercises at a greater range of motion than others and still be safe about it. And they generally have the most well-developed shoulders and the highest lifts. Although a bold statement, I believe it reasonable to suggest that most shoulder pain has the subscapularis involved to some degree.

Dysfunction in the subscapularis can be caused by any of several problems. Weakness, tightness, trigger points and nerve entrapment (rarely) are the main problems. It can be injured through unbalanced shoulder training and generally shortens if you have bad posture. Clicking in the glenero-humeral joint (what most people consider to be the shoulder joint) indicates tightness in one or more of the RC muscles, generally beginning with the subscapularis and the supraspinatus.

Imbalances in strength or tone can also lead to chronically tight external rotators. If you frequently suffer from pain in the infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and/or rear deltoid, check the subscapularis. Because the deltoid is a strong, powerful muscle, trigger points and overuse in the deltoid are almost always the result of other muscles being in trouble.

Traditional subscapularis stretches and exercises don’t really get to the heart of the problem. They focus too much on the internal rotation ability of the muscle and ignore the dynamic stabilization strength. Since most people need the latter, many people are frustrated when their strengthening and stretching efforts do not produce results. Likewise, people who are educated enough to attempt to ward of RC injury using these stretches and lifts will be disappointed to learn that this particular mode of shoulder failure is not at all prevented using the traditional treatment.





Frank’s Patented Method for Kicking the Paper Towel Addiction

January 2, 2010 at 7:02 PM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living, Psychological Wellness, Rants | 1 Comment

This is a much shorter post than usual, so read it!  I was raised in a home that relied on paper towels to do everything: cleaning, drying hands off, cooking, sopping up spills, eating, you name it. It never occurred to me as a child to think anything of it. It was easy, convenient, and it seemed that we could afford it at the time. Of course, I never considered the immense amount of waste it produced, and I wasn’t paying for it.

Used Paper Towels

Eliminate that unecessary paper towel waste by strategically using real towels.

Now that I’m off on my own and I’ve become much more sensitive to environmental interests, I realize that’s a really bad plan. But how do you stop? Once you have gotten used to the convenience of mass paper towel use, how do you give that up and still get things done as neatly and effectively? Well, that’s where I come in.

The system is very simple. First, think of all the things you use paper towels for. You probably use them to clean off counter tops, dry off dishes (maybe?), drying your hands after you wash them, etc. One of the chief reasons people are concerned with using real towels instead of paper towels is the spread of germs and viruses. There are a number of ways around it.

White Hand Towels

A supply of simple white hand towels is suggested.

First, I suggest you buy yourself a good supply of white hand towels – not dish rags, they aren’t big enough. I suggest white because they go along with a lot of color schemes, they can be bleached and they show when they are dirty better than a colored towel. One problem I’ve always run into with colored towels is that as they age, they tend to take on a mildew smell that is extremely difficult to remove and completely unappealing. The bleach when you wash your white towels will prevent this from ever happening.

Now, you need to designate two or three towels for each job in the kitchen. Use one for drying hands off, one for drying dishes and one for cleaning off counter tops. This ensures that the spread of germs from dishes and counter tops is kept off of hands. Easy enough, right? On top of that, you can change any or all of these towels daily. Practically, what you do is change the hand towel quite a bit more often than the dish or counter towel. If you have a large family or one that does a lot of cooking, you could probably justify changing them more often. It also means you can let small food particles left on the counter go onto the towel without any worries – shake them off later when the towel is dry if you’re worried about them getting into your laundry.

It’s also worth mentioning that you need to find a place to hang the towel so it’s not bunched up. This helps the towels dry as quickly as possible so you need not worry about unappealing mildew smells building up in short periods of time.

Bad Idea

Hanging the towel from the fridge handle: bad idea.

Good Idea

Hanging the towel neatly from a stove handle: good idea

Your old paper towel holder, if it’s the type with a dowel that hangs on the wall, is also a great place to store a towel being used.

Now, I’m no idealist. I realize that sometimes you’re simply going to have to use a paper towel. Sometimes messes are simply not something you’d want in the laundry or too nasty to send there. For that reason, I keep paper towels around just in case. If you want an idea of just how effective this method is, let me demonstrate: I live with four guys on a college campus with one kitchen between us. We share a set of dishes and we keep the kitchen really clean. In six months, we’ve gone through just three (3) rolls of paper towels. We could have even gone through less as I caught myself and others using paper towels at times for jobs that regular towels could have easily handled. There’s a goal for you to shoot for.

When you DO buy paper towels, buy the ones made from recycled paper. There’s a really good brand called the Seventh Generation. They produce both paper towels and toilet paper, white and brown. If you go with white, they bleach their towels without harsh chemicals. However, I suggest going with the brown ones simply because they leave less chemical residue behind and require less processing. The Seventh Generation products are slightly more expensive than regular paper towels and toilet paper, but with the money you won’t be spending on a regular supply of paper towels, you can more than cover the extra cost, and you’ll be doing the environment a HUGE favor (regular toilet paper and paper towels are normally made from virgin wood – not recycled paper – thus requiring more resources to make and having a much larger impact on the environment).

Of course, you can take this idea as far as you want to. You can feel even better about your real towel usage if you buy organic cotton towels. That way, you’re supporting farmers who are doing the right thing AND doing the right thing in your very own kitchen.

There you have it. If you use my system, it will work. It should put you on the road to throwing away a lot less waste, spending roughly $10-20 less per month on unnecessary kitchen supplies and feeling better about your lifestyle. You can know that you’re doing a small favor with a huge impact. Here are some quick statistics, taken from a website called A Lighter Footprint:

  • About 12 million barrels of oil and 14 million trees go to paper and plastic bag prodution annually in the United States.
  • Per capita solid waste production is roughly 4.4 pounds daily.
  • Americans use more than 67 million tons of paper per year – about 580 pounds per person.
  • Americans send 3,000 tons of paper towels to landfills each day. If your household uses a roll of paper towels per week, you could save more than $100 per year by switching to dishcloths and tea towels.
  • Approximately 40% of the solid waste mass that makes up our landfills are paper and cardboard.

You can see just how far your paper towel use reaches, and how much of a difference it makes to make this simple, easy switch.  Trust me, it might be difficult or unfamiliar at first, but it becomes second nature in just a week or two, maybe even less.

Have a heart - save some trees.

Getting off the paper towel fix (especially if they're not made from recycled paper) will save a LOT of trees and oil in the end.

Fountain of Youth IX: Mobility and Flexibility of Joints and Muscles

December 24, 2009 at 7:13 AM | Posted in Fountain of Youth, Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | 1 Comment

In any rehabilitation or exercise program, soft tissue work is an absolute must. I’ve been talking about soft tissue work for the last 5 posts in this series, so it’s time to move on. I’ve numbered this one as 9, however, because the other 4 I haven’t done yet. They are details on how to self-massage common trigger points in the upper body, but it’s been a daunting task and videos are necessary, so it’s taking some time. In the meantime, I’m moving onto the next topic.

Soft tissue work gets your muscles moving freely and properly again. However, what it doesn’t do is return your muscles to their proper length or help your joints move freely. Thus enters the next logical step: conditioning your joints for full mobility and your muscles for flexibility. This is step two of the list below, which is the basic list you must follow, in order, to return your body to health.

1. Soft Tissue Work: Foam rolling, trigger point therapy, self-massage, etc. This is Fountain of Youth I – VIII.
2. Mobility and Flexibility: Stretching, activation drills.
3. Toning and Strengthening: Actively using weak or inhibited muscles in order to return them to their normal length and proper function.
4. Active Lifestyle: Once your body is working properly again, continue to use it to a reasonable degree in order to feel better, maintain activity levels, and achieve whatever other goals you have for yourself (losing weight, gaining weight, getting stronger, increasing testosterone levels, etc.).

First off, there’s a difference. Flexibility describes the “passive tone” of your muscles. For instance, imagine that you lie down on your back on a bench. Someone else takes your leg and bends it at the knee. If that person can bend the knee through its full range of motion without causing you any kind of grief, then you have full flexibility. However, the motion was passive because you weren’t actively contracting or lengthening any muscles. In order for you to have full mobility, you need to be able to cause your knee to actively move through its full range of motion. Even if you have full flexibility, you don’t necessarily have full mobility.

So above, I mentioned you’ll be needing to stretch tight muscles and activate loose ones. I’ll go through some common postural problems so you can see just what I mean, but the basic idea is to do soft tissue work on tight muscles, subsequently stretch them and then strengthen the inhibited muscles. Stretching isn’t worthwhile unless you do soft tissue work on the muscles first (assuming they’re the tight ones).

1. Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Without a doubt, anterior pelvic tilt is the most common postural problem in the developed world.  That might sound like a bold claim, but I challenge you to dispute it with evidence.  Anterior pelvic tilt is usually due to sit-down jobs, extended time being lazy watching TV or messing around on the computer, etc.  It can also be caused simply by having poor postural awareness or losing control of the stabilizer muscles, something that most everyone has done to some degree.  ATP affects performance in any sport, and it can cause extreme pain in the groin and low back, and sometimes the neck.  Here’s a picture.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Note the effects of ATP: distended appearance of the gut, ugly protuberance of butt, forward head, and the appearance of a caved chest.

Tight muscles in this alignment are

  • Psoas major and minor
  • Quadriceps, especially rectus femoris
  • Spinal erectors
  • Quadratus Lumborum
  • Adductors (sometimes, but other postural problems might cause them to be normal length)
  • Sometimes, other hip flexors are tight (TFL, pectineus, etc.)

Weak, lengthened and inhibited muscle groups are

  • Gluteals (all three of them, usually)
  • Abdominals, especially transverse abdominus
  • Hamstrings

Many people don’t realize exactly what’s happening here.  There are two major joints in the pelvic region.  One is obviously the hip joint, where the femur meets the pelvis.  Everyone knows about that one.  The other one, however, is the lesser-known sacroiliac joint (SI joint for short).   Here’s a picture:

SI Joint

The SI joint is the part where the sacrum (the triangular part) connects with the pelvis, specifically the ilium.

As you can see, the pelvis can rotate relative to the sacrum.  This is what happens in APT (or PPT) – the pelvis rotates backwards, so it faces down in the front.

There are a lot of articles available on how to fix ATP.  Most of them go through specific stretches, exercises and weightlifting moves you can perform in order to correct the deficiency.  However, your progress will be much slower and harder without the inclusion of soft tissue work, and a lot of programs neglect to mention this.   Here are a few good articles:

Since the point of this article isn’t to give you programs for each particular postural problem, I won’t be doing that. The point instead is to offer you a general strategy for going about mobilizing joints and making you aware of what that even means.

So, here are joints that most people lack full mobility in:

  • Ankle
  • Knee
  • SI Joint
  • Thoracic Mobility
  • Scapular Retraction
  • Scapular Depression

Of course, it’s possible to be lacking mobility in any joint in the body, but these are the most common.  So, I’ll elaborate one-by-one.

Ankle Mobility

Ankle X-Ray

This picture shows what the ankle SHOULD look like at the end of your stride.

Do a little test for yourself. Get up, make sure you have plenty of room and walk around a little bit. Take note of how your ankle moves or doesn’t move during walking. If it doesn’t move, great news! You’re just like everybody else and you seriously lack ankle mobility. Full ankle mobility should mean that you don’t even have to think about it – they just move and do their own thing. Ideally, what you want is at the beginning of a step, your heel is in contact with the ground first. As you move your body weight onto that foot, the foot rolls gently to become flat on the ground. Now, as you move your weight off of the foot, the foot gently rolls forward and your toes leave the ground last. You repeat this “rolling” motion of the ankle as you walk. Now, I’m assuming you either don’t have full ankle mobility or you cheated to get it, so here’s the muscles you need to work on.

Foam roll: Gastrocnemius (the meat of the calf), soleus (behind gastrocs), outer sides of the calves (peroneals), and the front of the calves (tibialis, mostly). It’s likely that you need a lot of trigger point work done in the meat of the calves, so use a tennis ball and roll around until you find the extremely painful spots. If you suffer from restless leg syndrome, this can also be cured by regular tennis ball/foam rolling efforts through the calves, particularly in the soleus.

Strengthen: Tibialis anterior. This is a tough muscle to get to. You can do toe lifts if you don’t want to go to the gym, but be sure your gastrocs and soleus are very loose, otherwise they will create an imbalance between your weakened tibialis. You might also suffer from shin splints for this same reason.

Here are a few good articles for ankle mobility drills. They explain each one, usually by picture or video.

Knee Mobility

A lot of people don’t have full knee mobility due to tight hamstrings or a tight fascia lata. If you’ve got any kind of knee pain, you undoubtedly don’t have full mobility. Here’s what you need to do.

Foam roll everything. Foam rolling isn’t the end of your soft tissue work here though. What you’ll end up needing to do is hit the very tight muscles with concentrated work using a tennis ball or a Thera-cane. If you’re lucky enough to have a Thera-cane, use the tiny knobs on the main piece of it to dig into the quadriceps, and concentrate around the outside of quads and the rectus femoris, which is in the middle. Here are some trigger point diagrams to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

Vastus Lateralis Trigger Points

These are trigger points on the outer thigh you can get by foam rolling and tennis ball. They tend to cause a lot of leg and knee pain.

Be careful with this picture.  The most incredible spot for massaging pain in your knee and returning mobility is labled TrP1 in the picture.  It looks like it’s on the side, but it’s not.  The muscle wraps around to the front.  You can reach this point by applying LOTS  of pressure somewhere about an inch or two above the kneecap and an inch or so towards the outside of the leg.

Now, with the hamstrings, you face an interesting problem.  Your hamstrings are more than likely both tight AND weak. Normally, if a muscle is really tight, it’s generally overpowering its neighbors.  However, in the classic case of I-am-a-lazy-pile syndrome, the hamstrings need to be rolled (possibly trigger point therapy too), stretched chronically (stretch them daily), used more often and eventually strengthened.  The problem with hamstrings is of course made more confusing and worse by ATP if you’re suffering from that.

I already covered SI joint problems, so I’ll move directly to the next item on the list.

Thoracic Mobility

Spine Diagram

The thoracic spine is clearly labeled as the yellow collection of vertebrae, and there are twelve.

The thoracic spine is the middle part of the spine, above the lumbar/sacral parts and below the cervical (neck) spine.  The picture to the left shows the location of the thoracic spine.  You can think of these vertebrae as the ones the ribs connect to for simplicity.

The test for thoracic mobility is simple.  Lay down on your back and fully extend your arms overhead.  Most, if not all, of your arms should touch the ground comfortably.  You should not feel any strain.  Your wrists should be flat on the ground as well.  If you feel strain doing this or cannot achieve it, with or without effort, then you lack thoracic mobility.

You should care about thoracic mobility because it does a few important things: first off, it helps you regain good posture.  You have been stuck in a bad posture for so long that your vertebrae have become accustomed to it and don’t want to move.  Next, it will help you prevent injuries to the rotator cuff muscles and neck.  It even helps with low back pain.  If you lift, you will improve your form and strength by increasing your thoracic mobility.  Ideally, each vertebra should be able to move “relatively” independently of the next (obviously this is an oversimplification), but chances are your vertebrae don’t have much relative movement at all.

The good news is, thoracic mobility is incredibly easy to improve.  Here are the best two methods:

Easy method (use this when you’re starting off): Take a foam roller and place it on the ground behind you (you need to be seated initially).  Then, carefully lean back onto the foam roller.  You should contact the roller at the top of your lumbar spine (think lowest set of ribs).  Now, roll up and down the foam roller, but be careful not to roll onto your neck or lower back at this point.  Your arms should be hugging yourself in order to move your shoulder blades out of the way.

Improved method: Once you’ve got some strength and mobility back, what you’ll want to be doing next is tying two tennis balls side-by-side in a sock.  Then perform situps, with each rep or two contacting the tennis balls on a separate vertebra.  So, when you lower yourself down on the eccentric portion of the situp, move the tennis balls so they contact a different vertebra.  Ease your weight onto the tennis balls, roll around a little bit and then perform another rep.

There are a lot more things you can do for thoracic mobility if you’re an athlete.  Here’s the best program I’ve seen:

Scapular Retraction

Scapular retraction is a very simple movement that most people do not know how to do.  Usually, people end up with protracted shoulder girdle (slumped-in shoulders) because we work with our hands in front of us.  If you type at a computer, write a lot or work with your hands frequently, there’s a good chance you don’t have full scapular retraction.  It’s also possible that your rhomboids, which are primarily responsible for the movement, are either lengthened, weak, angry, or any combination of those and you feel a burning, aching sensation between your shoulders as a result.  Scapular retraction is very easy to restore, but you need to work at it for a while and constantly use it in order to keep it.

Rhomboid Trigger Points

Use the tennis ball in this area. If you've got a Thera-cane, that's even better for getting at this group. It'll probably hurt.

The first step is soft tisue work.  Use the tennis ball on your upper back to get at the rhomboids, which are in the picture on the left.  In order to get a really good, concentrated effort on the rhomboids, you’ll want to lay down and move the arm on the side you’re working on in front of you.  This will stretch the muscle and expose it better.  You’ll probably also want to hit your trapezius, in the middle and lower fibers particularly.

Once you’ve gotten your soft tissue work done, you’ll want to start in with activation drills.  The easiest one is the “scapular wall slide.”

Find a wall with enough empty space to accomodate you, and then some.  What you do is stand with your back flat against the wall, or as close to flat as you can (don’t round your back in weird ways).  Then, take your arms overhead in such a way that your elbows and wrists contact the wall.  Now, slide the arms up and down.  During the ENTIRE movement, be sure that both your elbows and wrists remain in contact with the wall.  This is absolutely critical, otherwise you won’t be using the right muscles.  After you do this for a while, you should begin noticing an unfamiliar muscle recruitment pattern.  You’ll feel the muscles in your middle back and between your shoulder blades working.  Congratulations, you’ve become mentally acquainted with your lower trapezius and your rhomboids!  Quite a feat.

Scapular Depression

Scapular depression is similar to scapular retraction, but the two are different.  Scapular depression relies on your serratus anterior, pectoralis minor and trapezius to work.  It usually works a lot better when the scapulae are retracted before depression.  If you’re one of those guys who only ever does bench and biceps, hopefully you’ve at least taken the time to note proper form during benching.  Every textbook description for benching starts off with this: retract and depress the scapulae.  Back in the 60’s, that wasn’t really an issue for most people.  Now, your average pile wouldn’t have any idea how to do that.

The good news is that you’ve already done a lot of soft tissue work you need to do if you’ve done your scapular retraction work.  The only things you need to add are pec minor work and levator scapula work.  The pectoralis minor is so small and weak in most people that it’s more like a tendon than a muscle.  It’s also usually shortened, tight and perhaps even weak.  You can get to it most easily with a tennis ball/foam roller combination through the outer pec region, but you may need to resort to using your opposite hand to really get in there.  Don’t be afraid to dig in.

Levator scapula is a different beast.  If you’ve got chronic neck pain, I bet you’ve got trigger points here.

Levator Scapulae

These trigger points are very deep. You'll either be massaging yourself with your hands or using the Thera-cane.

The levator scapulae raise the shoulder blades towards the neck/head.  A lot of people stress out too much and subsconsciously shrug the shoulders, especially in the workplace, and end up with short levator scapulae.  Since you’re trying to depress the scapulae, you’ll need to loosen and stretch these muscles first.

The first activation drill you did, with the scapular wall slides, is an excellent trainer for depression as well as retraction.  One more thing you can do without going to the gym is a scapular pushup.  What you do is assume a pushup position of some sort (you can be on your knees if it helps, doesn’t have to be a hardcore pushup).  Now, instead of lowering yourself down to the floor, push yourself up from neutral.  Obviously, your elbows are already as straight as they get, so you’re going to need to do something different here.  The different movement is in the movement of the shoulder strictly.  Here’s a video to illustrate:

Finally, a really good overall scapular mobility program is available here for those of you looking to get a little more advanced or provide defense against potential injury during athletics:

That about wraps this post up.  Joint mobility is critical in a pain-free, healthy lifestyle.  You can get joint mobility by massaging tight muscles, removing trigger points and activating/strengthening weak or inhibited muscles.  This is the part where you need to start becoming a little more familiar with your body and how it prefers to do things, and this post teaches you to feel the differences in the proper and improper working of muscles.  It also teaches you how to activate muscles you didn’t have full control over before.  This step is absolutely necessary for anyone who has led an inactive lifestlye or let the callings of life take over too much.  For athletes, I recommend some kind of regular schedule, perhaps weekly, that includes activation and stablization drills to keep muscles working properly and joints at optimum health.  Even if you aren’t having problems now, you should do it as a form of prehabilitation.

As always, email me with any questions or comments, or post them on the site.

Natural Soaps: Better for You and the Earth

November 24, 2009 at 2:10 AM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living, Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | 2 Comments

First off, let me apologize for the lapse in posting. Lately, I’ve been weighed down with school and I’ve been getting back into weightlifting, so I haven’t had a lot of time to post. On another side-note, I am attempting to keep my posts shorter so more people read them. I’ve had more time to mull over some of the potential topics I wanted to talk about. Here’s one: organic soap.

Until this summer, this seemed like a luxury that only wealthy people would ever be able to afford, and it always struck me as a kind of pretentious thing to do. But I’m pretty big on holistic health care, and I believe that a little preventative medicine goes a long way towards keeping you in good health and reducing your health care costs. With the coming changes in health care, wouldn’t it be better if you simply didn’t have to rely on it at all? I think you would agree with me on that, at least.

So, what’s the deal with organic soap? It’s easier to answer that question by defining a few terms.

1. Soap: Real, true, honest-to-science soap is a cleansing agent made from the salts of vegetable or animal fat that has the rare ability to mix with both water and oil. Your skin and hair are oily, and you want to be able to clean off the excess oil with water. Soap seems perfect for the job.

Real soap: Not just for yuppies anymore.

2. Synthetic imitation beauty products: By law, manufacturers of beauty products are not allowed to call their product soap unless it is TRULY soap. Soap can be made at home using emulsifying wax, an oil base, and some sort of herb or essential oil for fragrance or medicinal properties, or both. You can’t make the stuff on Wal-Mart’s shelf. These products are called body wash, beauty wash, beauty bars, or moisturizing bars instead of soap. They are usually based on some sort of synthetic oil (or a low-quality vegetable oil at best), synthetic fragrance, and harmful chemical additives.

Commercial, synthetic washes are normally a liquid at room temperature.

For you skeptics, here’s a few lists.

Pantene Pro-V® ingredients: water, ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, cocamide mea, glycol distearate, dimethicone, ammonium xylenesulfonate, cictric acid (preservative), fragrance, panthenyl ethyl ether, panthenol, polyquaternium-10, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, disodium EDTA, peg-7M, cetyl alcohol, methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, sodium chloride.

So, Pantene®’s ingredients list contains pretty much nothing that sounds normal.

Here’s another list:

Dove gofresh® (waterlilly & fresh mint scent): water, sodium laureth sulfate, cocamidopropyl betaine, lauric acid, glycine soja (soybean) oil or helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil, petrolatum, cocamide MEA, glycerin, fragrance, guar hydroxylpropyltrimoinum chloride, menthol, isostearic acid, PEG-8, stearate, citric acid, DMDM hydantoin, tetrasodium EDTA, blue 1, titanium dioxide, yellow 5.

They even got a patent for that formula. I’d like you to take note that neither Dove® nor Pantene® make what are generally considered to be “low-quality” products. I used to regard both of these companies as sort of the top when it came to buying every-day “soap.” Of course, with Dove®, at least a portion of your money goes to some sort of charity…

Watch for marketing gimmicks like this.

If you go online and do a search for natural health care products, you’ll get some interesting results. Sometimes the stuff online is good; sometimes it’s not. Here’s a soap from a site called The Greatest Herbs on Earth. This site has a supposed restoring shampoo and expounds at length on the evils of manufactured soap imitation products. It would be easy for an unsuspecting customer to fall victim to this scam, after all of the talk on the website. Here’s the ingredients list for their “savior” shampoo:

Water (aqua), sodium lauroamphoacetate, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium cocoyl isethionate, polyether-1, Triticum vulgare (wheat) flour lipids, Persea gratissima (avocado) oil, retinyl palmitate (vitamin A), panthenyl triacetate (vitamin B), tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (vitamin C), tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), Aloe barbadensis, Arctium lappa (burdock) root extract, Urtica dioica (nettle) extract, Chamomilla recutita (matricaria) flower extract, Cedrus atlantica (cedarwood) bark oil, Oenothera biennis (evening primrose) oil, Aleurites moluccana (kukui) seed oil, Vitis vinifera (grape) seed oil, Simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) seed oil, Rosa canina (rose hips) fruit oil, Triticum vulgare (wheat) germ oil, Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) leaf oil, Lavandula angustifolia (lavender) oil, Mentha piperita (peppermint) oil, Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf oil, fragrance (essential oils), myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, polyglyceryl-3 distearate, disodium EDTA, citric acid, laureth-4, glycol stearate, acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben.

That list is longer than either of the other two I’ve shown so far, and although it’s slightly better in terms of quality, it’s still loaded with all kinds of chemicals you can’t pronounce (You probably didn’t even bother reading the whole thing, did you?). So what now?

Here is the shampoo that I settled on personally. It comes from a website called Bubble and Bee Organics, and they carry a veritable plethora of organic body soap bars, shampoos, lotions, toothpastes and deodorants (to name a few items).

Ingredients: saponified oils of organic coconut, olive, and jojoba, vegetable glycerin, organic guar gum, organic sweet almond oil, organic macadamia nut oil, organic jojoba oil, organic peppermint essential oil, organic tea tree essential oil, organic spearmint essential oil, rosemary extract.

That’s tough to beat. Every single one of those ingredients can be obtained by a normal person, and this shampoo could easily be recreated. The list is also extremely short. It would really be even shorter if they didn’t list “organic” before each ingredient.

Here is the ingredients list for my current bar of soap, which I use for everything but my hair:

Ingredients: saponified cold pressed olive, coconut, organic palm, sunflower, and castor oils, distilled water, essential oils (patchouli, lavandin, orange, ylang ylang), wild mesquite bean meal, organic oats, calcium bentonite clay, sea salt.

Once again, nothing in there that sounds like it came from a top-secret nuclear research facility.

So let’s cover the benefits of buying organic, natural soap. I’ve made it into a list for ease of reading.

1. Better for your health. This is probably the most common-sense reason for buying real soap, so it’s the least-supported by research. As far as solid scientific research goes, studies have not proven any of the sodium sulfates in manufactured soap to be carcinogenic (then again, what is definitively carcinogenic?). At sufficiently high concentrations, most of the chemicals in commercial soaps do cause some sort of skin or membrane irritation. It is known that commercial shampoos sometimes cause a notable amount of damage to hair and scalp tissue. This is one of those things that causes slow, undetectable damage for many years and then manifests as some detectable problem down the road. However, without a lot of funded, FDA-accepted research out there, you’ll just have to take my word for it. If you try a really good soap out for a week or two, you’ll notice the difference. You won’t be able to go back to synthetic soap.

2. Reduced health care costs. If you have any sort of skin condition or hypersensitivity, natural soap is going to make your life better. Almost every kind of natural soap is advertised as hypoallergenic, and rightfully so. Besides a few really nasty or strong essential oils (which are not used for soap-making), there really aren’t any ingredients in regular soap that can aggravate skin. If you’re suffering from dandruff, gout, eczema, warts, psoriasis, dry skin, oily skin, acne, or blisters, nothing will offer you more relief than showering with a regular, natural soap. Why spend thousands of dollars per year on harsh, chemical-laden “doctor-approved” hormone creams (or whatever else you can drop into the money pit) when all you need to do is buy real soap? Using natural soap probably won’t cure the absolute worst of cases, but it will make them much more manageable. In some cases, skin conditions don’t go away because they simply never get the chance to heal because you put synthetic soap and chemicals on them every day. Give your body a chance to heal.

There’s also the implication that your risk for skin cancer will be vastly reduced by using natural soap. Skin can absorb toxins from the things you put on it, the air (to a very small degree) and from processed, chemical-laden foods. You’ll be taking a lot of the toxins out of your skin by not adding to the load and allowing your body a chance to filter some of the others out. Then, the next time you get sunburnt, there isn’t some dastardly plastic molecule sitting there with its massive carbon chain to confuse your body and cause some sort of deadly melanoma growth. Crisis averted!

3. Better for the environment. There are two major reasons that real soap is better for the environment. First off, commercial, synthetic soaps often rely on the oil industry for their raw ingredients. They use them in the soap itself, but they also ship their product in plastic containers, which always relies on oil for production. With bars of soap, you can get them package-free, minimally packaged, or in cardboard (which beats the hell out of plastic for sustainability). So, if you get natural soap, you’ll be giving foreign oil the boot in yet another way.

But another reason natural soap is better for the environment is one you might not have thought of. All of the shower water, toilet water, sink water, and the like goes to some sort of municipal wastewater treatment. The treatment process is responsible for removing pollutants generated by humans from the water. As a civil engineer, I know first-hand exactly what municipal wastewater treatment is capable of. If you’re washing vegetable oil, vegetable products, salt and essential oil down the drain, the natural processes can remove all of that without any problems. However, if you’re washing pesticides and  synthetic, polymer-based molecules (read: commercial soaps) down the drain, the processes can’t handle those as easily. Some of it disrupts the normal process and lowers the overall efficiency. Plastics and long polymer chains pass through unaffected and go on to damage natural waters, and become someone else’s drinking water downstream a little ways. This phenomenon has given rise to more stringent drinking water quality standards and raised the cost of treating water. In the end, it raises your utility bills and poses a threat to your health.

This is the new EPA endorsement for products that do less damage to the environment. Look for it on laundry and dish soaps, and other alternative household cleaning products.

4. It doesn’t cost any more. At first, it may seem that buying organic soap and shampoo costs more. But if you compare natural soap to synthetics, it doesn’t cost any more per year. Regular soap lasts longer than commercial soap. If you buy the really nice, name-brand designer stuff, that’ll cost you more. However, consider that when you buy something like Tresemme®, you’re paying a lot already (or any spa-level soap). Furthermore, you don’t have to buy any conditioner for your hair when you use natural products because conditioners were only invented to cover up the damage commercial shampoos do anyway. Some natural shampoo makers encourage a diluted vinegar rinse to replace conditioner if you really want – it is optional though (I do it because it helps with my dandruff).

Real cost-benefit isn’t understood by our instant-gratification-centric society today. An archaic concept called investment refers to an event where you put money in now and derive some greater benefit at some time down the road (note the heavy cynical tones here: thank you). The investment you make in your health by using natural skin care products is important. You won’t be visiting a dermatologist, you’ll have a better immune system since your body is that many toxins lighter, and you’ll just visit the doctor less. You can dispute that, and I’m sure many of you will, but the experience speaks for itself: it is the proof. If you don’t believe me, try it. What have you got to lose?

If you’re interested in taking this to the next level, there are all kinds of alternative organic cleaners available. Consider replacing the following items in your home with a natural alternative:

  • Laundry soap: available with any big-name retailer.
  • Dish soap: also available at just about any retailer.  They aren’t usually organic, but they are natural enough to be easier on you, clean just as well, and not destroy natural waterways.  That goes for laundry soap, too.
  • Toothpaste: if you didn’t guess, regular toothpaste is pretty bad for you, too.  I’ll have more on this below.
  • Lotions, moisturizers, lip balms, shaving cream, insect repellents (and no, not talking about copious amounts of garlic..although that is the most delicious way), and deodorant.
  • General surface cleaners: replace things like Windex®, 402®, Mr. Clean®, and Pledge® with natural alternatives.

Before I call this post done, I’d like to say a word about natural toothpaste. Natural toothpaste isn’t exactly what you expect it to be. It’s actually shreds of soap, just like you’d use on your skin, but with a few natural ingredients added for flavor (usually xylitol, sea salt and stevia – look them up, they’re all clean). Before I switched to tooth soap, I had rapidly receding gums that were always inflamed and red around the edges. I had exposed, sensitive roots, sensitive teeth, problems with staining and buildup, cavities, and frequent cankersores. After two weeks of switching, I noticed my gums no longer bled when brushing, they had changed to pink, and had stopped receding. My tooth sensitivity was gone and I had a generally “good” feel after I brushed. After a much longer term of use, I noticed I hadn’t had any cankersores since I switched, and I still haven’t had one yet. I HIGHLY recommend tooth soap instead of commercial toothpaste. Once again, nothing in it harms our natural waterways, so you can feel good about your contribution to our environment’s health.

This is the tooth soap I use. I love this stuff, and it’s given me back so much in terms of oral health. I hate the dentist, so going less (or not at all) is an awesome side-effect.

To get the maximum benefit of using natural tooth soap, you need to stop rinsing with commercial mouthwash, too.  It is full of harmful chemicals that you don’t need.  Instead, I suggest a pre- and post-brushing rinse with a sea salt solution.  The salt replaces the anti-bacterial properties of mouthwash, and it also helps to remineralize your teeth. If you drink a lot of coffee or tea, you may find it beneficial to do a daily brush with a baking soda mixture (make sure it is pure sodium bicarbonate on the label) followed by a tooth soap brush and a sea salt solution rinse. This will manage stains.

This is nearing 2600 words, so I’m calling it quits now. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me about anything. Start using real soap and I guarantee you’ll notice the difference. Here are a few good, trustworthy sites to get you started (especially if you’re having trouble finding something acceptable in town).

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