“My husband/boyfriend/dad needs this stuff!”, I hear it all the time! So, in response, I’m teaching an Alignment for Guys workshop February 28th (details below). I work primarily with woman, but corrective exercises, alignment principles, and natural movement apply to men too. Other than our reproductive organs, men and women have the same basic anatomy & physiology. It’s nothing new, just worded differently, because it’s hard for a man to read something about pregnancy and vaginas and think “yes, I can see how this applies to me.”
My classes are full of women, and we talk a lot about pelvic floor issues–things like incontinence, painful periods, sciatica, etc. Today, let me be clear that men have alignment related pelvic floor issues too! Several sources estimate 95% of prostatitis (prostate inflammation) isn’t bacterial. Meaning there is inflammation that isn’t caused by an infection and can’t be treated with an antibiotic. In many cases, there is a mechanical/muscle tension component. In the year 2007, John Hopkins estimated over 18 million men in the US over the age of 20 suffer from ED. (I’d be willing to bet it’s higher now.)
Another thing I’d like to be clear on is this: the alignment principles aren’t just for pelvic floor issues. Problems with pelvic health and function are common, so I tend to talk about them a lot, but they are just one small piece. The tension and misalignment created by our modern life creates issues for every part of our body. Improving alignment can help rotator cuff problems, arthritis, plantarfasciitis, headaches, back pain, hernias, prostate issues, and high blood pressure, just to name a few. We like to blame these things on “getting old”, but all of these aliments can have mechanical causes. How you move (or don’t) can cause or exacerbate these common male issues.
Bear with me as I make an over generalization. Men are less likely than women to do activities like yoga, walking and stretching. I know this is a stereotype, but look around the yoga studio or the stretch class at your gym, and TELL ME this isn’t true. (Funny story about guys trying yoga here.) What I teach is different than than yoga, but the trend applies here too. When I used to teach “co-ed” classes, they were usually 80-90% women. When I teach at a certification week, it’s at least 95% women every time. Men are more likely to do activities that are about speed, strength, endurance…..things like weight lifting, running, sports, cycling…. None of these activities are bad, but when you combine short bouts of very intense workouts with longer periods of sedentary time, pain and injury are bound to follow, despite your best intentions. In order to continue doing the acitivites you enjoy, you need something to help fill in the gap between your sedentary time and your workout time. Exercise and sports have a lot of benefits, but we know now that they can’t undo hours of sitting each day. Our bodies have adapted to a lifetime of chairs, couches, cars and computers creating tension and misalignment. When we take these bodies to the gym and ask them to do challenging things, it’s like taking out a rusty, misaligned, uncalibrated machine that has been sitting in your garage for the last 20 years and expecting peak performance. Not going to happen. This is why even the most fit, athletic guy you know has pain and injuries.
I think there is a widespread belief that when it comes to exercise, the harder it is the better it is. The “easy” things like stretching and walking aren’t worth doing because they don’t make you sweat and don’t make you want to puke. If you want to remain active, pain free and have all your parts function well, you need to start doing some of the “easy” things. As you learn to move differently and move better while doing the “easy” things, you can start doing the more challenging things without injury and pain. If you come to one of my classes, you’ll find very quickly that the things that appear “easy” can be quite challenging.
If you (or the men in your life) are experiencing any of the above mentioned issues, feeling a bit achy or older than you should, here are some suggestions:
- If you are local: Join us for the Alignment for Guys Workshop on February 28th! This class will be an introduction to alignment for better health, mobility, and strength. We’ll identify and review exercises that address common aches and pain brought on by hours sitting in front of a computer or behind a steering wheel, overcorrecting a slouch with “military posture”, and “getting old.” Register and see details here.
- Try these movement breaks for the office.
- Read “Don’t Just Sit There” by Katy Bowman to figure out how to move more and still be productive at work. Another good resource is this list of ways to create a more active workstation.
- For male pelvic floor issues: David is a Restorative Exercise Specialist who works with men experiencing pelvic pain and dysfunction. This article has lots of resources too.
In Paddle Boarding Part 1 we looked at my sister’s default position when on an unstable surface. Another common response when on an stable surface is to lower our center of mass (in the pelvis) to feel more steady. Your center of mass is closer to the ground when you are kneeling, making it easier to balance. Here my mom and I are trying to get up from our knees to our feet.
Once we got to our feet, we had our knees bent, again slightly lowering our center of mass. Bending the knees is instinctual when you feel wobbly, as is turning your feet out and widening your stance. If you’ve ever played sports, this is the common “ready position”.
This position is helpful if you are trying to get your balance during an activity or preparing to run/jump/etc into action while playing a sport. The problem comes when you are so conditioned to hold this position that you start doing it all the time. You may have learned not to lock your knees but instead to keep a slight bend in them. This can be just as damaging as standing with locked knees. There is actually another option: standing with legs that are fully extended but not locked. This position is the least damaging and most beneficial for long term health. Let’s take a look at standing positions in more detail.
Option #1: Locked Knees- Legs are fully extended and quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thigh) are contracted, pulling the patella (knee cap) up and back into the joint space.
Downside- when the quads are overused, and the patella is pulled up/back, it starts to cause friction and irritation in the knee joint which causes inflammation, damage, pain and (eventually) cartilage degeneration.
Option #2: Bent Knees- Knees are kept slightly bent.
Downside- when the knees are chronically bent, the body adapts by shortening the muscles around that joint to keep things taught. This passive shortening is different than an active contraction a muscle does when it is working. When these muscles get too short and tight, they start to decrease joint space, inhibit range of motion, and compromise circulation. Eventually, it can become difficult to fully straighten the leg because of this tension. Here’s an example: Think about an arm in a sling. It is passively held in a bent position, and the muscles shorten. When the sling is removed, you can feel the tension that has accumulated. It takes time to be able to straighten the arm again.
Option #3: Fully Extended Legs with Relaxed Quadriceps– Legs are fully extended with relaxed quadriceps. To test whether your quadriceps are relaxed or not, contract and release your quads and watch your knee caps dance up and down, then leave them in the down position. If you can’t do this, make sure your knees are not bent and try backing your weight up into your heels. If you still can’t do it, try leaning forward with your backside against a wall. Often the quads are stuck in the “on” position (knee caps up), and it can take time to get them to release. Practice daily until you are able to do it standing upright. Other components of optimal stance include standing with the outside edges of your feet straight, feet the width of your pelvis, and hip/knee/ankle all in a vertical line. (I’ll have to cover these in more detail in a future blog.)
Downside- It’s really hard. There are no physiological consequences to standing this way, it’s just a lot of work. Whenever you think about it, adjust yourself to this position and eventually it will feel natural.
(NOTE: When most people fully extend their knees, they end up with a vertical leg. If you tend to hyperextend your knee joints, “fully extended” is too far for you because when your knee is fully extended, it goes beyond the natural boundaries of the joint. A better cue would be to extend until you reach a vertical leg.)
In real life, there are times when it’s appropriate to stand with bent knees or make other adjustments to perform a particular activity; however, the more you can stand in this optimal position while doing daily activities, the healthier your knees will be. In the end, I needed to use the wide stance to keep my balance but finally got my legs straight and quads relaxed!