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I.C.E. Program #21 - Listening To Your Body!

Learn about breathing, time under tension, lifting in a natural arc, compound movements, isolation movements, increasing strength while decreasing risk of injury, strength-size relation, and much more!

Article Summary:
  • The base of your workout should be compound lifts, but isolation lifts are necessary.
  • The risk of injury with non-pure isolation lifts is increased if the muscle isn't conditioned.
  • If strength or size increases without an increase in the other it will be a fleeting gain.
  • These are the fundamentals of the program. The one thing that separates my program from other systems, distinctively anyway, is the fact that it works by virtue of the fact that what you do is best for you, was designed for you and is adapted to your needs. That means listening to your body.

    Most of the training system is not geared towards specifics, but towards giving you and idea of your options and making the correct choices based on an honest assessment and honing your instincts. Basically that means learning what man has forgotten centuries ago: listening to your body. I know from bitter experience that that is not nearly as easy as it sounds. This not only means going in against your laziest thoughts and selecting the exercises, sets and reps that will deliver the best results, it also means obeying the universal body. The body simply grows best doing what it was designed to do by nature and evolution.

    It simply doesn't adapt to virtual and synthetic situations. If you read the chapter "How Natural Are You?", you will know that a lot of it has to do with nutrition, supplementation and sleep, but it applies equally to training. Some people practice this naturally, others haven't had a natural moment in their lives, but neither will know the "why" of it.

    This is one of the reasons I.C.E. is unique, it obeys the principles of motoric function, it doesn't force the body in positions it wasn't meant for. Unlike the rest of the training system, it doesn't apply to just your body, it applies to every body. This makes it particularly hard to follow these following rules (otherwise we'd all have a great body) but fortunately it makes it easier on me, since it doesn't take as long to write down as the rest of it does. These aren't options after all, you follow them because indifferently to who you are (as long as you're human) they are a must if you seek to maximize your training potential. I think the reasons why will interest you more than the actual rules, which have come and gone with the years. After reading this, ask yourself one last time "Just how natural are you?".

    Be Sure To Ask Yourself, 'Just How Natural Are You?'
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Be Sure To Ask Yourself,
    'Just How Natural Are You?'


    What comes more naturally to a healthy person than breathing? Having suffered from asthma in my youth I learned the importance of breathing very early on. Did you ever wonder why a bricklayer dragging heavy stuff from one end of a construction site to the other all day long has bigger muscles than your average bodybuilder even though the bodybuilder doesn't train so long that he can produce cortisol, lifts heavier weights from different angles, takes care of nutrition better, supplements everything under the sun and so on?

    Well one of the reasons simply is that lugging that weight all day long is a routine and that the routine makes it so that his breathing is in tune to the work he does. Breathe naturally and the body will focus on other things. But breathing is the primary need for life and if your breathing is compromised then all your energy will go into preservation of the body's oxygen balance.

    One of the things many beginning lifters tend to do is hold their breath for the duration of a heavy lift, and then have to pause to breathe. While it is true that the actual tearing down of muscle-fiber is an anaerobic exploit, the repairing of the muscle fiber is compromised by threats to the system's survival. Irregular breathing is usually a sign of such a threat and the body will take it as such. So first and foremost, breathe! Most intermediate and advanced lifters will know this however, but that doesn't mean that they understand and use the principle to the maximum.

    Breathing is something I studied excessively as part of TaiJiQuan, an Eastern philosophy, originating in ancient China, which is based on achieving equilibrium of mind, body and soul. One of the ways of doing this is by body positioning and above all breathing. Health, well-being and even self-defence. The self-defence method has gained popularity in the Western World under the name Tai Chi. For those of you interested in such an equilibrium and how to attain it (I warn you it takes patience and practice) by all means find your local Tai Chi group and join!

    What Is TaiJiQuan?
    Also known as Tai chi chuan (literal translation "Supreme Ultimate Fist") is an internal Chinese martial art often practiced for health reasons. It is also typically practiced for a variety of other personal reasons: its hard and soft martial art technique, demonstration competitions, and longevity. Consequently, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims. Some of tai chi chuan's training forms are well known to Westerners as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice together every morning in parks around the world.

    But one of the things I wanted to share in relation to the program was the way of attaining a more regular breathing pattern. Notice that most of the time our breathing is shallow and the air only goes to the chest. About half-way through the lungs. The breath should reach your belly if all was right. When we are born we all have this inherent quality. That's why young babies can learn to swim without help, can breathe very quietly and peacefully when just born and so on. But through environmental and stress factors we forget to control our breathing automatically.

    So we try to regain it. The last thing you want to do is try, like some new-age hippies seem to be fond of, trying to breathe from your belly. All that does is move your belly, it doesn't adjust your breath and it only makes you jumpier because you are focused on your breathing. You can't use your breathing in other things if you can't focus on the other things.

    Try this technique: Sit down on a chair, relax your legs, don't cross them. Back relatively straight, but don't tense it. Keep your head up but chin down, this elongates the neck and at the same time clears the breathing passage. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. Close your eyes. Now breathe calmly and stay in control. Now imagine a blue stream passing your through your throat and lungs and reaching all the way down until it reaches your belly button.

    This is the point where your lungs are filled. Now as you exhale imagine the same blue stream returning along the same passage all the way out and keep repeating it. Take your focus off the breathing and think of the stream. If another colour works for you, be my guest. As you get used to the stream and it becomes automatic.

    Now clear your mind entirely and think of nothing. If your body is in the right position, and your breathing is good you should start becoming very relaxed. This is the state you want to be in. Practice this and you'll notice your breathing will take on a more natural pattern in the long run. If nothing else it's a great way to combat insomnia. This technique will help you greatly with the next paragraph as well.

    Practice This And Your Breathing Will Take On A More Natural Pattern In The Long Run.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Practice This And Your Breathing Will Take
    On A More Natural Pattern In The Long Run.

    Time Under Tension Revisited

    TUT is the hot topic of recent bodybuilding manifestos. While I agree that it is one of the important issues, the all-encompassing stress on the fact is a passing fad. TUT can be brought back to our friend the bricklayer. He holds the weight for longer reps than even the most advanced bodybuilder. And it works for him.

    The point is not to let the TUT compromise everything else. Which is why it is wiser to actually develop a fast and confident, but above all regular stroke on most exercises. But on some isolation exercises efficacy can be increased by applying different TUT's. My idea is to kill two birds with a single stone. Use your body's natural suggestion for TUT.

    Before starting a rep slow your breathing to a steady pace. Close your eyes before starting your set and keep your breathing the same. Now make the time the weight travels to the point of contraction the same time it takes to exhale, hold contraction and breath for a split second. If it feels unnatural, it's too long. Then lower the weight and make that time the same as it take to take a controlled breath, don't stop at the bottom, immediately repeat the rep and exhale.

    This is functionally using the both the TUT and breathing principles to restore a natural balance in an unnatural situation.

    When You Lower The Weight Match The Time It Takes To Do A Controlled Breath.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    When You Lower The Weight Match The
    Time It Takes To Do A Controlled Breath.

    Lifting In A Natural Arc

    Luckily this is something kinesiologists and physical therapists have started to discover, and helped other people wise up to this fact. The bad guy in this situation is mostly machines. But even some favorite exercises put undue stress on our body, hindering progress and jeopardizing your health. Lets have a closer look. The body is a functional tool, made to operate under great stress and deliver.

    But that doesn't mean you can make it do things it wasn't meant to do. Such things include bending your knees the other way or stretching arms horizontally behind your back. These are extremes, but you'll agree with me when I say that a lot of smaller issues of the same kind can lead to a pulled muscle, a persisting pain, numbness and several nagging injuries. The worst of which has to no doubt be a sprain or a muscle-tear.

    Most of the early machines that require multi-joint usage will put such strain on your body. Such as the pec-deck which puts your arms in a 90 degree angle. Though most new machines are adapted to some point to natural motion, they are still a prominent risk. You would need a very elaborate system to devise a machine that would decrease the stress to a point where the body would not suffer. Does that mean you shouldn't use machines? Not at all.

    Most of the injuries related to this principle occur when these exercises and machines are used as a principal exercise with really heavy weights and low reps. So for starters, limit machine work to isolation exercises and secondary exercises. The one you have to watch here is especially the smith machine, since this one is used the most for compound exercises.

    I will tell you this only once: You will injure yourself using heavy weights for compounds on a smith machine. First of all the squat. In a smith rack this is the greatest way for injuring the lower back and even damage it beyond repair. Compare a bench press on the smith to a free-weight bench press and notice the difference.

    Heavy Weight In The Smith Rack Is A Great Way To Injure You Lower Back.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Heavy Weight In The Smith Rack Is
    A Great Way To Injure You Lower Back.

    The free weight exercise for both of these will move you in an arc. A natural arc that moves back and forth as you go up an down. This is a system that allows the muscle and bone to optimize a lifting assignment. So by denying the arc, you are not only putting undue stress on the muscles and nerves, stunting growth, but also on the ligaments and bones and everything else involved in a lift, and that in turn can lead to some seriously unhealthy practices.

    This is why I advocate the use of free weights for all compound exercises that require heavy weight. With a spotter naturally. No need to trade one unsafe practice for another. So don't shy away from machines per se, just don't use them as the core exercise for any body-part.

    Of course that doesn't settle the debate. Some older guys swear by free weights and still get seriously injured. They think that machines are the devil, not realising that some of the classic free weight exercises are just as dangerous. A good example is for shoulders. There are basically only two exercises that stimulate the deltoids overall.

    Experienced lifters know that you need to stimulate a muscle overall and in conjunction to get a growth stimulus. These two exercises are the dumbbell press and the behind-the-neck barbell press. That last one is a great trap to fall into. Barbell presses are favorites among lifters, and people using it as a core exercise or HIT practicioners using low reps and heavy weight in most of their exercises will soon find that this is the number 1 way of getting a rotator cuff injury. I'll give you that black on white.

    These are exercises that you need to avoid, or at least not use heavy weights in. A favorite bicep exercise for me is flat bench curls, but I know I can't do this with extreme weights because of potential damage to shoulder and trap. And so on. I can't list all the exercises, I'm too scared of leaving one out, but if you want to know, think of how natural your positioning is. Chances are if it doesn't feel right, it isn't right either. If these exercises work use them, but practice caution and don't ever use heavy weights in them.

    Do You Prefer To Use Free Weights Or Machines?

    Free Weights.
    No Preference I Use Both.
    I Don't Exercise.

    Compound Movements As The Base

    I'm sure as a beginning trainer you were told a lot that doing lots of heavy compound movements would get you big. There is some truth to that. How heavy you go and the amount of reps you use, if you are familiar with the I.C.E. system, are entirely dependent on your genetic tendencies and how much of each fiber-type you have in a muscle. But the part about using compound movements is true. A compound movement is defined as a movement that involves at the very least one other muscle besides the target muscle.

    The ones that involve more are known as the basic compound movements: deadlifts, bench presses and squats. But you can also count military presses and barbell rows in this category. So why are compound movements more natural? Because the body was designed to use all its resources to achieve something. Isolation is very unnatural.

    If you are willingly denying the cooperation of another body-part, your body can sense you are creating an unnatural environment and will not be inclined to grow as fast. Its pretty obvious this isn't an important task if you are not pulling all resources. So the body will know that if the time comes that it is important it still has the auxiliary powers of the other muscle-groups and does not need to grow.

    So compound movements as the base are a sane choice, regardless of whether they are heavy or not. The natural condition stresses the body to lift with all its might and increase the release of hormones. And these factors combine anabolically to induce growth.

    Compound Movements As A Base Are A Sane Choice, Regardless Of Whether They Are Heavy Or Not.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Compound Movements As A Base Are A Sane Choice,
    Regardless Of Whether They Are Heavy Or Not.

    Pure Isolation Movements

    So should you favor compound over isolation? Not at all, if you remember the early parts of I.C.E. you know that I actually recommend a lot of isolation if you are a bodybuilder, it's the only way you can affect the shape and size of a muscle directly without outside influences such as other body-parts dominating a lift. But it is better to use pure isolation lifts. So what's the difference?

    Well, a pure isolation movement is a movement where you have no choice but to isolate. This again creates a situation where the body has no choice but to grow, because it can't involve any auxiliary body-parts. For example, try doing a barbell curl. This is an isolation movement. Your tendency is to swing the weight up so you have auxiliary strength and can hoist more than you can lift.

    The pure isolation alternative in this instance would be the spider curl where your armpits are locked, or a strict preacher curl. Your arms cannot employ the strength of back or delts even if you wanted to. This is a situation where growth is the only way to be prepared for a future shock of the same kind, so again more hormones are released and protein is employed to upgrade the muscle if such an increasing stimulus is regularly applied.

    So the choice of exercise for a lagging body-part should be a combination of compound movements and pure isolation movements. T-bar rowing in a locked position beats free T-bar rowing for instance. Pure isolation is also much stricter and doesn't allow for as much cheating, making them the obvious choice in your regimen. Do not avoid exercises that are not pure isolation movements, but for the lagging body-parts it may be wiser to use them instead of your normal exercises.

    For Lagging Body Parts Pure Isolation Movements May Be Wiser To Use.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    For Lagging Body Parts Pure Isolation
    Movements May Be Wiser To Use.

    Functional Movements Increase Strength/Decrease Risk of Injury

    This ties in to the previous paragraphs, because both pure isolation and compound movements are viewed as functional by the body in the sense of "wanting to do whatever it takes to get the job done". Other isolation movements are counter-productive because consciously trying to keep a muscle from assisting you are going against functionality and against nature. Functionality is the key in gaining strength especially. Try doing 3 sets of front laterals, 3 sets of side laterals and 3 sets of rear laterals and see how much shoulder mass you gain over a two month period.

    On the same diet to old-style classic dumbbell presses for 9 sets instead for the same duration and watch the difference. The latter involved the overall delt and even some upper chest action. This was considered functional because you were doing all you could to move the weight. When the body fails, it will construe it as a total failure with an increase in strength as the only possibility to overcome the obstacle.

    When you are consciously suppressing a muscle, the body will construe this as failure, but without a full effort, and see the easiest way out as the best: If ever a threatening situation should occur, we can always employ the extra muscle. Result: no extra strength required.

    The risk of injury also severely decreases because functionality is regarded as a safeguard against outside influences, so when lifting functional and natural (mimicking daily patterns) you are doing things the body was intended to do. When using a specially constructed isolation exercises you often put the body in a position it wasn't meant for. And too much stress too soon in situations that it wasn't adapted to, will cause the body to give out sooner. That means a higher risk of cramping, pulling muscles or even more severe injuries.

    The exercises that meet the criteria of the above are considered functional movements. Not to say that the non-functional movements don't have their use, but in terms of maximum size, safety and strength, they are far less useful than their functional counterparts.

    Using Isolation Exercises Often Puts The Body In A Position It Wasn't Meant For.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Using Isolation Exercises Often Puts
    The Body In A Position It Wasn't Meant For.

    Move The Body, Not The Weight

    Any particular exercise where the body moves through space instead of the weight should be preferred to their counterparts. There aren't so many, but they should all fit in your routine somewhere at some point: squats, dips, push-ups and chins. These exercises have been shown to release a great deal more natural GH when performed. There is some logic to this, when the body moves through space its obviously a more practical movement that may signal need or distress. The body may interpret that as a need for extra strength and release more hormonal substances in the blood.

    When performing other exercises, and lets face it, when we do the aim is to keep our body as still as possible apart from the part being worked, the body isn't moving. This state of calmness tells the body that you are not in a situation where extra force is required, and even though the damage to the muscle tissue is similar, the growth response will not be.

    Again, the body will figure that if extra force were required, you would opt to involve the rest of the body. Nothing outdoes the squat for overall body-growth. Ask any seasoned lifter that. Chins are simply irreplaceable, even by pulldowns, when it comes to growing wide lats. Rep away on your pull-downs if you will, the people attempting chins will blow by you in less than a month.

    And did you ever wonder why people doing countless reps on push-ups have better chests sometimes than those benching upward of 300 lbs for reps? Like I'm fond of saying, not everything is carved in stone, and these are some real exceptions. These exercises stimulate growth simply by design and concept, rather than form and weight being used. That makes them essential additions to any program seeking fast and natural growth.

    Any Exercise Where The Body Moves Through Space Instead Of The Weight Should Be The Preferred Choice.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Any Exercise Where The Body Moves Through Space
    Instead Of The Weight Should Be The Preferred Choice.

    Strength-Size Relation

    Some people just love to boast how much strength they gained, when it is obvious they gained little or no size. Does that mean they are lying? Hardly, strength can be increased in many ways, strong training is one, and doing it a lot doesn't necessarily add a lot of mass. But that would take time and not some miraculous boost.

    Then there are products that have psychomotoric effects like ECA stacks, or products that boost anaerobic strength like creatine. Could this be an explanation? Of course, and often the strength increase convinces people that the products or diets they are on are working for them. But I warn you that there is a strength-size relation. There is no rule of thumb that says a man of a certain size has a certain strength, in fact I myself am quite weak for my size.

    But there is a high correlation. Meaning that if in the long run the product or diet does not also increase muscle mass, the strength benefits are also temporary, something few people wish to accept. A product or diet hasn't delivered on its promise until your size increases and your strength lasts beyond the discontinuation of it. I hate it when people come up to me and ask what I bench.

    First of all because I'm a lousy bencher (only 315 lbs by the way) and secondly because the amount I'm lifting at any given point is irrelevant to my size. I know that if I add 15 pounds to my bench while adding 5 pounds to my tri's, delts and chest, that that 15 pound gain is a real gain.

    If I gain those 15 pounds or even 30 or 50 pound son my bench without a correlating increase in size, I know that my strength gain will be fleeting. So be wary of things that increase your strength and not your size. Size does not always equate to strength. So gaining massive amounts of weight can be fleeting too if there is no strength gain whatsoever. Doesn't have to be much of a gain, but if it is missing, odds are your mass will be hard to maintain.

    Please do not misinterpret this, the correlation between strength and size is low and very relative. The point I'm making is that it exists though, meaning that if one increases, no matter how much or how little, the other should increase too.

    If Size Or Strength Increases, No Matter How Much, The Other Should Increase Too.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    If Size Or Strength Increases, No Matter
    How Much, The Other Should Increase Too.

    This is and additional piece that wasn't added in the first I.C.E. series because it wasn't absolutely necessary, but it was strong part of the motivation for me to make I.C.E. and I consider it amply important to mention and teach these principles to whomever I train. These are issues you should concern yourself with if growth is your main reason for lifting and you intend on staying natural all your life. Without these principles you will often strand 10-20 percent short of your natural limitations. If you are a beginner or intermediate, the difference will be minimal, but I urge you to apply these things early, because they are hard to incorporate later in your regimen.

    Once you reach advanced stages you'll be happy you did. The body has to grow to survive in natural circumstances, so your goal should always be to keep the circumstances that stress the muscles natural. I believe the things listed in this article will largely help you achieve that goal and I hope I expressed my motivation of why you should enough to convince you of that. I consider this to be one of the cornerstones of I.C.E. success.

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