Rude Awakening

Some of us like to work out in the morning, some at midday, some in the evening. But all of us should avoid doing anything that involves bending and twisting in the first hour after awakening. That's because our spinal discs fill with fluid overnight, according to Stuart McGill, **, in Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.

McGill says the extra fluid magnifies whatever stresses we put on those discs. Heavy stretching, as well as heavy lifting, is a pretty bad idea.

The discs lose 90 percent of that accumulated fluid within the first hour after rising, McGill writes, which means you should be perfectly safe if you wait sixty minutes to lift or stretch.

The first study debunking the notion of muscle binding came out in 1956, and numerous studies since then have further refined the idea. Typically, strength training increases ankle flexibility and shoulder mobility in some, but not all, directions. The type of strength training matters, too: Olympic weight lifters are extremely flexible— right up there with gymnasts—while powerlifters tend to have limited shoulder-joint mobility. Part of that is due to the size of their chest muscles, and part is task-specific. That is, they need stiffer shoulder joints to bench-press as much weight as possible.

The best strategy for gaining muscle while increasing your flexibility is lifting through a full range of motion. Don't stop a squat or shoulder press short in either direction, even though you can lift more weight when you don't have to move it as far. Limited ranges have their place, especially during heavy-duty, strength-focused periods. But in the long run, you want to move your muscles through the entire range.

Another important factor is balanced training—equal volume and intensity for muscles on the front and rear of your body. Most of us naturally have strength imbalances from front to back and left to right. These even out over time with a good training system, such as Alwyn's New Rules workouts. The last thing you want is to exacerbate the problem with unbalanced workouts focused on the "mirror muscles" on the front of your body.

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