Tom Clough, Head of Athletic Performance at Ulster Rugby explains his view that it’s important to challenge the stereotype of what people think ‘Strength and Conditioning’ is.
“People tend to think it’s someone grunting under the weight of a heavy bar bell on their back, but in reality, it’s about stimulating certain muscles and, if you do that regularly then you’re conditioning them to work and support the body.”
As we get older, it’s Strength and Conditioning of certain muscles that ultimately puts us in the best position possible to stay healthy.
“An athlete wants to do Strength and Conditioning to perform on a rugby field, or in whatever sport they do, but the reality is that everyone wants to perform to their best in their own field of work,” reveals Clough. “Can an office worker do that if they’ve got tension headaches? It’s about someone regulating their own performance and becoming the best version of themselves.”
If you’re prone to spending long periods of time sitting in front of a screen day in day out, it’s important to know that there are specific areas that might be most in need of Strength and Conditioning.
“If you’re desk-based, then in terms of what you need to consider doing, it's probably stretching around the neck, mobility around the thoracic part of the back (so thoracic extensions) then stretching or conditioning around the hips with core exercises and glut exercises,” reveals Clough.
One desk-based effective stretch for the neck is to look forward then tilt your head to the side. If your head is tilted left, reach over your head with your left hand and apply gentle pressure to pull your head towards your left shoulder – but try not to let your right shoulder elevate. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat three times each side.
Next sit up as tall as you can and raise your chin to the ceiling, without leaning back, then lower your chin as close as you can to your chest, without leaning forwards, and repeat 10 times.
“These exercises are ideal to release tension in the neck,” explains Clough. “In particular if you suffer from tension headaches, these may help prevent or alleviate symptoms.”
It’s small hacks over time that can make a difference. According to Clough we should all be aiming to move for five minutes in every hour and aim to up our step counts by walking during work-breaks, parking further away and taking the stairs. “You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel,” he says.
Try and squeeze some squats into your day. “These will help strengthen your legs and activate your glutes which often get neglected when seated for long periods,” reveals Clough. You don’t need to stray from the desk to do them, “just lower your bum towards the seat then either lightly touch it and stand or sit on it and rock forwards to help you stand again and repeat five to ten times aiming to progress to more sets over time,” says Clough, adding “Just make sure you have a stable seat!” Chairs on wheels will definitely need their lock on.
Targeted stretching exercises for over-looked areas like the chest and upper back are important. For the chest Clough recommends standing in a doorway or using the corner of a wall, raising one arm bent at 90 degrees, so that your elbow is level with your shoulder, and gently applying pressure through your hand, forearm and elbow into the wall or doorway. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat three times each side.
“This will allow your back to have more freedom of movement, reducing tightness and bad posture,” reveals Clough.
For the upper back try staying seated and clasping your fingers together, reaching away from your body. Relax your head and shoulders forwards, trying to stretch your shoulder blades apart in the reach forwards. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat three times.
Alternatively (or in addition to that) sit tall and looking forwards and, instead of actively reaching forwards, raise your arms towards the ceiling (simultaneously ensuring you try and drop your shoulder blades down your back) then hold at the top for three seconds and repeat 10 times.
“Try to keep your lower back and rib cage still because you don’t want to extend from your lower back,” urges Clough. “These two exercises will help improve your posture. Especially in an area of the back (thoracic) which often gets tight when working at a desk and working on a computer for prolonged periods.”
Hip mobility is another crucial area of attention. “Being seated in a ‘flexed’ position means that, if you can keep the mobility around your hips good, it will help prevent tightness occurring over time which in turn can lead to lower back pain.”
Clough has two suggested exercises to combat this.
#1: Sitting with your knees bent at 90 degrees, push your feet into the ground and raise one side of your pelvis as high as you can while pushing the opposite side into the chair before slowly lowering and repeating on the opposite side, with 10 reps on each side.
#2: Imagine your pelvis is like a bowl full of water and tilt it, first as if you are tipping water down the back of your chair, then as if trying to tip the water out the front of your chair.
These are all accessible moves that anyone can try though of course Clough would also urge everyone to integrate between 150 and 300 minutes of physical activity into their week and pair with a healthy diet.
But interestingly that familiar New Year’s resolution of trying to hit a new regime hard, is one the Athletic Performance expert would urge caution against.
“A mistake I see people make is trying to jump into a sport when they’ve been sedentary for a while. Like if they haven’t played squash in three years and suddenly jump on a squash court – that can be really demanding,” he says.
Rather than go for a big, potentially unattainable goal, it’s little tweaks and adaptations that are more likely to add up and provoke real lifestyle change. Clough explains: “Start with small steps, because it’s the easy wins that will build confidence and get the endorphins going and that in turn, can become a gateway to trying different exercises.”
He adds: “I think that just starting something is probably the most powerful thing someone can do.”
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