Ideal exercises for improving the overall health and strength of divers are described. Workouts that may cause injuries are also discussed. The preferred aerobic exercises, weight lifting and stretching routines are presented.

Luckily there’s no need to do every known exercise to get in shape for diving, for any other sport or even to stay healthy. Some exercises are good for diving. Many others you don’t need at all. More than a few popular moves can injure you. This month looks at a few of each.

Why Do You Need Different Exercises?

Exercising one body part or system does little to develop other parts or systems. Weightlifting does not improve your cardiovascular system. Swimming and running improve cardiovascular endurance but not your strength. One hundred pushups a day increase muscular endurance but not your strength or cardiovascular fitness. The principle is called specificity and explains why you need different activities to stay fit.

Specificity can be very, well, specific. Getting a good run every day conditions your legs and heart in ways that don’t completely transfer to kicking with fins. Good runners often exhaust themselves during long swims and divers during runs. Yet, exercises nonspecific to diving still confer indirect benefit to your diving through overall fitness gains.

Do You Need Aerobics?

To maximize the specific skills, muscles, body systems and nit-picky neurochemical adaptations for diving, swimming with fins is the gold standard. Yet cardiovascular workouts of any type improve health and ability to do physical work, indirectly benefiting diving.

Do you need step aerobics?

Stepping is good aerobic exercise. It also has potential for several injuries.

Stepping down far to the rear of the bench, as often taught, forcibly lengthens the Achilles tendon, producing painful tendon trauma. Knee injury is also common. How can that be when physical therapists use stepping for knee rehabilitation? Stepping benefits one type of knee injury involving the meniscus, yet is hard on another – a poorly tracking kneecap that grinds with each step. Stepping preferentially develops muscles of the side of your thigh more than those to the inside of your kneecap, furthering kneecap tracking problems. Two more problems arise from using too high a step. The high degree of knee bending brings the kneecap in contact with the upper leg bone, even in knees without tracking problems. High benches also magnify impact when stepping down.

How do you know if you will suffer knee pain? One approach is to take step class and see if it screws up your knees. Another is to modify how you step. Keep your bench low to reduce knee angle. Step down lightly close to the bench. Have your knees orthopedically assessed before stepping.

The bottom line on step aerobics: It can help and harm. Modify your stepping to reduce injury potential. Enjoy the fitness that benefits diving indirectly.

Do you need arm swinging? Many exercise classes emphasize swinging arms repeatedly overhead and to the side. Although swinging is fun, it burns only a few extra calories, with the possibility of repetitive motion injury. Two shoulder injuries appear most often. The first from swinging your arms too hard and far from front to back. The front of the shoulder capsule, constitutionally too weak to withstand such trauma, forcibly stretches past a safe range. In the second, called The Farmer, you turn your thumbs down and lift both elbows. This action brings a structure on your upper arm bone, technically called the humeral tubercle, directly under the bony ledge of your shoulder, technically called the acromion, squashing the bursa between them. Over time this is technically called an injury known as bursitis.

The common exercise class motion of endlessly bending and straightening the elbow with no weights is useless for fitness. Given sufficient overuse it may produce a repetitive motion syndrome. You need heavier weight than your arm for benefit, using fewer repetitions.

The bottom line on arm swinging during aerobics: You will make more fitness gains in the weight room lifting heavier weights ten times. If you enjoy swinging your arms, keep your thumbs facing up. Limit motion backward to no farther than the midline of your body. Lift with control.

Do you need situps? Situps are not aerobic. I include them here as they are popular in aerobics classes. Situps burn very few calories and do little for your abdomen. Situps work the leg muscles that bend your hip, called hip flexors. You sufficiently exercise your hip flexors by walking and swimming. Situps are useful for sports demanding extreme hip flexor strength – ballet, gymnastics, martial arts, place kicking – but not scuba. To work your abdomen substitute crunches.

The bottom line on situps: Substitute crunches to improve the abdominal strength and endurance that directly benefit your diving.

Do you need leg lifts? Leg lifts to the front, like situps, use more hip flexor than abdominal muscles. Leg lifts to the side, so popular in exercise classes, do little unless you are debilitated from sedentary living or injury. Your leg is too light to give the resistance needed for strengthening. However, if there ever was, as Shakespeare supposed, a deity that shapes our ends, that patron saint of buns is leg lifts to the back. Lie face down with chin on hands. Lift both legs up slowly with straight knees, hold, then lower. Or, lift one leg at a time. This prone (face down) hip extension benefits your back and behind, structurally and cosmetically.

The bottom, so to speak, line on leg lifts: Prone hip extension directly benefits diving as a good back and bun exercise. As to front and side lifts, you will better improve your leg strength, endurance and firmness in the weight room lifting a heavier weight 10 to 12 times than using just body weight for endless repetitions.

Do you need swimming? Swimming is great for you in general and indirectly for diving.

The bottom line on swimming: Go swimming! Also swim with fins.

Do You Need Weightlifting?

Weightlifting is good for you. Some people reject lifting for fear of hurting themselves or becoming bulky. Done properly you reduce chance of later injury from other activities and look trimmer. Weightlifting increases your ability to do the physical work of diving, strengthens, firms and increases muscle that burns calories and keeps you warm. Weightlifting increases bone density, which is important for bone health. Lifting is important to every diver’s fitness plan.

Do you need the bench press? The bench press is a popular lift. In the bench press you lie on your back on a bench, push a weight up from your chest until your arms are straight, then down again to your chest. The bench press works several muscles, including those that keep you from falling off the bench. The three muscle groups getting most of the work are the triceps in back of your arm that straighten your arm, the round chest muscles called pectoralis major and the muscles in front of your shoulder called the anterior deltoid.

The bench press improves strength and endurance of these three muscle groups but remember specificity. Strength and endurance improve specifically when you press up a weight while lying on your back. How often do you do that? In wrestling and hand to hand combat.

The main hazard in bench pressing is dropping the weight on your neck. Occasionally with bench pressing, but particularly with hand weights instead of a barbell, people lower the weight too far. The elbows extend too far behind you, stretching the shoulder past a safe range.

The bottom line on the bench press: It indirectly benefits diving through the usual benefits of weightlifting. For maximum shoulder safety, limit the range by stopping the weight before your chest.

Do you need pushups? The pushup is a bench press upside down. You might think that since it uses the same three major muscle groups and the same motion as the bench press, it would have the same training effect on your body. Of course not, that’s too easy!

In the pushup your hands stay fixed against the floor. Your elbows and shoulders rotate around them. In the bench press, your hands move freely while the shoulder remains a fixed axis. The forces in each joint are different in the two situations. The adaptations are close but separate. Pushups won’t improve your bench press as much as doing bench presses. Specificity again.

The bottom line on pushups: If you enjoy pushups, go ahead. The indirect benefits to diving are those of weightlifting in general.

Do you need squats? The squat stirs passionate debate. Some insist it is excellent for your body and knees. Others state categorically the squat damages knees. The explanation is simple. The squat has benefits and potential for harm, it depends how it’s done. You can easily modify for the advantages without harming your knees.

The squat is a multi-segment full body activity, meaning it works many body simultaneously. The benefit over isolating each muscle group comes from specificity. From standing to hauling gear to diving, your daily activities are multi-segment. Squats are good for posture muscles and overall body stabilization. They raise your capacity for lifting tanks and gear properly. Your back is not made for lifting. The squat trains your legs to do the work.

The squat has several variations. In one you hold a barbell across the back of your neck and shoulders, bend your knees, then stand straight again. Alternatives easier on your neck include holding weights in each hand or using a machine that places the weight on your shoulders like a horseshoe. The main modification to safeguard knees is to not squat down fully, but stop at a quarter or halfway so your thighs go no farther than parallel to the floor.

Full squats put high pressure on your knee cartilage. Rising from a full squat twists the leg bones against the cartilage while exerting pressure. Knee problems are the occupational injuries of baseball catchers. Once injured, the nonvascular cartilage will not heal. The inflammation may subside but other times the tear acts as a chronic irritant, inflaming the area until you go for surgery that makes your knee hurt more, if only temporarily.

The bottom line on the squat: Squats can be excellent for general health and diving. Limit harm by lifting with supervision, keep weights off your neck, keep your back upright, not tilted forward and stay above a 90 degree knee bend.

Do you need leg machine exercises? Leg machines improve your legs directly and indirectly for diving. Two main machines seem similar, yet make a difference in knee health. Both work your thigh by straightening the knee against resistance. In one you push the weight away with the bottoms of your feet. In the other you sit with the weight at your ankle, moving your lower leg up and down in an arc. Like the bench press and pushup, these two use the same muscles with opposite joint dynamics. The second is tougher on your knees upon full straightening. The first is excellent for your legs without burden to your knee joint. When using the first machine concentrate on the range from a moderate, not full bend, to straight. Keep from bending your knees too much.

The bottom line on leg machines: Look for machines where you push the weight with the bottoms of your feet over those that have you sit with the weight at your ankle.

Do you need dead lifting? This exercise puts the dead in dead lifting. I don’t mean the Olympic bent knee lift, but the number where you bend over at the hip, legs straight, hands near your toes and lift the weight. This maneuver is almost guaranteed to screw up your back. Dead lifting is dead wrong for your back but if it makes you happy, have a good orthopedist on hand.

The bottom line on straight leg dead lifting: Don’t.

Do You Need Stretching?

Stretching prevents muscle injuries, reduces back pain and increases the range of joint motion required for sports and daily mobility.

Do you need toe touches? Leaning over at the waist for toe touches is one way to stretch your back and hamstrings but it is not a good stretch for regular use. Although it feels great when back muscles are tight, it is tough on your back in the long run. A safer way to stretch your back is to lie on it and bring a bent leg to your chest one at a time. There are two safer ways to stretch your hamstrings. Do the back stretch described above, then straighten the leg overhead. Or stand with one heel propped up on a chair, keeping the inward curve of your lower back and sticking your behind out a little. A good range of motion in all the directions your back bends helps prevent back pain. It’s a good idea to move through your back’s range of motion slowly, as part of your regular routine.

Warmup before you stretch. Warmup means just what it sounds like. Raise your body temperature. Slow jogging, bicycling or anything that gets you to break into a light sweat will make stretching safer.

The bottom line on toe touches: Substitute the lying down or one leg on a chair stretches described above, rather than the bent over toe touch.

Do you need the hurdler’s stretch? The hurdler’s stretch twists your knee sideways with possibility of knee ligament damage. To better stretch your hamstrings try either or both stretches described in the section on toe touches.

The bottom line on the hurdler’s stretch: Not recommended.

Do you need shoulder stretches? Swimmers are notorious for reproducing a war time torture technique. They yank their arms up in back. The greater range they achieve improves swimming speed. The price is shoulder instability and susceptibility to long term injury. Divers don’t need it.

The bottom line on shoulder stretches: No partner assisted stretching. Move through a gentle range of motion. Don’t lift your arms up behind you overhead.

Do you need the plow? In the plow you lie with your legs in the air over your head and all your weight on your shoulders and neck. The plow forces the neck too far forward, putting pressure on the discs and overstretching the long ligament down the back of your neck. When ligaments stretch they don’t return to their healthy length, weakening the neck. A permanent forward head may result, contributing funny posture and upper back pain to your fitness program.

The bottom line on the plow: You’re better off without it. There are better ways to simultaneously have a stroke and herniate disks in your neck.

Happy Diving

This article barely touched on a few of the good, the bad and the peculiar of the many exercises divers encounter. See your physician before starting your exercise program. Weightlift with supervision. Improve your diving, your diving health and general health and fitness by choosing a few good exercises and sticking with them. Have fun.

The Bottom Line On Several Popular Exercises

Step aerobics: Can help and harm. Modify stepping to reduce injury potential. Enjoy the fitness that benefits diving indirectly.

Arm swinging during aerobics: You will make more fitness gains by going to the weight room to lift heavier weights ten times. If you enjoy swinging your arms, keep your thumbs facing up when lifting upward. Limit motion backward to no farther than the midline of your body. Lift with control.

Situps: Substitute crunches to improve the abdominal strength and endurance that directly benefits your diving.

Leg lifts: A great back and bun exercise directly benefiting diving is to lie face down, chin on hands and lift both legs up toward the back. For front and side lifts, you will better improve your leg strength, endurance and firmness in the weight room by lifting a heavier weight 10 to 12 times, than using body weight alone for endless repetitions.

Swimming: Go swimming. Also go swimming with fins.

Bench press: Indirectly benefits diving through the usual benefits of weightlifting. For shoulder safety, limit the range by stopping the weight before your elbows go too far behind you.

Pushups: If you enjoy pushups, go ahead. The indirect benefits to diving are those of weightlifting in general.

The squat: Squats can be excellent for general health and diving. Limit harm by lifting with supervision, keep weights off your neck, keep your back upright, not tilted forward, and stay above a 90 degree knee bend.

Leg machines: Look for machines where you push the weight with the bottoms of your feet, over those that have you sit with the weight at your ankle.

Straight leg dead lifting: Don’t.

Toe touches: Substitute the lying down or one leg on a chair stretches, rather than the bent over toe touch.

Shoulder stretches: No partner assisted stretching. Move through a gentle range of motion. Don’t lift your arms up behind you overhead.

The hurdler’s stretch: This is not recommended.

The plow: You’re better off without it. There are better ways to simultaneously have a stroke and herniate disks in your neck.

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