Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So exciting!

Something rather exciting happened last week—I got a job! Yes, an actual job at a great gym about a mile from my doorstep. I couldn't be more thrilled to have joined such an excellent team of personal trainers. So far, my coworkers have been great and I'm really enjoying the atmosphere. The facility itself is loaded with a ton of activities that satisfy just about every interest, and there are plenty of toys to play with during training sessions. Though personal training will be my primary responsibility, I'll also be charged with conducting gym orientations. And someday, I look forward to teaching a class or two.

In fact, as part of my training, I was asked to participate in a few of the group activities. So far, both Studio Sculpt and Group Training have really worked me. Boot Camp is next...I sure will be tired after this week! But I sort of love that feeling, so it's great.

It's funny, a little over a year ago I was making the decision to sign up for classes at Blue Heron Academy. Today, I'm an employed personal trainer and proof that dreams really do come true. It took a few months post-certification for something to really happen, but I never took my eyes off the prize. Which brings me to your daily dose of fit—never lose sight of the prize. Whether it's a weight goal or the finish line at an upcoming road race, if you want it bad enough, just keep your eyes on the prize and you'll find a way to make it yours. Remember that every step counts, so make most of them (because we're not perfect) completely worth it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Impromptu fitness is the best.

Sometimes the best workouts are unplanned. For example, after a dark and stormy morning, Sunday's weather blossomed into clear skies as temperatures soared to beachworthy levels. To capture what was left of our day, my husband and I threw our bikes in the back of the Escape and ventured over to the new Arnold Palmer golf course here in town. Though it's still a work in progress, the course is absolutely stunning. And the cart path is everything but level. Holy hills—impromptu fitness, indeed!

I definitely started to feel it in my thighs, and without my padded bike shorts, my buns started to burn. My husband, on the other hand, was fine because his seat is very much a throne. In the end, we pedaled and pushed our bikes over about 10 miles of golf course peaks and valleys. It was a workout, indeed. But it didn't feel like one. And that's why impromptu fitness is the best—because it almost never feels like a workout but it's still totally good for you. So tell me, when was your last impromptu fitness session?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lower Back Exercises

To strengthen your lower back is to focus on your core, back and leg muscles. Quite often, the pain is associated with a muscle weakness in those areas. But to truly decrease your chances of aggravating your pain-prone lower back, you'll need to condition those muscles as well. And yes, there is a difference between exercises that strengthen and those that condition. You're either giving muscles more power (strengthen), or teaching them to move easily in a variety of different ways (conditioning). Even certain stretches are considered excellent muscle conditioners.

Again, strengthening exercises that reduce low back pain tend to focus on your core, back and leg muscles. Think planks, seated cable rows and squats. For conditioning exercises, think about the following:
1) SUPINE KNEE TUCKS: Lie down on your back (supine position) with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles, pressing your lower back into the ground as you slowly bring one knee into your chest. Hold for five seconds, release and repeat with your other knee to complete one repetition. If, and only if, you're capable of mild rotation without pain—you can lift both knees and drop them from side to side for a few repetitions upon completion of the above, but keep your abs contracted throughout to maintain support.

2) CAT STRETCH: Face the floor on your hands and knees. Contract your abdominal muscles and slowly arch your back toward the ceiling. Hold for five seconds, relax, then sit back on your heels. Breathe deeply to feel a nice stretch, then return to the starting position and repeat.

3) PRONE HIP EXTENSIONS: Lie down on your stomach (prone position), resting your forehead on your hands. Contract your abs and glutes, then slowly lift one leg off the ground about six inches. Hold for five seconds, keeping your knee straight the entire time, lower and repeat with the other leg to complete one repetition.

4) HAMSTRING STRETCH: Tight hamstrings are quite often the biggest cause of low back pain. To keep them loose and limber, you'll want to constantly stretch them out. But the typical sit-and-reach hamstring stretch isn't always the best option for those who suffer from low back pain. I recommend you lie down in the supine position with legs extended. Bend one knee in so that it points toward the ceiling, grab behind your hamstrings and straighten your leg as much as you possibly can. Hold for 30 seconds, lower and repeat. Then switch legs.

Of course, this list is incomplete. There are so many ways you can strengthen and condition a weak lower back. Feel free to contact me for additional ideas, or leave a comment to share your favorite with my readers and myself.

Remember: Seek help from your doctor if your low back pain is persistent. It might be something more than a muscle weakness or imbalance.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Low back pain isn't fun.

Years of gymnastics and cheerleading gave my lower back an attitude problem. It doesn't matter how strong my core is, a single misstep makes me hobble around for a month with one hand on my lower back and the other reaching for support. Though it hasn't happened in a long time, knock on wood, I usually have at least one episode a year. I've seen the specialists, but we've yet to find a cause which is why I've come to the conclusion that my lower back is simply getting (pardon the pun) back at me for all that flipping and twisting I used to do. To fight (pardon the pun again) back, I've had to put a few tips and tricks up my sleeve. Lucky for you, I'm willing to share.

First and foremost, you have to do everything possible to avoid situations that strain your lower back. Especially when you're at the gym. Always make sure that you're lifting an appropriate weight, and that you're removing them from the weight rack with your legs instead of your lower back. In addition, make sure you're executing proper form at all times. To break form is to put serious strain on your lower back. To help you, many gyms keep leather back braces by the heaviest weights. Never hesitate to use them! They'll support you, as will a strong core, hip flexors and hamstrings.

If you know that you're prone to low back pain, there are also a few motions you'll want to avoid. For example, twisting—probably the easiest way to bring on the pain. But if you insist, go slow and steady. Really engage those core muscles and pick lighter weights if you're doing weighted exercises. In addition, you'll want to be especially careful when lifting and lowering your legs while lying on your stomach or your back.

Should pain begin to plague you, cease any activity immediately. Use ice if you can access it. Trust me on this one—rest is best so move slowly until the pain stops. This may take a day or two, but if you push it, you'll end up making it worse. The back is funny in that it harnesses pain from other parts of the body. Sometimes that pain represents more than a simple muscle strain, and you'll want to know if it does. Never hesitate to seek help from a professional.

Stay tuned, I'll post some lower back exercises shortly.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Blissfully Domestic

As a writer, I am always looking for new and exciting ways to share my voice with this wonderful world we live in. Very recently, Blissfully Domestic became one of those ways. This glorious website brings together women from all walks of life in a way that "strives to encourage, connect, empower and bless all the writers and readers together." I am thrilled to announce that I will be one of those writers, and I encourage you to become a reader. In fact, my first post is scheduled to go live today! See if you can find it. Title: "On fashion and fitness."

Friday, June 25, 2010

I'm feeling a bit disgruntled.

Dear readers, I have a bone to pick. Not with you, of course, but with a certain compilation of individuals I will commonly refer to as one Grunty McGruntsalot. Does he frequent your gym, too? You'll recognize him by the loud, gutturo-centric response he gives to whatever weight he is currently lifting. Such proclamations include, but are not limited to the following:

"Oooooooooooooooooooh. Ow."
"Uuuggghhh. Uuuggghhh. Uuuggghhh."
"Yeaaaaaaaaaaaah. That hurts."
"Ooooomph. Ooooomph. Oooooyeah."

After which, weights are dropped and muscles are rubbed. Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that Grunty can lift heavy weights. Kudos to him (honestly) for such impressive strength, however let's be frank about something—is the grunting really necessary? What's your opinion? I imagine that some of you will say that yes, it is necessary. And I'll admit to grunting when a particular move gets exceptionally tough to perform. But the difference lies within the fact that Grunty is loud. Uproariously loud. Must a grunt really be heard from one side of the gym to another, over an iPod and the treadmill? And must that grunt really include words like "ow" and "yeah"? It's just not necessary, and sometimes I wonder if those grunts are fabricated for my benefit. Like it's The Grunty McGruntsalot Show, if you will.

Mr. McGruntsalot, the louder you grunt, the more I think you just want my attention. And I'm giving it to you, but not for the reason you're hoping for. Quite frankly, you sound like an ape which is incredibly distracting. Won't you keep it down?! Work hard, really get into whatever you're doing. As a personal trainer, I know how important it is to push yourself in the gym. But I'd really, truly appreciate it if you did your best to keep the grunting at a normal, mostly inaudible level like the rest of us. It's about etiquette, and also about respecting the space you share with the rest of us fit freaks.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Go ahead, laugh.

Remember the scene in "Mary Poppins" where everyone's favorite nanny visits Uncle Albert, only to find him floating in the air because of what can best be described as a laughing attack? It was always one of my favorite scenes, mostly because I'd end up laughing myself. You see, laughter is quite contagious. And as it turns out, very good for your abdominal muscles.

In fact, laughter is good for the entire body in a variety of different ways. Not only does it make us happy, it lowers our blood pressure, reduces stress and releases endorphins. While those effects are all very important, I'd like to focus on the fact that it flexes our abdominal muscles. And if you've ever experienced a deep, gut-busting laugh—then you know what I mean. It almost hurts, doesn't it? Your breathing pattern changes so significantly that your abdominal muscles clench up in response. And that's why laughter is a great abdominal workout. But can it be harnessed into an actual workout?

At first I thought it was a joke (especially because of her facial expression at the end), but as it turns out, this video is totally legit. The "Laugh Your Abs Away" workout is the brainchild of a California woman named Kerry Beard and she is, of course, the instructor you see above. Though I'm not sure I could ever take this workout seriously, it sure would be fun to test it out at the gym!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's Healthy Week at NBC Universal!

Kudos to NBC Universal for turning an otherwise ordinary week in June into a "cross-platform event" that infuses their regular programming with health and fitness tips. With this initiative, NBC hopes to inspire all of us to take "positive steps toward better health and wellness"—and that's something I can definitely support. Unfortunately, I don't have cable so my access is limited to whatever I can find online. Lucky for me, NBC Universal just launched a new website to correlate with Healthy Week. It provides a wide variety of links to health and fitness content, plus health quizzes and (if you have cable) even a programming guide. Tune in, and let me know what you learn.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How to Become a Runner

You: I want to be a runner, but it's just not me. I can't.
Me: Can't schmant! Baby, we were born to run.

Bruce Springsteen wasn't talking about exercise in his smash hit "Born to Run," but The Boss does make a very good point. We were, in fact, born to run. And yes—that means you were, too. Unfortunately, some of us are plagued by faulty knees and bad hips which make running of any kind virtually impossible. But for those of you who don't run simply because you think you can't—well, you can. Trust me, I hated running. But now I can't get enough of it! And I wish the same for you, which is why I've put together some hints and tips that will help you start running.

First and foremost, take stock of your body and sole. Sorry...soles. As in, your shoes. Make sure they're supportive and suitable for running because bad shoes lead to aches and pains. And if you don't fall in the faulty knee/bad hip group as mentioned above, and if you don't have any other outstanding medical issues that might curb your efforts, then you're good to go. Lace up, stretch out and commence your usual walking routine. When you hit your stride, take yourself into a slow jog. Keyword: slow. It's important to remember that running has a slightly different effect on the body than walking. To avoid injury, don't push too hard at the beginning. Though it may feel as if you could go forever, you'll need to give your body time to catch up to your brain. Try jogging slowly for 30 seconds, then scale it back to your walking pace until you've caught your breath. Then, when you're ready, jog for another 30 seconds. Repeat this process the entire length of your workout. If you can only do one or two bouts of running, so be it. Next time you lace up, you might find yourself capable of running an additional 30 seconds.

The goal is to progressively increase running time while decreasing time spent walking. It's not a race, so again—take it slow. You won't turn into a runner overnight, but that's OK. It's important that you give your body time to adjust, which brings me to another point. Consider adding some additional strength training exercises to your routine. You'll notice the different, and you'll decrease your chances of getting injured. And last, but certainly not least, believe in yourself. If you want to run, and if you're medically capable of doing so, you'll be able to. Just stay focused, and listen to your body. And keep me posted on your progress!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Chocolate and mint in water, oh my!

I drink water all day long. It's an essential aspect of my life, but it can really bore the heck out of me. A girl's gotta have some flavor on occasion! Sure, lemons and cucumbers. But they're not always enough. And all that flavored water at the grocery store? Eh. Not for me. Until I discovered Metromint water, which lacks any frightening additives. In fact, Metromint is nothing more than a bottle of purified water infused with mint. And some chocolate, if you pick the Chocomint flavor. (Other flavors include Peppermint, Spearmint, Lemonmint, Orangemint and Cherrymint.)

I know, it sounds a bit gross. Chocolate beverages are supposed to be milky and thick. But this is surprisingly decent—and incredibly refreshing. Doubly so since it doesn't contain any calories or sugar. Just cocoa essence, which is totally natural. And the mint? Lots of benefits there.

Mint is an herb whose claim to fame is fresh breath, but it can also soothe an upset stomach or release unnecessary tension. My bottle of Metromint says it "naturally stimulates the nerves, instantly opening your senses to send a fresh, cool feeling throughout your body." Call me crazy, but they're sort of right. Imagine cold water, and then imagine it being even colder. That's what the mint does—to a certain degree. Each flavor of Metromint has a chill factor that indicates how minty cool the water will be. Chocomint comes in at -2° which is on the milder end of things. "Quietly cool," if you will. Wondering what the most intense flavor is? You'd be right if you guessed Peppermint, which comes in at -9° and is "super cool" according to the thermometer.

But while I definitely think Metromint water is a cool (pardon the pun) alternative to lemons and cucumbers, I'm not sure that it's something I'd take to the gym with me. I liken it to wine—meant to be enjoyed via slow slips. And if you enjoy it, let me know what flavor so I can give it a try.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Make sure fat is your friend, not your foe.

Fat has a very bad reputation, and yet—the human body needs it to function properly. Certain vitamins can only be absorbed via fat. And surprisingly enough, fat stores energy which means it also fuels light exercise. But that doesn't mean you're better off with more of it. And it certainly doesn't mean you can stop worrying about how much fat you take in. In fact, there's a huge difference between good and bad fats, and if you take in too much of the latter, that's when you over accumulate. And that's when fat becomes your foe.

For example, the American Institute of Cancer Research concluded that almost 100,000 of the 1.6 million cases of cancer reported in 2009 were most likely related to obesity. And ladies, I'm not sure if you've heard this yet but I seem to be reading it everywhere—excess abdominal fat is often linked to breast cancer. But cancer isn't the only thing linked to bodies with an excessive amount of fat. Diabetes, arthritis, heart attacks, sleep apnea...your risk for developing all of these things increases as your body fat increases.

True, these are some scary words, but they're meant to inspire. Take a look at your body and decide whether or not you're helping or hindering its ability to give you the healthiest life possible. Is your diet on the fatty side? Are YOU on the fatty side?! Be honest with yourself when you answer these question. And set aside those images of star athletes and models. No comparisons allowed! It's not about being skinny or ripped. It's about challenging yourself to eat right and be active so that fat remains your friend, rather than an accumulated foe. It's about doing everything you can to live the fit life. Because really—it's how you will live your best life.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Give overnight oats a try.

As you all know, I am a huge fan of oatmeal. (Especially if it involves zucchini!) It gives good carb, and keeps me full for quite some time. But at this time of year, I have a love-hate relationship with eating oatmeal because it's so darn hot outside. And who wants a bowl of hot, steaming oatmeal when the day itself is both hot and steaming? Usually not me, but I force it down anyway because it tastes so good. Enter overnight oats—I check a number of food blogs on a daily basis and quite a few of them rave about the exceptional nature of this breakfast alternative. They're healthy, can be vegan or lactose tolerant if that's your thing, and refreshingly delicious compared to stove top (or microwave) oats.

See photo at right. Banana Pecan Overnight Oats in all their glory. I know, it kinda looks like soggy cereal. The flavor is anything but, I promise. And they're oh-so-very simple to make.

Here's the recipe:

1/3 c. oatmeal, dry
3/4 c. low fat milk (or any type of nut milk)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tbsp. chopped pecans (or any type of nut)
1/2 banana, smashed to smithereens

The night before you intend to indulge, mix all ingredients in a bowl. Cover, and place in the 'fridge until the morning. Mix, top with banana slices. Enjoy!

I know. So hard. The beautiful thing about overnight oats is that, like regular oatmeal, they're so versatile! I plan on incorporating almond butter, blueberries and cinnamon in the near future. And I've always wanted to try different oats. Be sure to let me know if you come up with an especially delicious concoction. I'll give it a whirl, for sure.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shin Splints

Nothing brings exercise, particularly running and walking, to a screeching halt quite like shin splints. They're painful, and the pain is typically isolated to the front portion of your lower leg. Rest and relaxation come first and foremost whenever shin splints occur, because really—shin splints are an overuse injury, and one of the most common overuse injuries as well. Untreated and continually aggravated shin splints can turn into stress fractures. And those are never a good thing.

To combat shin splints, you'll need to understand a few things. First, know that your shins absorb most of the impact you create while running and walking. Switching from a sidewalk or grass to the pavement means that your shins need to adjust to an even greater impact, which they might not be ready for. To make sure they are, always stretch your calf muscles before you begin. Additional flexibility in this area helps keep the entire lower leg as strong as possible, which translates to added support as exercise intensity increases. (It goes without saying that calf exercises help, too.) But aside from the flexibility issue, shin splints can also be the direct result of a bad arch. If this is your case, you may want to consider the arch support in your current shoes. It might be time for something new, or at the very least, inserts.

And as I said before, the best way to treat shin splints is by resting and relaxing. However, that doesn't mean you have to be sidelined for weeks. Nine times out of ten, shin splints will go away once you stop the aggravating activity. If not, try some ice and give it a day or two before you run or walk again. In the meantime, you can switch to lower impact activities like biking and swimming. If they remain persistent, you should visit your doctor to rule out stress fractures. Yes, shin splints are a pain—literally and figuratively—but when taken care of correctly, they only curb our efforts momentarily.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Turn everyday activities into exercises.

The daily grind is an unavoidable beast. We do our best to conquer it as often as possible, usually with great success, but sometimes the going gets tough and something gets pushed off the schedule. Typically, that something is your workout. Is it not? Make note—there are sneaky little ways you can bring the gym into your life when you can't actually get to the gym itself. All you have to do is get creative by turning everyday activities into strength training moves. For example:

1) ABDOMINAL STOP SQUEEZES: When you drive from here to there in your crazy frenzy to run errands or make meetings, you typically encounter a number of stoplights or stop signs. They're extremely annoying when time is of the essence, but I say multitask by squeezing and releasing your abs in 10-second bouts until the light turns green or the right-of-way is yours for the taking. Such a move really hits your transverse abdominal muscles, which is the innermost layer of your core.

2) BICEP BAG HOOKS: When you pay for your merch at the grocery store, and if you only have one or two bags, skip the cart and carry it all to the car. Not down by your side, though. Bend your arms at 90 degrees, keeping your elbows in and shoulders relaxed, then hook the bag on your forearms for a nice isometric bicep builder. And ladies, this move works well with purses, too. Lord knows we pack it in heavier than we should. Just make sure you switch from arm to arm so everything stays balanced.

3) DETERGENT BOTTLE BICEP CURLS: Piles of laundry everywhere frustrate the best of us because, well—we're out of underwear. But before you add the detergent to the washer, do a set of bicep curls. Those big bottles can be heavy when they're full! (You can also try triceps extensions, but if the detergent bottle is too heavy, reach for the fabric softener instead.)

4) STAIRCASE MINI-MARATHONS: If your hands are free and your body is capable, don't just walk up the stairs—run! You're going up anyway, might as well take advantage of an easy burst of cardio. If you can't run, at least walk with as much purpose as you can muster up. Either way, you'll feel it! And it'll feel good.

In addition to the above, consider wearing lightweight ankle and wrist weights throughout your day. Whether you're cleaning or running errands, or simply making your way through a typical schedule at the office—they may seem light, but they'll be just enough weight to challenge your muscles on a day they might go otherwise unchallenged. Also, find places to sneak in walking lunges. Say, from the living room to the garage as you take the dog out. Or up the driveway after you've grabbed the mail. It's like a game, really. Can you overcome the odds (your schedule) and sneak in exercise without missing a beat? I bet you can, and I'd like to hear about it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Can exercise make you fat?

The answer to that question is obviously no, however there is a catch—exercise makes you hungry because your body is burning calories.

Just to refresh, calories come from nutrients. More specifically from protein, carbohydrates and fat. And since your body needs nutrients (yes, even fat) to function properly, it asks for more when its supply is depleted. Thus, the reason you get hungry. But sometimes we misinterpret how hungry we are. We aren't careful about our food and drink choices and we end up taking in more calories than we need to.

This is why calorie counting is such a good idea. For example, as a member of MyFitnessPal, I am told to take in a certain number of calories every day. And when I exercise, I can input the amount of calories I burned and the program compensates for it by extending my calorie count for the day. Although there's nothing wrong with that if I simply wish to maintain my present self, if I ever want to drop a few pounds, I'll have to make sure not to eat through too many of those added calories. Otherwise, why burn the equivalent on the treadmill in the first place? Don't do all that hard work for nothing, my friend.

It's simple, really. If you wish to lose weight, be very careful not to take in whatever calories you burned at the gym. (That's not to say you can't eat after you workout. Quite the opposite, remember?) Or if you wish to maintain your weight, be very careful not to take in more than what you burned at the gym.

We all know how easy it is to do just that when we're hungry, and since exercise makes us hungry, that's how it can also make us fat. Indirectly speaking, of course.

Any questions? Let me know!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Upcoming event!

Join me on Sunday, July 11, 2010 at North Avenue Beach in Chicago for the Women's Health ARE YOU GAME? event. It promises to be a day filled with "inventive workout classes, eat smart demos, workout-to-knockout makeovers, a live DJ and more." And if it's anything like the Self Magazine Workout in the Park, this event will be a blast. The fee to register is only $10—who can resist? Certainly not me, though I'm not sure how much energy I'll have. This event falls on the day after the L.A.T.E. Ride! 25 miles on a bike in the wee hours of the night, then a day filled with workouts? I'll do anything for a bag of freebies.

Click here to sign up.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Walk this way.

I wasn't always a runner. At one point in my life, I detested running so much that walking was undoubtedly my activity of choice. Turns out, it wasn't a bad choice and I wasn't alone—national surveys continue to indicate that walking is the single most popular fitness activity. Probably because it comes so naturally, but also because it can lower blood pressure and body fat while reducing coronary and cancer risks. Truth be told, many of those same health benefits can be applied to running as well. But it's a common misconception that walking one mile is equivalent to running one mile.

The American Council on Exercise explains that walkers burn only 50 to 60% of the calories that runners burn over one identical mile. The basic explanation—runners are working harder and moving faster. But that's clearly not meant to discredit walking because not everyone is a runner. Or, some people are runners but their bodies just can't keep up for one medical reason or another. And that's OK. Walkers are clearly reaping the health benefits. And they can reap even more benefits with proper form and intensity.

Consider the following: Whether you walk on a treadmill, track or sidewalk, always keep up the pace. Fitness walking is meant to challenge you. My husband calls it "pep-stepping" for good reason. It's upbeat and active, clearly not your average stroll around the neighborhood on a casual Sunday. And speaking of the neighborhood, pick a path with hills. If you're on the treadmill, up the incline—but don't hold on! This essentially negates the incline because your body stays in a neutral position. Inclines are meant to challenge your energy level and your leg muscles, and they certainly will if you give them a proper chance. Additional leg burn can be achieved by simply lengthening your stride a bit, which calls on your inner and outer thigh muscles a bit more than usual. You can also challenge your abs by keeping them squeezed from start to finish. In addition, let your arms swinging casually and steadily to engage the upper body.

That said, I will leave you with a challenging treadmill routine. Give it a go and let me know what you think!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Try this hot treadmill routine!

Your treadmill is probably collecting dust right now because of all this sunshine we've been getting, but if your daily run is starting to feel a bit bland, swap out the sidewalk and dust off the treadmill. Try this interval- and incline-based routine for some serious calorie blasting. Sticky note reads minutes: speed (incline). And to all my readers who prefer walking, I'm working on a special post just for you so stay tuned!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On contractions.

As I wait anxiously for the birth of my good friend's baby, I can't help but think about contractions. Though I know nothing about muscle contractions as they relate to giving birth, I can tell you how they influence your performance at the gym. You see, our muscles can experience three different contractions when we strength train.

Let's start with isometric contractions, as shown above. When our muscles contract isometrically, we're not actually moving them. The muscle is simply maintaining a contracted state in order to hold a weight. Sitting against a wall is another example of this, as are planks. The nice thing about isometric training is that it doesn't put much pressure on the joints surrounding the muscle, which is why a number of physical therapists will employ this method to rehab injuries. And in all actuality, an isometric contraction is the best representation of muscle strength. For example, I may be holding a 15-pound dumbbell in the photo above, but ask me to perform bicep curls and I will tire out quickly. Though I have the strength to hold it as shown, I can do more bicep curls with a 12-pound weight. That, however, can be explained by concentric contractions.

Concentric contractions cause the muscle to shorten, and internal muscle friction weakens it slightly. This, of course, is the result of it acting against an outside force. In the case of a bicep curl, the outside force is the weight itself and the concentric contraction occurs as the dumbbell is lifted. And that's why I can't necessarily curl 15 pounds—because of the weight itself in combination with movement. But the act of curling 12 pounds repeatedly still challenges me, and the more I lift it, the more tolerant my muscles will get which means, of course, that I'm building strength. And as the bicep muscle contracts concentrically during the up phase of a curl, it starts to contract eccentrically during the down phase. Meaning, it lengthens—or relaxes

Next time you strength train, I challenge you to really feel your muscles as they work. It's not about the act of lifting and lowering, or pushing and pulling, but it is about contractions. Decipher when your muscle is contracting concentrically or eccentrically, maybe even isometrically, and you'll connect to the essence of the exercise itself. And that, hopefully, will grow your understanding of and appreciation for all your hard work.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How to Fail Harder

Last month, I talked about temporary muscle failure. To recap—TMF is the point at which you absolutely cannot complete one last rep. While many people choose to employ this technique, it isn't necessary. As long as your last few reps are difficult, you're golden. That said, training to failure can make a difference if you need to push through a plateau. And if you've mastered that method, you may even want to consider pushing beyond failure—but it's a difficult way to train because it puts an immense amount of pressure on the body. You must, must, must use proper form at all times in order to avoid injury. And just like training to TMF, you should never push a muscle group beyond failure more than once a week.

In fact, I only recommend you fail harder if you are completely familiar with the rules and regulations of training to failure. And if you are, I'd recommend you try the following:

1) FORCED REPETITIONS: If you are training with a partner, you can enlist their help to push past the point at which you can't move the weight anymore. Or, if you're doing single-arm moves, assist your working arm with your resting hand. Either way, you may be able to squeeze out one or two more reps.

2) PARTIAL REPETITIONS: If you can't complete another full rep, try lifting the weight through one or two partial repetitions. For example, if you're lifting a barbell for bicep curls, lift until your arms are bent at 90 degrees. Lower and repeat a few more times if possible.

3) DROP SETS: Quite possibly the easiest way to push beyond TMF. When your muscles fail, change your weight to something lighter and complete full repetitions until your muscles fail again. Lighten the weight again, or just call it quits. Note that cable machines make this technique super easy to do.

Remember, training to temporary muscle failure requires that you closely observe your form every second that you are lifting. And again, never use these techniques more than once a week per muscle group. I know I sound like a tape deck on repeat with this one—but good form means less injuries.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Zucchini Bread Oatmeal

What you eat plays a very important role in your fit life. I can't stress how important it is to choose foods that complement, rather than destroy, your efforts at the gym. I myself am continuously riding that learning curve, and I check a number of food blogs daily in search of new and exciting recipes that won't break my calorie bank. While I won't ever claim to be a food blogger—and never a nutritionist or dietitian—I will share a recipe or two on occasion that I think is exceptionally delish. Starting with Zucchini Bread Oatmeal.

For the life of me, I can't remember which food blog I pulled this recipe from. I wish more than anything I could give credit because credit is due. This recipe is really great! Especially if you love zucchini bread, and extra-especially if you love eating oatmeal for breakfast. Though I haven't been eating much of it lately because the weather is warm, I've found oatmeal to be a great source of good carbs on gym days. One bowl of it usually fills me up for a while, and also provides a serious amount of energy that keeps me going all morning. Mouth watering yet? Here's the recipe:

2/3 c. water or milk ( I used almond milk.)
1/2 c. uncooked old-fashioned oatmeal
1/4 medium zucchini, grated
1 tbsp. chopped pecans
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1 tbsp. nut butter (I used almond butter.)
1 tsp. light brown sugar (This is optional.)

Bring the water or milk to a boil in a saucepan, then add the oats. Stir until liquid reduces and oats thicken, then add zucchini, nuts, cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir again, then let the concoction simmer for a minute or two. If it gets too dry, add a dash more water or milk. (I tend to like my oatmeal on the wet side of the spectrum.) Remove from heat and scoop into a bowl. Stir in the nut butter and brown sugar. (I forgot the brown sugar the first time I made this, but the end result was still quite tasty.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Efficient Exercises

My future brother-in-law sent me a text yesterday in which he asked for some fitness advice. His goals are simple, but he is only able to work out for 30 minutes thrice a week—does that make his goals unachievable, he wondered? And I'm sure many of you wonder the same thing about your own goals and how they fit into your busy schedules.

In my opinion, every last minute counts for something. Especially when the minutes are few and far in between. Like everything else in your life, you must budget your workouts wisely and that makes efficiency key. And there are a variety of ways you can be efficient in the gym. Starting with intervals on your cardio machine of choice, as they tend to burn more calories in less time. More importantly, take a look at your strength routine and ask yourself if there are any exercises that can be combined into one. Or if there are any exercises that can be eliminated in exchange for others that work more than one body part at a time—it shouldn't surprise you that efficient exercises, like intervals, also burn more calories. Some examples:

1) JUMP SQUATS WITH SHOULDER SHRUGS: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves and shoulders.
2) WIDE-LEG SQUATS WITH UPRIGHT ROWS: Glutes, hamstrings, quads and shoulders.
3) WIDE-LEG SQUATS WITH MEDICINE BALL CHOPS: Glutes, hamstrings, quads and abs.
4) SPLIT LEG SQUATS WITH BICEP CURLS: Glutes, hamstrings, quads and biceps.
5) SPLIT LEG SQUATS WITH TRICEPS PRESSES: Glutes, hamstrings, quads and triceps.
6) REGULAR SQUATS WITH SHOULDER PRESSES: Glutes, hamstrings, quads and shoulders.
7) HAMMER CURLS WITH LUNGES: Glutes, hamstrings, quads and biceps.
10) STRAIGHT LEG DEAD LIFTS WITH BENT ROWS: Glutes, hamstrings and upper back.
11) BENT ROWS WITH TRICEPS EXTENSIONS: Upper back and triceps. 

If you have any technique questions regarding the above, please don't hesitate to contact me. And if you have a favorite efficient exercise that I didn't list, do share!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Shop Spartan stores if you can. They're quite helpful!

There are a number of grocery stores in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio that stock Spartan goods. Though the company itself is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they distribute quite heavily to that tri-state area. If you live in Michigan, to shop a D&W Fresh Market or Family Fare is to shop a Spartan-owned store. And if you live in Saint Joseph, you can find Spartan goods at Roger's Foodland. Though Spartan goods are generally seen as generic goods, they're quite comparable to the fancier (often more expensive) name brands. In this house, we can't get enough of "Sparty" salsa.

So as we ventured out to Roger's for our weekly grocery fest, I was quite excited to see that an important change was being made to Spartan-based stores across the state of Michigan

Introducing the new price ticket!

Though they haven't yet graced the shelves at Roger's, I think these color-coded price tickets are a fantastic idea. In this day and age, we need all the help we can get when it comes to supplementing our fitness with healthy eating. And that's why a team of dietitians developed this ticket, which has been named a Nutrition Guide because it attempts to clear up any confusion that may have been caused by the food label itself. Even the Food and Drug Administration is on board with the plan, so wouldn't it be nice if this concept spread to grocery stores across the country? Or perhaps something similar is already happening at your local store—tell me about it!

Monday, June 7, 2010

My Saturday in Saint Joseph

NOTE: I apologize for the posting delay. Blogger was unfortunately experiencing some technical difficulties over which I had no control. 

At this time of year, Saturday mornings in Saint Joseph are a beautiful thing. The lake town hustle-bustle kicks into full gear bright and early as people gather picnic essentials and slather on sunscreen before heading to their boats or the beach in search of freshwater waves and sun, sun, sun. This Saturday, however, the skies above the lake were a bit hazy. Will the sun come out? Will it rain? You couldn't tell, but it certainly didn't keep people inside. Including me.

I mounted Jamis (my bike) for a 13-mile journey that took me out past the grocery store, around a few rural blocks, past yet another grocery store, after which I ended up downtown at the local Farmer's Market. It was the first Market of the year and I just had to go, so I planned my route accordingly. More on the Market later.

As you know, I am in training (and I use that phrase lightly) for the L.A.T.E. Ride in Chicago on July 10. I don't have much cycling experience, save for the around-the-block adventures on my purple Ewok bike when I was little—Purple Ewok bike? Not sure, think my parents made that call. I wasn't much of a "Star Wars" fan, though I loved that bike dearly. I promise to find pictures, but until then, let's get back to the point—Every push of the pedal these days is a new adventure for me, but Jamis (not purple) and I seem to be getting along quite nicely. Perhaps it's all the running because I go further and further with each ride. And I'm really only riding once, maybe twice a week.

How frequently do you ride your bike? (If it sits in your garage all day every day, I urge you to dust it off!) When Jamis and I are out, I find myself forgetting about the fact that I'm actually working out. I wonder if you have (or would have) this same experience. The sights I see from behind Jetta's wheel look totally and completely new atop Jamis. I get caught up in that. Plus, I've already found a few neighborhoods that I didn't even know existed. My only complaint—bugs in the face totally gross me out. And on that note, I'll show you some pics of the Market where nothing seemed to gross me out.

I love that the market is on the bluff, which overlooks the lake (to the right). Lots of plants this time of year, though I know that will only change as the season progresses.

Juicy fresh strawberries. Just about the only fresh produce at this time. Can't wait for the Michigan cherries!

Events on the bluff tend to bring out the dogs, most especially the Farmer's Market. FuzzyButz Pet Bakery sets up a booth and sells pretzel and French fry biscuits. I'd want one if I had a fuzzy butt, wouldn't you?

I'd probably want one of these if I had a fuzzy butt, too. But these cookies were for humans, not dogs. In fact, I'm not sure how I managed to walk away without buying one. Don't they look mouth-wateringly divine?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Jump the line.

Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her role in "Walk the Line," the Johnny Cash epic released in 2006. Though I'm not the biggest Johnny Cash fan, I can acknowledge a great movie when I see one. And I can acknowledge a great song, too. But as she who provides your daily dose of fit, I must counter Cash's tune by suggesting you try jumping the line instead of walking it. And no, not in the cut-to-get-in-front sense. I'm talking about plyometrics. Moves that target multiple muscles in one fat- and calorie-blasting move.

Let me explain: Find a crack, put a rope down or get artistic with a piece of sidewalk chalk. However you create a line, start to one side of it with your legs together and knees softly bent. Keeping your legs together, jump across the line, landing softly on the balls of your feet to protect your knees and ankles.

Jump back to the other side and repeat. Count reps or time it—it's entirely up to you. Essentially, the faster you move, the more you'll burn. And if it gets too easy, you can replace the line with something taller, like a dumbbell or a shoebox. Or jump with one leg instead of two. But like any jumping move, you'll need to maintain proper form to prevent injury. And if you have knee issues, you just might want to skip this lower body blaster.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Are you making these common training mistakes?

As a personal trainer, I am responsible for making sure that my clients are performing all of their exercises correctly. Proper form is a must, which means that I must watch their every move very closely. That's why I stand close, to make sure that no weight ever falls to the floor. And that no body part ever falls victim to injury. That said, sometimes it can be very hard for me to hit the gym sans client because I tend to be a huge people watcher. Without a client to watch, I tend to observe the people around me—and I see so many people using improper form. I get the urge to correct them, but feel it's improper. They didn't ask for my help, and I don't want to be the know-it-all.

But, I have this blog. And if you're here reading it, odds are good that you're in the market for fitness advice. So I urge you to take stock of yourself the next time you hit the gym. Be certain you aren't making these common fitness mistakes:

1) You've been doing the same routine forever. Switch it up! You and your muscles are probably bored, which is why you might not be seeing the results you really want. To increase muscle strength and size, or to decrease fat, you have to constantly challenge your body. And the same 'ol same ol' is not going to cut it.

2) You don't stretch or warm up. You know what it feels like to be sound asleep, only to have the covers pulled back and the light turned on, leaving your tired eyes squinting for solace. It sucks, doesn't it? Well, that's sort of how your muscles feel when you jump right into a workout. Ease them into your routine with some light stretching, then a warm up (treadmill, really light weights). And don't forget the cool-down either.

3) You lift weights that are too heavy. This is the mistake I see most frequently. Ignore the numbers on the side of the weight for a second and take a look at yourself while you're lifting it. If you can keep form through your desired number of reps, then you're fine. If you can't, then you are most certainly lifting a weight that is too heavy. Doing so puts you at risk for injury and minimizes the effect of the exercise on your muscles. On the flip side, you can also lift weights that are too light. Always, always challenge yourself. Read "Are you choosing the right weight?" for more information.

4) You blast through your workout at lighting speed. It's a good idea to move through your workout with minimal resting because it keeps your heart rate in its target zone. However, it's never a good idea to rush. Rushing through a program instills momentum where it shouldn't be, ups your risk of injury, and challenges your ability to hold proper form. In addition, if you can move rather quickly, you might not be using the right weight. Slow down, concentrate and really feel those muscles working. If you're crushed for time, choose exercises that combine more than one muscle group for maximum efficiency.

5) You focus on cardio, not strength. Or vice versa. Like peanut butter and jelly, cardio and strength training go together. Always. One isn't as effective without the other, so make sure you're getting a healthy balance of the two. And since I'm talking about cardio here, don't lean on the equipment! Or talk on your cell phone.

6). You don't drink enough water. Water is the fuel that keeps your body moving! In this world of sports drinks and Muscle Milk, I urge you to reconsider the vending machine in favor of the water fountain. Unless you're working out at a strenuous pace for longer than two hours, odds are good that water will work just as well as its liquid counterparts—and it'll save you some serious calories. Read "Peace, love, cupcakes...and water!" for more information.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What are they doing?

My mother is in New York City this week for a social media conference. (I am completely jealous.) She took a walk in Central Park and came upon this group of people:

First of all, I love the guy walking by. He seems to be completely unfazed by the trio, as if he sees people tethered to a park bench all the time. (Only in New York City, I suppose.) I really wish I could have witnessed this myself. It could be the next great workout! Or maybe it already is. Regardless, I wonder what they're doing. Clearly they like to resistance train, and I can imagine them doing a series of short sprints. Maybe even walking lunges. Or jumps.

Tell me, what do you think they're doing?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"I look fat," she said.

I went to Target yesterday (surprise, surprise) and I overheard an interesting conversation in the dressing room. A very young child with the sweetest, most innocent voice was trying on shorts with her grandmother. She couldn't have been more than four or five years old, if that. "I don't like these," she said, "I look fat." The grandmother reassured the child that she didn't, but proceeded to tell the her that she didn't like how the shorts looked either. To which the child responded: "Grandpa says I have to watch what I eat so that I don't get fat."

I was never able to catch a glimpse of grandmother and child, but I developed mixed emotions about the entire conversation. On one hand, the child's voice was so sweet, innocent and genuine that a part of me thought the whole exchange was extremely cute. I can't help but smile a little when young'uns act like grownups. But on the other hand, I found it to be extremely disturbing that negative body image was taking it's toll on someone who still had yet to develop.

It's true, childhood obesity rates are on the rise. We can blame video games and television shows all we want, but the bottom line is that our kids aren't getting enough exercise. Nor are they eating healthy, thanks to easy food like macaroni and fruit snacks. And as that childhood obesity rate rises, so does the number of children who suffer from diabetes. I think it's important to educate our children about the connection between food and health, like this little girl's grandfather did. But we have to be very careful in our approach—no sense sending them down a spiraling path toward body dysmorphic and/or eating disorders.

Our children need to understand the importance of exercise, and thanks to gym classes and sports leagues, some of them are getting that understanding. But I urge you to set a good example for your children so that they grow up knowing what a happy, healthy body looks like.

To quote Whitney Houston: "I believe the children are our are future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside..."

Teach them how to look in a mirror and say, "I feel great" instead of "I look fat." Take them on bike rides, introduce them to running. Just be careful about strength training. The growing body is a fragile thing, and too much too soon can wreak havoc on young joints. And that can only lead to injury. In fact, most trainers will tell you that children shouldn't train with weights until they've stopped growing. That's why I recommend cardio-based activities, maybe even calisthenics (lunges, jumping jacks, crunches, etc).

Whatever you do to create awareness within your child, remember this one thing—always make it fun. Fitness is fun, and having fun is something every child can appreciate. And it's something every child deserves.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Make footprints in the sand.

My favorite thing about summer is (no, not ice cream) the beach. My entire life, I've lived within 45 minutes of a freshwater shoreline—and I don't think I'll ever get over how great it is to have that kind of access to one of Mother Nature's most beautiful gifts. Though it takes some great courage on my part to venture into the water (usually too cold for me), I never hesitate to take advantage of sand and sun. And recently, I've been thinking about the beach as an outdoor gym. It's a fantastic place to burn some serious calories! Running and swimming and volleyball, no doubt. But I'm also thinking about muscle sculpting moves. Without the stability of a hard gym floor, sand kicks common everyday moves up a notch. It calls on the smaller muscles in your legs, not to mention your core, as you'll need to work harder to maintain your balance on a constantly shifting surface. And that, of course, means that proper form is a must.

If you're close enough to some sand, check out the following and let me know what you think. No shoes required, but sunscreen is. You may not be in a swimsuit, but you're still catching some serious rays!

1) JUMP SQUATS: Lower into a normal squat, then get plyometric! Use your arms to jump up with force, but be careful on your landing. Absorb the impact to protect your knees and ankles. Repeat ten times.

2) ROUND-THE-CLOCK LUNGES: To the front, side and back. Repeat ten times on the right, then switch to the left. As an alternative, you could do ten walking lunges to the front followed closely by ten walking lunges to the side and then ten to the back. Switch legs and repeat.

3) CALF WALKS: Walking on the sand is much different than walking on a flat surface. You can feel it in your calves, especially. So take advantage! Choose a spot on the beach where the sand is especially soft and really push your toes into it as you take normal steps forward. Contract your calf muscles at the same time. Start with 15 steps per side.

4) WATER WALKS: If the water temperature is particularly inviting, walk out to where it hits you at mid-thigh. Again, you'll notice that walking is much different when your legs have to push through a few feet of water. Start with 15 steps per side. Stop, then do it all again walking backwards. And then again to the side.

5) WATER KICKS: If you've ever gotten into a water fight at the beach, you know that it isn't easy to retaliate by kicking water at your opponent. But, if you're looking for a great core and quad workout, kicking water can be your secret weapon. Venture in 'till it hits you at the hip, position your hands in fists and bend your arms into your chest. This will help you balance. Start the kick by lifting your leg with your abs and quads, knee slightly bent, then kick through your toes. Lower and repeat ten times. (If kicking is too hard, you can do ten knee-ups per side.)

When it comes to the upper body, if you're not swimming—you should be digging! Pulling sand toward you and pushing it away is no easy task, especially if its wet. Use two hands, or try just one at a time, and dig 'till you can't dig anymore! Of course, you can also do pushups and planks. And if you have a bucket, fill it with sand to make what will feel like a kettlebell. Do bicep curls and triceps presses, side bends and bent rows. Your options here are virtually endless, though I don't suggest you swing it unless you want a face full of sand.

And my final piece of advice—when you work out at the beach, always make sure you pack a small cooler of water. Hydration is key. It gets hot out there!


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