Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sample Workout: Body Weight Training

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm big on strength training.  There's lots of machines and weights in all different shapes and sizes out there you can incorporate in your strength training workouts.  Luckily, each of us come standard with one of the best pieces of equipment: our own body weight.

Below is a total body strength training routine using only your own rockin' bod.  This is great for beginners, when you're traveling, or when you just don't have the time to fit in your usual thing. 

Beginners should start with 1-2 sets of as many reps as possible done in correct form.  Once you can correctly do 12-15 repetitions, don't waste your time doing any more.  Pick a more challenging version and move forward.

More advanced exercisers should can shoot for 3-4 sets and even incorporate some more challenging versions.

Have at it, kids:
  • Inverted Row
    • It may be tricky to find a set up that works for these, but do your best not to nix them.  They're a great alternative for those who can't do body weight pull-ups.
    • Adjust the angle of your body to control the difficulty.  The closer you are to a standing position, the easier it will be.  When you are near parallel to the ground, it's significantly harder.
  • Forward Lunges
    • One set means X amount of reps on the right AND left leg.  No cheating.
    • Hold dumbbells to increase the difficulty.  That extra weight adds more weight to you, therefore the lower body needs to work harder.
  • Push Ups
    • Promise me you won't do push-ups from your knees, even if you're a beginner.  Promise!  Start with wall push-ups, then lower your hands to a chair or a bench until you can do a full one from the ground.  You'll engage your core more with these options than girly knee ones.
    • Advanced people can elevate their feet on a step or chair to increase the challenge.
  • Hip Bridge
    • Beginners should start with both feet on the floor.  Make sure you put a little mind into the muscle and focus on squeezing your butt.
    • To increase the difficulty, elevate your feet on a step or chair.  More height means more range of motion.  You can also do single leg version.  If you're feeling super ambitious, do a combination of both.
  • Planks and Side Planks
    • Love love love planks!  Unlike the previous exercises, these are timed.  Hold the plank position for as long as you can in good form.  Rest and repeat for however many sets you're doing in this workout.
The combination of the exercises above will hit all your major muscle groups.  Don't skip any, even if you hate them.  It's designed to train your body in balance.  I don't want you walking around lop-sided.  Good luck!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Best Time of Day to Exercise

When is the best time of day to exercise?  Do you burn more fat first thing in the morning?  Are your muscles stronger in the afternoon?

Whenever I am asked this question I answer with another question:

What time of day works best for you?

Forget any research studies you've read for a minute.  The results from one time of day compared to another aren't significant enough to justify exercising at a time that's inconvenient for you.  Doing so means you're more likely to skip it entirely.  So what if you read working out before breakfast burns more calories than any other time of day?  If you're hitting the snooze button instead of the treadmill three out of five mornings, those extra calories don't mean a thing!

Focus on two things when incorporating physical activity into your routine:

1. Your schedule
Take a look at your week and determine when you have free time.  Look at what days are easier than others and what time frames have the least distractions. 

You may have the best intentions of trying to hit your company's fitness center in the afternoon every day.  Though fifty percent of the time you end up working through that hour so you can leave the office early.  Take a hint.  Maybe the afternoon isn't the best time for you.  Use your lunch break, time you usually take for yourself, to go to the fitness center and eat at your desk later while you catch up on emails. 

The 5pm spinning class at your local health club was a staple in your weekly routine.  Except now it seems like you're always running the kids to soccer practice or dance classes or *insert wherever kids are going nowadays*.  You rarely make it there before the class is halfway over so you skip it altogether.  It's quite obvious the top priority of you your 5pm hour is no longer spinning.  Try the 5am class instead while the kids are still in bed.  Or, pop in an exercise DVD in the evening when they're doing homework.

2. Your energy level
When do you feel your best during the day?  The time of day when you are energized, focused, and least stressed. 

If you can wake up before the rest of the world relatively easy, do your workout then.  It will be out of the way before you can think of a laundry list excuses to avoid it later.  However if you need an IV of caffeine shooting into your veins just to make it to noon, then you might want to think about exercising later in the day.

Syncing your workout schedule with your energy level is critical.  You'll be more motivated to lace up your sneakers and get moving.  Your performance will be better too which makes for a more efficient workout.  The end result is a stronger, leaner you!   

Friday, April 22, 2011

Favorites: The New Rules of Lifting

A year ago, I discovered The New Rules of Lifting series and I haven't been the same since.  These books, written by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove, have seriously changed the way I train my clients and myself.  They've opened me up to a whole new world of like-minded fitness rock stars that I aspire to be.  It goes without saying that I highly recommend the series.

There's not necessarily anything new about the rules, but that's the best part.  When it comes to fitness we like to complicate things and fall for the latest and greatest gimmick.  Instead, we should be working our bodies how they're supposed to be worked, with compound exercises through all planes of motion.  To that, add wholesome foods for fuel and you have your strongest body ever.

I first started with The New Rules of Lifting for Women.  "Lift like a man, look like a goddess," you say?  Yes please!  Schuler, Cosgrove, and Casandra Forsythe (who contributed the nutrition information) echoed what I live by.  Ladies shouldn't fear the weights and should train no differently than men.

Then I backtracked and devoured the original version: The New Rules of Lifting.  This one was filled with even more programs specialized by goal.  Pick from fat-loss, hypertrophy, or strength.  Better yet, mix and match them all.   

In December 2010, Schuler and Cosgrove pushed boundaries even more with The New Rules of Lifting for Abs based on new research on the actual function of our core.  Awesome stuff, people.

So trade in the bodybuilder workouts.  No more wasting an hour in the gym to train "arms", guys.  Ladies, step away from the plastic-coated hand weights and discover how strong you really are.  Train smarter and get better results!


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sample Workout: Sprint Intervals

I hate doing cardio.  Have I mentioned that yet?  So when I force myself to get it in, it's quick and simple (don't confuse that with "easy").  Interval training is definitely a staple in my weekly workouts. 

Alternating bouts of high-intensity exercise with a rest period two to three times that length is a popular way to do intervals (i.e. 30 second interval followed by a 60-90 second rest).  The total numbers of sets completed in one session depends on your fitness level.  What you choose to do (sprinting, cycling, squat jumps, burpees, etc.) is up to you.  Get creative! 

Keep in mind, this is no joke.  High intensity means working as hard as possible for the given time period.  So hard that you'd have trouble mustering out a few words if someone asked you what the hell you were doing.  And so hard that if you had to push for an extra ten seconds more than you intended to, you'd struggle to maintain the same effort level.

I decided to torture myself spice things up by varying the rest periods to increase the intensity.  I sliced 15 seconds off each rest period until the sprint was actually longer than the break:

  • 30 second sprint*
    • 60 second rest**
  • 30 second sprint
    • 45 second rest
  • 30 second sprint
    • 30 second rest
  • 30 second sprint
    • 15 second rest
After pyramiding down, I went in reverse and added the 15 seconds back on:

  • 30 second sprint
    • 15 second rest
  • 30 second sprint
    • 30 second rest
  • 30 second sprint
    • 45 second rest
  • 30 second sprint
    • 60 second rest
  • 30 second sprint
    • DONE!
Nine and a half minutes later I was sucking down air like it was going out of style. 

It's a great option for fellow "cardio haters", after a weight training session, or in place of the usual bounce-on-the-elliptical-for-an-hour-while-simultaneously-flipping-through-Us-Weekly-and-glancing-up-at-the-TV routine. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

*Sprints were done in an indoor multi-purpose room
**Rest periods were just that - rest!  This consisted of me pacing around, catching my breath, and keeping an eye on the clock.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sample Workout: At-Home Core and Cardio

Since I talked about how important it is to change things up to see progress, I thought it would be a good idea to start sharing some of my personal workouts to give you some new ideas. 

On the weekends my workouts are "anything goes".  Because variety is the spice of life, right?  Usually I'm testing out new things I've learned or ideas I've had.  If the weather's nice I prefer to be outside on the nearby track or a hiking trail.  And then there's those weekends that are just crazy and I fit in whatever I can. 

The latter definitely applied to this past weekend.  I needed something I could do at my house while I kept an eye on the 176 loads of laundry I was doing, in between cleaning every single room in my house and prepping food for the company that was coming over later that evening.

I wanted to pay a little bit more attention to some of my favorite core exercises of the moment and then finish with some high-intensity cardio.  (You will come to learn I HATE doing cardio.  Very rarely will you see me bouncing away on an elliptical for longer than 20 minutes.  I much prefer some type of kick-your-ass drill to get the work done in half the time...even if it makes me feel like I want to die.) 

The equipment I used included my TRX Suspension Trainer, an 8 lb dumbbell, a towel, and my awesome workout playlist on my iPod.  Ready, set, GO!

  • TRX Plank - 3 sets, 45 sec each, 45 sec rest
  • TRX Side Planks - 3 sets, 30 sec each side, 30 sec rest
    • I did alternating sets of these two (i.e. 45 sec plank, 45 sec rest, 30 sec side plank on left, 30 sec rest, 30 sec plank on right, and so forth...) in a standard plank position on the elbows/forearms.
  • Turkish Get Ups - 3 sets, 6 reps/side, 8 lb dumbbell, 45 sec rest
    • Umm, yeah.  After looking at all the videos out there on YouTube, I realize I need to step that dumbbell up a bit.
  • Alligator Walks - 3 sets, 30ish ft (aka the distance from the foyer in the front of my house to the sliding glass door in the back of my house), 45 sec rest
    • I placed my feet on a towel and drug them across the house rather than using a wheel.  Now that I think about it, if I put some cleaning solution on the towel it would've saved me from mopping my hardwood floors later on. 
To get my heart pumping a little more, I did a bodyweight complex from Coach Dos' Men's Health Power Training (is it weird that this book is one of my staple coffee table books?)

  • 24 bodyweight squats
  • 24 squat jumps
  • 24 alternating forward lunges (12 per leg)
  • 24 jump lunges (12 per leg)
The idea is to complete the complex as fast as you can.  My legs hated me after the first time through, but after resting for a couple minutes I did a second round.  The second round wasn't as bad, maybe because they had already reached their pain threshold.  It definitely got my heart pounding to a level I was more than satisfied with.

Including a warm-up of some mobility exercises and post-workout stretching, it took about 40 minutes to complete.  The next day my abs felt tight in a good way - not like when it hurts to laugh or sneeze.

Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Think Like A Dog For Better Health

I love dogs.  A lot.  Though I don't have one of my own yet, I do visit a local rescue organization every couple weeks to volunteer walking their orphans.  It's enjoyable exercise, stress relief, and a reminder to find value in life's simple pleasures.     

In an effort to learn more about my buddies, I read one of Cesar Millan's books last year.  What really struck me was how Cesar described dogs' ability to live in the moment:

         "The most important thing to know about animals is that they all live in the present.  All the time.  It's not that they don't have memories - they do.  It's just that they don't obsess over the past, or the future."

Nothing else matters to dogs other than what is happening right now.  They aren't thinking, "I can't believe that freaking poodle stole my frisbee yesterday."  Or, "Gosh, I hope tomorrow isn't my vet appointment."  Right now all your dog is thinking about is how happy he is to be snuggled on the couch next to you.

We humans can learn a lot from them, especially in terms of our health and fitness goals.  Too often, we fixate over past failures or worry about the future that we forget to do something in the present.   

Say you've been in the habit of hiting the gym for an hour every day after work.  One day you're overloaded at the office.  None of your meetings end on time and you end up staying late to prep for a big presentation tomorrow.  Before you know it, half your usual gym time is gone before you even shut the computer down. 

So what do you do?  

Skip the gym all together because there's not enough time to finish your entire workout before dinner?  Doing so means you miss the opportunity to clear your head so you're still stressed over work and don't sleep well.  The next day at work, you're feeling sluggish from that crappy night's sleep and struggle through the presentation.  You decide to skip the gym again tonight to take a nap instead.  No worries.  You'll be extra energized to toss some iron around tomorrow, right?  Except tomorrow you realize you're already two days behind schedule and there's no way you can catch up by the end of the week.  Might as well make it a wash and start over next week...

Or would you think like a dog and only focus on what's happening in the present?

There's obviously not enough time for your usual weight training workout tonight, but you decide to hit the treadmill for a quick interval session instead.  In less than 20 minutes your heart is pounding, your lungs feel like they're going to explode, and you feel invincible.  If you can sprint this fast, the presentation tomorrow will be a piece of cake!  You're still home in time for dinner and your evening is back on track.  You sleep like a baby and nail the presentation the next day.  After work, it's back to the gym for that workout you had planned to do yesterday.  It's like nothing ever happened.

Big difference between the two.  Living in the present moment like a dog changed your outlook from it's "all or nothing" to "something is better than nothing".  

Routinely starting over when you hit a bump in the road, like in the first scenario, makes it hard to ever reach the end point.  You carried the stress of your busy day at work with you and added it to your worry about the presentation tomorrow.  And it seriously screwed up the rest of your week. 

In the second scenario, you left the stress at work.  Thinking with the present in mind allowed you to complete a more manageable workout, rather than nothing at all.  You then hit the weights the next day and haven't looked back since.  Sure, there's some extra mileage when taking a detour but at least you're still moving forward.

Take a hint from our furry, four-legged friends.  Don't worry about the future and leave the past in the past.  And look at some more cute pictures while you're at it.

Dawson, my parents' rescue lab
Dawson taking me on a golf cart ride

Make A Change To See A Change

Now that you know what drives you, it's time to do something about it.  You need to have a reason to make your health a priority and a plan to get there, but that's not enough.  You actually need to make changes to see changes.

Thanks for pointing out the obvious, you say?  Sorry, but it needs to be said.

So often I see people weighing themselves on a weekly, or even daily, basis.  The scale doesn't budge or it goes in the opposite direction and they get frustrated.  I've heard people call the scale a liar, tell me it's broken, and emit noises that made me think I was T-2 seconds away from putting my first aid training to the test.  

You can't blame the scale if you didn't make an effort to do anything different.  Still chugging beer every weekend?  Satisfying that annoying sweet tooth right before bed?  Portion sizes?  What's a portion size?

Same goes for the guy who's been doing the exact same workout for the past ten years.  He trudges along on the treadmill at the exact same speed with zero incline, usually for 30 minutes.  He then hops on the same six weight machines and sets them to the same weight he always uses.  A final round of 100 crunches wraps things up.  And yet, his fitness level still leaves him sore after a day of yard work and he's thrown out his back getting in and out of the car.

 You can't expect your fitness level to improve if you keep doing the same workout over and over again.  Why would your body have the stamina to run five miles when you only ever ask it to run two?  Just like you can't expect to lose weight if you're still eating the same number of calories that got you those extra *insert undesirable number here* pounds in the first place.

So, where do you start?  You tell me.  I could spout off a ton of fitness and health information that we've all heard before but deep down we all know what areas we personally need to improve upon.  The key is to tackle them one at a time.  Pick ONE thing and make it your goal for this week. 
  • Eat something small for breakfast (like a nonfat yogurt, a piece of whole wheat toast with peanut butter, etc.) for those of you who routinely skip breakfast
  • Try to distract yourself from that post-work veg session.  Go for a quick walk or tackle that household chore you've been meaning to do to see if the craving passes.
  • Increase the intensity of your workouts.  This could mean lifting a heavier weight, adding more resistance on the elliptical, or just trying something NEW for crying out loud.
Chances are, there's more than one goal you want to tackle to see the results you want.  It's likely you'll stick with one thing you're really good at than ten things you're only so-so at.  Plus, it's far more manageable and you'll stay (relatively) sane.  Once you're stomping all over that first goal with awesomeness, bring on the next.

I know even changing the smallest thing can feel daunting.  Staying stagnant is, by far, the easiest option.  But let's face it, if you're reading this it's likely "stagnant" isn't making you happy.  Stagnant isn't going to give us more energy in the day, make us stronger, or add quality years to our lives.  Change is hard but the results make it all a distant memory.

Brace yourself for an early 90's reference:  One of my favorite movies of all time is A League of Their Own.  Towards the end, Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks) calls out Gena Davis' character for quitting the team because it was "too hard".

           "It's supposed to be hard.  If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.  The what makes it great."

Same thing goes for your health.  If it wasn't hard, we wouldn't have the population-wide health issues we do today.  Plus, I'd probably have to find a new job. :)

That about wraps it up for me which means it's your turn.  What small change will you make this week?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Find Your Driving Force

I have to admit, there's some hidden meaning behind the name of my blog.  I have curves.  Literally.  Scoliosis, the lateral curvature of the spine, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. 

My earliest memories were going to my mom's doctor appointments as they prepped her for surgery.  She had a double major "S" curve that progressed quite significantly after being pregnant with me.  To prevent further progression and to alleviate her severe back pain, they fused several vertebrae together and attached two metal rods to either side of her spine.  That was when I was six.

I don't remember how old I was when mine was first detected.  Since it can be inherited, my mom always kept a close eye on me.  Soon, I was visiting the same doctor that did my mom's surgery.  My "S" curve showed no signs of stability so at age 14 I had to wear a Boston Brace 23 hours a day for four years.  As if your teenage years aren't awkward enough, right?  (How ironic I wore the Boston Brace, too.  Foreshadowing where I'd end up living in my adulthood, perhaps?)  

Throughout my 20's my curves have been relatively stable.  The curve in my upper back  measures 37 degrees and the one in my lower back is a 46.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the jargon, that means I have a moderate (25 - <40 degrees) and a major curve (>40 degrees).  

Throughout my life, we've always compared the severity of my back to what my mom's was when she was my age.  And my degrees have always been more advanced than hers.  When my mom was my age now, her back would go out on her constantly.  To the point where she couldn't get out of bed or move.  And that's with a less severe curvature than what I have.

My back pain is virtually nonexistant and I can count the times my back has gone out on me on just one hand.  I attribute my ability to manage my scoliosis much to my lifestyle.  I maintain a healthy weight for my height.  I exercise five days a week, mostly doing strength training exercises to make my body as strong as possible.  I fuel my body with a lot of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy fats. 

Knowing the apple doesn't fall far from the tree makes me very aware major spinal surgery could be in my future at some point.  It also serves as my driving force.  On the days I don't want to go to the gym or I want to order take-out, this is always in the back of my head.  I need to take care of myself because it's my best defense against my scoliosis.  I like living pain free and I like being able to bend and twist in different directions, something I wouldn't be able to do post-surgery.  If it's in my control, you better believe I'm doing whatever I can to keep it that way as long as possible.

Ok, that was pretty long-winded!  Enough about me, let's talk about you.  What's your driving force?  Do you have a pre-existing health condition like me you need to manage?  Is your doctor threatening to put you on blood pressure or cholesterol medication if things don't change?  Is the quality of the time you spend with your kids limited because you don't have enough energy?  Do you carry around extra weight that is a burden on your self-confidence?

Whatever your primary reason is to start putting your health first, you need to identify it.  Clearly.  Think of what your entire life will be like when you achieve it.

With regular exercise and proper nutrition, I will manage my scoliosis and function at optimal levels.

Don't give me:

I want to be a Size 2.

Go deeper than that.  Yes, those superficial benefits are great.  I'd be lying if I said it isn't nice to button a pair of jeans in a size I'm satisfied with or not having to hibernate all of swim suit season. 

However, you need to focus on something more important and more life-altering.  That's what will keep you going when things get hard or on those days when you just "don't feel like it".  Remind yourself of it regularly and you'll get back on track when you fall off.

Now you know my driving force.  What's yours?  Feel free to share in the comments below!

*For more information on scoliosis, visit the Scoliosis Research Society.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Consider yourself average?

I do, for the most part.  I’m a newlywed, living in my first home, and working about 40 hours per week in a respectable field.   That's on par for people my age and I am perfectly content with it.  Sure, it would be great to win the Mega Millions, retire by 30, build my beach-front mansion on some Caribbean island to be determined, and do whatever I want whenever I want. 
But until then, I’m ok with being average.
 However, there's one thing I won't settle for average on and that's my health.  The average American is zapped of energy, slacking on regular exercise, and relying on less than stellar food choices.  Sixty-three percent of the U.S. population is considered either overweight or obese!  (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Thanks, but no thanks.  I'll pass on being average.
 That's where the inspiration for this blog came from.  When looking at a population for a particular variable, the normal distribution tends to follow a "bell curve".  Most of the population will fall within the bulk of the curve, the red and the green areas below.  A very small percentage will fall above or below it, in the blue areas.  (FINALLY I put my college-level statistic classes to use!)   

If the variable we're talking about for this bell curve is the health status of Americans, overweight and plagued by chronic diseases, who the heck wants to be red or green???  Not me.  The blue area on the left would be those with extremely serious conditions.  The blue area all the way to the right are people who have immune systems of steel, endurance for days, and are strong enough to lift multiple times their own body weight.
Being that small percentage of the population is possible and that is what I hope to inspire with this blog.  It takes conscious planning, strong commitment, and belief in yourself when you feel sucked back to the red and green areas.  Step up and get in the blue area on the right.
The area ahead of the curve - well ahead of the curve.