Ask Amanda: At the Core of the Issue

The keyword used to be “flat abs” and then “six pack” and more recently, “core stability.”  Everyone wants that carved-out, washboard-flat, super-toned tummy – and about 1% of us want to do the actual work that looking like that entails (this article, about the high cost of getting super-lean, is worth your time).

Such is life, eh?

A recent few clients have been asking me about core training – what it actually means, how important it is to do it, and what is the best way to train the core most effectively (without doing a million crunches per day) – so as always, I am here to help!

First off, your core is made up of several muscle groups that cover both the front and the back of your torso.  Much like the “big chest, poor posture” syndrome (see below) I see in a lot of weight-training men, the quest for flat abs has left a lot of folks with puffed-out rectus abdominus (the muscles on top of the stomach) and a weak lower back, which is pretty much a recipe for back pain (and frustration).

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The major muscle groups that make up what most of us call the “core” are the abdominals (rectus, external/internal obliques, transversus), the erector spinae, and the quadratus lumbar.  In shorthand – your abs and your mid-to-lower back.

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It is crucial to make sure you are doing work that targets all of these groups, both dynamically (with movement) and isometrically (with a deep, held contraction).  Crunches are fine, sure – as long as they’re done with proper form, within reason (in terms of number), and as part of a larger core program that uses other methods as well.

There are two core stability programs I love to use with clients – one is called Stop & Go, and the second is called Plank & Crunch.  Both focus on using all parts of the core muscle groups in different ways, and all improve functional health for the relief of back pain and overall weak middles.  Check them out below:

STOP & GO

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Perform the paired exercises listed, back to back, for 20 seconds each without rest.  Between pairs, rest for 20 seconds, then move on to the next exercise.  Once the set becomes easy, start to increase the time in each exercise (30 seconds, 40 seconds, etc.)

STOP / full plank / GO / mountain climbers

STOP / boat pose / GO / in-out crunches

STOP / side plank / GO / side plank leg lifts

STOP / table top / GO / reverse plank leg lifts

STOP / forearm plank / GO / plank knees-to-elbows

STOP / Superman hold / GO / swimmers

PLANK & CRUNCH

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Complete 20X (10 per side, if single sides are used) of each of the exercises below, aiming for minimal rest between movements.  Alternate the plank and crunch movements to ensure adequate recovery from each position and rest the neck accordingly.  Once one round is easy, aim to complete all the exercises twice.

PLANK / plank hold / CRUNCH / bicycle crunch (shown)

PLANK / knees-to-elbows (see above) / CRUNCH / reverse crunch

PLANK / twisting hip plank / CRUNCH / leg drops

PLANK / up-down plank / CRUNCH / butterfly crunch

PLANK / side plank twists (each side) / CRUNCH / lumbar extensions

I recommend that my clients incorporate some form of core training every time they work out (whether it’s a dedicated set, like those above, or incorporated into an overall strength program using apparatuses like TRX, Bosu, or a balance board for instability).

And finally, guys – I wouldn’t be a good trainer if I didn’t tell you for the hundredth time that lean abs are made in the kitchen.  You will never – EVER! – have a six pack if you eat tons of carbohydrates, intake a grip of sodium, suck down the soda and alcohol, and don’t watch your saturated fat intake.  The real, hard talk is this – most of us already have abs, they’re just hidden underneath the layer of android (central) fat made up of what we eat.

So, in summary, here’s the cold hard facts on core strength: get up, plank down, crunch out, and keep the white stuff (sugar/salt/flour) out of your system.  Easy, right? 😉

What are your favorite ways to work your core?  Share!

 

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Ask Amanda: Armed & Ready

My grandmother once told me that it’s your hands that show your true age – so many women are concerned enough about sun damage and wrinkles to put expensive products on their faces and decolletage, but the hands bear the brunt of years of constant sun, water, and daily-life activities that can’t be hidden or faked.

Similarly, I have a lot of (mostly) women remarking on the fact that while their legs stay somewhat toned as they age, and their stomachs can be corralled into Spanx, it’s the arms that really start to show the telltale signs of getting older – floppy underarms, a lack of muscle tone, and that squishy chest-shoulder area are common concerns I hear from ladies “of a certain age.”

swoll.jpgSo what can we do here, people?

The single most crucial solution for flabby, loose upper bodies is exactly what you think it is: exercise.  So many women lack adequate upper body strength (and resultantly, muscle in the upper body) due to a hyperfocus on abs, thighs, and rear ends, which makes for a rather unbalanced bod and disproportionate weakness from undertraining.

When I train women with upper body weakness, the first thing I do is help them get a proper push-up.  Push-ups are the do-anywhere, go-everywhere exercise that you need zero equipment to perform and that attack the chest, biceps, triceps, and shoulders in one beautiful movement.  A few weeks ago I wrote a full primer on how to get the perfect push-up, so if you’re one of the folks that needs this skill – go check it out!

In addition to push-ups, weight training the upper body is crucial – and I don’t just mean tossing in a few triceps kickbacks with 5-pound weights every now and then.  Bench presses, chest flys, shoulder presses, shoulder raises, biceps curls, overhead triceps presses, pull-ups, bent-over rows, rear flys, plank-rows, and lat pull-downs are a few of my favorite exercises to build upper body strength in clients – and they should all be performed toward maximum weight, for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, twice weekly.

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Other than weight training, there are some more superficial strategies to help reduce the appearance of loose skin, dark veins, and generally “older” looking features of the arms.  I personally like to use a self tanner to enhance where my natural triceps “cuts” would be (see pics below for how this works) and spray a luminescent body oil on my arms (this bronze-tone NARS one from Sephora is great) to make them look tighter.

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And finally – perhaps it goes without saying – but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander – so take those fancy products you save for your face and commit to using them on your arms (especially upper arms), too.  Retinoids, emollient moisturizers, sunscreen, and exfoliators work wonders on rough, loose, or otherwise tired-looking skin, and they shouldn’t be contained to one specific part of the body.  Try going half-half on your regular lotion with a dollop of Retinol, or use a dose of your face scrub to smooth out bumpy rear arms.  Treat your arms with the respect those hard-working guns deserve!

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I live in a place where “tank top season” is year-round, so having great arms is on my (and my clients’) mind all the time – so we don’t mess around with building strong upper bodies, and you shouldn’t either.  Pick up those weights and never look back…

What are your favorite upper-body exercises?  Do you like to show off your guns?

Ask Amanda: Real Talk About Cellulite

At one point or another, almost every female client of mine has asked me about cellulite.

Why is it there?  How can I get rid of it?  What in the holy hell is it?  And why does it seem to plague some of us more than others?

First of all, I’ve never seen an issue so universally shared by women than the fight against cellulite.  It’s a selling point for endless books, online manuals, and even one of the companies I work for (Aquaspin, by the way, and I’ll tell you in a bit how doing underwater cycling can actually help in this effort!) – and as a trainer, just uttering the words “cellulite reduction” is bound to get you at least a couple hits/views/likes on your social media.

cellulite

But let’s be real.  Cellulite is body fat, and just like any other excess fat on the body, it takes overall calorie reduction and lean muscle gains to disappear (or simply reduce in prominence).  Sure, it’s not super attractive (comparisons to cottage cheese or an orange peel are common, both ew) but it’s also not fatal.  As a health professional, I wish more people were concerned with their blood pressure, glucose levels, or sugar intake rather than a few bumps on a thigh, but I promised I’d write about cellulite so I digress.

The basic concept of cellulite is that it’s the outline of the compartments that separate fat cells, forming a round-shaped pattern.  Imagine overstuffing a mattress (in this case, the fat cell) and seeing the excess bulge out around the edges – that’s what cellulite looks like in the human body. cellulite

And in case you’re wondering why you don’t see it as much in men (lucky bastards), it’s because their “compartment outlines” run horizontally, in a cross-cross pattern rather than a rounded one, preventing the bulge visibility – plus their skin is naturally thicker so the cellulite they may have is less visible beneath it.  Again, jerks.

Remember that no matter the gender, fat is soft (versus muscle, which is hard) and doesn’t lie flat under the skin – it puffs out, takes up more space, and is more visible than lean muscle.  This leads to my first point – that reducing overall body fat and increasing lean muscle, especially in women over 30 (we lose muscle at an alarming rate after this age), is your first and best defense against cellulite.

Movements like side lunges, donkey kicks, and squat-lifts target the common “sitting” areas where cellulite lies (thighs, hips, and glutes) and allow for easy progressions in difficulty from bodyweight-only to versions using dumbbells or barbells.

Second, cellulite is often a symptom of poor circulation, and I’ve seen clients actually derive great results from simply incorporating dry brushing (or self-massage, whatever floats your boat) into their morning routines.  Using a dry brush to stroke the body in the natural patterns of the lymphatic system can help increase fluid drainage, move toxins away from the body, and yes – decrease the surface-level appearance of cellulite.

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If you want to take your circulation game to the next level, consider coffee scrubs after your dry brushing routine – just combine 1/4 cup of coffee grounds with 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of coconut oil and massage it into affected areas with an anti-cellulite brush for about 2 minutes per area, per day.  The caffeine can actually help tighten and rejuvenate the skin by removing dead cells and improving appearance.

Finally, consider your diet and hydration patterns when you’re trying to work on cellulite reduction.  Simply being dehydrated can make the skin look deflated and loose against already-fatty areas, and diets high in white starch (yep, that includes sugar), saturated fat, and sodium only make it worse.  Structure your diet around the cornerstones of high-water-content fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and nuts to help lean out all over (and boost energy to boot!).

The main point of me telling you all this great stuff about cellulite is to emphasize that despite its fancy name, at the end of the day cellulite is just fat.  Plain and simple.  To reduce fat you must reduce caloric intake, build lean muscle, and stay active.  Boom – no secrets.

What have you tried to reduce cellulite – or body fat?  Have you had success?

 

Ask Amanda: Supplementary Angles

As a trainer, I get asked to recommend/represent supplements a lot.  Like, a LOT lot.  Like, every other day  I am fending off an email about somebody’s “miracle” shake, pill, powder, or juice.  And across the board, I just hit “delete.”  Why?  It’s simple.

Nothing – and I mean nothing – replaces the nutrition and health benefits of real food.

Write that down, commit it to memory, and shout it from the rooftops.  Human beings survived millions of years without downing a single vitamin – and what we’ve lost in hunting prowess over that time, we’ve gained in convenience, access, and choice.  Middle and upper-class folks (this is not my platform to talk about the abhorrent limitations of many lower-income and working-class people when it comes to finding equitable sources of healthy food) have an entire universe of nutrition at their disposal – and yet many of them would rather spend their hard-earned bucks on a bottle of pills than a bunch of kale.

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So why am I so hell-bent on getting my clients away from supplements?

First of all, check your pocketbook.  Supplements are expensive – and they require at least some level of commitment (order, reorder, store, portion, etc.).  You can walk into any supermarket, and without much effort, pick up a fruit, vegetable, or protein product that provides the same function as most common supplements for much less money – and much greater satisfaction (I don’t know about you, but I’d rather chew on some tasty berries than force fake-orange-flavored powder down my throat).  Here are some ideas:

Taking a fiber powder?  Try an apple (skin-on, 10g per fruit).

Trying to get protein out of a powder?  Eat a couple of eggs instead (6g each).

Downing your Vitamin D in a pill?  Chow down on some salmon instead (450 IUs for 3 ounces).

Doing the antioxidant thing?  Feed your chocolate addiction for a tastier option (21,000 ORAC for 1 ounce, 70% chocolate or more).

superfoods

Second of all, listen to your body.  I used to take an energy supplement that basically destroyed my GI tract and made me feel gassy, bloated, and uncomfortable all day – come to find out that it had a fake-sugar ingredient (sorbitol, which can’t be naturally digested) that was making me feel that way.  Solution?  I switched out my “energy supplement” to a good old-fashioned cup of coffee – no side effects, tons of proven health benefits, and again – cheap.

Third, consider your real reasons for supplementing.  Are you deficient in a certain vitamin (common: Vitamin D, iron, calcium) and trying to figure out a way to get it fast?  Are you trying anything to lose weight (be honest)?  Have you “bought on” to a quick-fix trend (sorry to name names, but Shakeology and Herbalife both come to mind) “guaranteed” to bring you to better health?

Bad news, fam – the single healthy solution to nutritional deficiencies, weight control, and overall wellness is a clean, balanced diet and regular exercise (womp womp, I know).

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But are there exceptions?  Sure, but they’re fairly extreme.  Here are a few cases in which nutritional supplementation may be necessary:

  • you are a citizen of a developing country where access to food is limited or unavailable and you need high-calorie, high-protein food that can be delivered cheaply and without refrigeration
  • you have been prescribed a high-quality supplement by a doctor to treat a specific medical condition (for example, glucosamine for joint pain)
  • you are a high-performing or endurance-focused vegan athlete struggling to meet your protein needs with animal-free sources (try hemp!)
  • you do not have daily access to natural sunlight (the case for Vitamin D)
  • you are a competitive bodybuilder intending to develop massive hypertrophy throughout the body and maintain an extremely high muscle mass with extremely low body fat (here’s an idea of what that would look like)

By now I think you grasp the fact that in my professional opinion, the most powerful “supplement” you can take is a visit to a Registered Dietitian to get your diet in check, figure out what you should be eating for your health status and lifestyle, and learn how to swap out the pills and instead integrate nutritionally dense foods into your daily life.

Are you a pill popper or a food fanatic?  What are your favorite “superfoods” to eat?