Ask Amanda: The Six Pack Story

Among my female clients, the requests for body sculpting via personal training and nutrition are many: some want skinnier thighs, some want a bigger booty, some are looking for cut arms, others want a flat stomach, a lot want to lose back fat, etc etc.

Among my male clients, the most common request is simple: get me a six pack.

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Not quite there yet, fellas.

If you search the internet, you’ll find a myriad of articles pointing you in the direction of which exercises to do for a six pack (an issue which I will touch, but not dwell, on in this entry) – but relatively few explaining the other components (diet, sleep, stress control) that are even more crucial to achieve this physiological phenomenon.

A few years back, the website Greatist had one of their writers perform an “absperiment” to see if he could get six-pack abs in six weeks.  Some caveats: dude was, well, male (always going to be harder for us ladies to nail the sixer), young, and already above-average in terms of fitness and exercise habits.  That said, like many of my clients, despite his genearl fitness, he didn’t have that visible, hard midsection muscle development that seems to scream, more than any other muscle you can have, “I am fit!  I am sexy!”

Spoiler alert on his story:  he did it.  He got one.  And it nearly killed him.  Read here for a list of the sacrifices he made to achieve his goal – and then reconsider if you want to read the rest of my tips, hahah.

The reason I bring up his story is because I want to write this piece as a how-to guidenot as a must-do mandate.  If you want to know the real talk on getting a six pack, you also must know that it is not generally an easy, nor pleasant, nor natural thing for most of us – and the people you see that have wicked-awesome ones are usually genetic beasts or absolute ascetics – or both.  That said, with dedication, persistence, and self-control, it is not outside the realm of possibility (especially for those who are young, fit, and male) – and I’ll give you my best advice on how to get there.

First things first – great abs are made in the kitchen.  Carbohydrates, alcohol, dairy, too much sodium, and nearly ALL sugars gotta go (as in, 100% gone) if you want to get that six-pack fast – and protein and “good” fat consumption has to go wayyyyy up (think about 1 gram protein and 1/2 gram fat per pound of bodyweight, minimum).  For most of us, we have to drop our portion sizes, and for almost everyone, we have to cook at home for every meal to avoid the inevitable salt, oil, and grease bombs that restaurants serve in massive proportion.

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Second, the exercise.  A visible six-pack, especially for men, isn’t just a “tight” core – it takes a larger, stronger muscle development to really pop.  That’s why crunches and planks, though fantastic otherwise, won’t a six-pack make.  Think of incorporating hypertrophic (muscle-growing) moves, such as ab wheel rollouts, hanging knee raises, cable crunches, and medicine ball declines to your program – the more you add weight and resistance to an abdominal exercise, the more the muscle will grow in size (and visibility).  You’ll need to make sure you’re doing other fat-burning full body exercise as well (since you can’t just “target” the fat on your abs without getting the fat in other places off, too) – and I’ll recommend HIIT (over steady-state cardio) as a time-efficient way of doing this.

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Third, let’s chat about nutrient timing.  Yes, I’ve already taken away your precious carbs and alcohol, and now I’m going to take away even the time in which you can eat food.  Whether or not you choose to go for full-on intermittent fasting (IMO, the quickest way to shock your body into ketosis, the fat-burning metabolic process), you’ll need to put a limit on how many hours of the day you spend eating, and at what time in the day you stop eating any form of carbohydrates (yes, even vegetable ones).  Most folks entering the six-pack zone stay fasted until lunch, include around 100g of carbs in that first meal, and then eliminate carbs anytime after 4pm – putting a firm end point their overall food intake no later than 8-9pm.  It’s not easy, but timing your food intake is effective – and cost-free!

Next, don’t forget about the key component in hypertrophy (again, muscle gain): adequate and consistent sleep.  When you’re not sleeping enough, your muscles don’t recover, which means they don’t build in size, which means you’ll never actually see them (visibility being a key part of the six-pack allure, of course).  Add to that the fact that when you’re sleep-deprived, your body is constantly searching for sources of energy, which makes your appetite more ravenous and your body crave for more carbohydrate sources from which to get it – a double whammy for fat loss.  Also don’t forget that when you’re tired, your workouts suffer – and regular, intense exercise is a key part of the overall process.

Finally – and this is really the summative point for every other tip I’ve given you guys – you have to be consistent, and you can’t afford to cheat.  Visible six-pack abs come from a combination of being very physically fit and having a very low body fat percentage, and there’s no way to skirt around that.  You have to keep your diet insanely clean (as in, cleaner than even a dietician or doctor would prescribe for optimal health), work out 5-6 days per week (hard), and manage your sleep and stress patterns like a professional.  These are not easy tasks, nor are they even doable for some folks depending on your home and work situations, but they are what it takes to get the oh-so-coveted ripples in the midsection.

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What your “six pack” looks like at different body fat percentages

In my professional opinion as a personal trainer, there are so many other goals worth working toward that may or may not produce a six pack.  Eating more vegetables will boost your immune system and keep you healthy.  Integrating more protein and fewer carbohydrates into your diet will help you lose weight.  Lifting weights and performing heart-rate-raising cardio exercise will improve your heart health, bone density, and longevity.  These are the goals worth working for – not just the six blocks on your bod.

So what do you think, readers?  Are washboard abs worth the trouble – or all hype – for you?

Ask Amanda: Weighty Issues

I was going to hijack my own post this week to talk about my fury over the post-Superbowl Lady Gaga body shaming, but you know what?  It’s still too soon.  I’m going to let that one simmer in the pot for a while before I just let the vicious a*sholes that broke her down have a piece of my (rational, inclusive, empowered) mind.

But I digress.

Today’s post is about something near and dear to me: the idea that you can get fit anywhere, anytime, and at any price point.  I recently opened two private fitness studios in Singapore – a small boutique gym called Fit N’ Fresh and a one-on-one transformation and weight loss institute called DISCREET – both of which are premium (read: not inexpensive) facilities.  That being said, I am a huge believer in bodyweight (equipment-free) workouts, and it is in fact on those workouts that I built my business back in 2009.

At that time, outdoor bootcamps were still very up-and-coming, and my business partner and I were determined to offer safe, effective, creative outdoor workouts – using absolutely nothing but our clients’ own bodies.  We wanted to redefine the concept of “exercise” not as something you do for a half an hour within four walls, but as something you practice in the pursuit of making your body a functional machine – no small feat, to be sure.

My personal training clients’ top excuses for not working almost undoubtedly fall into one of the following categories: no time, no space, no gym access (this includes the recurrent excuse of “travel,” which never ceases to frustrate me since I’m pretty sure you didn’t forget to pack your own human body on your trip), and/or not sure what to do when they’re on their own.

I’m gonna give you an early Christmas present and solve all of these at once.  BEHOLD:

AMANDA’S BODYWEIGHT EXERCISE BUFFET

Buffet, you say?  Yep, I’m talkin’ about a full feast of fitness, ripe for the picking – so pack up your plate if you wish (i.e. try all ten exercises) or pick & choose the faves that are right for you and your ability level (i.e. choose five and repeat them) and get ready to sweat it out in ONLY TWENTY MINUTES – no matter where you are in the world.  Perform each exercise for 45 seconds, resting for 15 seconds before moving onto the next exercise. Repeat the set (two total rounds) for the full 20-minute challenge.  

Easy, right?  Talk to me after it’s over. 😉

BURPEES.  My absolute favorite full-body bodyweight move and silver bullet of trainers everywhere, this one attacks all your major muscle groups while building cardiovascular endurance and warming you up (and um…don’t forget the push-up at the bottom, ok?).

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A REAL burpee includes a push-up (4).  Otherwise, it’s just a squat-thrust.

PUSH-UPS.  The best part of a burpee is the push-up, amirite?  Ok, maybe you hate me now.  But given that there’s literally hundreds of push-up styles, they’re one of the most versatile bodyweight exercises available.

SQUATS.  Like push-ups, there are about a thousand varieties of squats in the world, and lots of them don’t involve a lick of equipment – so push that booty back, get those quads ready, and work all the big muscle groups of your lower body in one swoop.

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LUNGES.  Speaking of…um…swooping?…lunges are another fantastic way to work the legs without any weights or equipment.  Step ’em forward, move ’em back, go sideways, or even jump it out – you’ve got so many ways to get lean, toned legs from this single move.

PLANK-UPS.  Perhaps the distant cousin of the push-up, plank-ups are often an easier movement for beginners and a great twofer when it comes to working arms and core at the same time.  Caveat: you gotta keep your hands under your shoulders and your butt out of the sky to make this one work (see form below):

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Butt down, hands under the shoulders.  Check yo’ self.

KNEES-TO-ELBOWS (three ways).  Traditional knees-to-elbows means connecting the knee to the elbow while holding a plank position (shown below).  I also count bicycle crunches as a variation on knees-to-elbows since the twisting and core engagement is similar, and it’s an easier modification for folks that need to build core strength.  And if you want to amp it up a bit – try mountain climbers, the plyometric version of this move.

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Try to actually contact the elbow with your knee if you can.

BACK EXTENSIONS.  We all get so caught up in training the front side of the body (think six-pack abs, a nice rounded chest, bulging biceps) that we forget that the back side is actually what takes the brunt of our poor posture, constant sitting, and core instability.  Whether it’s Superman holds, swimmers, or prone rows, integrating spinal strengthening movements into your bodyweight program is a necessity.

JUMPING JACKS.  Laugh all you want (but not at its extensive history), but this cardio move gets the heart rate up, shakes out the lactic acid from the limbs, and tones up your calves by hopping lightly and continuously on the toes.

REVERSE CRUNCHES.  Another one with lots of variations (leg drops, hip lifts, toe touches, and decline bench drops are a few of my faves), the reverse crunch works the rectus abdominus (lower abs) while allowing the neck to rest comfortably.

ISOMETRIC HOLDS.  Isometric exercises mean you hold a contraction for a specified period of time (rather than the contract-release pattern of traditional exercises).  Planks are perhaps the most diverse of this group for their many variations, but glute bridges (below) and chair sits are just as effective – as are the more advanced hollow holds (if you’re seeking six-pack status, this one is a must).  If you choose this type of exercise, try and hold it for 45 seconds straight – no cheating!

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Booty booty booty booty poppin’ everywhere.

So there you have it, folks – ten exercises, twenty minutes, zero equipment, and one hundred percent effective.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention pull-ups, triceps dips, step-ups, box jumps, or a host of other very functional exercises that I also use on a daily basis – the answer is because they all use equipment (even simple stuff, like benches or chairs) and I wanted this piece to be LITERALLY about what you can do with your own body – and not a thing more.

All it takes to get – and stay! – in shape are consistency, determination, and focus.  There are no excuses – only priorities.  Make yours getting in a workout today.

Did I miss one of your favorite at-home exercises?  Share with me in the comments!

Ask Amanda: Orange You Glad I Tried A New Workout

I’d heard about Orangetheory Fitness for months – possibly years? – from friends in the States, and I’d always said that when I had the opportunity to do it, I’d give it a try.

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The Orangetheory gym, bathed in orange light

Well, as I was driving up to my brother’s house in Phoenix (where I’m staying for the Christmas holidays), I noticed the telltale “splat” logo just across the street – literally a 5-minute walk away.  It was go time.

I knew bits and pieces about the Orangetheory format from friends who’d attended; from what I heard, it was a lot like the Barry’s Bootcamp classes I used to attend in L.A. – interval circuits of cardio and weights, alternated for maximum heart rate and calorie burn.  Seeing as this is how I train the majority of my clients, I admittedly love the idea.

When I walked into the location, I was warmly greeted and given a heart rate monitoring strap – helpful, given that the entire “theory” behind the place is that you should stay in the “orange” working zone (85-89% of max HR) for 12-20 minutes of the 50+ minute class.

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The trainer walked me into the room, helpfully explained how the class would work, and set the 18 of us (!) free on the combination of treadmill running, rowing, and weights that would comprise our ESP (endurance, strength and power) workout.

I started on the treadmill/rowing interval set, which comprised of:

  • .5 miles at a running pace (1% incline) / 100m row
  • .35 miles at a fast running pace (3% incline) / 250m row
  • .15 miles at an all-out sprint pace (5% incline) / 400m row
  • .15 miles at an all-out sprint pace (10% incline) / 250m row
  • .35 miles at a fast running pace (3% incline) / 100m row

Heart rate sufficiently blasting in my throat, I moved on to the three-part strength series, which progressed from two dumbbells to one dumbbell to no dumbbells, as follows:

After completing both series, we had about a 3-minute stretch and cooldown and were sent on our merry way, with “the board” bearing our overall results (disclosure: I spent 20 minutes in the orange zone and 32 in the green zone, which was apparently ideal for the purpose of the ESP class, and I burned 669 calories overall).

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This type of training is not only challenging but encourages a 36-hour afterburn, an effect that occurs only when training is completed at 70-85% of MHR – which, of course, is the entire Orangetheory concept.

All in all, I loved the workout – the intensity was adjustable to several levels (if you aren’t down with the full-on sprints on the treadmill, there were walking, elliptical, and bike options; the dumbbell stack went from 5 to 20 pounds), the music was spot-on (a mixture of high-tempo Christmas carols and Top 40 dance hits, which I loved) and the vibe was positive, energetic, and encouraging – in fact, I’ve already signed up for my second ($28, hoo boy) class tomorrow morning.

If you’re looking for something to give you HIIT-style intensity, PT-style attentiveness, and SoulCycle-style energy, Orangetheory is exactly that – and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to build fitness, lose weight, or just have fun working out over the holidays.

Have you ever tried a maximum-intensity group circuit class like this?  What did you think?

Ask Amanda: Friends in Small Spaces

Imagine the scene: you’re all pumped for your new workout routine, and you’ve got it all figured out.  You’re going to wake up early, pop into the gym before work, kill your workout, take a nice leisurely shower, and head to the office feeling accomplished and productive for the day ahead.

Now imagine how it really works: your alarm goes off at an unthinkable hour, you rouse yourself after a few snoozes with just enough time to squeeze in maybe a half hour workout, you speed to the gym in record time…and immediately realize that everyone else has the same idea you do.

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When you arrive at the gym, it’s so crowded you can’t get on a single machine, all the treadmills have a waiting list, and the shower room is so packed you’d be waiting until next Tuesday to try and sneak in even a quick one.  You shrug your shoulders and think, hell, I tried.

So many of my clients are too quick to admit defeat when it comes to facing a rush-hour status gym, but friends: there IS a solution.  The strategy is to carve yourself out a small corner of space, dominate a couple pairs of dumbbells, and focus on using the equipment in the gym that is chronically underutilized but effective.

Such as?

First off, forget the ellipticals even exist (I wrote a full post on this and other “gym sins” a while back) and get yourself onto a machine that matters for your warmup.  If you have access to a rowing machine, fantastic – it’s a quick, effective full body burn that will help you break a sweat within the first five minutes (click here for a sample rowing warmup).  Nearly as good is the stepmill (NOT the stairmaster, guys – the one that actually looks like a set of stairs), and if all else fails, pop on an empty treadmill and kick that mother up to a 10% incline (try walking at least a 3.5mph/6.0kph pace).

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No machines?  No problem.  One of the best warmups (and HIIT-style cardio intervals) you can do is jump rope, and there are so many different ways to do it you’ll never get bored.

Now that you’re nice and warm, grab two sets of dumbbells (one heavy for rows, one lighter for curls and presses) from a nearby rack – or in lieu of DBs, get a kettlebell (more on this below).  With only these pieces of equipment you have nearly limitless combinations of exercises you can perform, and without the “crutch” of a weight machine or rack you can work balance, stability, and core engagement in addition to the basic muscular development work.  Five key compound movements I recommend in every full-body dumbbell workout (start with three sets of 10 reps each) include:

Don’t worry, kettlebell users – I have a circuit for you, too.  Consider alternating the following five exercises for time (I usually start clients at 30 seconds per movement), making sure to work with a weight that is challenging but allows you to maintain form:

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Now let’s imagine the worst-case scenario – your gym is SO crowded you can’t get anything but a space on the mat.  No worries – your body is the best piece of equipment that money can’t buy, and it’s available to you 24 hours a day, anywhere in the world.  The key to using body weight for exercise is to make your movements powerful, explosive, and intense – and complete a full range of motion with each one.  Some ideas for the best time-saving body weight exercises are:

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Finally, remember that a crowded gym is not the only place you can get a good workout – consider buying a bit of your own equipment and taking your workout to a nearby park, joining an outdoor bootcamp or working with a personal trainer outside, or even building a decent home gym.

Options for fitness are limitless – you just have to find what works for you (and sorry – I still haven’t figured out a reasonable trainer tip for battling those locker room showers…).

Where do you work out – and what types of moves are in your go-to routine?

Ask Amanda: The Tummy Conundrum

I think I’ve mentioned before that the majority of my clients come to me to “lose weight and tone up “- but if we boil it down a bit further, I’d say 90% of those weight-loss clients would more specifically say this:

I want to lose my belly fat.

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Whether it’s from pregnancy, poor diet, aging, alcohol, or a combination of factors, lamentations about the midsection top the list of complaints I get from even my fittest clients.

So what is there to do?

There’s an old saying in the fitness community that “great abs are made in the kitchen,” and I’ll agree with that 99% (the other bit I’ll address in a moment).  Diet is the single most important factor in beating the bulge, not only in the torso but all over the body.  That said, especially as we age, more of our body fat tends to “settle” in the middle (hey, blame gravity), meaning that any excess glycogen (read: carbohydrate, you know, sugar and starch) calories tend to team up and gather there as well.  Bummer, huh?

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But all is not lost.

Besides cutting down on carbohydrates (read here for a comprehensive belly-fat-beating list of foods you can eliminate from your daily diet), there are actually some really simple ways to target android fat that don’t even involve exercise.  First, get enough rest – the hormone cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) kicks belly fat storage into high gear when you’re getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night – and is even worse when you spend your waking hours stressed out as well.

Second, consider eliminating dairya topic I wrote about in a prior Ask Amanda and a belly-bloating culprit many of us don’t even realize we’re encouraging.  For some, wheat can also contribute to gas retention and discomfort – so it’s worth trying an elimination period from each to see if your body reacts to either type of food.

Third, make sure you’re drinking enough water – about 3 liters daily – since sodium retention is a major cause of bloating, and dehydration only makes those effects worse – something those of us who have woken up to a puffy, rounded face after a hard night of drinking and late-night eats can definitely attest to (cough, cough).

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And finally – this is a fitness blog, after all – the exercise piece of the puzzle.  Truth be told, most of us have decent abs, they’re just hidden under a nice warm layer of fat.  In order to give your middle the best chance of looking lean, you must combine a clean diet, consistent hydration, proper sleep habits, destressing techniques, and lengthening and strengthening exercises for the core.  Some examples of what I mean are:

Once you’ve got all these pieces of the puzzle in order, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the central fat starts to disappear – and how toned the rest of your body will appear, as well.

What are your favorite midsection-melting moves?  How do you like to tone your tummy?

Ask Amanda: All About ABT

I woke up early this morning to prep my ABT (abs, butt and thighs) class for Momentum Bootcamps and it reminded me that I had a related #AskAmanda inquiry a few weeks ago about this very topic:

What is the single best move to tone and strengthen the lower body?

If I truly had to answer that question with a SINGLE best move, it’s easy: just SQUAT*.

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*squat heavy, under a barbell, with proper form, like they show you here.

But of course, this would be a fairly crap #AskAmanda entry if I just left you with that – and I know what you’re already thinking.  But Amanda – I don’t have access to a barbell!  I don’t know how to squat!  Squats are boring!  Squats make my legs huge!  So just sit there and calm down, because mama’s gonna give you some other options.

First of all, squatting is the single best lower-body exercise because it trains a functional movement (hey, ever tried getting up and down from a chair?  That’s a squat!), works multiple muscle groups at the same time (hello glutes, quads, hammies, and hips), and builds strength in areas that can protect vulnerable joints (goodbye knee problems, hello thighs of steel).

Second of all, even without weights, you can gain strength and power from squats simply by using different variations of the movement – for example, jump squats (to train power and explosive speed, important for runners), sumo squats (to target inner/outer thighs), and tiptoe squats (to train balance, tone calves, and build ankle stability).

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But I get it – sometimes you don’t wanna go to the gym and squat for 30 straight minutes (I mean, you absolutely can, so don’t worry if that IS your preferred program!).  So what’s a gal (or guy) to do for the popped-up booty and slimmed-down thighs we all want?  Here are some of my other favorite moves to incorporate into a lower body program:

  • deadlifts (again, best done with a barbell and under trainer supervision)
  • lunges (whether weighted, walking, elevated, or jump)
  • glute bridges (whether bench-assisted, single-leg, or banded)
  • lateral movements (talkin’ side kicks, side lunges, and speed skaters)
  • plyometrics (I like box jumps, tuck jumps, and star jumps for variety)
  • climbing (actual stairs are the best; stairmill or step-ups also do the trick)

And finally – a note on cardio options.  If you’re dead-set on getting a slimmer, tighter lower body from cardio alone, then you BETTER be doing one of the following two options: running stairs or walking steep (read: 10% incline or above) hills.  The elliptical machine won’t do it for ya; the bike won’t do it for ya (unless you’re riding super-heavy in the standing climb position for upwards of 20 minutes, which is not only boring but virtually impossible); even running on a flat won’t make it happen.  You must incorporate incline (uphill) training into your cardio routine to see actual muscular improvement in the lower body.  Don’t say I never told you.

What are your favorite lower body moves?  Are you a squat pro or a squat…no?

Ask Amanda: Seeing Spots

One of the most common reasons clients hire a personal trainer is to address some sort of so-called “trouble zone” – can you get me abs?  I hate this squishy part of my upper arms.  I need to slim down these thunder thighs.  What can we do about my back fat?

My answer to all of this is actually quite reassuring, IMO: you can slim/tone/lean out any part of your body that you want, and it’s all done the same way.

What do I mean by that?  What I am telling you is this: 1000 crunches a day won’t get you a six pack.  Doing squats on squats on squats may make that booty pop, but it won’t reduce the size of your lower body.  Push-ups will make you stronger but they won’t take away your batwings for good.  Repeat after me: there is no such thing as spot reduction (though there IS such a thing as targeted training, which I will address below).

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Spot reduction is the (pervasive, misguided, eternal-struggle-of-every-trainer-to-explain-to-clients) myth that by overtraining a certain body part, you can reduce the amount of body fat covering just that body part and in turn see more muscle tone and “results” from that body part alone.  Sounds a bit nonsensical, eh?  That’s because it is.

The only way to achieve a leaner appearance from any part of your body is to reduce the amount of body fat all over your body.  You can absolutely train a specific muscle for hypertrophy (increase in size), but unless you address the fat on top of that muscle, you will not get the visible definition you are probably looking for – and may even see overall size gains to boot.

So what’s a gal (or guy) to do?

First of all, toss your scale.  I mean, if you have one, I suppose you can keep it, but tuck it away in a drawer somewhere until you need to weigh a piece of luggage or something.  For now, focus on getting yourself a body fat measure – I recommend calipers (cheap, easy, accurate), an Omron handheld (less accurate but more easy), or if you want to go whole hog, an entire BodPod tank (kidding guys, kidding – but if I was rich, I’d totes have one).

Measuring your body fat is the most important way to keep abreast of your body composition progress and make sure you are training the “right” way (gaining lean muscle, not just losing weight).  The image below is helpful for figuring out where you are and where you want to be in the body fat world:

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As you’ll notice, different folks have different levels of “definition” at different levels of body fat – to get abs, fellas,  you’re gonna want to drop down to the 8-10% range; ladies, for those super-toned and ripped upper arms, 14-15% is where it’s at.  That being said, there are perfectly healthy and happy bodies at much higher levels of fat for both sexes, and being at a suitable BMI for your height and weight is the first step to getting there.

The next step is what I mentioned above – targeted training.  While you’re working on reducing body fat (which comes 80% from what you eat, 10% from how you  train, and 10% from your genetic makeup, an issue I’ve addressed time and again on this blog), you can absolutely work on building lean muscle in the areas you’re trying to transform – the aforementioned squats to make the booty pop, push-ups for strong, cut arms, stability training for a ripped core, and pull training for a muscular back and good posture are all focused training programs that will help accelerate visible results as you lean out overall.

Remember, in fitness as in life, there are no shortcuts.  To achieve results you must change your overall lifestyle – not just overwork one little body part.  When you reduce body fat all over, strengthen your body with weight-bearing exercise, and clean up your diet, the benefits will go far beyond a measly thigh gap – I promise. 😉

What’s your favorite body part to train (I gotta admit – I’m an arms girl)?

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: Breaking Up Is Easy To Do

Welcome back, loyal readers – as always, I’m here on Wednesday talking to you straight about your pressing health, fitness and wellness issues.  Today’s questions are two of the most common ones I get as a personal trainer, and they’re definitely related:

  • what’s the best time of day to exercise?
  • it is more effective to do one longer workout session or break it up into pieces throughout the day?

The answer to these questions, respectively, are: whenever, and whatever.  But I fear that may be a little vague for the general population, so let’s dig a little deeper on these.

As for the best time of day to exercise, the best time truly is the time that you will consistently make part of your life.  I used to have a client that wanted to train at 6am because she’d heard that exercising first thing in the morning spikes your metabolism (sort of true, but whenever you exercise will speed up your metabolism, FYI) but four times out of five, she’d oversleep and cancel.

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Clearly, this was not doing her metabolism nor her fitness level any favors.

What I tell all of my clients is to schedule your workout like you would a doctor’s appointment – something that you value for the sake of your health, that you feel guilty canceling on, and that you don’t have to justify to anyone else – you just go.  Whatever time of day it is, pencil PEN it in, prep your stuff (workout clothes, water, mat, etc.) and do it.  Don’t ask questions, don’t make excuses, just get it done.  #toughlove

As for the second question – breaking up a workout into smaller parts versus doing one longer session – I am a HUGE fan of tackling a workout in pieces if it works for you.   The key here, which you may sense is a theme for me, is to make sure you actually commit to those pieces – for example, if you say you’re going to do 10 minutes HIIT in the morning, 10 over lunch, and 10 before dinner, then do it – if you’re only going to do the first one and then kind of “forget” about the rest, I’d rather you take it in one 30-minute dose instead.

Make sense?  You know yourself, you know your habits, be honest about what you will and will not do.

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For some people, facing the gym for a full hour feels overwhelming – but somehow, fitting in a half hour of gentle yoga to wake up and then kicking out 30 minutes of boxing drills once you’re wide awake after work feels doable.

For others, the idea of getting sweaty twice in one day is nearly unbearable, so they’ll stick to a solid 45-to-60 minutes that combines a progressive warm-up, weight or resistance exercise section, core stability training, (see one idea below!) and an easy cooldown, all in one complete package.

Science will tell you that breaking up a workout into bite-size pieces (caveat: bite-size pieces that are VERY INTENSE every time) is more effective than a single session on markers like lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and improving aerobic fitness, while for certain types of athletes (think marathoners, triathletes, or long-distance swimmers) it’s the LSD (long, slow distance) workouts that really makes the difference.

The key point of all of this is, as I said at the outset – you need to choose the workout time and type that works for your lifestyle, not the one you think you “should” do or that your friends are doing or that even your trainer told you to do (hey, we’re professionals but we’re not with you 24 hours a day, either).  Trust your body, trust the process – and know that there is never just one single path to reaching your fitness goals.

Are you a morning exerciser or a post-work warrior?  How do you use your workout time?

Ask Amanda: The Push-up Problem

If I were to generalize the one single movement that the majority of my clients struggle to do correctly, it would be the push-up.  I have clients that can squat, pull, and jump like champs – but when it comes to push-ups, their form literally collapses.  And as much as I hate to say it, the problem is more common in women than in men (due to biological differences in strength distribution, to be sure, but still it’s just a reality).

Last week I had an #AskAmanda reader (and former client!) ask me about the chaturanga specifically – a yoga-inspired style of push-up (below) where the elbows are kept close to the sides and the body is lowered in a controlled motion (not unlike a push-up, but not exactly the same).  Please note: a chaturanga is wayyyyy harder than a push-up, so I’ll address that movement in a bit.

chaturanga.jpgAs for the perfect “regular” push-up, it all starts with the perfect (full, on your hands) plank.  You need to get used to supporting your body weight on your arms, utilizing your core for stability, and setting your basic alignment in place so that when it comes time to actually drop into the push-up, the basic foundation is already strong.  I suggest starting with 10 seconds of planking every morning and evening, then adding 10 seconds (to each morning/evening effort) daily until you reach a full minute – you can then begin working toward your push-up.

plank.jpgOnce the full minute plank is easy, it’s push-up time – but don’t worry, I’m not dropping you to the floor yet.  I start all of my clients on incline push-ups, which means putting your hands on something elevated (like a chair, bench, or box) and moving your chest toward the edge of that thing.  Unlike doing push-ups from the knees, which I only recommend in case of injury (like lower back strain), doing incline push-ups trains your body in the same position (i.e. on the toes) as you will eventually maintain on the floor.  Start with 3-5 push-ups where you can actually touch your chest to the surface, then work your way up to a set of 8-10.

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Once you can drop your chest to the bench every single rep with full contact, you’re ready to try push-ups on the floor.  There are various ways to start here – you can try negative push-ups, positive push-ups, or bottom-up push-ups, all of which are covered in great detail here – until you can complete one full, beautiful, perfect form push-up (hurrah!).  And believe me – all that work is worth it, because the push-up is actually one of the most effective, comprehensive, and efficient upper-body exercises you can do – and it requires no equipment of any kind and you can do it anywhere (#winning).

Now, onward to the chaturanga – the “real” topic of today’s #AskAmanda.  Let’s be real – if you can’t do a perfect push-up, you probably won’t have a half-decent chaturanga.  And that’s ok – because here, dropping to the knees is a great modification to learn how to perfect this yoga staple – just make sure the upper body is still perfectly aligned, like this:

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In the meantime, while you’re keeping your knees down on chaturangas during class, work on developing the “right” muscles outside of class – namely, the chest, triceps, shoulders, rear delts, and rhomboids.  Great exercises for these include chest flye, triceps dips, rear flyes, and seated rows, as well as combination movements like – you guessed it – regular push-ups.  Strong muscles build a structure onto which you can refine movements – rather than trying to “force” challenging movements onto a weak foundation.

If you are looking for more specific guidance on the chaturanga itself, check out this comprehensive article on form and function of the pose – very helpful even for us more seasoned yogis!

Thanks again to my readers who keep suggesting GREAT #AskAmanda topics – and keep ’em coming!  What health/fitness conundrum would you like solved?  Ask away  in the comments!