Ask Amanda: Spin Me Right Round

I’ve met so many of my best clients – and likely readers of this blog! – from the first actual fitness “thing” I was certified to do – teach Spin!

Spin, a fancy term for indoor cycling, is a highly addictive, super-fun, and calorie-blasting cardio workout that gets your heart racing, spirits raised, and body sweating from start to finish.

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Teaching outside = best best best

For some reason, however, I find that so many newcomers are intimidated by Spin classes – maybe it’s the combination of loud music, screaming instructors, and flashing lights that makes the whole thing seem like a sensory overload chamber trying to pass off as viable exercise, or maybe it’s the way people drag their sweaty carcasses out the door, dripping, red, and panting, after a single 45-minute workout that scares ’em off – but whatever it is, I want to make it clear that Spin really is for every level of exerciser – you don’t even need to know how to ride an actual bike!

Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic that I’ve decided to write this post now, as it is the first time in over a decade that I’m actually not teaching Spin – but hey, I’ve got a lot of experience from over seven different gyms and studios to share, so better late than never, right?

The first rule of Spin class is: you don’t stop in Spin class.  What I mean by that is, you can always ignore the instructor’s cues to stand up, pedal faster, or add resistance, but what you should not do is stop pedaling entirely.  Remember that these are stationary bikes, and thus do all the balancing for you – whether or not you pedal, the bike will stay upright.  This is not an excuse to get lazy.  You are there to get a workout, and by pedaling through the entire class, you’ll keep your momentum, heart rate, circulation, and calorie burn going, plus reduce the risk of injury and blood pressure drops from sudden stops.

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Yeah but for real though, don’t stop.

The second tip I’d give a newcomer is to make sure the instructor sets up your bike, and make sure it feels comfortable once they do.  There is an actual science to the geometry of any bike, and because of the various positions used in Spin (seated, standing, aggressive), the setup is crucial to your safety and comfort on the bike.  If the instructor doesn’t offer a setup right away, ask for one – it’s her/his job, and she’ll be happy to do it for you.

Next, arm yourself with the proper gear, equipment and fuel.  You definitely want to make sure you’re wearing capri pants, tights, or bike shorts for your first ride (chafing on the seat can make the entire experience feel like military torture, and floppy shorts/ loose pants can get caught in unsafe and unflattering ways in the bike mechanisms).  Never be ashamed if you need to add a padded seat cover for your comfort (some of us have more sensitive rears than others, ok?), and bring enough water or an electrolyte beverage to replenish the massive amount of sweat you can plan to lose (remember, you’re biking in a dark studio with 30 other people – no nice cool breeze and wind in the hair in there).

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Pad yo’ biznizz – all the cool kids are doing it.

Finally, modify the workout as you feel comfortable.  Your instructor may be barking out tasks like a power-hungry sociopath, but you don’t need to go for the gold on your very first session.  Listen to the instructor’s cues about proper standing form, aggressive posture, proper RPM cues (cadence/pace) for sprints, and heavier resistance cues for hills.  Learn what each of these skills “feels like” before you try to perform them, and don’t be afraid to ask after class if you don’t think you’re doing something right.  There are no dumb questions – only dumb-looking people with horrific form on a Spin bike:

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Don’t be that guy on the left.  Don’t be that guy.

In summary, don’t let Spin class intimidate you – it’s been around since the 90s, and there’s a reason so many people continue to try it and love it.  Indoor cycling is easy on the knees, good for the spirit (instructors typically teach with a motivating, positive attitude), and fantastic for heart health – all great things on their own, and combined with a 300-800 calorie burn in about an hour makes Spin one of the best cardio workouts in town.

Have you tried a Spin class before – or would you?  What’s your best tip for newbies?

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: The Half Of It

Hey, did you guys know I ran a half marathon this past weekend?  

I’m almost kidding, since I feel like I posted it all over every social media platform I had – but who can blame me*?  The race went great, the location (Angkor Wat Archaeological Park; definitely worth your visit) was incredible, and the training I put into the effort was top-notch.

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All the amazing kweens of the 2016 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon (me, far right)

*I almost turned this post into a mini-rant to counterpoint OTHER peoples’ mini-rants about how “annoying” it is to post your workouts on Facebook; a habit which I not only have NO problem with but find encouraging and inspiring – but I digress; that’s not what today is about.

Today is about half marathon training, my friends – or really, any endurance event training, since I’ve been doing a lot of those things of late.  How do I train for a long-distance running or obstacle event?  What are the keys to success in these cray-cray distances?  And how can you avoid some of the common mistakes new racers make?

First of all – and I stress this so much to clients it’s almost a joke – I don’t run that much.  Ok, before that seems absurd, let me clarify – I absolutely do run more than your average person not doing half marathons.  But I do NOT run every day, every other day, or really anything over 15K (9.3 miles, American friends) unless I am training for an actual full marathon.  What I do do is make every single run count – I hit one speedwork, one strength/hill run, and one distance run per week when I’m in endurance training.  The speedwork usually involves a legit rubber track; the strength involves hills (if I can get ’em outdoors), treadmill inclines (if I can’t), or tempo work (like this); and the distance run starts at just 5 miles (8K) and grows to a max 15K (in this hot and humid weather, I find it is more than enough to get a sense of what race pace and fatigue feel like, and also enough to test nutrition and fuel options).

Which brings me to my next point – the centrality of proper nutrition.  Hate to be a downer, but guys, it’s not just the big fun carboload meal you eat before the race that “counts” (and for the record, my favorite pre-race meal is NOT a big plate of pasta, but rather, a big slab of red meat – either a burger and fries or steak and potato), but in fact the nutrition program you use on a day-to-day basis throughout training and during the actual race that matters most.  I do intermittent fasting each and every day of the week, but I also limit my carb intake in the week leading up to the race.  Two days prior, I start to add refined carbs back in force, and then the night before the race, I give myself a healthy dose of simple carbs and animal protein – and believe me, this method makes me feel like I have a jet pack on my back.

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As for race-day nutrition, everyone is different – so it is crucial that you find a strategy that works for you well before the actual day.  For me, I have trouble eating in the morning due to a mixture of nerves, lack of appetite, and fear of pooping my pants, so I like to load up a later dinner the night before and race on coffee, water, electrolyte beverages, and GU gels alone.  Other athletes I know like to wake up with a hearty bagel or muffin, then hit some chews throughout the race; even others I know carry actual food with them on the course (believe it or not, I know one gal who legit races with a cooked sweet potato in her pocket).   Lance Armstrong was renowned for taking in nearly 20 PowerGel packets (!) during the 26.2 miles of the NYC Marathon the first time he ran it.  Summary point: it does not matter what you need to do for race-day eating; it DOES matter that you practice, practice, and practice again eating EXACTLY what you’re going to eat in EXACTLY the conditions you’re going to eat it to make sure it doesn’t cause you any hassle, GI distress, or general discomfort when the big day comes.

Besides nutrition, the biggest advice I can give new endurance runners is to cross-train with weights.  You heard me – don’t be afraid of getting bigger, be focused on getting stronger and more indestructible.  Sure, there’s something to be said for being light and fast on your feet, and I absolutely do recommend finding a healthy race weight and adjusting your nutrition program to help you reach it – but there’s also a great deal of value in being powerful (this was the first half marathon in six years that I was able to PR, and I attribute it to a killer kick that allowed me to drop two fellow female competitors that had led me for the entire race in mile 11), recovering easily, and finishing strong.

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So what do I mean by cross-training with weights?  I mean 2-3 sessions of dedicated, structured resistance training per week.  Perhaps for you that’s a bootcamp-style workout, or a circuit training class, or a TRX session – all great options.  Maybe you’re the type who likes to follow a traditional training split (like back/biceps, chest/legs) in the gym alone.  A third option may be to join a CrossFit or obstacle-racing gym (depending on your goals) and practice functional skills like flipping tires, kettlebell swinging, or rope climbing.  Whatever your preference, make sure you’re lifting with proper form (a session with a personal trainer can be an awesome investment here to master the basics), lifting heavy, and lifting with a focus on core development (i.e. choosing free weights or a barbell; not relying on gym machines to do the stability work for you).

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Finally, and this underlies all of my advice above – make sure you have a plan.  Serious runners get coaches; if you can’t afford one, get yourself a solid running plan online, make your runs and workouts as serious as your work appointments or meetings, and stick to it.  I advise 12-16 week plans for new half marathoners; 16-20 for new marathoners.  For shorter distances, allow yourself at least 8 weeks to fall into a focused run-and-resistance  training routine, and for obstacle racers, make sure you’ve got race-specific (like the aforementioned rope climb) training at least once per week in the 4-5 weeks leading up to race day.  And as always – listen to your body.  Even the best runners on the most finely-tuned programs get injured when they build mileage too quickly, skip their cross-training, “forget” to stretch or do yoga, and stop sleeping enough to recover fully – so make sure you’re keeping your self-care intact as you ramp up your endurance work, too.

How do you train for a long-distance race?  What are some of your time-tested tips?

Ask Amanda: Dom-d-dom-dom-DOMS

A lot of my clients like to work out with me twice per week with a day in between – Monday/Wednesday, for example, or Tuesday/Thursday.  And almost invariably, that second session gets one of two responses:

  1. cancellation.
  2. complaints about soreness (“…but it wasn’t this bad yesterday!”)

This condition, friends, is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and it’s a super common thing.  DOMS kicks in 24-72 (most commonly: 48) hours after the exercise or activity that causes it, and comes from the microtears in muscle tissue that occur with intense (read: challenging) training.  The more pronounced the eccentric contraction that caused the tear, the more intense the feeling of soreness will be two days later.  Behold:

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Movements like the biceps curl, above, tend to produce more prominent DOMS because the eccentric (“down”) phase is so stressful for the muscle being worked.  The same is true for squats, deadlifts, and push-ups, which is why these movements tend to produce DOMS at a higher rate.

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Whether or not you develop DOMS is not a sign of how “good” or “hard” your workout is, however – typically it is a function of doing something new or different to your body rather than something more difficult.  For example, one of my worst cases of DOMS in recent memory was after hitting the driving range with my Dad for the first time – I wasn’t used to gripping a golf club, so I was hyper-focusing, and all that grip meant my forearms felt like I’d been bouldering the Grand Canyon for a few hours – and lasted a few days.

Soreness is not a bad thing, nor a good thing – in my professional opinion, it’s just a fact of environment, kind of like how you get sweaty when it’s hot outside or shiver when it’s cold.  You get sore when you challenge your body to perform new, heavier, unfamiliar, or explosive movements.  You experience soreness when you are growing your muscles (i.e. hypertrophy), and you get it when you’re training for endurance events, and you may even get it from something seemingly innocuous – like jumping on a trampoline, or carrying luggage up a staircase.

The big divide I see with my clients that do experience DOMS is what they do about it – meaning, do they cancel the next session?  Push through?  Figure out a way to avoid it next time?  If you are someone who suffers from that “hit by a truck” feeling after each and every workout, here are some (non-foolproof, but worthy) strategies to try:

  • Tart cherry juice.  Yep, just sippin’ on this sour swill has been linked to decreased post-workout inflammation.
  • Ice and cold.  Whether it’s a refreshing shower, a bag of ice on overworked areas, or if you’re a real boss, a stroll through the cryo chamber, getting your bod chilled out in a hurry can stop the development of DOMS by slowing down inflammatory processes.
  • Sports massage.  Forget the image of lying comfortably in a lavender-scented zen spa – sports massage is brutal, painful, and not for the faint of heart – but it’s one of the “luxuries” that keep professional athletes mobile, so you know it works.  If you are a continuous DOMS sufferer, I suggest trying to get a session once every week.
  • Compress yourself.  I’ve seen shin splints and calf cramps all but disappear from clients who just start wearing compression socks or sleeves – and similar reports from those who wear recovery compression leggings or tops.  It’s a small change that can prevent a large dose of soreness – worth the somewhat ample investment.
  • Not being a wuss.  Yep, tough love – there is a major difference between being sore and being injured, and if you’re honest with yourself, you know when you’re just trying to get out of a workout.  Active recovery (walking, swimming, yoga) is actually a better strategy than lying in your bed complaining, and it’ll get you more results, too.

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One final point – though I’ve sort of made it above, but it bears repeating – soreness is not a good or bad thing, inherently.  It doesn’t mean your workout was successful or unsuccessful; it doesn’t mean you’re out of shape or in shape; it doesn’t signify much except that you used your body in a way (or to a level) it hasn’t been used before, and it’s giving you a signal that it noticed.  So buck up, stretch out, slap on an ice pack, and keep moving – if you let the DOMS get you down, you’ll never be able to move forward in your fitness gains.

What’s your best remedy for soreness – DOMS, immediate, or otherwise?

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: 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!

 

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?